The term quan, or “fist”, appears in the 12th century to designate any form of bare-fisted boxing using the hands and/or the feet. The external (waijia) boxing techniques developed in the Shaolin temples are of course famous, and would appear to have originated in the increasing wealth and power of Shaolin buddhism: Shaolin boxing was intended to be put to military use in the defence of the wealthy monasteries.
During the 16th century, China was confronted with a series of attacks along its coasts by Japanese pirates, and the Shaolin monks contributed their military and fighting prowess to the Middle Empire’s anti-piracy campaigns.
One of the heroes of the anti-piracy campaign, general Qi Jiguang, wrote a New treatise on military efficacy (jixiao xinshu) which became almost as much a classic as Sun Zi’s “Art of war”. The Treatise’s chapter titled “Classical foundation of boxing” (quan jing jieyao) is the first known written text devoted to boxing. Boxing practice was not considered to be directly applicable on the battle-field, but was rather a basis of physical fitness and a preliminary to the use of weapons. What is particularly significant for us, is that the general reduced his exercises to a basic series of 32 postures, of which 29 are to be found in the Chen style of Tai Chi.
Imperial China depended in part on conscription to man its army. Military service concerned the entire population and could last from one to three years. However, the central government could not necessarily guarantee protection against roving bandits or cross-border raiding, so that villagers were often thrown back on their own resources to defend themselves. On their return from military service, the farmers would therefore continue to practice and develop the techniques that they had learned in the army. Chinese martial arts in general are therefore deeply rooted in a popular tradition of self-defence.
There is a general agreement that the origins of the taiji quan that we know today are to be found in the village of Chenjiagou in Henan province, home to the Chen family. Chen style is thus considered to be the oldest and original form of Tai Chi.
According to tradition, the Chen style was created by Chen Wangting in the early 17th century. The declining Ming dynasty was overthrown in 1638 by Manchu invaders from north of the Great Wall, who adopted the dynastic name Qing. The Qing were destined to be China’s last imperial dynasty, lasting until the Republican revolution in the beginning of the 20th century. However, many Han Chinese remained faithful to the fallen Ming. Chen Wangting was one such: a Ming general who refused to serve under the Qing, and so returned to private life in his home village of Chenjiagou.
Here he combined his military experience and his study of Qi Jiguang’s work, with his knowledge of daoyin and Chinese medicine, to develop the first sets of Tai Chi forms. In doing so, he aimed not only to develop a new form of martial art, but also to create a form of mental and physical exercise which emphasized internal strength and could be used by people of all ages and physical conditions to improve their health and well-being and prolong life.
According to another tradition, the Chen family learnt the art from Wang Zhongyue (1733-1810), the author of the earliest known written Treatise of Taiji quan.
Be that as it may, Wang Zhongyue’s Treatise clearly distinguishes Tai Chi from other Chinese martial arts:
“Many fighting techniques, whatever their formal technical differences, produce an identical result where the strong and robust beat the weak, the fast beat the slow, and all this is the result of muscular strength rather than diligent exercise to train breathing and develop internal energy. ‘A force of four ounces can deflect an attack of one thousand pounds’, this proverb shows that victory does not come from muscular strength. When we see an old man resisting several assailants, then what use is rapidity?”.
Until the 19th century, taiji quan remained a Chen family secret, passed on from master to disciples within the extended Chen family in Chenjiagou and the surrounding villages. This changed when Yang Luchan (already a martial arts practitioner himself) came to Chenjiagou (the stories differ as to eactly how and why he came to the village). Fascinated by the Chen family’s boxing techniques, he begged the master, Chen Changxing, to teach him: the latter refused to teach an outsider. Disappointed, but not discouraged, Yang Luchan hung around the village and watched from hiding as the master taught, practicing the moves in secret. He was finally able to demonstrate his new skills, and so impressed Changxing that the master finally relented and agreed to teach him.
Yang Luchan’s skill was such that he became known as “Yang Wudi” (“Yang the Invincible”). Chen Changxing agreed that he should move to Beijing and establish his own school. He becamequitefamous , to the point where in 1850 he was hired by the Qing imperial family to teach his techniques to members of the elite Imperial Guard.
In this way, taiji quan spread outside the Chen family for the first time, and the Yang lineage of Tai Chi was established. Yang Luchan transmitted his own style to his sons, but also to other martial artists, and he seems to have had a generally more open attitude to spreading his skills outside his own family.
Following the chaos of the civil war in China after the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, and the disruption of China’s own “Cultural Revolution”, many martial arts masters took refuge in Hong Kong or Taiwan, or abroad, and in this way interest in Chinese martial arts in general began to spread to the West.
It is perhaps due to Yang Luchan’s greater openness that it was the Yang style of Tai Chi which spread the fastest and became by far the best known outside China itself.