Origins: Myth vs. History
There is a saying that, in order to know where you are going, you have to know where you have come from. This saying is particularly problematic when it comes to the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, so thoroughly have they been obscured by politics and family rivalries. The landscape of origins is dominated by a now largely-discredited traditional account to which many Tai Chi enthusiasts still cling and a range of more historiographical accounts, many of which are politically motivated fictions masquerading as fact.
The traditional account is that Tai Chi was invented by the Taoist Immortal Chan San-feng, a former Shaolin monk who was a hermit on Wudang mountain. The story, much elaborated through various iterations, has it that one day from the window of his meditation hut he witnessed a fight between a serpent and a bird and was so impressed by the effectiveness of their movements that he proceeded to develop a martial art based upon them. This art was then passed down by the Wudang monks until it came into the hands of the Chen family of Henan province who reserved the art for family members and practised it secretly. This is the familiar tale as presented in such well-known texts as Jou Tsung Hua’s The Dao of Taijiquan (ISBN: 978-0-692-03405-7 )
Problem – As analyzed by Barbara Davis in her book on the classics, The Taijiquan Classics (ISBN: 1-55643-431-6), the Chan San-feng tale is almost certainly fabulous and dates from no earlier than the last half of the Nineteenth Century! There certainly are references to Immortal Chan from earlier periods but nothing that connects him to martial practices before the 1800’s. Further, the traditional tale, as traced by Davis through the course of the 20th Century, becomes ever more elaborate. This is the tell-tale characteristic of a folk-tale or 'harmonious narrative' – an account to which succeeding generations adhere for the purpose of sharing a common myth.
It is important to understand this term as it is essential to the traditional accounts of Tai Chi’s origins. The role of a harmonious narrative is to provide a shared tale which minimizes friction and provides a bonding based on shared cultural understandings or national ambitions. A western example is the Iliad of Homer, a shared myth which allowed the goatherds of Ithaca and the aristocrats of Mycenae and the Aegean to reflect upon the common bond forged when they united to fight before the walls of Troy. In China, a similar role was held by The Canonization of the Gods (see Mark Meulenbeld’s Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel (978-0824838447) ), a similarly crafted myth based upon the overthrow of the Kingdom of Shang.
One of the functions of the Chan San-feng harmonious narrative was that it utterly bypassed the Chen family’s role in developing Tai Chi Chuan. This was important since it avoided disclosure of Yang Lu-chan’s real relationship to the Chen family of Henan, the nature of which we shall address below. It preserved the pre-eminence of the Yangs while providing the art with an impeccably Daoist and ethnic-Han Chinese derivation, a sensitive point for the Yang family and the Manchurian Wu family in the immediate post-imperial period.
A second chapter in the traditional account concerns this young man named Yang Lu-chan from Yongnian district in neighbouring Hebei province. As a young man with seasoned martial arts skills, he hears of this wonderful martial art of the Chens and determines to steal it. He therefore becomes a servant of the Chens and spies on their nighttime practices, afterwards secretly practising in his room the methods he has observed. He is discovered at this by the senior teacher of the Chens, Chen Chan-hsing, who is so impressed by his dedication that, instead of killing him, he proceeds to teach Yang Lu-chan privately without the Chen family’s knowledge. Becoming satisfied with Yang Lu-chan’s progress, Chen Chan-hsing then produces the talented young man before the Chen family announcing that their art has now passed beyond the family and that they will now have to practise harder if they wish to retain their ascendancy in the clan’s martial style. The traditional account continues that the young man goes back to his village in Yongnian, returning on two occasions to Chen Village for further training sessions with Chen Chan-hsing. This romantic myth has inspired several hilarious Kung Fu movies!
This is the general history one finds in Jou Tsung Hwa’s The Dao of Taijiquan (ISBN: 0-8048-1357-4). It is subscribed to by the Yang family and Yang-style masters such as Ben Lo, author of The Essence of Tai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Traditiion (ISBN: 0-913028-63-0) and is the account one finds in the annals of the Wu family’s Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan (0-9780499-0-X). It too is an example of a harmonious narrative – an agreed-upon mythic vessel for the transmission of shared cultural values.
In 1983 Professor Douglas Wile published a (for westerners) ground-breaking text entitled T’ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family secret Transmissions (ISBN: 0-912059-01-X). In it he disclosed that, according to the noted Chinese martial arts historian T’ang Hao, in…
1930 Lu-ch’ans grandson Yang Ch’eng-fu, while serving as Dean of Instruction at the Chekiang martial Arts Institute, received an enquiry from the Central Martial Arts Institute regarding the birth and death dates of his late grandfather. In his response, Ch’eng-fu disclosed that Lu-ch’an began studying with Ch’ang-sing at the age of ten and did not return to Yung-nien until in his forties.
