The Art of Taiji Boxing is commonly traced back to a Chang San Feng who probably dates back to the 11 th Century. C.E.. He was a Taoist priest who settled on Wu Dang Mountain and is attributed with the development of the martial strategy known as the ‘Internal School” (nei jia) later to be called Taiji Quan.
Taiji Quan as we know it today underwent significant changes in the early 20th century from a secretive martial art to a more public and less martially oriented exercise/health system. Many of the martial elements were sidelined and even excluded as forms and methods evolved for a more civil and public audience. As a martial art it was taught to the Manchu guards of the Imperial palace in the late Ching Dynasty and at the end of Imperial China high level exponents like Chuan You became body guards to politicians and taught the police and army.
Taiji martial roots are readily traceable to the 17 century with threads disappearing further into the distance of Chinese history and legend. The most overtly martial of all the Taiji traditional styles recognised in China is the Chen style and it is widely considered that the Chen style was the root from which the different styles are said to have grown. There is however much conflicting opinion regarding this as the origin of Taiji.
Nevertheless it is undisputed that the great Boxer Yang Lu Chan (1799-1822) studied in Chen village, Chen Jia Guo in Nothern China. This is the ancestral home of the Chen clan. Yang ‘the invincible’ took his skills to Beijing and taught in the Imperial Palace defeating all who challenged him. He passed his knowledge down through his family and 3 primary disciples. One highly skilled disciple was Quan You (Wu family patriach.1834-1902) and father of Wu Jian Quan whose Taiji later gave rise to the Wu style as we know it today.
The history of Internal boxing and martial arts in general was turbulent during the Mao era and during the cultural revolution many were pillored for what was termed their feudal practices. After Mao however Taiji made a return to public respectability as a cultural treasure. Many teachers were reinstated and Traditional Taiji began to be documented and taught publicly. It also began to evolve towards standardization losing some of its traditional martial characteristics.
Now, Beijing College of Physical Education, with the collaboration of respected modern Masters has created composite forms of all the main Taiji quan systems. The outcome is a a syllabus of forms, designed primarily for standardized teaching, which are now aimed at demonstration and competitions rather than martial combat. Coming now under the generic of Wu Shu, they, like many other modern interpretations of traditional martial arts have lost much of their defining characteristics.
Taiji Quan as Martial Art
Taiji Quan is a sophisticated expression of ancient Chinese martial culture.
Most people understand Taiji quan as a series of martially derived movements strung together in a long slow, flowing and integrated sequence. This is known as the ‘Slow Form’ which can be practiced as either a therapeutic exercise or as a martial art. There are 5 major Taiji styles in China; they are Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao and Sun.
All the styles share a common root and principles which can be practiced successfully for both health and self-defence. All of the styles comprise a long form which is the essential vocabulary of movement and primary means of practice. There are also weapons forms. Traditional weapons are Broad sword, Double Edge Sword, Spear and Pole/Staff. In Wu Style Taiji there are both slow and fast hand forms as well as traditional weapons forms and two man combatting exercise. The various forms provide a martial vocabulary of movements that then must be studied in terms of martial meaning and strategy.
As aa Taoist martial art of the ‘internal school’, Taiji specializes in the cultivation of specific martial skills that allows the practitioner to blend with, direct and manipulate the force and balance of the opponent. It is considered one of the highest expressions of Chinese martial arts.. ‘Internal schools’ are defined by the cultivation of a ‘soft’, integrated and harmonious energy (like water and waves) as opposed to a ‘hard’ muscular and more rigid strength. This is trained through a long slow process or ‘Nei Gong’ (Inner work) which starts with form and exercises and progresses through various stages of solo training (martial qi gong) and partner training (Pushing Hands/Tui Shou) to cultivate the Taiji martial body, skills and mindset.
Sometimes referred to as Ba Men, Wu Bu ( 8 Gates and 5 Steps) Taiji’s martial strategy is based upon 8 principle hand\body skills (energies) and 5 primary stepping strategies. Other defining characteristics are ‘attach to your opponent by touch, then adhere as if stuck by glue, give up your own force to join with theirs and follow it to create an opportunity for attack’. Two person partner exercise, Tui Shou also trains a ‘ do not resist but do not let go’ strategy and cultivates ‘neutralising’, ‘listening’ and ‘interpretting’ skills from which defence and attack methods can be studied.
Taiji Quan as Health Exercise
Traditional Taiji forms are inherently martial However, since the the manner of practice, methodology and principles have evolved in accordance with the indigenous Chinese philosophy of Daoism they also sit comfortably within the framework of Chinese medicine as a form of exercise that is extremely beneficial on many levels.
Daoism’s central theme is harmonizing man with nature. The aim is both spiritual and material in that it seeks to maximize health and longevity. ( an enduring theme in Daoism) whilst cultivating a clear, subtle and transcendent mind able to intuit the unity of all things and dissolve into that unity which is “to become one with the Dao”. Daoism recognizes that all life/nature and matter is interdependent and also exists in a state of constant flux (expressed by the theory of Yin/Yang). Understanding this allows the practionner to achieve a point of balance between all the conflicting energies that we encounter externally and all the stresses and systemic demands that happen internally.
The Daoists believe that the body is both physical and energetic and is a microcosm of the universe, energetically linked to both ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’. Daoist believe that cultivating the physical self in specific ways restores the innate self healing and self balancing ability of the body and brings man into an energetically balanced state with the forces of nature. The body is also considered the alchemical crucible within which spiritual development is undertaken as well as the means by which energy can be harnessed and transformed to both regenerate the body as well as transcend the mundane and reunite with a primary state of consciousness.
In China ,Taijiquan is considered to be the most effective form of self practice for health maintainance and promoting longevity. In this respect Taiji Quan is also considered a sophisticated form of Qi Gong.
Taiji also teaches ‘mindfullness’ and stabilizes the emotions and teaches us a different and positive perspective towards our own health and our ordinary life in all its stresses, conflicts, disappointments and successes. Taiji increases our sense of well being and is an investment in a healthy future since it can be practiced into old age.