Why do people think Tai Chi has to be really old?

My recent Heretics Podcasts episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan seem to have provoked a lot of debate. People I’ve talked to seem to have this unshakeable belief that Tai Chi is ancient, and it must be ancient to be authentic. It’s simply unacceptable to them that Tai Chi is not as old as they think it is. This myth that old = authentic is pervasive.

I’ve become quite fascinated with the reasons why people think like this. A lot of it goes back to why we, people living in the West, started Asian martial arts in the first place. Quite often we reject our own history and culture, and adopt a fantasy of a Chinese Kung Fu culture that maybe never existed. Were we all just looking for our own Yoda?

In this new interview for the Martial Arts Studies podcast, historian Prof. Peter Lorge talks about this exact issue, and tackles the subject of orientalism, which often provides our first impulse to try a Chinese martial art, head on. It’s well worth a listen.

4 thoughts on “Why do people think Tai Chi has to be really old?

  1. Well, in a sense your “historians” are westerners with a limited grasp of the topic that they’re talking about: Chinese martial-arts. At the same time, I’ve often heard the approach by Chinese martial-arts experts and they’ve never insisted that there was a continuous lineage of any martial art, so in a way the idea that there is a continuous history of, say, Taijiquan, is really an argument that only ill-informed westerners would make. I.e., the “continuous history of Taijiquan” is, in effect, a straw-man argument that is never made by any knowledgeable Chinese martial-arts scholar.

    Take, for instance, the “Sung Pu”, the putative history of the Sung-style Taijiquan that was proffered by Sung Xuming in the early 1900’s. The book purported to be the history of a mysterious Sung-style of Taijiquan. The book was bogus, as was ultimately discovered, but Sung included many details involving ancient martial-arts that were long ago practiced in China. The arts are/were known arts that had faded away over time, even though no one in modern times knew what they looked like or how they were practiced. My point is that the idea of constant changeover in martial-arts (even though the essences of them may continue under new names) is an accepted Chinese point of view. So this recent idea of “martial arts are a recent invention” is one that is for westerners and by western “experts”.

    I’m waiting for someone in the West to address the more substantive idea about the continuation of body mechanics from BCE to the present … that’s actually the point that any real martial-arts historian is going to recognize as a keystone to the history of martial arts. In fact, it is and already has been a common point of discussion by the Chinese about their martial-arts history for many years.

  2. This is an interesting argument – do you need to be a practitioner to study the history of something? In one sense, no – I would rather my history was done by historians not martial artists. In another sense there’s the academic argument that “participant observation” aids your research. I can see merits of both approaches. However, it’s also true that being able to move the body from the dantien doesn’t automatically mean you have a thorough understanding of what lead to the fall of the Yuan Dynasty. It’s paralleled in the many black belts of martial arts who then go on to think of themselves as black belts of life and set themselves up as gurus. On balance, I think I’ll go with genuine historians who also practice martial arts as a hobby.

  3. I can see the side of the argument (by the presenters) that many Westerners naïvely think that various Chinese martial arts must derive from antiquity. In fact, many Westerners have very superficial and ill-informed ideas about Chinese martial arts. That’s a given: if you look at the amount of Western Taijiquan, for example, that is simply the rote performance of a slow choreography, the point is inescapable.

    On the other hand, we now have a movement by some academics who think that their perception of martial arts as being a rather recent occurrence is the superior perspective. To me, that presumption and conceit is what is really interesting: the “Chinese martial arts is recent in origin” theory only compounds the amount of misunderstanding about Chinese martial arts; it doesn’t answer any real questions.

    As I understand it from some fairly qualified Chinese martial arts experts, the history of Chinese martial arts his long and varied, with many and numerous prior martial arts having existed before the current crop of Chinese martial arts… And the current martial arts are simply the offshoots of the prior martial arts. In other words, there are only a very few of the Chinese martial arts that claim a long unbroken line of pro will venance (Shuai Jiao and Chuo Jiao would be examples of very ancient arts that still exist).

    The common thread of the Chinese martial arts is not to be found in the names and styles of the arts, but in the body mechanics that have been a basis for those martial arts for many centuries. Using the example of Taijiquan that the speakers in the podcast use, Taijiquan claims to derive from the Daoyin, TuNa, and the Jingluo… not from some singular ancient martial art that goes back to antiquity. We know from the discovered artifacts that the Daoyin and Jingluo, at least, were extant during at least the time in which the Mawangdui tombs were built, so the ancient origins, in that sense, are established, ipso facto. The point being that the superficial discussions about any given Chinese martial art being continuous back to antiquity in itself is an argument that is superficial and beside the point.

    Unless someone understands the Daoyin, the Tu Na, and the Jingluo usages at a practical level, they are probably speculating about a topic that they don’t really understand. The “Chinese martial-arts are recent” movement probably wouldn’t stand up to even the mildest question about real credentials (as opposed to ‘academic credentials’): show me one of these academics that can demonstrate moving the whole body with the dantian, development of the qi-tissues, or basic jin skills. If the presenters can’t do these things, then of course their understanding of the core of Chinese martial-arts is missing and the “recent” premise misses the topic.

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