Today, with over 200 million practitioners, Tai Chi is the national exercise of China, and is the most widely practiced martial art in the world. It is often used as a compliment to hard martial arts training, relaxing the effects of strain and injury, healing the effects of disease, and countering the effects of aging. Learn about health benefits >
Tai Chi is also known as T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Taiji or Taijiquan. It is one of the internal Chinese martial art methods. The literal translation of the name is “supreme ultimate fist”, as it was originally conceived as a powerful form of self-defense. According to the Tai Chi historian Marvin Smalheiser, some Tai Chi masters are famous for being able to throw an attacker effortlessly to the floor with the attacker and spectators unable to clearly see how it was done. They use internal energy and movements too subtle for most people to observe, reflected in the notion that "four ounces can deflect a thousand pounds." At this high level of skill, a defender can use a small amount of energy to neutralize the far greater external force of an attacker.
Today, as we teach in our sessions, Tai Chi is more widely practiced as a form of exercise with rhythmic and meditative body movements designed to improve health and fitness, and to enhance relaxation and inner calm. The fighting applications of Tai Chi remain, although this practice has far less followers, and we do not instruct combat techniques in our group. After learning barehanded forms, students typically learn Push Hands, an exercise in which two partners gently push and yield with their hands against each other’s arms. In a combat situation, Tai Chi teaches practitioners to relax and become fluid in their movements, allowing for smoother action and quicker response times.
After Push Hands, students will transition to sparring; practicing single fighting applications with a partner. Sparring, as in all martial arts, is preparation for competition settings for actual self-defense. Tai Chi is a 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.
Tai Chi martial arts applications. © YMAA Publication Center
By the 20th century, due to the more open teachings being offered, more Chinese people were able to learn about the health benefits of Tai Chi. However, the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1945 caused Tai Chi, like many other forms of ancient knowledge, to be suppressed by the government. Within China, Tai Chi masters stopped teaching, hid their skills and went underground in order to survive. Still, some masters fled China and Tai Chi began to be taught more openly outside the country, as these teachers sought to keep the knowledge of their lineage alive.
In an apparent turnaround in the late 1950's, the Chinese government assembled a team of masters to simplify Tai Chi into a few standardized forms (including the Beijing 24) which could be used for public health exercise and mass practice. The fighting applications were not emphasized and for this reason Tai Chi remained an accepted recreation activity during the communist revolution, when there was an attempt to stamp out all forms of martial arts and religion.
As is the case with the majority of Chinese martial arts, including Kung Fu, the roots of Tai Chi, due in part to the long and storied history of martial arts in the region as well as consequences from outside intervention, are highly difficult to trace with any degree of certainty. Still, it appears that the art was significantly influenced by the melding of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian philosophies. Along with this, there was a conscious blending of these concepts during the Sung dynasty, which was called Neo-Confucianism.
One common story is told of Zhang Sanfeng, a Taoist monk of the 12th century, who learned Tao Yin breathing exercises from his Taoist teachers, as well as martial arts from the Buddhist Shaolin monastery. One day on Wudang mountain, he witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane. The crane attacked, stabbing at the snake, but the snake managed to evade. The snake fought back with whip-like attacks of its own, but the crane deflected these attacks by fiercely spreading its wings.
Inspired by this scene, it is said that Zhang Sanfeng developed Tai Chi, which mimicked the fluid movements of the snake and crane he had witnessed. Eventually the teachings were passed down to Zhang Song Xi who in turn taught Tai Chi to the Chen Family of Chen village. The Chen family, however, maintains that Tai Chi was created in Chen village. In any case, the Chen Family was successful in maintaining the secrets of Tai Chi for centuries, but it was eventually taught to an “outsider” named Yang Lu Chan. In the early 1800s, Yang Lu Chan then created Yang style Taijiquan, who then taught Wu Yu Xiang who created Wu style Tai Chi Chuan in the late 1800’s. Taijiquan was then still passed down from Wu and Yang Lu Chan’s sons and several other styles of Tai Chi were developed, including Hao, Sun, Li, Zhaobao Styles of Taijiquan. Styles we teach >
Zhang Sanfeng's battle between snake and crane.
(Left) Yang Chengfu, grandson of Yang Lu Chan.
(Right) Unknown martial artist performing Chen style sword.
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Tai Chi martial arts applications. © Yongquan Martial Arts Association