- Written by Troy Williams Troy Williams
In April of 1644, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) hanged himself and marked the beginning of the Qing dynasty (1644 - 1912). The Manchus of the Qing dynasty were an ethnic minority that forced the Han majority into submission. This period of transition–from the late Ming to the early Qing–was a pivotal period in the development of barehanded martial art styles such as Taijiquan. It was during the late Ming dynasty that Daoist alchemical beliefs, cosmological concepts, and physical practices were integrated with martial techniques. The Manchu conquest of China influenced the creation myth of these martial styles, and the syncretic arts of fighting, healing, and self-cultivation that resulted from this period have appealed to generations. Before we explore the development of Taijiquan, we need to understand what a martial art is, and the classification of Chinese martial arts today.
Defining Martial Arts
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines martial art as “various sports or skills, mainly of Asian origin that originated as forms of self-defense or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.” As the Asian martial arts have grown in popularity, other cultures have shared their own traditions. Notice that while martial means warlike the definition of the noun martial art is a sport or skill, not a means of training for war.
The Martial arts of China divide into two broad categories: external (waijia) and internal (neijia). The definition of these two schools varies with distinctions along philosophical and national lines, as well as the type of practice. The national and philosophical difference started during the Qing dynasty. The Shaolin martial arts were defined as external and associated with the Manchu and Buddhism (imported into China) while internal martial arts were associated with the Han and Daoism (indigenous to China). Another way to classify the arts is to compare their methods of practice. External styles train muscular power, speed, and direct martial applications. Internal styles train body connection with awareness of spirit, mind, and breath. This dual purpose for practice has long been present in the Shaolin tradition, where the external practice is for fighting, while the internal practice is for health, self-development, and enlightenment.
In his book on Taijiquan, Sun, Lu-Tang says that the Song dynasties Zhang Sanfeng realized that his Shaolin training caused overexertion from the use of too much strength. This overexertion was causing him physical harm, so Zhang Sanfeng corrected his practice by applying the principles from Daoist gymnastics or Daoyin. Modern historians support this explanation, but they point to the late Ming dynasty as the period when Daoist cosmology and gymnastic practices mixed with martial training. It was during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties that creation myths tied China’s martial arts to the saints of Buddhism and Daoism. The story of the Buddhist Bodhidharma creating the external Shaolin arts from his presence at the Song Mountain was a counterbalance to the Daoist Zhang Sanfeng creating the internal martial arts at Wudang Mountain.
Bodhidharma (440 - 534)
The Shaolin temple was founded several hundred years before Bodhidharma’s arrival, during the Period of Disunion (220 - 581) that is known as the Three Kingdoms period.
A Zen Koan tells the story of Bodhidharma’s arrival in China. After arriving, he met with the emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (502 -557), who was a strong supporter of Buddhism. The emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma how much merit his building of temples, printing of scriptures, and support for the Buddhist community had accumulated. Bodhidharma replied, “No merit at all.” The Emperor then asked Bodhidharma, “what is the highest meaning of the holy truths?” Bodhidharma replied, “Without holiness.” The emperor Wu then demanded to know who Bodhidharma was to say such things. Bodhidharma responded, “I don’t know.” Incensed by Bodhidharma’s answers the emperor Wu had him expelled from the court. While the Koan goes on to tell of Wu’s regret for sending Bodhidharma away, martial art lore is concerned with what happened to Bodhidharma after he left the Liang court.
Bodhidharma traveled north, across the Yangtze River. He stopped at the Shaolin temple at Mt. Song and it is here where the stories of Bodhidharma’s entry to the Shaolin temple differ. In some stories he was refused entry, then sat in meditation outside the monastery, facing its walls, for nine years. The monks were impressed with his dedication and granted him entry to the monastery. In another story, the monks of the Shaolin temple granted him entry upon arrival. Bodhidharma ventured into a cave above the temple where he sat in meditation for nine years. This legend states that he sat in the same place and in the same posture for so long that the sunlight coming into the cave behind Bodhidharma burnt his image into the wall. In either story, once he was inside the monastery, he was dismayed by the poor physical condition of the monks and began teaching a set of exercises to the monks to promote their physical health. The legend says that those exercises were the 18 Arhat Hands of Shaolin–a common routine in Shaolin martial arts. It is more likely that these exercises were yoga postures that were mixed with an already developed martial tradition to form the barehanded Shaolin arts we know today.
