What came first in Tai Chi – the philosophy or the techniques?

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.

7 thoughts on “What came first in Tai Chi – the philosophy or the techniques?

  1. Well that is interesting, perhaps rotation is a better way of saying it. I’ll let that marinate for a while. Thanks.


  2. One thing I’ve always admired about your blogs and Heretic podcasts is that you are unafraid to challenge the underlying assumptions that create the paradigm of the status quo. Let me help you a little further with that.

    “It’s no secret that Tai Chi is a series of circles.”

    As recently as ten years ago, I probably also would have used that description, but even then, I knew it was not exactly correct. This is a method of hiding important principles in plain sight.

    Taijiquan is a series of rotations. Circles are just outward manifestations, as are arcs, loops, coils, rolls, spirals, helices, twists, orbits, cycles, and so on. The taiji symbol is significant because it represents rotation, not just a circle. Rotation is an important clarification, because rotations have many qualities that circles alone do not.

    So, I would alter Fact 1 to say,

    Fact 1: Tai Chi does indeed contain nothing but rotations. … From this we can conclude that some sort of philosophical idea must have been involved in its creation.

    Because of the implications of putting rotations at the core of taijiquan, I would alter Fact 2 thus.

    Fact 2: The techniques in Tai Chi forms appear a lot like other techniques in other Chinese martial arts forms. However, because of its usage of rotation, it requires the practitioner to develop keen discipline to create still axes for rotation in the midst of movement, chaos, and stress. This also allows the practitioner, upon touch, to sense and disrupt the structure and preparations for action in the opponent. And, because of its rotation, the taijiquan practitioner is able to make “micro adjustments” in angles that alter the resultants of the exchange.

    If you look at a lot of forms from the Shaolin village, and village styles from all over China, you see postures and movements that are very similar to the postures and movements found in Tai Chi. It is possible, even likely, that these rotation-based qualities were not unique to Taijiquan at points in the past. However, it is apparently unique, or at least rare, that the rotational usage taijiquan has been able to retain these skills and preserve them into the present. Though, even then, in many branches of taijiquan these skills are still dormant.

    How taijiquan was able to do preserve if others did not is a separate question than the one you are asking here.

    You could substitute “rotation” for “circle” in the remainder of your blog, and it would remain largely the same. Or, these facts do provide you with a new starting point and expanded parameters for your, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?” thought exercise. I’ll let you decide who had opportunity and motive. I have some thoughts, but this is your investigation, proceed as you wish.


  3. I’ve always had the suspicion that the origins of tai chi was shamanic dance. A physical expression of cosmological process. An endless cycle of opening, closing, expanding, contracting, turning, rising and sinking. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture some historical Taoist devising such a movement pattern in celebration of the cycles of existence. In my daily practice that’s what I experience; a connection with the many cycles of existence.


  4. Interesting view,it cuts through the accepted version which part myth,part historical this helps with understanding Tai Chi as a cultural item.


  5. Graham, speaking of the philosophy of Taijiquan, I was at a seminar one of my teachers (native Chinese) gave (years ago) and some woman asked the question, “What is the philosophy of Taijiquan?”. The teacher was sort of nonplussed by the question and he thought a couple of seconds and then said, “The philosophy of Taijiquan is to get through to the center of your opponent and kill him”. 😉


  6. Not personal but this article is completely wrong. Sorry but Taiji had straight lines, nobody cares what the beijing gov thinks, the serious dozen or so legit masters aren’t in china anyway. Taiji started off as 13 techniques- 5 footworks and 8 hands, as time went by the energy work was added. Yang Lu chuan was real, theres a lot we know about him, I knew people that knew his grandkids, and not everything is flattering about him.
    This article comes off as sincere but misguided. The world of legitimate Chinese martial arts is hard to penetrate, tai chi even harder. Best of luck.


  7. Graham, “Taiji” refers to the constant cycle between Open and Close, as the “Taiji Symbol” indicates. The idea of cycling between Open and Close is a very old one and it is not uncommon in Chinese martial arts. In fact, it is quite common to say that an art like Xingyiquan has “Taiji” in it, or Baguazhang has “Taiji” in it, and so on. The idea is so common that, lo and behold, almost all of the Chinese martial arts hold up the Taiji symbol as their logo. So, “Taiji” is not a “philosophy” … it’s simply a description of a type of movement between Yin and Yang that is held up to be the ideal basis of movement.


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