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Taijiquan - Introduction and history

by Dr. Barbara Ecker

There are many different taiji forms which can't all be listed here. Many styles and traditions have appeared in recent years and some forms that have been supposedly lost are rediscovered (and not everything "old" is actually old - a healthy dose of sceptisism is, as with all things in life, in order).

In general, a taiji system is comprised of handforms and weapon forms. Partner exercises (push hands, tui shou) are a part of any complete system, even if often the general idea of "taiji" is only one of the empty handform.

Taijiquan or Taichichuan is a Chinese Martial Art, the origin of which cannot be proved beyond any doubt. There are legends that a certain Zhang Sanfeng developed taiji by watching animals (bird and snake) - alas, this person cannot be verified historically. There are speculations that the monch Zhang Sanfeng was invented by a Chinese Imperator to allow him to send troops looking for rebels in the Wudang mountains without raising suspicions. Even the idea that there are several persons hiding under the pseudonym of Zhang Sanfeng has been voiced. Fact is: Where taijiquan originates exactly, cannot be proven beyond doubt today. Just as it cannot be proved from which arts taijiquan actually derives.

What can be historically proved is the following:

The village of the Chen family, Chen village (Chenjiagou), is situated in Wenxian (district Wen) in the province of Henan (China). The village was founded around 1374 in a time of forced mass-migration by Chen Bu, who already was an accomplished representative of martial arts (it is not absolutely clear of which arts but there are speculations that it was Xinyiquan). Chen Bu was credited with clearing the district of marroding bandits.

Chen Wangting (9th generation) is normally credited with "codifying" taijiquan for the first time, condensing it to five different forms. These forms were passed on from one generation to the next, being used for self-defense as well as providing a livelihood for the members of the family working as bodyguards and escorts. Five generations treasured the martial art carefully, passing it on only within the family and the village.

Chen Changxin (1771-1853), 14th generation, united the five old forms to the two forms that the Chen style still knows today: Yi lu (first routine) and Er lu (second routine). Both forms complement each other and contain all the essential movements of the old forms. Chen Changxin was the first to teach taijiquan to a non-member of the family: Yang Luchan.

And this starts the development of the different styles and schools of taijiquan:

Chen Style

As mentioned above, this is the style from which all other styles developed. Chen Youben lived at the same time as Chen Changxing. He simplified the five old forms by leaving out the more difficult movements. The result was at first called Xinjia and is known today as Xiaojia (small frame).

Chen Xin (1849-1929), 16th generation, was the first of the family who wrote down the old teachings. This book is of fundamental importance even today. It explains the principles and theories of taijiquan, contains examples for applications and guidelines for beginners.

Chen Fake (17th generation, 1887-1957) is responsible for the next big development in Chen style. He liked locks (chin na) and fa jing (explosive movement) very much and emphasized chan ssu jing (spiralling movements) a lot. After living and teaching for 30 years in Peking, his form had changed according to his preferences and the villagers called the forms he was now practicing Xinjia (new frame - careful, don't confuse with Chen Youben's forms!). His son, Chen Zhaokui (18th generation, 1928-1981), brought Xinjia back to Chenvillage in 1973 and has distinguished himself by training the next generation.

Chen Zhaopei (18th generation, 1893-1972) taught taijiquan in many different places in China (it was he who invited Chen Fake to Bejing). He returned to the Chen village in 1958 to ensure that taijiquan would continue to exist in its place of origin. He started a rennaisance of taijiquan in chenjiagou and took care of the training of the 19th generation despite prosecution during the cultural revolution. Among his students are the "si jingong dao dui" (approximately: the four strong men, who attend Buddha's warriors): Chen Xiaowang, Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai. These four are presently mainly responsible for making Chen style known around the world.

Newer Developments in Chen Style:

Chen Xiaowang created out of the movements of Laojia and Xinjia a new short form, the so-called "38 movements". Recently, he has added an even shorter Form, the "19 movements". Both short forms aim at conserving the core principles of the old forms while at the same time allowing the (modern) beginner to have an easy start into taiji. Chen Zhenglei, too, has created a short form (with 18 movements).

Chen Style Xinyi Hunyuan Taijiquan

Founded by Feng Zhiqiang, a student of Chen Fake and Hu Yaozhen (who is often regarded as the father of modern Chinese Qigong). Feng Zhiqiang started his training of various martial arts while still being a child and learned Internal Qigong and Six Harmonies Xinyi Quan from Hu Yaozhen. By recommendation of Hu Yaozhen he eventually became a student of Chen Fake and started to amalgamate both styles into one, today's Hunyuan Taijiquan. Short forms have been created to allow for an easy start of learning.


