Chapter 60: Context & History of Tai Chi

After the Communist government suppressed nearly all aspects of traditional China, what is left of Chinese culture? What is Chinese culture? What does it mean to be Chinese? These are all questions that Chinese living in the 20th century have had to answer. All their traditional moorings have been uprooted? Where is land? Where did they land?

Let us imagine western culture without religion and churches, without fashion and wealth. Let us imagine that the Bible and everything associated with it have all been banned. No more New Age writing or talk is permitted. Let us imagine that the hard scientists have taken over and have forced everyone into a hard realism uncolored by the supernatural. Where would Western culture find its meaning? Would we find it in technology? Have we found meaning in technology? Is this poverty of meaning enough?

This is what happened in China. The trappings of their traditional culture were stripped from them. What was left?

Chinese culture encoded in Tai Chi movements

As the Chinese witnessed the destruction of their traditional culture due to the pressures of modern times, epitomized by the Europeans and extended by the Communist government, they sought out a new national identity from practical necessity.

Without literature, temples, fashion, or wealth, the only thing left was the body. In Taoist fashion many have internalized their culture in their bodies. The government can take away everything but one’s body. Hence in a continuing tradition the Chinese have manifested their ancient traditions through their bodies. The external poverty stimulated inner wealth.

A primary way that they have manifested their traditions is through the martial forms, some hard and some soft. An external temple or culture can be destroyed, while the body remains. Through the ten thousand repetitions the body encodes the culture internally. Internalized within these forms are primary elements of the Three Doctrines, the five-phase theory and the I Ching. While there is a tendency to call this physical internalization Taoist because of the heavy body orientation, many aspects of Chinese philosophical culture are manifested through the Chinese martial arts, including Confucianism and Buddhism.

The yin-yang principles, the five element theory, energy flow and Taoist meditation principles are all encoded in these martial forms, particularly the soft ones. While there are other soft martial arts, we are going to look at Taiji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan).

Tai Chi, the form, & Taiji, the concept

Although Tai Chi is the name of a soft martial arts form that encodes Chinese philosophy into the body, it is also a Chinese principle that has existed for thousands of years. [For clarity’s sake we will use Tai Chi when we refer to the form and Taiji when we refer to the concept – although the two share the same ideogram and are the same word.] In contrast Tai Chi has existed as a martial arts form for only a few hundred years.

Because Tai Chi has no dogma the dogmatic dialectic religions and governments don’t persecute it. As the body is unclogged through the movements, the mind is set free simultaneously. Therefore no matter what ideas are in the mind of the practitioner, whether Christian, Buddhist, Capitalist or Nature worshipper, performing Tai Chi transforms the mind, making it more flexible.

As such Tai Chi is the perfect manifestation of the branch of Taoism, which stresses the dual cultivation of mind and body. Although Communist persecution has devastated, or even destroyed, institutional Taoism, Taoism is alive and well every time someone or some group practices Tai Chi. To survive Taoism went underground into the body.

As confirmation of the connection between Taoism and Tai Chi in 1996 Master Fu Yuan Ni, my 81-year-old Chinese Tai Chi teacher, said: “Yin-yang school main branch of Taoism. Tai Chi main branch of yin-yang school.”

Taiji’s place in Yin-Yang theory

Let’s see where Taiji, the concept, fits into the yin-yang school.

According to yin-yang theory in the beginning was Wuji (Wu Chi). Wuji, the undifferentiated emptiness, is represented by a circle. Although the Buddhist Void has been linked to Wuji, it is closer to the primordial soup from which everything emerges. After Wuji comes Taiji. Taiji divides the empty circle into yin and yang, as Taiji separates right from left, up from down, inside from outside, and yin from yang. Originally Taiji was the ridgepole, which separated the light yang side of the mountain from the dark yin side. Taiji is the edge between yin and yang – where heaven and earth meet – the edge of chaos.

Hence Taiji is the beginning after the undifferentiated Void. Yin and Yang emerge from Taiji. Tripled yin and yang become bagua, the trigrams. Doubled the trigrams become the hexagrams. From the hexagrams and their changes emerges the multiplicity. The multiplicity is the manifestation of the universe. The hexagrams and their changes is the subject of the I Ching, the Chinese Classic of Changes.

