Warring States China Philosophy and the Physiological Turn
China's Warring States period (770-221 BCE) was a tumultuous time, as each regional ruler vied to gain military, economic or intellectual advantage over their adversaries. Many rulers set up think tanks, where intellectuals from across the land could come and challenge each other's views and experiment. The origins of what would eventually become qi gong, traditional chinese medicine, and taiji, can be found in the works of thinkers produced in these think tanks. For instance, Yangzi (350 BCE), was credited with the ''discovery of the body''. His views were largely regarded as weiwo zhuyin - or egoism, since he attributed supreme importance to the preservation of sheng (life). He viewed sheng as being fragile and prone damage, which means it should be nurtured and protected. For these reasons, Yanzi is now referred to as a an individualist primitivist. He proned a healthy diet, physical exercise, the living out of our natural lifespan, and avoiding society to minimize harm to our sheng. Yangzi saw the body as a gift, and as the vessel to keep sheng. It is in his work that we see the first reference to qi (breath or life force), the mention of the role of various organs on the governing of the body, and the role of xin (heart-mind) as the ruler of the remainder of the body. Similarly, Chapter 24 of the Guanzi ( which is a work from the Jixia, the think tank set up under the ruler of the State of Qi in the 4th century BCE) is called Neiye (Inward Training). This text articulates the need for the cultivation of qi through breathing, and the use of the body in order to get around the psychological paradox of wu-wei (trying not to try).
It is believed that the techniques described in these texts laid the foundation for taoist breathing exercises and qi gong. It is my personal belief that these techniques are far older than the Warring States period, but the adversarial and competitive environment of this period allowed for these bodily techniques to become more ''mainstream'' and documented.
Origins of Taiji
The real origins of Taiji are obscure. The more romantic and mystical accounts date back as far as the 15th, 12th or even the 8th century AD. One legendary figure, Zhang Shanfeng, was a famous Taoist priest who allegedly lived in the 15th century AD. He was believed to possess super-human ability and immense internal power. The legend explains how, while walking through the Wu-dang mountains, Zhang Shanfeng was witness to a fight between a crane and a snake. The crane was incessant in it's hard attacks, yet the snake was ever-illusive to the crane's repeated attempts. In this dynamic balance, Zhang Shanfeng saw the foundations of Taiji, where soft and hard, the substantial and the insubstantial, make an inseparable pair. Less romantic but more reliably sourced accounts of Taiji's origins, date back to Chen Wangting, a 16th century Royal Guard of Chen village in Wenxian County, Henan Province. After retiring from the army, he was drawn to the teachings of Taoism, which led him to a simple life of farming, studying and teaching martial arts. Through experimentation, he developed a martial art which was underpinned by the philosophical principles of taoism and the Yi Jing, the medical principles of traditional chinese medicine, and the bodily principles of qi gong and taoist breathing exercises. This was the beginning of Chen style taiji lineage.
The following is taken from the American Chen Taiji Society Website. Chen Wangting (1600-1680), a warrior, a scholar, and a ninth generation ancestor of the Chen family, invented Taiji after a lifetime of researching, developing, and experiencing martial arts. A born warrior and a master of martial arts, Chen Wangting served the Ming Dynasty in its war against the succeeding Qing Dynasty. Because of the political turbulence, natural disasters, and human calamities during his time, Chen Wangting's ambition was not fulfilled. In his old age, Chen Wangting retired from public life and created a martial arts system based on his family martial arts inheritance, his own war experiences, and his knowledge of various contemporary martial arts styles. In his creation of Taijiquan, Chen Wangting combined the study of Yi Jing, (i.e., "Scriptures of Changes"), Chinese medicine, theories of yin yang (i.e., the two opposing yet reciprocal energies generated from Taiji, expressed in taijiquan as the hardness vs. the softness, the substantial vs. the insubstantial, etc.), the five elements (i.e., metal, wood, water, fire, earth), the study and theory of Jingluo (i.e., meridian circulation channels along which the acupressure points are located), and methods of Daoyin (i.e., channeling and leading internal energy) and Tuna (i.e., deep breathing exercises). A poem written by Chen Wangting in his old age evidenced the significance of the Daoist methods of cultivating one's energy and body in Chen Wangting's reclusive life, "...Once bestowed upon with imperial favor and grace but all in vain, I, now old and feeble, was accompanied only by a scroll of 'Huang Ting' (i.e., a Daoist scripture detailing methods of Daoyin and Tuna) by my side...".
Therefore, after other popular theories--some fabricated for political or self-expedient purposes--regarding the origin of Taijiquan, e.g., the Zhang Sanfeng legend, the Wang Zongyue (whose Taijiquan Lun, i.e., Taijiquan Theory, was frequently quoted as one of the classics in the study of Taijiquan)/Jiang Fa theory, etc., have all been refuted and found either unsubstantiated historically or contradictory chronologically with historical facts, scholars had concluded that Chen Wangting was the one who created and developed totally new and different boxing and weapon set movements, postures, and applications in his own martial arts system possibly with the inspiration of the names from Qi's book, which was in turn a digested record of names, forms, and postures from many martial arts schools in Qi's time (Tang, H. & Gu, L., 2004). In this unique and unprecedented martial arts system, Chen Wangting created and invented seven sets of empty-hand forms, a long fist form of one-hundred-and-eight postures, one Paochui (i.e., Canon Fist) set, push-hand techniques for two people, and training methods for spear, saber, sword, truncheon, jian, spear-thrusting for two people, and long-pole (Gu, L., 1983; Chen, Q., 2002).
Chen Changxing (1771-1853), the 14th generation Chen patriarch, was the first to teach Chen Taijiquan to an outsider, Yang Lu-ch'an.
