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What Is Tai Chi?

Wu Tang and Tai Chi

The actual history and development of tai chi chuan is at least as mysterious as that of Taoism, the philosophy that gave it birth. Whether the original set of movements, called forms, were divinely inspired or whether they were developed through the painstaking research of generations of martial artists has never really been answered. It is very likely that no one will ever know the whole story.

Some say Chang San-feng was a hermit and an alchemist. Others believe he was a monk. Most likely, he was a monk knowledgeable in the secret practices of Taoism such as chi kung.

Whatever he was, there is little doubt that sometime around a.d. 1200, together with a small group of disciples, he founded two Taoist temples. One, called the White Clouded Temple, was built on Beijing West Mountain to teach meditation and Taoism. The other, called Wu T'ang Temple, was built on Wu T'ang Mountain in Hupei Province specifically to teach tai chi and related disciplines.

Whether or not Chang San-feng actually created the art of tai chi, however, has been the subject of great debate. The Ningpo Chronicle, a record of the time, lists the names of some martial arts postures still in use in tai chi practice today. This suggests that the art was in existence then.

Other records indicate that the art was passed on to Yeh Chi-mei, a native of Ningpo. Taken together, the two old records appear to confirm that Chang San-feng at least knew the art at the time.

Prior to Chang San-feng's discovery, the main system of martial arts was that of the Shaolin school, introduced by Bodhidharma more than 600 years earlier. Since Shaolin techniques relied heavily on physical strength and bravery, it was known as a "hard" school of self-defense and was considered to be an external system, one that relied on skill coupled with physical prowess.

The art of tai chi, however, suggested a completely different fighting strategy, one that required the development of a special form of awareness that links body and mind and uses a passive energy developed through the application of special techniques.

For these reasons, tai chi came to be thought of as an internal or mental system that relied on "soft" self-defense techniques. Many tai chi historians believe that these soft techniques were completely unknown at the time.

True to Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, the monk's methods relied on the yin forces of passivity and the ability to yield when confronted by the aggres­sive forces of the yang. By bending, says the Tao Te Ching, we can avoid breaking. If we are bent, we can straighten. Once broken, though, we remain broken.

On the next page, learn how tai chi traditions have been passed on through the centuries.

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