By Mark Parzynski, DAOM, LAc.
Taijiquan is a martial art that has been around for several hundred years. Its history is steeped in politics and mysticism. Every teacher seems to have a slightly different version of history that elevates their style and philosophy. I will attempt to sift through some of the mire and give an overview of both the mythic and documented versions of history.
The mythic origin begins with a peasant boy named Chang Chun-pao around 1200ce. His parents sent him to the Shaolin Monastery at a young age. While at the monastery Chang Chun-pao quickly began to excel and by the age of 15 he had mastered Shaolin Martial Arts and Chan Buddhist meditation. Feeling that his training was incomplete, Chang Chun-pao left the temple in search of other teachers. One of the first teachers he found was a Taoist immortal named Huo-lung(Fire Dragon) who taught him about the Tao, alchemy and the art of cultivating and controlling Qi.
Chang Chun-pao moved to Szechuan and built a small hut where he spent most of his time meditating. Through this process he became immune to hunger and thirst. One day he saw a crane and a snake fighting. Each time the crane would attack, the snake would recoil and strike. He thought that if man could combine the best quality of each animal into one fighting style, that style would be unbeatable. After spending several years creating an almost invincible fighting system he still felt something was missing. Until one day while he was walking in Wu-dang mountain and saw the wind whipping leaves into a spiral. This is when he realized that the Tao was stronger then any animal or man and martial arts should hold the principles of nature. By being one with the Tao we should dissolve, deflect and absorb attacks, thus fighting would be effortless. Chang Chun-pao later changed his name to Chang San-feng (three peaks) after a formation of rocks he observed. At 100 years of age, Chang San-fang left his hut and walked into the mountains, never to be seen again.
This line of history then moves forward several hundred years to a monk named Jiang Fa who was reportedly a student of Chang San-feng. He came down from Wu-dang mountain and wandered into Chenjiagou (Chen Village). This monk taught Chen Changxing(1771-1853) who then transformed the Chen family system of martial arts into Taijiquan.
A more documented version of how the Chen family came to know the Taijiquan forms begins with Chen Bu immigrating from Shanxi Province to Huaiqing during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and founding Chenjiagou. It is not until the 7th generation of the Chen family that detailed historical records are found, but it is thought that the early Chen family art, before Taijiquan was synthesized, was based on Shaolin Boxing. This does seem likely due to the village's proximity to the monastery. Chen Wangting was from the 9th generation of the Chen family and was said to be an incredibly skilled martial artist. After his retirement as a garrison commander in the 1640s, he began compiling a form of martial art he called “the first method”. This form contained elements of Yin-Yang theory, Qi channels, push hands, and a basic spear practice routine. This form is likely the early stages of Taijiquan. It is most likely that through several generations of Chen family members going off to war and returning to the village that Taijiquan truly emerged. Chen Changxing (1771-1853) from the 14th generation is given credit for creating the two main forms practiced today by the Chen family, but it would not be until the 16th generation that Chen Xin (1849-1929)would compile a massive book called Illustrated Explinations of Chen Family Taijiquan. This 750 page book chronicles in detail the theory and philosophy of Chen Style Taijiquan.
Yang Luchan (1799-1872) had the most influence in spreading Taijiquan out of Chenjiagou. The idea that Yang Luchan was the first outsider to learn Taijiquan is about all that people can agree upon when it comes to his life. The most likely story is that Yang Luchan was born to a poor family in Hebai province. He studied some martial arts as a child and eventually got a job at a pharmacy owned by Chen Du Hu. After seeing Chen Du Hu use his martial abilities to subdue some troublemakers, Yang Luchan convinced Chen Du Hu to teach him. Chen De Hu sent Yang Luchan to Chenjiagou to train with Chen Changxing where he studied for many years.
After leaving Chenjiagou, Yang Luchan made a name for himself as a great martial artist and began teaching the nobility in the imperial court. The Yang Style teachings stay relatively unchanged until Yang Luchan's grandson, Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) and his brother Yang Shaohou (1862-1930). Yang Shaohou refused to pull his punches, even for rich and famous students and thus had very few disciples. His art was small and fast with a great deal of power issued throughout the form. His brother Yang Chengfu on the other hand was said to be a very kind and gentle man, despite his imposing stature. Yang Chengfu created the form that has become the bases for most modern Taijiquan seen around the world. He removed all of the rhythmic pace changes, jumping kicks and Fajin (issuing of power) that were formerly found in the early Yang style and Chen style forms. The form he created is made up of large, slow movements done at an even speed. This form could be practiced by almost anyone, no matter what their age or health conditions and was taught openly to all who would learn.
Today there are five main styles of Taijiquan practiced around the word. Each style has unique characteristics imparted by it founder.
Chen Chen Wangting (1600's)
Yang Yang Luchan((1799-1872)
Wu/Hao Wu Yixiang(1812-1880)
Wu Wu Quanyou(1834-1802)
Sun Sun Lutang(1860-1933)
In the last 50 years countless new styles have emerged. Some have been created as a natural evolution by masters with a great understanding of the art, while others are based on misinformation and myth. By understanding the history of Taijiquan it is easier to make informed decisions about who to study with and where their art comes from.