Why Rewiring your Brain is Necessary for Tai Chi Chuan

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I like this idiom, or saying, “rewiring the brain.” Ok, I know, in a strict physiopsychological meaning, we are rewiring our brains all of the time. I do it now when I am writing this, you do it now when you are reading this.

From an article in Psychology Today:

“What does it mean to rewire your brain? In one sense, it’s trivial: it means that connections between neurons in your brain are changing. Everything we learn is stored in the brain, and the brain can’t store information if it doesn’t physically change in some (usually routine) way. In this sense, your brain is constantly being rewired, even right now.”

But I like this quote better from Quora, it’s more about what we are dealing with here:

“What this means is that the ultimate criterion for significant ‘rewiring’ is success in achieving the desired behavioral, cognitive or emotional goal.
….
How long this takes really depends on the field, in addition to your own motivation, skill set, training time, and so on. But in general becoming an expert requires years.”

So in general, you rewire your brain constantly. But you need to rewire your brain a lot to become an expert on something. When it comes to something more difficult, many years.

But wait a minute, how come people have such a hard time to get what Tai Chi is all about? Now I am not talking about becoming an expert, but juts to get a general understanding about the art. You don’t need to become an expert to understand how Tai Chi Chuan works, but still it seems like it takes five, ten or fifteen years for many people to even reach a basic understanding of how Tai Chi works.

And even if they understand what Tai Chi is and how it works, they still struggle to make it work. Is Tai Chi Chuan really that difficult?

I read what people write as comments after they have watched videos. In videos, I see how practitioners participate on seminars and summer camps and how they react on the demonstrations. Practitioners still act, behave and seem to think like beginners. Have they really not rewired their brains? Not even a little? How come so many students stay, as one of my teachers expressed it, as perpetual beginners?

In an earlier post I write about learning by doing. But just doing seems to be not enough. I believe that you need to be actually aware about that you need to rewire your brain to be able to do it. You need to take responsibility for your own progress and actively want to change yourself, want to change your thinking, want to change how you experience yourself and the world around you.

This “want” is in my own experience a very important key. You cannot change yourself if you don’t want to. And if you don’t want to practice on how change yourself, and learn how to get better to change yourself, you just won’t progress.

So if this is true, where should you start? One way to start to gain a better understanding, I believe, is to study to be critical about what you learn, search and research. First you need to have a very clear picture about what you want to achieve. Then, when you take responsibility for what you want to achieve, you will have a direction to walk and a goal to aim at.

The second part is about how to practice. One clue I believe is in what the classics and what Tai Chi teachers speak about all of the time, but something few really understand what it means. I am thinking about “xin” or “Mind” in Tai Chi, about practicing by using “Xin”.

As I wrote in the linked post above, the character “Xin”, or 心, means “heart”. Xin often translates into “heart-mind”. It’s often characterised as the motional mind. What “use mind” to practice Tai Chi means that you need to practice with awareness and focus. You cannot practice Tai chi as routine, only going through movements every day as a routine. Your mind and heart must be there, you need to practice with all of you, including yourself, your own “I”, being constantly aware about what you do. And this is just as important when you practice push hands, applications or study the weapons.

You need to practice with all of you and not only your body. You need to practice with your awareness, thinking, thoughts, emotional focus, with everything of you. And at the same time, you need to keep your goal and direction of your practice alive and fresh in your mind as an idea of your purpose with your Tai Chi and what you want to achieve.

Passion is another good word. You need to have passion about your art, your practice, and practice with passion. If you practiced half-committed with your mind wandering and don’t care about your practice, you just won’t get any big rewards or benefits from your practice. If you don’t want to practice your art and experience what you do with the whole of your own being, maybe Tai Chi Chuan is not for you. Maybe you would be happier if you found something else, something you love. Again, if you don’t love your arts and practice your art with passion, you won’t achieve very much.

Tai Chi is a very complicated art, especially if we speak about rewiring the brain. You need to use your whole body and your whole mind to practice. It’s not like learning how to eat with chopsticks, you don’t need to do big changes in the nervous patterns in your brain to achieve this little skill. Even if you compare Tai Chi with a more complex hobby than playing the piano or learning how to ride a unicycle, tai chi is much more complex. Tai Chi is about whole body balance, about integrating breath and mind in physical movement. Unifying everything together, both in movement and in stillness.

The Symbolism of Water in Daoism and Tai Chi Chuan

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I know about no other symbol, and metaphor, than Water that is more important for Tai Chi Chuan. Well, maybe the Tai Chi diagram itself is more important as a symbol, but the metaphor of water was there even before the art was known by the name of Tai Chi Chuan.

Water seems to be the ideal in Tai Chi Chuan as a martial art. When an opponent attacks, the Tai Chi practitioner respond with softness. The strength of the assailant is not met with strength and he should find nothing to attach his own strength on.

