As in many areas of life involving human beings, the history of T’ai Chi is both shrouded in mystery and full of controversy. There are many and varied versions of the origins of this martial art, just as there are various spellings and translations of the name.
Regardless of how you spell or translate the name of this martial art, it has a long and interesting history. From its beginnings to the present day, it is evident that T'ai Chi is inextricably linked with the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism and the even more ancient writings of the I Ching. Even though everyone agrees that T'ai Chi has its roots in Taoism, there is considerable disagreement about where T'ai Chi was “invented” and how the various styles were developed and transmitted. As with many things from China, including the history of Taoism, much of the history of T'ai Chi is allegorical, semi-mystical and incapable of the hard proof so often sought by the western mind. Please keep this in mind as you read the following account, and any others you may find.
From the beginning of Taoism, probably in the sixth century B.C., the Taoist sage Lao Tsu set out the philosophical basis for T'ai Chi in his writings. This may have been the earliest hints of T'ai Chi. Hundreds of years later, during the era known as the Three Kingdoms, around 200 to 265 AD, a physician name Hua-tu’o taught the movements of the five creatures – the tiger, deer, bear, ape and bird. His system was intended to exercise every joint in the body and to help the digestion and circulation. This may have been the earliest precursor of T'ai Chi.
In the sixth century AD, twelve hundred years after Lao Tsu’s writings, Bodhidharma, who was called Ta Mo in China, visited the Shaolin Monastery and noticed that the monks were in terrible physical condition. He devised and taught them his Eighteen Form Lohan Exercise, which eventually grew to become the precursors of the Wei Chia (outer-extrinsic) school of exercise. This refers to all of the schools of kung-fu, and other martial arts which take an “external” approach. This is in contrast to the Nei Chia (internal-intrinsic) school of which T'ai Chi is a member, which take in “internal” approach. Later, in the Tang Dynasty, in the eighth century, the philosopher Hsu Hsuan-p’ing developed a “Long Kung-fu” of 37 forms, some of which can still be seen in the modern T'ai Chi form. Some of these movements are : Play the Pi’pa, Single Whip, Step Up to Seven Stars, Fair Lady (Jade Lady) Works the Shuttles, High Pat on Horse and White Crane Spreads Wings (Cools wings). Additionally, there were several other forms being practiced during this era, all of which had some input into the origins of T'ai Chi.
There is one person, a monk from the Wudang (Wu Tang) Monastery, who is generally credited with founding T'ai Chi – Chang San-feng. No one knows if he actually existed and, if he did, when he was born or died, although some records from the Ming-shih (which were the official chronicles of the Ming Dynasty) appear to say that he lived in the period from 1391 to 1459. On the other hand, he may merely be a compilation person such as Lao Tsu may have been.
Chang San-feng is generally credited with linking some of the older forms, some of which are mentioned above, with the concept of yin-yang from Taoism, stressing the “internal” aspects of these exercises. This linking resulted in the creation of the fundamental “Thirteen Postures” of T'ai Chi. These Thirteen postures corresponded to the eight basic trigrams of the I Ching and the five elements. The eight postures are:
7. elbow strike
8. shoulder strike
The five elements/”altitudes” are:
3. look left
4. gaze right
5. central equilibrium.
Cheng San-feng’s exercises emphasized suppleness and softness as opposed to hardness and force. His theories, writing and practices were taken up by Wang Cheng-yueh and his student Chiang Fa, and expanded and refined. Wang took the thirteen postures of Cheng San-feng and put them into a continuous sequence, thereby creating an exercise that resembles the modern T'ai Chi form. Chiang Fa taught this form to the inhabitants of the town on the Honan River. Since almost everyone in this town were named Chen, the first family-style T'ai Chi was born – the current Chen-style T'ai Chi. This is the generally accepted theory of the origin of T'ai Chi.
On the other hand, there are scholars and historians who believe that Chiang Fa didn’t bring T'ai Chi to the Chen village. Rather, they believe that he discovered the villagers practicing T'ai Chi. Other historians contend that the Chen family’s “Cannon Pounding” (Pao Chui) was a completely different martial art that influenced Chiang Fa, but was not the same as T'ai Chi.
As a side-light, it’s interesting to note that another student of Wang Chung-yueh, Chen Chow-t’ung, had a falling out with Chiang Fa and started his own version of T'ai Chi known as the “Southern School.” It eventually died out and the “Northern School” of Chiang Fa survived into the present.
However it happened, all the surviving branches of T'ai Chi came from Chiang Fa and the Chen villagers in Honan.