Tai Chi History

Tai Chi Chuan is one of the best known martial arts of the Internal systems from ancient China.

Documents from the 17th century show that the Chen clan settled in the village of Chenjiagou, Henan Province in the 13th century and reveal the defining contribution of a retired General, Chen Wangting (1580–1660). What is also known is that the other four contemporary traditional tai chi styles (Yang, Sun, Wu and Woo) trace their teachings back to Chen village in the early 1800s.
According to Chen Village family history, Chen Bu was a skilled martial artist who started the martial arts tradition within the Chen Village. The Chen family were originally from Hong Dong, Shanxi. Chen Bu, considered to be the founder of the village, moved from Shanxi to Wen County, Henan Province in 1374. The new area was originally known as Chang Yang Cun or Sunshine village and grew to include a large number of Chen descendants. Because of the three deep ravines (Gou) beside the village it came to be known as Chen Jia Gou, or Chen Family creek/brook. For generations onwards, the Chen Village was known for their martial arts.

The special nature of Tai Chi Chuan practice was attributed to the ninth generation Chen Village leader, Chen Wangting; 1580–1660. He codified pre-existing Chen training practice into a corpus of seven routines. This included five routines of tai chi chuan, 108 form Long Fist and a more rigorous routine known as Cannon Fist. Chen Wangting integrated different elements of Chinese philosophy into the martial arts training to create a new approach that we now recognize as the Internal martial arts. He added the principles of Yin-Yang theory ( the universal principle of complementary opposites), the techniques of Daoyin (leading and guiding energy), Tu na (expelling and drawing energy), the Chinese medical theory of energy and Chinese medical theory of the meridians. Those theories are encountered in Classical Chinese Medicine and described in such texts as the Huang Di Nei Jing. (Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Chinese Medicine). In addition, Wangting incorporated the boxing theories from sixteen different martial art styles as described in the classic text, Ji Xiao Xin Shu, “New Book Recording Effective Techniques”; ~ 1559–1561) written by the Ming General Qi Jiguang, (1528–1588).

Chen Changxing (Chen Chángxīng, (1771–1853), a 14th generation Chen Village martial artist, synthesized Chen Wangting’s open fist training corpus into two routines that came to be known as “Old Frame” (Laojia). Those two routines are named individually as the First Form (Yilu) and the Second Form (Erlu), more commonly known as the Cannon Fist (Pau Chui). Chen Changxing, contrary to Chen family tradition, also took the first recorded non-family member as a disciple, Yang Luchan (1799–1871), who went on to popularize the art throughout China, but as his own family tradition known as Yang-style Tai Chi Chuan. The Chen family system was only taught within the Chen village region until 1928.
Some legends assert that a disciple of Zhang Sanfeng, a Taoist monk who eventually settled on the Wudang Mountain, named Wang Zongyue taught the Chen family the martial art later to be known as taijiquan.

Other legends speak of Jiang Fa (1574–1655), reputedly a monk from the Wudang Mountain, who came to Chen village. He is said to have helped transform the Chen family art with Chen Wangting (1771–1853) by emphasizing internal fighting practices.

During the second half of the 19th century, Yang Luchan (1799–1872) and his family established a reputation of Yang-style Tai hi Chuan throughout the Qing Empire. Few people knew that Yang Luchan first learned his martial arts from Chen Changxing in the Chen Village. Fewer people still visited the Chen village to improve their understanding of Tai Chi Chuan.
In 1928, Chen Zhaopei (1893–1972) and later his uncle, Chen Fa-ke (1887–1957) moved from the Chen village to teach in Beijing. Their Chen-style practice was initially perceived as radically different from other prevalent martial art schools (including established Tai Chi “traditions”) of the time. Chen Fake proved the effectiveness of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan through various private challenges and even a series of full contact matches] Within a short time, the Beijing martial arts community was convinced of the effectiveness of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan and a large group of martial enthusiasts started to train and publicly promote it.

The increased interest in Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan led Tang Hao (1887–1959), one of the first modern Chinese martial arts historians, to visit and document the martial lineage in Chen Village in 1930 with Chen Ziming. During the course of his research, he consulted with a manuscript written by 16th generation family member Chen Xin (1849–1929) detailing Chen Xin’s understanding of the Chen Village heritage. Chen Xin’s nephew, Chen Chunyuan, together with Chen Panling (president of Henan Province Martial Arts Academy), Han Zibu (president of Henan Archives Bureau), Wang Zemin, Bai Yusheng of Kaiming Publishing House, Guan Baiyi (director of Henan Provincial Museum) and Zhang Jiamou helped publish Chen Xin’s work posthumously. The book entitled Taijiquan Illustrated was published in 1933 with the first print run of thousand copies.
For nearly thirty years, until his death in 1958, Chen Fake diligently taught the art of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan to a select group of students. As a result, a strong Beijing Chen-style tradition centred on his “New Frame” variant of Chen Village “Old Frame” survived after his death. His legacy was spread throughout China by the efforts of his senior students.

The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) resulted in a period of Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan decline. The Chinese government engaged in an active policy to suppress all traditional teachings, including the practice of martial arts. Training facilities were closed and practitioners were prosecuted. Many Chen masters were publicly denounced. For example, Chen Zhao Pei was pushed to the point of attempting suicide and Hong Junsheng was left malnourished. To the great credit of the Chen-style practitioners at that time, training was continued in secret and at great personal risk ensuring the continuation of the tradition.

During the Era of Reconstruction (1976–1989), the policy of repression of traditional Chinese culture was reversed. Under this new climate, Chen Tai Chi Chuan was once again allowed to be practiced openly. Through a series of government-sponsored meetings and various provincial and national tournaments, Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan regained its reputation as an important branch of Chinese martial arts. In addition, those meetings created a new generation of Chen-style teachers.

The start of the internationalisation of Chen-style can be traced to 1981. A Tai Chi Chuan association from Japan went on a promotional tour to the Chen village. The success of this trip created interest in Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan both nationally and internationally. Soon Tai Chi Chuan enthusiasts from other countries started their pilgrimage to Chenjiagou. The increasing interest led all levels of the Chinese governments to improve the infrastructure and support of Chenjiagou including the establishment of martial art schools, hotels and tourist associations.
In 1983, martial artists from the Chen village received full government support to promote Chen Tai Chi Chuan abroad. Some of the best Chen stylists became international “roaming ambassadors” known as the “Four Buddha Warrior Attendants”. Those four Chen stylists including Chen Xiaowang (Chen Fake’s direct grandson), Chen Zhenglei, Wang Xian and Zhu Tiancai travelled relentlessly giving global workshops and creating an international group of Chen-style practitioners and instructors.

In recent decades Chen-style Tai Chi Chuan has come to be recognized as a major style of martial art within China. In Western countries Chen-style is rapidly growing in popularity for either martial arts self-defence or healthy life-style.
Chen-style schools with links back to Chen Village and Beijing have blossomed rapidly in Western countries in the last twenty years—offering a significantly different alternative to Yang family style (effectively the only tai chi known in the West before that time). Such countries with strong links back to Chen Village include the US, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.

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