Taijiquan is one of the finest products of Chinese philosophy and culture. Rooted in the Taoist philosophy of Lao Zi and the principles of the Yijing, Taiji is a system of circular, fluid balanced movements for health and peace of mind. Once the movements have been mastered, one’s equilibrium stable and one energetic system developed, Taiji can be used as an effective means of self-defense.
While the history of Taiji is shrouded in mystery, there is a historic record. I want to deal with the myth first. The Ancients used mythology as a means to pass on information, including history, using an oral tradition. Our Western trained minds reject Mythology as more imprecise as and somehow less true than our "empirical" History. But any student of history will tell you: History can be inaccurate too. I.e., "History is written by the victors".
Many ancient peoples worshiped and respected their ancestors, and mythology was the way they used of linking the present with the past. In ancient China, all trades, methods and affinity groups had an ancestor. And the celebration of that ancestor united that group and kept it together. For instance, the ancestor of sword-makers, say, would have a holy day (holiday) in his honor. All the sword-makers in an area would get together on that holiday and that celebration would function like a modern day convention, the sword-makers could share ideas and information, make deals and conduct business, etc.
I mention this because lots of people argue about the "actual" existence of the founder of Taiji, Zhang Sanfeng. I would say it doesn’t matter, that Taiji practitioners, due to their culture, needed an ancestor, and needed a myth to unite them and identify them as being different than other martial artists. Here's his story:
Zhang Sanfeng was a high level practitioner of the Shaolin arts. Sometime in his middle-age he renounced violence and left the "real" world to live on a Taoist monastery and study meditation. One day while meditating in the garden he saw a garden snake and a sparrow have a fight. Both animals circled each other, avoiding each others attacks. When the bird swooped, the snake weaved out of the way of his thrust. When the snake tried to strike, the bird flitted to the side and the snake struck only air. Finally both animals tired of the fight and went their own separate ways. Zhang Sanfeng was enlightened by this spectacle and realized you could have a fighting style based on avoiding an enemy’s strength and "harmonizing" with their energy in such a way that their attack becomes futile. He went on to develop his new style and called it Taijiquan (Taiji is the name of the symbol showing Yin and Yang flowing around each other/quan means literally fist or fighting style). After 7 years he re-entered the world and taught Taiji to others.
This story tells us the basic philosophy of Taiji. Working "with" instead of "against" an opponent, understanding an attack as a form of energy, and harmonizing with that energy as a means of controlling it. It also tells us that the meditation part of Taiji and the breathing exercises come from Taoist practices and that Taiji stresses the spiritual component of martial arts training, which in ancient China, is the philosophy of Taoism. It also suggests that Taiji training takes a while.
Now for the History. The oldest historical artifact of Taiji is a gravestone from the 16th century that states that the one at rest was a Taiji master. Many oral traditions place the origin between the 12th and 15th century (a few go back as far as the 8th). Here's the historical story:
Chen Wangting, a 16th century Royal Guard (ancient China's equivalent to our Special Forces), came from Chenjiagou (Chen family village) in Wenxian County in Hunan province. After retiring from the army, he was drawn to the teachings of Taoism, which led him to a simple life of farming, studying and teaching martial arts.
In the 1670s, Chen Wangting developed several training routines which included Laojia (literally, "Old Style"), which is still practiced today (and I teach). He was greatly influenced by a famous general of the Imperial Army, Qi Jiguang, who wrote an important textbook on military training called Fighting in 32 Forms. More importantly, Chen Wangting assimilated the ancient (even in that day!) philosophy of Taoism, including the techniques called Tao-In, Duna and clarity of consciousness, into his martial art routines.
Tao-In is the concentrated exertion of inner force through meditation, while Duna is a set of breathing exercises. Duna has recently been renamed, and somewhat redeveloped, into modern Qigong. By combining martial arts with Tao-In and Duna, Taiji became a complete system of training in which the practitioner's mental concentration, breathing and actions are closely connected.
For centuries, Chen Taijiquan had been kept almost in secrecy within Chenjiagou. The clan would only teach Taiji to their daughter-in-laws, but not their daughters, lest they took the art outside the village when they married.
The first major style to develop out of the Chen was the Yang style, and today it is the most widely practiced of all the styles. Yang Luchan (1799-1872) created it in the early 19th century. Yang was a master of the martial arts before coming into contact with a descendent from Chenjiagou, who easily defeated him sparring. The soft, spiral movements were unlike anything he ever saw.
Knowing that the art wasn't being sharred outside the family, Yang humbled himself and got a job as a servant to a shopkeeper in the village. At night he would spy through a crack in the wall at the training area in an attempt to learn taiji. One day he was caught practicing and it was realized that he must have spied on the family while they were training. Many in the village wanted to kill him, but the patriarch was so impressed by his skill that he was adopted into the family and given a formal training. A small shrine exists to this day at the wall where Yang Luchan learned taiji.
Yang's original students were like him, they had already studied martial arts. Since they knew how to kick and punch, he was more concerned in teaching them the essence of the art: relaxation, mental focus and circular power. That's why Yang style appears less martial than Chen.
Today, Taiji has grown into having many styles and is practiced all around the world. Besides Chen and Yang, the other majors styles are Wu, Hao, Sun and Fu. There are many lesser-known styles to boot, each emphasising different elements in order to teach the student the basic principles, which are the same from style to style.