To reiterate Taiji is even more primary than yin and yang, as yin and yang emerge from Taiji. Taiji is the Big Bang, the Original Creation, from which all has emerged. As such Taiji is frequently translated as ‘the Grand Ultimate’. Taiji, as the ridgepole, divides wuji, the empty circle, in half – transforming it into the yin/yang symbol.

Tai Chi Chuan, Grand Ultimate Boxing

Thousands of years after the concepts, wuji, taiji, yin-yang, trigrams, and hexagrams, were developed, perhaps as recently as the 19th century, the Chen or Yang family coined the phrase ‘Tai Chi Chuan’. Chuan literally means fist. In this context Tai Chi Chuan means Tai Chi boxing. It refers to a martial sequence based upon yin-yang theory, which includes wuji, taiji, yin yang, bagua, and the hexagrams. Subsequently sword, saber, and push hands sequences were given the prefix of Tai Chi. Hence each of these sequences is also based upon yin-yang theory.

Gradually the chuan was dropped off and people would just say that they practice Tai Chi. Presently in the United States Tai Chi means the martial sequence based upon yin yang principles. Virtually no one associates Tai Chi with its primary role in creation itself.

The original intent of Tai Chi Chuan was to strengthen the bones of the masses. Hence the sequence, while called chuan or boxing, was immediately divorced from its martial aspect and more associated with its health benefits. Dropping chuan from the name was probably inevitable. Presently Tai Chi refers to a slow motion sequence designed to promote health especially amongst older people. It tends to be associated with the elderly because of its focus upon slow motion and balance.

Although the concepts behind Tai Chi are ancient the form isn’t. However martial arts forms have been around for thousands of years in China. As many of the Tai Chi movements are based upon techniques for learning archery and charioteering, these ritualized postures and movements could have emerged as early as the Shang Dynasty – as soon as the warrior didn’t have a chariot to practice with. We saw a sculpture of a Chinese man of the Ch’in dynasty, 3rd century BC, who was standing in a perfect Bow stance [archery based].

In the 16th century novel, Journey to the West, Monkey, Piggy, and Monster practice many marital arts sequences for practice, even scaring off monsters because of their observed prowess. These forms have many of the same names as martial sequences still taught presently. However there is no mention of Tai Chi in Journey. Nor is there any mention of Tai Chi in Liu I Ming’s 20 suggestions for a good Taoist, written in the early 1800s. Both of the authors of these books were well versed in Chinese culture of the day. Although a Tai Chi form might have existed, it was certainly not widespread.

13 phases boxing

However, a martial arts style based upon the 13 elements or phases has existed for a long time and was probably the precursor to the Tai Chi form. It was even called 13 phases boxing. These 13 phases identical to the 13 fundamental principles of Tai Chi. Yin-yang theory is integrally embedded into these 13 phases, which correspond to the original unity plus the four bigrams plus the 8 trigrams [bagua][i], which equals thirteen.

1st phase: Central Equilibrium

The non-phase is wuji, rooting. The first and most primary of the 13 phases is central equilibrium. In our discussion of the charioteer we remember how important central equilibrium was. Of the 13 elements of Tai Chi, it is still the most important. An 80-year-old practitioner says he has devoted 50 years to perfecting it and is getting better. Central Equilibrium is represented by the yin yang symbol, which contains the circle [wuji] and the ‘S’ line [taiji, the Primal Beginning], which divides the circle into dark and light [yin and yang]. Hence wuji, taiji, yin and yang are all incorporated into the first phase.

Next four phases: Weight shift and body movement

The next four phases are moving forward and backward, and looking right and left. These four are associated with the four images or reflections of I Ching theory. The four images are the bi-grams, the 4 combinations of 2 yin and yang lines. Moving forward is two yang lines, while moving backward is two yin lines. Turning right and left are a yin and a yang line.

These four phases have to do with which way the body can move, forward, back and to either side. The legs are connected to the forward and backward movements while the waist is connected to the side movements. The legs are also connected to rising and falling. Thus the forward and backward movements take the form of circles. These are further connected with the waist, which turns from side to side. This introduces quite a bit of possible variation into just the first four phases.

