The Taiping Rebellion and its influence on Taijiquan

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.

Hong Xiuquan

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.

https://www.britannica.com/event/Taiping-Rebellion

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.

https://www.britannica.com/event/Taiping-Rebellion

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:

The Myth of Taijiquan part 1

The Myth of Taijiquan part 2

The Myth of Taijiquan part 3

Yang Lu Chan’s old house and Tai Chi in Yongnian

The Wu Yu Xiang style Tai Chi

I found this video recently of an old gentleman called Mr Han practicing his Tai Chi form in the courtyard in front of the old house of Yang Lu Chan (the founder of the Yang style, pictured top left) in Yongnian County, Hebei province.

The video says he’s practicing Wu Yu Xiang’s (1818-1880, pictured top right) varient of Tai Chi, but I don’t find his performance particularly typical of that style as it is usually presented with much smaller stances than he’s using. It’s possible of course that this is what an ‘older’ version of the style looked like. It’s more similar to what we know as Yang style today.

The Wikipedia take on Wu Yu Xiang was that he was a “scholar from a wealthy and influential family who became a senior student (along with his two older brothers Wu Chengqing 武澄清 and Wu Ruqing 武汝清) of Yang Luchan. Wu also studied for a brief time with a teacher from the Chen family, Chen Qingping, to whom he was introduced by Yang.”, which I think is accurate.

It’s interesting that he learned from Yang LuChan, but also went back to try and find the teacher that Yang learned from, presumably, to find out details he was missing, or simply out of curiosity. It turned out that Chen Changxing (Yang’s teacher) said he was too sick to teach and instead referred Wu to Chen Qingping who was living in Zhaobao (赵堡) village, just down the road. He studied with him for a few months. The whole thing does sound a bit like a brush off to me.

Also, I think we can assume that Wu financially supported the teachers he learned from, since he was wealthy. Here we can see the birth of the Ching Dynasty idea that a martial artist could earn a living purely from teaching these arts.

Wu, and his brothers, allegedly found the documents we now call the Tai Chi Classics in a salt cellar, however, I’d say it’s much more likely that they are the authors of these documents (which are really just a collection of old martial arts sayings), given that they were wealthy scholars. Especially since they definitely did author some other writings on Tai Chi themselves.

Wu taught his nephew Li Yi-Yu, who in turn taught Hao Weizhen (郝為真; 1842–1920) who was the person who made the style popular, so it is often called Hao Style.

The video above is the sort of Tai Chi form I associate with Wu Yu Xiang’s style today, but if we go back to the video taken outside Yang’s house in Yongnian, the Tai Chi starts at 54 seconds. If you notice Mr Han’s performance looks a lot more like Yang style.

If anything I think this just shows that the further you go away from the source of something, the more it inevitably changes. Tiny little changes, amplified by time, end up with big differences in the end results.