The Cultural History of Tai Chi

The Cultural History of Tai Chi


Around 1900 there was an uprising in China
called the Boxer Rebellion. A large group of Chinese peasants set out
to kill all Chinese Christians and expel foreigners from the country. They used traditional weapons
and set fire to several cities. The Boxers performed a ritual that invoked
certain gods of the theater to possess them in battle.
They believed these rituals made them bullet proof.
As a result, eight major Western countries plus Japan, invaded.
In the process these foreign soldiers looted the imperial palace; many Chinese are still
angry about this. At the time, the Chinese were so humiliated
that they set out to obliterate their own martial, religious, and theatrical traditions.
But martial artists fought back against this movement by insisting that they could and
would completely separate martial arts from its theatrical and religious origins.
Thus the purified form of martial arts most people practice today was created. However,
without the original theatrical and religious context, martials arts can not be fully appreciated
or understood. This martial art is called Chen style taijiquan,
it is the oldest style of Tai Chi. But what else is it? what purposes did it originally
serve? Notice that this movement is very specific
and exacting? Was it a form of theater? Did it have a religious function?
This movement mimes grinding the elixir of immortality and then drinking it.
This is mime for a butterfly, it is used extensively in Chinese opera traditions to mean waking
from a dream. The ancient Daoist Zhuangzi dreamt he was
a butterfly and the butterfly dreamt he was zhuangzi who was dreaming that he was a butterfly
and when he awoke he couldn’t be sure if he was, in fact, Zhuangzi or a butterfly.
In China, India and Japan, there are three types of mime, illusion mime like the type
used in the West, mudras which are magical symbols made with the hands, and image-mime
which is a form of sign language to people familiar with the culture.
For instance his movement in Kathak, North Indian Classical Dance, means “opening the
heart in all directions like a lotus flower.” This movement in taijiquan is the same, it
could mean “opening the dantian in all directions,” but it looks like tying up the pants.
This movement is actually called lazy about tying one’s coat, and it looks like tying
a belt. It is also a lot like the God Krisha putting away his flute and tying his belt
in Indian Dance. So what is all this mime doing in a martial
art? As it turns out, the taijiquan form tells
a specific story, but it is much more than that.
It is a type of theater called “feng” or a canonization ritual. These canonization
rituals were common forms of theatrical operas like the stories of the Monkey King, the Outlaws
of the Marsh, and the Three Kingdoms adventure. They were performed at festivals both as entertainment
and to organize militias. And they were done before a battle to invoke the power of gods,
demons & immortals, to fight up in the sky, running alongside the combatants, or actually
possessing individual soldiers. After battle these canonization rituals were
used to enshrine the battlefield-dead, so that they would not become homeless ghosts–because
homeless ghosts were considered the cause of all future violence.
The taijiquan form begins with a movement used in Chinese opera to “start the music”
(much like a western conductor with a baton). Then light and sound come into being out of
huntun represented by water moving in ten directions at once. Huntun means “totally
undifferentiated chaos” —it is represented on the bottom of Daoist vestments because
it is how Daoist rituals begin. The next movement is called Play the Pipa.
A pipa is a musical instrument that makes the sounds pi and pa.
It is also the sound of bones breaking, the equivalent of the word “crack” in English.
And it is the name for the scapular bone. The first type of writing used in China was
done on sheep’s scapula. A question would be asked of the Heavens—written on the bone,
and then it would be cracked with a hot poker, and the answer would be read in the cracks,
and then written down. Thus the pipa would be pipa-ed.
Later the name for a female shaman was pipa-diviner, putting together all four meanings of the
word. In Daoist ritual, this is the invocation of
the ancient female shaman, who exists before civilization and the gods.
Next we have land rising up out of the huntun waters.
Turning into Dayu, or “Yu the great,” Yu means ancestor, he is the ancestor of Chinese
civilization who unifies the nine kingdoms, represented by the magic square, and he stops
the floods. He is half-man and half-bear, because he married a bear. He is the male
ancestor of all shaman and the original exorcist. Because he is half-bear, he drags his leg
