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A Brief History of Tai Chi Chuan Part 1

By Grandmaster Shou-Yu Liang and Master Wen-Ching Wu



Creation of Tai Chi Chuan

There are many theories concerning the founding of Tai Chi Chuan. We will briefly discuss three of the majortheories. The first theory is that the Daoist (Taoist), Zhang San-Feng, in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 A.D.) created Tai Chi Chuan. The second theory is that the prolific writer of Tai Chi Chuan treatises, Wang Zong-Yue, created Tai Chi Chuan. The third theory is that Chen Wang-Ting, a military officer in the later part of the Ming dynasty, created Tai Chi Chuan.

However, it is known that, as early as the 4th century B.C., that the Life-Nourishing Techniques(Yangshenfa)werebeing practiced. They included bending, expanding, condensing, and extending movements; breathing techniques and Qi circulation, similar to Tai Chi Chuan's internal exercises. Publications such as the Six Animal Play (Liuqinxi) written by Dr. Lui An (179-122 B.C.) and the Five Animal Play (Wuqinxi) rewritten by Dr. Hua Tuo (One of the greatest doctors in the Chinese history), both integrated breathing techniques with the movements of animals to improve health.

It is also known that in the Liang Dynasty (502-557A.D.) and in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.),there were already techniques resembling Tai Chi Chuan. The only difference was in their names. They were named Thirty-Seven Postures (Sanshiqishi), Post Heaven Techniques (Houtianfa), and Small Nine Heaven (Xiaojiutian). Even though the names were different, the principles were similar.

Zhang San-Feng Theory

The historical records of Zhang San-Feng are not very consistent with one another. According to the records in Wangzhengnan Muzhiming: "The Song Dynasty's Zhang San-Feng was a Wudang Daoist Monk." Wangzhengnan Muzhiming was written in 1669 A.D. by Huang Li-Zhou, a famous scholar of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 A.D.). Huang wrote that during the Song Dynasty, Zhang San-Feng dreamed that Emperor Yuan taught him martial arts. There are no other earlier documentsthatindicate Zhang San-Feng knew any martial arts. Below are some quotes from the Wangzhengnan Muzhiming:

"Emperor Hui-Zong summoned him. The road to the palace was blocked by robbers, he couldnot go forward. At night he dreamed that Emperor Yuan taught him martial techniques. At dawn, by himself, he killed a hundred robbers."

According to the Ming Dynasty record, Mingshi Fangjizhuan:

"Zhang San-Feng of Liaodongyi county, was named Quan-Yi, or Jun-Bao. San-Feng was his Daoist name. Because he didn't keep himself clean and neat, he was nicknamed Sloppy Zhang. He was big and tall, had the look of a turtle and a back like a crane, with large ears, round eyes, and a beard as long as a spear tassel. Winter and summer, he wore the same Daoist outfit. He could eat a bushel of food, or not eat for several days or months. He walked thousands of kilometers a day; loved to have fun; and acted as though there was no one else around him, but himself. He often traveled with his disciple to the Wudang mountains and built grass huts to live in. In the 24th year of Hongwu (1391 A.D.), Emperor Ming Tai-Zu heard about Zhang San-Feng and sent messengers to look for him, but without success."

Some records indicate that Zhang was made an immortal figure as the result of the struggle for powerin the Ming Dynasty. When the first Ming emperor died, the grandson of the emperor, Jian-Wen, was made the successor because the crowned prince, Jian-Wen's father, died at a young age. Emperor Jian-Wen's uncle, Yong-Le, unhappy with the arrangement, found an excuse to revolt against young Emperor Jian-Wen and took over the throne. Rumor had it that Emperor Jian-Wen survived the ordeal. Emperor Yong-Le, petrified with the thought that the outcast Emperor Jian-Wen might organize a counterrevolution against him, sent assassins to search for him.

Needing an excuse to send out a search party, Emperor Yong-Le made up a reason to look for the immortal Zhang San-Feng. For over twenty years, Emperor Yong-Le sent assassins all over the empire and overseas searching for Emperor Jian-Wen, but without success. When Emperor Yong-Le finally stopped his search, the news of the search for the immortal Zhang San-Feng had spread all over the empire. To cover up the real reason for the search and his lies to the people, he commanded that a temple be built in the Wudang Mountains to honor Zhang San-Feng. The construction was believed to include the labor of over three hundred thousand people and at a cost of over several million ounces of silver. From then on, Zhang San-Feng of the Wudang Mountain became a legendary figure in Chinese society.

It is also recorded in the Ming Langying Qixiu Leigao:

"Immortal Zhang, named Jun-Bao, or Quan-Yi, was called by the Daoist name, Xuan-Xuan. He was nicknamed by the laymen as Sloppy Zhang. In the third year of Tianshun (1459 A.D.), he visited the Emperor. A picture was drawn. The picture showed him with a straight beard and a moustache, a tuft at the back of his head, a purple face, a big stomach, and holding a bamboo hat in his hand. At the top of the picture was a honorary inscription by the emperor, honoring Zhang as a knowledgeable and prestigious Daoist."

Other sources said that Zhang San-Feng's techniques came from the Daoist Feng Yi-Yuan. Yet another, saidthatZhang San-Feng was an ancient Daoist hermit, who after observing a fight between a crane and a snake, was enlightened, and invented Tai Chi Chuan.

Wang Zong-Yue's Tai Chi Chuan Classics are well-known by Tai Chi Chuan practitioners. Wang Zong-Yue systematically summarized the principles of Tai Chi Chuan, using the Yin-Yang theory. He was the first to call this martial art, Tai Chi Chuan. He wrote, "What is Taiji? It is generated from Wuji. It is the mother of Yin and Yang. When it moves, it divides. At rest, it reunites ." He was once mistaken to be Wang Zong of the Ming Dynasty. This mistake in identity also led some to believe that Tai Chi Chuan was created by Wang Zong in the Ming Dynasty. It also made many believe that Jiang Fa, a military officer in the later part of Ming Dynasty, learned from Wang Zong-Yue. This same belief, later, led many to believe that Jiang Fa taught Tai Chi Chuan to the Chen family, when he took refuge at the Chen's Village (Chenjiagou) as a servant. This theory came from an interpretation in the book Tai Chi Chuan Brief (Tai Chi Chuan Xiaoxu), written by Li Yi-Yu (1832-1892 A.D.). In his book, Li Yi-Yu stated that the creator of Tai Chi Chuan is unknown, but Wang Zong-Yue had described the art in detail. It was believed that Jiang Fa learned from Wang Zong-Yue and then Jiang Fa taught the art to the Chens in the Chen's Village.