I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.
I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.
Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!
A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.
I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.
When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.
I recently reviewed Mark Chen’s book “Chen SyleTaijiquan Collected Masterworks” which is a really good translation of Chen Zhaopi’s 1935 book on Taijiquan with additional translation notes from the author and appendices on Tai Chi matters. It’s a good book and he did a great job. That should be the end of it, but I’ve somehow got dragged into a side issue.
As part of my review I did notice that some included documents, called “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”, that Chen Zhaopi attributes to his ancestor Chen Chanxing, were in fact the 10 Thesis of Yue Fei, but with the name “Taijiquan” unscrupulously inserted into them and Chen Chanxing attributed as author.
These documents are widely known as the “Xing Yi Classics” or “The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei” – and while nobody really thinks, or can prove, that Yue himself wrote them, they’ve always been associated with the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi – there is simply no debate about this. I raised this issue in my review.
Mark has posted a response to this issue in my comments section, which I’ll address in full here:
“Thanks to Taichi Notebook for the review and thanks to Mike for his thoughtful comments. As a point of clarification, please note that I do not make the assertion that the “Ten Main Points” was written by Chen Changxing (though the version in the book was obviously written or adapted by a taijiquan partisan). My introductory remarks for chapter 3 say that it “may” have been written by Changxing, and in the preface I indicate that this attribution is used throughout the book for convenience. I further allege that the document “plausibly dates to Changxing’s lifetime,” and the argument for this is given in appendix C.
OK, he’s factually correct about this, (except for calling Mr Sigman’s comments “thoughtful” 😉 ) but he’s taken a position worthy of a modern politician, I feel. He’s simultaneously leaving enough room to wiggle out of saying Chen Chanxing wrote the 10 Main Points (dropping just one single “may” in the book, before making the assertion several times) while at the same time doubling down on the inference that it is true because the time period fits.
“Regarding Li Jianqiu’s claim (in his 1919 book) that it was written by Yue Fei: while it is certainly possible that the document was written by someone other than Changxing, it was written by Yue Fei only in the same sense that the “taiji classics” were written by Zhang Sanfeng; that is, it was not written by Yue Fei. First, its idiom clearly belongs to the nineteenth century (a fact that is easily discernible in the original Chinese). Second, it quotes from Ming dynasty sources. For example, the passage beginning, “can go, can accomplish, . . .” on page 31 of my book is lifted directly from Zhuge Liang’s delightful letter to Cao Zhen in chapter 100 of _Romance of the Three Kingdoms_ (as far as I know, the only instance of epistolary homicide in recorded history). Other similar references are noted in the book, and while they could theoretically have been taken from pre-Song historical texts (specifically, the _San Guo zhi_), this is not likely the case. General readers were unaware of the cited events until the publication of _Romance_ during the Ming dynasty, so the references would have been meaningless before that time. As another example, the expression _shen fa_ (“body technique”) is a term of art originating in Qi Jiguang’s “Quan jing”–again from the Ming dynasty and further evidence of a taijiquan connection.
First let’s deal with Mark’s strawman argument of Yue’s authorship. Nobody sensible these days is claiming that this is true, so let’s not get distracted. The way Mark draws a parallel between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei is interesting though.
I’ve heard this comparison between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei before. For sure, Yue Fei didn’t write the Xing Yi classics, but they certainly do embody his philosophy – which we know in detail because he was real. The Tai Chi classics have got nothing to do with Chang San Feng’s philosophy, especially because he never existed, whereas there is incontrovertible evidence that Yue Fei was a real, flesh and blood person.
The point about citations from Ming Dynasty works being supportive of a Tai Chi origin of the Xing Yi classics is very strange – maybe I read it wrong, but the postures mentioned in General Qi’s Ming Dynasty manual are in virtually everything – there are more variations on single whip in Baji than there are in Tai Chi, for example.
Richard Dawkins made the criticism that comparisons between imaginary details of imaginary things seem to be more important in religion than is the actual existence or otherwise of those things. It’s a really good observation, and I think 100% true when people start to defend the religion of Taijiquan.
But the real elephant in the room is the content of the 10 Main Points/10 Thesis. Theses are replete with Xing Yi terminology, but there is very little Tai Chi terminology. Mark himself notices this and remarks upon it in his book! I would offer a simpler explanation: Perhaps the reason why these writings are so untypical of Taijiquan is that… they’re not about Taijiquan?
