I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.
Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.
Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”
You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.
You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.
Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.
Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:
“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack
Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.
Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen:
In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.
If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.
Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.
Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.
I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.
There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:
A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.
But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.
As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.
I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.
Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.
And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.
Before the Internet, back in the early 90s, there were only a few books on the subject of Tai Chi in the West, so the authors of these books achieved a kind of fame and notoriety that wasn’t really proportional to their actual importance, or impact on the Tai Chi world. Or maybe their fame became proportional because of the books themselves, in a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. It’s hard to say.
Either way, one book title that always stuck in my mind was “Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-cultivation”.
This idea of “self cultivation” is kind of the main reason that people practice Tai Chi in the modern world. It’s kind of like exercise, but a little deeper, involving something a little more like meditation. This idea of using eastern spirituality to go on a personal odyssey, or journey into your self is sold to us all the time in the world of Tai Chi, Yoga and health or spiritual practices.
The fact is, it’s nonsense. I hate to break to to you, but individually, we are really not that deep. Scratch our surface and there’s really not that much to us. The idea of cultivating yourself is really a huge waste of time. Our depth lies in our relationships to other people, places and non-human animals. And to find our connection to the world, to the land, the first thing you need to do is get rid of this little self that you’ve been busy cultivating with your various yoga, tai chi and martial arts practices.
Just look at what the Zen or Tao masters of old wrote. They were telling us this constantly in their writings.
When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
– Shunryu Suzuki
One must be deeply aware of the impermanence of the world.
The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.
– Koun Yamada
Those were literally the first three quite in an article I just searched up called “25 Zen Quotes“.
I feel like I could quote any chapter of the Tao Te Ching too, but let’s go with chapter 3:
The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know.
Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.”
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.
Nothing comes from nothing, so for the Yangs and Wu brothers to have concocted Taijiquan (according to the Heretics Hypothesis) it must still have been made from Yang LuChan’s genuine martial skill. The postures of Yang style share a lot in common with various Northern Chinese martial arts. Changquan (long boxing) is often quoted as something Yang LuChan practiced in childhood, but again, this seems to be purely anecdotal. That doesn’t mean it’s not true of course.
A martial art popular in the region Yang came from was Hong Quan. A video surfaced recently that showed some traditional Hong Quan. It’s interesting to watch because I think it’s a good example of the type of martial art that would have been around at the time of Yang LuChan.
The description offered with the video says: “Here is the Xiao Hong Quan of Mogou Village. Mogou is to the east of Dengfeng and has practiced Hong Quan for hundreds of years.”
Hong Quan was very popular during the reign of Emperor Daoguang, which would be the Emperor immediately before Xiangfeng, who was emperor when YLC went to Beijing in the 1850s.
Out of interest, at a cursory glance I can see at least four Tai Chi Chuan techniques I recognise in that Hong Quan form presented – wave hands like clouds, snake creeps down (low single whip), bend bow to shoot tiger, and lotus kick. It’s hard to spot because it’s quite fast. But I’d hazard a guess that you’d probably find those same general techniques in lots of northern martial arts, like Chang Quan, as well.
I think I’m going to start referring to the theme of our recent Heretics podcasts (that Taijiquan was started by the Wu’s and Yang LuChan in 1851, then continued to evolve over the following decades, getting more commercial as it went, and was finally ‘completed’ as a coherent philosophy, martial art and national art in the 20th century), the Heretical Hypothesis.
It stands in contrast to the conventional lineages for the art. Which were first:
i) Zhang SanFeng was the originator. Then it goes into Chen village via Wang ZongYue, and then to Yang LuChan.
Then when this fell out of favour you get either:
i) Various ancient lineages of Taijiquan from Wudang some of which end up in Chen village, others continue to the present day and miss out Yang LuChan.
ii) Obviously Zhang is a fiction, so we start in Chen village (via Wang ZongYue) to Chen Wanting (16th century) and onwards to Yang LuChan.
What’s in a name?
