The History

Origins of Taijiquan

The origins, history and evolution of taijiquan can be very interesting, but sometimes difficult or confusing to understand. Folk law and mythology shroud the origins of taijiquan.

Some accounts of the origins of taijiquan date back as far as the 8th Century (Tang dynasty) and credit the legendary figure of Xu Xuanping a Taoist poet from the Wudang mountain region as a forbearer of the art. Others (Crompton, 1993) credit the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng (Chang San-Feng or Chang Sanfeng) a legendary figure said to have lived during the 12th century (Song Dynasty). Whilst most reports agree that Zhang Sanfeng was from the Wudang mountain region, some, however, have him living during the 15th century (Yuan dynasty). Zhang Sanfeng is often credited with the creation of the “internal martial arts” the origins of taijiquan.

The Chinese martial arts developed significantly throughout the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. However as many of the instructors where not literate and much of the teaching was kept hidden there is little documented for that time.

Legendary Figures

The following are some of the legendary figures that are said to have influenced the development of taijiquan.

Historical Evolution of Taijiquan

Till the mid-1700s the taijiquan literature contains many gaps and contradictory accounts about practitioners and the styles. One popular account during this period is that of Chen Wangting a Royal Guard of the Chen village during the Ming Dynasty is credited, as the founder of the Chen style of taijiquan.

From the mid 1700s the history of the prominent lineages becomes clearer. With Chen Changxing (1771–1853) an influential martial artist of the Chen style lineage training Yang Luchan, who was to become know as the founder of the Yang style of taijiquan.

“In 1852, Yang Luchan moved to Beijing and was appointed to teach his boxing to the Imperial Guard and members of the Qing Court. In taking the practice out of the village context, Yang played a defining role in triggering the wider dissemination of taijiquan through the major Chinese cities.” (Ryan, 2008, p. 530)

Yang Luchan passed his art onto many students and his two sons Yang Banhou and Yang Jianhou. The development of the “small frame” of the Yang style is credited to Yang Banhou. The youngest son of Yang Luchan, Yang Jianhou was also a well-known instructor of the time. Yang Jianhou passed on his art to his sons Yang Chengfu and Yang Shao-hou. Yang Chengfu is credited with introducing Yang style to the public.

Over time many other styles evolved from the Chen and Yang. Wǔ Yuxiang a student of Yang Luchan, combined techniques from his studies of both Yang and Chen styles, to develop what was to eventually be known as the Wu Hao or Hao style of taijiquan.

Wu Quanyou (another of Yang Luchan’ students) and his son Wu Jianquan are credited with refining the Yang ‘small frame’ approach which evolved into what is now known as the Wu style of taijiquan.

Sun Lutang, who learned taijiquan from Hao Weizhen (a Wu Hao style descendant) then integrated other forms of Chinese Wushu with his taijiquan knowledge. This unique approach was then to become known as the Sun style taijiquan.

Historical Figures

The following is a list of some of the individuals that have influenced the establishment or development of taijiquan over history.

Modernisation of Taijiquan

The early part of the 20th century saw major changes to the traditional hand forms of the main styles. Chen Fake (Chen style), Yang Chengfu (Yang style), Wu Gongyi (Wu style) and Hao Yueru (Wu Hao style) changed ‘what’ was being taught and ‘how’ it was taught. Many of these changes were to enable the teaching of larger groups of students.

In 1956, the People’s Republic of China government through the Chinese State Physical Culture and Sports Commission standardised taijiquan to create the first ‘modern’ form. This was known as the ‘Simplified 24-step’ taijiquan and is based on the Yang style of taijiquan.

“Since the 1950s, … further modifications have occurred including varying the number of movements (24-form, 42-form, 48- form, 88-form). Of these, the 24-form is the most frequently used in public programs and public health promotion. Subsequent development has further simplified the 24- form routine into 8- and 16-form routines” (Guo, et al., 2014, pp. 3-4)

The modern styles of taijiquan are embraced and practised for a range of reasons and offers an art form that spans the martial, sports and therapeutic modalities.

  • Crompton, P. H. (1993). The Art of T’ai Chi. Rockport, MA: Element Books Ltd.

  • Guo, Y., Qiu, P., & Liu, T. (2014). Tai Ji Quan: An overview of its history, health benefits, and cultural value. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 3(1), 3-8.

  • Ryan, A. (2008). Globalisation and the ‘Internal Alchemy’ In Chinese Martial Arts: The Transmission of Taijiquan to Britain. East Asian Science, Technology and Society 2(4), 525-543.

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