Friday, October 12, 2012

When Did Tai-chi Chuan Become Slow?

Origin stories of Tai-chi Chuan speak of a Taoist hermit witnessing a fight between a crane and a snake or of a military soldier returning to his village and developing a new fighting style.

These origin stories also include references to how Tai-chi Chuan represents traditional Chinese cosmology and philosophy, notably Wuji and Yin-Yang.

Developments of these origin stories include a young Mr. Yang spying on the Chens and thus learning Chen Tai-chi Chuan which he later transformed into the Yang style of Tai-chi Chuan.

For the longest time, I naively assumed that this very strange slow-motion martial art was designed that way; that the hermit or the soldier in response to an inspirational "What if...?", began experimenting with performing known hand-to-hand combat sequences in slow motion and codified the sequence as Taijiquan.

But is this true? And who cares? We have what we have and isn't that sufficient?

Sometimes, yes. And sometimes learning a different point of view on some arcane bit of history can shift your world and make certain vague, barely believable stories more coherent and believable.

Was Tai-chi Chuan always slow as it is today? Was it created slow? If so, then what were the inspiring influences that led to creating hand-to-hand combat sequences in slow motion? Or was it originally fast and became slow later? And if so, when and why?

Snakes and cranes do not fight in slow motion. Military soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat do not fight in slow motion, so how and why did the notion or element of slowness get applied?

In the book Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin (2008), the author Livia Kohn suggests:
In a separate development of healing exercises in the late Ming and early Qing periods, the exercises also served as the foundation of martial practices, among which the best known are taiji quan (great ultimate boxing) and Shaolin gongfu (martial practices of Shaolin temple). The heavy reliance of these martial arts on Daoyin is obvious in their emphasis on deep abdominal breathing, their intense, focused movement, their rhythmic alternation of bends and stretches and the fanciful names of their patterns, which are often associated with animals or supernatural figures. (pg 189)
So if you were to believe Professor Kohn who has published widely on Daoism, you might think that this is a plausible explanation. The hermit or the soldier having grown up in a culture where Daoyin exercises were well known might have had the thought to combine Daoyin and hand-to-hand combat sequences and through years of trial-and-error, ultimately developed the slow-motion art we know today.

However, Professor Kohn provided no references for this assertion and so for me, this remains one hypothesis.

For another perspective, I searched the Chinese website and found Yang Luchan and his descendants spread the achievements of Taijiquan in Beijing posted May 2003. Here's my summary of this translation:
Yang Cheng-fu went to Chenjiagou as a worker and eventually apprenticed in the Chen Style Old Frame Taijiquan. When he left Chenjiagou, he returned to Beijing and after earning the title of "Yang the Invincible", was recruited by local aristocrats and officials to teach his martial art to their children. However, upon discovering that his students were enfeebled by their luxurious lifestyle and were not capable of performing the Chen Old Frame, he dumbed-down the Chen form by making the postures simpler and more gentle as a way to help improve their physical capabilities.

From what I understand, this story is not referenced to an authoritative source either and so for me, this too remains one hypothesis.

While either of these stories could be true, I think the latter is the more believable. In a twist of history, the dumbed-down Chen version later became known as Yang Style Taijiquan of which we have various versions today.

If someone has yet another version or can substantiate either of these versions, I'd be glad to here from you. 

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