A Brief Introduction to the Benefits, History, and Underlying Principles of Taijiquan (太極拳)
Modern Society and the Impacts of Stress
The pace and nature of modern life, while providing numerous benefits, have also brought a wide variety of ailments unique to our times.
Ironically, the very technology intended to make our lives easier has often compounded our daily stressors. Along with dramatic increases in the pace and volume of our work, the range of movements made by most modern professionals has also become severely limited.
A wide variety of associated health issues has seemingly arisen due to these conditions, such as, among many others, high blood pressure, insomnia, migraine headaches, chronic anxiety, depression, exhaustion, memory issues, obesity, deteriorating vision, sore muscles, bone/skeletal issues, and immune system disorders.
General Medical Principles underlying the Practice of Tai Chi Chuan
Modern science has proven that the practice of Tai Chi can help to reverse and even cure all of the above-mentioned chronic illnesses. Tai Chi is aimed at curing the underlying causes of such illnesses, and not simply their symptoms.
According to Eastern medicine, the source of many, modern-day chronic illnesses is the blockages in our bodies’ energy pathways, or “meridians,” caused by long-term stress that compromises our immune systems.
Through the practice of movements in accordance with Tai Chi principles, these energy pathways can be systematically unblocked. This helps slowly reduce stress by allowing our immune systems to regain full functionality and our central nervous systems to regenerate.
The Major Styles of Tai Chi
There are many different traditional styles of Tai Chi. The most commonly practiced traditional styles in modern times are the Chen (陳), Yang (楊), Wu2 (吳), Wu3 (武), and the Sun styles (孫). One of the most traditional styles, though largely unknown, is Zhaobao (趙堡) Tai Chi, which is the style the author practices.
Although Tai Chi has a complex history, with numerous disputes surrounding the origins of the various styles, this article will attempt to summarize the basics of such origins.
Chen Style Tai Chi
Chen Style Tai Chi was developed by a general of the Ming Dynasty, Chen Wangting . (note: Chinese surnames are placed in front of given names). According to historians from the Chenjiagou Village (“Chen Village”), where Chen Tai Chi originated, Chen Wangting created the Chen family Tai Chi; some practitioners assert that Chen Wangting created Tai Chi in general.
This history is disputed by most historians, however, especially Daoist monks from the Wudang Temple. The commonly accepted idea is that Taiji came from the Wudang mountains in China, having been developed by the historical figure Zhang Sanfeng.
Regardless of its origins, Chen Tai Chi has undisputedly had major impacts on all the other major styles of Tai Chi, and has an exceptional reputation as a very formidable type of Chinese martial art. Chen Tai Chi is distinguishable from all the other styles due to its incorporation of explosive striking movements in its forms, known in Chinese Mandarin as “fajin” (發勁).
Chen style Tai Chi was a closely guarded secret for much of its history, only being taught to other individuals from the Chen family. This changed after Yang Luchan came along.
Yang Style Tai Chi
Yang Style Tai Chi was developed by the famous Tai Chi practitioner, Yang Luchan. Grandmaster Yang Luchan’s teacher was Chen Changxing, a 6th generation Chen Style master, who bucked the trend of only teaching the art to other Chen family members. Due to Yang Tai Chi’s fundamental differences with Chen Style Tai Chi, some historians question whether Chen Changxing taught Yang Lu Chang traditional Chen Tai Chi (which Yang Lu Chang changed) or something different.
Whatever the case, after Yang Lu Chan mastered the art Chen Changxing taught him, he began openly teaching Tai Chi to students in Beijing, where he became so well known for his prowess that he soon took on the nickname Yang2 Wu2di2 (楊無敵), literally meaning “Yang without enemies.”
It is from Yang Luchan that Tai Chi began to flourish and spread throughout the world. In fact, the name “Tai Chi,” originates from Yang Luchan’s efforts in teaching this art. Today, the vast majority of Tai Chi practitioners practice Yang Style Tai Chi. It is the most common Tai Chi style performed in parks. It also tends to be a very watered-down version of Tai Chi, which explains its prevalent nature, as it's easier to learn.