Yang Style

Yang Luchan (1799-1872) was the first person outside of the Chen Family to learn taijiquan.

He lived as a servant with the wealthy family of Chen Dehu and was allowed to learn from Chen Changxin.

Based on the Laojia Yi Lu (first routine, old style) he developed a form which proved to be very popular. Explosive movements, stomps, jumps, deep postures and tempo changes were reduced or completely omitted, while relaxation and softness were emphasized. The reasons Yang Luchan might have had for these changes are unknown. Fact is that Yang Luchan could not finish the task he had begun. His sons completed his work: Based on his father's legacy, Yang Banhou (1837-1892) created the Small Frame of Yang style, while Yang Jianhou (1839-1917) created the Middle Frame. Yang Chengfu (1837-1892), son of Yang Jianhou, finally amalgamated both these forms into what became known as the Big Frame. This form is characterized by slow, soft movements and is the form that today is the most popular taiji form worldwide. Yang Chengfu's sons Yang Zhenduo and Yang Zhenji are the present-day proponents of this style, as well as Yang Yun (nephew to Yang Zhenduo).

Newer Developments:

"Government Forms"

Following a suggestion by Chairman Mao, a committee developed in 1956 the Peking Form (24 movements, taken from the Yang Style). Later another form was created, using movements taken from all the five main taii styles. This form did not prove as popular as the Peking Form, though.

Cheng Manching (Zheng Manching)

Cheng Manching (1901-1975) was a student of Yang Chengfu and simplified the long form, creating a short form with 37 movements. The idea even back then was to help the beginner with learning the form quickly and to allow daily practice by shortening the time it takes to perform the form. (Cheng Manching very clearly saw the problem of wanting to do something for one's health while having to accomplish the daily tasks of everyday life at the same time.) Owing to personal experience, Cheng Manching was convinced that taijiquan is extremely valuable for health reasons and saw in his short form at first an instrument to promote the healthiness of the people to benefit the country. Later, he escaped with the Nationalists to Taiwan, continued to teach his form and finally taught the form even in merica (New York), from where it was spread throughout the world. Famous practitioners of this form are, for example, Ben Lo and Huang Shengyuan.

Tung (Dong) Family

Dong (Tung) Yingjie at first learned Hao Style and only later he studied with Yang Chengfu. His son Tung Huling passed the art on to Tung Kaiying and Dong Zengchen. Today the Tung Style teaches weapons forms as well as four hand forms, two of which are derived from Yang style (a fast one and a slow one), the Hao form and the "familiy style", that was created by Tung Yingjie.


Wu Style

Yang Luchan's student Quanyou (1834-1902) created Wu Style. His son, Wu Jianquan (1870-1942) was responsible for spreading the style and therefore this style is also known as Wu Jianquan style. The style was developed out of the small frame of Yang style and emphasizes the rotation of the middle of the body. This form is very compact, the tempo uniformly slow and there are no jumps or deep positions. The main characteristic is the holding of the back: bent forward, so that a straight line is formed from the rear foot, to the lower back and the upper point of the head.

In this style the emphasis is on mainaining and promoting health; it is practiced worldwide. There are mainly three lineages: From Wu Jianquan to Wu Yinghwa and Ma Yuehliang and then Ma Jiangbao and Shi Meilin (son and adopted daughter to Ma Yuehliang). From Wang Maozhai to Yang Yuting and then Wang Peisheng. And finally Chang Yunting.


Wu (Hao, sometimes Li) Style

Created by Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880). (Careful, the Chinese signs used for the two Wu styles are not identical!) Wu Yuxiang already had received training in the martial arts when he started to learn from Yang Luchan. Eventually, he was sent to the Chen village to continue his studies. He never arrived there, ending his journey in the neighborhood village of Zhaobao, where he met Chen Qingping, who taught him for 40 days. Wu Yuxiang developed his own style out of the synthesis of the teachings of Yang Luchan and Chen Qingping. He passed his style on to only few students. His nephew, Li I-yu (1832-1892) was responsible for the spreading and written codification of the style. His successor was Hao Weizheng (1849-1920), who continued to spread the style together with his students and offspring (Hao Yueru, 1877-1935). This style is charactized by compact movements and high positions. Jumps and forceful movements are no longer included in the forms that are practiced today.


Sun Style

Sun Lutang (1861-1932, also known as Sun Fuquan) learned from Hao Weizheng. Earlier on he had learned Bagua Zhang and Xingyi Quan which clearly shows up in the style he developed: short and forceful steps as well as the leg- and waist-methods of Xingyi. As in Hao style, high positions, even tempo and only few kicking and boxing movements are shown in Sun style. Sun Lutang passed his knowledge to his daughter, Sun Jianyun, who represents the style today.