Tai chi (Chinese: 太極; pinyin: Tàijí), short for T’ai chi ch’üan or Tàijí quán (太極拳), is an internal Chinese martial art practiced for both its defense training, its health benefits and meditation. The term taiji is a Chinese cosmological concept for the flux of yin and yang, and ‘quan’ means fist. So etymologically, Taijiquan is a fist system based on the dynamic relationship between polarities (Yin and Yang). Though originally conceived as a martial art, it is also typically practiced for a variety of other personal reasons: competitive wrestling in the format of pushing hands (tui shou), demonstration competitions and achieving greater longevity. As a result, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims with differing emphasis. Some training forms of tai chi are especially known for being practiced with relatively slow movements.
Today, tai chi has spread worldwide. Most modern styles of tai chi trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun. All of the former, in turn, trace their historical origins to Chen Village.
The concept of the taiji (“supreme ultimate”), in contrast with wuji (“without ultimate”), appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, where it represents the fusion or mother of yin and yang into a single ultimate, represented by the taijitu symbol Taijitu – Small (CW).svg. Tai chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many Chinese philosophical principles, including those of Taoism and Confucianism.
Tai chi training involves five elements, taolu (solo hand and weapons routines/forms), neigong and qigong (breathing, movement and awareness exercises and meditation), tuishou (response drills) and sanshou (self defence techniques). While tai chi is typified by some for its slow movements, many styles (including the three most popular: Yang, Wu and Chen) have secondary forms with faster pace. Some traditional schools teach partner exercises known as tuishou (“pushing hands”), and martial applications of the postures of different forms (taolu).
In China, tai chi is categorized under the Wudang grouping of Chinese martial arts—that is, the arts applied with internal power. Although the term Wudang suggests these arts originated in the Wudang Mountains, it is simply used to distinguish the skills, theories and applications of neijia (internal arts) from those of the Shaolin grouping, or waijia (hard or external) styles.
Since the earliest widespread promotion of the health benefits of tai chi by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch‘üan and Sun Lutang in the early 20th century, it has developed a worldwide following of people, often with little or no interest in martial training, for its benefit to personal health. Medical studies of t‘ai-chi support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.
It is purported that focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to tai chi training, aspects of traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced students in some traditional schools.
Some other forms of martial arts require students to wear a uniform during practice. In general, tai chi schools do not require a uniform, but both traditional and modern teachers often advocate loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes.
The physical techniques of tai chi are described in the “T‘ai-chi classics”, a set of writings by traditional masters, as being characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination and relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize, yield or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases, as well as opens, the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis).
The study of tai chi primarily involves three aspects:
1, Health: An unhealthy or otherwise uncomfortable person may find it difficult to meditate to a state of calmness or to use tai chi as a martial art. Tai chi’s health training, therefore, concentrates on relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind. For those focused on tai chi’s martial application, good physical fitness is an important step towards effective self-defense.
2, Meditation: The focus and calmness cultivated by the meditative aspect of tai chi is seen as necessary in maintaining optimum health (in the sense of relieving stress and maintaining homeostasis) and in application of the form as a soft style martial art.
3, Martial art: The ability to use tai chi as a form of self-defense in combat is the test of a student’s understanding of the art. Tai chi is the study of appropriate change in response to outside forces, the study of yielding and sticking to an incoming attack rather than attempting to meet it with opposing force. The use of tai chi as a martial art is quite challenging and requires a great deal of training.
Tàijíquán and T‘ai-chi ch‘üan are two different transcriptions of three Chinese characters that are the written Chinese name for the artform:
Characters Wade–Giles Pinyin Meaning
太极 t‘ai chi tàijí the source, the beginning
拳 ch‘üan quán fist, boxing
Despite the one Chinese spelling, 太极拳, there are two different spellings in the English usage, one derived from the Wade–Giles and the other from the Pinyin transcription. Most Westerners often shorten this name to t‘ai chi (often omitting the aspirate sign—thus becoming “tai chi”). This shortened name is the same as that of the t‘ai-chi philosophy, sometimes causing confusion of the two. However, the Pinyin romanization is taiji. The chi in the name of the martial art should not be mistaken for ch‘i, (qi 气 the “life force,” especially as ch‘i is involved in the practice of t‘ai-chi ch‘üan. Although the word 极 is traditionally written chi in English, the closest pronunciation, using English sounds, to that of standard Mandarin would be jee, with j pronounced as in jump and ee pronounced as in bee. Other words exist with Mandarin pronunciations in which the ch is pronounced as in chump. Thus, it’s important, to avoid comfusion, to use the j sound. This potential for confusion suggests preferring the pinyin spelling, taiji. Most Chinese, including many professional practitioners, masters, and martial arts bodies (such as the International Wushu Federation (IWUF)), use the Pinyin version.
