The long name of the tai chi style we do is “Yang jia taiji quan” or “Yang family tai chi boxing.” I’ll explain more about the differences and spelling in tomorrow’s blog, but for now just work with me.
Traditionally, martial arts in China are based on lineages – passing the art down from one Master or Grandmaster to the next. Frequently, someone may develop changes to the original art which are different enough to be their own style, while still in keeping with the original tradition. So it is with tai chi. It began as the common martial art in Chenjiagou (“Chen Family Village”), then branched out into other styles. All these styles have certain common elements and they all trace their lineages ultimately back to “Chen style,” which is the oldest.
The oldest records anyone has of tai chi are from the Chen style and go back about 300 years. If the Chen family has documentation that’s older, they’ve kept it to themselves.
Yang family style – the style we teach – is the creation of one individual, Yang Luchan. He learned Chen family style and, after getting a position training the Imperial Palace Guards, went on to create his own variation in the mid-1800s. From Yang, the styles of Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun were developed. Each is distinct from the other but each traces its lineage back to Chen style and the fundamentals of each are similar.
Chen, the oldest style, is also considered the most “martial” – that is, it looks the most like a martial art, with its dynamic punches and kicks, its alternating between slow and fast, soft and hard. Owing to the various branches and lineages coming out of Chenjiagou, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is doing Chen most authentically. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter all that much except to historians.
In the mid-1800s when it was first developed, Yang style started out looking a lot like Chen; but over the years its pace was made slower and more even, and the movements were made somewhat larger in “frame” than Chen. The version of Yang style we would actually recognize as such isn’t terribly old. It dates back to around the 1920s and was formalized by Yang Chengfu, grandson of the style’s founder. The present lineage holder is Yang Jun, who at the time of writing is in his early 50s. Barring mishap, he should be around for a very long time.
The question of “which family style is best” often comes up. There really is no answer to this question. They are basically different “flavors” of the same basic principles of rootedness, centeredness, balance and awareness. Some are more outwardly martial and some are less so. No one style is better than any other. There are many offshoots of the family styles. Some are good, and some have only the most superficial resemblance to tai chi or its principles. Just because something is slow and graceful doesn’t mean it’s tai chi – ballet is slow and graceful and no one thinks they’re the same thing.
I’m pleased to share Yang family tai chi with you, and grateful you’ve given me the opportunity to do so.