Tai Chi Essential Collection

The home of Tai Chi - Wudang Mountains

Tai Chi - Essential Collection

What is Tai Chi, History of Tai Chi, Wudang Daoism, Tai Chi Sword

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi, Taichi, T'ai Ch'i, Tai Qi are all Tai Chi Quan, the Grand Ultimate Fist, the most celebrated of China's internal styles of Martial Arts, created by immortals in the Wudang Mountains, the embodiment of Daoist secrets of immortality, "the needle hidden in the cotton", the secret that allows the weakest to overcome the strongest, the topic of ten thousand books and the chosen style of the scholars and the imperial bodyguards alike.

Woman practising Tai Chi

Group relaxation

Tai Chi Quan lends itself easily to superlatives, but where is the connection between the Grand Ultimate Fist and the field full of elderly people moving slowly to the tunes of twangy cheesy Chinese Music? If this is supposed to be the most effective and most difficult martial arts style, diffused through centuries of experiment and challenge by sudden violence that is the history of Chinese Martial Arts, why do the majority of its modern practitioners show no awareness that it is even a martial art at all, instead of a quaint collection of health exercises with fanciful names like "The Beauty Looks into the Mirror"? Beauty, mirror - am I in the right class? I thought I would be learning how to pierce someone's throat with my bare fingers!

But therein lies the rub. They were good fighters because they could not afford not to be. They lived in the Qing Dynasty, one of the most turbulent periods in Chinese History, where the repression of the Ming Dynasty sympathisers by the foreign Manchu created a dark underbelly of resistance groups, triads and religious cults. A hundred and one different styles of Martial Art flourished, nourished by bloody sacrifice, so competition was intense and challenges between martial artists were the rule rather than the exception. This explains how in a period of less than a hundred years the original Chen Style developed in a whole range of different ways. Apart from Yang lineage of Cheng Fu three other main styles were created: Sun and the two Wu styles, all still practised today.

In the soft modern life with such hardships a distant memory there is no need to be a fighter (or is there?). Yang Cheng Fu was relaxed and soft by choice, to get an advantage over his opponent, as opposed to through lack of hard training. Whereas he developed movements that were soft and relaxed and flowing after the sweat and toil of hard practice, modern practitioners can forgo the hard and go for the soft and in doing so they miss the point and loose the needle from their ball of cotton.

If ninety percent of practitioners today fall into this trap, there are thankfully always exceptions, and the remaining ten percent are practitioners who have stayed true to the greatest virtue in traditional martial arts - that of hard work. Hard Work after all is the meaning of Kung Fu and if you are part of that ten percent you will see no contradiction in my saying that the Kung Fu in their Tai Chi is strong. The only trick is to find that ten percent, which is exactly the job Real Wushu Scholar has undertaken over the last two decades.

Travel to mainland China to learn traditional internal Shaolin Kung Fu (Yi Jing Jing)

History of Tai Chi

The answer to this conundrum can perhaps be found if we consider the history of Tai Chi Quan. If we put aside for the moment the legends of wonderful immortals, ancient manuscripts and Daoist magical exercises (to be considered in all their glory further down!), the story of modern Tai Chi Quan begins with the coming of Master Chiang Fa to the Chen Family Village, Henan Province, at the end of the eighteenth, beginning of the nineteenth century.

Chiang Fa's teacher, Master Wang Chung Yueh is said to have put together an existing set of thirteen postures into a sequence, thus creating the first Tai Chi Pattern. Those old postures were made up out of Eight Gates: ward off; roll back; press; push; pull; split; elbow; shoulder and Five Steps : advance; retreat; look left; look right; equilibrium. All basically describe different ways of moving.

Senior tai chi stylist

Never too old to start practice

Chiang Fa taught this pattern in the Chen village to a number of that extended family, most notably Master Chen Chang Hsing (1771-1853) and so the style earned its name of Chen Tai Chi Quan. It stayed a closely guarded secret of the Chen family until one enterprising man named Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872) decided to steal it, by secretly watching the Chen Family practise from a roof top for a period of ten years. Through this curious combination of perseverance and a marked lack of etiquette Lu Chan managed to get to a good level before he was caught. Luckily for him, his talent helped him escape a beating by the Chen Family Masters and he was instead accepted as their first non Chen surnamed student.

