The Martial and the Civil in Yang Style Taijiquan

The history of a Chinese internal martial art.

When most people think of taijiquan (tai chi chuan), the first image that comes to mind is one of individuals moving in slow, peaceful silence, their minds and bodies in a state of meditative relaxation. The powerful strikes and skillful parries of “Yang the Unsurpassable,” the foremost martial artist of Beijing in the mid-19th century, are a far less common association. Yet taijiquan (tai chi chuan) is no less a martial art than a systematic method for promoting health, relaxation, and meditative calm.

In the United States today, the “civil” aspect of taijiquan (tai chi chuan), i.e. the health, meditation, and relaxation benefits, has generally been emphasized. Indeed, some practitioners have completely neglected the martial aspect of the art. Yet this reveals more about the preferences – some would say the errors – of modern practitioners than it does about the limitations of the practice. For taijiquan (tai chi chuan) explicitly aims to balance the civil and martial aspects of human existence, developing both to their highest potential simultaneously. Even for practitioners who are not primarily interested in building martial skills, focusing exclusively on the civil aspects of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) is contrary to the spirit of the art. In the words of Yang Chengfu, the turn-of-the-century martial arts genius from whom many of today’s most popular taiji forms are descended: “Learning self-defense applications is indispensable in taijiquan (tai chi chuan). Students who are primarily interested in exercise must also study applications.”

Why, then, do so many modern practitioners fail to acknowledge the martial aspects of taijiquan (tai chi chuan)? Indeed, why are so many only vaguely aware of the very existence of taijiquan’s martial side? To a large extent, the answer lies in history.


The Origins of Taijiquan

The historical roots of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) are ó to commence the story with a shameless cliché ó lost in the mists of Chinese history. Martial arts lore attributes the creation of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to the legendary taoist saint Zhang Sanfeng (Chang San Feng), a figure whose dubious historicity is evidenced by the enormous certainty about when he actually lived. According to the myth, the art was picked up and developed by Wang Zongye (Wang Tsung Yueh), another figure about whom little concrete historical information is available, and to whom astounding feats of martial prowess have been attributed.

Taiji emerges from the fog of myth into the (still somewhat dim) light of history in the Chen village in Henan province in the late 18th century. The Chen clan practiced a martial art ó known as Chen boxing ó that resembled modern taiji in some respects, while differing from it significantly in others. Most obviously, Chen boxing retained elements of the “external” or “hard-style” martial arts that have been discarded in the subsequent development of taijiquan (tai chi chuan): sudden changes of speed, shouts, high kicks, leaps, and so on.

Chen boxing emerged in a time and a place where martial arts were practiced not for sport or self-cultivation, but as a practical means of self-defense in a violent social milieu. Henan and its neighboring North China provinces of Hebei, Shandong, and Shanxi were home to a strong martial tradition, for a variety of historical and social reasons. First, they lay in the path of repeated waves of barbarian invasions from the north, the latest of which ruled from Beijing as the Manchu, or Qing (Ching), dynasty. Second, the area was riven by clan and sectarian rivalries which often turned violent. Third, the region was rife with banditry and crime. Barriers to class mobility and the practices of polygamy and female infanticide had created a huge surplus of destitute, single, and alienated young men; to many of them, the attractions of a swashbuckling life of crime and pillage proved irresistible.

Opium officials burning opium.

The factors contributing to endemic violence in North China grew worse throughout the 19th century, as the corrupt and declining Qing dynasty proved increasingly unable to provide a modicum of stability in the face of swelling waves of rebellion and unrest (such as the Taiping rebellion of 1850-1864), not to mention the encroachment of new “barbarian” hordes from Russia, Japan, and the West. It was an unwise traveler indeed who took to the roads of North China at the time without an armed escort ó or at the very least, a sword of his own and the skill to use it effectively.


Yang Luchan

Yang Luchan (1799-1872)

It was in this time of social breakdown that Yang Luchan (1799-1872) of Yungnien county in Hebei province traveled over 400 kilometers to the Chen village to study the Chen masters’ renowned art. Yang is the pivotal figure in the development of modern taijiquan (tai chi chuan). Not only did he initiate a softening of the Chen style that eventually resulted in the elevation of the civil aspect of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to a position of equality with the martial aspect, but without Yang, it is possible that taijiquan (tai chi chuan) never would have become widely known outside of the Chen clan. The millions today who benefit from the practice of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) have Yang Luchan to thank, for it was he who initiated the widespread dissemination of the art.