There is an absolute dearth of writing about Taijiquan until after the Ching Dynasty ends. Why there are no published works during this period is an interesting question, but we’ll leave that for another time. All we have in that period is really the group of writings know as the Tai Chi classics, also called the Salt Shop Classics, that Wu YuXiang alleges he found in a Salt Shop, but most people think he actually authored.
In the Salt Shop Classics we see two names pop up – Zhan SanFeng and Wong ZongYue representing a historical lineage. Zhan SanFeng’s name is dropped in the Li copy of the original by 1881, but that’s a good 20 years after Tai Chi entered its commercial period (1861), so a lot has happened and the fortunes of the Ching Dynasty has changed.
Douglas Wile (‘Lost Classics…’ page 111) expresses that view that Zhang SanFeng was already associated with pro-Chinese and anti-foreigner sentiment, and that was the reason for his inclusion in the original version of the Salt Shop Classics. And by the time the manuals were copied by Li (1880s) it is removed because politically it looks more likely the Ching dynasty is going to survive at that point.
It’s an interesting idea, that makes sense. But what of the name Wang ZongYue? There’s no historical evidence that Wang ZongYue existed. Again, Wile points out that using the name “Wang ZhongYue” could have a more political than factual origin. Wang ZhongYue is a euphemism for Marshal Yue Fei of the Song Dynasty, who again stood for anti-foreign sentiments and pro-Chinese nationalism.
Wang = King, Zhong = Revering. Yue = Yue Fei, either himself or his lineages (his army).
That would make sense if (following the Heretics Hypothesis) the original purpose of the Wu’s was to create an essentially Chinese martial art practice to bind the Confucian Elite together against all the threats they were facing – Taiping rebellion, Nian rebellion, Foreign powers, etc.
I often come across a particular attitude to Chinese martial arts history amongst martial artists. They treat it as if it happens all together and all at the same time.
One common refrain you’ll hear is something like “the principles are all the same between Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi.” True, viewed from a certain perspective the “internal” arts are all based on the same principles, but I find this idea is often really being used to shut down debate and ignore historical facts.
It’s a lazy cop-out for doing actual research into the history of these martial arts. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card that squashes together events that happen decades, or even hundreds of years, and sometimes thousands of miles apart. It’s easy to forget just what a vast country China is, and how long its history is.
In a way, the last people you want doing your history research are martial artists. (My preference is for history scholars who are also martial arts hobbyists.)
I believe it was Sun Lu Tang who first grouped together Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi as “internal” arts in his 1915 publication, A Study of Xing Yi Boxing. Sure there had been talk of Neijia before this, but this was the point where the idea of grouping those three arts really took off.
“I myself have barely scratched the surface of the Xingyi Boxing art. It contains the states of nonpolarity and grand polarity, the five elements and eight trigrams, a starting posture and various techniques. When we examine for its origin, it can be said to be of the same source as the two arts of Taiji and Bagua, as well as the two schools of external and internal, but was then gradually turned into its own system by later generations and has evolved into various styles, as is the normal way of things.”
Sun Lu Tang – A Study of Xing Yi Boxing
The idea stuck, and later, when the Guoshu Research Academy was set up in 1928 to promote national unity initially the organisation was split into two sections – one dedicated to teaching “Shaolin” arts and the other to “Wudang” arts. (This proved disastrous because the two sections immediately started fighting with each other, in one case with bamboo spears!)
But the grouping of the Big Three, survived, probably with a little help from the Guoshu and then Wushu movements, and is still used today.
China was going through periods of tremendous change during the 19th and 20th century – 10 years here or there can make a huge difference to the political, social, cultural climate in which these arts operated and have profound implications on them.
Martial arts blew in the same breeze – swinging one year from being bastions of a return to traditional Confucian values, often with bloody outcomes, see the Boxer Rebellion, to being radical trailblazers in new scientific Western thought – see the Guoshu movement.
And the influence of Western powers on China during this time was all pervasive. As were opium and guns! It’s often forgotten that guns were in common usage during the time period that all of today’s household names in Chinese martial arts were being developed – Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, White Eyebrow, etc,
My point really is simple: If you’re going to comment on Chinese martial arts then you need to take the wider Chinese historical perspective into account.