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Tai Chi History, Legend, and the Thirteen Postures

In Tai Chi literature one will come across references to the Thirteen Postures, sometimes mentioned as being the 'original' thirteen postures of Taijiquan.  This originates from Zhang Sanfeng, who combined Shaolin boxing with Daoist philosophical principles (Yi Jing, Laozi, Zhuangzi, etc.) and founded Wudang internal martial arts.

Before Zhang Sanfeng and during the Tang dynasty (618-905), fighting styles with forms similar to Tai Chi appear.  One was practiced by a hermit named Hsa Suan-Ming who lived on Tse-Yang mountain which consisted of 37 postures performed in a continuous fashion.  Hsa Suan-Ming's style was called San Hsi Chi and included movement names such as "The Sparrow Lifts Its Tail," "Shoot Snow Goose With a Bow," "Dust Pan Posture," and "Hang On The Tree and Kick."  Later, there is record of another style practiced by Li Tao Tze called Hsien-Tien Chuan.  He taught his student Yu Lieu-Chu the following about the inner experience of 'long boxing' (called "long" because of its continuous movement):

It is soundless and formless.

The body must be as transparent as air.

All the movements follow the way of nature.

Like the chime of a big bell

That hangs from the ceiling of an old temple.

Sometimes, like a tiger's growl or an ape's call.

Still water runs deep.

The sea rises in waves;

There is sound is body and mind.

(Jou, Tsung Hwa.  The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan. 9).

In the Liang dynasty (907-921), a Tai Chi expert named Ken Kon Lu developed a set called Nine Little Heavens and passed this form down to Chen Lin-Hsi, who passed it down to Chen Mee.  The set had fourteen movements including "Single Whip" and "Grasp Sparrow's Tail" among others which are the same or similar as later movements but with different names, e.g. Repulse Monkey becomes "Cloud On Monkey's Head" and "Fist Under Elbow" becomes "Flower Among The Leaves."

Hu Chin-Tze is said to have created a Tai Chi-like martial art called Hu-Tien Fa ("the stage before the universe was created") which had seventeen postures including ward-off, roll-back, press, push, pull, split, elbow, and shoulder strike (this is important for the later part of the story).

A poem attributed to Hu Chin-Tze reads:

As time goes by

You do not care, nor I.

Wandering everywhere without anyone's interference,

I feel the spring breeze

As I play the flute in the tavern pavilion.

(Jou, Tsung Hwa.  The Tao of Tai Chi Chuan. 10).

In the mid 1200s, Zhang Sanfeng having studied Shaolin Chuan in the Pao Gi Mountains expanded upon Boddhidharma's teachings from 700 years earlier (specifically the Yi Jin Jing or the Tendon Changing Classic, the Xi Sui Jing  or the Bone Marrow Washing Classic, and a style of boxing called Eighteen Buddha's Hands).  After Boddhidharma had passed, many of his followers left Shaolin.  It was not until several hundred years later we find record of a monk named Joy-Yuang teaching boxing, and further developing Buddha's hands into Shaolin Chuan (or Shaolin boxing), making it into a seventy-two movement form which Zhang Sanfeng spent ten years at the temple mastering.

In 1314 Zhang Sanfeng met and studied with a hermit named Ho-Lung for the next four years, and for the next nine years after in Wudang Mountains.  When the Yuan dynasty ended in 1368 and the Ming dynasty (1368-1654) began, Zhang Sanfeng was afraid of being needed by the royal family and so he hid in Yunnan province until 1399.  In 1385 the emperor had indeed ordered him to serve in the government, but after not having found him instead decided to build a temple in his honor.  Around fifty years later emperor Yiu-Chung bestowed the title of immortal upon Sanfeng.

A story of how Tai Chi Chuan was invented comes from Sanfeng's time in Wudang Mountains where he witnessed a serpent fighting a magpie until he ran out and broke the fight up sending the two creatures scurrying.  He noticed that both animals exhibited certain characteristics of softness and back and forth movement.