Zhang Sanfeng (1247 - 1370)
If Zhang Sanfeng existed, he lived during the years of Marco Polo’s (1254 - 1324) visit to China. He studied Buddhism and martial arts at the Shaolin temple before leaving and establishing the temples at Wudang Mountain. It was at Wudang Mountain that Zhang Sanfeng created the martial art of Taijiquan. The story says that he saw a magpie and serpent fighting in the grass. He considered the softness and fierceness of both creatures, and–over a nine-year period–incorporated these ideas with his knowledge of Daoism, and Shaolin martial arts to form Taijiquan. Another legend says that the Song emperor summoned Zhang Sanfeng, and that rival soldiers blocked the road as he left to meet with the emperor. That night, Yuan (the first Emperor of China) visited Zhang in a dream and taught him martial arts. In the morning, Zhang Sanfeng killed the soldiers and visited the Song emperor. Other stories say that Zhang Sanfeng was known as “The Sloppy Daoist” because he did not keep himself clean. These stories say that Zhang was big and round like a turtle with a crane back and had large ears and eyes, hardly the reposed figure represented at Wudang Mountain today.
The Real Masters
The real story of Taijiquan starts with Yang, Lu-Chan (1799 - 1872) whose contribution to the Chinese martial arts stands as a cornerstone from which we judge them today. As a child he learned Shaolin forms and at an early age–as young as ten–Yang saw a man throwing an unruly customer out of a salt shop. When he inquired where he could learn such skills, Chen, De-Hu–who disavowed any knowledge of the martial arts--told him to inquire with Chen, Chan-Xing in the Chen Village.
The very young Yang, Lu-Chan found employment as a servant in the Chen Village but, since he was an outsider, he was not taught martial arts. One night he heard sounds coming from the courtyard and found a spot where he could witness the practice routines of the Chen family. Yang practiced what he saw in the courtyard in his spare time. As a servant he was often around the Chen family students and one day, he was bold enough to correct the postures of some students. The students quickly informed their teacher that the outsider was practicing martial arts.
Chen, Chang-Xing (1771 - 1853) asked the young Yang to demonstrate what he had learned from watching his instruction at a distance. When Yang finished, Chen said “young Yang has learned more looking through a hole in the wall, than my students who have received instruction.” From this moment on Chen, Chang-Xing accepted him as a student. Chen, Chang-Xing was not without some controversy regarding the Chen family martial arts. One day Chen had seen someone practicing martial arts and mocked his art as he walked by. The individual challenged him and quickly threw Chen to the ground. This person was Jiang, Fa and Chen asked that, though he was not a member of Jiang’s family, if he could receive instruction from him. Jiang said that his art was not passed down within a family, but rather from teacher to student, and accepted Chen as his student.
Learning martial arts from an outsider did not sit well with the rest of the Chen Village. Since Chen, Chang-Xing was learning from Jiang, Fa, he was no longer permitted to practice the Pao Chui (Cannon Boxing) art of the family. It might have been because of this distancing by the Chen family that Chen, Chang-Xing was willing to teach the young and determined Yang, Lu-Chan. Yang studied at the Chen Village for as long as thirty years before he began teaching in public. He surprised people with his art; it was soft and yielding, yet none of the seemingly harder or larger boxers could defeat him. This softness earned his art the name of cotton boxing. Yang accepted many challengers during this time, and while he defeated them all, he was always careful not to hurt them. This gained him much respect, and boxers from other martial styles would seek him out for instruction.
