Where were the Wu brothers during the creation of Tai Chi Chuan?

Here’s an interesting criticism of the Heretics Hypothesis from blog reader Tom:

“I’ve enjoyed Damon’s monologues in this series on taiji. I think people understand the history given is just Damon’s interpretation, unsourced. The unfortunate part of the narrative is that some key assertions are made that are not true. Wu Yuxiang met Yang Luchan in Yongnian County before Yang went to Beijing. We actually don’t know whether WYX ever went to Beijing. WYX’s older brother did have a position of some importance in the Qing imperial administration, but it was at the county level as a magistrate. There is no extant written record, in a bureaucracy of exhaustive written records, of any of the Wu brothers in Beijing during this time. By contrast, we do have references for YLC appearing in Beijing and being called in to demonstrate at a banquet being held at the mansion of the wealthy Zhang family, purveyors of pickles to the Imperial court (and connected to the Wu brothers …. Damon should look at the sources available for this connection, because it helps support his thesis more clearly than what he’s established only by inference so far).”

There’s a lot to unpack there. So let’s start at the top:

“Wu Yuxiang met Yang Luchan in Yongnian County before Yang went to Beijing.”

This could very well be true. It’s a reasonable point – Wu Yuxiang and Yang could have met in Yongnian, and the Heretical Hypothesis plan (of using Tai Chi to bind together the fractured Imperial Court over something essentially ancient, Chinese and unifying in the face of the world-shaking contact with foreign aggression, which the Ching seem utterly unprepared for) could have been hatched earlier, with Wu Yuxiang and his brothers, who then, using the Ching patronage system, fund the introduction of Yang LuChan to Beijing elites.

Wu’s brothers both wrote texts on Tai Chi Chuan that only surfaced in the 1930s – see Lost Classics from the Late Ching Dynasty’s by Douglas Wile – so they are both implicated in the invention of Tai Chi Chuan myth, as well as their more famous brother Wu Yuxiang.

It’s ironic that Wu YuXiang is the famous brother by today’s standards, but at the time it was Wu ChengChing who was the famous one, having passed the very highest Civil Examinations. This is why there is no official record of Wu Yuxiang anywhere (as Wile notes on page 16) – he was simply not important enough. And if even he is not important enough, then there is zero chance of Yang LuChan – a low-class person ever being mentioned in an official record. Which brings us to Tom’s line:

“There is no extant written record, in a bureaucracy of exhaustive written records, of any of the Wu brothers in Beijing during this time.”

So, that’s not surprising for Wu YuXiang, since there are no written records of him anywhere – “to official historians he does not exist” – as Wile says. 

However, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t in Beijing at some points. Here’s something to consider. A lot of people attribute the “small frame” of Wu (Hao) style Tai Chi to the limited movement available in Court Dress.

e.g. https://www.itcca.it/peterlim/historg5.htm

A quote from that article: “The Yang Small Frame which comes down to us from Wu Chien Quan has little resemblance to Wu Yu Xiang’s small frame and the primary reason for the origin of that form was the Imperial Court Dress which hampered movement.” 

Royal Court Dress, Ching Dynasty.

If Wu Yu Xiang wasn’t in Beijing he wouldn’t have been wearing Court Dress. 

Regarding his brothers we can be more sure: 

The Jinshi (highest Confucian) exam that Wu Chengching passed could only be taken in Beijing if you were from Hebei Province – it wasn’t held in any other location, and final preparation for it wasn’t done in any other location. Wu Chengching records in his chronological autobiography that he passed that exam in 1852, after Yang LuChan moved to Beijing. He was then assigned to be a district magistrate. (Wile, Tai Chi Touchstones, page 180).

Wu Chengching wasn’t just any old magistrate – he was one of a small handful of elite magistrates ruling the counties of China’s heartland, and based in an area of huge strategic importance militarily speaking. I can’t see any way he would get into that position without strong/long-standing links to the Imperial Court in Beijing.

I think we can say that the Wu brothers had strong connections in Beijing, and Wu Chengqing couldn’t have got into his elevated position anywhere other than Beijing. When he moved to Wuyang in 1854 (four years after YLC settled in Beijing), there was no one local who outranked him – his immediate superiors were based in Beijing all the time, and he would have been expected to report to them frequently. To pass Jinshi he would have needed the support of his extended family, including Wu Yuxiang – it was a decision you had to make – to become a magistrate you had to go “itinerant” – you go wherever the government sends you.

But even so, I don’t think the physical location of Wu Yuxiang, or his brothers affects the overall Heretics Hypothesis very much – the Confucian officials were moved around a lot.

Key to the argument is the idea that “anything at all like Tai Chi” could not have existed in that region until after 1850 – and it doesn’t matter who was/wasn’t involved, because the kind of thing that Tai Chi is, is a modern idea that arose through China’s contact with the West.

2 thoughts on “Where were the Wu brothers during the creation of Tai Chi Chuan?

  1. Yep – 1861 fits with the Heretical Hypothesis for Tai Chi Chuan entering it’s first commercial period, as the funding tap is turned off from Beijing.

  2. Hi Graham—

    I don’t know if you read the follow-up points I emailed after the one you quoted. Douglas Wile and Barbara Davis show sources that indeed put the two older Wu brothers in Beijing, with Middle Brother living in Beijing with Widow Wu for a period of time—just not ca. 1861 which is the turning point in Cixi’s political moves. But I think one of the best (circumstantial) pieces of evidence in support of the Wu cabal falling out of influence is Wu Chengching tendering his resignation—right around 1861 (from his autobiography IIRC). That is something he would not necessarily have ventured to Beijing to do.

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