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The Spin is On - Distortions of the Origin of Tai Chi Chuan

After my post a week ago on the origin of Taijiquan, I was directed to the work of a Wudang tai chi teacher named Dan Docherty. He apparently did "research" for a book about Tai Chi history and he puts forth the idea that the Chen family invented their history in the early 20th Century.

I looked up Mr. Docherty and found an interview online. I was surprised he came out viciously against Chen taiji. Here's part of the interview:

What about Chen style Tai Chi? 

Oh yes, this amazing Taoist martial art with techniques such as 'Buddha's Warrior Attendant Pounding Mortar'! basically it's Shaolin Boxing with a bit of Tai Chi thrown in. I've written on this elsewhere. In brief, some members of the Chen Clan of Henan Province wanted to cash in on Tai Chi's popularity so they invented a false genealogy and put forward their mish-mash of Chen Family Pao Chui and Tai Chi as the original Tai Chi. China's leading Tai Chi historian Wu Tu-nan exploded this myth in 'A Research into Tai Chi Chuan' (written in Chinese and published in 1986) which describes his visit to the Chen family village in 1917.

"Leading Tai Chi historian" Wu Tu-nan? I had never heard of him, so I did a Google search and found this link. Turns out Wu Tu-nan was a student of Wu and Yang styles of Tai Chi, and so how objective do you think he was about the origin of Tai Chi? Wu Tu-nan was supposedly a master when he was in his 20's.

Wu Tu-nan was born in Beijing, and was undoubtedly a big name in that pond when Chen Fake moved to Beijing in 1928 and began teaching Chen Taiji.

Here's my theory. There were a lot of kung-fu teachers in Beijing at the time, and Chen Taiji was not well known. Knowing martial artists as I do, I chuckle at the thought of the back-stabbing and bad-mouthing that must have been common, even though many masters of different styles would practice together and sample each other's arts.

In the book, "Fu Zhen Song's Dragon Bagua Zhang," Lin Chao Zhen writes that when Fu Zhen Song was young, his village, Ma Pe, hired Chen Yan Xi, a top-level instructor from the Chen family, to teach the village men Taijiquan. Chen Yan Xi was already the eighth generation inheritor of the Chen Taiji system, which was already well known as a fighting art.

Yang Lu-chan was a servant of the Chen family. He learned Taiji from them. After leaving Chen Village, he moved to Beijing and created Yang Tai Chi. This is a well known fact.

Lin Chao Zhen writes that the Chen family practiced martial arts as far back as the 1300s, but it was mostly based on Shaolin boxing. Chen Wang Ting, a retired warrior who was born in 1580, developed the art further after his military career, infusing it with concepts of a balanced yin-yang theory, movements that he tied to qi theory (he was not a scientist, however), and unique silk-reeling motions with relaxed movements followed by explosive power.

Eight generations later, Chen Yan Xi was the standard-bearer for the family art. He was also Chen Fake's father. 

When Chen Fake took Chen family Taiji to Beijing in 1928, I can only imagine the stir he caused among the mostly Yang style Tai Chi folks. He taught Xinjia in Beijing, the "New Frame" of Chen style that involves smooth, relaxed movement, spiralling, and powerful fa-jing. Perhaps he took students away from some of Wu Tu-nan's friends.

The Dan Docherty interview and his obviously biased "historian" wouldn't have caused a blog post, but a friend met a Yang instructor recently who was repeating the same spin -- that the Chen family did not create Taiji and they made up their lineage.

As we all know from listening to politics, it doesn't matter if something is false. All you have to do is repeat it often enough, and there are people who will believe it. Hence the claims that President Obama was born in Kenya (which at one point this past year was believed by 18% of Americans).

So now, the Big Spin in "soft" Tai Chi circles is the same claim that Dan Docherty makes.

What a shame.

Self-Defense for Women - A Psychological Mistake to Avoid

My brother-in-law was attacked in the Phillipines a week ago while walking with his wife. A man with a crowbar began striking him.

My brother-in-law suddenly became focused on one thing -- get the crowbar away from the attacker. He was struck several times. Before he got the weapon away, his wife had retrieved a knife from the car and stabbed the attacker in the neck.

Both men involved in the attack went to the hospital and both survived. My brother-in-law was very lucky.

I attended a workshop yesterday conducted by my old teacher, Pete Starr, founder of the Yiliquan system and author of books such as The Making of a Butterfly, Martial Mechanics, Martial Maneuvers, and Hidden Hands.

He made a great point during the workshop that's important especially for women to understand, but is also helpful for anyone facing a sudden need to protect themselves against an attacker.

Nancy-Outward-Focus Men grow up fighting -- or at least they did when I was growing up. They take a different approach against violence. Women didn't grow up defending themselves physically. In moments like that, most of them don't really know what to do other than cover up.