Tai Chi – Long River Boxing

In the old Tai Chi classics, the so called Taijiquan Jing, the name of this art is not Tai Chi Chuan, but instead it’s Chang Chuan (or Changquan with Pinyin). People mistake the meaning of this name for Longfist. The character Chang, 长 (長 traditional) means “long” and you can find the same character for instance in the name of the Great Wall, Changcheng, 长城. Many people use to explain the name “Chang Chuan” by referring to the big, “long”, stretched out movements of the common Large Frame Tai Chi practice. They do this probably just because they don’t recognise any other type of “frame”.

But the meaning of the name Chang Chuan is actually not longfist. Instead it should be translated as Pugilism, or Boxing, of the Yangtse River. Our common name of the river, Yangtze, is actually only of the beginning of the river by the shore, or the estuary, Yangzijiang in Chinese. The actual Chinese name of the river is Changjiang (, or Chiang Kiang with an older common type of romanisation).

In the Tai Chi Classics you can read: 長拳者,如長江大海滔滔不絕也 or “Changquan is like The Yangtze river and the Great ocean, moving unceasingly.”. Mostly this passage is translated to: “Changquan (or Chang Chuan) is like a long river…” Despite the name of the river, 長江 or Changjiang, is there in front of their eyes, translators continue to not see it. You can look at the most “masters” books, homepages or blogs. Not even people who brand themselves as scholars get this! (look at what Yang Jing-Ming writes for example.) Most of the people writing about these things probably just repeat what other people already have said without doing much thinking for themselves.

Cotton means continuous

An even older name, probably what Yang Luchan used, was Mian Chuan (Mianquan), or “cotton boxing”. But a meaning of the character “mian”, is “continuous”, because when you have a big lump of cotton, it’s just a big lump sticking together. When you pull it, it continue to stick together, so you can’t see the beginning or end of the individual cotton parts. So the meaning of this name, Mian Chuan, bears a similar meaning as in the name Long River Boxing. When we practice our forms, we practice one long continuous movement without interruption, without breaks or visible seams.

A deeper meaning of Water (no pun intended)

So why water, why is it important to be like and act like water? Well, water has great importance for Daoism. If the idea in Tai Chi comes directly from Daoism or as an influence maybe via Neo-Confucianism I have no idea about. But I would presume that the person or the people who laid the theoretical foundation of Tai Chi should have  some knowledge about Daoism and maybe was a practitioner of Daoist exercises.

People who have not studied these things might not realise how strong the idea of water is in traditional Chinese thought, and in Daoism in particular. There’s a passage in the Daodejing that reads:

Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water.
Yet, to attack the hard and strong,

Nothing surpasses it.
Nothing can take its place.

The weak overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.

Everybody in the world knows this,
Still nobody makes use of it.

Well, on one point there was something that Laozi didn’t foresee, and that was Tai Chi Chuan. We do make use of this metaphor in practical practice and in application. At least we try to, and we practice on how to do it. One of the very goals in Tai Chi Chuan is to be able to act just like water.

Some people say that this search, “become like water”, is a metaphor for the search of the Dao itself, to achieve the ultimate goal of Daoism. Now we are starting to go down into some really troublesomely deep water. But it’s not as far-fetched as one might believe. Continue to follow me and I will explain why.

The even deeper Pool of

Another passage in the Daodejing reads:

道沖而用之有弗盈也,淵呵似萬物之宗,湛呵似或存

“Dao being empty, the use of it cannot be filled up.
So deep, it seems the predecessor of everything that is happening.
So deep, it only seems to persist.

(transl. by Lu Yanying)

Take a look at the character 淵, deep. The translator of the passage above writes:

The character 淵 yuan “deep”, according to the oldest Chinese character dictionary, 說文解字 Shuo wen jie zi, is formed pictographically. This character is pictographic because of the component on the right, which is com- prised of an image of water with two shores on each side. When used as an adjective, it describes the depth of a pool of water. Alternatively, it can be used as a noun to signify a pool of water characterized by its depth.

it can be said that dao [why not D capitalised?] can also be metaphorically conceptualized as 淵 yuan “deep pool”. 淵 yuan “deep pool”, which can be image-schematically conceived as a container with a structure characterized by its vacant middle part that can hold water.

We could say that “the container”, or the emptiness of the deep well or the pool, is the Dao. The author of the essay above acknowledges that water is a metaphor of the , the creative power of the Dao. But still, she misses one important, vital clue.

Taiyi Gives Birth to Water

So what did she miss? The clue is not in the Daodejing itself, but in a text that was discovered together with the Guodian manuscripts of the Daodejing written on bamboo slits in 1993. This text is called “Taiyi Sheng Shui“, or “Taiyi Gives Birth to Water”.

Taiyi is translated as the “Great One”. In Chinese cosmology, especially in interpretations of the Yijing, The Taiyi is represented by one single solid line or as a round circle. This original unity is then divided into one broken and one unbroken line, representing Yin and Yang.

However, in the Taiyi Sheng Shui, Taiyi is identical in meaning to the Dao, and the Water is the metaphor of, or the same meaning as, the De or the active, creative power of the Dao. The first lines read:

The Taiyi gives Birth to Water.
Water returns and assists Taiyi to give birth to the Heaven.
Water returns together with Heaven and assists Taiyi to give birth to the Earth.

