Tai Chi History: Part 2

Tai Chi History: Part 2

A Brief History of Tai Chi: Speculation on its early martial arts development

Below is Part 2 of a Seven parts article on the History of Tai Chi, this section talks about speculation on its early martial arts development.

The Chinese have, and seemingly always have had, a fundamentally different interpretation of life and the meaning of existence to what is considered the ‘truth’ in western civilisation. Up until comparatively recent times China was known only in terms of trade – its philosophies, religions and cultural practices were not looked upon with any great interest other than to note that it was totally alien (the same attitude applied to all other Eastern philosophies). As a consequence, large numbers of missionaries were sent there in an attempt to convert the population to ‘the right path’ (not realising that ‘the Way’ had been well understood for more than two thousand years) but little effort was put into any real understanding. More’s the pity because they would have been in an excellent position to fill in some of the gaps that now exist.

There is debate as to whether ancient China, during those highly formative years between 1000 BC and 200 BC, was a truly isolated country and therefore developed its religions and philosophies independent of outside influence or that the opposite was the case. This period of China’s history is important because out of it comes Taoism, Confucianism and another philosophical bent called Legalism. Of the three only Taoism is of real relevance to Tai Chi as it held to be the driving force behind its creation. Tao (pronounced “Dow”) can be roughly translated into English as path, or the way. Based on the Tao Te Ching the Tao is basically indefinable but if a short description is needed it could be as follows:

Tao is the first-cause of the universe. It regulates natural processes and nourishes balance. It embodies the harmony of opposites – Yin and Yang. The interaction of Yin and Yang, ever changing, ever evolving one into the other, produces Chi (vital breath) the power which envelopes, surrounds and flows through all things, living and non-living. It is the duty of all individuals to follow a path which leads towards the Tao and become one with it.

There is much more to tai chi and Taoism than a few simple statements but the central idea that existence is brought about and maintained by Chi, and that being one with the Tao can be achieved by harmonising Yin and Yang, quickly gives rise to the thought that an individual’s actions can be helpful or harmful to the flow of Chi. If Chi is the very substance of life then it makes sense to act in ways that improve its effects, both to one’s body and the environment. Such is the thinking behind Tai Chi, Chi Kung, Kung Fu, Feng Shui, Dim Mak and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

There is also evidence to suggest some parallels between Indian Yoga (whose history dates back even further) and Taoist exercise routines. In 1973, Chinese archaeologists excavating the site of a Han period tomb at Ma-wang-tui in Central China unearthed a number of important manuscripts. Amongst them was found the oldest known written version of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest extant version of the I Ching and of most interest here, a silk manuscript that depicts a series of twenty eight gymnastic exercises named after animals. Yogic exercise of more ancient origin, also named after animals and very similar if not identical in pose have been found in India. As the tomb at Ma-wang-tui dates to around 200 BC it is also clear that the wisdom of imitating animal movements to promote personal health was known about in China at least five hundred years before Hua Tuo was credited with devising the Five Animal Exercises (see below).

From the year of 220 BC and into the new millennium China was re-unified under its first Emperor, having been through centuries of upheaval during the period known as ‘the Waring States.’ The three philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Legalism were firmly entrenched in all levels of society. Trade and contact with other countries along the famous Silk Road was on the increase; science was advancing and medicine had displaced a belief in evil spirits as a cause of disease with treatments that are recognisable today as ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine.’ Chi Kung/Yogic style exercise forms were in use to get the sick and ailing back to health but there is no evidence (so far) that any form of martial art existed other than the assumption that the imperial army must have had some training in close quarter combat and given the ever present threat of bandits, some of the population may have devised their own methods of self defence.

From this point until the mid seventeenth century (AD) we enter a period where myth, legend, speculation, argument and a little fact take over in the hunt for the origins of Tai Chi. The information related here follows on from what has been written on tai chi by others and as such traces the traditionally accepted history between year zero and the time when it is known that Tai Chi left the confines of the Chen village. Always keep in mind that all of the following can be disputed.

It is commonly accepted that Buddhism began to spread into China during the first century AD though not making any real headway until two hundred years later when the collapse of the Later Han Dynasty forced a rethink of traditional beliefs and an opening of scholarly minds to the new religion. The first significant individual (in martial arts and Chinese medical terms) to emerge from this early period is Hua Tuo, a highly skilled doctor, acupuncturist, surgeon, inventor of anaesthesia and great advocate of the use of exercise to promote good health.

About the year 220 AD he is generally credited with devising the physical and mental exercises that became known as Wu Chi Kung (Five Animal Frolic) – the first systemised martial art in China. Based on animal movements combined with pre-existing fighting techniques (possibly) plus Chi building methods, the Five Animal games were the first exercises devised to maintain and improve health in fit people as opposed to applying Chi Kung etc. to cure the sick. It is unfortunate that Hua Tuo was later murdered by the then Prime Minister and warlord Cao Cao and his manuscripts burned because the creation of Five Animal Frolic is also attributed to a Taoist by the name of Jun Qian. Either way, The Five Animal Frolic is an important part of the puzzle as it is thought to be the basis of later developments that lead directly to all the various forms of WuShu that we know today.

Some three hundred years later, circa 525 AD a Chan Buddhist monk named Da Mo (also known as Bodhidharma) settled at the Shaolin Temple in Hunan Province. Da Mo, born an Indian Prince in 482 AD, had been travelling and preaching in China for some while before journeying to the Sung Mountain range where the temple was located. The monks of Shaolin practised long-term meditation which made them spiritually strong but physically weak. Seeing this apparent imbalance in their daily practice Da Mo set about improving matters by devising an exercise program to help the monks better withstand the demands of their isolated lifestyle and not fall asleep during meditation – or so it is said!

Nowhere is it made clear what body of knowledge was called upon to put this program together or how long it took to implement (If the temple kept any records they have long since been lost – the temple was abandoned in the mid 1800’s and most of the monks were killed). What emerged was a new path to be followed on the journey to enlightenment, one that saw them become physically stronger and virtually undefeatable in combat. It would seem that for the first time, physical toughening, fighting techniques, Chi strengthening and spiritual guidance had been combined into a systemised martial art form. Later it became known as the Shaolin Fighting System or Kung Fu. The methods used became the basis of two classics: Yi Jin Jing (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and Xi Sui Jing (Marrow/Brain Washing classic) both of which are attributed to Da Mo and printed circa 550 AD. Da Mo is said to have died in 539 AD.

More details on tai chi as offered at the Golden Lion Academy can be found by clicking on the link.

Part 3:  Speculation on its early development, including the legendary master Chang San-feng.