The Internal Art of Tai Chi


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History of Tai Chi

    To this day, there are two major beliefs on the origin of tai chi.  The more “mythical” of which is that tai chi was created by a Taoist priest, Zhang sanfeng, who lived during the Yuan and Ming Dynasty (late 1200s to mid 1600s AD) on Wudangshan, Hubei.  He supposedly created the forms after watching the battle between a snake and a crane.  The round movements of the snake made him a worthy opponent to the crane and from this observation, Zhang sanfeng created the martial art with round movements. 


This is a picture I took of Purple Cloud Temple in Wudangshan, Hubei, China.

Purple Cloud Temple is one of Wudangshan’s most well known locations because of its rich history and beautiful scenery.

There is an old statue of Zhang sanfeng in the entry room to this temple.

Chen Style

    The other belief, dates tai chi to be about 400 years old or so, and originates from a place called Chenjiagou (also known as Chen Village).  Unlike the Zhang sanfeng story, there is written evidence and records to support its history.

    Chenjiagou is a small village located in Wen County.  When I had the privilege of training in Chenjiagou, it was about a three hour bus ride from Zhengzhou.


Chenjiagou literally translates to Chen Family Ditch.  So if you roamed around the village, you’ll find the prominent ditch.  There are several areas along the ditch for people to practice tai chi.

P1040989.JPG  In present-day Chenjiagou, you’ll find a Chen family temple and Chen wangting’s statue is the main shrine in the temple.

In the late 1600s, a retiring military general, by the name of Chen wangting returned to Chenjiagou and created  what we now call Chen style tai chi.  At that point in time, he created what’s known as laojia or “old frame”.  Since then, the Chen family has been very creative and came up with some beautiful modifications to the form (e.g., xinjia, xiaojia).

Yang Style

    The founder of the Yang style, Yang Lu Chan, was a servant in the Chen family.  In the evening, he would secretly watch the Chen family practice their art and learn.  When he was discovered by the Chen family that he was spying on them, the family could have very easily killed him, but upon discovering that his tai chi calibre was high, they took him on as an "outdoor" student.  Eventually he developed his own style (now known as the Yang Style) which is quite different from the Chen Style with higher stances coordinated with slower and graceful movements.  Yang did a lot of traveling around China, which would explain why the style is so popular today.  He became so well known that the Emperor asked him to teach his style to the guards in the capital.


While I was training at Chen Bing’s Taiji Academy in Chenjiagou I took one morning to walk around the village and as it turned, across the street from the academy was Yang Lu Chan’s old home!  Of course training was important and I didn’t have enough time to stroll through the place, which is a museum now.


Wu (Hao) Style

    Wu Yu-Xiang studied both the Yang and Chen style and in the late 1800s he developed his own Wu Style.  It is not a very common form but its style is characterized by using a lot of internal power.

 Wu Style 

    This is a relatively recent style and was created by a father-son team (Wu quanyu and Wu jianquan) in the early 1900s.  This form is characterized by a forward leaning posture and much higher stances than the Yang style.  The current name bearer of the Wu style is Hong Kong’s Master Eddie Wu, who was formerly based in Toronto.  He must be one of my favourite tai chi speakers – very lively, pragmatic, and funny!

Sun Style

    Of the five major tai chi families, the Sun style is the youngest.  The founder, Sun lutang was a master in Xingyi and Bagua quan and was taught tai chi by one of the masters of the Wu style.  Sun lutang later incorporated elements of Xingyi and Bagua into the form and later called it the Sun Style.  That is why when you compare the Wu style and the Sun style there are so many similarities.  One of the most prominent characteristics of the Sun style is the liveliness of the steps and its high stances.  The feet are seldom far from each other.

My teacher, Troyce Thome, co-wrote a very good book on Sun style tai chi: Traditional Sun Style Taijiquan

National Combined Routines

   As the demand for shorter and easier to learn routines is ever increasing, China created some forms which has taken elements from each of the five major families and combined them into new forms.  One of the first forms created was the 24-Forms Tai Chi (in 1950s) which is comprised mainly of Yang style forms.  The 48-Forms was created a couple of decades later as a competition style.  But the level of difficulty of this form was not high enough so a more difficult form was created - the 42 Form.  The Yang style has also been standardized to what is now known as the 88-Form.  This form was created at about the same time as the 24 forms and is not much different from the old traditional "long" form except that there are a couple of added forms to smooth out some transitions between forms.  More recently, several new styles have appeared in the market.  These include the 16-Form and the 8-Form.  These styles are much simpler to learn because of the low number of forms and are designed to exercise both sides of the body (whereas some of the more traditional forms practiced only on the right side) and the other advantage is that there is not as big of a requirement for space.  Many of us would practice more often if we have the space.