This is a creation story of the Universe. But the meaning is still deeper. You see, Taiyi was originally a name for the highest god in old Chinese mythology, the North Star. Many texts Han dynasty, texts states this directly and indirectly, but as found in the Weishu jicheng (纬书集成 ), this as explicitly stated:

“The ‘Great One’ is the name of the deity of the North Star.”

So the Taiyi Sheng Shui could be said to be a philosophical interpretation of a Taoist creation myth. Jia Jianhua, one of the authors who has written about this topic meant that originally, even the Dao was also a another name, or a symbol for, the North Star. These texts, the Daodejing and Taiyi Sheng Shui, represents a new area where the personification of the gods and deities is taken away and the meaning of the texts are most philosophical. So in a sense, the common position that the philosophical Daoism was first and the religious came later is wrong. The philosophical school of Daoism was based on old folk religion.

Man – a small Heaven

The Chinese looked on the Human as a Universe in small scale. The Daoists who created the theory around Neidan and the exercises used the way people described the Universe to describe human body and psychophysical conditions that was important for Neidan practice. They surely understood all of the old symbolism and metaphors and used these for their thoughts and writings.

Water was taken from the picture of the creative, active force of the Dao or Taiyi. In our own bodies, the Daoist scholars of old thought that we had this potential to make use of the Water in ourselves. Water became synonymous to Essence or Jing. The three Dantian places resembled a stove. The idea was to use the mind to let the heart flame sink down below the water of the lower dantian to produce steam, which is the Qi. When essence is brought up to the middle dantian it returns again to the lower dantian. (If you want to read more about Neidan, please have a look at this article about the Three Gates.)

There’s a continuous circulation, exchange and assisting of the Qi and Jing through the three Dantians to further refine the essence. The text of the Taiyi Sheng Shui comes to my mind when I read the old Neidan classics. It’s the same idea as the continuous movement of the water. From both of these Daoist deep pools of ideas I get the picture of waves rocking back and forth, going away and returning back to hit the shore.

The movements in Taijiquan and the exercises and meditation of Neidan, the external movement becomes a mirror of the internal world. External and internal, both harmonising each other through the idea of the water, the long river and the great ocean, moving unceasingly.

Daoist Origins of Tai Chi Chuan and Internal Martial Arts

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In this text I am going to discuss possible Daoist Origins of, or Daoist influence in, Taijiquan (T’ai Chi Ch’uan). First of all, let  me say that I don’t regard Taijiquan as specifically Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian or anything else specific. But rather there are good reasons to suggest that all of these, together with other traditions of thought, have helped shaping one or several similar traditions or forerunners to the modern art of Taijiquan. How much older traditions have been preserved in the modern arts, is only that something we could write volumes about. But here, let us look back in history and see how thing actually looked back then. This is not really an attempt to explain how Taijiquan developed, but more about an attempt to explore how the Daoism actually has looked in the time people believe that Taijiquan developed.

Daoism is not only a philosophy of thought or different religious movements, but also different types of exercises. Throughout the history, these exercises have been taught and promoted outside of the Daoist thought systems to the entire Chinese society. Therefore, it is most reasonable to suggest that Daoism might have influenced martial arts of certain times.

Tang Hao’s ideas vs Bodidharma and Damo

Tang Hao, the historian who “discovered” Chen Wangting as the inventor of Taijiquan might actually have been mistaken on his claims and created a modern myth. If Chen Wangting really created Taijiquan or not is not the topic of this text.  (Though you can read about this topic here) But I still wanted to mention Tang Hao, because he did hit the nail on the head when he said something very good. I must admit that I don’t know exactly what he said, or how it is sounded in Chinese, but he said something like this: “there is no necessity or reason for either the legend of Bodhidharma or Zhang Sanfeng”. Why? He meant that Chinese martial arts were already well developed when they lived. I do agree. The myths of these people can only be viewed as symbols. Bodhidharma is regarded as the father or he “hard” Shaolin tradition or “Wai” on one side. And Zhang Sanfeng as the father of the “Internal” or “soft” tradition of martial arts on the other side. There were complete martial arts system in China even before Bodhidharma went to Shaolin, so he had no impact on Chinese martial arts, regardless what some people claim. So where did these myths start? And why? And were there ever a real Daoist named Zhang Sanfeng.

I can tell you this about Bodhidharma: The Japanese writers, and their martial arts “historians” in particular, love Bodhidharma. They promote him because they can call him the father of Karate instead of some random ordinary Chinese guy. Japanese don’t like China and Chinese very much in general. An indian Buddhist patriarch is in their eyes a much better symbol for Karate. So this idea is what the Japanese have promoted for already about a century. But the fact is, as Tang Hao stated very well, Chinese martial arts were already well developed at his time. In all of the known Buddhist texts he is only mentioned as someone who kept sitting staring at a wall all the day long.

So was there ever a Daoist called San Zhangfeng? Yes, there was. On several accounts his name has either been written with wrong characters or his date of birth completely misunderstood. This has led people to believe that he either lived several hundred years or that there were three famous Daoists with the same name and equal attributes. The first is not likely and the second option is a bit too coincidental to be true. But in fact, we do have some very reliable sources. Foremost there are two different entries in the official Ming documents written independently by two different people. These are written not as historical recollections, but as immediate notes on events that occurred at court.