The first phase, central equilibrium, is linked to the next four phases by the phrase, minimize and internalize. The directions and all they imply are not to be eliminated or ignored. They are to be minimized and internalized. Hence ‘weight shift’ is internalized and minimized, but never eliminated. This is also true with ‘rising and falling’ and ‘waist turning’. This minimization allows one to instantly shift direction depending upon external forces.

Master Ni’s warm-up exercises

Interestingly enough, Master Ni’s warm-up exercises, which we performed at the beginning of every class without variation for the nearly 30 years that he taught, directly incorporate these first five phases. The first warm-up exercise has us swinging our arms from side to side with our feet firmly rooted. In terms of the legs there is no weight shift, with all the action in the upper body. The world has not yet been broken into yin and yang [central equilibrium].

In the second and third warm-ups the legs shift to the front and to the back with sinking but no waist [move forward and backward]. In the fourth and fifth warm-ups the legs shift forward and backward as the waist turns the torso from side to side [look right and left].

Although these exercises look relatively simple they are incredibly complicated. Few, if any of us, do them perfectly after decades of repetition. Master Ni never taught the warm-up exercises, only demonstrated them, saying merely, “Follow me.” After completion he moved immediately to the forms. When asked to teach the warm-ups after a decade or so of classes, he refused saying “Too complicated.”

Final eight phases: Manifesting power through the arms and torso

The final eight phases are linked to the eight trigrams, [bagua]. As a refresher these are the eight permutations of three lines, which can be either yin or yang, which are primary to the theory behind the I Ching, the first Chinese classic. Although few agree on the exact assignment of the phases to the trigrams, which corresponds with which, all agree that they are linked and all agree on the functions of the 8 phases, with little variation.

These eight phases incorporate different ways of manifesting power through the arms and torso. These eight phases connect with the four directional phases of the central body to produce myriad possibilities. Four of these eight phases express power to the direction [straight ahead]. And four express power to the corners.

The four phases associated with direction, sizhen, are push, ward off, roll-back and press. Push up or down, an, has to do with two hands moving the opponent forward or backward. Press, zhi, has to with one hand supporting the other. Push and press are strictly forward and backwards, no sideways movement. Ward off, peng, and roll back, lu, have to do with hand movements, which are linked to the rotation of the waist.

The four phases associated with the corners, siyue, are elbow stroke, shoulder stroke, split, and pull down. Elbow stroke, zhou, and shoulder stroke, kao, bring other parts of the arm and body into play. These are presumably to be used when the hands are immobilized. In separate or split, lie, the two arms move in separate directions, while in pull down, cai, the hands move diagonally together in the vertical direction. This differs from roll back in that rollback is only employed in the horizontal direction. There is no up and down movement. Although this categorization of the eight bagua is only at the intermediate level, it indicates the type of phases that the trigrams represent.

This discussion illustrates how fundamental the 13 phases are to Tai Chi and how both are intimately connected to yin-yang theory. This gives more meaning to Master Ni’s statement: “Yin-yang theory main branch of Taoism. Tai Chi main branch of yin-yang theory.” Note that he rarely spoke. So although yin-yang theory is integral to Tai Chi, it is so embedded that there was very little need for him to mention it, except in passing.

Tai Chi’s Legendary & Buddhist beginnings

The history of Tai Chi, as a martial arts form, is similar to the history of Taoism. Both emerged into daylight relatively late historically. Both have traditional roots in the more distant past. And the seeds of both traditions are in prehistoric cultures.

Historically, Tai Chi has only been public for less than two hundred years. The first proto-forms were probably done in secret about 400 years ago. However in the attempt to exaggerate Tai Chi’s ancient heritage some trace its origins to the mythological Yellow Emperor, who purportedly lived 4000 years ago and developed some slow motion exercises for health. These could be the seeds of Tai Chi, but more probably are some type of Chi Gung, breathing exercises with no martial component.

Over the centuries martial arts forms were developed to practice techniques. These forms were similar to exercise routines. Important techniques were choreographed into routines or forms that included the elements of their style. However these were all purely martial in intent – no spiritual component.

Some claim that the spiritual aspect of the Chinese martial arts came via Indian Buddhism. According to this view Chinese warrior training initially had no spiritual component. However the warrior class in India did have a spiritual code. In fact Buddha belonged to this warrior class before he began the quest that led to his enlightenment.

