The Dirty History of Tai Chi

The history of Tai Chi, correctly called Tai Ji Quan (supreme ultimate boxing), that is disseminated to the masses, is often a mythical story that involves an art form thousands of years old with Taoist immortals, monks, and fairies. Commonly it is propagated that a non-existent type of magical energy, will heal the practitioners body and/or throw opponents without ever touching them. This is a fictional portrayal that in the west we call a fairy tale and in the east they call ‘wǔ xiá’ (martial arts stories in theatre/fiction 武侠). These were popularized in the early 1900’s in China.

The notion that one can achieve unequivocal power, something akin to a superhero, without ever having to perform a day of rigorous training or hard work, is certainly the stuff of movies and legend. In contrast, the truth is far less enchanting, and involves hard work, physical exercise, redundant practice, mental endurance, commitment, perseverance, and a history full of violence, bloodshed, and oppression. One can see why the truth is less enchanting, and the fantasy is more amenable to the general public.

The version closer to historical accuracy shows that Tai Chi was developed roughly 400 years ago in Chen Village, Henan Province, China, and was known as ‘Cannon Boxing’. Yang style Tai Chi, was created as recently as the mid 1800's by founder Yang Lu Chan. Yang, lived and studied in Chen Village during his younger years, and later went on to create his own system of Taijiquan originally called 'Small Cotton Boxing', and now known as Yang Style Tai Chi.

Yang Lu Chan was hired by the Qing government to teach armed, and unarmed combat to the imperial guards of the imperial court. He also disseminated his art to his family/descendants. Around the turn of the 20th Century, the Chinese became disenchanted with their martial arts after repeated embarrassing incidents involving unarmed combatants versus firearms. Arguably the most famous of these is known as the 'Boxer Rebellion' which lasted 4 years and took place in Yantai, Shandong province. It is important to recognize that the general population of China did not at this time, or previously, hold martial arts in high esteem.

Although martial arts was considered beneath the scholar class, it was also prevalent with soldiers, guards in the biaoju (security-escort companies), local militia-men commonly used to quell local bandits and keep the piece for an otherwise preoccupied and impotent government. To the average person, its lowest form of expression, was associated with criminals, gangsters, ruffians, or charlatans.

The ‘boxers vs firearm’ incidents, further cemented the general public’s poor opinion of their martial arts. Considering it a rather fruitless endeavor or waste of time. At the turn of the century, the Chinese, having battled a western powers sponsored opium crisis, and repeated ‘mass famines’ that killed millions of people, were also being called the 'sick men of Asia' by the international community.

As part of a movement to change this stigmatism, and perhaps in an effort to keep their arts from dying, a nationalist effort took place and Chinese martial arts teachers began teaching their martial arts (wu shu) for health rather than fighting.

The early 1900's saw the creation of organizations such as the National Guoshu Institute, and Chin Woo Athletics Association. A concerted effort to combat the 'sick men of Asia' accusations, and affect positive national change was undertaken.

Within the Yang family, Yang Lu Chan’s grandson, Yang Chen Fu, had an entrepreneurial spirit that would save not only the Yang family art, but the connected Chen, Wu, and Wu Hao styles as well. Chenfu took the family art, and began teaching it to the general public for health purposes.

Using slow motion practice, and longer movements as the focal point, he removed much of the fighting application and combative elements taught by his grandfather, father, brother, and uncle. Thus was born a form of exercise that was all at once accessible to the young, old, weak, sick, and those of poor physical condition.

Prior to this, Yang family taijiquan was taught as a martial art. It involved such training methods as striking, kicking, joint locks, throws, sparring, fighting, and weapons training. Forms practice (tào lù 套路) and push hands (tuī shǒu 推手), in contrast to present day, were only a small portion of the training. It is questionable if push hands had ‘any’ role in the traditional combative training. It was more likely a derivative of the later years, a game for people uninterested in fighting.

Due to Yang Chenfu's efforts, Yang style went on to become extremely popular. It is more widely proliferated than any other style of taijiquan throughout the world - albeit grossly watered down from the original fighting art. It’s true nature is evident by some writers of the time.

