The History of T'ai Chi Ch'uan

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When they first see a demonstration of T'ai Chi Ch'uan (The Supreme Ultimate) most people are fascinated by the beauty of the performer's movements, and naturally assume that it comprises a sequence of physical callisthenics. This is only partly true although it did have its very early beginnings in the various forms of pugilism that existed in China for many thousands of years.

In very ancient China, superstition, divination, spiritualism, and religion went through various stages of development and advancement, and played a very important part in everyday life. The roofs of Chinese houses were turned up at the eaves so that the dragon could rest on its travels through the sky, and it could even curl up and go to sleep without falling off the end of the roof. Even the dead had to be buried in exactly the right position, so that their spirit would not be hindered in its flight from the grave, and every village had its own specialist to advise bereaved families how and where their dead should be buried.

There were many different aspects of divination and spiritualism that had to be studied, and theories that had to be proved. These all provided a very valuable foundation for the development of codes of thought and mental conduct, the discovery of the fundamental workings of the body, the discovery of the harmony that existed within the universe, and the exploration of the depths of the spiritual world.

The goals of immortality and a longer life included the search for constant good health, a greater understanding and control of oneself, the full utilization of the mind, and a greater appreciation of the world beyond the physical aspects of the human body.

Taoism came into being in China between 10,000 and 5,000 BC, and it was through the dedication and hard work of the early Taoists that they were able to develop so many arts and crafts from the foundations and guidelines given to them by the 'Sons of Reflected Light', a sect of people reputed to be over seven feet in height, and who wore a type of clothing that had never been seen in China before. Where they came from is still a mystery, and may remain a mystery for ever, but whilst they stayed they taught local craftspeople many different arts and crafts, which were far in advance of anything else that existed in those far off days. Many of these skills are still in advance of anything that is in existence even in this present day and age.

Great efforts have been made by the Taoists through the ages to carry on this good work and to pass on the knowledge that was given to them by the 'Sons of Reflected Light'. Unfortunately, since no written records were kept in those far distant days, some of their teachings have no doubt been lost in the realms of time.

Amongst the skills that were passed on are silk-weaving, glass and pottery making, the manufacture of gun-powder, and metal working. The most important of all, however, is the vast array of health skills, many of which are still being practised and taught today.

These health arts eventually became known as the 'Eight Strands of the Brocade' (Pa Chin Hsien), and in the West they are still being used to help sufferers of all types of disease and infirmity, often completely free of charge. This philosophical outlook is still carried on within Taoist families, for when it is your birthday you give your parents and your brothers and sisters a present each to thank them and to show your appreciation of being brought into this world amongst such nice people. We still keep up this practise in our house.

All these arts have been kept alive by the Taoists for many thousands of years. They aimed for two major objectives: to maintain a longer life here on this earth, and to achieve a stronger spiritual link with the Supreme Spirit. They endeavoured to achieve these aims by accepting each day and event as it came along, by understanding and abiding by the infinite laws of the universe and of the Tao. This consciousness and awareness gives a deep appreciation of the physical, mental and energy (Chi) aspects of the human body. It also gives a perfect balance of Yin and Yang by helping each person to appreciate the spiritual side of their lives, of the Tao, and of the energy fields within the universe (Li). All of these keep us alive, maintain our health, and guide every day of our lives.

Many people see the physical side of our lives as separate from our spiritual life, but this is not true, for the two sides represent Yin and Yang. In both East and West there are many groups who have believed in the spiritual side more than their bodily development, and many who have only considered the physical aspect. These varying trends of thought have affected and infiltrated into the major forms of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.

The Wu Style

The originator of this particular style was a gentleman by the name of Yu-Seong Wu, and he studied Tai Chi when he was in his early twenties, in the Province of Honan. However, when he was in his late fifties he created a completely new style of his own, which consisted of very small circular movements, short arm flow, and rather restricted stances. It came into being during the eighteenth century, but has never been really popular nor very well known. Some years ago we heard that there was still one school in Hong Kong still practising it, but we have heard nothing about it since then, so it is quite possible that is has ceased to function. It was apparently a very difficult style to follow even on a physical level, and the energy required was minimal, as most of the movements were neutralized.