When Buddhism first reached China, it was particularly focused upon developing the mind – unfortunately at the expense of the body. When the Bodhidharma came to China from India in the middle of the first millennium he was appalled at the health of the Chinese Buddhists. He taught the Chinese the Indian martial exercises[ii] at Shaolin Temple to improve their health. These exercises were supposedly the precursors to the Tai Chi form. Subsequently these Shaolin monks became consummate martial artists.

The circles get tighter and tighter as the world becomes smaller and smaller. Not only are we participating in Chinese culture when we practice Tai Chi; we are also participating in the spiritual culture of the military class of the ancient Brahman society of India. Here’s to world culture - practiced individually - by Tai Chi practitioners, everywhere.

Chang San Feng & Wu Tang Mountain

The next stage in the development of the Tai Chi form belongs to Chang San Feng, Taoist Immortal from the 12th century. Renowned throughout China as the legendary founder of the soft internal martial arts, he is The One. In the 1200s, according to one tradition, the legendary Chang San Feng studied the hard external style martial arts at Shaolin temple. He then returned to Wu Tang Mountain, a Taoist center, and gave the hard styles a soft Taoist twist. By combining their spiritual and martial insights with the I Ching and the existing Chinese martial forms he created a soft internal Taoist martial art. Taoist philosophy was made manifest; the soft can overcome the hard – even on the battlefield.

As Master Ni said: “Chang San Feng took hard of Shaolin to make it soft. Hard of Shaolin good when young – not good when old. Soft good for body and mind. With soft & slow mind won’t end up like Ronald Reagan [Alzheimer’s]. If can do hard & fast when old - OK. But most can’t.”

According to tradition, it was at this time that Chang San-Feng invented the Tai Chi form. As a legendary personality many things are attributed to him, Chinese style, to lend prestige. Thus it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Although Chang San-Feng certainly was an important link in developing the soft martial arts based upon the Taoist principles and yin-yang theory, he probably did not develop the Tai Chi form that we practice today. This came much later. However it is probable that we was the originator of 13 phase boxing based in yin-yang theory, which eventually led to Tai Chi.

Master Ni also attributes the Wu Tang Sword Form, the culmination of his teaching, to Chang San-Feng.

At the commencement of his 60-week session on Wu Tang Sword Master Ni performed a little ceremony where he named all the Wu Tang Sword Grand Masters - from the beginning. At one point in the recitation he proudly said, “This one a woman, not like Buddhism.” [Referring to Buddhism’s intrinsic patriarchal nature as opposed to the egalitarian nature of Taoism.] He then distributed a document with the names of the masters written in Chinese calligraphy. The first master on the list is Chang San Feng. Confirming his nature as a Taoist Immortal the second Grand Master comes nearly 2 centuries later during the Ming Dynasty. Although Chang San Feng, the originator of Wu Tang Sword, was the first in an unbroken chain of Grand Masters through to Master Ni, as the 12th in the 20th century (although Master Ni rejects that distinction – saying that now there are many, not just one), the modern Tai Chi form came much later.

Tai Chi’s emergence into history – Chen to Yang

Despite all these esteemed beginnings the first historical mention of Tai Chi comes with the Chen family. Chen Wangting (1600-1680), 9th generation of the Chen family, developed some routines connected with the 13 phases, which he called Tai Chi Chuan [Taiji Quan]. He developed five different Taiji Quan forms. One of these five forms was the longest, the most intricate, interesting and difficult. This form was the primary form passed down from generation to generation in the Chen family. Chen Changxing (1771-1853), 14th generation, taught this form. It is called the ‘old frame’ Taiji Quan. His son Chen Qingping (1795-1868) developed a ‘small frame’ taiji form. Chen Fa-ke (1887-1957) developed a ‘new frame’ taiji form. While these are the major Chen style Taiji Quan forms, they also practice another primary form called ‘cannon fist’. These forms are martial in intent.

The Chen family developed these sequences based upon 13 phases of the yin yang theory. In the early 1800s Yang Lu-ch’an learned their martial secrets because a) he became their servant and learned in secret or b) was taught as pay, or c) spied upon them through a wall or d) attained training because of his formidable military prowess. He learned the ‘old frame’ Taiji Quan.