Gu Liuxin writes of Yang Shaohao (Yang Chen Fu’s older brother)

“a high frame with lively steps, movements gathered up small, alternating between fast and slow, hard and crisp fajin (power/energy), with sudden shouts, eyes glaring brightly, flashing like lightning, a cold smile and cunning expression. There were sounds of “heng and ha”, and an intimidating demeanor. The special characteristics of Shaohou’s art were: using soft to overcome hard, utilization of sticking and following, victorious fajin, and utilization of shaking pushes. Among his hand methods were: knocking, pecking, grasping and rending, dividing tendons, breaking bones, attacking vital points, closing off, pressing the pulse, interrupting the pulse. His methods of moving energy were: sticking/following, shaking, and connecting.”

Three decades later, the Communist Party took control of China and once again outlawed the instruction of martial arts for fighting purposes. During this period many traditional martial artists fled the country, or were killed. This restriction by the government was not for fear that someone would attack a rifleman with a spear or sword, but because they needed to control the populace.

This task becomes exponentially more difficult when it involves those training in fighting arts. Martial training empowers an individual, and empowered people do not do what they are told, blindly following commands, or succumbing to oppression.

After this period of unrest, China formed a committee of martial arts teachers who stayed behind and used their martial arts for health, or who had returned to the mainland from their exile. This committee created the ‘standardized wushu sets’ that summarized the broad spectrum of China's legacy martial arts, into a few forms, representing the breadth of age old styles.

These sets were then presented to the rest of world in a neat, clean package that could be government regulated. The movements left behind the fighting elements of old, and replaced them with sharp anatomical lines, clean corners, fancy acrobatics, and gymnastics, or dance-style 'timed' routines.

As part of this standardization the Yang taijiquan 24 movement form (a.k.a. Beijing Short Form) was created. This was to represent Yang Style taijiquan (against the families approval) and become a ‘national exercise’ that China's citizens would practice every morning in local parks for decades to come.

As China opened her doors to the rest of the world, westerners glimpsed the large organized gatherings of Chinese citizens performing their beautiful practice of the short form in parks day after day. Foreigners began learning this art form while spending time overseas, and teachers immigrated to western countries proliferating the ‘art’. The western world's interest was piqued.

Many teachers who had fled China also began moving to the west, helping further spread this art. Throughout the 1960's-70's, and even the 1980's there was a reluctance with Chinese to teach outsiders their national, or personal martial arts. This helped contribute to the spread of misinformation or false data, making it difficult to validate much of the material being practiced outside of the ‘standardized’ sets.

Without the trial by fire checks and balances that a fighting system uses to hold its validity, such as - 'fail to do this technique correctly and you get hit' - an environment was created that was ripe for esoteric practices, to include but not limited to: mysticism, numerology, archaic medicine, fancy legends, mystical energy, and pseudo-science.

Even still, the health benefits of modern taijiquan are clear. There have been many studies by qualified medical professionals substantiating the health benefits of Tai Chi practice. However, these health benefits are not unique to Tai Chi, and can be attained through most forms of physical exercise like running, swimming, cycling, dance, or other sports.

The advantage of Tai Chi over these other forms of exercise, what it offers that other forms of exercise cannot, is it’s accessibility to those unable to perform rigorous exercise. This is especially important to senior citizens, or those with debilitating injuries.

Modern Tai Chi, while no longer a a martial art, is a form of exercise that can be taught to people of all ages. Allowing them to move, think, and have fun as a social activity. Whether it be those looking to improve balance, circulation, stress reduction, or those who think they are too old to work out, or too “out of shape” - all can find a welcome home in studying the soft styles of Tai Chi in it’s modern representation.

If looking for martial arts in its traditional role as a method of combat, or self-defense, then know that it is extremely rare to find taijiquan being taught in this manner.


Wile, Douglas. T'ai-chi's Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art. New York: Sweet Ch'i, 1999. Print.

Kennedy, Brian, and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2005. Print.

Wile, Douglas. Lost Tʻai-chi Classics from the Late Chʻing Dynasty. Albany: State University of New York, 1996. Print.

Kang, Gewu. The Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts, 5000 Years = [Zhongguo Wu Shu Chun Qiu]. Santa Cruz, CA: Plum Pub., 1995. Print.

Smith, Robert W. Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1974. Print.

Fu, Zhongwen, and Louis Swaim. Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan. Berkeley, CA: Frog/Blue Snake, 2006. Print.

Randy Brown

MISSION - To empower you through real martial arts training. Provide you a welcoming atmosphere to train in a safe manner with good people that you can trust.