How Taiji lost its quan
With "T'ai Chi" classes now being offered in venues as varied as sports centres, dojos, village halls, adult education colleges, Buddhist centres and beauty salons, there seems to be some confusion in popular culture as to what kind of activity "T'ai Chi" is. Whether promoted as a "Pamper Treat" or prescribed as a method of de-stressing by health professionals and social workers, the art has clearly strayed from its martial origins within the public mindset. This essay will look at some of the major theories pertaining to where and when within the art's 350 year history the shift away from warfare and towards therapy began.
As the history of the art has been somewhat clouded by mystery and embellishment, let us first look at what can be stated with certainty.
- Taijiquan is a fighting art - the clue is in the name - it ends in quan (fist) like virtually all other Chinese martial arts.
- The art is (arguably) considered to be based to some degree on theories of yin and yang - the taiji relationship of "greatest extremes" or differentiation and the harmonisation thereof, as a martial strategy. Hence the "Taiji" portion of its name.
- Most modern schools of Taijiquan can trace their origins back to or through the fourteenth generation of the Chen clan living in Chenjiagou around 200 years ago. The Chen lineage generally traces its history further back through the Chen family to Chen Wangting (1600-1680).
Returning to point 1), Scott Rodell points out in his article
"The Martial and the Civil in Yang Style Taijiquan:"
"Chen boxing emerged in a time and a place where martial arts were practiced not for sport or self-cultivation, but as a practical means of self-defense in a violent social milieu. Henan and its neighboring North China provinces of Hebei, Shandong, and Shanxi were home to a strong martial tradition, for a variety of historical and social reasons. First, they lay in the path of repeated waves of barbarian invasions from the north, the latest of which ruled from Beijing as the Manchu, or Qing (Ching), dynasty. Second, the area was riven by clan and sectarian rivalries which often turned violent. Third, the region was rife with banditry and crime. Barriers to class mobility and the practices of polygamy and female infanticide had created a huge surplus of destitute, single, and alienated young men; to many of them, the attractions of a swashbuckling life of crime and pillage proved irresistible. The factors contributing to endemic violence in North China grew worse throughout the 19th century, as the corrupt and declining Qing dynasty proved increasingly unable to provide a modicum of stability in the face of swelling waves of rebellion and unrest (such as the Taiping rebellion of 1850-1864), not to mention the encroachment of new "barbarian" hordes from Russia, Japan, and the West. It was an unwise traveler indeed who took to the roads of North China at the time without an armed escort or at the very least, a sword of his own and the skill to use it effectively."
It was in this time of social breakdown that Yang Luchan (1799-1872) of Yungnien county in Hebei province traveled over 400 kilometers to the Chen village to study the Chen masters' renowned art. Yang is the pivotal figure in the development of modern taijiquan (tai chi chuan). Not only did he initiate a softening of the Chen style that eventually resulted in the elevation of the civil aspect of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to a position of equality with the martial aspect, but without Yang, it is possible that taijiquan (tai chi chuan) never would have become widely known outside of the Chen clan. The millions today who benefit from the practice of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) have Yang Luchan to thank, for it was he who initiated the widespread dissemination of the art."
From this we can see three things:
Firstly, that Taijiquan was certainly originally devised as a fighting art.
Secondly, that changes allegedly initiated by Yang Luchan in the 19th Century "eventually resulted in the elevation of the civil aspect of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to a position of equality with the martial aspect." Whether or not one sees this as a good or a bad thing need not be disputed here - only that it should be in the first instance acknowledged that such a paradigm shift was a gradual one. We can conclude that the so-called "civil aspect" was clearly not the original purpose of the art, and that all non-martial agendas have appeared in relatively recent history.
Thirdly we can see that Rodell perceives the "civil aspect" as being gradually advanced to "a position of equality with the martial aspect." in Taiji's history. This does not account for the complete omission of the martial aspect that has occurred in the last few decades, nor for the very recent erroneous claims that Taiji was originally devised as a health pursuit, rather than as a fighting art.
Theories pertaining to how Taiji lost its Quan
"There was prejudice in the old days. Literates despised martial arts as martial artists were short of literary learning. Now the country will be improved through reforming affairs. Martial arts has been put into the curriculum in schools so that students can be cherished on both literary and military sites. This is a good way."
