History of Tai Chi

Written records date to about 500 years ago.

Myth and legend go back further.

Chen style is the oldest and Sun style the youngest

Tai chi is now practised by millions all over the world.

Tai Chi  or Taijiquan, also known as "shadow boxing", is one of the major branches of the traditional Chinese martial art form known as wushu.

Its name is derived from the philosophical term taiji, the first known written reference of which appeared in the Book of Changes written over 3,000 years ago during the Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 1221 BC). In this book it says that

"... In all changes exists taiji, which causes the two opposites in everything."

The real origins of Tai Chi are obscure.  The more romantic and mystical accounts date the beginnings of Tai Chi back as far as the 15th, 12th or even the 8th century.   A prevalent attributions goes back to a famous 15th century Taoist priest, Zhang Shanfeng.

Less romantic but more reliably sourced accounts, date the development of Tai Chi to Chen Wangting, a 16th century Royal Guard of the Chen village in Wenxian County, Henan Province.   After he retired from the army, influenced by Taoism, he led a simple life of farming and studied and taught the martial arts. In the 1670s Chen Wangting developed several Tai Chi routines, which included the old frame form still practised today.  He was greatly influenced by a famous general of the Imperial army, Qi Jiguang, who wrote an important textbook on military training, Boxing in 32 Forms, but was also influenced by other schools of boxing in existence at the time.  Perhaps more significant, Chen Wangting also assimilated into his martial art routines the ancient philosophical techniques of Daoyin and Tuna, together with the use of clarity of consciousness as developed in the practice of Taoism.

Daoyin is the concentrated exertion of inner force, while Tuna is a set of deep breathing exercises which, in more recent times, has been developed into the popular Qigong deep breathing exercises.  By combining the martial arts exercises with the practice of Daoyin and Tuna, shadow boxing became a complete system of exercise in which the practitioner's mental concentration, breathing, and actions were closely connected, thus paving the way for its use in future times as an ideal form of exercise for all aspects of health care.  Tai Chi was passed on to, and refined by, further generations of the Chen family, but was not widely practised outside the area of Chen's village until the early 19th century, when Yang Luchan learned Chen style Tai Chi.  Yang Luchan soon became a highly skilled and enthusiastic practitioner, developing his own particular style of Tai Chi, which he taught to a great number of people.

Yang style has become very popular in modern times.  All the other major schools of Tai Chi in practice today, including the Hao, Wu, and other schools, originate from either Chen's style or Yang's style*. 

* Based on TCA Resource Book 2013

See also Dr Lam's synopsis