At the moment when an attacker moves toward you with violence, it's common for women to turn their attention inward. Their main concern is to not get hurt -- to cover up.

What you need to be concerned about in those situations is to break the attacker.

You must face one fact -- you are going to be hit. You might even be hurt. But you must also have a single-minded focus to break and hurt the attacker. I believe my brother-in-law survived because he was focused not on covering up against the crowbar, but to get it away.

Nancy-Inward-Focus These two photos show Nancy in fighting stances. The first one shows her projecting forward toward her opponent. Her lead hand is a good distance from her body, protecting her perimeter -- her space.

In the second photo, she strikes a pose you see commonly when people assume a "fighting position." She's focused inward -- her hands are so close to her body, it would be much more difficult to block or deflect an attack.

Practicing martial arts isn't just about techniques or forms or sparring. You must also practice the mindset of a martial artist. That is, you must practice removing the concern of getting hurt from your mind. It should no longer be your focus. Your focus is the attacker, and what you must do to break him.

In a real-life situation, you will both go to the hospital. Your goal is to walk into the hospital while your attacker goes in feet first.

Returning to Center -- the Goal of Fighting with Taiji, Hsing-i, Bagua

Ken-Gullette-Elbow-Break We were videotaping a lesson for the instructional website a few days ago -- basic principles of stepping in Hsing-I Chuan.

You begin in San Ti, and whatever you do next, your ultimate goal is to establish balance and return to San Ti.

You can attack, defend, take your opponent's ground (one of the primary objectives in Hsing-I), but as soon as possible, your mission is to return to San Ti.

The same is true in Tai Chi. An opponent attacks -- force comes in. You relax, adapt, neutralize the force, counter, all the while seeking to return to wuji - absolute balance, centered both physically and mentally.

Bagua is the same. As you change and adapt to multiple attackers, you try to maintain your center, capture and control the center of your attackers, but with each movement, your ultimate goal is to return to the centered dragon stance.

Wuji is a state of absolute balance -- of nothingness. From a martial perspective, it's a state of supreme awareness within relaxation. Once you begin moving, as you must do when an opponent attacks, everything separates into a state of imbalance, but like the yin and yang, circling and swirling and spinning and softness and power, the end goal is to return to wuji.

Think about this the next time you practice self-defense.



It's Time to Be Honest About the Origin of Taijiquan

Chen-Wangting There is an article in the most recent issue of Tai Chi magazine, written by Peter Ralston. The subject of the article is double-weightedness.

This article makes a claim that the first known Tai Chi master was Wang Chung Yueh. There is a dispute about whether this person ever existed. His story is not exactly clear.

Ralston also makes the statement "Master Wang appears many years after the founder of Tai Chi -- who may have been Chang San Feng."

It's pretty obvious that some branches of taiji simply can't reconcile the fact that the art was created by Chen Wangting (his statue stands in Chen Village, where the family still teaches the art). All tai chi came from Chen style -- that's where it originated. That's where Yang luchan learned the art before he left Chen Village and evolved into his own Yang style. Check out the Wikipedia article.

The only evidence Ralston brings forth in his article are the lame words, "Most accounts (whatever that means) state that it was master Wang Chung Yueh who first delivered Tai Chi to the Chen family."

Are politics so important in the Tai Chi world that unless you study Chen tai chi you won't acknowledge the Chen family as the originators? Something drives people to pass along unverified "history" as if it is fact.

True historians have concluded that Taijiquan cannot be traced farther back than Chen Wangting. Wikipedia points back to Chen Wangting as the creator, but includes two people separated from Chen and classified with "legend" status. In short, they didn't exist, or if they did exist, their legend was embellished.

What does it matter? For me, it's a matter of integrity. I used to think it was cool that Chang San Feng made up the art after allegedly watching insects or animals fighting. But later, I realized that like a lot of stories told about "the ancients" in China, there's a lot more myth than truth involved in the stories.

Chen Wangting created Tai Chi Chuan. If you are in another style of Tai Chi, you can trace it directly back to Chen style. Who cares? If your style is better, make that claim proudly and then show us.

If you want to deal with fantasy out of some sort of jealousy (and oh yes, dear readers, jealousy is alive and well among many taiji players and masters) then you need to drink a fifth of integrity and stop repeating what can't be proven. The history of the Chen family is very clear.

Chinese historians have not been able to trace taiji history beyond Chen Wangting. He has direct descendants who keep the family art alive. All other styles of taiji evolved from the Chen family style. Perhaps everyone involved in tai chi should embrace the legacy and understand it instead of -- for political reasons or whatever -- continue to keep the "legends" alive.

And the people who edit martial arts magazines need to hold article writers to a higher standard of evidence and fact-checking when making claims about history.