And then there’s the long history of these writings being associated with Xing Yi both in a literary and oral tradition, which Mark completely ignores.
Here are just 3 examples of quotes from the 10 Thesis from the literary tradition on Xing Yi to establish my case:
And inside, in a preference written by Zheng Lianpu it states:
“In the summer of 1915, I returned south, and as I passed my hometown, people praised me as a prominent expert for making a study of the contents of Yue Fei’s boxing manual. Within it are nine chapters of essential principles and one chapter on fighting. Although the content of the writing is not without its flaws, the style of the writing is marvelous, powerful, and smooth, and as suits the work of Yue Fei, the theory is refined and thorough. It is certainly not the case that Yue Fei was unable to communicate. I say that equipped with this old Xingyi manual, you too will obtain such a level of clarity.”
3. Liu Dianchen’s Selected subtleties of Xingyi Boxing Art (1920)
This book from 1920 quotes freely from “The manual”, which is, of course, Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis.
E.g. “The Manual says: “The hand lifts like an arrow and drops like the wind, chasing the wind and pursuing the moon without letting up.” It also says this on the quickness of the hand techniques: “Attack where he is unprepared and appear where he does not expect. Do not fear his vigor and fierceness, for with but a move he is defeated.” “
This is from Thesis 9, the Thesis of Stepping.
“In view of these and related observations, it is nearly certain that “Ten Main Points” was written in the nineteenth century. If it did not originate in Chen Village, then the arguments in my book’s appendix C indicate that it was adopted there around or before the middle of that century. So we can further assert that if any borrowing occurred, it happened roughly during Changxing’s lifetime.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Mike’s comments are generally correct. As I explain at length in appendix B, many martial-arts things (particularly from the Central Plain) lack a tidy provenance, and “Ten Main Points” may well be an example of a document that was exchanged and adapted by many hands over time.”
Yes, I think that’s exactly what it is!
A version of it has possibly ended up in the Chen village at some point and been adapted. However, I think I’ve shown that the oral and literary provenance unequivocally connects it to the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi explicitly, not Taijiquan. Mike’s argument (as I understand it) is that the 3 internal arts are all the same “stuff”, so what applies to one applies equally to all 3. I’d disagree. I’ve already posted about how this mashing together of history is just intellectually lazy. In reality, most Tai Chi people know very little about Xing Yi but they feel like they are authorities on it because they know the “main thing” in the internal arts, (according to them).
Like I said, Mark’s book is great – you should get it. He’s said his piece about my review, which is fair enough, but personally, I disagree. C’est la vie. I’ve little enthusiasm for getting into a long protracted debate over it with either Mark or Mr Sigman because I don’t know what else there is to say, so hopefully they’ll just let it be.
In our last look at Tai Chi for a while, we examine the context of the times in which Chen Zhaopei and Chen Fake became prominent for their martial arts in Beijing, and then at a national level, joining the wave of commerciality that had been originally instigated by the legacy of Yang Luchan and the Wu brothers. In addition we explain why the forms are similar in general order between the Yang/Wu and Chen lineages.
Here’s some Chen Canon Fist (mentioned in the podcast episode, posted here as a visual reference) – – under the Heretical Hypothesis this would be representative of the “original stuff” of the Chen village. Everybody is free to make their own mind up 🙂
Interesting comment from Mike Sigman on my blog. No, that’s not him in the picture, I just though it was a funny picture 🙂
….The real problem with a lot of these theories that basically denigrate the Chen-style Taijiquan as being “only an offshoot of something else” or “it’s really a Shaolin art” is that none of the westerners engaged in those musings have any minor skills in how to move the body in the way that the Chen-style Taijiquan does. It really doesn’t matter that “Chen-style has umpteen of the same techniques/moves shown in the XYZ style of martial-art” … the essence of the Chen-style Taijiquan is in how the body moves, using jin, qi, dantian, and silk-reeling.
So, if you listen to our Heretical Hypothesis, I think you’ll find that although we’re challenging the usual narrative of the origins of Taijiquan, we’re not really denigrating Chen martial arts, calling it an offshoot of something else, or “Shaolin” (as if that’s so bad). In contrast I think it’s actually quite positive about what it really is. It’s the brand name “Taijiquan” that is looking less authentic, not Chen village martial arts.
