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Tai chi chuan (traditional Chinese: ???; simplified Chinese: ???; pinyin: tàijíquán; Wade-Giles: t’ai4 chi2 ch’üan2) is an internal Chinese martial art often practiced for health reasons. Tai chi is typically practiced for a variety of reasons: its soft martial techniques, demonstration competitions, health and longevity. Consequently, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims. Some of tai chi chuan’s training forms are well known to Westerners as the slow motion routines that groups of people practice together every morning in parks around the world, particularly in China.
Today, tai chi has spread worldwide. Most modern styles of tai chi trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun. The origins and creation of tai chi are a subject of much argument and speculation. However, the oldest documented tradition is that of the Chen family from the 1820s.
The Mandarin term t’ai chi ch’uan literally translates as “supreme ultimate fist”, “boundless fist,” or “great extremes boxing” (note that ‘chi’ in this instance is the Wade-Giles of Pinyin jí, not to be confused with the use of ch’i / qì in the sense of “life-force” or “energy”). The concept of the “supreme ultimate” appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy where it represents the fusion or mother of Yin and Yang into a single ultimate, represented by the Taijitu symbol. Thus, tai chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many of the principles of Chinese philosophy including both Taoism and Confucianism. Tai chi training first and foremost involves learning solo routines, known as forms (?? taolu). While the image of tai chi chuan in popular culture is typified by exceedingly slow movement, many tai chi styles (including the three most popular, Yang, Wu and Chen) have secondary forms of a faster pace. Some traditional schools of tai chi teach partner exercises known as pushing hands, and martial applications of the postures of the form.
Tai chi chuan is generally classified as a form of traditional Chinese martial arts of the Neijia (soft or internal) branch. It is considered a soft style martial art — an art applied with internal power — to distinguish its theory and application from that of the hard martial art styles.
Since the first widespread promotion of tai chi’s health benefits by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch’uan and Sun Lutang in the early twentieth century, it has developed a worldwide following among people with little or no interest in martial training, for its benefit to health and health maintenance. Medical studies of tai chi support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.
Focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form purportedly helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to tai chi training, aspects of traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced tai chi students in some traditional schools. Some martial arts, especially the Japanese martial arts, use a uniform for students during practice. Tai chi chuan schools do not generally require a uniform, but both traditional and modern teachers often advocate loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes.
The physical techniques of tai chi chuan are described in the tai chi classics (a set of writings by traditional masters) as being characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination in relaxation, rather than muscular tension, in order to neutralize or initiate attacks. The slow, repetitive work involved in the process of learning how that leverage is generated gently and measurably increases, opens the internal circulation (breath, body heat, blood, lymph, peristalsis, etc.)
The study of tai chi chuan primarily involves three aspects:
There are five major styles of tai chi chuan, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:
The order of verifiable age is as listed above. The order of popularity (in terms of number of practitioners) is Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun, and Wu/Hao. The first five major family styles share much underlying theory, but differ in their approaches to training.
There are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognised by the international community as being orthodox. Zhaobao Tai Chi, a close cousin of Chen style, has been newly recognised by Western practitioners as a distinct style. The designation internal or nei chia martial arts is also used to broadly distinguish what are known as the external or wai chia styles based on the Shaolinquan styles, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by modern schools. In this broad sense, all styles of tai chi (as well as related arts such as Pa Kua Chang and Hsing-i Ch’üan) are therefore considered to be “soft” or “internal” martial arts. Many styles list in their history that tai chi was originally formulated by a Taoist monk called Zhang Sanfeng and taught by him in the Taoist monasteries at Wu Tang Shan.
When tracing tai chi chuan’s formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, there seems little more to go on than legendary tales from a modern historical perspective, but tai chi chuan’s practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Sung dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions, especially the teachings of Mencius) is claimed by some traditional schools. The philosophical and political landscape of that time in Chinese history is fairly well documented. Tai chi’s theories and practice are therefore believed by these schools to have been formulated by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century, at about the same time that the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life. In these legends, Zhang Sanfeng as a young man studied Tao Yin (??, Pinyin daoyin) breathing exercises from his Taoist teachers and martial arts at the Buddhist Shaolin monastery, eventually combining the martial forms and breathing exercises to formulate the soft or internal principles we associate with tai chi chuan and related martial arts. Zhang Sanfeng is also sometimes attributed with the creation of the original 13 Movements of Tai Chi Chuan. These 13 movements are in all forms of tai chi chuan. Its subsequent fame attributed to his teaching, Wu Tang monastery was known thereafter as an important martial center for many centuries, its many styles of internal kung fu preserved and refined at various Taoist temples.
These family trees are not comprehensive. Names denoted by an asterisk are legendary or semi-legendary figures in the lineage; while their involvement in the lineage is accepted by most of the major schools, it is not independently verifiable from known historical records. The Cheng Man-ch’ing and Chinese Sports Commission short forms are derived from Yang family forms, but neither are recognized as Yang family tai chi chuan by standard-bearing Yang family teachers. The Chen, Yang and Wu families are now promoting their own shortened demonstration forms for competitive purposes.