Zhaobao Style Tai Chi
The Zhaobao style of Tai Chi originated over four hundred years ago in the Zhaobao Village, which is less than ten kilometers from the Chen Village.
Zhaobao Tai Chi ultimately traces its history back to the Wudang Mountains, claiming as its founder the Daoist monk, Zhang Sanfeng, mentioned above. Due to inaccurate historical records, however, the first official figure in its lineage is an individual named Wang Zongyue, who was several generations removed from Zhang Sanfeng.
For most of its history, Zhaobao Tai Chi was not taught outside of the Zhaobao Village. It wasn’t until the 1950s after two 10th generation masters, Zheng Wuqing and Zheng Boying, moved from the Zhaobao village to the city of Xi’an that it first began to spread throughout China.
Master Zheng Wuqing was the first practitioner to call this art “Zhaobao Tai Chi.” Prior to this time, it was often referred to as the He (和) style after Zhaobao Tai Chi’s 8th generation master, He Zhaoyuan. As the various masters in Zhaobao Tai Chi’s lineage were not related to one another, however, and Zheng Wuqing himself was not from the He family, he believed a neutral name to be more fitting.
Like almost all styles, Zhaobao Tai Chi shares certain movements in common with Chen Tai Chi. Due to these similarities, some Chen Tai Chi historians claim that Zhaobao Tai Chi is an offshoot of the Chen style. Their claim also arises from a shared association with Zhaobao Tai Chi’s 7th generation master, Chen Qingping.
Chen Qingping was originally from the Chen Village. While living there, Chen practitioners say he learned a unique branch of Chen Tai Chi, known as the “small frame,” developed by Chen Youben. They base this off based off a short annotation in one of Chen Tai Chi's official annals. After marrying a girl from the Zhaobao village, however, Chen Qingping permanently relocated to the Zhaobao Village. After doing so, he learned and mastered the art of Zhaobao Tai Chi from its 6th generation master, Zhang Yan.
Although it is unknown exactly what influence the Chen style “small frame” ultimately had on Chen Qingping, if any, the fact that were six generations of Zhaobao Tai Chi masters prior to Chen Qingping shows that Zhaobao Tai Chi did not arise from Chen Tai Chi.
Indirect evidence also undermines this claim, such as, among other things, the fact that Chen Qingping’s teacher Zhang Yan is said to have directly given high praise to one of Chen Qingping’s most outstanding students, He Zhaoyuan. It would seem strange that a grandmaster of one style would so profusely compliment a student outside of his own lineage. Additionally, the fact that Chen Qingping taught numerous notable individuals that were not from the Chen family at a time when Chen Tai Chi was a carefully guarded family secret also tends to weaken this claim.
What is clearly indisputable is that the Zhaobao style is an independent style of Tai Chi, with its own distinctive history and flavor.
Wu2 , Wu3, and Sun styles of Tai Chi
There are two styles of Tai Chi known as the “Wu style.” Chinese is famous for its homonyms – basically words that sound the same. Often these homonyms have distinct Chinese characters and tones, however, which readily distinguishes them for Chinese speakers. One of the Wu styles of Tai Chi, i.e., Wu2 (吳), undisputedly originated from Yang Tai Chi, with its founder Wu Quanyou having been taught directly by Yang Luchan and his son, Yan Panhou. The Wu3 (武) and Sun (孫) styles of Tai Chi, have more complex lineages. They can both be traced to not only the Yang Style, but also to the Chen and Zhaobao styles of Tai Chi, through Chen Qingping.
The Martial Benefits of Traditional Tai Chi Practice
Regardless of the style, all forms of Tai Chi can not only have great health benefits but can also be highly effective types of martial arts, as long as they are taught in a manner that is true to their traditional origins.
Unfortunately, in modern times most Tai Chi teachers and students alike practice very watered-down systems of Tai Chi. Due to such, a common misconception about Tai Chi is that it is only something for the elderly or the sick to practice in parks, etc., to improve their flexibility and health. This misconception is likely due to the pervasiveness of practices that are often extremely hollowed-out versions of their traditional origins. Although such park versions are easier to learn for sure (a fact that very likely accounts for their rapid spread), and still have health benefits in their own rights, the traditional practice of Tai Chi can offer much more.