Chen village has a long history of marital prowess. If we’re talking around the time period we’ve got up to in the podcasts (- around 1900) – then at this point I’d say Chen village style is a genuine badass martial art – it’s practitioners are bodyguards, militia fighters and people with the name Chen are tracking down and fighting “bandits” (Or “freedom fighters” – as usual, it often depends which side of history you are looking at them from) for the Ching as ‘guns for hire’. In contrast, the “Taijiquan” passed down from Yang in Beijing is a kind of court-sanctioned entertainment. Sure, Yang had genuine skills but it’s much of a domesticated experience compared to the “in the wild and doing it” Chens.
From my point of view that’s not denigrating it at all, it’s lifting it up. Around 1900 you’ve got people like Chen Yanxi being employed full time as a martial arts teacher in Shandong by General Yuan Shikai because of his reputation as a badass fighter.
I was impressed with the podcast, so ordered the book and finally managed to finish reading it recently. As already mentioned, the book contains translations of selected texts from Chen Zhaopi’s “Chen shi taijiquan hui zong” (“Chen family taijiquan selected masterworks“), published in 1935, but contains texts that claim to originate from earlier periods, authored by Chen Chanxing (and that’s where the fun starts), but let’s first take a closer look at who Chen Zhaopi was.
Chen Zhaopi is a pivotal figure in Chen family history, as he was the first Chen practitioner to move to Beijing from Chen village and teach Taijiquan commercially, in 1928. When he later accepted a teaching post at the Central Guoshu Academy in Nanjing in the south, the famous Chen Fake replaced him in Beijing in the north, securing the Chen legacy. Chen Zhaopi’s life (recounted in detail here) is a remarkable story, as he went through a series of highs and lows. His toughest time was during the Cultural Revolution when he was persecuted heavily, so much so that he attempted suicide. Thankfully he survived, and once Mao had decided that Taijiquan was not a threat to the nation returned to teaching in the Chen village where he managed to tutor the next generation, who are all famous names in Chen style today. Without his efforts it’s unlikely that a martial tradition would have survived in the Chen village at all.
Collected Masterworks starts with two biographies of Chen Zhongshen, a famous fighter for hire from Chen village who lived during the tumultuous events of 19th century in China, suppressing rebels, and was renowned for his excellent martial skill. Longer versions of these biographies later appear in Chen Xin’s book. It feels somewhat like these biographies are added to the start of this volume to stake the claim of Chen fighters to being experienced fighters and serious martial artists.
Of more interest to the casual reader are the next two texts which are attributed to the famous Chen Chanxing (although the author notes they have also been attributed to Chen Wanting elsewhere), who was the teacher of Yang Luchan in most of the orthodox histories of Taijiquan. That makes them the most important texts in this collection. Mark gives excellent introductions to each text he translates, with copious notes.
The first text is “Chen Chanxing’s Verse of Taijiquan”. It’s short – just 1 page long – and although it doesn’t mention Taijiquan by name, reads like many old Chinese texts on Taijiquan. E.g.:
“Freely bending and extending, others know nothing, Always in contact, I totally rely on winding”.
The second text attributed to Chen Chanxing is a compilation of posture names from the Taijiquan form.
But the third and final text attributed to Chen Chanxing is where the mystery deepens. It is much longer and titled: “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”.
Reading through the text of “10 important points”, I found the words eerily familiar, “in all matters separation must have unification”, “inside and outside are joined, front and back mutually support each other”…. then I realised that was because I was reading a modified version of the Xing Yi classics normally referred to as “The 10 thesis of Marshal Yue Fei” and sometimes attributed to the eponymous Song dynasty marshal.
While they are of unknown provenance the 10 Thesis forms the basis for most of the classic writings on Xing Yi that you’ll find in later works; so I’d say its connection to the martial art Xing Yi is unequivocal.
Except here. Here, in Chen Zhaopi’s book it is presented as Chen Chanxing’s original writings on Taijiquan. The author (either Chanxing, Zhaopi, or maybe Mark Chen?) even puts the name “Taijiquan” into the text itself to make it seem more authentically about Taijiquan. E.g. “Taijiquan is ever changing. There must be energy everywhere…”
Not reading Chinese, I don’t know if the phrase “Taijiquan” was used in the original print edition by Zhaopi (1935), at a time when it was already in common usage, or was inserted into this translation by Mark Chen in this edition. And if it was used by Zhaopi, did he insert it or was it in the original source material allegedly from Chen Chanxing?