and then stamps his foot to dispel yin-spirits. Bianhua (sudden transformation)—he becomes
Xuanwu, the mysterious warrior… mixing the elixir of immortality and drinking
it. As we explained, this is image-mime of a butterfly,
it is a sign language for the standard theatrical expression, “Waking from a dream.”
Suddenly, waking from a dream in which Xuanwu taught him secret martial arts techniques,
Immortal Zhang Sanfeng, living on mount Wudang, expands his dantian in all directions, and
puts on his pants. He puts on his hat, which, in temples dedicated
to him was actually a big gong people would ring, allowing Zhang Sanfeng to demonstrate
his playful yet non-reactive nature. Then he strokes his silver beard, which was
the shape of a halberd blade and glistened infinitely in all directions.
And he ties up his belt, The name of this movement is “ Lazy about tying up his coat.”
Ather name for Zhang Sanfeng is Zhang Lata, which means sloppy or lazy. He steps outside, this movement is used in
Chinese opera for an immortal or god entering the stage. And what does he see?
A snake… And a crane…
fighting…neither one can catch the other one. [pause] Suddenly Zhang Sanfeng remembers his dream
and the martial art he learned from Xuanwu. The foundation principle of taijiquan is that
we never meet force with force, we always counter-balance it instead.
This secret technique is shown by the movement Single Whip (danbian), which is a nautical
term referring to a pole with a whipping on one end, or a rope with a hook for picking
baskets out of a boat. It is like a counter-balance scale. Zhang Sanfeng was then called to the capital
by the Emperor, and on the way one-by-one he met One Hundred Bandits…all of whom he
defeated. [pause] Daoist priests, called Daoshi, do visualizations
during ritual movement, beginning with hundun, bringing the world into being, followed by
civilization and then the creation of the gods. Each god has a list of attributes which
are infinite. In this case the first is Xuanwu, the mysterious
warrior, whose skin is as infinitely deep and dark as the night sky, and whose armor
gleams infinitely out in all directions. He is mimed making the elixir of immortality,
but this process of ritual visualization with movement is in fact how jindan, the golden
elixir of immortality is made. Whether done standing or sitting, the felt body is first
emptied of all intent and then replaced by visualizations. The felt body is thus replaced
by an active imagination. In this theatrical-ritual form, the body remains empty of intent during
the movement which is driven by the spatial imagination. This particular perception-action
ordering, resolves predetermined fates and returns us to simplicity and spontaniety.
This religious technique was used for training actors and, in fact, is how taijiquan movement
works. The god Xuanwu functions as an intermediary
for approaching the Dao, the nameless totality of everything and nothing. Xuan Wu is a military
figure known for extraordinary discipline. In ritual visualization this type of god suddenly
transforms into a more feminine god often Laozi or Laojun, the source of the Daodejing,
Daoism’s most sacred text. He is surrounded by rainbows. In the taijiquan ritual Zhang
Sanfeng plays the soft feminine role. Zhang Sanfeng lives on mount Wudang shrouded
in mist and rainbows. His teacher is the god Xuan Wu. Zhang Sanfeng was an everyman’s immortal,
he is a languid figure, dirty, sloppy and laid back, but he does NOT smell. In fact
he would scrape off his skin and make it into medicine pellets to cure sick people. He was
ubiquitous before the 20th century, appearing in spirit writing trances as often as modern
people use twitter and facebook. In some daoist rituals, Zhang Sanfeng came
to replace Xuan Wu as a martial guardian. That’s probably what this canonization ritual
called Taijiquan was originally invented to do. The rest of the form is likely Zhang fighting
and canonizing other gods and immortals. This idea of using martial arts training to
convert unruly people or demons into righteous warriors is in fact the meaning of the Chinese
word kungfu or gongfu. In all the main works of martial arts literature
and all the plays which have been made into movies like the Monkey King stories, the 108
Outlaws of the Marsh, and Three Kingdoms epic, the overarching plot is that unruly demonic
characters become righteous immortals, gods, and heroes, through the practice of kungfu. This dark path to enlightenment is not that
hard to comprehend: Violence changes us, it can transform our identities in both positive
and negative ways. Hopefully making us better people. Stronger, more independent, more thoughtful,
more willing to help others, and empowered as leaders. The everyday comic nature of Taijiquan is
a great way to keep this vision of humanity alive in our daily lives.

