It’s no secret that Tai Chi is a series of circles. The body opening and closing using circulation motions, like a yin/yang symbol in action. But when you look at a Tai Chi form, you’ve got to wonder, what came first, the techniques or the philosophy? Was Tai Chi created in a moment of philosophical purity and clarity, or was the philosophy simply bolted on to existing military or self-defence techniques (or popular movements from theatrical or religious rituals) that were already as old as the hills?
What I’m wondering is, was there at some point a founder of the art who decided, as a starting point, that he was going to purposely create a martial art based entirely on a philosophy based on the Tai Chi symbol, which would be both the overarching principle and the raw material, out of which martial applications would be fashioned?
Or did the idea of doing things in circles come later, and get added to existing martial techniques, and in so doing, alter them forever?
Well, let’s look at what we know as fact.
Fact 1: Tai Chi does indeed contain nothing but circular movements. I’m sure somebody somewhere can point out a movement in a form that looks linear, but it’s quite possible that the movement is actually being created in a circular way, or it has degraded over time into something else. All we can do here is talk in broad brush strokes. If you look at a Karate form, or a Tae Kwan Do form you see lots of examples of linear movements, that are usually lacking from Tai Chi forms. From this we can conclude that some sort of philosophical idea must have been involved in its creation.
Fact 2: The techniques in Tai Chi forms look a lot like other techniques in other Chinese martial arts forms, so are not in any way unique. If you look at a lot of forms from the Shaolin Temple, or village styles from all over China, you see postures and movements that are very similar to the techniques found in Tai Chi. In a way, there is nothing new under the sun.
When solving a murder, detectives look for two things first – opportunity and motive.
When Tai Chi first appeared in Beijing in the late 19th century it was promoted along with the idea that it had a founder, an immortal Taoist called Chan Sang Feng who had created the art based on his observation (or a dream) of a fight between a crane (or possibly stork) and a snake. And while certain groups (see my last interview with George Thompson) on Wudang mountain still take this story very seriously, and possibly literally, modern scholarship has tended towards the idea that it was a fighting art from the rural countryside (Chen village being the most popular choice for origin) that found its way to Beijing via a young Yang LuChan, who taught it to those at the highest level of influence inside the Forbidden City.
Of course, the shadowy figure of Yang LuChan is never adequately explained, and since he was an uneducated nobody – a rural rube – nobody really made a record of his existence. The story everybody, including all the heads of the various Tai Chi families, follows, (because it’s the story the Chinese government approves of), is that he learned the art in Chen village. But I always wonder about that time in the 1860s when Yang and the very well educated and important Wu brothers were in Beijing, as being a time when Tai Chi could have been invented. The Wu brothers would have known the philosophy on which to hang it, and Yang would have had the martial skills to make it work and turn it into something that could bring the fractured court of the late Ching Dynasty together, bonding over something that was essentially Chinese in the face of constant threat from foreign powers. Yang and the Wu brothers together had both opportunity and motive, and regardless of whether you accept that interpretation of history or not, Tai Chi has been used as a political football ever since, especially by the current government to whom Tai Chi (the world’s most practiced marital art!) represents the ultimate form of soft power, spreading Chinese culture and influence the world over.