But either way, clearly something is being done to attach Chen Chanxing’s name to the history of Taijiquan by co-opting some old martial arts writings.
In the Translator’s Preference at the start, referring to the 10 points, Mark Chen writes:
“Interspersed amidst the theoretical discourse, the text contains perhaps some of the best practical martial-arts instruction ever written. It is clearly a transitional document on the timeline of taijiquan’s evolution, composed in an era when utility was still paramount – the work of a vastly experienced fighter wielding a vigorous rhetorical facility to convey the true “look and feel” of an advanced martial art. What emerges from the text is not theoretical pablum about soft overcoming hard, but a picture of the formidable fighiting system that made the Chen clan of Wen County some of the most feared caravan guards and bandit hunters of the Qing dynasty, from Hubei to Shandong.”
I’d say he’s right about the value of the text, and the reputation of the Chen clan, he just has the wrong author, and the wrong martial art!
Whether or not Marshal Yue Fei actually wrote these 10 thesis (obviously this is unprovable) is beside the point, the point is that they are well known and in wide circulation, and Chen Chanxing certainly did not write them. And yet this book treats them as the original writings of Chen Chanxing, without question.
Maybe I’m missing something here, (and somebody please correct me if I’m wrong) but I find this error perplexing as the author has clearly put huge amounts of effort into this translation, and agonises over each character he translates. The Appendices where he talks about the details of his translation and the provenance of different Taijiquan writings, like the Salt Shop Classics, and also the Chen Wanting origin story are really fascinating and show how much work he’s put into researching this book.
Moving on, the next chapter is by Chen Zhaopi himself and contains annotated photos of Zhaopi performing the Chen old frame first form. These photos will be of particular interest to modern day Chen practitioners as he performs many movements in quite acrobatic ways, including movement 54 called the “Iron split” where he drops to the floor in a dramatic half splits movement.
After this we have an explanation of push hands and the original texts written in Chinese. Finally, the appendices and copious notes sections are well worth reading.
Overall this book is an excellent addition to the literature on Taijiquan, and an essential purchase for all Chen stylists, although I keep coming back to the question of why Chen Zhaopi is presenting the Xing Yi classics as belonging to the Taijiquan literary canon and presenting them here as the writings of Chen Chanxing.
Chen Style Taijiquan Collected Masterworks is clearly a labour of love for the author and translator and every Taijiquan practitioner will enjoy it, but for me it ultimately throws up more questions than it answers.
Our recent Heretics Podcast series on the history of Tai Chi Chuan keeps generating interesting feedback. Here’s a particularly good one I got today:
My compliments to Damon and Graham on their podcast about the origins of Tai Chi Chuan. I particularly liked mapping martial art history to the general history of the period. From a strict reading of the available evidence the podcast cannot be faulted. Where there maybe problems is in the interpretation provided, which it could be argued commits the error of anachronism. Here is a good quote from a Wikipedia article: “In historical writing, the most common type of anachronism is the adoption of the political, social or cultural concerns and assumptions of one era to interpret or evaluate the events and actions of another”. The interpretation basically argues that Tai Chi Chuan was a bonding exercise in the Imperial Court because of the political decline in the Qing state. A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values. That looks like an interpretation of Chinese History filtered through the prism of 21th century corporate culture.
Well, that’s an interesting idea. I really like well thought out criticism, especially when it’s delivered so succinctly.
Let’s explore a few of these ideas, and see where it takes us.
I see our podcast on the Myth of Tai Chi as “what Damon thinks really happened based on the available evidence”.
So, there will always be a lot of interpretation involved. History is essentially how you join the dots together. I think what Damon is doing is joining the dots together in a new way that makes a lot more sense than the stories we have been given by our teachers (in some senses the last people you should be asking about real history are martial artists), which all have parts that don’t make sense:
1. The original story we were given was about Tai Ch Chuan (Taijiquan) being created by a Taoist immortal called Chan San Feng. He’s a semi-fictional character who appears at various times throughout Chinese history. Most people who don’t believe in spirits of the ancestors walking amongst us (a common belief in China then) now dismiss this story. Li Yiyu even removed it from his hand written copy of the Tai Chi classics as early as the 1880s. I think this is one for the flat-earthers out there 🙂
2. The next story is that he learned in Chen village where Tai Chi was created by Chen Wanting in the 16th Century. This story was officially adopted by the General Administration of Sport of China who awarded Chen Village, Henan, a commemorative plaque acknowledging its status as ‘the birthplace of taijiquan’, in 2007 (See Fighting Words, Wile, 2017, Martial Arts Studies (4).) however this plaque had to be removed after just two months after a “firestorm” of new claims to the Tai Chi $ appeared, including the newly ‘discovered’ Li family documents.