Subsequent research and Chen family records disclose that Yang Lu-chan was an indentured servant - essentially a slave of the Chens - who had been sold to them by his parents. The entire story of him having gone to Chen Village as an experienced martial artist who wanted the Chen’s family art was designed to conceal his original servile relationship to the Chen family. Upon the death of his owner he had been released from his indentures since it was deemed, according to the social mores of the time, inappropriate for the young widow of his owner to have an adult male slave in the household.
It would appear that relations between him and his late owner’s family were cordial for, upon returning to his original childhood home in Yongnian, he continued to work for the Chens in a pharmacy they owned until being approached by their landlord Wu Yu-hsiang to teach him the Chens' Kung Fu. In time, this led to his role in training troops in Gwang-ping to resist the Tai-ping rebels and eventually to his and his sons’ employment in the capital to train the Imperial Bodyguard in the Yellow banner encampment outside the city as well as in palaces such as those of Prince Sweh-fang. Considering his servile origins it is indeed an amazing story, obscured though it is by residual feudal attitudes!
This sort of rewriting of history persists into modern times. In the introduction to his The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan (ISBN: 1-55643-545-2 ), which was actually ghost written by Ch’eng Man-ch’ing, we read of Cheng-fu’s actually overhearing his grandfather speaking about the role of Tai Chi in the contemporary situation of China. But he must have been channeling his grandfather… since the old man had died eleven years before Cheng-fu was born.
In Jou Tsung Hw’a book, the traditional Chan San-feng account is immediately followed by a history of the development of Tai Chi by the Chen family starting with an ancestor, Chen Wan-ting, who had been a garrison commander in the late M’ing Dynasty. What follows seems to be quite historical, although the person of Chen Wan-ting may be a resurrected memory. But what is missing is - where did Chen Wan-ting get Tai Chi from? Jou’s presentation of the Chen history traces the family’s lineage from Chen Wan-ting, the Ming soldier, down to the 20th Century master Chen Fa-ke who was responsible for bringing the Chen tradition to Beijing in 1928. But Jou makes no effort to reconcile the two accounts – one mythic and the other historiographical.
The missing link, once again, is the martial arts historian T’ang Hao. In his account of his research trips to Chen Village in the 1920’s and 30’s, he states that he there found only two martial arts texts. One was an incomplete version of the Song of Sparring. The other was General Ch’i Chi-kuang’s Classic of Pugilism. At this point a great deal becomes clear! Whether or not Chen Wan-ting was a significant historical person, there can be no doubt about the General who was a figure of national importance in the history of the Ming Empire.
In Professor Wile’s T’ai Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art (ISBN: 0-912059-04-4) we find the Ming General’s well-known training manual from the 1500’s, complete with his illustrations of the 32-method sequence which made up his system of pugilism. These 32 methods, cherry-picked from the combative systems of General Chi’s era and bearing such familiar names as Golden Cock Stands on One Leg, Bend Single Whip and Seven Stars Posture, are the core methods of Tai Chi Chuan.
One may therefore postulate that, upon being demobilized after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 1640's, Chen Wan-ting returned to his home and family with this manual in his baggage. Subsequently, influenced by the sequences preserved at the Shaolin Temple which was only 40 miles away from Chen Village, his descendants re-ordered and evolved the General’s system into the Chen style of today from which all other styles, including that of the Yangs, are derived.
In the martial traditions of the Wu / Haos, Yangs, and the Manchurian Wu’s of Beijing collections of documents were developed in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries which we have come to know collectively as The Tai Chi Classics. A large number of them were kept secret by the Wu and Yang families who revealed their existence to the world only in 1979-1980. They have been anthologized by Professor Wile in his Lost T’ai-chi Classics of the Late Ch’ing Dynasty (ISBN: 0-7914-2654-8) and in the Wu family’s text cited above (of which a new edition has just come out published by Jonathan Krehm).
These writings share certain characteristics although they are from different creative hands. They assert a connection between Tai Chi and Taoism, speak of combative methods without actually illustrating them, rely upon Taoist cosmology (although sometimes poorly transmitted), and make no reference to the catastrophic historical events of the period. (We must remember that the art emerges to the world from the maelstrom of the Tai-ping rebellion, a catastrophe which resulted in an estimated 30,000,000 dead. Casually speaking of trips back and forth between Yongnian and Chen Village for training does not match what was transpiring in that part of the country!) Also, they are generally anonymous or attributed to mythical figures such as Chan San Feng,
The Tai Chi Classics are utterly unlike General Chi’s text which alludes to no religion or philosophy, responds to a specific historical crisis (the Japanese occupation of Chinese coastal regions), and is presented as the acknowledged work of a specific historical figure complete with his illustrations. If any single person is to be cited as the founder of what came to be known as Tai Chi, it would seem to be the General – and yet few today know his name.
