The fall and rise of Yang LuChan

Yang LuChan, portrait.

In part 4, the latest episode of our look at the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, we can see how the actions of the British and French acting aggressively in China forced the hand of the powerful new dowager empress, Cixi to make some changes in the Royal Court.

Empress Dowager Cixi, portrait 1905.

People like the Wu brothers and Yang LuChan were suddenly out on their ear and had to make a living in a strange new world that suddenly valued entrepreneurship over nepotism. When your family business is teaching martial arts and you’ve got a family to feed, then it’s time to open your own public martial arts school.

Wu Yuxiang

Here, in the 1860s, we start to see the birth of martial art styles in Beijing that can compete against each other for paying students. At this time Yang LuChan’s two sons were finally old enough to teach martial arts full time.

Did Taijiquan’s Yang Luchan and Baguazhang’s Dong Haichuan ever meet?

Image source:

Game of Thrones’ fictional Grey Worm is probably the most famous Eunuch in modern literature, but while Grey Worm lead an army of disciplined, ferocious fighters called The Unsullied, the role of castrated men throughout history has been somewhat less fighting-orientated, especially in royal courts, where they have traditionally held positions of servitude mixed with privilege and power, especially in China.

The Empress Dowager Cixi was often photographed being carried in state on a palanquin by palace eunuchs, in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

As we discovered in part 1 of the Myth of Tai Chi podcast, Yongnian, the home province of Yang Luchan, was famous for providing the highest quality eunuchs to the Ching royal court, and connections made with eunuchs from ‘back home’ could have provided Yang Luchan with a route into Beijing and his role of martial arts instructor in the Royal Court. Nepotism was, after all, what greased the wheels of government in a Confucian court.

To find out more about the complicated world of the Royal Court and the role that eunuchs played we can look to books on the subject. In this short review of Melissa Dale’s book Inside the World of the Eunuch and Jia Yinghua’s The Last Eunuch of China, Jeremiah Jenne takes us into the world of old China:

“History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.”

Jeremiah Jenne

After the initial gruesome operation, and assuming he survived, a eunuch’s life was hardly his own any more once he was serving in the palace.

“Once inside the palace, a new eunuch was isolated from his old life and introduced to a whole new reality. Both books describe the parallel world of palace eunuchs, a highly regimented and hierarchal society that still had spaces for deviant behavior, petty jealousies, and even violence. Eunuchs were expected to show complete devotion to their duties, and to their masters and mistresses. At the same time, they also formed friendships as well as master/disciple bonds with older and more experienced palace hands. While the rules governing eunuchs were numerous and punishments harsh, eunuchs still created actual spaces in the palace for their own activities. There were barbershops, noodle stands, gambling parlors, opium dens, and various other places where court eunuchs could blow off steam with multiple cups of wine and the sympathetic ear of their fellow attendants.”

Jeremiah Jenne

But the lives of eunuchs did not just impact Taijiquan, Dong Haichuan, (whose birth dates are give as either 1797 or 1813 – 25 October 1882), the founder of Baguazhang was a palace eunuch. According to tradition, around 1864 Dong arrived in Beijing and was hired as a eunuch at the residence of the Prince Su. (Whose name was Shanqi, a prince of the Aisin-Gioro clan, the ruling clan of the Qing Dynasty), as well as a minister in the late Qing. He was from the Bordered White Banner and the 10th generation Prince Su, the first Qing hereditary prince position.

Later Prince Su gave Dong the job of tax collector. 

10th generation Prince Su.

It’s possible that Yang Luchan and Dong Haichuan’s tenures in the royal court overlapped. Did they meet and have an exchange of martial techniques as legend and martial arts movies often suggest? It’s possible (Yang Luchan died in 1872), but we just don’t know.

It’s interesting to note that Taijiquan and Baguazhang both share that connection to the Ching royal court around the same time, and are both considered part of the ‘internal’ family of martial arts.

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.

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:

The Myth of Taijiquan part 1

The Myth of Taijiquan part 2

The Myth of Taijiquan part 3

Gu Ru Zhang style Tai Chi Chuan

I posted this video of me doing Tai Chi in the rain back in 2012. This is a short form derived from the full long Yang form of Gu Ru Zhang (Ku Yu Chang) the famous “King of Iron Palm” from Hong Kong.

You see the famous picture of him breaking tiles without spacers quite a lot:


Gu Ru Zhang

Gu Ru Zhang’s style of Tai Chi is still quite rare. It’s from the Yang family originally, but had some input from his friend Sun Lu Tang, and you sometimes see it incorectly called Sun Style.

