The name T’ai Chi Ch’uan, or Taijiquan (太極拳), wasn’t really common until the late 19th century. The well known scholar Weng Tonghe who was a court examiner in the late 19th century saw Yang Luchan (1799–1872) and dedicated a short poem to him: “Hands holding T’ai chi shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heroes.”. (In texts about T’ai Chi, Weng is often mentioned as Ong Tong He. Ong is how the family name Weng is written in Fujian dialect, a dialect also common in Taiwan. Sometimes both “Weng Tonghe” and “Ong Tong He” is used together in the same texts meaning two different persons. This is actually a common mistake, maybe originating from someone who collected material from different sources. But it is the same person.)
As this name was created to describe Yang Luchan’s Tai Chi Chuan, in a sense, even though the art has much older origin, it could be said that Yang Luchan was the creator of the art of Tai chi chuan. Or at least it could be said that he was the father of the modern Tai chi chuan. Chen stylists will obviously disagree.
If the name T’ai chi ch’uan came from this poem that Weng wrote or if the name was something that Weng already had heard is unclear. However, it’s very clear that the name T’ai Chi Ch’uan didn’t start to become popularised until the middle of the 19th century. Before this, the art that Yang Lu Chan had been taught by Chen Changxing had several different names. There are also old names that are nowadays attributed to the art of Tai Chi Chuan, names that are mentioned in old texts as Daoist exercises. And there are many different opinions about how much related the original exercises are to the art practiced today. That is a much longer and more complicated discussion. Here I will satisfy myself by briefly introducing a few older and alternative names to Tai Chi Chuan.
So here I am going to address the five most well known, previous names of Taijiquan. There are still others, as well as variations. But in this post, I will settle with the five most well known names.
(To not confuse the systems of romanisations, I will from here and onwards use Pinyin and the romanisation Taijiquan instead of the older maybe still more well known way of writing the name as Tai Chi or Tai Chi Chuan.)
The 5 previous names of Taijiquan are:
- Changquan (长拳 )- “Long Fist”
- Sanshiqi (三十七) – “37”
- Shisanshi 十三势 – “13 Postures”
- Mianquan (绵拳) – “Continuos Fist”
- Roushou (软手) – “Soft hand”
Changquan – Long Fist
The most well known older or alternative name of Taijiquan is Changquan. This is the name found in the old Tai Chi classics that was compiled by Yang Lu Chan’s student Wu Yuxiang. According to Wu Yuxiang, the texts he found in a salt shop, or maybe as some people believe, brought home from the Zhaobao, an older name of Taijiquan should be Changquan, literary Long Fist, or Long Boxing.
However, this name is misunderstood. The name refers to the Jiangzi river, which in Chinese is called the Changjiang, or long river. In China, only the mouth of the river is called Jiangzi. In the Tai Chi classics, it is said that Changquan is flowing unceasingly like the Jiangzi River and the great ocean: “長拳者，如長江大海滔滔不絕也. Or actually, it says Long River, 長江 – Changjiang. But for some reason, people don’t associate “long river” to the Long River, the river bearing that name, but instead translate the characters literary to : “long river”. It’s a bit peculiar, but Chinese translators tend to do the same mistake as well. Anyway, the use of “water” to describe the movements of Tai Chi is a well known and much used analogy.
Nowadays the name “Changquan” is mostly recognised as “Shaolin Longfist”, a general name of Shaolin Longfist styles. Shaolin Longfist uses large, stretched movements. Modern Wushu basically takes its expression from classical Longfist. Shaolin Longfist is also what is traditionally used in the Beijing Opera.
Sanshiqi – 37
The name Sanshiqi means “37” and Sanshiqi shi means the 37 postures. This is a name of a Daoist exercise associated with a Daoist called Xu Xuanping mentioned as early as in the 10th century. The Daoist exercise is believed to be a post-Tai Chi exercise or maybe the original Taijiquan. The name of Sanshiqi is also the name of an old Taoist sect. Some people, as Tai Chi book author Huang Wenshan in his “Fundamentals of Tai Chi Ch’uan”, claims that it was Xu Xuanping who started the Sanshiqi sect.
If we break down the traditional 88 0r 108 movements of the Yang Cheng Fu form of Yang style Taijiquan, and take away all of the repetitions and similar movements, we will end up with 36 individual movements. Some people say 37, some people say 36. I am myself leaning more towards 36. Some people speculate that one posture or sequence might have been lost.
However, this breakdown of the Yang style, and the number of them, is one of the reasons why some people still insists that the Yang form is older and more original than the Chen style forms practiced today. Chen style has a few movements that are not found in the other 4 most popular Tai Chi styles.
The name Sanshiqi in itself is interesting and has another meaning than just “37”. But this is all a rather complicated subject and will need a good bit of writing to make it justice. I will try to write something about it in the future, earlier or later. Or, as I have been thinking about, maybe make a video to better “show and tell” what it’s really about. We will just have to see what I will make of it or when I have time enough to explain it better.
Shisanshi – 13 Postures
Shisanshi, or the “Thirteen Postures”, is also an old name of something that is proposed to be a basic set of thirteen movements and is also a name of something said to be the “original” Taijiquan. Often, this name is said to be the name of what the legendary founder of Taijiquan, Zhang Sanfeng, taught. Some people say that the 13 postures was meant by the 8 energies or gates in Taijiquan and the 5 elements mentioned in the Tai Chi Classics. Here, the traditional concepts of the 8 hexagrams and the 5 elements, are used to describe basic hand methods and footwork.
Mianquan – Continuos Fist
This was probably the name originally used by Yang style creator Yang Luchan taught. Sometimes the character of cotton, “棉” is used instead of this mian: “绵”. The character “绵” is also used for cotton, but actually means “silk-floss”, “soft” and in some dialects it means “mild mannered”. Both characters though have the same connotation of “continuous.” The name is derived from the practicing method, that the movements of the exercises are performed as a long, continuous movement without interruption. Although many translate the name to “cotton boxing” I would suggest that the original analogy would be “silk.” Historically speaking, there’s a strong connection between Taijiquan and silk, much more so than to “cotton”.
Roushou – Soft hand
Roushou is said to have been a popular name amongst common people, both practitioners and non-practitioners. Another variation of this name is “Rougong” or, maybe best translated as, “Soft skill practice.” The name Roushou is often confused with Rouquan, or “Soft Boxing”, which is a “soft” Shaolin style. Shaolin Rouquan is said to be a higher level Shaolin art only taught to advanced practitioners. And yet others say that it was designed for older practitioners who could not practice as hard as the younger students.