(A Very Brief) History of Taijiquan

The true origin of Taijiquan has been a subject of debate for quite some time. Two popular narratives dominate both Taijiquan  communities and the general public. One narrative attributes the creation of Taijiquan to Zhang Sanfeng (张三丰), a legendary Taoist priest in Ming Dynasty; this version has been much romanticized and popularized by beloved Chinese martial art novelist Jin Yong and kung fu movies such as Jet Li’s Tai Chi Master (1993). Most contemporary Taijiquan practitioners, however, believe that Taijiquan originated in Chen Village, or Chenjiagou (陈家沟), in Wen County (温县), Henan Province.

Arguably, the most authoritative historical account of the origin of Taijiquan was done by martial art historian Tang Hao (唐豪, 1896-1959) [1]. Based on extensive research of martial arts archives, Tang concluded that Taijiquan was created by Chen Wangting (陈王廷), a ninth-generation descendant of the Chen Family in Chenjiagou [2]. Retired from the army at the demise of Ming Dynasty (1644) which he served to defend against Manchu invaders, Chen Wangting spent much of his old age between farming, reading the Taoist script of internal cultivation, Huang Ting Jing (《黄庭经》), and teaching martial arts to his sons and grandsons. The barehanded forms and weapon forms he thus developed incorporated techniques from different martial art schools documented by the famous Ming Dynasty general Qi Jiguang (戚继光), Taoist breathing techniques “tu na” (吐纳), and the principles of yin-yang and meridian in traditional Chinese medicine. While none of these three components of Taijiquan was new at that time, the way that he combined their principles was a great innovation. Chen Wangting also invented a unique sparring method called “tui shou” (推手), or push-hands. Through mindful practice of contact, connection, following and neutralization with spiral energy, push-hands allows students to apply Taijiquan principles and to practice fighting safely without protective gear.

Much like how “trade secrets” were kept strictly within the family in traditional societies, the Chen family for generations took in very few non-Chen disciples. One such disciple who played a key role in spreading the art of Taijiquan to outside of Chenjiagou is Yang Luchan (杨露禅, 1799-1872), who learned Chen Taijiquan from Chen Changxing (陈长兴, 1771-1851), a 14th-generation descendant. Based on Chen Family Taijiquan, Yang Luchan and his descendants developed their own Yang Family Taijiquan, which has been the most popular style of Taijiquan in China and abroad to this day. Other major styles of Taijiquan such as Wu (吴), Wuu (武)/Hao (郝), Sun (孙), He (和), were all derived from Chen and Yang styles directly or indirectly [3].

Within the Chen Family style, Taijiquan have also undergone modifications and developments. Chen Fake (陈发科, 1887-1957), a 17th-generation lineage holder, and his son Chen Zhaokui (陈照奎, 1928-1981) developed a modified form (“xinjia” or new frame) which is being promoted today by renowned grandmasters such as Chen Xiaowang (陈小旺, 1945-). The closest to the original form of Chen Taiji (now called “Laojia” or Old Frame) was kept and taught by Chen Fake’s nephew Chen Zhaopi (陈照丕, 1893-1972) and one of his close in-door disciples Chen Qingzhou (陈庆州, 1934-2015).

While generations of the Chen Family had been teaching Taijiquan outside of Chen Village, Chen Style Taijiquan did not attract wider attention until early 1980s, when national competitions in Taijiquan, especially push-hands, were instituted and brought on stage many Chen Taiji masters and their notable martial skills. Over the last two decades or so, Chen Style Taijiquan has also been gaining increasing recognition and popularity outside of China. Chen Village has become a mecca for Taiji students from all over the globe.

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Notes:

[1] The following sources informed my account of Taiji history:

  • 顧留馨,《太極拳术》(完整版),上海:上海教育出版社,[1982] 2008.
    GU Liuxin, Taijiquan Art (complete edition), Shanghai: Shanghai Education Publishing House, [1982] 2008.
  • 唐豪、顧留馨,《太極拳研究》(珍贵本),台北:大展出版社有限公司,[1964] 2004.
    TANG Hao and GU Liuxin, Taijiquan Research, Taipei: Dah-jaan Publishing House, [1964] 2004.
  • 严丛军,《太极拳》,浙江人民出版社,2007.
    YAN Congjun, Taijiquan, Zhejiang People’s Publishing House, 2007.
  • 余水清,《中国武术史概要》,湖北科学技术出版社,2006.
    YU Shuiqing, Essentials of Chinese Martial Arts History, Hubei Science and Technology Publishing House, 2006.

[2] The counting of generations in the Chen Family starts from Chen Bu (陈卜), the first Chen to settle in Chenjiagou.

[3] In this video clip from 1984, key lineage holders from these major styles of Taijiquan showcases their respective style.