Given the increasing popularity of tai chi, the growing influence of Chinese culture, and Jet Li’s collaboration with Jack Ma to introduce an entirely new version of tai chi
to the Olympics, this is a perfect time to re-examine the true nature of Yang tai chi. Great effort continues to be devoted to establishing the clear origins of tai chi in China,
and it is more important than ever to try to understand and revive the original intent of the art.
Today, tai chi is usually depicted and described as nothing more than a moving meditation, since tai chi is good for health, including balance, coordination, and proprioception. Invariably, the tai chi style in question is Yang, with its large, slow graceful movements and its practitioners are frequently elderly (Rosenfeld, 2013). At best, most instructors of Yang tai chi would say that it used to be a martial art.
But Yang family tai chi was—and, indeed, still is!—a martial art, and this article will explore its core fighting nature and how people came to perceive it as something else. I hope to be able to show that one can paint a turtle all kinds of different colors, but, in the end, it is still a turtle.
Tai chi or, more accurately, taiji (short for tài jí quán), is an ancient meditational art from China with mental and physical health benefits and a very effective means of self-defense. It is sometimes called a moving meditation. Its origins have long been thought to be the Taoist monks at Wudang Mountains, but several Chinese families are also known to have practiced some version of tai chi throughout the centuries. Although there are several main families of tai chi, the two that are compared in this article are Chen and Yang tai chi.
As we will show in the first part of the article, historical evidence suggests that Yang-family tai chi was originally much like the older Chen-family style, but modified over time to become what we know as Yang tai chi today. The second part of the article will show how some of the moves from the popular 24-posture Yang tai chi form can be used in fighting.
 To learn about whether the art should be called tai chi or taiji, please see https://www.focustaichi.com/is-it-tai-chi-or-taiji/.
History of tai chi
Part of the challenge with Chinese history, especially given a predilection for larger-than-life characters in martial arts as elsewhere, is a longtime love of combining folklore with actual events and reporting this as history. Although many colorful stories are told about the origins of Yang tai chi, the art is apparently based on Qigong, a meditational art that dates back to before written language and then called Dao Yin.
For many years, the Taoist monks of the Wudang Mountains were considered the originators of tai chi, many believing it to have been the creation of the holy man Zhang Sanfeng during the early Ming Dynasty (1368). However, Chinese officials started having doubts and, on August 21, 2007, the General Administration of Sport of China upheld Chen Village as the official birthplace of tai chi, commemorating the occasion with an official plaque. This led to such an enormous uproar from other tai chi systems, including the Wudang monks, that the plaque and recognition were rescinded only two months later.
At present, both the Wudang monks and the Chen family claim the honor of originating tai chi. Given the importance of tai chi in China’s culture, its history, as well as its practice, is bitterly disputed. However, this article addresses more recent events and looks instead at what might have happened to Yang-family tai chi so that it has become today, in the West, mostly devoid of its original martial abilities.
History of Yang tai chi
Yang tai chi began with Yang Luchan (1799–1872). Yang Luchan was already an accomplished fighter when he contracted Chen Chang Xing (1771–1852) of Chen village to teach him martial arts. At the time, the Chen family did not traditionally call their art tai chi; it was just their family’s martial art. It was the world outside of Chen Village that assigned the term taiji.
The Yang tai chi practiced by its acknowledged founder, Yang Luchan—and his family and followers—was therefore very much a formidable martial art, as Chen is known to be. The tai chi Yang Luchan taught was what he had learned, and it closely resembled what we know as Chen. It is said to have involved leaps, foot stomps, and obvious expressions of gathering and releasing energy present in Chen today, as well as, importantly, fajin (fājìn, 発勁), that is, the ability to express explosive energy with minimal force or movement. All these techniques were present in the original Yang family tai chi.
Yang Luchan practiced and taught tai chi as a martial art for many years, until his second grandson, Yang Chengfu (1883–1936), got into the game. According to Wile (2016), who has pieced together history from four documents unearthed in Henan Province, it is Yang Chengfu, the Yang family lineage holder, who removed or, rather, disguised the martial aspects of the system, focusing more on its meditational and health aspects. Why Yang Chengfu chose to do so, we will probably never know for sure. He could have felt that feudal combat was no longer in such great need and that the art would be better focused on the internal/meditational aspects. In any case, he wanted to make the art more accessible to the general public and therefore removed what he considered the more complicated moves and concepts. He was thus instrumental in producing the version of the art we know of today, with its slow, expansive forms and graceful transitions.
But things did not end there.
 These documents include the (1) the “Li Family Genealogy,” “Martial Arts Manual,” and “Li Daozi Stele” of the Li family and Thousand Year Temple (Qianzaisi) of Tang Village in Boai county; (2) the “Wang Family Spear Manual” of the Wang family of Wangbao Village in Boai; (3) “The Secret Art of Taijiquan” of the Wang family of Zhaobao Town in Wen County; and (4) the “Wang Family Genealogy” of Xinjiang County, Shanxi Province.
