The foundation concepts of t’ai chi ch’uan, which come from Taoism and Confucianism, go back to the beginning of written history in China. They come from Lao Tzu’s monumental text, Tao Te Ching, from the I Ching and from various other health-promoting and breathing exercise treatises. The actual art can be traced back only 300 to 700 years, however, the founder is said to be Chang San-feng (Zhang Sanfeng), who is thought to have lived from 1279 to 1368, but no one knows if he actually existed. Some experts claim him as just being a myth, while others argue he did exist and there are monuments to him in China.
Many believed Chang San-feng was a Shaolin monk who decided to leave the monastery to become a Taoist hermit. On Wu Tang (Wudang) mountain, he gave up the hard fighting style he had learned and formulated a new art based on softness and yielding. One story tells how he had a vision between a snake and a crane (although some say it was a magpie, an eagle or a hawk). In theory, the crane should have had an easy time killing the snake, but in Chang’s vision, the crane would try to attack the snake’s head, and the snake would evade and hit the crane with it’s tail. When the crane would try for the snake’s tail, the snake would bite the crane.
This resulted in the discovery of the basic t’ai chi concepts of evading, yielding and attacking. Chang assembled a martial art that used softness and internal power to overcome brute force. He is believed to have written: “In every movement, every part of the body must be light and agile and strung together. The postures should be without breaks. Motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed by the fingers. Substantial and insubstantial movements must be clearly differentiated.”
This marked the beginning of t’ai-chi ch’uan, but at that time it was called chang chuan, or long boxing after the endless flow of the Changjiang (Yangtse) River. Later, Chang formulated the 13 postures of t’ai chi. While no one knows what his art looked like then, it is thought that the movements were practiced as individual techniques and/or concepts.
The next major historical figure was Wang Tsung-yueh (Wang Zongyue), who wrote the second t’ai chi classic and first referred to the art as t’ai-chi chuan. He also coined the statement, “a force of 4 ounces deflects 1,000 pounds.” He is thought to have expanded the original 13 postures into a linked choreographed form. Some historians believe Wang actually founded the art, while others dispute his existence as well.
Yang Lu-chan (1799 – 1872) learned the old-frame style from Chen Chang-hsing. Many stories tell how this took place. A popular one holds that Yang wanted to learn the art, but the Chen family would not teach outsiders. So Yang took a job as a servant for the Chen’s and learned t’ai-chi by watching through a crack in the wall.
Afterward, he would practice what he learned when he alone in his room. One day he was discovered and asked to spar with the other students. He easily defeated all of them and was taken under the wing of Chen Chang-hsing, who then taught him the whole old-frame style. Yang is said to have spent the next six years studying under Chen. (Some historians say he studied for 13 years and others 18 years)Yang eventually returned to his hometown of Kuang Ping (also spelled Guang Ping) and taught the old-frame Chen style. He later traveled to Beijing and became a military martial arts teacher for the Manchu government. After he altered the sequence of the movements in his form, it later became known as the Yang style.
Some modern practitioners claim that Yang watered down the art he taught to the Manchus and reserved a different version of it for his townspeople and family. But this may be just a selling point for those who insist they teach the only “authentic” form.
It is important to remember that Yang played a pivotal role in opening the once-closed art to the outside world. Two facts are significant: He learned the old-frame Chen style, and he was never beaten in combat. Even as a beginner, he defeated all of Chen’s students. For those who claim he didn’t learn all the secrets of the Chen family, this action speaks louder than any speculation. Because of his victories in challenge matches, he acquired the nickname “Yang the Invincible”. Nevertheless, he always avoided hurting his opponent in a match. Two of his sons carried on his art and family tradition: Yang Pan-hou (a.k.a. Yang Yu) and Yang Chien-hou (a.k.a. Yang Jian). The senior Yang also taught Wu Yu-hsiang and was friends with Tung Hai-chuan, who was the founder of pa kua chang (bagua zhang) another major “Internal Style” of kung-fu. It would be easy to speculate there was some influence of pa-kua over the Yang’s t’ai-chi ch’uan and Yang’s t’ai-chi ch’uan over Tung’s pa-kua chang.
Yang Cheng-fu (1883-1936) was one of the most important historical figures in modern t’ai chi ch’uan. He taught a “Large Frame” t’ai chi form that used slow, smooth, expansive movements. It was often said that he felt like a steel bar wrapped in cotton. Legend has it he was never defeated in combat. Chang Ching-ling an advanced student of Yang Shao-hou also practiced with him and may have helped develop Yang Cheng-fu’s skill.
Yang taught at the Central Kuo Shu Institute in 1926. When he moved south to Shanghai, he modified the Yang form, taking out the fast kicks and the more strenuous movements. He is also credited with emphasizing the health benefits of the art and popularizing it among the educated class. Yang deserved much of the credit for the current popularity t’ai-chi ch’uan and especially of the Yang style. Some claim he taught one art to the public and another to his closest disciples. Though many experts deny this idea. His form is referred to as “Yang Family Style”, as the “Family” designation is only appropriate for familial relations.
Cheng Man-ch’ing was a well-known student of Yang Cheng-fu who wrote several books, including his famous Cheng’s 13 Chapters on T’ai-Chi Ch’uan. He was famous for his pushing hands and had many students in Taiwan. Some historians have suggested that Cheng also trained with Chang Ching-ling and other students of Yang Shao-hou, but Cheng officially recognized only Yang Cheng-fu as his teacher.
Cheng at first taught the standard form but later shortened it to 37 movements. Cheng, who was well-known for his push hands and softness, also had very good kicking skills. He later moved to New York and started teaching there which lead to popularity of his form.
There are stories which tell how Cheng was knocked unconscious twice while engaging in push hands with Yang Cheng-fu. He is also reported to not have gotten along with Kuo Lien-ying or Hsiung Yang-hou, who did not like his style. But was friends with Tchoung Ta-tchen who practice pushing hands with him. His friend Tchoung Ta-tchen moved to Canada.
Liang Tsung-tsai was his teaching assistant in Taiwan and moved to Boston where he taught his own long form version of Yang style. Liang wrote books on the art including, T’ai Chi Ch’uan for Health and Self-Defense. Several of Liang’s students have published many books on their version of the art. Each teacher of Cheng form went their own way and there are now many versions and modifications of the Cheng Man-ch’ing form.