Reliable information on Yang Luchan is scanty, even though he lived well within what Westerners regard as the modern historical period. Certainly, far more is known about contemporaneous Western figures of comparable historical import. The contrast arises because, in two important respects, Chinese attitudes toward history differed significantly from those in the West until well into the 20th century. First, Chinese history in Yang’s day was written by and about a literate elite. Despite some lingering questions about his social status, it now appears certain that Yang was of peasant origin, and thus not considered a worthy subject for historical inquiry. No matter how great his achievements, Yang was doomed by the accident of his birth to always be regarded as a “hired hand” by the gentry, and therefore outside the scope of respectable written history.

Thus, most of our information about Yang Luchan comes from oral and informal historical accounts, much of it transmitted by disciples of Yang family taijiquan (tai chi chuan). This brings us to the second distinctive feature of the traditional Chinese approach to history: in such quasi-historical accounts, fact and myth tend to be blended in unknown proportions. The greater the real achievements and the more distant in time the figure in question, the greater the element of myth. For example, taijiquan (tai chi chuan)’s legendary founder Zhang Sanfeng is credited in 19th century writings with being “seven feet tall,” and “able to cover a thousand miles in a day” ó a feat which, if literally true, would require maintaining racehorse speeds for 24 hours without rest! Even a source as recent as Yang Chengfu’s 1934 training manual, Complete Principles and Applications of Taijiquan, inserts descriptions of “historical” incidents that are dubious or obviously false ó such as a dialogue between the author and his grandfather Yang Luchan, who died over a decade before Chengfu’s birth. Such fabrications do not reflect an intent to mislead the reader so much as a cultural disposition to honor revered figures of the past, and to stress timeless ideas and principles over literal fact.

Thus, accounts of Yang Luchan’s life, and particularly of his years at the Chen village, are informal and inconsistent, and they tend to contain a generous portion of myth. The extent to which these accounts differ on specific points is so great that confidently reconstructing the details of Yang’s apprenticeship under the Chen masters is impossible. According to the most credible accounts, Yang went to the Chen village as a young adult and stayed for well over a decade, possibly two. However, some dissenting accounts have Yang travelling to the Chen village as a child. There also appears to be a distinct possibility that Yang was sold as a bond servant to the Chen clan, although some accounts insist that he sought out the Chens of his own free will. Most accounts agree that he left the Chen village on good terms; but even here, some sources disagree, maintaining that he stole away by stealth with the Chens’ secrets. Another major discrepancy concerns the question of whether Yang learned the Chen family art primarily by spying and solo practice, and was accepted as a student by Master Chen Chang Hsing only after displaying his prowess in combat against Chen’s senior students; or whether he was accepted as a student after several years of loyal service to the Chen clan, and learned the art in the usual student-teacher context. Some accounts even have Yang disguising himself as a mute beggar to weasel his way into the inner circles of the Chen clan.

Two common elements emerge from these various accounts. The first is the difficulty experienced by Yang in gaining instruction from the Chen masters, and his need to spend many years in the Chen village before learning enough of the art to venture out on his own. Taken in the context of the times, this is not surprising. The Chens evidently had a fighting style that worked ó it was widely renowned and respected, to the extent that martial arts enthusiasts such as Yang from distant regions were willing to go to great lengths to learn it. Considering the practical value of a superior fighting system in such dreadful times, the Chens were understandably loath to disseminate its secrets outside of their own clan. Consequently, an outsider such as Yang would no doubt have had to display extraordinary perseverance, skill, and dedication to the Chen clan to have any hope of reaching high-level instruction; to establish such credentials would naturally involve an extended period of time.

The second common element among the otherwise widely varying accounts of Yang’s sojourn in the Chen village is that all agree Yang was there to learn to fight. While any martial art claiming kinship with modern taijiquan (tai chi chuan) would have had to contain some of the spiritual, meditative, and medicinal elements emphasized by current practitioners, the Chen family art was esteemed first and foremost as a practical fighting system, and this is what attracted Yang to it. In fact, the emphasis remained squarely on the martial aspect of the art throughout Yang Luchan’s lifetime, as well as those of his two sons, Yang Qianhe (Chien Ho) and Yang Panhe (Pan Ho). These early masters did not neglect the civil aspect of taijiquan (tai chi chuan); but circumstances did not allow them to adopt the passive attitude toward development of its martial applications that prevails among many modern enthusiasts.