Personally I don’t believe that Zhang Sanfeng invented Taijiquan, but he could still have something to do with martial arts, or have studied martial arts, maybe even a forerunner to Taijiquan. At this time, when he actually lived, Daoist exercises were very popular amongst ordinary people. A few hundred years earlier, Daoists went around the country, teaching and promoting their exercises to the upper class. As Zhang Sanfeng was invited to the imperial court it is certainly not unreasonable to play with the thought that he could have tried to promote some kind of Daoist physical practice. Nothing specific about this is mentioned in any historical records. However, there are several occasions in classical historical records where he is attributed to teaching martial arts. A good place to find sources for both the mentioning in the Ming Dynasty documents and where you can find other sources mention Zhang Sanfeng and martial arts is this classical article found in this link: “The origin of T’ai-Chi Ch’uan“.

But does Daoism have anything to do with martial arts?

In fact we know that there were Daoists practicing martial arts many centuries ago. Already about one thousand years earlier than the real Zhang Sanfeng lived, a Daoist philosopher with the name of Ge Hong (283-363) wrote:

“All the martial arts have secret formulas to describe important techniques and have secret mysterious methods to overcome an opponent. If an opponent is kept unaware of these, then one could defeat him at will.”

Compare this with the saying in Yang Style Tai Chi “something from nothing. Nothing from something” or the idea that you are supposed to hide intent and mechanics, that the opponent should not know or suspect anything. Li Yaxuan, senior student of Yang Cheng Fu, wrote about something similar to Ge Hong:

“Taijiquan is a skill with shape and without shape. Although it has shape when an opponent attacks you, your whole body must be very reserved and display nearly nothing in there. This will make the opponent catch an empty shadow so to speak and, thus, not harm you. If the enemy thinks you are empty and, on the other hand, if you show your emptiness but can suddenly attack like thunder, thunder so quick and strong that people must duck and cover their ears, so as to make them totally scared, scared for their life, then this is enticing into emptiness. Taijiquan is a skill based on unpredictable opportunity. If the other thinks you cannot attack, you should just move your mind suddenly to attack. If others think you will come then you should transform as if you have nothing to attack. This is the so-called ‘being suddenly visible; suddenly invisible’.”

So can it be that some thoughts or ideas have survived in the martial arts for almost 2000 years? I don’t know about that. And in fact, I know no body who dates the origin to Taijiquan that far back in time. However, I know that some people believe that the origin of Taijiquan is as old as from the 500s AD. Why? There are in fact some good reasons for this specific time, the 500s AD, as we can trace Tai Chi similar postures to early Daoist exercises as Neidan and Daoyin from this time. The concept of “Hanxiong Babei“, (“Raise back, pluck chest”) can also be found in very early manuals of Daoist Neidan. So does this mean that Taijiquan developed gradually already from this early time? Personally I don’t know, though I find a logic in these thoughts. I know something about how Daoist and Buddhist exercises looked through history and how they were practiced.

Even if there are reasons to believe that the origin of Taijiquan was at least partly Daoist, it would be good to mention that the relationship between Daoism, Buddhism and other schools of thought is not something simple. Instead how Daoism and Buddhism developed exercises interacted, as well as affected or inspired different types of exercises, is a very complex matter.

I don’t think I could describe the relationship between Daoism and Buddhism better than what Friederike Assandri does in his article “Examples of Buddho–Daoist interaction: concepts of the afterlife in early medieval epigraphic sources“:

“In terms of concepts, Buddhism as well as Daoism were dynamically evolving sets of ideas in a big pool of other sets of ideas. Mixing, co-option, etc., occurred on all levels; yet, mixing or not, Buddhism and Daoism existed as two different entities. And it was in early medieval China that Daoism and Buddhism began to compete as such different entities. Understanding the processes, mechanisms and criteria of these contemporaneous trends of mixing and differentiating, poses one of our challenges […] The difficulties are amplified by the fact that the process did not occur in an intellectual or religious vacuum; it occurred in the context of a backdrop of firmly established traditions, beliefs and concepts, which were based on what has been called ‘classical religion’.”

As the author implies, it would be very hard to really differentiate the teachings in the earlier times of Taoist and Buddhist thought in China. The two different teachings, though acting individually as “two different entities”, continued to mix up and, inspire and affect each others thoughts and practice until today.

You need to realise that Chinese martial arts were born in a time where this “big pool of mixed ideas” already existed. Chinese martial arts began before the Shaolin temple and Bodhidharma. The Martial Arts didn’t belong to any of this or that teaching, neither Daoism or Buddhism or anything else. All of the roots of the modern Chinese martial arts, Wai and Nei, North and Southern styles, existed together at the same time. In the early times, they were neither distinctly “external”, or Waijiaquan, as some modern Changquan styles or other distinctly “internal” as some “internal arts” today. And neither was Neijiaquan later developed as a progress from older arts into something new. I would rather suggest that the very most of what you see today could already be found mixed together in that big pool of mixed ideas.