- Sun Lutang, Authors preface to Xing Yi Quan Xue - 1915
"Unfortunately, over the last hundred years, most groups have not provided their students with comprehensive application training. There are several reasons for this lapse, but the primary one is that basic gongfu training was considered so important that little time was devoted to the practice of fighting skills. This exaggerated focus on basic gongfu training to the relative exclusion of application training was widespread, and much knowledge was lost forever. Even in martial arts groups that are currently known for the fighting skills inherited from past generations, practitioners do not have high-level fighting abilities. Although they know many forms, these martial artists lack expertise in the application of the movements they so intensively practice."
- Lu Shengli, Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua, p.357 2006
"Gong (foundation training) and Fa (technique training) have been historically separated as two components in the learning process. Quite often this is shown in the case that a master will teach all the choreographed forms without explaining the meaning of the forms. Obviously the form looks fancy but the the real fighting ability comes from the Gong. It is a sad fact that many students often try to beat the teacher as the first step in establishing a reputation. In such a case, the teacher deliberately avoided the teaching of substance (gong) to the students at the beginning. In many cases, this "testing period" can last a long time. Ultimately this approach caused the divorce of gong and fa. Eventually, gong and fa become unrecognizable to the students. The students will not be able to use the form simply by learning and practicing it. They need to have the gong of the form privately shown to them by the master. The old saying, "Rather teach 10 fa than 1 gong." shows how well-guarded gong was in the past. It was no exception with the Chen Family."
Hong's system amalgamated gong and fa. This means that the form that is learned can be directly applied in push hands or real fighting situations. Students no longer need to practice Gong for dozens of years in order to extrapolate the fa from these gongs."
- Chen Zhonghua on "Gong Fa as one" in Hong Junsheng's Chen Style Taijiquan
The following three excerpts all point to the divorcing of Taiji from its original purpose as being part of a deliberate conspiracy by the Yang family to dupe the Manchurian invaders.
"In those days the Yang family was employed in the service of the Ch'ing dynasty. They managed the practice and teaching of the war arts for the Manchus. Who could believe that the Yang family should teach compatriots to kill each other? But Pan Hou [Yang Banhou] did not teach them everything - only enough to learn T'ai Chi boxing's form. He did not teach them the T'ai Chi boxing method or achievement. He taught them to be soft as cotton but not how to acquire the astounding skill, so that they would not kill each other. He put them in a passive mode and compelled the royal families to get absorbed in mysticism so they would endlessly pursue a mental achievement."
- Kou Lien-Ying, The T'ai Chi Boxing Chronicle, p. 129, 1994
"When asked why the Kuang-p'ing students of the Yang family showed both hard and soft techniques in their style, whereas the Peking [Beijing] students showed only soft techniques, Pan-hou [Yang Banhou] replied that the Peking students were mainly wealthy aristocrats, and that, after all, there was a difference between Chinese and Manchus, implying a policy of passive resistance to the alien dynasty by imparting only half the t'ai-chi ch'uan transmission."
- T'ai Chi Touchstones - Yang Family Secret Transmissions, translated by Douglas Wile, p. ix 1983
"The origins of this art should be traced back to the end of Qing dynasty (1644-1911). At that time Mr.Yang Jianhou was summoned to the residence of Bei Lei and Bei Zi to teach Taijiquan to the members of the imperial family. Since at that time the Qing dynasty imperial family members and aristocrats enjoyed high positions and lived in comfort, it became fashionable to pay attention to good health. Most "bigwigs" learnt Taijiquan only because of fashion and considered it just another entertainment to divert themselves from boredom and did not really practice hard."
- Wei Shuren, from "The True Teachings of Yang Jianhou's Secret Yang Style Taijiquan."
So how was Martial Taiji Quan practiced? In Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua, Lu Shengli says of Wu style patriarch Wu Jianquan: "Until 1928, he taught in Beijing with other masters - including Wang Maozhai, Guo Fen, Liu Dekuan, Ji Zixiu, Xia Guixun, and Heng Tai - practiced together and did careful research into the principles and techniques of Taiji Quan. They developed many new skills and forms, especially weapons forms."
In Sun Xikun's "Genuine Transmission of Ba Gua Quan" from 1934, Sun lists the "posture" names for the Yang family Taijiquan, as taught to him by Cheng Youlong. (Cheng Youlong learned from Liu Dekuan, he from Xia Guoxun and he from Yang Luchan.)
