Like the Chinese Wudang mountains, tai chi history is the stuff of legends and mist. Even simple questions, such as “How did tai chi begin?”, have no simple answers.
The origin of tai chi can’t be easily summarized. We don’t know who founded tai chi or in what year (or century) that occurred. Instead, there are three major theories about the origin of tai chi.
Read more below and find the one that seems most appealing. Or simply immerse yourself in the stories, background, and legends around the origin and evolution of tai chi.
Theory 1. Snake vs Crane. The origin of tai chi may in fact spring from the Wudang mountains in the 12th century. Some hold that the Taoist sage Chang San Feng was there when he happened to observe a deadly fight between a snake and the crane. The crane attacked, stabbing and jabbing at the snake. Somehow, the snake managed to evade. The snake fought back with whip-like attacks of its own. But, the crane deflected these attacks by fiercely spreading its wings.
Inspired by this scene, Chang San Feng went on to create the soft internal martial art of tai chi. He included moves inspired directly from the crane and the snake. His new fighting style was very different from the external Shaolin Temple gung fu, emphasizing relaxed movements. Being a high level Taoist, he also infused it with the wisdom, military strategies, and longevity methods of Taoism.
Theory 2. A Mysterious Stranger Brings Tai Chi to the Chen Village. Tai chi was passed down to Wang Tsung Yueh, a mysterious stranger who travelled to the Chen village. While at the local inn, he let loose with a string of insults about the village’s martial arts. The Chen villagers responded accordingly and fiercely attacked Wang.
Although outnumbered, Wang was the clear victor. The next day, he became the official Chen village martial arts teacher. Wang taught the villagers how to modify their Shaolin-like martial art with the internal principles of his style.
Theory 3. A Seasoned Chen Fighter Creates Tai Chi. Others argue that tai chi was created in the Chen village by a Chen warrior. The headman Chen Wan Ting (1600-1680) had mastered numerous martial arts techniques while serving as a general in the Chinese army. He combined the best aspects from various combat styles he’d learned, then added components from Chinese medicine and the acupuncture meridian system to create a tai chi fighing style to protect his village.
The martial applications of tai chi--with underlying Chinese medicine principles and some internal Taoist practices—was known, thriving, and also well-guarded in the Chen village by the 17th Century.
Chen Village: First Known Tai Chi School. The list of stories on the origin of tai chi goes on. But most agree that the first records of tai chi as a distinct martial art stem from the Chen village. How long it had been practiced prior and by whom may well remain a mystery.
The Yang Style Arises from the Chen. The secrets of the Chen style tai chi may have remained locked within the borders of the Chen village for many more years, if it weren’t for the dedication and ingenuity of Yang Lu Chan (1799-1872). He initially infiltrated the Chen village but eventually gained their recognition and respect—and equally or more importantly, became an official student of their martial arts.
After mastering the techniques, Yang left with the blessings of the Chen village and travelled throughout China. He went on to serve the Chinese emperor with his martial arts skills, and to found the Yang style of tai chi.
The Wu Style Arises from the Yang. In addition to being an amazing martial artist, Yang Lu Chan was also talented as a teacher—not a common combination. One of his top students was Chuan You (1834-1902), who went on to found the Wu style. That’s not a typo. It’s called the Wu style because the family was forced to change their surname for political and safety reasons.
Chuan You’s son, Wu Jien Chuan (1870-1902), as well as Chuan You’s grandchildren, went on to create their own variations of Wu style tai chi.
Changes in the Early 20th Century. In the early 20th century, more people were able to learn about the health benefits of tai chi. This was due to the more open teachings by descendants of the Yang and Wu style founders, including Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, and Wu Chien Chuan.
Tai Chi Goes Underground in China. The creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1945, as well as the ensuing Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), brought about great changes in the practice of tai chi. This was a time of wanton destruction of ancient buildings, artifacts, and knowledge.
Tai chi was likewise suppressed because of its notable history and links to the Taoist and Buddhist religions. Potential fighters and rebels were targeted by the government. Within China, tai chi masters stopped teaching, hid their skills and went underground in order to survive.
Tai Chi in the West. Some tai chi masters managed to flee. Outside of China, tai chi began to be taught more openly, as these teachers sought to keep the knowledge of their lineage alive.
Cheng Man Ching, highly schooled in Yang style tai chi (as well as other arts including traditional Chinese medicine and calligraphy), moved to New York and began to teach in 1964. He, and other skilled practitioners, brought tai chi out of China and to a range of students in the West.
Tai Chi for National Health in China. Although disdainful of the religious aspects of tai chi and also wanting to suppress the potential threat posed by skilled tai chi fighters, the Chinese government nevertheless embraced the health benefits of tai chi.
The government even created and promoted simple forms of tai chi. In 1956, the Chinese Sports Committee created the Beijing short form, probably the most popular form practiced today. Read more about this in the section.
Tai chi is now the national exercise of China. With support from the government, tai chi has since moved out from the underground and into universities and government-supported sports and martial arts programs in China.
Tai Chi Today. Currently, there are over 200 million practitioners of tai chi throughout the world. From its roots in China, its popularity has spread to become a form of exercise appreciated around the globe for its health, stress control, and self defense benefits.