Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) translates as supreme ultimate fist, or great extremes boxing. The concept of Taiji is found in both Daoist and Confucian philosophy where it represents the beginning of movement, and the creation Yin and Yang. Quan is a term meaning fist, or fighting form.
In the early twentieth century Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch'uan and Sun Lutang promoted Taijiquan’s health benefits, using the art as a method of physical itness and meditation has been popular ever since. The Taijiquan student must be aware of the human body’s proper functional alignment and how to leverage force through the entire body. The slow, repetitive work, involved in the process of learning that leverage is responsible for improving the health of the practitioner while the mind is focused on those movements with the aid of proper breathing.
Taiji is a concept with its origins in the cosmology of the Yi Jing. The Yi Jing is translated as The Book of Changes, but it actually has three meanings: Ease, Change, and Changelessness. The martial art of Taijiquan embodies all these qualities. From beginning to end the form should be easy and comfortable, it should constantly change between Yin and Yang without stopping while remaining balanced, and the mind should be peaceful.
Proper understanding of Taijiquan requires some study of the cosmologies that birthed it. Taijiquan uses the eight trigrams of Bagua to represent the eight martial postures, while the five directions of movement are represented by the Five Phases or Wu-Xing. The trigrams of the Bagua associate to the eight abilities, or keywords of the art, these are: ward off, roll back, press, push, pull down, split, elbow stroke, and shoulder stroke or bump. The five directions of movement as represented by the Wu Xing are: advancing, retreat, look to the left, be aware of the right, and stand firm in the middle. The Taijiquan form should be performed slowly so that the student can focus on coordinating the movements with the breath and maintaining the correct body alignments. You can think of the breathing as being a wheel. You regulate your breathing with the movements of the form, and this breathing is a foundational practice for learning innate strength. The expression of innate strength is often confused for magic powers that can be learned through some secret transmissions. But, there are no secrets in the practice of Taijiquan, rather it is hard work or kung fu.
Zhang Sanfeng (1247 - 1370 note that the dates on Zhang Sanfeng are uncertain and given here as reference) is the legendary founder of Taijiquan. The story of Taijiquan’s creation says that Zhang Sanfeng saw a snake and crane fighting. The Crane flew down and attacked the snake with its beak. But, the snake turned its head and attacked the cranes neck with its tail. The crane used its wings to protect its neck, and the snake tried to attack its legs. The snake and crane traded blows like this on and on with neither gaining the advantage. Finally, the crane flew back into the tree and the snake slithered back into the grass.
Zhang Sanfeng saw this fight as the embodiment of Daoist philosophy. The strong was turned into the weak and weak into the strong with neither gaining the advantage over the other. He codified these natural movements into a system of movements that are recognized as Taijiquan today.