The reason for this is that he did not transmit his method as a family art. He was a figure of great national importance - but Tai Chi became commoditized and franchised. It came into the possession of a small number of families and was passed along by them in the context of family lineages. It was subjected to a branding process that has resulted in the competing systems of Tai Chi we have today.
In the period subsequent to the fall of the Gang of Four and end of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, many attempts have been made to rationalize the historical account by subordinating it to various versions of the Chan San-feng myth. All of these accounts essentially constitute efforts at erecting a prophylactic barrier between the myth and the historical research of T’ang Hao in Chen Village. Often the promoters of these accounts go to the extent of accusing T’ang Hao of having actually falsified the evidence and his findings.
These newer theories usually involve recently discovered documents (which are never made available for forensic examination) and generally centre on the figure of someone called Wang Tsung-yueh who is supposed to have been a martial descendant of the immortal hermit of Wudang mountain and who is supposed to have shared his martial art with the Chens. This has the neat effect of obscuring General Chi’s role while minimizing the creative role of the Chens, concealing Yang Lu-chan’s servile relationship to them, while also preserving for the Yangs a martial lineage of romantic and semi-divine origin. On the part of some Tai Chi enthusiasts and masters, adherence to such theories are held to be indicative of lineage loyalty. This can occasionally be conflated with the new Chinese nationalism.
An interesting precursor of this is outlined by martial arts scholar Stanley Henning in his article Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan which examines the Chan San Feng myth in the context of the 19th Century Self Strengthening Movement in late imperial China. His thesis is that the promotion of the Chan San-feng legend proceeded from an anti-Manchu impetus and was an effort to provide an impeccably Han and Daoist origin to Tai Chi Chuan in contrast to the 'foreign' Buddhism of Shaolin which, after all, originated in ancient India. The acceptance and promotion of Chan San Feng at that time answered a proto-nationalist, ideological, ethnic-Han imperative. Even today one Tai Chi tradition, that of the ‘hidden’ Mi-chuan style, proclaims that it represents a ‘secret’ Tai Chi which was never disclosed by the Yangs to their foreign Manchurian imperial employers (and associates such as the Wu's of Beijing).
Tai Chi also figures in the present confinement and suppression of the Uyghur minority by the Chinese government. Tai Chi, as an intangible cultural treasure of China, is now considered emblematic of ethnic-Han ascendancy. In 2016 it was widely reported that, as part of the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, some were being compelled as a punishment to perform Tai Chi in ethnic Han dress to indicate their support of the Chinese Communist regime. This is grotesque. The infliction of Tai Chi as a kind of punishment is appalling.
The identification of Tai Chi with the Han ethnic majority culture utterly ignores the role of Chinese ethnic minorities in preserving, developing and transmitting Tai Chi. We should take note of this and beware. Tai Chi is by no means the exclusive development of the Han ethnic majority. There are Manchurian, Mongolian and Hui lineages. The latest news from China is that the official anti-Muslim repression against the Uyghurs is being extended to other Chinese Muslim minorities, including the Hui minority which has been so instrumental in the preservation of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan.
But the fact is that Tai Chi has now passed beyond China. Many great Chinese martial arts masters fled China after the Maoist revolution and, more recently, since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Legitimate lineages are now to be found in the West free of the influence of the Communist Party. Western practitioners can become involved in rituals of discipleship and adherence to Chinese lineages…or not, as it pleases them. It has absolutely NO effect or impact upon the legitimacy and authenticity of their practice since so much of what is now practised in China is subject to modification and approval by the government. We should remember that this is a government which has imprisoned and tortured Tai Chi practitioners. This is a government which ordered the masters assigned to produce an official Tai Chi that they were to pull the fangs from the serpent.
A mass display of dramatic (and fake) Tai Chi by practitioners in Han dress was part of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics along with ranks of costumed ‘Confucian scholars’ shouting out selections of the Master’s writings to an appreciative but uncomprehending international audience. The use of the art for national political purposes is also the impetus behind the appointment of official lineage-holders for the five Tai Chi families and the effort, through tournaments and other competitions, to assert specific lineages as being normative and officially legitimate.
I have recently heard reports of certain athletes promoted to the rank of 'inner students' of prominent Chinese Tai Chi grand-masters by provincial authorities as a credential in support of their careers representing the Chinese nation.
This process continues. We are aware. The horse has left the stable.