29 thoughts on “The Cultural History of Tai Chi

  1. Hi, Scott! My name's Nick Varela, I did a bit of training under you when I was in the Jefferson Wilderness Program in Daly City, during the mid nineties. Most of the training was in Tan Tui. I ran into you a couple of years back at Spreckles Lake, you were training with George Xu on that day…

    I love your videos, this one was really awesome!

    I had actually done some Yang Style Tai Chi with Bill Chin there in Golden Gate park, as I was rehabilitating some shoulder surgery that I had gone through. Prior to the surgery I was also a student of Chris Chan at the U.S. Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy. That's how I met Bill Chen through one of my Si-Hing there had also been a student of Bill Chin for over thirty-five years.

    I just wanted to thank you for the exposure to Chinese Kung Fu. I always been interested sinceI was a kid, originally I had practiced Judo from the age of eight to thirteen, but was always attracted to the Chinese Arts.

    Again, thank you!

  2. We met years ago at a conference on Taoism on Vashon Island. Just want to say this is a wonderful video. The best thing I've seen on the History of Taijiquan on video anywhere. Great research and demonstration. It is very heartening to see this kind of work being done.
    Bill Frazier

  3. not bad. I've studied and written extensively on the origins of this and this is a decent presentation. good to see it!

  4. If you are trying to be funny you are doing a great job!

    Because every thing you said in this video is a bunch of BS. I don't know if you just got off of an "ACID trip" or what but I wasted 13 minutes of my life watching this delusion of yours.

    Just watching your form and explanation tells me you had no proper training in Chen Tai Chi.

    The "Boxer Rebellion" happened in south China and no where near Chen village which is northern China so your explanation to mimicking movements for theatrical purpose is a complete BS!

  5. Would you share a little bit about the sources for the conclusions you draw?

    In the video you seem to largely be engaged in comparing movements and concepts across art forms, and in some cases across cultures to say in effect "See these two movements or ideas are similar, so they must have the same historical root." If I am mischaracterizing your position please correct me.

    I am wondering if there are any primary sources that explain the relationship you are suggesting between taiji and performing arts or any historically continuous art forms that you could point to that either support or underpin your work?

    Additionally, I looked at your website, but did not see, do you have graduate level training in theatre, Chinese studies, cultural anthropology, or something similar?

  6. Great stuff! You cover a lot of ground here so I expect the book will be even more eye opening. Citations become useless after a certain point of investigation as not all your observations or theories can be "proven," but nonetheless, these facts exist not independently and within the context of each other. I hope everyone can benefit from this eye-opening video and practice their own critical thinking. Keep up the good work!

  7. 9:22 By the way, does this method apply to "all" Chinese martial arts forms practice? For example Tan Tui, which is seemingly more simple and just done in lines? Or were some practices purely physical and combative? A form of practical drills as it were (like in western arts) as well as some very old and well preserved Chinese arts that I have had some training in, such as Xinyiliuhe, which has no forms as part of the practice, only singular movement drills, (but of course there is also Shamanism, which are methods of invoking various spirit animals to ride the body) which may imply a differentiation between arts that used these certain rituals and others that didn't and ere more for lack of better terms; "grounded in reality".

    In Tan Tui there seem to be references to every day life actions, like the yolk carrying, mill grinding, farming etc. As opposed to tales of immortals, esotericsm or similar. Since the arts did use code within the movements to refer to things and keep them secret. But not done in the way of a taolu or ritual sense. (That I know of?)

  8. This is interesting stuff this kung fu history myths and legends i never knew this nice video. Also i heard wing chun has similar story to taichi about a woman shaolin nun seeing a crane and snake fight after fleeing a destroyed shaolin temple and created wing chun you know why its similar to taichi or tai ji quan and which is the made up story?

  9. Maybe you have it backward and the martial reality was hidden in the theatrical. As with many martial arts having to go underground, but being saved in dance.

  10. "Opening the Dan tian.." Wrong. It is CALLED " tie one's coat" but they dont think of those things in their mind while practicing. It is one of the grappling technique called Chan (entanglement)

  11. What you explained here is the naming tradition, which doesn't explain martial arts at all. I have to let you know, if you read literature & history books written before 1900, you will find similar names too. And those names were not only applied to martial arts but also chines cuisine, carpentry, winery, architecture, science, poetry……. By the way, they do not think those in their mind while practicing.

  12. Well…. about Pi Pa… You are talking the opposite. The truth is the Pi Pa was invented first before Pi Pa bone was named. The formal name of scapula bone has always been 胛骨 (Jia Bone). Because scapula bone looks like Pi Pa, so that people who don't know its formal name call it Pi Pa bone. Also, Pi Pa was NOT a Chinese instrument. It originated from Kucha which was not a part of China Back then. The word Pi Pa was literal translation from Kucha language. Pi means tabbing strings forward, and Pa means tabbing backward.

  13. As a Chen taiji person, I found this very interesting. Don't worry about the anonymous haters. I enjoyed the sound effects. 🙂 One person who viewed this told me he found it disturbing that taiji was influenced by performance art, but if I can use every one of the taiji movements for powerful self-defense, it doesn't matter to me how it originated. A lot of things we do originate in culture and mythology (religion) and we never really think about it.

  14. The one thing that stands out in this video is the cherry-picking of interpretations. Chinese characters do indeed have multiple meanings and can be highly dependent not only on conversational context, but also local cultural context which will vary from region to region. This is further complicated by the observable fact that even today there are significant dialectical differences across regions – and even within regions.

  15. I am going to buy your book. From what you presented, I believe your research has some significant value. Art has a unique ability to retain knowledge that is often forgotten. The rituals are familiar, like the observance of the lunar new year, but many of the trappings, most have no clue to their meanings. Even through my rudimentary work translating Chinese Tai Chi text, I have come to understand how original texts are often presented to students rewritten to express the teacher's interpretation of the text. There is a lot of revisionism. Much is lost and disregarded as irrelevant. Maybe for the warrior this will mean nothing, but to the scholar it will be enriching. Thank you for sharing.

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