The Yang Style

Lu-Ch'an Yang is recognized as the founder of this particular style which became firmly established between 1883 and 1936, when Ch'eng-fu Yang (Yang's grandson) became the chief instructor of this style and opened his own school. Lu-Ch'an Yang himself first became interested in T'ai Chi when he had the opportunity of studying the Ch'en style, which alas no longer exists today. This Yang style has been altered and improved three times since it first came into existence. Twice Lu-Ch'an Yang changed and incorporated his own personal ideas into the old Ch'en style he originally learnt, and it again went through some slight alterations after Ch'eng-fu Yang opened his T'ai Chi school in 1883. The movements of this particular style are large and rhythmic, and it flows with varying fluctuations of light and heavy techniques. It is a very popular style wherever it is taught, for it is generally recognized as the form for those who like to be physical and who are interested in fighting and boxing.

The Lee Style

The Lee style is commonly known as the Yin and Yang Style, as everything within it is in complete harmony and in perfect balance with each other. It is the only true Taoist art, the oldest form of T'ai Chi Ch'uan in existence, and the most popular style in the world.

Up to 1934 it had always remained a family style, and it was originally created by Ho-Hsieh Lee around 1,000 BC, so this style is nearly three thousand years old. The original form consisted only of eight movements, and those same movements still exist within the form as it is today, which now comprises a total of 140 single movements, in the form of forty-two sets.

Originally Ho-Hsieh Lee and his family lived just outside Beijing (Peking), and it was there that he first started his practise and devised the first eight movements. It was in his middle fifties that he took his family and settled down in Wei Hei Wei, a fishing village about 200 miles east of Beijing, and they remained in that district up to 1934.

The family had always been Taoists and had practised the Chinese Taoist arts, including Feng Shou Ch'uan Shu (Hand-of-the-Wind Boxing); Ch'i Shu (Energy Art), the equivalent of Chinese Aikido; Chiao Li (Taoist Wrestling); and the complete range of T'ai Chi Ch'uanT'ai Chi Stick, T'ai Chi Sword, T'ai Chi Knife, and more recently T'ai Chi Dance.

As it was a family group and they practised together, it was natural that the parents instructed their children, who in turn taught their own children, and so on. Thus it came about that the last three children, one daughter and two sons, had the responsibility of keeping the arts alive. In fact only one son did so, and his name was Chan Kam Lee, the eldest of the three children.

Chan Lee, an unmarried businessman dealing in precious and semi-precious stones, finally opened a small office in the Holborn district of London, which in those days was the world centre of this trade. In 1933 he started a small class in Red Lion Square, Holborn, to keep himself fit and to benefit a few selected close friends.

I was playing in Hyde Park with my ball one Sunday afternoon in 1934, and I remember that my ball accidentally hit the back of an elderly gentleman who was sitting on a park bench. Offering my sincere apologies to him, we noticed that both of us were Chinese, and we immediately started talking to one another, since it was a rarity to see another Chinese in London in those days. A bond of friendship immediately sprang up between the two of us, and I was eventually invited to join his little group in Holborn.

In the winter of 1953/4 Chan Kam Lee died in a severe storm off the coast of China near Canton, and eventually I was asked to take over as Chief Instructor and President of the Association.

To me it has been the greatest honour to carry on the work of the Lee family. It will always be known as the Lee style, and regular coaching classes are held in many parts of the world to ensure that we are all teaching and practising the movements and techniques as specifically laid down by the Lee family. The names of the postures or stances still use the names of animals and birds which were used three thousand years ago. The Lee style has been preserved through many centuries, and we all hope that it will continue to flourish and grow for many more.

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The Chinese Art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan

by Chee Soo

Copyright ©Seahorse Books 2003 reproduced with permission