The origins of Tai Chi are rooted in mythical Chinese culture. The Chinese credit the celebrated hero Zhang San Feng with the creation of Tai Chi. Legend has it that he observed a hawk attacking a snake. As the battle between the two animals ensued, the snake repeatedly used relaxed evasive movements to elude the aggressive attacks of the hawk. Finally, the exhausted and frustrated hawk flew away. There are several versions, using different birds, but this is the basic myth (Frank, 2003). However, the true origins of Tai Chi are in dispute. The first historical record shows Tai Chi was developed in the 17th century in Chen Village (Yang, 2010). Later, Tai Chi was passed on to Yang Lu Chan, who developed the Yang style, which is now the most popular and most researched.
Yang Lu Chan’s grandson Yang Cheng Fu became the inheritor of the Yang tradition. He defined Tai Chi as “the art of concealing hardness within softness, like a needle in cotton” and asserted that “its technique, physiology, and mechanics all involve considerable philosophic principles” (Wile, 1983, p.3). He popularized Tai Chi for the masses and distinguished two levels, the civil and the martial (Wile, 1983). The civil is the “essence” and can be used for development of health, which is referred to as a type of gong, or practice or skill. In this way it falls under the umbrella of Qigong, a type of Qi-based exercise that literally means the practice (gong) of moving life’s vital energy (Qi) (Cohen, 1997). The martial is the “function,” which has the civil in mind but can be used for self-defense (Wile, 1983). Traditionally, Tai Chi is often taught in this martial manner, in which learning the form is not an end unto itself but a first step in which the basics are internalized. Then, after a year or so, the student learns push hands and sword practice. Thus, Tai Chi is a martial art that contains within it self-healing principles intertwined in martial movements.
As Tai Chi has developed through the centuries and through various schools of practice, it has become not one specific set of movements but can be practiced in different forms. Empty hand forms are usually the main focus of most Tai Chi classes. “Long forms” contain many more movements than “short forms,” which are not traditional but are modified to ease the learning curve. Different traditional styles are descended from the Chen but have evolved as various families transformed them, including the Yang, Wu, Sun, and Li styles. The variability of forms and intensities of physical activity among them is one of the challenges in understanding Tai Chi.
This infusion of healing movements with martial movements signifies Tai Chi as a unique exercise. Many people compare it to Yoga but it is quite different because of this martial aspect. I know of many people who study Tai Chi solely for martial practices but predominantly Tai Chi is a healing exercise. This is especially the case in the US, where so many combative styles are promoted. Tai Chi has a comparative advantage in that it offers a mindfulness Qi-based exercise.
The next post will explore Tai Chi’s involvement in Health Promotion