Gu published a book in 1936 on Tai Chi called “Tai Chi Boxing”, which you can find translated on the Brenan Translation website.

I’ve done various different styles of Tai Chi, but I always come back to this form. It’s my favourite. Anyway, here’s my video:

Shock and awe (in Tai Chi)

city weather thunderstorm electricity

Photo by Torsten Dettlaff on

Tai Chi Chuan has the 13 postures as its basis, which consist of the 8 powers and 5 directions.

The first 4 powers are well known – peng, lu, ji and an – while the second 4 tend to not be so well known. Li (split), Tsai (Pull down/shock), Zhou (elbow) and Kou (shoulder).

These 8 ‘powers’ are the most common expressions of power in Tai Chi Chuan. No technique in Tai Chi Chuan is really purely a single power – they’re all combinations of all 8 of the powers.

It’s this pull down, or shocking, power I want to talk about today.

Shock is often called Pull down because that’s the direction it’s most often used in, however, it’s actually directionless. I prefer “shock” as a description as that’s what it feels like, rather than a pull. Even if performed while pulling, it’s a sudden burst of focussed energy rather than a long expression of energy over time, like say a push.

A lot of people practice Tai Chi with its soft flowing movements yet are unable to coordinate the body together to produce a single isolated burst of power that’s required in the application of many of the movements of Tai Chi Chuan. Depending on how a Tai Chi form is done it’s quite common to see all the shock power removed altogether in favour of soft, flowing, relaxed movement. Yet without it, something is lacking. You’ll never make your techniques effective.

Take an armlock that’s supposed to break a limb. There’s no way you’re going to get that to achieve the desired effect if you can only do the move slowly and softly.

I’m not talking about a sudden burst of tension there either. A good ‘shock’ is delivered by coordinating the body movements together and generating power from the dantien, legs and waist.

Here’s a video I made whilst working on some Tai Chi – see if you can spot where the shock energy is.


January forms challenge!

New Year, new form


Due to a nasty training injury, I’ve had to lay off the “rough stuff” for a while, which means I’ve got more time to spend on forms practice than usual. The latest little project I’ve been amusing myself with is learning the start of a different Taiji form than the one I know.

I’ve picked Chen style, since this is the oldest style, and pretty different to my Yang style form.

It’s often hard to see the connection between Yang and Chen style since they look so different, but as I’ve discovered, if you start to learn the beginning of one after already knowing the other it’s very easy to see how they have the same root. This has already provided lots of insights into my regular form by looking at how Chen style treats familiar movements.

To be clear, I’m just learning the first few moves of the form. Probably I’ll get up to the Crane Spreads Wings move (or whatever they call it in Chen). After that, I think the law of diminishing returns starts to kick in and the time spent working on a new form and remembering it starts to outweigh the benefits you get from practising it.  I already know a long form, so I don’t think there’s much to be gained by undergoing the arduous process of learning another one.

This little project has made me think about a few side issues, which I’d like to go over below:

  1. Learning from video

There’s this unwritten rule in martial arts that learning anything from a video is bad, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Learning from a real person is preferable, but not always practical. If you’ve got enough experience in an area then I think you can learn a lot from video. Also, let’s not forget, that there are videos on YouTube of recognised experts, like Chen Xiao Wang, doing the form, who are doing it a lot better than any local teacher you’ll find.

For instance, here’s the renowned Taijiquan expert Chen Zheng Li doing the Chen Lao Jia Yi Lu form in a nice relaxed pace that’s easy to follow:

Of course, there will be fine details I’ll miss by copying him, but I’m doing this more as an exercise in personal exploration, rather than in trying to get the Chen form perfect. In fact, I’ve already modified one move I felt would work slightly better in a way I’m more familiar with. (I’m a heretic, I know)

2. Distinguishing ‘energy’ from ‘moves’

Taiji uses the four primary directions of Jin – Peng (upwards), Ji (away from the body), Lu (towards the body) and An (downwards) in various combinations. It’s often hard for people to separate this ‘energy’ direction from the physical movements themselves. So, a “ward off” posture is one thing, but the energy that you usually use with it – Peng – is another. Confusingly, Peng is often translated as “ward off”, so the two become conflated. By doing a new form with different moves, you get to see how the same ‘energy’ is used in a different arm shape.

For instance, in Yang style the ‘ward off’ movements tend to have the palm pointing inwards towards the body, while in Chen style, they are pointed outwards, away from the body.


3. Spotting similarities

So, while a Chen form may look very different to a Yang form, once you start thinking in terms of which of the 4 energies you’re using, you start to see the similarities, even if the postures look different.