After his return to Yungnien, the historical facts about Yang Luchan come into better focus. One of Yang’s first students and an early patron was Wu Yuxiang (Wu Yu Hsiang, 1812-1880), a local aristocrat and an accomplished martial artist in his own right. Through Wu and his brother Ruqing (Ju Ching), Yang was introduced to influential patrons of the martial arts within the Manchu nobility in Beijing, ending up as a private martial arts instructor to a number of noblemen and a trainer of imperial soldiers in various military academies and institutions.

Guangping city where the Yang family lived, was a battleground during the Taiping and Nien rebellions.

During his time in Beijing, Yang gained a reputation as perhaps the foremost martial artist of his day, earning the title “Yang the Unsurpassable.” While accounts of Yang’s exploits through his middle and late years continue to be highly embellished, we have no concrete reason to doubt the bottom line that they all share: after his return from the Chen village, Yang met an endless series of challenges from renowned martial artists seeking to capture his great reputation, and never suffered a single loss. While all martial arts styles have their tales of an invincible forebear who defeated all comers, it is interesting that no high-profile martial arts style claims a predecessor who triumphed over Yang Luchan. His training days in the Chen village aside, Yang Luchan may well have gone to his grave without tasting defeat in a martial contest.

The Second Generation: Yang Qianhe and Yang Panhe

In the years following Yang’s return from the Chen village, taijiquan (tai chi chuan) developed along divergent paths. Yang’s student and patron Wu Yuxiang, his appetite whetted by Yang’s instruction and example, went on to train directly under a Chen master, Chen Qingping, and to develop a form sufficiently different from Yang’s to be classified as a separate style. It was Wu who later “discovered” (and very possibly authored) the core taijiquan (tai chi chuan) literary classics attributed to the legendary figures of Zhang Sanfeng and Wang Zongye. Wu’s style is today generally known as the Hao style, to distinguish it from the better-known “new” Wu style, created much later by Wu Qianquan (1870-1942), who learned the art from a student of Yang’s older son, Panhe. Another more-recent derivative of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) is the Sun style, created Sun Lutang (1861-1932), whose lineage extends back to Yang Luchan indirectly, through Wu Yuxiang and his students. Thus, of the major existing styles, all save the Chen style itself are in some way descended from Yang Luchan.

A Boxer Poster. Second generation teacher Yang Qianhe and his son Yang Chengfu all lived through the Boxer Rebellion, 1900.

Yang Luchan had two sons who carried on the martial tradition of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) after his death. Both were subjected to exceedingly rigorous training under their father from a very early age, went on to achieve the highest level of skill, and earned their keep as martial arts instructors to the military and civilian elites of the Qing dynasty. However, their dispositions were famously different. Yang Panhe (1837-1892), who inherited his father’s nickname, “The Unsurpassable,” was renowned for his brutality with students and opponents alike, and failed to win much of a following ó although one of his limited circle of students occupies an important place in the historical development of taijiquan (tai chi chuan): Quan Yu (1824-1902), father and teacher of “new” Wu style founder Wu Qianquan. Panhe’s own son declined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a martial artist, and Panhe’s personal style remains a matter of some speculation. By contrast, Yang’s younger son, Qianhe (1839-1917), was an affable and popular teacher who attracted many students, a number of them of the highest caliber. Yang Qianhe was therefore the primary channel through which Yang Luchan’s art was conveyed to future generations.

The Third Generation: Yang Chengfu

Yang Qianhe had two sons, Shouhe (Shou Ho, 1862-1930) and Chengfu (1883-1936), both of whom ascended to the loftiest peaks of martial arts mastery. Of the two, Chengfu is of greater importance in the development of the art. Like his uncle Panhe, Yang Shouhe had a reputation for roughness that limited his appeal as a teacher, and ultimately reduced his influence on the art’s development. Chengfu, however, inherited his father’s gentle disposition, attracted many students, and became a pivotal figure in the history of taijiquan (tai chi chuan).

