The Dirty History of Tai Chi
The history of Tai Chi, correctly called Tai Ji Quan, 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 Wu Xia.
The notion that one can achieve unequivocal power 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. In comparison 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. Who lived and studied in Chen Village during his younger years. He 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 taught his art to the guards of the Imperial Court as well as passing the style on to his 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'. It is important to recognize that the general population of China did not at this time, or previously, hold Martial Arts in high esteem.
Martial Arts was considered beneath the scholar class, and to the average person it’s highest reference was a soldiers task; at its lowest, and more commonly known, it was associated with criminals, gangsters, ruffians, or charlatans. These firearm incidents further cemented the general public’s poor opinion of their Martial Arts, considering it a rather fruitless endeavor or waste of time.
Coincidentally at this time the Chinese were also being called the 'sick men of Asia' by the International Community. As part of a movement to change this view, and perhaps in an effort to keep their arts from dying, Chinese Martial Arts teachers began teaching their Kung Fu 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, in a national effort to combat the 'sick men of Asia' accusations and affect positive national change. Within the Yang Family, Yang Chen Fu (Yang Lu Chan's grandson) decided to teach the family art to the general public for health purposes. Using slow motion practice and longer movements as the focal point, and removing much of the application and fighting elements. Thus was born a form of exercise that was accessible to the young, old, weak, sick, and those of poor physical condition.
Prior to this, Yang family Tai Ji Quan was taught as a martial art and involved such training methods as striking, kicking, joint locks, throws, sparring, fighting, weapons training, forms practice and push hands. Forms practice and Push Hands, in contrast to present day, were only a small portion of the training. Due to Yang Chen Fu's efforts, Yang style went on to become very popular and is more widely proliferated than any other style of Tai Ji Quan - albeit grossly watered down from the original fighting art.
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 outlawed the instruction of martial arts for fighting purposes. During this period many Traditional Martial Artists fled the country, or were killed. Not for fear someone would attack a rifleman with a spear or sword, because they needed to control the populace. This task becomes exponentially more difficult when it involves those training in the fighting arts. Martial training empowers an individual, and empowered people do not do what they are told blindly following commands.
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 martial arts into a few sets representing the various 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 Tai Ji Quan 24 Movement Form (a.k.a. Beijing Short Form) was created. This was to represent Yang Style Tai Ji Quan (against the families approval) and become a National exercise that China's citizens would practice every morning in local parks for decades.
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 the parks day after day. Foreigners began learning this art form while spending time overseas and 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 80'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 are clear. There have been many studies by qualified medical professionals substantiating the health benefits of Tai Chi. These health benefits are not unique to Tai Chi, and can be attained through most forms of physical exercise like running, swimming, cycling, or sports. However, the advantage of Tai Chi over these other forms of exercise, is it’s accessibility to those unable to perform rigorous exercise. This is especially important to Seniors or those with debilitating injuries.
Tai Chi is a martial art and can be taught to people of all ages, and allows them to have fun doing so. Whether it be those looking to improve balance, circulation, stress reduction, or those who always wanted to study martial arts and never had the chance, or those who think they are too old, or those who think they are too out of shape - all can find a welcome home in studying the soft style of Tai Chi while having fun and not worrying about being injured.
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