There were probably no differentiation between internal vs external, Buddhism vs Daoism in martial arts, until quite late. Maybe first in the 17th century. I would also suspect that Taijiquan did not develop as a “village style”. It was originally not like wrestling or in any way similar to arts that were taught publicly. We know that no one taught Taijiquan publicly before 1914, so we need to assume that at least most practice occurred behind closed doors.

So where does Zhang Sanfeng come into the picture?

But what does it mean that it was an art taught in closed quarters? There’s a logic to the name “Neijiaquan”, or the “Internal Arts Family of Pugilism”. The dichotomy of “Nei/Wai” inside/outside was used for inside the homes, closed quarters and inside or outside the court. This might be the very reason why the “Biography of Wang Zhengnan” puts Zhang Sanfeng in Song dynasty, a few hundred years before he actually lived. In the Song dynasty, Daoist exercises had a high position and were well respected in the courts and upper class. In this time, there were Daoists who spread their teachings to the upper class and the literati by introducing physical exercises.

But after emperor Shizong (1123 – 1189), the status of Daoism declined and the Daoists were not very much welcome in the courts. But instead, Daoists taught their exercises to common people. Society went through secularisation, religon interfered less with politics and Daoism developed at least partly more into sects. For this reason, there’s a logic behind putting the origin of Taijiquan in the Song Dynasty rather than two hundred years later. If the earliest form of Taijiquan or Neijiaquan really had a Taoist origin, but developed later than Song, it would more likely have been developed as a “Village style”. It would have been practiced by the people and in the early 1900s, it would have been well known. We would have knew about more lineages and more would have been written about it. However, if it was develop in the Song dynasty or earlier, the art would likely have stayed in the upper class and only practiced inside of closed quarters. The hierarchy in China is till very strict, but much more so in earlier days. People did not socialise between classes.

So, if this is the case and Daoists were not welcome in court in the time of Zhang Sanfeng, how then could he visit the court? He probably wasn’t welcome. The official Ming texts don’t give a very positive review on him as a person. He is disrespectfully mentioned as “dirty Zhang”, and someone who didn’t change cloth and never washed himself. We also know that Zhang became a semi-mythical person who figured in operas and fiction stories. All this say to us that he reached some fame amongst the common people. So it was probably there, in public amongst common people, he occurred mostly.

Personally, I would suggest that a forerunner to Taijiquan should have been developed into a complete art earlier than what most modern historians claim. I would like to say early song dynasty. This is something that I can not prove, but looking into the History of China and the relationships between the court, politics, Daoism and the people, I find this more logical. At least if we are going to believe a specific Daoist origin of the art. This time is also a very vital time when it comes to the development of Neidan systems as well as military arts. If you want to read about more recent history, please take a look at this post.

Tai Chi Origins – Youtube Video Series

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Here is a recently published and very interesting video series from the Youtube Channel TriEssence Martial Arts on four parts so far. Some of what he speaks about are things I discussed in my last post, but he addresses those things from another angle. His  knowledge is very good and he knows many details. There are some things I don’t agree with and some minor mistakes of facts. But I won’t comment on what I don’t agree with so you can look at it without me interfering. I will only mention one thing: The name on the person standing in the picture behind Chen Wangting mentioned is not Jiang Fa as he says here, but Jiang Pu. So this is another person and not the semi-mythical Jiang Fa.

In general, this video series will give you a very good outline of what is publicly available on the history on Tai Chi, facts and fiction.  If you are interested in Tai Chi history, it’s very well worth a couple of hours of your time, so I highly recommend that you take time and watch it.

 

 

 

 

What Tai Chi Chuan Was Lost in Translation? – Old Yang Style, History & Myths

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Was Taijiquan (/ Tai Chi Chuan ) lost in Translation? Lost in translation from being translated from style to style, from generation to generation? What Tai Chi was lost, or how much has been lost? It’s still there, at least there is something called Tai Chi Chuan, so the question is not if the art has been lost, but how much.

Oh, and by the way, this is my own take on the history of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Before you start reading this, I might as well say this,  that I don’t agree with the origin of Tai Chi as proposed by the Chen Clan and most of Tai chi people today. But even if you are a big Chen style fan, I would suspect that you could find this interesting.

So how do we know something has been lost? Maybe it’s better to begin discussing what we actually know and what we can agree about. The public history that most of us can agree with starts with Yang Luchan (1799–1872). This is not where Taijiquan history starts, but here is where the time in the history starts where most people can agree with the most basic facts. What we know is that Yang Luchan studied something in the Chen village, Chen Jiagou, and that his teacher was Chen Changxing (1771–1853). We can agree about this as Yang’s sons and family recognises this. This is also what his students or at least their students have written about. His grandson, Yang Chengfu (1883–1936), was the first person who taught Taijiquan publicly. But actually what did Yang Luchan study in the Chen village? And what was it like, what type of modern Taijiquan did it resemble the most?

We know a little about this. But we also know that before 1914, Taijiquan was only taught secretly in private or in small groups only. Yang Chengfu changed this by teaching Taijiquan to everyone, often in very large groups. We also know that Yang Luchan was already an accomplished martial artist when he came to the Chen village. It was his interest in martial arts that brought him there.

