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 old package as described here might be gone, but still, I do believe that you should be able to find the very most of the old principles, exercises and older ways to practice. Today we might need to move around, meet people and different teachers from different styles and lineages, and you might have to 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 back in the ol’ good days, you still wouldn’t have had a chance, if you didn’t belong to the right family and class. So I don’t believe that hope is lost and it’s possible to find original and genuine things. But you would probably need to continue to keep looking, to 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.