Whatever the truth, Yang Lu-ch’an developed quite a reputation. He further connected and developed the sequence in his own style. Although probably coming from the peasant class, he became rich by teaching his martial techniques to royalty. He also transmitted his insights to his sons, who taught the techniques to their sons.

After the failure of the Boxer Rebellion and impressed by the vitality of the European working classes, one grandson, Yang Cheng-fu (1883-1936), realized it was not enough for a few fit warriors to defend a nation. He took it upon himself, Confucius style, to spread the rites to the masses. The ritual that he developed and spread was Taiji Quan [Tai Chi]. He developed what is called the ‘big frame’ Taiji Quan style. This is the Tai Chi style most commonly practiced. It is most suited for the masses, as it can be practiced for health or the martial side. (Master Ni teaches a derivative of Yang style Tai Chi.)

All of the Tai Chi Chuan forms are routines based upon the same 13 phases of the yin-yang theory. Although each of the styles has many similarities and differences, they are all based upon the same principles or phases. Hence the Tai Chi form is not really the end. It is only a means to an end. The 13 phases are the essence of the practice. All of the phases are practiced and differentiated in the Tai Chi form. The form leads to the essences, but is not the essence. However, as always, people mistake the metaphor for the reality. In general Yang-style Tai Chi practitioners don’t recognize Chen-style Tai Chi, as they can’t see beyond external form to see internal essence.

Overall the style doesn’t matter. When asked which style was best Master Ni responded: “The one you do.” Whether you practice and the level of practice is far more important than the specific style. As the Immortal Master Fu Yuan Ni said at the end of his last lecture of a 6-week meditation seminar, “Now you know everything you need to know. All you need to do is practice, practice, practice, practice.”

A Meta-Context for the China Papers

Interestingly enough the subliminal reason for these nearly 1000 pages that I’ve written upon China was my desire to understand what Master Ni’s Tai Chi class was all about. Although I had been taking lessons and practicing Tai Chi for over 10 years it was still mysterious to me. For serendipitous reasons I began digging – discovering all sorts of treasures. It began with the Monkey book, then the history of Taoism, the history of Humans, and then the history of China – all included in these pages. Although not realizing it at the time, I finally ended up where I started – with a deeper understanding of the context and history of Tai Chi and Master Ni.

One startling discovery was that Master Ni was first and foremost a Taoist Wu Tang Sword Master, not a Tai Chi teacher. While the Tai Chi form probably came from the Chen village, the Wu Tang Sword form comes from the Taoists of Wu Tang Mountain. While Yang Lu Chan, the first in the Yang lineage, learned the Tai Chi form from the Chen people he was not known as a swordsman. His son, Ban Ho, purportedly learned Tai Chi Sword from the Taoists of Wu Tang Mountain as a preparation for Wu Tang Sword. Thus ultimately Master Ni is a Wu Tang swordsman who is teaching Tai Chi and Tai Chi Sword to prepare his students for Wu Tang Sword.

I asked him one time: "Are you a Tai Chi master or a sword master?"

Master Ni: "Sword. But nobody knows that here. Must advertise Tai Chi instead."

The tao of China certainly includes Tai Chi, even if it has relatively recent Buddhist roots. However the tao of China is more integrally linked to swords, which have been a unique aspect of Chinese culture since prehistoric times, as sword, painting, and calligraphy, the penultimate Chinese tradition, are the three in one. [iii]

So I can say with certainty that the embedding of Chinese culture into the body through the martial forms, which I was only practicing for health and vitality, led me into this grand and glorious exploration. As I at last wake up from my trance, I give thanks to the powers that be for leading me upon this marvelous adventure – and all because of my desire to understand the Chinese wisdom packed into the martial arts forms that Master Tai Chi taught us, including Tai Chi and Wu Tang Sword.

[i] Bagua boxing is another Chinese soft martial art based upon the eight bagua. Although originally bagua referred to the 8 trigrams, presently it refers to a martial art form with a heavy emphasis upon the feet. Indeed the Tai Chi practitioner is urged to have Bagua feet and a Tai Chi waist.

[ii] After the Moslems conquered India they eliminated Buddhism’s martial component, considering it a threat to their military supremacy.

[iii] This connection is especially seen in a series of Chinese movies, beginning with Crouching Tiger, Leaping Dragon, the First Emperor, in which marvelous sword work is connected with calligraphy.

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