The usual story says that Yang worked as Chen Changxing’s servant for many years. Others say that he didn’t live there for long, but travelled back and forth. One story says that he had to beg for a month before his teacher accepted him as a student. But the most popular story says that he spied on his teacher in the night. This legend was first written down in a fiction novel. I have a bit hard to believe that this story has any truth to it. A spying servant would surely have received a good beating back then, and after that been thrown out as well. But it might have been something like the opposite to this story. Maybe it was Chen Changxin who spotted Yang training his Shaolin. Yang was big and Chen had two sons, so maybe Chen saw him and thought that he was good for his sons to practice with and test their stuff on? This would be more logical, a reason why Yang was able to study with Chen. But this is just my own speculations as I am trying to find any logic to the reason why a Chen would teach a Yang from outside. Maybe Yang really have to beg a lot. But Chen Changxin had a few other students. Some people say that he didn’t want his art to die out, so he might have picked Yang by himself to carry on the torch.

But what exactly was the art that Chen Changxin taught Yang Luchan? Was it Chen Boxing or Chen style Tai Chi Chuan? It should be good to know that the Chen Village lies just a few days walk from the Shaolin Temple area. Many people believe that many different arts and things were studied in Chen village as it lies so close to the real melting pot of Shaolin arts, the Shaolin Temple itself. Also, the Chen family studied more than just one art. There are many things that point to this, not only what is written, but the fact that Chen Pao Chui was derived straight from the art of Tongbei and that there is other evident influences from different martial arts styles in Chen Taijiquan as Xingyi theory in early Chen style books. The Chen clan might have had one a family art, something that was named Chen Fist, or Chen Quan, but was this really the art that Yang Luchan learned?

Ma Yue Liang might give us a clue. This is what he said in an interview that Patrick Kelly made:

 ” “Before Yang Cheng-Fu and Wu Jianquan”, he [Ma] stated clearly, “the slow form did not exist. Yang Lu-Chan learnt the Fast Form from the Chen family and it was passed through Yang Cheng-Fu’s father and uncle to Yang Cheng-Fu. It was passed through Wu Jianquan’s father to Wu Jianquan. This is not the same as the present Chen Style form which is a mixture of Taiji and Chen family style Gongfu. Together Yang Cheng-Fu and Wu Jianquan created each their own Slow Form from their understanding of the Taiji principles.”

If we believe this, which is also similar to what others have stated, we know that Yang Luchan probably didn’t teach anything deliberately slow. But there is also slow form practice in different Shaolin arts, so it might still have been one way to practice Taijiquan.  But most of all, Ma has an interesting way of describing Chen Style. According to him, Taijiquan did not originate in the Chen village. What Yang Luchan studied might have been called Changquan or Mianquan, as this is a couple of names that Taijiquan had in the older days. But if this art was brought from outside, and according to Ma, Yang Luchan might have been taught the original Taijiquan. And then maybe much later, after the art was already gone from the Chen Village it should have been mixed with another art called Chen Boxing which was not Taijiquan. There are reasons to believe that Yang Luchan’s style didn’t look like modern Chen style as Yang and other Tai Chi styles are missing some important features of modern Chen.

But wait, wasn’t it Chen Wangting (1580–1660)  who invented Taijiquan? I would presume not. I was leaning more towards this version of history before I dugged deeper into it. There are no real proofs that Wangting, a local military officer (he was not a general as many believes), had anything to do with Taijiquan. This is more likely something historian Tang Hao made up with very little evidence. Some documents turned up later about Chen Wangting, as a stele rubbing (the original stones were conveniently lost) but all of those have clearly been proved as forgery by modern historians.

Tang Hao based his idea solely on maybe the only thing that points to that Wangting created any martial art. But this was only written as a side note, like an appendix, in the Chen Family Manual (Chen Si Jia Pu), that Chen Wangting created something called Chen Quan, or Chen Boxing. This note was added much late by Small Frame practitioner Chen Xin (1849 -1929) who wrote the very first but posthumously published book about Chen Style Taijiquan. But the thing is that Chen Xin actually never thought that Chen Wangting should have created Taijiquan. Instead, he believed that a person named Chen Pu should be regarded as the first Chen family member who learned and taught Taijiquan. So what Chen Xin meant by Chen Quan, or Chen boxing, was not Taijiquan. It was something else.

The names and stances characterised in Chen Taijiquan, those postures that are different from the other Tai Chi styles, can be found in Qi Jiguang’s (1528-1587) book Ji Xiao Xin Shu What Qi did in his book was more or less repeating the stances from the art of Song TaiZu Changquan. So what was originally called Chen Fist might have been a variation of Shaolin Song Tai Zhu Changquan.

