Tai Chi History

Tai Chi history and the origins of Tai Chi are an often debated topic. Today we have an excellent article on the subject from one of our long distance students Michael Smith. We’ll follow this up in the coming week with Sigung Clear’s thoughts and research on creation of Tai Chi.

Tai Chi History

by Michael Smith

The origin of tai chi chuan is somewhat disputed as there are many vested interests from the different family styles to have the “oldest” or most “authentic” version. However, it is relatively undisputed matter that all of the forms of the 5 major orthodox styles that we have today come from the Laojia Yilu or “the old frame routine one” I will briefly describe the origins of this routine.

Mark Chen writes that Chen Bu, a native of Shanxi, settled in a small village in Wen County during the time of the Ming dynasty when the imperial government instituted a program of migrations to repopulate areas of the country that had been decimated by War. Chen Bu’s family grew and he taught martial arts (of a style no longer known) in his new home which is what we now have come to know as the Chen village.

Eight generations later Chen Wang Ting would be credited with creating what is know considered tai chi chuan. There is some debate of where this material came from but several sources believe it was heavily influenced by the shaolin temple as it was just a 2 day walk. (I myself took a day trip from the shaolin temple to the Chen village when visiting china to train) Some sources think Chen Wang Ting borrowed from General Qi Ji Guang’s “boxing classic” and/or shaolin taizu long boxing, Shaolin Major Hong Boxing and Shaolin Cannon Fist with Taoist principles added to create the original Chen style tai chi chuan. Therefore Chen style has a much stronger resemblance to what most people think of as “kung fu” than the other tai chi styles.

Chen Wang Ting is attributed with creating seven empty hand sets (“five sets of shadow boxing” “one set of long boxing” containing 108 forms and the “One Set of Cannon-Bashing Combat Boxing”). Five generations later, Chen Chang Xing (14th generation Chen family) is said to have unified these into a single long routine (first form) and a single set of cannon bashing (2nd form). However, there is some speculation that Laojia Yilu (old frame routine one) came from the long boxing of Chen Wang Ting, the second routine (also sometimes referred to as “cannon fist”) came from the cannon bashing routine and the other 5 routines were lost within the 5 generations between Chen Wang Ting and Chen Chang Xing. Regardless, the routine as organized by Chen Chang Xing (laojia yilu) is the ancestor of all current tai chi chuan forms in existence.

Chen Chang Xing is also noted for teaching the first non Chen family member (Yang Luchan) who created the popular Yang style which was finalized by his grandson Yang Chen fu. The form had been modified to be more even paced with less instances of fajin (explosive issuing of power) and less vigorous jumping and stamping so as to be more suitable for older individuals. It was still most definitely a martial art but this change has likely resulted in the current misconception that tai chi is only for maintaining health and is not a martial art. It also explains why the Chen style looks so much more like what people commonly think of as “kung fu” than the other styles.

The big Wu style came from Yang style. The small Wu style (also known as Li or Hao style) came from a small frame style of Chen. From the small Wu/Li/ Hao style came the Sun style of tai chi chuan. These are the 5 major orthodox branches of tai chi chuan in existence today.

All styles of tai chi chuan are wonderful and have their individual benefits and merits. There may be different approaches and theories to martial applications due to the differences among the various masters associated with each family style. Some have come up with more elaborate and romantic origin stories for tai chi chuan perhaps because of not wanting to have such an exquisite art attributed as coming from the very small and rural Chen village. However, most serious tai chi historians seem to be in agreement that this is indeed the case.

Regardless of the style you practice or it’s origins practice, explore, enjoy and treasure the wonderful art that is tai chi chuan.


  1. Chris D. Keranen says

    I learned Kung-fu ten years ago. Today I’m learning Tai Chi. My instructor tells me that kung-fu and Tai Chi use a common source called the Cannons of boxing. Is it possible to see, read, view this book of knowledge?

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