For example, both forms start with a Peng to the right, a step forward, another Peng forward, a splitting action, then another Peng to the right, then into the Peng, Lu, Ji, Lu, An sequence known in Yang style as “Grasp Birds Tail” in Yang and “Lazily tying coat” then “Six sealing four closing” in Chen style. (Apparently, the Yang naming came from a mistranslation of the original Chen name, but this matters not to me).

(Note: In some performances, of Chen style – like the one above by Chen Zengli, he misses out the “Lu then Ji” move of the sequence. In others, like this one by CXW below, it’s in there. I don’t know why. Personally, I like to put it in, because it connects me to the Yang style I know.)

Doing Peng in a different arm configuration than you’re used to is, frankly, good for your practice, because it helps you break out of the mould a bit, into a freer execution that is not dictated to by the conventions of your particular style.

The New Year Challenge! Do it yourself

I’d like to challenge you to do the same thing in January. If you’re a Chen stylist, then learn the start of the Yang form up to White Crane Spreads Wings. If you’re a Yang stylist, then give the Chen form a go. Alternatively, investigate the opening sequence of Sun, Wu or Wu(Hao) style. Give it a go!

Here’s a video of Yang and Chen forms done side by side that I’ve posted before because it helps show the similarities:


Sink the chest and pull up the back

No.2. in Yang’s 10 Important Points is “Sink the chest and pluck up the back”.

Yang says: “2.) Sink the chest and pluck up the back. The chest is depressed naturally inward so that the ch’i can sink to the tan-t’ien [field of elixir]. Don’t expand the chest: the ch’i gets stuck there and the body becomes top-heavy. The heel will be too light and can be uprooted. Pluck up the back and the ch’i sticks to the back; depress the chest and you can pluck up the back. Then you can discharge force through the spine. You will be a peerless boxer.”

Personally, I like thinking of it as ‘shelter’ the chest, rather than “sink” or “hold in”, even if that’s not the exact translation. I think that works better in English for me, it implies a more natural position with less force being used than ‘hold in’ does. YMMV.

The whole thing is intimately related to the breath and ‘sinking the chi to the dantien’. If you change the focus of the breathing to the dan tien area, so that area expands when you breathe in and contracts when you breathe out (that’s ‘normal’ dan tien breathing, there’s reverse as well, but let’s not get into that) then your upper chest will natural soften and have the feeling of hollowing – so it’s not so much something you actively ‘do’, it’s more like something that happens as a result of doing something else. The old Wu Wei idea of doing without doing. The whole posture in Tai Chi should be as natural as possible without any artificial additions – but it does require effort (including mental effort) to do, paradoxically – you have to make an effort to be as relaxed as possible, usually by getting rid of the unnatural habits we pick up through doing things like typing on this computer or misusing our bodies in other ways, such as stiff shoulders and neck.

If you let the upper chest expand as you perform the movements then you are effectively ‘letting the chi rise up’ rather than ‘sinking it to the dan tien’. In Tai Chi you need to make your centre of gravity the dan tien area, and this requires letting the tension in the upper body release downwards (of course, you still need that opposite feeling of being drawn upwards from the crown that’s talked about in the classics, and in the above quote as “pluck up the back”, otherwise you slump, or get that crumpled ‘old man’ look I see too often in Tai Chi practitioners, which is not good either IMHO).

One of the meanings of chi is air, or breath, so you can see how ‘sinking the chi to the dantien’ relates to breathing from that area, and how ‘letting the chi rise up’ relates to the breath being too high in the body. All the posture requirements of Tai Chi (as featured in Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points essay) are all part of the same thing really, so it can sometimes be misleading to consider them on their own as separate things – or as Mike Sigman said:

In relation to the tail-bone tuck (which I think really just says that the tail-bone should point downward and says nothing about “tuck”), one way of looking at that requirement is that it’s for the same reason the gua is sunk and relaxed, the back is relaxed, the head is suspended, the armpit is rounded, the crotch is rounded, the chest is hollowed and the back rounded slightly, and the stomach is relaxed. They are all done to affect the same thing which connects them all.

All this being said, there are a wide variety of interpretations of what these things mean amongst the different styles. Amongst Tai Chi stylists (mainly from Yang Lu Chan lines, since Chen guys seem to want to be a law unto themselves ) ) I think my view above is by far the most common IMHO, but you can counter pose it with the view amongst some Bagua stylists that the chest should be expanded outwards, but this seems to be part of a complete system and way of doing things that is very complete and detailed, and includes circulating energy in directions counter to the more usual way of doing it.