T'ai Chi Ch'uan - History and Origins

The story told of Tai Chi's origin, is usual the one regarding the hermit and alchemist Zhang San Feng, in about 1300 AD. He retired to a life of seclusion and contemplation on Wudang Mountain, here he witness or dreamt a fight between a snake and a crane or sparrow or magpie (the stories vary). Zhang was apparently a master of Shoalin Kung fu and the graceful movement of the snake evading the sharp beak of the bird and visa-versa, the crane evading the snakes bite, inspired him to create a new method of fighting based on soft and yielding moves as opposed to hard and quick attacking. Historical corroboration for this story is very thin on the ground, it does however resonant T'ai Chi Ch'uan principles and is adopted as a creation legend.

The History of Tai Chi is clouded in mysteries, brought on by periods of book burning and peasant revolts. The documenting of the art recognizable today, as far as can be historically verified, began during nineteen century at a time when the Qing dynasty was in decline. At this time China was beset by a series of devastating rebellions at home, and encroachment and exploitation from overseas by western imperial powers. The Marketing of Tai Chi at this time would appear to be that of something quintessentially Chinese, being steeped in the native daoist philosophy, as well as associated with the immortal Zhang San Feng and the holy site of Wudang Mountain.

Along with Wudang Tai Chi's story is linked to Chen Village, home of Chen family and style of Tai Chi. Here the art was either received or as some contend, was created by Chen Wang Ting sometime after the fall of the Ming Dynasty and establishment of the Qing in 1644. It is accepted that most modern styles and practice are derived from the Chen Style.

The terminology and principles of T'ai Chi Ch'uan predate Zhang San Feng. The phrase Tai Chi meaning the cosmos can be traced back to the Yi Jing or book of changes, which is over three thousand year old. During the Tang Dynasty (618-906) there are references to a Xu Xuan Ping practicing an art called the 37 patterns of Tai Chi also called Long Fist named after the Yangtze (long river) because the performance flowed in long and smooth manner as a river, around the same time on Wudang Mountain a similar art know as the Primordial long fist was practiced by Li Dao Zi. The first use of the term "T'ai Chi Ch'uan " can be found in text by Cheng ling Xi during the Later Liang Dynasty (907-23). Eventually Zhang San Feng is credited with the creation of soft internal style of martial arts which lead to T'ai Chi Ch'uan.

Notions of stillness overcoming movement, softness prevailing against the hard are recurring themes of Daoism, as found in the Daodejing (3-4th centuries BC) the philosophies original text, and later in the writings of Zhuangzi (4th Century BC). Ideas of following the dao, nature's way and the balancing of yin and yang formed a basis for much Chinese thinking including medicine. Later Daoist sects sought immortality. This pursuit of longevity involved either via literal alchemy or a metaphorical internal alchemy through meditation and health promoting exercises, known as Qigong. This Internal self-cultivation as a means of spiritual fulfilment and promoting health has survived the centuries, eventually permeating martial arts and can be seen today in modern Tai Chi with its health benefits along side self-defence applications.



Stanley Hemming "Ignorance, Legend and Tai Chi Chuan." Journal of the Chen Style Taijiquan Research Association of Hawaii, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 1-7.

Michael P. Garofalo "Taoist Master Chang San-Feng", http://www.egreenway.com/taichichuan/chang1.htm

John Hancock, "The Mythical Life of Chang San Feng", (c) 1999 http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Pagoda/9536/chang.html

Bing YeYoung, Information on the origins of Tai Chi, http://www.literati-tradition.com/
Web links as of 12/01/2008

Douglas Wile, "Lost T'ai-chi Classics from the Ch'ing Dynasty" (Suny Series, Chinese Philosophy & Culture)

Douglas Wile, "Tai Chi's Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art"

Wong Kiew Kit, "The Complete Book of Tai Chi Chuan: A Comprehensive Guide to the Principles and Practice"

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Duncan Stonebridge
M: 07740 642457
E: duncan@tingjing.co.uk
Registered Instructor with the
Tai Chi Union For Great Britain

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