Tai chi is one of the oldest and most efficient martial arts styles. Practiced by millions the world over, tai chi is part martial prowess and part spirituality. In understanding the history of tai chi, one must understand the history and culture of ancient China.
Originally known as the Central Kingdom, Chinese civilization dates back over seven thousand years. During this time, the Central Kingdom was far more advanced than neighboring civilizations but nonetheless found itself at odds with many rival tribes. To defend themselves, the warriors of the Central Kingdom looked to animals for inspiration. Contending that animals had natural gifts that helped them defend themselves against predators, warriors of the era began emulating their strikes and attacks on movements of animals such as the eagle or the snake. These movements eventually became the basis of modern tai chi.
Tai chi was first named in Chinese records during the T’ang Dynasty, which ruled China from 618 to 960 AD. Records tell that during this period, recluses living in the Wudang Mountains practiced movements that martial artists now call tai chi. In the 12th Century, the Taoist Zhang Sanfeng learned martial arts from a recluse in these mountains and became the founder of modern tai chi. Pairing martial arts with Taoist theories, Zhang Sanfeng taught students how to reach the Great Void and merge with the cosmos. Based on the mountain of Wudang Shan, Zhang Sanfeng centered his teaching on yielding. Taking the example of a crane and a snake fighting, Zhang Sanfeng discovered the great potential martial artists have in yielding to their opponents. Rather than trying to overcome their opponent’s attack with attacks of their own, Zhang Sanfeng taught qigong, which translates to “soft fighting,” a method of getting around an opponent’s strikes.
After Zhang Sanfeng, tai chi was kept a secret from the public, and its teachings were passed down only to family members of five lineages. In the 1800s, the Chens, one of the families that passed down tai chi to each subsequent generation, welcomed an outsider named Yang into their school, who eventually founded his own style of tai chi. Beginning in the 20th Century, more and more people began practicing tai chi for its health and spiritual benefits. While modern practitioners have their own reasons for learning tai chi, all the movements and philosophies of martial art are rooted in ancient teachings and traditions.