What is most peculiar with the Wangting story as the originator of Taijiquan is that no one before the first half of the 20th century has ever claimed, not even Chen stylists, that Taijiquan originated in Chen village. There is no mention of this in older Taiji books. Instead it’s either said that the creator is unknown or that it was possibly the semi-legendary Daoist Zhang Sanfeng who invented it. As we can read about many historical names and details of people, from history that has been verbally transmitted, it’s a bit peculiar to say the least, that no where there is something about Chen Wangting mentioned. You should also understand that China has a great tradition of celebrating and worshipping their ancestors and do remember them. When there is such a great tradition of verbal transmission, how on earth could Chen Wangting as the inventor of Taijiquan be suddenly forgot? I believe that this would be very hard for most Chinese historians to accept.

If Taijiquan originated outside of the Chen village, this might explain why most of the other Taijiquan branches looks more similar to Yang Style than compared to Chen style. Probably, it was not Yang Luchan that took away Chen style movements. Rather these movements were added recently by blending and mixing together Taijiquan with Chen Quan, or Chen Boxing. That Taijiquan was mixed with a variation of a long fist system, an external art, would also explain Chen style’s more external approach and expression, and its clear, evident body mechanics.

Other things that lead us to believe that Taijiquan did not originate in the Chen Village is that there are Shaolin arts that are much older than the 16 and 17th century where many of the movements and postures from Yang Style Taijiquan are included, and are practiced, in a similar way to Taijiquan and other modern Internal Martial arts. The lesser known internal art of Liuhe Bafa is derived more or less directly from one of these older Shaolin traditions. This is only one of several of those traditions, that bears very little resemblance with the expression of younger Shaolin Long Fist schools, yet today more frequently associated with Shaolin. And of course, there are other Internal arts that are older than Taijiquan but share many traits.

There are also other lineages of Taijiquan that claim their history to another source that can not be traced to the Chen village. Today, most of those claims and their schools can be easily dismissed. But there are a few historical people that leaves us with a question mark. One of those is Song Shuming who lived in the same time as Yang Chengfu and Wu Jianquan. He didn’t trace his lineage from neither Yang Luchan or Chen Village but through another lineage back to Zhang Sanfeng. His claims and his lineage were completely accepted by the Taijiquan community back in those days. We don’t know much about his background, though Wu Tunan and others wrote things about him that are probably not true. However, if we accept this history, that Song Shuming had another lineage, we might also have to accept that Taijiquan did in fact not originate in the Chen village and that the art that was Yang Luchan studied in the village was brought in from outside. We obviously still don’t need to believe in Zhang Sanfeng, but maybe we need to agree with that the originator of the art is unknown.

Taijiquan might have other lineages and branches yet to be discovered. All of this what I wrote here so far might sound strange and different from what you have heard or read about before. I am trying to look at history from different perspectives. Something though that I believe to be important to have in mind is that all of the public history of Martial Arts, all of those versions easily found in different books, is all written down by public people. All of those versions are very narrowly simplified versions of history to suit the people teaching things today. There are many things left out and maybe there are many people that should deserve to be mentioned.

What you read about and what you know about practitioners and teachers might only have to do with the tip of an iceberg. You need to know that in the old China, family martal arts were traditionally kept “indoors”, mostly within families and maybe close friends. There was also a very strict hierarchy so no one would ever teach someone who was regarded as lower than themselves. If not Yang Luchan’s teacher Chen Changxin broke this very strict social rule, none of Taijiquan might have been heard about today.

So how the old Yang Style would have looked like is hard to tell as what he taught was strictly guarded back then. We don’t know exactly how either how the old Chen style or the old Yang style looks like. But then, what about Yang Lu Chan’s students and the sub-styles, the two different “wu” styles for instance? How close are those to the original Old Yang style of Yang Luchan?

Wu Yuxiang, the founder of the small frame Wu style (later also known as Hao), did in fact not learn everything he wanted from Yang Luchan, so later he tried to get more out from a Chen family member. In a preface to a book by Wu’s student Hao Shaoru it is said:

“After Yang Luchan (1799-1872) came home from the Chen family village, Wu Yuxiang and his brothers admired his art, and they learned from him the “old frame” Chen Style Taiji Boxing, obtaining its general idea.
In 1852, Yuxiang’s brother, Chengqing (1800-1884), passed in the top-level of the imperial examinations and was appointed county magistrate of Wuyang county, Henan. Yuxiang then went to work for his brother, but on the way he took a “shortcut” which passed him by the Chen family village in Wen county, intending to try to visit and seek more from Luchan’s teacher, Chen Changxing (1771-1853). His route passed through the town of Zhaobao, and since he knew Chen Changxing was already old and ill (at that time 82 years old and soon to pass away), and that Chen Qingping was at that time in Zhaobao teaching “new frame” Chen Style Taiji Boxing, he spent more than a month learning Qingping’s “new frame”, until he had fully absorbed its theory.”

Wu Quanyou, the creator of the other, large frame Wu, sometimes known as “leaning Wu”, was never allowed to become a disciple to Yang Luchan. As Wu’s rank was too low, a couple of high generals didn’t want to be associated with Wu. Instead, Wu became student and disciple of Yang Lu Chan’s son Yang Banhou.

So none of these two different students “Wu” learned Yang Luchan’s complete art. But what about those others, Yang’s most close, indoor students. Well, we know very little about those. High generals have no reason to teach anything to others than family members, and certainly not to people lower than them or in public. But who knows, there might still be people practicing it in certain families or closed communities.