But apart from that the story is full of holes. i) For a start nobody in Chen village used the name “Taijiquan” until long Yang used it. ii) There is also no actual evidence he was in Chen village at all. iii) Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan meet in Beijing for the first time, yet both have separate connections to an obscure village in China? iv) Then there’s the issue of why they taught an outsider like Yang, but only him – they didn’t teach anybody else, ever! v) Then there’s all the extra content (lots of other forms, weapons, etc) not found in Yang style, but found in Chen style, vi) Chen village records crediting their martial art to the earlier Chen Bu, not Chen Wanting, vii) the emphasis on silk reeling found in Chen style… the list goes on and on. It just doesn’t add up. However, it still needs explaining why the Chen old form and the Yang long form follow the same pattern (see the upcoming part 6 of Heretics podcast series for Damon’s explanation).
3. There are other theories of Tai Chi Chuan being ancient – really ancient, sometimes a thousand, or two thousand years old (that’s the White Cloud Temple claim) – and coming from Wudang mountain, via various unverifiable people, and ending up in the hands of Yang LuChan somehow – but nobody takes these claims seriously.
Of course, Damon isn’t saying that Tai Chi Chuan was created out of thin air, but rather it is the content of Northern Shaolin arts that Yang LuChan (a good martial artist) knew, adapted to fit certain traditional Confucian Court values thanks to Wu Yuxiang, and with a backstory added by Wu to make it appear ancient.
A class-based society
Chinese society was class-based, and teaching martial arts would make Yang LuChan the same class as theatre performers, i.e. the lowest of all classes.
From the Wikipedia article above: “There were many social groups that were excluded from the four broad categories in the social hierarchy. These included soldiers and guards, religious clergy and diviners, eunuchs and concubines, entertainers and courtiers, domestic servants and slaves, prostitutes, and low class laborers other than farmers and artisans. People who performed such tasks that were considered either worthless or “filthy” were placed in the category of mean people (賤人), not being registered as commoners and having some legal disabilities.”
So, Yang LuChan was a Jianren, yet, there he was inside the Forbidden City, teaching (and mixing with) the most high-level people in the system.
I think this can be verified: The only students we know he had were all in senior positions, like Wu Yuxiang, and Wu Quan Yu, for example. Those are the facts of the matter, and viewed through our eyes that does make him something like an external consultant, but only superficially. Compared to a consultant of today the power dynamic would be very different. I imagine Yang would be doing a lot of bowing and kowtowing to these senior people he’s teaching.
But is that anachronism or just a reading of the facts? The teaching of martial arts as a hobby or binding action for the court, was indeed a unique innovation, but I don’t think somebody of the lowest class being used to entertain the court is that unusual at all – there is plenty of historical precedent: Theatre entertainers, for example, were regularly brought to the Forbidden City to entertain the Confucian court, throughout Chinese history:
“The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace. They performed for the court. ”
Jingxi (Peking Opera) was certainly popular in the Ching court too:
“In music, the most notable development of the dynasty probably was the development of jingxi, or Peking opera, over several decades at the end of the 18th century. The style was an amalgam of several regional music-theatre traditions that employed significantly increased instrumental accompaniment, adding to flute, plucked lute, and clappers, several drums, a double-reed wind instrument, cymbals, and gongs, one of which is designed so as to rise quickly in pitch when struck, giving a “sliding” tonal effect that became a familiar characteristic of the genre. Jingxi—whose roots are actually in many regions but not in Beijing—uses fewer melodies than do other forms but repeats them with different lyrics. It is thought to have gained stature because of patronage by the empress dowager Cixi of the late Qing, but it had long been enormously popular with commoners.” – from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Qing-dynasty
So, I think we can establish Yang in the position we say he is in (the Royal Court). But let’s get to the meat of the matter!
