Maybe I should name this post “The Anti-Taoist Tai Chi Movement of the 21st Century – And why there is in fact Daoism in Tai Chi Chuan.” That would sum up the content better in this article, but maybe a bit too long, for several reasons. I will discuss some mistakes done by a lot of people the latest decades. In general, I believe that there is in fact a Daoist influence in Tai Chi Chuan, but maybe not in the same way as people who denies any Daoist influence would suggest. Also, I do believe that it’s more reasonable to speak about an indirect or general influence than the direct development through specific inventions of so called “Daoists”.

In recent years, a movement, or fraction of Tai Chi Chuan / Taijiquan practitioners, has taken shape to sort of re-claiming Tai Chi as a martial art. These people believe that Tai Chi was developed purely as a martial art and that Daoism, as Daoist thoughts and terminology, was mixed into the pot very late in history.

Some people believe that it was Sun Lutang who invented the whole idea with Daoism and Neijiaquan and others say that he re-invented an old term. There might be something at least partially true to the latter, but still Sun Lutang’s teachers, and the Wudang group he himself was a part of, used the name of Neijiaquan before him.

Sun Lutang himself writes in one of his books that he believed in the dichotomy of Nei and Wai in his earlier days, but later found out that it was a false dichotomy. Some people say that he tried to promote this name of Neijiaquan in society. What I know, he only used the name as a term for the arts that he and his friends studied together in what they called the Wudang Group. We also know that Sun Lutang or his friends were not the first people who promoted the idea of Daoism and Taijiquan.

Some people believe that it was Wu Yuxiang, Yang Luchan’s student and Wu (Hao) style founder who invented the Daoist connection. After all, he was the one who compiled the so called Tai Chi classics. However, in the older manuscripts, there are nothing mentioned about any specific Daoist origin and there’s nothing about Zhang Sanfeng there. Also, one need to be clear about that Wu Yuxiang only had a couple of students. It would be very hard to find any historically valid that would suggested that he had any interest to promote Tai Chi in any kind of way. He never did promote himself or did anything to actually spread Tai Chi. Remember that in that time, Tai Chi was still practiced only by a few. Yang Luchan did not teach it publicly, but just to some people in the court, some literati and people with military ranks.

It was probably Wu style Taijiquan founder Wu Jianquan who was the first person to promote Zhang Sanfeng publicly as the inventor of Tai Chi Chuan. Wu Jianquan, together with Yang Chengfu and Sun Lutang were the people who spread Tai Chi to the masses and were the reason for the gaining popularity of Tai Chi. They were the promotors and the first teachers to teach large groups of people. In this time, Tai Chi Chuan was promoted by this name.

However, this still doesn’t mean that the connection to Daoism should be something new. Some people today, ironically enough, have almost a religious faith in martial arts for the sake of martial arts. It seems like they believe that Tai Chi Chuan began in a vacuum, without any influence except than other martial arts, and without any kind of influence from a school of thought or philosophy.

I find this belief a bit peculiar. There is nothing in history that suggests that Tai Chi started as a folk art or that it started by and remained practiced by uneducated peasants. Those Daoist deniers, for some kind of reason, believe that Daoism in Tai Chi was a modern invention. I would suggest that they clearly don’t understand general Chinese culture and history. Anything developed in a certain time is something from its own time. Everything is born in its own time. If Tai Chi was created in the 17th century (as many believe), it was created by people who lived in the 17th century and thought as 17th century Chinese people. If it was created earlier, it was created by people who had an even older Chinese mind set from their own time. You need to understand that every literate person back in those centuries studied the Chinese classics and Chinese thought.

To generalise a bit, we could say that Chinese martial arts were mostly developed directly, or indirectly, as a by-product of Military practice. We know that most of the well-known systems today were practiced and developed by literate people, mostly by people of some military rank. We know this because we do have actual historical records proving this.

In a well written article, Chinese Martial Arts: The Real History, the author writes about this specific topic:

“Traditionally, Chinese martial arts were military training, used in hand-to-hand combat among the large infantry forces pitted against each other. The idea that Buddhist monks, Shaolin or otherwise, and Daoist immortals, Wutang or otherwise, had any major role in the development of Chinese martial arts has no basis in reality.”

This is very much true and I don’t have much to argue about the general  facts in the article. But still, even if Daoist priests or Buddhist monks did not invent martial arts, it still doesn’t mean that there is no Daoist or Buddhist influence. I would suggest that most people who write about this subject probably are unaware about the historical status of Daoist and Buddhist exercises through the centuries and how Daoists and Buddhists socialised with court people and the literati, and how they taught their exercises and meditation. This is not common knowledge, so believing that Daoism and Buddhism were isolated practices only known in small religious groups is a mistake that is easily done. And in fact this is something most people do. But Daoist exercises, as Neidan, were very common and much practiced in China, in some centuries throughout all of the society. In some centuries the literate upper class did not only practice, but also read the Daoist Neidan classics. (I wrote more about this subject in a post about Daoism and Tai Chi.)

To say that what those military people and inventors of the Chinese Martial Arts styles and exercises, studied and learned, as well as the cultural traditions of their time, had no influence on what they created and taught would be a mistake. Believing that Tai Chi was created in a vacuum without the historicity of earlier martial traditions would also be wrong.

However, how much Daoism or Buddhism that actually influenced the Chinese martial arts in what time should be hard to figure out exactly. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Buddhism and Daoism existed together “in a big pool of ideas”, throughout Chinese history, where the ideas from one tradition can not be easily separated from another.

Chinese martial arts and the early Shaolin arts existed earlier than the Shaolin temple. And in fact, they were more developed from Daoist exercises than from Buddhist. Already from the beginning, Chinese Martial Arts was something mixed. And as something mixed, they have remained so throughout history. Thus, as Daoism, Buddhism and of course Confucianism, penetrates the whole history of China and Chinese though, the notion that Daoism was something added late into Tai Chi is something anyone with a bit of knowledge of Chinese culture and history can easily dismiss. Yes, Daoism is there and it has always been there. But probably more through an indirect than a direct influence, which is another way of influence, than what most non-Chinese people believe.