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A History and Style Guide of Tai Chi Chuan


Tai Chi is considered a soft martial arts style with roots deeply entrenched in Chinese history. In Mandarin, the term tai chi chuan or t’ai chi ch’uan translates to supreme ultimate fist, great extremes boxing, the ultimate, or boundless fist. Perhaps the translation of “supreme ultimate fist” is most in congruence with the philosophy of Tai Chi’s birth, as the Taoist and Confucian ideas regarding the fusion of Ying and Yang into the ultimate appear related.

The History of Tai Chi

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. At that time, the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng (12th century) is legendarily given credit for learning Tao Yin breathing exercises from his Taoist teachers. In addition, legend has it that he learned martial arts from the Buddhist Shaolin monastery. Eventually, Sanfeng brought these teachings together to form tai chi, including the original 13 movements.

A man by the name of Wang Zongyue was reported to be one of Sanfeng’s students, though this also cannot be completely confirmed. It is also believed by some that he learned an early form of the art in the Jing-Tai Taoist Temple at Bao-ji County and that he wrote The T’ai Chi Treatise, a book that spoke of tai chi proverbs and more.

Also important is the possibility that Zongyue had two students with major influences on the art in Chen Zhou Tong and Jiang Fa.

What we do know for sure is that the Chen style of tai chi was the first of the major styles. Chen Wangting, a 9th generation Chen, is given credit for its beginnings. From there, many different branches of tai chi began to form, and this growth continues even today.

Characteristics of Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a soft martial arts style, meaning that it focuses more on internal power. Along with this, it is forms based in that most of the martial arts movements are learned and practiced individually by practitioners in kata forms. Though many of these forms are slow moving, others are executed at a quickened pace.

Tai Chi is an art that stresses leverage and a lack of muscular tension, unlike some of the hard martial arts styles. It teaches practitioners to use an attackers’ aggression and force against them, rather than meeting it head on. Proper breathing is also a major piece to the training. Chinese medicine is sometimes taught to students. Sparring isn’t usually a large piece of learning the art, but it is sometimes conducted via a practice known as pushing hands.

Basic Goals of Tai Chi

The goals of tai chi are often tied to health and meditation. Its teachings help to deal with stress more effectively and how to calm the body and mind when stressed. In addition, the physical movements can be used to defend oneself in combat and are designed not to meet force with force, as it is believed that injury will occur from this. Rather, training involves deflecting or redirecting the intentions of the attacker.

Substyles of Tai Chi

The Chen style of tai chi is the oldest. Next came the Yang style, founded by Yang Lu-ch’an. Today, styles continue to form on a regular basis. Below are some of the more recognizable and historic.

  • Chen style
  • Yang style
  • Wu or Wu/Hao style of Wu yu-hsiang
  • Wu style of Wu Ch’uan-yu and Chien–ch’uan
  • Sun style
  • Zhaobao Tai Chi

Three Well Known Tai Chi Movies

  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: This Academy Award winning and theatrical film truly struck a nerve with the American public around the turn of the century. It starred Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Chang Chen, Zhang Ziyi, and Cheng Pei-Pei.
  • Pushing Hands: Another movie directed by Ang Lee. The title says it all.
  • Tai Chi Master: Starring Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li, this is a tai chi related movie with some star power for sure.
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