Introduction of Tai Chi to America
The first public demonstration of tai chi in America was most likely in 1954, in a performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City by the modern dancer Sophia Delza. The introduction of Yang tai chi to the American public by a dancer certainly did not help its martial credibility; however, ultimately, we need to look at Yang Chengfu’s student Cheng Man-Ch’ing.
Cheng Man-Ch’ing (1902–1975) studied with Yang Chengfu in China and transcribed his master’s writings on tai chi. When Cheng Man-Ch’ing came to the United States in the 1960s, however, he branded himself as one of the founding fathers of Yang tai chi and thus profoundly confused the whole picture.
Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s created a 37-posture Yang-style tai chi form that is very popular today. Despite his fighting skill (Smith 1990), Cheng Man-Ch’ing changed many movements of Yang tai chi, further removing any martial intent, such that they must often be modified for fighting applications. Additionally, where push hands (tuī shǒu, 推手) was initially a way to learn tai chi’s fighting applications against a responsive, moving target, Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s version seemed more focused on pushing the opponent off his/her rooting.
I do not know why Cheng Man-Ch’ing chose to teach Yang tai chi this way, but I have yet to find any Yang family lineage holders who recognize Cheng Man-Ch’ing as a representative of their family art. Nonetheless, his name has come to be deeply ingrained in America’s experience and knowledge of Yang-style tai chi.
Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s popularization of a style of Yang tai chi already devoid of martial intent, combined with dancer Delza’s promotion of the tai chi around the same time, prevented the American public from ever being shown the original, fighting art. By the time it started to gain popularity in America, Yang tai chi had become softened and was being offered as a gentle, relaxing way to gain and maintain strength, mobility, and balance.
Yang tai chi in America today
Today, Yang tai chi is being increasingly appropriated by the mindfulness movement, as well as geriatric therapy, with leading health organizations such as the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School using it to lower stress and reduce the symptoms of chronic ailments such as high blood pressure and arthritis pain. However, as America becomes more familiar with qigong, I hope that it can replace tai chi as a readily available and effective health modality, since it is easier and quicker to learn than tai chi, and therefore has more rapid health effects.
In few places is Yang tai chi being kept alive in its true fighting style, and, then, mostly with its longer 108-posture form, not the shortened 24-posture form that is practiced worldwide. Although the 24-posture form is often taught so that students can go anywhere and join others practicing the same form, this form is also the most softened version of Yang tai chi. For these reasons, applications from the 24-posture Yang-family form are demonstrated below. If some fighting spirit can still be found in this form, then the painted turtle is still a turtle.
Yang tai chi fighting applications
If one takes care so that the 24-posture Yang-family form mirrors the traditional 103-posture form and does not become a flowery personal expression, one can still uncover a great deal of fight in Yang tai chi. Each of the moves, from start to finish has a defensive and/or fighting application. Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, Brush the Knee and Step, White Crane Flips Its Wings, all the way through to the turning backfist close to the end of the form can work effectively in a defense situation. However, these applications are possible only after hours of practice, going through each move slowly and smoothly, to cement in the mechanics so that, when needed, one can remain relaxed and perform the action. Just as in music, to play fast, fluid passages with precision, one first needs to practice them slowly.
While it is fairly easy to see the sheer power generated in a Chen form, the beautiful, almost dance-like movements in a Yang form disguise the art’s true fighting nature rather than eliminate them. If anything, the flowing movements are more devastating because most opponents will not see them coming. The moves can also be gradually escalated, from gently dropping an opponent to explosive limb breaking.
When first learned, Yang tai chi applications seem soft and perfectly designed to gently lay your attacker on the ground. However, once the moves are sufficiently practiced and have become an expression of one’s thoughts, it is a simple matter to introduce some fajin just before dropping your opponent. The once soft nature of Yang tai chi then transforms into the powerful martial art it is reputed to be while still maintaining all its meditational and health benefits.
It seems a shame to learn an art whose culture is based on Yin–Yang balance in all things while practicing only half its intended benefits. Those who are drawn to Yang tai chi only for its serene, graceful moves should at least be aware that what they are practicing is but the gentle façade of a fighting art.If articles such as this can inspire more people to look into the fighting aspects of Yang tai chi, it would help keep the complete art alive.
Wile, Douglas. (2016). “Fighting Words: Four New Document Finds Reignite Old Debates in Taijiquan Historiography,” Martial Arts Studies 4, 17–35. Available at https://orca.cf.ac.uk/103201/1/729-1835-1-SM.pdf.
Smith, Robert W. (1990). Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods, 2nd ed., North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
Rosenfeld, Arthur (2013). Tai Chi: The Perfect Exercise, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia, PA.