Defanging Yang Style Tai Chi (part 1)

Today we have the first part in a 2 part guest post by Brian Willis. He describes some of the reasons why there is such a huge difference in quality between Tai Chi that is taught publicly and the “in door” training that is very difficult to find. Brian mostly discusses Yang Style Tai Chi. Unfortunately this problem exists in all the major Tai Chi Styles as well as most other Chinese Kung Fu, Indonesian & Malaysian Silat, Okinawan Karate, Russian arts and many others.

This author is not a representative of Clear Tai Chi. His opinions are his own and may differ from those of Clear Tai Chi.

The defanging of Yang Style Tai Chi (part 1)
By Brian Willis

Unquestionably one of the penultimate martial arts – in fact, its very name means something along the lines “supreme ultimate boxing” – the entire family of tai chi chaun [sic] is struggling to reclaim its status as a martial art.  How is it that tai chi chaun [sic] came to be generally viewed, especially in the West, as the healthy exercise known as Tai Chi rather than the serious martial art it was meant to be?  There are several major factors that contributed to this situation, several of which will be briefly explored in this post.

First, however, a bit of history is necessary.  For centuries, the indigenous Chinese (commonly known as the Han) fought to repel foreign invaders intent on capturing the rich farming land and resources of the Chinese heartland.  Chief among these were the Xiongnu (the motivation for the beginning of the Great Wall) and the Mongols, including Genghis Khan himself.  In addition to military assaults, China also experienced significant cultural invasions, too, including the introduction of Buddhism.  When Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) finally succeeded in conquering the ruling Song Dynasty in China, he established what is now known as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Under Yuan rule, the native Han population was generally treated very poorly (although some emperors were better than others), and the nation as a whole began to collapse into ruin.  Eventually, the Mongol invaders were overthrown and China entered into perhaps its greatest period of cultural enlightenment (aided, actually, by major global warming, but that’s a different topic) during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), once again under native rule.  During this period, and as a reflection of the Mongol rule that was now indelibly stamped on the Han psyche, national pride flourished.

One component of the rebirth in national pride manifested itself in a renewed interest in native Taoism instead of the imported Buddhism and, subsequently, the “soft” martial arts from the Taoist Wudang monasteries grew in reputation as opposed to the “hard” martial arts of the Buddhist Shaolin temple.  Arts like ba gua, hsing-I & tai chi grew out of this transitional period.  (It is during the Ming period, and largely as part of the rejection of “all things foreign”, that the legend of Chang San Feng began to grow, culminating in the myth that he was the creator of tai chi chaun [sic] – but that’s also a different topic…)

It was a crushing blow, then, when rebel factions, aided by a series of natural disasters and a mini-ice-age, overthrew the Ming only to lose their grip (the Shun Dynasty lasted less than a year) and find the nation once again falling into foreign hands – this time, the Manchu or Manchurians.  The Manchu ruled from 1644 until 1912, and the Qing Dynasty was China’s final ruling dynasty.  The Manchu were even more hated by the native Han population than the Mongols had been and their repression of the Han was severe.

As part of this repression, Emperor Yong-zheng outlawed Chinese martial arts and Emperor Qian-long began systematically confiscating and destroying all manuscripts relating to the martial arts.  This “book burning” was incomplete but it greatly damaged the historical record of the development of kung fu, with only a handful of documents from the Ming period surviving.  This resulted in a history full of holes, many of which were later filled in with myths.

Which brings us back to our original topic – why is tai chi chaun [sic] so often not considered to be a legitimate martial art but, rather, something akin to yoga or Pilates?

Part of the answer has to be attributed to the name itself!  One of the earliest Qing rulers, Tai-zong, called himself Emperor Tai Chi (essentially giving himself the title of “Grand Ultimate Emperor”).  Chinese culture placed serious restrictions on using an emperor’s name “in vain” so the very name “tai chi” became taboo.  This resulted in the art becoming virtually unspoken of and there are practically no written records mentioning it by name until after the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

Two more major parts of the answer, however, are tied to the development of the art in the 19th & 20th centuries.  Specifically, the fork introduced into the Yang style when it was taught to the imperial guards resulted in an intentional “watering-down” of the art.  Subsequently, the development of tai chi as an exercise for the masses, first by the Republic of China and later by the People’s Republic of China, completed the defanging of the art.

to be continued…


  1. While the content for that post (as well as the second part to follow) came from a variety of sources over years of amateur research on my part, significant credit should be given to the excellent work of Stanley E. Henning.

  2. These are great articles. Please keep them coming. I am jsut beginning my research and interest in Tai Chi Chuan. Do you know of any worthwhile instruction in the Lancaster / Reading / Harrisburg areas of Pennsylvania?


  3. For those of you who are new to Tai Chi this article may raise a couple questions like:
    “I’m new to Tai Chi. How do I tell the difference between good tai chi and bad?”

    How to Find a Tai Chi Instructor will answer this question.

    “I’m only interested in Tai Chi for Health. Do I still need to worry about this problem?”
    Yes, read this article by Sigung Clear to learn why: The difference between Healthy Tai Chi & Fighting Tai Chi

    “Does this problem of widespread poor quality instruction only exist in Yang style?”

    No, These problems exist in all major styles of Tai Chi. (and many other martial arts.) There are highly skilled masters in all styles of Tai Chi out there. However finding them and getting them to teach high quality information is a costly and time consuming endeavor.

    Fortunately, if you’re reading this website you have already found an easily accessible source of high quality info on Tai Chi.

    Our goal is to raise the standards of Tai Chi training across the country by educating people on what Tai Chi is, what is possible with proper training and how to get there.

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