So again, how was the old Yang style? It seems harder and harder to find out exactly how it was. We have heard a little from Ma Yueliang’s recollection. In an interview from Inside Kung Fu magazine Ma said that he witnessed Yang Cheng Fu’s fast form:

You studied soon after Taiji was made public through the school where Yang Cheng-fu and Wu Chien-chuan taught together. What is your memeory of Yang?

I often saw Yang Cheng-fu going to Wu’s house to learn Taiji push-hands. Yang style fast Form is lost. Cheng-fu died with the fast Form. I witnessed Cheng-fu practising fast Form.”

So we can assume that Yang Luchan’s art wasn’t practiced slowly, or at least not only slow. There was a fast set. As mentioned earlier, we should also suspect that it didn’t have the same infused Shaolin features as Modern Chen style Taijiquan. But what up next? Yang Luchan was called The Invincible Yang, so how useful was it he taught?

Maybe Yang Luchan’s sons Yang Shaohou and Yang Banhou received the whole system? How did they teach? And did Yang Cheng Fu teach his Old Style? Ma says not. But others say yes. Here is from a famous interview from the mid 70s, “the Chang interview” from China Wushu Magazine with Chang Yiuchun a student of Yang Shouhou.

Q. Who was your first teacher and how long did you study with him.
A. My teacher was Yeung (Yang) Shou-hu the grandson of the founder of the Yeung (Yang) style, Yeung Lu-sum. (Yang Lu-Ch’an). I was with Yeung from 1911 until his death in 1930.
Q. Many people have commented upon the sometimes brutal nature of Yeung Shou-hu’s teaching methods.
A. Yes, quite often we would finish a training period with blood on our vests and many bruises. Sometimes a bone would be broken. Yeung did not have many students.
Q. What are your views on this type of training?
A. It was good for me because I was very undisciplined in my younger days. I always wanted to fight and so with Yeung I got plenty of fighting. It taught us that if we did not do T’ai chi ch’uan correctly then we were hurt.
Q. Most people in the West would look upon this type of T’ai chi ch’uan training as being quite brutal. The style of Yang style T’ai chi ch’uan today in the West is not brutal at all.
A. I do not know about what they do in the West. But what they do in China is a modified form of T’ai chi ch’uan invented by Yeung Shou-hu’s younger brother Yeung Cheng-po (Yang Cheng Fu). This style is Yeung Cheng-po’s own invention so that many older and sick people can do T’ai chi ch’uan.
Q. What you are telling me is that there are actually two different types of Yeung style?
A. Yes, the one that was founded by Yeung Lu-sum is not like the Yeung Cheng-po type.
Q. What are the differences?
A. When my teacher used to do his T’ai chi ch’uan, we would often say that he was like a canon shot one second and like the great river in the next second. He was very energetic. The Yeung Cheng-po style is all soft and flowing with no canon shots.
Q. I have never heard of this and I find it quite interesting. Why is it that no-one knows that there are two Yeung types of T’ai chi ch’uan. Did Yeung Cheng-po do the original T’ai chi ch’uan?
A. In the early days before Yeung Cheng-po, we would only teach T’ai chi ch’uan to family members and very close friends, friends who were almost like family members. I am a family member, a second cousin to the Yeung Shou-hu family. Yeung Cheng-po was the first one to teach everyone and he became very famous all over China. So this is why we only ever hear about this style. Yes, Yeung Cheng-po did the original Yeung style of his grandfather before about 1915, then he changed it. Many people watched him practice the original style and he even taught a few people. But when he invented his own style and changed it over a few years, all of his students forgot about the original style.
Q. From what you know about him, was Yeung Cheng-po as good at self defence as we are told today?
A. Yes, he was very good at self defence. He was quite large and strong and he could also be quite brutal in his pushing hands but he learnt the original style first.

So “fast and dangerous”? Would that be a good way to sum up the old Yang style? Who knows? There are so many different schools and lineages who call themselves “Old Yang”, “Imperial Yang”, etc. etc. Most of those names are there for branding only and probably have very little to do with the old art of Yang Luchan. But still, should we believe that it was all lost? I don’t think so. Rather I do believe that we can see different traces from older Taijiquan teachers and masters in many different lineages.

The package might be gone, but still I do believe that you should be able to find the very most of principles, exercises and older ways to practice. Today we might need to move around, meet people and different teachers from different styles and lineages, pick and choose, in a different way. It might be more complicated to collect different pieces together and reach a higher understanding in Tai Chi Chuan compared to the old days. But then you wouldn’t have a chance anyway because you didn’t belong to the right family or class. So I don’t believe that hope is out to find original and genuine things. But you need to continue to keep looking and find those teachers who can and are willing to teach you.

Next time in the historical series, I will dig deep into the “Neidan” and Taoist heritage of Tai Chi Chuan. Why the hack should we call Tai Chi Chuan an “Internal” art, and exactly from where does “Nei” come from? Well, later, maybe in a couple or a few weeks depending on how busy I will become.