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.