Tai chi, short for T’ai chi ch’üan or Tàijí quán, is an internal Chinese martial art practiced for both its defense training, its health benefits, and meditation.

The term taiji is a Chinese cosmological concept that refers to the flux of yin and yang, and ‘Quan’ means fist. So, etymologically, Taijiquan is a fist system based on the dynamic relationship between polarities (Yin and Yang).

Though originally conceived as a martial art, it is also typically practiced for a variety of other personal reasons: competitive wrestling in the format of pushing hands (tui shou), demonstration competitions and achieving greater longevity.

As a result, a multitude of training forms exist, both traditional and modern, which correspond to those aims with differing emphasis. Some training forms of tai chi are especially known for being practiced with relatively slow movements.

Today, tai chi has spread worldwide. Most modern styles of tai chi trace their development to at least one of the five traditional schools: Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun. All of the former, in turn, trace their historical origins to Chen Village.

Historical origin

From a modern historical perspective, when tracing tai chi’s formative influences to Taoist and Buddhist monasteries, there seems little more to go on than legendary tales.

Nevertheless, some traditional schools claim that tai chi has a practical connection to and dependence upon the theories of Song dynasty Neo-Confucianism (a conscious synthesis of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions, especially the teachings of Mencius).

These schools believe that tai chi’s theories and practices were formulated by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th century, at about the same time that the principles of the Neo-Confucian school were making themselves felt in Chinese intellectual life.

However, modern research casts serious doubts on the validity of those claims, pointing out that a 17th-century piece called “Epitaph for Wang Zhengnan” (1669), composed by Huang Zongxi (1610–1695), is the earliest reference indicating any connection between Zhang Sanfeng and martial arts whatsoever, and must not be taken literally but must be understood as a political metaphor instead. Claims of connections between tai chi and Zhang Sanfeng appeared no earlier than the 19th century.

History records that Yang Luchan trained with the Chen family for 18 years before he started to teach the art in Beijing, which strongly suggests that his art was based on, or heavily influenced by, the Chen family art.

The Chen family is able to trace the development of their art back to Chen Wangting in the 17th century. Martial arts historian Xu Zhen believed that the tai chi of Chen Village had been influenced by the Taizu changquan style practiced at the nearby Shaolin Monastery, while Tang Hao thought it was derived from a treatise by the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang, Jixiao Xinshu (“New Treatise on Military Efficiency”), which discussed several martial arts styles including Taizu changquan.

What is now known as tai chi appears to have received this appellation from only around the mid of the 19th century. A scholar in the Imperial Court by the name of Ong Tong He witnessed a demonstration by Yang Luchan at a time before Yang had established his reputation as a teacher.

Afterward, Ong wrote:

“Hands holding Tai chi shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heroes.”

Before this time the art may have had a number of different names, and appears to have been generically described by outsiders as zhan quan, “touch boxing“), Mian Quan (“soft boxing“) or shisan shi (“the thirteen techniques“).

History and styles

There are five major styles of tai chi, each named after the Chinese family from which it originated:

  1. Chen style of Chen Wangting (1580–1660)
  2. Yang style of Yang Luchan (1799–1872)
  3. Wu Hao style of Wu Yuxiang (1812–1880)
  4. Wu style of Wu Quanyou (1834–1902) and his son Wu Jianquan (1870–1942)
  5. Sun style of Sun Lutang (1861–1932)

The order of popularity (in terms of the number of practitioners) is Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun and Wu/Hao. The major family styles share much underlying theory but differ in their approaches to training.

There are now dozens of new styles, hybrid styles, and offshoots of the main styles, but the five family schools are the groups recognized by the international community as being the orthodox styles.

Other important styles are Zhaobao tàijíquán, a close cousin of Chen style, which has been newly recognized by Western practitioners as a distinct style; the Fu style, created by Fu Chen Sung, which evolved from Chen, Sun and Yang styles, and also incorporates movements from Baguazhang (Pa Kua Chang); and the Cheng Man-ch’ing style which is a simplification of the traditional Yang style.

Most existing styles can be traced back to the Chen style, which had been passed down as a family secret for generations. The Chen family chronicles record Chen Wangting, of the family’s 9th generation, as the inventor of what is known today as tai chi.

Yang Luchan became the first person outside the family to learn tai chi. His success in fighting earned him the nickname Yang Wudi, which means “Unbeatable Yang“, and his fame and efforts in teaching greatly contributed to the subsequent spreading of tai chi knowledge.

The designation of internal or neijia martial arts is also used to broadly distinguish what are known as the external or waijia styles based on the Shaolinquan styles, although that distinction is sometimes disputed by modern schools. In this broad sense, all styles of t’ai chi, as well as related arts such as Baguazhang and Xingyiquan, are, therefore, considered to be “soft” or “internal” martial arts.

Tai Chi in the United States of America

Choy Hok Pang, a disciple of Yang Chengfu, was the first known proponent of tai chi to openly teach in the United States of America in 1939.

Subsequently, his son and student Choy Kam Man emigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong in 1949 to teach t‘ai-chi ch‘üan in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Choy Kam Man taught until he died in 1994.

Sophia Delza, a professional dancer and student of Ma Yueliang, performed the first known public demonstration of tai chi in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1954.

She also wrote the first English language book on t‘ai-chi, “T‘ai-chi ch‘üan: Body and Mind in Harmony”, in 1961. She taught regular classes at Carnegie Hall, the Actors Studio, and the United Nations.

Another early practitioner of tai chi to openly teach in the United States was Zheng Manqing/Cheng Man-ch’ing, who opened his school Shr Jung t‘ai-chi after he moved to New York from Taiwan in year 1964.

Unlike the older generation of practitioners, Zheng was cultured and educated in American ways, and thus he was able to transcribe Yang’s dictation into a written manuscript that became the de facto manual for Yang style.

Zheng felt Yang’s traditional 108-movement long-form was unnecessarily long and repetitive, which makes it difficult to learn and make progress. He thus created a shortened 37-movement version and taught that in his schools.

Zheng’s form became very popular and was the dominant form in the eastern United States until other teachers started to emigrate to the United States in larger numbers in the ’90s. He taught until his death in 1975.

Health

Tai chi has been reported as being useful in treating a number of human ailments and is supported by a number of associations, including the National Parkinson Foundation and Diabetes Australia.

However, the medical evidence of effectiveness was lacking and in recent years research has been undertaken to address this. A 2017 systematic review found that it decreased the risk of falls in older people.

A 2011 comprehensive overview of systematic reviews of tai chi recommended tai chi to older people for its various physical and psychological benefits. There was no conclusive evidence of benefit for any of the other conditions researched, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis.

A 2015 systematic review found tai chi could be performed by those with chronic medical conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, and osteoarthritis without worsening shortness of breath and pain, and found favorable effects on functional exercise capacity in people with these conditions.

In 2015 the Australian Government’s Department of Health published the results of a review of alternative therapies that sought to determine if any were suitable for being covered by health insurance; tai chi was one of 17 therapies evaluated and the conclusion was that there is very-low-quality evidence to suggest that tai chi may have some beneficial health effects when compared to control in a limited number of populations for a limited number of outcomes.

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