Tai Chi Chuan (also known as T'ai Chi, Taijiquan, T'ai Chi Ch'uan or Taiji) is a Chinese internal martial art that is considered by many to be the pinnacle of philosophy, healing and self defence.
Tai Chi means 'supreme ultimate' and chuan means 'boxing' or 'fist'. Therefore Tai Chi Chuan translates as 'Supreme Ultimate Boxing' or 'Supreme Ultimate Fist'. Its development is credited to a Taoist sage named Chang San Feng who is said to have lived around 1300AD. As his knowledge was passed down over the years, four main styles of Tai Chi were formed; Yang Style, Wu Style, Sun Style and Chen Style. Today Yang Style Tai Chi is the most commonly practiced and it is this style that we practice at the Lancaster School of Tai Chi Chuan.
Tai Chi Chuan is considered an 'internal' or 'soft' martial art style. Many people have written whole books discussing what is meant by 'internal' and 'soft' so obviously it can be a complicated subject. Very basically what is meant by this is that correct Tai Chi Chuan does not rely on brute physical strength to overcome opponents. Rather it emphasizes the use of sophisticated body mechanics, centrifugal force, relaxation and sensitivity. A Tai Chi practitioner seeks to blend, not clash with an opponent, redirecting an attackers own force against them. This is not easy and takes years of sincere practice to use effectively.
The founder of Yang style Tai Chi was a man named Yang Lu-ch'an (1799-1872).
He is said to have been fascinated by the martial arts from a young age and sacrificed much to study them intently. In his day it was not as simple as joining a martial arts class and the world he lived in was, in some ways, a much more dangerous place than the world we live in today. Martial knowledge was protected fiercely and often those with skill only passed on their understanding to their own close family.
Yang Lu-ch'an tried everything to be accepted into the Chen village and to learn their martial system but many times he was refused. The story goes that one day he lay in the freezing snow outside until someone took pity on him and allowed him to enter. Whether this is true or not, Yang Lu-ch'an did eventually gain entrance to the village and spent years training there. During this time it is said that a peerless warrior came to the village practising a form of 'soft boxing'. The man's name was Zhiang Fa and he was a disciple of the system passed down since 1300AD by Chang San Feng.
Zhiang Fa accepted Yang Lu-ch'an as a student and Yang went on to become a master of the system. After years of hard training he earned the nickname Yang Wu Di - Yang the invincible.
Yang Lu-ch'an is said to have had six sons and two daughters and he taught his Tai Chi to each of them. Reportedly Yang Lu-ch'an and four of his sons died in battle against a rival clan. His two surviving sons were Yang Ban-hou and Yang Kin-hou.
Yang Lu-ch'an's second child was called Yang Ban-hou (1837-1892).
Yang Ban-hou's Tai Chi training began at a very early age. He is said to have been a very able student with keen natural abilities. His father's training regime however was so strict that Ban-hou ran away from home many times, but was always brought back by his father. In time Ban-hou achieved a very high level of skill and inherited his father's nick name of Yang the invincible, accepting many challenges from other practitioners and never being defeated.
Despite becoming famous for his prowess, he had few students because he was reported to have a short temper and to be quite brutal with his students.
Yang Ban-hou passed his knowledge to his nephews Yang Shou-hou and Yang Cheng-fu, both the sons of his younger brother, Yang Kin-hou.
Yang Lu-ch'an's third son, and Yang Ban-hou's younger brother, was called Yang Kin-hou (1839-1917)
Yang Kin-hou's training also began at an early age and was just as tough as his older brothers. Like his brother he went on to become a very well known and respected Tai Chi practitioner. Kin-hou was renowned for his speed and is said to have become profoundly skilled with the Tai Chi straight sword, sabre and spear.
Unlike his brother he was known to be a very warm hearted man and was loved and respected by his many students because he was a gentle and patient teacher.
Yang Kin-hou had three sons, Yang Shou-hou, Yang Zou Yuan and Yang Cheng-fu, the latter of these going on to become the most influential teacher in the spread of Yang style Tai Chi.
Yang Cheng-fu (1883-1936) is said to be the modern father of Tai Chi Chuan.
Yang Cheng-fu was the grandson of Yang Lu-ch'an and the son of Yang Kin-hou. He was was a master of the form his grand father had developed, a form known as the Yang Lu-ch'an long form. However Yang Cheng-fu had a desire to make Tai Chi Chuan more accessible.
The Yang Lu-ch'an long form (now called the old form) is highly demanding, full with not just the slow movements that are today associated with Tai Chi, but also fast explosive movements, leaping kicks that develop strength and power and many very challenging postures. In short, to be practised correctly, the Yang Lu-ch'an form requires a practitioner to have a high level of fitness, flexibility and martial understanding.
Because of this, Yang Cheng-fu created a new form based on his grand father's and his father's and uncle's teachings. This form is a more public form that everyone, young or old, sick or healthy can practice and gain the many benefits of Tai Chi practice. It is called the Yang Cheng-fu long form.
This form is still a highly effective martial art system, however it does not demand the same level of physical ability of the Yang Lu-ch'an form and is more commonly practised today than the older form. It is said that Yang Cheng-fu altered the original form as much as is possible without losing the essence of Yang Lu-ch'an's teaching.
Yang Shou-hou (1862-1930) is Yang Cheng-fu's older brother, the son of Yang Kin-hou and grandson of Yang Lu-ch'an.
Because of the huge impact that Yang Cheng-fu had on Tai Chi when he created and exported his modified form, Yang Shou-hou has faded somewhat into the background. Yang Shou-hou studied hard with his father and also with his uncle, Ban-hou. Where as Cheng-fu created a new form, Shou-hou instead maintained and practiced the old form of Yang Lu-ch'an as taught to him by his father and uncle.
Shou-hou is said to have taken more after his short tempered uncle, Ban-hou, than his warm hearted father and was a strict and brutal teacher, not known for pulling his punches with his students. As a result he naturally had very few students of his own. In fact he was said to be so brutal that some say he only had three true students! Because of this the 'old' style of Yang Lu-ch'an that Shou-hou maintained became rare in comparison to Yang Cheng-fu's newer form. One of Yang Shou-hou's students was called Chang Yiu-chun, who in his later years taught Erle Montaigue, one of today's most famous Tai Chi practitioners of the old style.
The above is obviously quite a lot of information to take in!
It's important though because of how it relates to what we teach. To put it in very simple terms what happened with the Yang family is that half of the descendants were very personable and considerate teachers and attracted a large amount of students. From this side of the Yang family the modified Yang Cheng-fu form was created and spread even further by Yang Cheng-fu's son, Yang Sau-chung (1909-1985). Even the Yang Cheng-fu form is said to have changed three times during Yang Cheng-fu's lifetime and students who trained with him at different points of his life learned a slightly different form, then in turn taught their own interpretations of what they had learned. This is the reason for the variation in Yang style Tai Chi today. The spread of Yang Cheng-fu's form because of its accessibility and Cheng-fu's teaching ability was very rapid and widespread.
On the other hand, the other members of the Yang family were strict and quite brutal teachers who unsurprisingly attracted very few students. They maintained the founder's old form but passed it on to very few people. Therefore, today it is quite rare.
At the Lancaster School of Tai Chi Chuan we are somewhat less brutal that Yang Shou-hou (we hope!) but we practice this rarer, older line as passed down through Yang Shou-hou as well as Yang Cheng-fu's long form. Typically we teach the Yang Cheng-fu form first until such a time as the student is able to undertake learning the older, more advanced forms (not modified by Yang Cheng-fu). These forms contain many movements that are fast and explosive (fajin).