Yang Lu-ch'an (old Yang style)
Yang Lu-ch'an’s family was a poor worker class from Hebei Province, Guangping Prefecture, Yongnian County. Yang would follow his father in planting the fields and, as a teenager, held temporary jobs. One period of temporary work was spent doing odd jobs at the Tai He Tang Chinese pharmacy located in the west part of Yongnian City, opened by Chen De Hu of the Chen Village in Henan Province, Huaiqing Prefecture, Wenxian County. As a child, Yang liked martial arts and studied Changquan, gaining a certain level of skill.
One day Yang reportedly witnessed one of the partners of the pharmacy utilizing a style of martial art that he had never before seen to easily subdue a group of would-be thieves. Because of this, Yang requested to study with the pharmacy's owner, Chen De Hu. Chen referred Yang to the Chen Village to seek out his own teacher—the 14th generation of the Chen Family, Ch'en Changxing.
After mastering the martial art, Yang Lu-ch'an was subsequently given permission by his teacher to go to Beijing and teach his own students, including Wu Yu-hsiang and his brothers, who were officials in the Imperial Qing dynasty bureaucracy. In 1850, Yang was hired by the Imperial family to teach Taijiquan to them and several of their élite Manchu Imperial Guards Brigade units in Beijing's Forbidden City. Among this group was Yang's best known non-family student, Wu Ch'uan-yu. This was the beginning of the spread of Taijiquan from the family art of a small village in central China to an international phenomenon. Due to his influence and the number of teachers he trained, including his own descendants, Yang is directly acknowledged by 4 of the 5 Taijiquan families as having transmitted the art to them.
After emerging from Chenjiagou, Yang became famous for never losing a match and never seriously injuring his opponents. Having refined his martial skill to an extremely high level, Yang Lu-ch'an came to be known as Yang Wudi (楊無敵, Yang the Invincible). In time, many legends sprang up around Yang's martial prowess. One noteworthy episode worth mentioning to illustrate the Yang Wudi character goes as follows.
The House of Prince Duan, one of the royal families in the capital, employed a large number of boxing masters and wrestlers—some of which were anxious to have a trial of strength with Yang Lu-ch'an. Yang typically declined their challenges. One day, a famous boxing master of high prestige insisted on competing with Yang to see who was stronger. The boxer suggested that they sit on two chairs and pit their right fists against each other. Yang Luchan had no choice but to agree. Shortly after the contest began, the boxing master started to sweat all over and his chair creaked as if it were going to fall apart; Yang however looked as composed and serene as ever. Finally rising, Yang gently commented to the onlookers: "The Master's skill is indeed superb, only his chair is not as firmly made as mine." The other master was so moved by Yang's modesty that he never failed to praise his exemplary conduct and unmatched martial skill.
Yang Chengfu was the son the son of Yang Chien-hou and grandson of Yang Lu-chan. He was among the first teachers to offer Taijiquan instruction to the general public at the Beijing Physical Culture Research Institute from 1914 until 1928.
Chengfu is known for having "smoothed" out the somewhat more vigorous training routine he learned from his family as well as emphasising a "large frame" or "Da Jia (大架)" with expansive movements in stepping and using large circular motions with the arms. His smooth, evenly-paced large frame form and its hundreds of offshoots has been the standard for Yang-style t'ai chi ch'uan (and overwhelmingly in the public imagination for T'ai chi ch'uan in general) ever since. His 108 movement form is now considered the standard in terms of Yang style taiji.
24-movement Taiji form
This form was the result of an effort by the Communist Chinese Government Sports Committee, which, in 1956, brought together four t'ai chi teachers - Chu Guiting, Cai Longyun, Fu Zhongwen, and Zhang Yu - to create a simplified form of t'ai chi as exercise for the masses. It is noteworthy to note that Fu Zhongwen was the type of man who was willing to teach t'ai chi to whomever wanted to learn for free; the only benefit to him was the knowledge that people were doing t'ai chi and gaining health from it. Fu Zhongwen is a true legacy in the t'ai chi world who was faced with a difficult choice in 1956. The creators were asked to truncate down the beautiful art they had spent their lives perfecting - the traditional family style t'ai chi forms to a skeleton 24 postures; taking about six minutes to perform and to give the beginner an introduction to the essential elements of t'ai chi ch'uan, yet retain the traditional flavor of traditional longer hand forms (in general, 88-108 postures). Henceforth, this form was avidly promoted by the People's Republic of China for general exercise, and was also taught to internees in Communist "re-education" camps. Due to this official promotion, the 24-form is the t'ai chi-form with the most practitioners in China and the world over (though no surveys have been performed). Many taiji players feel this form is an oversimplification of what taiji has to offer, and a movement is currently led by the World Taiji Boxing Association, to bring back the old taiji along with its original intended purpose: to be the most effective form of self defence available. The creation of the simplified 24-movement taiji form is the single leading cause of the most common misunderstanding about taiji, in that the old taiji has always been an effective form of self-defence. Masters like Fu Zhongwen and Yang Shu-chung (Yang Chengfu's son) were the last chinese men to have this old knowledge available for sharing.
Erle Montaigue and the World Taiji Boxing Association
Erle Montaigue was an Australian man who studied with Yang Shu-chung from 1978 onwards. Erle went on to create the World Taiji Boxing Association in order to keep the martial side of taiji alive. The video on the left shows Erle near the end of his life demonstrating the original Yang Lu-ch'an form. This video illustrates the wonderful paradox of Taiji, in that the more advanced the individual becomes, the more soft and minimalistic the movements become. Many falsely overlook the lethal power of these moves, especially in the explosive Fa Jing movements.
For simpler visual representation of how taiji was passed down to what I am currently learning today, click here.