The history of tai chi chuan

There are many theories as to the origins of tai chi chuan. Many schools believe the founder was the Taoist monk Chan San Feng, who lived in the Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1279). The legend states that Chan San Feng watched a battle between a snake and a bird ten times its size. As the bird lunged at its prey, the wily reptile dodged and weaved, lashing back at its tormentor with relaxed lightning speed. Eventually the exhausted bird flew off for easier prey. In that instant the art of tai chi was said to have been born.


Chan San Feng, a master of the bard Shaolin martial arts, applied the principles he bad witnessed in the actions of the snake to his martial arts expertise. The snake's actions exemplified the Taoist principles of softness, relaxation, flexibility and naturalness, allied to the ancient breathing exercises to stimulate chi development.

It is not until the seventeenth century that tai chi can be verified historically. Henen Province in northern China was home to the Chen family of tai chi. This family has been credited with developing the Chen style, from which all the major schools - directly or indirectly - have developed. It is generally accepted that this 'new' style of martial art was developed from the popular existing arts at the time. The difference was that its movements were soft and it did not contend with opponents: adapting to the movements and yielding were its hallmark.

The legendary story as to the origin of Yang tai chi claims that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Chen Chan Sheng headed the Chen family tai chi, which at the time was taught secretly to family members only. A young man by the name of Yang Lu Chan wished desperately to learn the art of the Chens'. Knowing that be would be refused if he asked to study with them, be became a servant in the household. He watched secretly as they trained at night, and during his free periods be would imitate the techniques be had seen. One fateful evening he was caught spying on the Chens. When be was ordered to vie against the family members, he managed to throw his adversaries to the ground. Chen Chan Sheng was so impressed that he immediately offered to teach Yang as if he were a family member.

Yang Lu Chan eventually left the Chens and returned home, where he spread the art of tai chi chuan far and wide. Yang's skill became known to the Imperial Royal Family, who are said to have ordered him to secrecy. He was admonished to teach only the Royal Family the art, and to keep it secret from the commoners. Yang did not do this, but passed on the art to many students in secrecy.


Yang Lu Chan had two sons - Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou.

Yang Pan Hou was the elder. He had an irritable disposition and did not bear fools lightly. His special skill was his apparent ability to 'stick' to his opponents, making it almost impossible to shake his light but tenacious hold. Pan Hou was a man of such great skill that he eventually taught the imperial Guard.

Yang Chien Hou was the exact opposite of his elder brother. Gentle in nature, he would refuse all challenges to fight, not wishing to cause harm to others for personal gain. But that does not mean he could not fight; his tai chi skill was of the highest order, as was his teaching ability. He was said to be virtually unbeatable in the tai chi sport of free-style pushing hands. Even into old age, young men could not match his immense pushing skill.

In free-style pushing hands, two people vie against each other and attempt to use their skill to either push the other out of the area, or throw them to the ground. One young master at the time reported going to a free-style pushing hands event where the winner of one contest would stay in the area and take on the next. When he arrived an old man with a long, wispy beard was standing in the middle of the area. One young opponent after another was hurled out of the ring with apparent case. On seeing this the young man came to the conclusion that the others were apparently not very good and he would have to show them how it was done. After all, this old man did not look much! Within seconds of stepping into the area, the young man was catapulted out with great force. Much chastened, he paid his respects to the old man he now knew was Yang Chien Hou.

In their youth, Yang Lu Chan was an uncompromising teacher who pushed his two sons hard. Quite often the boys would receive split lips during training. Such were the conditions that Pan Hou ran away; but he was caught and returned home. Chien Hou actually tried to hang himself, but was prevented from doing so by other members of the household. Eventually, Yang Lu Chan relented and slackened his harsh regime.


Yang Shotu Hou was the eldest son of Chien Hou. He was said to have been brilliant in the skills of tai chi. His outstanding ability was the 'small frame' tai chi form of the Yang style. In the small frame form, each of the movements is small and compact compared with the other more expansive versions of the art. One of his famous students was hsing yi master Wang Hsiang Chai.

Yang Cheng Fu followed in his father Chien Hou's footsteps by leading the Yang family. Cheng Fu is famous for his modification of the old Yang form into the most widely practised style of tai chi today, taught in this book. All Yang tai chi forms prior to Yang Cheng Fu are now descrlbed as 'Old'. Cheng Fu removed the explosive strikes and flying kicks, and created the smooth, expansive movements now associated with the Yang style. Yang Cheng Fu was an extremely large man with prodigious strength, and trained six hours a day. Standing six feet (1.8m) tall and weighing 280Ibs (127kg), he was a formidable figure with some of the character traits of his uncle Yang Pan Hou.


Yang Cheng Fu had three sons, two of whom stayed on in China. The eldest son, Yang Shou Chung, took over his father's mantle and moved to Hong Kong where he headed the International Tai Chi Chuan Association. After a long and distinguished career teaching many excellent students and spreading the art beyond the Far East, he died at the age of 93. One of his three leading students was master Chu King Hung. Upon the death of Yang Shou Chung, Chu, along with his two fellow disciples, took up the mantle as leaders of the international Tai Chi Chuan Association.

Prior to training with Yang Shou Chung, Chu King Hung had studied under master Fu Wing Fei of Canton. Fu Wing Fei was not only famous for his skill in tai chi, but also in the internal arts of hsing yi and pa kua. Allied to his tai chi skill, Chu King Hung also studied with hsing yi/pa kua Grand Master Hon Sing Woon and attained great skill in these arts. Chu King Hung eventually moved to the West where, among others, he passed on his knowledge and skills to the author.

During Yang Cheng Fu's extensive teaching tours, he was assisted by his nephew Fu Jong Wen. Fu was Yang Cheng Fu's right-hand man, and very gifted in the art of tai chi. He is currently one of the most respected Yang style tai chi masters in China.


Source: Yang Tai Chi Chuan, by John Hine.