Tai Chi History: Part 3

Tai Chi History Part 3:  Speculation on its early development

The following is Part 3 of the history of Tai Chi, it looks at the speculation on its early development, including the legendary master Chang San-feng.

It is worth pondering the fact that we are still no nearer discovering the origins of Tai Chi. Taoism had been in existence for nearly one thousand years, Chi Kung had been practised for the same period of time, fighting techniques presumably existed in some form or other before the developments at Shaolin. Tai Chi is and was held to be a fearsome martial art. Its philosophical light is Taoism not Buddhism. Tai Chi is translated variously as “the ultimate” or “Grand Ultimate” and practitioners seek union with this ultimate as their goal. Furthermore, Tai Chi is internal (Nei Dan) whereas Shaolin was considered external (Wai Dan). So did it develop out of the Shaolin system or did TC come from somewhere else at some other time? Enter a Taoist monk named Chang San-feng.

Legends surround this person, even that he is a legend and not real. For want of something more concrete to refer to the following an extract (with some minor alterations) from a web site concerning Classical Chinese Medicine. It provides as good a description as any of this semi mythical master:

Chang San-feng is credited with developing the Chinese internal system known as Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan). He was born in 960, 1247 and again in 1279 AD

A Native of I-Chou in Liao Tung Province, an external master and court official of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), other sources state he was born earlier in the Sung dynasty (960-1279), who upon retirement retreated with disgust from the world to a Taoist monastery on Wu Tang Mountain, where he acquired his Taoist name of San Feng. He is said to have learned Tai Chi Chuan in a dream, or after watching a bird and a snake fight. More likely, Chang applied the Taoist health principles and knowledge of energy circulation to his vast ability in external kung fu, thus creating something really different – a martial art that dose not use muscle power as a primary source of movement, but Qi (Chi). Records available in the monastery on Wu Tang Mountain do indeed mention him. Descriptions picture him as being seven feet tall, with the bones of a crane and the posture of a pine tree, whiskers shaped like a spear, and in winter and summer wearing the same bamboo hat, carrying a horsehair duster and being able to cover 1000 Li in a day.

The crane-snake combat gave him the ideas that the coiled movement of the snake was like the Taijitu (the Yin Yang symbol) and contained the principle of the soft overcoming the hard. Based upon the transformations of the Grand Ultimate, the Yin and Yang leading to the Bagua eight Triagrams, the Triagrams leading the 10.000 things (everything), and the Wuxing (Five movements or phases) being the basis of their interaction, he developed Taijiquan, to gather the Qi, cultivate it to Jing (essence), and hence transform it into Shen (spirit); all waxing and waning, movement and stillness, action and non-action embodied in the I-Jing (I-Ching).

There are many stories of exactly when Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) was developed by Chang San-feng and no one today knows the accurate story. Some of the accepted facts, however, are that he was a very intelligent man, he studied Shaolin Chuan for about ten years and mastered it, and with the foundation in Shaolin Chuan he developed the original thirteen postures of Tai Chi Chuan.

What truth if any lies behind this person and his exploits is up to the reader to decide. Some future archaeological excavation may throw new light on the whole subject or quite probably it will remain speculation. Somewhere in the distant past of Chinese history someone or some group, maybe a Taoist monk or monks, developed a different form of martial art much as described in the above paragraphs concerning Chang San-feng. If so, the knowledge and the skills would have been passed on over the centuries, master to pupil, quite likely in monastic settings or in private in some remote village. Such knowledge would not be open to all commers, being difficult and time consuming to teach and to acquire so would be regarded as a secret.

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

Click here to read Part 4 of A Brief History of Tai Chi:  Leaving the Chen Village.