“A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values.”
I agree, but it’s hard to know what form that evidence could take? The Smith hypothesis is that it was Wu Wuxiang who was performing some sort of re-instigation of Confucian values, and Yang LuChan was just being used as a gun for hire. We know he was there, in the royal court, but the question of what he was doing there is the key issue.
Tai Chi Chuan as Neo-Confucianist martial art
Everybody knows Tai Chi is based on Taoist principles, starting with Yin and Yang. But wouldn’t you expect the martial art Yang and Wu came up with to be more Confucian in flavour than Taoist? Why then was Yang teaching a martial art that people instinctively know is Taoist in philosophy? Tai Chi Chuan (a soft, internal martial art) is, after all, based on those great symbols of Taoism – the Yin Yang symbol, the 5 elements, the 8 Bagua, etc..
So, how do you explain that contradiction? Well, I can add one more piece of evidence. I wouldn’t call it a smoking gun, but it does add to the overall narrative:
If we look at the content of what he was teaching (Tai Chi Chuan) – then you’ll find it kind of is based on traditional Confucian values, rather than anything Taoist. I’ll explain…..
People talk about Tai Chi as being Taoist a lot, but Taoism is this shaggy, messy, nature-loving, outdoorsy, shamanic, magic, smokey, rich, spiritual, earthy thing involving things like spirit possession and exorcism – it’s not very Confucian at all. Or indeed, very like Tai Chi Chuan.
The best description of Taoism I’ve heard was by Bill Porter (Red Pine), who likened Taoism to “house-broken shamanism”.
The philosophy we find in Tai Chi Chuan – yin and yang, 5 elements, 8 powers, etc. uses the symbols of Taoism, but is all very heavy on categorisation – it’s very clean, neat and orderly. In fact, very… Confucian!
Or, rather, it’s what scholars call “Neo Confucian”. At the time that Buddhism was gaining popularity in China, as a threat to Confucianism, the Confucians needed something to combat it, because they had nothing very “spiritual” in their religion, whilst Buddhism and Taoism were both full of spiritual stuff.
The Confucians plugged the gap with what became known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism adopted the signs and symbols and ideas of these more spiritual religions (yin and yang, Taiji symbols, 5 elements, etc), but it was really just repackaged Confucianism 101. The scholar responsible for all this was Zhu Xi, who lived during the Song Dynasty, from 1130-1200AD. He effectively sanitised all these Taoist ideas and related it all back to the 4 classic texts of Confucianism. His impact in his lifetime was not so great, but to later periods it was absolutely huge – his ideas formed the basis of the Civil and Martial exams that people had to pass to enter government/senior positions, for example.
Damon did an excellent episode about Zhu Xi’s impact on Chinese society and martial arts as part of the Heretics Xing Yi series (the same Neo-Confucian philosophy ends up being dumped on Xing Yi during a later period).
Give that episode 5 of Xing Yi a listen. To me it makes sense.
I should add some rumour control, since I think that Tai Chi people will generally not like this Neo-Confucian angle:
1. I don’t think saying that the philosophy of Tai Chi is actually Neo-Confucian, rather than Taoist is a diss to the art – an actual Taoist martial art I imagine would not be as practical! It would be messy, unfocussed and a bit wild. A martial arts form repeated over and over in the same sequence each time would probably be a strange concept to a Taoist!
2. I also don’t want to diss the Chen family – their reputation during the Ching Dynasty was of them being practical and expert martial artists who actually used their martial skills to fight bandits and escort caravans. They were the real deal! Their family martial art is older than the appearance of Taijiquan in the 1850s by far – and as any good Confucian knows, older is always better! 🙂
What matters to me about Taijiquan is that it works, not what you call the philosophy behind it.
This is Hong Xiuquan, the extremist Christian who orchestrated the biggest and most bloody civil war in history, the Taiping rebellion. It happened around the same time as the American civil war, and shared a lot of similarities.
The Taiping’s had some previously unimaginable beliefs in China, like equality for men and women (women fought in their army, which reached a million people) and no private ownership of land.