Zhang Sanfeng's hobbies are said to include sword dancing in moonlight, playing Tai Chi on a dark night, climbing mountains on a windy night, reading classics on a rainy day, and meditating at midnight.  He raised a pet ape named Hsiao-Ting who would bring him fruit from the forest and practice Tai Chi with him.  His companion cranes would warn him of dangerous snakes.

Once while gathering medicinal herbs he encountered members of the Mongolian royal family who were hunting in the mountains.  The prince ordered him out of their way.  He replied that while they had to use bows and arrows, he could use his bare hands.  With that he lept and caught a bird in mid flight.  He then quickly placed the bird on his palm and sunk it down, using his skills of softness to prevent the bird from taking off.  Finally he allowed the bird to fly away while the prince watched in shock.

By adding principles from the Book of Changes (Yijing), health/medicine and breathing practices to the boxing arts, Sanfeng is regarded as the founder of Tai Chi.  Formally, Tai Chi is historically attributed to an army officer named Chen Wang-Ting (1580-1660).  His version of boxing included five routines, including two with fast punches, and one which consisted of 108 movements.

Five generations followed improving upon boxing methods.  Chen Chang-Hsin (1771-1853) simplified the Chen Tai Chi Chuan into Routine One and Routine Two with more fast movements and punches.  Chen Yu-Ben (1780-1858) further simplified the forms to meet with changing times.  Chen Chin-Ping (1795-1868) introduced a sub style emphasizing tighter movements called Shiao-Jar.  From this point Chen had three different styles: The old style, Yu-Ben's new style, and the Shiao-Jar style.

Routine one of the Chen style (Chen Chang-Hsin) is the oldest Tai Chi form from which all others have been derived.  Primary qualities of the routine include ward-off, roll-back, press and push, with the secondary qualities of elbow strike, split, pull, and shoulder strike, all emphasizing softness.

Yang Luchan (1799-1872) first learned a hard style thirty-three long form.  An older boxer felt that Luchan had the skill to be taken seriously by a master and recommended he go to Chen village.  He was initially refused as the art was kept secretive.  Luchan stayed to work on the farm, spying on the boxing lessons and diligently practicing on his own.  After several years, Luchan was recognized by Chen Chang-Hsin as having skill and was taught with the rest of the class.  Luchan would sometimes beat the most advanced Chen students in sparring.  

Luchan returned to his birthplace in Hubei province, and was later invited to teach the royal family in Beijing.  Because of this Yang style Tai Chi became more widely known.  Luchan would often travel throughout Northern China finding competitors to spar with, where he gained a reputation for never injuring an opponent.  He was given the nickname "invincible" because he was never known to have lost a competition.  Once in Kwang-Pin city, Luchan competed on top of a city wall.  His opponent lost balance and would have fallen if not for Luchan who took hold of the foot.  On a rainy day, Luchan's daughter carrying a water jug lost balance on the porch but Luchan was quick to prevent the fall while ensuring the water did not spill.

In another story, two boxers jealous of Luchan's title attempted to push him into a lake, but Luchan sensing their intentions and utilizing a Tai Chi movement was able to swiftly send them careening into the water instead.  

Two of Luchan's sons became Tai Chi masters.  Yang-Yu (1837-1892) would often be criticized by his father for having a torn sleeve despite winning the contest.  To demonstrate his inner strength, Yu would place grains of rice on his abdomen and launch them high into the air with a loud "Haah."  Yang-Chian (1839-1917) taught many students and emphasized styles in various frames ("wideness") including large, medium and small.  Among Chian's sons were Chao-Hsiung (1862-1930) and Chao-Chin (1883-1936).  Chao-Hsiung reached a high level but rarely taught.  It is said he could defeat an enemy with closed eyes after another boxer trying to get revenge threw lime powder in his eyes but still could not defeat him.  He had a reputation for being able to draw a candle flame close to him and push it away.  