Judging from the current exponents of Chen Tai Chi and the records about their earlier masters, Tai Chi Quan before Lu Chan was very martial in spirit, low in stance and direct in attack. Yang Lu Chan decided to shift the emphasis of the style from martial application to strengthening, fitness and health, to suit his own priorities. Lu Chan's grandson Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936) further emphasised the relaxation in the movements, creating the slow, flowing Big Style, which is the direct ancestor of the Yang Styles of today. After all, in those days Masters only ever taught a few students, usually their own sons, so they personalised their styles and training as they saw fit, changing the emphasis from one period of their life to another. Certainly Yang Lu Chan and his descendants were known to be formidable fighters themselves regardless of these changes.

Wudang Daoism & Tai Chi

Does this answer our original conundrum over the nature of Tai Chi? Well, almost, but there is whole area still to be considered: what happened to the Daoism in Tai Chi Quan? Many of the masters in question were after all only lay Daoists if Daoists at all, even though Wang Chung Yueh was supposed to have taken his thirteen postures from the writings of the Wudang Immortal Zhang San Feng, who lived sometime in the Ming Dynasty or Yuan or Song Dynasty depending on which record you believe.

A Daoist priest

A Daoist priest

Without getting into arguments over the actual existence of Zhang San Feng, the influence of Daoist Religion on the philosophy of Tai Chi Quan is apparent through the continual discussions of Yin and Yang, the five elements, the eight trigrams and even in the name Tai Chi, the Grand Ultimate, which is a Daoist concept. Where does this influence come from?

A brief look back into deeper history reveals endless examples of exercise systems designed to achieve longevity and ultimately immortality for the practitioner. These exercises were very popular during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), where Chinese Emperors would often invite leading Daoist magicians - called fangshi - to teach at court. They were mentioned in the great Daoist classic of that period - the Taiping Jing. Only a few years later, in the Three Kingdom period (220 - 280 AD) the physician Hua Tuo created a system of health exercises Wu Chi Chih Hsi, which is often compared to Tai Chi.

All this is neither here nor there of course, in as far as this cultural heritage is claimed by all styles and not only Tai Chi Quan. China is a great melting pot of ideas, ancient and modern, and the Chinese being a very pragmatic people use anything and everything that fits. There is one big BUT though. For there is one area in China where Tai Chi has been melded with Daoist ritual and philosophy in practice and not only in theory - and that is Wudang.

The Wudang Mountains have always been a holy place to the Daoist religion as well as a centre for the study of Daoist Martial Arts. Wudang Tai Chi is therefore considered by many experts to be the most pure. It is not a style as much as a way of Tai Chi practice, because all the common Tai Chi styles - Chen, Yang, Wu, Wu and Sun - are also taught in Wudang in addition to their own unique varieties and patterns.

This Wudang way of Tai Chi practice is distinguished by the emphasis given to cultivating internal Qi and Daoist meditation, when compared to secular Tai Chi clubs and schools, and by the importance played by the study of the Tai Chi Sword. Wudang is the area to look if you want to find a living connection between Tai Chi Quan and Daoism.

Travel to mainland China to learn traditional Martial & Health Wudang Kung Fu (Push Hands, Martial & Health Tai Chi, Qigong, Tai Chi Sword etc.)

Tai Chi Sword

The straight sword is a beautiful ancient weapon first mentioned in China's oldest written records and deserves a little indulgent aside all to itself, particularly as it is the weapon most associated with Tai Chi and with Daoism in general.

The straight sword is a flexible blade which is not able to meet force with force, instead the blade is used to deflect and redirect blows before delivering a slash or stab of its own. This nature of the weapon lends itself naturally to the principles of Tai Chi. It is so hard to master that it is often called the "King of Weapons" and perhaps for that reason was a weapon of choice for famous generals and scholars.

Tai Chi sword pattern

A lethal grace

In fact there are two type of straight sword. The bigger heavier sword was called the martial sword (Wu Jian) or male sword (Xiong Jian) and had a sharp tip. The lighter shorter sword was called the scholar sword (Wen Jian) or female sword (Ci Jian) and had a slightly rounded tip. The martial sword was originally designed to be taken into battle but was not as practical in peace time, so the scholar sword was used instead as an everyday defence weapon. Traditionally every official and aristocrat would wear a sword to court.

The straight sword has a particular connection with Daoist religion. It is considered the only weapon able to banish evil spirits, so was always used in exorcism ceremonies. This is done to this day, the place of a real sword often taken by a special sword shape woven out of Chinese coins.

The Wudang Tai Chi sword is particularly famous and is often considered the highest form of swordplay. It is often paired with Shaolin staff as the two symbols of Chinese martial arts: Wudang Sword and Shaolin Staff, Internal and External.

Travel to mainland China to learn traditional Wudang Tai Chi Sword