For Yang, Lu-Chan’s sons, however, instruction was more harsh than meeting him in combat. His training program was so severe that Yang, Ban-Hou (1837 - 1890) attempted suicide, and Yang, Jian-Hou (1839 - 1917) ran away from home repeatedly. Yang family training included long hours of standing practice. Later, slow movement added to the challenge of these standing postures. The emphasis was on creating a heavy quality to the movement that is compared to swimming in air. After the single moving postures, the student was taught to walk with these postures. Each posture chained onto the previous until the student knows the entire sequence that makes up Yang Style Taijiquan.
Wu, Yu-Xiang (1812 - 1880) and his brothers were officials in the Qing government, so when they were impressed by a performance of Yang, Lu-Chan they recommended that he teach martial arts at the imperial court. Yang was equally impressed with the Wu brothers, who had studied Shaolin boxing before meeting Yang. He said that his own children were skilled at martial arts, but did not have much scholarly learning. The Wu brothers were well educated and offered to tutor the Yang brothers while learning martial arts from Yang, Lu-Chan. At least one story suggests that it was at the imperial court that Taijiquan got its name. The story says that a Confucian scholar saw Yang’s movements and declared that they were a physical manifestation of the Taiji, thereafter the art was known as Taijiquan.
The Wu brothers were the first to modify Taijiquan and create their own family style. Along with their nephew, Li, I-Yu they created the written works recognized as The Taijiquan Classics. These written works included original material written by Wu, Yu-Xing and Li, I-Yu, and copies of even older texts from Wang Zongyue, and the legendary Zhang Sanfeng.
While teaching at the imperial court Yang, Lu-Chan taught Quan, Yu (1834 - 1902) who was an officer in the Yellow Banner camp of the imperial guard. Quan, Yu shared this teaching with his son Wu, Jian-Quan (1870 - 1942). The reason for the family name change is that Quan, Yu was Manchurian, and–after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912–it was easier to live with the Han derived Wu family name. Wu, Jian-Quan was diligent in finding new ways to teach Taijiquan to the public and because of his efforts, and his modifications to the form, his style of Taijiquan is recognized as an independent family style today.
One of Li, I-Yu’s Taijiquan students was Hao, Wei-Zhen (1842 - 1920). The Hao family was such ardent proponents of Taijiquan that the family style Wu, Yu-Xiang and Li, I-Yu created is known as Wu/Hao style today. Of Hao, Wei-Zhen himself, little is written, except for his encounter with Sun, Lu-Tang.
Sun, Lu-Tang (1861 - 1932) was born Sun, Fu-Quan in 1861. His father was a farmer who died shortly after selling everything he owned to pay taxes, leaving Sun and his mother homeless. In an act of desperation, she offered her son to a rich landowner as a servant. The landowner accepted the boy as his servant, but he and his two sons were cruel to the younger and smaller boy.
One day, Sun discovered a group practicing Shaolin martial art and asked to study with their teacher, an old man with clear eyes and sharp movements. Sun told the teacher that he wanted to study so he could fight the landowner and his sons when they came to beat him. The teacher replied that the martial arts were not for fighting, and would not accept Sun, Fu-Quan as a student. But, the young boy insisted and said that he would endure any hardship if he could study the martial arts. The teacher relented and accepted Sun as his student.
Within a few years, Sun confronted the landowner and his cruel sons, throwing the brutes to the ground. This fight forced Sun to leave and return to his mother. After years of struggle, Sun and his mother go to Bao Ding, China where Sun worked for his uncle in a calligraphy shop. His uncle recognized the young Sun’s passion for the martial arts and introduced him to the Xingyiquan master Li, Kui-Yuan. Within a short time Sun was sent to study with Li’s master, the famous Guo, Yun-Shen (1829 - 1898). Sun impressed Guo, Yun-Shen, and Guo sent him to study Baguazhang with his martial brother Cheng, Ting-Hua (1848 - 1900).
When Sun, Fu-Quan was the only student of Cheng’s able to defeat a visiting martial artist, Cheng gave Sun the name Lu-Tang. He said that Sun had completed his martial training and should study the Yi Jing in the mountains of Sichuan province so that he would understand the origin. With Cheng, Ting-Hua’s recommendation in hand, Sun traveled China and studied the Yi Jing with a monk in Sichuan province, and Daoyin practices with Daoist at Wu Dang mountain. Eventually, he settled in Beijing and established three martial art training schools at the age of 48.