Despite living until well into the 20th century, Yang Chengfu remains a larger-than-life figure in every sense. Tipping the scales at 300 pounds and notorious for his carousing, Chengfu studied taiji with relative indifference until the advancing age of his father caused him to awaken to his responsibility for preserving and transmitting the family art. Once committed to mastery, Chengfu made such progress and reached such a high level of skill that, despite his lack of social graces, he became arguably the most respected and sought-after martial arts master of his generation. When the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission of the People’s Republic of China decided in the 1950s to promote a standardized taijiquan (tai chi chuan) form to bring some order into the chaos of proliferating forms and styles, it was Yang Chengfu’s form to which they turned.

It was also under Chengfu that a movement toward greater stress on the civil aspects of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) is first apparent. While the styles of his brother, father, uncle, and grandfather retained hard-style elements inherited from Chen boxing, Chengfu’s style was notable for its external softness and relaxed postures. This softness could be quite deceiving to challengers, whom Chengfu regularly thrashed with reputed ease and, evidently, also with great courtesy. It was with Chengfu’s style that the description of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) as “steel hidden in cotton” or “a bullet in cotton” began to be heard. Thus, while Chengfu continued to teach taijiquan (tai chi chuan) as a martial art, he was also first of the Yang style masters to explicitly stress the elements of softness and relaxation that figure so prominently in the civil aspect of the art. 

A Boxer during the 1900 rebellion in Beijing.

Again, the reason for this shift in emphasis can be explained, at least in part, by considering the circumstances in which Yang Chengfu taught. Chengfu’s teaching career was short, as he was not a martial arts prodigy, and died at the age of 53 ó the health benefits of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) practice perhaps being insufficient in the end to offset the effects of his hard-drinking lifestyle. His teaching career was therefore confined to approximately two decades prior to his death in 1936.

Now, nothing could be further from the truth than to claim that the chaos and violence of China’s 19th century had subsided in Yang Chengfu’s day, or even that the situation was changing for the better. However, solo martial arts were becoming an increasingly impractical means of self-defense. Guns and other Western military technologies had become common in China, and violence was increasingly taking the form of large-scale conflict among national or ideological entities, rather than small-scale banditry or clan feuds. Thus, as Douglas Wile argues in the insightful first chapter of his compilation of Lost T’ai Chi Classics from the Late Qing Dynasty, Chinese martial arts in the late 19th and early 20thcentury began to take on more of their modern character as a means of promoting self-discipline, health, and personal strength, rather than as a practical set of combat skills. This is not to say that the link between martial and military arts was completely severed; as Wile notes, skill in martial arts continued to be prized among military elites well into the era of modern military technology ó but more for the sake of demonstrating these elites’ superior power, competence, and discipline vis-à-vis the rank-and-file than for the sake of learning techniques that practitioners regularly expected to use in combat.

TaijiQuan Comes to America: Zheng Manqing

A list of Yang Chengfu’s senior students would read like a who’s-who of prominent Yang style masters of the early and middle 20th century. Yet even in this elite company, the name of Zheng Manqing (Cheng Man Ching) stands out. Zheng’s towering reputation rests on several foundations, one of them being his high level of martial skill. However, Zheng is better remembered as the figure whose practice, teaching, and writing brought the fusion of the civil and martial aspects of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to its highest expression. Zheng was arguably the first ó and certainly the most articulate ó master to explicitly set about the task of combining the major elements of Chinese philosophy, medicine, spiritual discipline, and metaphysics with the practice of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) as a martial art. Yet most ironically, given Zheng’s own martial prowess, Zheng’s success in achieving this fusion laid the foundation for the modern tendency to downplay, neglect, or even dismiss the martial aspect of taijiquan (tai chi chuan).

Zheng was also the man who brought taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to America. In 1965, Zheng set up shop in New York City, teaching his first students at a tiny hole-in-the-wall school in Chinatown. By this time, he had already taught a generation of Taiwan’s finest taijiquan (tai chi chuan) practitioners, including three well-known masters who later followed their teacher to the new world: Ben Lo, T. T. Liang, and William Chen. Zheng had also taught his first American student before his move to New York: Robert Smith, who arrived in Taiwan in 1959 and spent three years there, researching and learning the various Chinese fighting arts. Smith judged Zheng’s taijiquan (tai chi chuan) to be the most sophisticated of the dozens of styles to which he was exposed. By the time of his death in 1975, Zheng had trained a generation of first-rate American taijiquan (tai chi chuan) practitioners at his New York school, many of whom continue to teach and disseminate Zheng’s art to this day. While other styles of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) have made inroads in the United States in recent years, the Yang style remains the most widely-practiced variant, and Zheng Manqing’s form remains the most prominent of the Yang style forms. Further, practically all Yang-style practitioners in the United States as well as many practitioners of other styles have been influenced by the ideas and example of Zheng Manqing, whether directly or indirectly. It is difficult to overestimate Zheng’s influence on taijiquan (tai chi chuan) in America.


