Tai Chi History: Part 6

Tai Chi History Part 6

Tai Chi Boxer Rebellion

Tai Chi History Part Six, the Boxer Rebellion and afterwards, is part of Seven articles on A Brief History of this ancient Chinese martial and healing art.

Up until 1900 Tai Chi was taught with an emphasis on fighting and self defence. Accomplished practitioners took on an air of invincibility – nothing could stop them or so it seemed. In the dying years of the Ching Dynasty large numbers of martial artists (called Boxers by the Western press) were recruited to try and eject Western powers from Beijing but they faced an unforeseen and largely underestimated enemy – the sub-machine gun. The ensuing massacre, known as the Boxer Rebellion, shocked China into a new reality where fire-power was king and the Emperor and his realm were under the dominion of foreigners.

Much of the old way of things changed after 1900. A previously static population began to move around more, mainly because they were forced to for reasons of survival. As a consequence the way martial arts were taught also started to change when potential students became less inclined to spend the long hours needed to master a complex fighting skill. It was also obvious that no amount of training was going to stop a hail of bullets. Gradually, Tai Chi masters began to alter what they taught and further modified the forms to accommodate changing attitudes. Another trend was towards public teaching as opposed to ‘indoors’ or private instruction. It was plainly difficult to teach to the highest level when larger numbers of students were involved so the modifications had the added benefit of making Tai Chi more accessible even if the art became somewhat diluted.

It was in this period that the person most responsible for the popularisation of Tai Chi came to prominence. He was Yang Cheng Fu (1883–1936), grandson of Yang Lu Chan. Like other masters he initially taught privately but in 1925 he was invited by one of his students to teach in Shanghai and it was then that he started public classes. He made further refinements to the Yang Style, removing the strength explosions (Fa-Jing) and replacing them with the use of Chi to extend the limb instead. He also smoothed out the Form to emphasize its primary foundation of flow, rootedness and relaxation. This new method of practice enabled young and old alike to learn but it was still primarily focused on combat, resulting good health being an added advantage. Yang Cheng Fu also travelled widely throughout China, promoting his art wherever he went. As a result, huge numbers of people took to practising it, so much so that it became regarded as the standard Form and ultimately what it is today – the world’s most popular Tai Chi Style.

It was not until after the communist revolution of 1949 that any new developments in Tai Chi practice took place. The Government of the time developed a standardised routine of 24 movements (the Beijing 24 form) which was a simplified version of the original Yang Long Form and promoted to the population as a method of healthy exercise. This was in 1956. About a decade later, Mao Tse Tung unleashed “the Great Leap Forward” – a grand example of collective madness otherwise known as the Cultural Revolution. Old ways and traditions were purged from society and as a result just about all of the traditional martial arts practitioners were either forced underground, left the country altogether, put in prison or even worse, re-educated. The Shaolin Temple, already largely deserted since the mid 1800’s was burnt down and then burnt down again, just to make sure.

One bright side to this mayhem was that Chinese martial arts began to be practised and publicly noticed outside of China, though only slowly at first. One such practitioner was Chen Man Ch’ing, a student of Yang Cheng Fu who had fled with his family (along with a large slice of China’s population) to Taiwan in 1949. While still in China he had developed a 37 posture variation of the Yang Long Form (108 movement) which he used to train military students in the short space of time allotted to the task. In 1964 he moved to New York where he continued to teach this 37 Form, becoming an inspiration to large numbers of students and further promoting the benefits of Tai Chi to Western countries. His influence could be put on par with that of Yang Cheng Fu but it is worth noting that the focus had well and truly shifted away from combat and towards health.

Click here to read Part 7 – Tai Chi’s Kung Fu and all that!

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