In the summer of 1914, Sun heard that Hao, Wei-Zhen had taken ill in a Beijing inn. Sun knew that Hao was a famous martial artist and should not suffer in an inn. Therefore, he invited the ill man to stay with him at his home to recover. Because of his kindness Hao, Wei-Zhen taught Sun, Lu-Tang the Wu/Hao lineage of Taijiquan. Between 1914 and 1924 Sun continued to live in Beijing where he served in the Chinese government, teaching martial arts at the presidential palace. He joined Yang, Cheng-Fu (Yang, Lu-Chan’s grandson) and Wu, Jian-Quan at the Beijing Physical Education Research Center to teach Taijiquan.
In the spring of 1931, he established the first martial arts school for women. The response was so overwhelming that he asked his daughter, Sun, Jian-Yun, to teach there.
Sun, Lu-Tang’s greatest contribution to the development of martial arts was through his published works. His first book, A Study of Form Mind Boxing (1915), illustrated the complete training method for Xingyiquan. In this book, he made the argument that literary and martial art learning was the same, and that training in martial arts benefits the health of the practitioner.
His second book, A Study of Eight Trigrams Boxing (1916), was the first book on Baguazhang. In this book, he connected the physical forms to the diagrams and philosophy of the Yi Jing.
His third book, A Study of Grand Ultimate Boxin (1921), detailed his own Taijiquan form, and forever categorized the martial arts of Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, and Taijiquan as neijia or internal martial arts.
In his book on Taijiquan, Sun traces the development of martial arts to “ancient times,” saying that martial arts were developed to prevent the body from “growing weaker by the day, and the hundred illnesses invading.” Throughout his life, Sun, Lu-Tang echoed the words of the clear-eyed man he met as a child, saying that the reason to study martial arts was not to fight. The reason to study martial arts is to improve the health of the body while you live and then to die quickly.
If this book inspires you to a lifelong study of Taijiquan the way Jou, Tsung Hwa’s book inspired me; you may also choose to learn another style of Taijiquan than the one presented in this book. Some names that you may encounter in your research are Zhaoboa, Yang, Wu, Wu/Hao, Chen, and Li. As of this writing, a Wikipedia page listed over 80 possible Taijiquan forms. My copy of The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan–Way to Rejuvenation recognized three family styles of Taijiquan: Chen, Yang, and Wu/Hao. Jou made the argument that the Wu style was a variation of the Yang style and the individual postures were fundamentally the same. The Sun style he discounted entirely because Sun, Lu-Tang mixed elements from Baguazhang and Xingyiquan with the Wu/Hao style of Taijiquan.
Today, there is five officially recognized family styles of Taijiquan: Yang, Wu, Wu/Hao, Sun, and Chen. Recognizing that these styles were becoming fragmented by an explosion of teachers and misleading claims, the Chinese Sports Committee standardized competition forms for the four major styles (Yang, Wu, Sun, and Chen) and created a combined 42 Posture style. A committee of Taijiquan masters approved these five sets of Taijiquan. If I were going to start my historic tour of Taijiquan today, I would do so through these competition forms. Having said that, there is a certain rhythm to the traditional long forms that I have found missing from the competition forms. Once you know the traditional Yang long form learning the traditional Wu long form is relatively easy and vice-versa. The same is true for Wu/Hao and Sun style. This rhythm is broken in the competition forms because they are shortened for time, and postures that are repeated many times in the traditional forms are only performed a couple of times in the competition forms.
Regardless of which style of Taijiquan you choose to practice, you need to know that a ten or twenty-minute Taijiquan routine is not a complete exercise program. To get real benefit from Taijiquan practice you need to practice for an hour or more each day. The traditional forms can take around twenty minutes to complete. Use the remaining forty minutes for the supplemental exercises in this book, and you will have a complete exercise program.