From a modern historical perspective, when tracing tai chi’s formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, there seems little more to go on than legendary tales. Nevertheless, some traditional schools claim that tai chi has a practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Song dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions, especially the teachings of Mencius). These schools believe that tai chi’s theories and practice were formulated by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century, at about the same time that the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life. However, modern research casts serious doubts on the validity of those claims, pointing out that a 17th-century piece called “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669), composed by Huang Zongxi (1610–1695), is the earliest reference indicating any connection between Zhang Sanfeng and martial arts whatsoever, and must not be taken literally but must be understood as a political metaphor instead. Claims of connections between tai chi and Zhang Sanfeng appeared no earlier than the 19th century.
History records that Yang Luchan trained with the Chen family for 18 years before he started to teach the art in Beijing, which strongly suggests that his art was based on, or heavily influenced by, the Chen family art. The Chen family are able to trace the development of their art back to Chen Wangting in the 17th century. Martial arts historian Xu Zhen believed that the tai chi of Chen Village had been influenced by the Taizu changquan style practiced at the nearby Shaolin Monastery, while Tang Hao thought it was derived from a treatise by the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang, Jixiao Xinshu (“New Treatise on Military Efficiency”), which discussed several martial arts styles including Taizu changquan.
What is now known as tai chi appears to have received this appellation from only around the mid of the 19th century. A scholar in the Imperial Court by the name of Ong Tong He witnessed a demonstration by Yang Luchan at a time before Yang had established his reputation as a teacher. Afterwards Ong wrote: “Hands holding Tai chi shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heroes.” Before this time the art may have had a number of different names, and appears to have been generically described by outsiders as zhan quan (沾拳, “touch boxing”), Mian Quan (“soft boxing”) or shisan shi (十三式, “the thirteen techniques”).
History and styles
There are five major styles of tai chi, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:
Chen style (陳氏) of Chen Wangting (1580–1660)
Yang style (楊氏) of Yang Luchan (1799–1872)
Wu Hao style (武氏) of Wu Yuxiang (1812–1880)
Wu style (吳氏) of Wu Quanyou (1834–1902) and his son Wu Jianquan (1870–1942)
Sun style (孫氏) of Sun Lutang (1861–1932)
The order of verifiable age is as listed above. The order of popularity (in terms of number of practitioners) is Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun and Wu/Hao. The major family styles share much underlying theory, but differ in their approaches to training.
There are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles, and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognized by the international community as being the orthodox styles. Other important styles are Zhaobao tàijíquán, a close cousin of Chen style, which has been newly recognized by Western practitioners as a distinct style; the Fu style, created by Fu Chen Sung, which evolved from Chen, Sun and Yang styles, and also incorporates movements from Baguazhang (Pa Kua Chang); and the Cheng Man-ch’ing style which is a simplification of the traditional Yang style.
Wu-style master Eddie Wu demonstrating the form “Grasp the bird’s tail” at a tournament in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Most existing styles can be traced back to the Chen style, which had been passed down as a family secret for generations. The Chen family chronicles record Chen Wangting, of the family’s 9th generation, as the inventor of what is known today as tai chi. Yang Luchan became the first person outside the family to learn tai chi. His success in fighting earned him the nickname Yang Wudi, which means “Unbeatable Yang”, and his fame and efforts in teaching greatly contributed to the subsequent spreading of tai chi knowledge. The designation internal or neijia martial arts is also used to broadly distinguish what are known as the external or waijia styles based on the Shaolinquan styles, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by modern schools. In this broad sense, all styles of t’ai chi, as well as related arts such as Baguazhang and Xingyiquan, are, therefore, considered to be “soft” or “internal” martial arts.
Tai Chi in the United States of America
Choy Hok Pang, a disciple of Yang Chengfu, was the first known proponent of tai chi to openly teach in the United States of America in 1939. Subsequently, his son and student Choy Kam Man emigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong in 1949 to teach t‘ai-chi ch‘üan in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Choy Kam Man taught until he died in 1994.
Sophia Delza, a professional dancer and student of Ma Yueliang, performed the first known public demonstration of tai chi in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1954. She also wrote the first English language book on t‘ai-chi, “T‘ai-chi ch‘üan: Body and Mind in Harmony”, in 1961. She taught regular classes at Carnegie Hall, the Actors Studio, and the United Nations.
Another early practitioner of tai chi to openly teach in the United States was Zheng Manqing/Cheng Man-ch’ing, who opened his school Shr Jung t‘ai-chi after he moved to New York from Taiwan in year 1964. Unlike the older generation of practitioners, Zheng was cultured and educated in American ways,[clarification needed] and thus he was able to transcribe Yang’s dictation into a written manuscript that became the de facto manual for Yang style. Zheng felt Yang’s traditional 108-movement long form was unnecessarily long and repetitive, which makes it difficult to learn and make progress. He thus created a shortened 37-movement version and taught that in his schools. Zheng’s form became very popular and was the dominant form in the eastern United States until other teachers started to emigrate to the United States in larger numbers in the 90’s. He taught until his death in 1975.
Tai chi in the United Kingdom
Norwegian Pytt Geddes was the first European to teach tai chi in Britain, holding classes at The Place in London in the early 1960s. She had first encountered tai chi in Shanghai in 1948, and studied it with Choy Hok Pang and his son Choy Kam Man (who both also taught in the United States) while living in Hong Kong in the late 1950s.