From his list we can see that his linked form contained many repeated movements and technique variations that are not generally seen in modern received forms.
3. Left and Right Spread the Wings
4. White Crane Cools its Wings
6. Hands Play the Pi Pa Posture left and right 3x
11. Turn Back the Body, Left and Right Brush Knee
16. Side Repulse Monkey 5x
21. Brush Knee, Point to the Face
30. Cloud Opening Hands 5x
37. Brush Knee Twist Step 4x
56. Parting the Wild Horse's Mane 3x
57. Fair Lady Works the Shuttles 4 Corners
61. Cloud Splitting Hands
64. Golden Cock Stand on One Leg, Left and Right
65. Side Repulse Monkey 5x
75. Cloud Folding Hands
78. Three Covering Elbows
This would seem to indicate that as recently as the 1930's (around the time of Yang Chengfu,) there was still no single fixed way to practice Taiji linked form sequences and that linked forms could be largely comprised of small roads or dan lian (single link) forms strung together. Today, many students tracing their lineage back to Yang Jianhou practice many simple straight line "road" forms rather than more elaborate long forms. The lineage also stresses the need to understand "principle first and movement second."
Back to "Combat Techniques of Taiji, Xingyi, and Bagua" by Lu Shengli (describing the hermit Xu Xuanping's "37 postures form" on p.44):
"The movements of Xu's Thirty Seven Postures form, known as Chang Quan or the Long Form, are very close to what we practice today. Originally, each position was studied separately and could be freely combined with the others in any order. The resulting form could be long or short, but the postures had to flow in a smooth sequence."
The above information certainly seems to suggest that Taiji forms have historically always been prone to research, development and adaptation by both teachers and their students down through the ages. I propose that rigid linked sequences have only gained in popularity due to the absence of knowledge of martial function. When a practitioner understands the principles behind what they are doing, they are much freer to make their training their own and play around with sequences a lot more. Indeed different linked forms have been devised and revised at different stages in the lives of so many great teachers, and are still being devised today. This should be the legacy of any discriminating and inquiring martial artist, rather than attempting to set the so-called "traditional" linked forms in stone.
How should we practice today?
Having established that the quan of taijiquan has gradually been eroded in relatively recent times, how can we go about putting the quan back in to our practice?
Hong Junsheng states in his book "Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method" (translated by Chen Zhonghua):
"I believe that in learning from ancient writings, we must take its essence and do away with its dregs. We must selectively accept and reject. In dealing with contemporary authors, we must regard their writing with respect, but only accept was is useful. Useless things must be amended. Only in this way can we adopt a scientific attitude."
But with so many viewpoints and different styles around, how can we restore the quality of this endangered art?
Firstly we need to set ourselves a clear goal. I suggest that the best way to restore or clarify quality of movement and function in Taijiquan is to return to to the art's original purpose of explicitly martial study. With so many form variations around, how else are we to conclude what the movements should look like, if not by quantifiable and testable functionality?
In an interview by Yaron Seidman with Hong Junsheng's student Chen Zhonghua, it is made clear that great importance should be attached to "Strengthening the practical applications of the movements, and not 'empty talk' about things like Essence, Qi and Sprit. Things that there is no way to prove right or wrong."
How we proceed can I think be best served by taking an approach that prioritises function over health in order to restore meaning along with a means of quantifying progress in our practice.
The foundations have already been laid for us in Taijiquan's history:
In the spirit of Sun Xikun and Xu Xuanping (whether or not he actually existed) we can study each technique singly and practice combining them in any order, just as we would need to in combat to adapt to changing circumstances.
In memory of the great Hong Junsheng, we can avoid "empty talk" and "do away with the dregs," (sic) and "adopt a scientific attitude." We can ensure that "gong and fa are one" - practicing and teaching movement and application side by side.
We can follow in Yang Jianhou's footsteps and understand "principle first and movement second." We should always avoid empty forms - we shouldn't so much as raise a hand without knowing why.
The only, the ONLY way we can achieve this is to set a clear goal of martial function and try to reverse the re-invention of our art by the "literates" and "bigwigs" who "despised martial arts" and "did not really practice hard."
That Taiji has lost its Quan can no longer be disputed. Nor can we question that this is a great travesty. We can only concern ourselves with putting it back.