Chao-Chin, also named Cheng-Fu, was good natured but did not like Tai Chi as a child.  When he was 20 Cheng-Fu began practice on the advice of his grandfather.  He practiced and studied to the point where it is said he had an outer appearance of softness and an interior of iron.  After his father passed he was entirely self-taught.

Yang Chengfu as the third generation lineage holder of Yang Luchan's Tai Chi had four sons who went on to spread the artform.  Eventually, different styles and different variations within styles emerged.  One of Chengfu's students, Cheng Man Ching, created a short frame version of the form, reducing 108 movements to 37.  This style gained popularity in the United States during the 1960s.  It wasn't until around this time that the Yang forms which are practiced today (notably the 24 form) became standardized in Beijing.


Returning to the philosophical roots of Tai Chi, it was mentioned that Zhan Sanfeng combined principles from the Yijing or Book of Changes which was compiled into a book around 500 B.C.E. and dates from the end of the Shang dynasty around 1028 B.C.E.

The Yijing (I Ching) is based upon the interplay of Yin and Yang, symbolized by broken and non-broken lines.  Combining the patterns, eight symbols of three lines form 8 triagrams, out of which come 64 hexagrams (2 by 2 combinations of triagrams in figures consisting of 6 lines), thought to encompass the way in which the process of change occurs.

In addition, the four possible categories of 'minor yang,' 'major yang,' 'minor yin,' and 'major yin' (Wuji becomes Yin and Yang which then becomes these four categories, which becomes the eight triagrams which then becomes the sixty-four hexagrams) were applied to the five 'phases' of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Just as the ancient Greeks were interested in discovering the fundamental 'elements' or building blocks of everything else, the Chinese were as well but placed greater emphasis upon the relationships or 'phases' between each element, and how one changes into another.  So for example, it was thought that metal gives birth to water, water gives birth to wood, wood gives birth to fire, fire gives birth to earth, earth gives birth to metal, metal destroys wood, wood destroys earth, earth destroys water, water destroys fire, and fire destroys metal.  These were viewed as symbolic or abstracted metaphors for the manifestation of change.

Combining the 8 triagrams with the 5 phases creates the Thirteen Postures.

It is said that the 5 phases are within the feet, and the 8 triagrams are in the hands.

The 8 triagrams (bagua) in the hands, also known as "energies" or "gates" include:

1.  Ward Off – Peng  ☰

2.  Roll Back – Lu  ☷

3.  Press – Ji  ☵

4.  Push – An  ☲

5.  Pull Down – Tsai  ☴

6.  Split – Lieh  ☳

7.  Elbow – Chou  ☱

8.  Shoulder – Kao  ☶

The 5 'phases' or directions include:

1.  Advance Step – Jin

2.  Retreat Step – Tui

3.  Left Step – Ku

4.  Right Step – Pan

5.  Center – Ding

The 8 energies are associated with one or more movements in the Tai Chi forms.  For example, Grasping The Bird's Tail contains within it the first four of Ward-off, Roll-back, Press, and Push. An example of 'Splitting' energy or Lieh can be found in Parting The Horse's Mane to break apart an opponent's grasp.

The teachings of Zhan Sanfeng were passed to his student Wang Chung-Yueh who wrote the following Tai Chi Classic (a few passages) about the Thirteen Postures:

"To deliver strength one must remain calm and relaxed and allow the center of gravity to sink downward. One must be able to focus this energy in a single direction.

Only when one can be extremely pliable and soft can one be extremely firm and hard.

Only when one truly knows how to inhale and exhale can one move nimbly and smoothly.

It is also said that the mind comes first and the body later. Keep your stomach relaxed and soft and let the intrinsic energy permeate into your bones. Keep your spirit calm and easy and your body quiet. Under no circumstances let these facts slip from your mind.

Bear in mind that when one part of the body moves, all other parts of the body move. When one part of the body comes to a stand-still all other parts of the body come to a stand-still.

Walk like a cat."

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