History of Tai Chi

Taoist Origins

Although the Tai Chi symbol and eight trigrams are attributed to the Emperor Sage Fu Hsi, King Wen (1152-1056 BC)and his son, Duke of Zhou, also contributed to the development of the 64 hexagrams and the I Ching (Book of Changes).

However, the person traditionally regarded as the founder of Tai Chi Chuan, the martial art, was Zhang San Feng, or Chang San Feng (張三豐). It is recorded in the Ming History (明史) that he was born at the end of the Southern Song Dynasty and lived through the entire Yuan Dynasty (1279-1386 AD) in to the reign of Tian Shun (天順)(1454) of the Ming Dynasty, a period of more than two hundred years! According to legend, Zhang San Feng was reading when he heard a crane cry out. On investigation he found a crane and snake engaged in a fight. Each time the crane attacked the snake would avoid the onset with the smallest movement eventually resulting in the crane being exhausted and giving up the attack. On reflection, Zhang realised that the hard attack of the crane was avoided by the soft defence of the snake. He then related these two forces to the principles of Yin and Yang, and later used this knowledge in the design of the Tai Chi forms.

There are many people who have been associated with the development of Tai Chi but two Taoist characters of note were Xu Xuan Ping, or Hsu Hsuan Ping (許宣平), and Li Dao Zi, or Li Tao Tsu (李道子), both of the Tang Dynasty (618-905 AD) and prior to Zhang San Feng. Xu Xuan Ping invented a form of exercise called "37 Forms" (三十七式) which was similar to the Chen Style of Tai Chi. Another expert at martial arts was Li Dao Zi and he invented a series of 37 forms similar to Tai Chi known as Xian Tian Quan(先天拳) or "innate" style, i.e. pure of learnt habits, which reflects the Taoist principles of returning to the pure state of a baby, soft, flexible and unadulterated.

The Yang Family Legacy

One of the most famous and most popular styles of Tai Chi Chuan was developed by Yang Lu Chan (楊露禪, 1799-1872). He originally studied the Chen style of "Long Boxing" (長拳) when he was accepted as a disciple after working in the Chen household for some time. The Chen school was founded by Chen Wang Ting (16th c. AD) and in later times, this became known as Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan, although it bears little resemblance to the "softer" forms of Yang Family Tai Chi. The Yang style went through several changes during the generations and the common form practiced today is attributed to the work of Yang Lu Chan's grandson, Yang Cheng Fu (楊澄甫, 1883-1936), who was of large frame and adapted his Tai Chi accordingly. One of his most famous students was Cheng Man Ching, or Zheng Man Qing (鄭曼青, 1901-1975), who was a man of intellect and acted as a ghost writer for some of Yang Cheng Fu's books.

The Zuo Style of Tai Chi And Internal Arts

A previously unheard of style of Tai Chi, the Zuo style is inherently a Taoist art. Although many people deny its existence, particularly some of Cheng Man Ching's disciples, it was referred to in Cheng's writings, yet he chose not to pass on much of this art to his students, with the exception of Master Wu Kuo Chung. What is known of its origin has been orally passed down according to the following story.

Many years ago in Guandong province in China, there was a famous martial artist called Zuo Lai Peng, or Tso Lai Peng (左萊蓬), nicknamed Guandong Zuo Yi Dao (關東左一刀), or Single Sabre Strike Zuo of Guandong. His sabre was over 81 catties in weight (about 40 Kgs). One day when he was putting on a great display, he heard someone laughing among the usual applause. It was a middle-aged Taoist priest who questioned whether Zuo could possibly kill anyone with such a heavy sabre. After further taunting he persuaded Zuo to attack him and to Zuo's astonishment the priest avoided the sabre and with one hand disarmed Zuo. As this nameless priest walked off, Zuo left to follow him, his students looking on speechless. For three months Zuo followed the priest until eventually he consented to teach Zuo these secret Taoist techniques of internal gong fu.

Time passed and the priest eventually disappeared. As the story goes, Zuo Lai Peng later returned and taught his new form of internal martial arts. Another famous martial artist was Zhang Qin Lin, or Chang Chin Lin (張欽霖), who also studied Tai Chi from the Yang family, mostly from Yang Cheng Fu. His notoriety spread as a martial arts champion until he caught the attention of Zuo Lai Peng, who sent one of his students to challenge Zhang. Although Zhang was initially reluctant to accept the challenge, he eventually accepted. He was defeated by this student and it was enough to persuade him to become one of Zuo's disciples.

Zhang Qin Lin was several years senior to Cheng Man Ching. As both were students of Yang Cheng Fu, their relationship developed. At the time, Zhang was still illiterate and one day Zhang agreed to teach Cheng Man Ching the secrets of the Zuo style in exchange for educating him to read and write. In this way Cheng Man Ching was later to adapt his Tai Chi to conform to many of the principles learnt from the Zuo style.

Read More about our Tai Chi legacy.

The Master of Five Excellences: Cheng Man Ching

​Founder of Shen Long Tai Chi Association: Wu Kuo Chung  

Lineage of Traditional Taoist Tai Chi