Tai chi's history is a tale of subterfuge and deceit, but also of wisdom and forgiveness. Until modern times, it was virtually impossible to learn the discipline unless one had a close association with the family of a master who taught it.
Those who knew the secrets of tai chi guarded them carefully, as this knowledge was a great source of power and authority. As a result, there was considerable rivalry between many of these tai chi masters.
Independent tai chi masters passed on the knowledge of tai chi only to their sons and other highly privileged family members or associates. And tai chi masters affiliated with Taoist temples only taught tai chi to other temple members.
Temple secrets, like family secrets, were carefully guarded. It is said, for example, that there were only two ways out of a Shaolin temple: Either the monks carried you out feet first or they let you out, something that did not often happen.
Sometime early in the nineteenth century a well-known boxer, Yang Lu-ch'an, decided he needed to learn tai chi to improve his art. His previous martial training had been conducted in the "hard," external techniques of the Buddhists' Shaolin temple.
Being a fighter, Yang Lu-ch'an must have battled taichiists, as practitioners of tai chi are sometimes called, since he recognized the value of their "soft," internal Taoist method. In it he saw a complement to his own style.
The most famous independent tai chi instructor at the time was Chen Chang Shen, and Yang Lu-ch'an hoped to study with him. Realizing that he could not approach the tai chi master as a boxer seeking special instruction, he took a position in the household as a servant.
Each evening, the story goes, he crept up to the keyhole and secretly watched the master instructing his family members. Later at night, when the house was quiet, Yang Lu-ch'an would practice.
Unfortunately, because he was not under the direct instruction of Chen Chang Shen, he learned only the movements themselves, not their martial applications. Learning these required verbal tutelage directly from the master.
The old master, however, was well aware of the spy. Had he revealed what he knew to the rest of his family, there is little doubt that the intruder would have been put to death or at least have lost a hand.
One night, Chen Chang Shen turned the tables and spied on Yang Lu-ch'an when he was practicing. Recognizing the great potential in this servant-impostor, the master proceeded, over the next few years, to teach him everything he knew. Under the master's patronage and protection, Yang Lu-ch'an then challenged each of the fighters in the family, defeating them each in their turn.
After leaving the Chen household for Beijing, he successfully defeated the 18 most prominent martial artists in the country. As a result, he was given the title, "Yang the Unbeatable." "Old Master Yang," as he was later called, became something of a legend in his own time, and there are many wonderful stories about his exploits.
Yang taught tai chi to his own three sons and other trusted associates. He was also invited to teach the art to the Royal Court and to certain branches of the military. This new Yang style of tai chi was also taught to the Wu family, where it gradually became yet another distinct style.
Interestingly, one of Yang Lu-ch'an's descendants, his grandson Yang Ch'eng Fu (1883-1935), popularized tai chi and, in a radical departure from tradition, made the art available to the general public. Today there are many tai chi styles, but the styles of the three families -- Chen, Yang, and Wu -- are among the most common.
Learn about the books that provide written record of tai chi teachings on the next page.