Postscript: The Martial and the Civil

Among the prominent followers of Zheng Manqing in the United States, some have continued to carefully balance the martial and civil aspects of taijiquan (tai chi chuan); William Chen, a wushu sparring champion in his native Taiwan in 1958 who continues to teach in New York City, remains at the forefront of this group. But another, arguably larger group of American taiji teachers has chosen to place almost exclusive emphasis on the civil aspect, in some cases taking their students no further than fixed-step push hands or even, in some cases, no further than stylized push-hands drills. (Fixed-step push hands, while an indispensable component for building practical self-defense skills, is inadequate in itself for fully developing such skills, and must be augmented by moving-step push hands, da lu, applications drills, and, ideally, sparring practice.) Even more surprising, many modern teachers of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) eschew two-person exercises altogether, focusing exclusively on the form and solo exercises.

Zheng Manqing, whether intentionally or otherwise, left the door open for this shift to a disproportionate focus on the civil aspects of the art. While cannily balancing the martial and civil components in his own life and practice, Zheng’s writings often tend to emphasize the spiritual, meditative, and medicinal aspects of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) (although the martial aspect was never absent in his works). Further, when teaching in New York, Zheng adopted a relatively passive attitude toward the development of martial skill among his students. This has led some to conclude that martial skill is developed in taijiquan (tai chi chuan) through a process of “osmosis,” whereby diligent practice of the form and fixed-step push hands over a long period of time subconsciously instills this skill in the practitioner’s mind and body. Whether this reduced emphasis on the martial aspect reflected a shift in Zheng’s own philosophy in later life or a generous concession to the expectations of his American students (who were largely youngish individuals drawn from the ranks of New York’s 1960s subculture, many of whom shared an ideological commitment to non-violence), it became a hallmark of Zheng’s teaching, and the teaching of many of his disciples and followers.

It remains an open question whether this passive approach yields usable martial skills after a lengthy period of intense practice. What is beyond question, however, is that such an approach is an extremely inefficient way to develop these skills, if that is one of the practitioner’s goals. Moreover, Zheng did not develop his own sublime martial skills by such a curiously roundabout route. Despite Yang Chengfu’s concern for incorporating the civil element of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) in his teaching, Yang was unambiguously a teacher of martial arts; Zheng himself was knocked unconscious by his teacher on more than one occasion.

Is there any harm in downplaying the martial side of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) in this way? Surely, it would be ungenerous for taijiquan (tai chi chuan) martial artists to begrudge the dissemination of their art among those who do not aspire to martial proficiency. Indeed, many modern practitioners of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) including some serious ones are simply not interested in the martial aspects of the art, and may not have been drawn to it in the first place had they been aware of the centrality of the martial element in its history. Considering the enormous benefits of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) in the areas of health and relaxation, it is surely better that such individuals are offered the opportunity to study a strictly civil version of taijiquan (tai chi chuan).

However, students of purely civil taijiquan (tai chi chuan) should at least be aware that they are learning a truncated version of the art, and should at least have theopportunity to study the martial aspects, should their growing skill and interest in taijiquan (tai chi chuan) eventually turn their attention in this direction. Teachers who do not provide their students with this awareness and opportunity are therefore doing their students a disservice. Moreover, for individuals who are interested in martial arts, taijiquan (tai chi chuan) offers a style that is arguably unique in the extent to which it explicitly develops health, relaxation, and spiritual insight along with fighting skills. It is extremely unfortunate if such individuals lack the opportunity to study taijiquan (tai chi chuan) in its more comprehensive and traditional variant. The disassociation of taijiquan (tai chi chuan) from its martial component has reached the point in the United States today where many individuals with an interest in pursuing martial arts study may not even consider taijiquan (tai chi chuan) as an option. Both from a historical perspective and from the perspective of the individuals who miss the opportunity to study a martial art that ranks as one of the great achievements of Chinese culture this is an irony of the highest order.