From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Taiping Christianity placed little emphasis on New Testament ideas of kindness, forgiveness, and redemption. Rather, it emphasized the wrathful Old Testament God who demanded worship and obedience. Prostitution, foot-binding, and slavery were prohibited, as well as opium smoking, adultery, gambling, and use of tobacco and alcohol. Organization of the army was elaborate, with strict rules governing soldiers in camp and on the march. For those who followed these rules, an ultimate reward was promised. Zeng Guofan was astonished when, after the capture of Nanjing, almost 100,000 of the Taiping followers preferred death to capture.
Under the Taipings, the Chinese language was simplified, and equality between men and women was decreed. All property was to be held in common, and equal distribution of the land according to a primitive form of communism was planned. Some Western-educated Taiping leaders even proposed the development of industry and the building of a Taiping democracy. The Qing dynasty was so weakened by the rebellion that it never again was able to establish an effective hold over the country. Both the Chinese communists and the Chinese Nationalists trace their origin to the Taipings.
We believe these historical events contributed directly to the creation of Taijiquan. Without the Ching court being rocked to its core respected Confucian court officials like Wu Yuxiang and his brother would not have even interacted with a low-level martial artist like Yang Luchan. But the Taiping rebellion was not the only crises happening in China at the same time. A dynasty can survive one crisis, but several at once? No chance. The Yangtze river flooded leading to a catastrophic famine and loss of life and the British and the French started the second Opium war. There was also the Nian rebellion in the North.
The Taiping’s were eventually defeated with help from the Mongols and British. (The British wanted to sell opium, to sustain their empire and the Taiping’s were against that). If the rebellion had suceeded, just imagine the different China that would have emerged.
We cover all this in the 3rd part of your history of Taijiquan, and the crucial moment when the Wus first meet the Chens:
In this episode we look at how the effects of the Taiping Northern Expedition and the Nian Rebellion of the mid Nineteenth Century drew the confucian Wu brothers and the fighters of Chen Village towards each other for the first time.
Looking back over the last few blog posts I’ve written it occurs to me that a reader might think that I don’t actually like Tai Chi Chuan. I do. I practice it pretty much every day. There’s something in it that is just very good for you. Before practice I feel a bit unfocussed, and uncoordinated. After practice I feel like I’m back “in the zone”, and that’s a rare thing for any practice to deliver as consistently as Tai Chi does. And it always does.
If I contrast that with Jiujitsu (something I also love, or at least used to before this lockdown started), after that I’m an exhausted, sweaty mess in need of water and recovery. Jiujitsu is a lot of fun, but it breaks you down. In contrast, Tai Chi builds you up. You need both together. I’ve always practiced my Tai Chi with other more physical arts anyway. More dynamic things, like Choy Lee Fut or Xing Yi are great compliments to the relaxed, slow Tai Chi movements.
One of the reasons I criticise Tai Chi a lot is that it does have the most abysmally low standards amongst its practitioners of any martial art you’ll ever see. In fact, it’s a martial art that most people don’t actually practice as a martial art!
Regular readers to the blog, or regular listeners to the Heretics Podcast, will know that we recently started a series on “The Myth of Tai Chi“. Again, it sounds like it’s a bit of a negative attack on Tai Chi, but anybody with even a cursory understanding of Tai Chi history will realise that a lot of it is vague, unknown and contradictory, especially for a period of time (1850s onwards) in which other martial arts (like Xing Yi) have no confusion over their history and lineage.
Episode 1 of the podcast takes into account all the other things that were happening in China in 1850, and there was a lot! It was a period of turmoil that was about to become even worse with the most bloody civil war in world history – the Taiping Rebellion – which left an estimate 20 million dead. (If you’d like to know more about this and the various martial arts that were created around the same time period, like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, then I’d recommend Benjamin Judkin’s excellent book Creation of Wing Chun, The: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts – it’s by far the best Chinese martial arts history book I’ve read).
Now the scene is set, episode 2 (coming soon) will offer more definite conclusions on the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s still so much left to talk about that this will soon become a mult-part story. You might want to empty your cup before you listen though: Damon’s conclusions on what Tai Chi really is are not particularly favourable for any group trying to claim ownership of the Tai Chi brand – the Chens, the Yangs, the Wus the Taoists or anybody else. You’ll have to wait until episode 2 is released in the next few days to find out what the big reveal is!
But until then, just a little reminder that I do actually like Tai Chi Chuan (honest!), despite appearances. And regardless of its origins what matters is its actual practice. Learning about history won’t make you any more or less skilful, only practice will do that.