While it typically takes a much longer period of time to master Tai Chi than to master other external styles of martial arts, top practitioners of traditional Tai Chi styles are often some of the best martial artists in the world. True Tai Chi masters can, in fact, perform phenomenal feats.
Underlying Principles of Tai Chi
While entire volumes can and have been devoted to the topic of why and how Tai Chi works, and there is much work to be done to fully understand its scientific basis, this article will attempt to provide the overarching theory of Tai Chi.
Essentially, mastering Tai Chi requires the long-term cultivation of the body’s natural internal energy, commonly known as “qi,” (氣) (pronounced “Chee”) along with the application of this force through correct body mechanics.
All living creatures have qi energy. If they didn’t have such, they wouldn’t be alive. In most living beings, however, that energy is present in a much weaker form than our bodies are capable of producing, storing, and using. Due to China’s unique history, with its grounding in Daoism and Buddhism, along with their associated meditation practices, the ancient Chinese long ago discovered and systematically (one can even say “scientifically”) began to develop exercises to better understand, cultivate, and expand this natural energy.
Just like an average person can’t expect to walk into a gym without ever having trained and immediately begin to bench press 300 pounds, the cultivation of internal energy isn’t something that typically just naturally happens. It instead must be developed systematically by engaging in exercises that train the body to move in ways specifically geared to open up and keep open the body’s energy pathways, as well as to generate the energy that flows through these open pathways in ever greater amounts over time.
Just like crops will wither if irrigation ditches meant to provide water to them become blocked, many people’s energy pathways become blocked over time due to stress, poor postures, bad habits, and negative emotions, etc., which negatively affect individuals’ internal organs. Once practitioners learn to unblock these pathways through correct movements and mindfulness, however, their energy can begin to flow again and re-nourish parts of the body that have begun to fail due to blockages.
In the way of one example, the practice of Tai Chi can be greatly beneficial to the central nervous system. Through practice, the central nervous systems can grow stronger, which greatly enhances the mind-body connections of its practitioners. This allows practitioners’ bodies to better react to the movements willed by their minds, which in turn enables their movements to be relaxed, smooth, and agile.
The cultivation of internal energy can also lead to increased blood flow. In fact, the terms “energy” (qi4 氣) and “blood” (xue3 血) are frequently used in conjunction with one another in Chinese when describing the internal mechanism of Tai Chi. Such increased blood flow provides much needed nourishment to practitioners’ internal organs.
Through the practice of Tai Chi, practitioners can also learn to relax and to engage only the minimally necessary muscles required for correct posture and movements. This helps to improve their body’s overall efficiency in using energy.
As practitioners learn to save more energy than they use on a daily basis, their energy begins to accumulate, and their internal vitality grows, which improves the health, mental clarity, and mood of its practitioners.
In the way of martial application, those who have become proficient in Tai Chi can move quickly and agilely during combat. They also gain a great amount of power in their strikes, through the ability to expel their energy in a relaxed way, similar to how whips work. Most of the energy that advanced Tai Chi practitioners use, however, comes directly from their opponents. Such energy is often either redirected into the ground, and then back up or in an otherwise circular fashion back at their opponents. Advanced practitioners can also be highly effective at qin2na2 (擒拿), which allows them to subtly bring the full weight of their body as well as highly concentrated internal energy to bear on small, weak spots of their opponents
The Path to Proficiency
This introduction to Tai Chi barely begins to scratch the surface of the benefits of this amazing practice. As many long-term practitioners will readily tell you, words can often not come close to truly describing the many positive aspects associated with the correct practice of Tai Chi. Such must be experienced first-hand in order to be fully understood.
Tai Chi is more of a philosophy and a way of life than a simple exercise. When one truly starts to understand the essentials of its underlying teachings, one begins to live in a more mindful way, constantly striving to avoid negative emotions and to, instead, cultivate positive energy through their everyday activities.
For those truly interested in learning Tai Chi in its traditional form it is essential to find a good teacher. Tai Chi practitioners must also be very good students, carefully following their teacher’s advice and diligently practicing on a long-term basis.