Taiji (T'ai Chi) Mythology versus History

Today’s blog post is going to be a little different in that the topic will focus more on martial arts than Chinese medicine, although a lot of the ideas may cross boundaries, as boundaries between these two are sometimes fuzzy. As many know I am an avid martial arts practitioner, and it was martial arts that led me into Chinese medicine. I started learning Okinawan Karate back in 1982. In 1993 I spent 6 months in Osaka, Japan where I trained Shorinji-ryu, and in 1995-1996 I lived in Okinawa, where I continued my martial arts training in Kobayashi-ryu. Over the last decade or so I’ve dedicated myself to the practice of Hunyuan Chen Taiji (T'ai Chi), especially after it was a major factor in saving me from a severe bout of Lyme disease.

Sun Lutang in 1930

Sun Lutang in 1930

In this post I want to explore some of the mythology of Taiji’s origin, which ties into lore and history of Chinese martial arts in general. After reading some fantastic blog posts about the legendary Taiji master Sun Lutang, I went back to my bookshelf to read some of his writing again for myself. Here is a long quotation from the introduction to his text on Taiji that was originally published in 1921:

Qian and Kun are the original creative principles. The original qi (元氣) flows as stillness and movement exchange to gradually produce the Ten Thousand Things. Things take form in their post-heaven states. The pre-haven original qi becomes the intrinsic essence of the post-heaven manifestations that have shape. These manifestations all include the pre-heaven original qi. Therefore, human form and life is the result of the unification of both pre-heaven essence and post-heaven form. People naturally have wisdom and emotion, and a combination of both yin and yang. The pre-heaven original qi slowly dissipates as the post-heaven qi slowly increases. The result is a weakening of the yang and a strengthening of the yin. This is the state that allows the invasion of the six types of qi [i.e., the Six Evils of wind, cold, heat, damp, dryness and summerheat]. The weakening of the yang and strengthening of the yin also results in the disturbance of the seven emotions. In this state, the body grows weaker by day and the hundred illnesses invade. The ancients were concerned about this. They tried to consume medicines in the hopes of curing illness. They say in meditation in order to cultivate the heart. Unfortunately, they were not able to make use of methods that involved both stillness and motion simultaneously. In order to fill this need the martial arts were created. They sought to recover the insubstantial qi [虛靈之氣; i.e., the pre-heaven source/original qi].


Mythology versus History

The origins of Taiji have been attributed to Daoist immortals such as Zhang San Feng, or to the Daoists of Wu Dang Mountain. These theories are quite modern, dating back to only the 19th century, and have been debunked by more than one historian. Western scholars such as Douglas Wile have written extensively on the origins of Taiji and other internal martial arts, none of which contain reference to Daoist immortals or priests on cloud capped mountains. Furthermore, Taiji’s origins date only to less than 400 years ago at best, and it originated with a retired military officer. The statement from Sun Lutang above that martial arts were created by the ancients to explore the combination of stillness and motion is clearly then a myth.

It is true that some in China did practice martial arts as a type of self-cultivation going back to the Ming period, and this is well documented in places such as the Shaolin Temple (for those interested in this history Professor Shahar’s work is required reading). Yet, this use of the martial arts seems to be a minor trend until the 19th century when martial arts, including Taiji, took on other meanings as an exercise in culture, health, and national identity. Originally the martial arts’ primary purpose was self-defense, and they were taught in places such as the military for the preparation of soldiers. In this context weapons practice was much more important than empty hand work as during warfare being without a weapon on the battlefield was, to put it mildly, not a good situation to be in.

Most likely Sun was aware of most of these facts. He was no stranger to the practical aspects of martial arts, in his lifetime fighting in challenge matches. He was at one point in his life employed to teach martial arts in the Presidential Palace of early Republican China, and he held the rank of Lieutenant in the Nationalist military. Yet, Sun was also deeply steeped in Daoist religious theory and cultivation techniques, and did famously tell his students that if they really wanted to fight they should get a gun. So, while martial arts were something quite practical, Sun felt that they were based on deeper principles that let it be more than just the one thing (i.e., self-defense) that they were originally created for.

So, now we come back to Sun’s preface. As I already mentioned, it seems clear to me that this is a type of myth. To a big extent, I think mythology is something important to us as humans, and we can and should be comfortable living simultaneously with both myth and actual history (as much as we can know history as a collection of verifiable ‘facts’). What a myth does is exemplify the unfolding worldview of a people, in this case those who practiced martial arts in the last few centuries. While martial arts were originally for military preparedness training, or personal self-defense, at some point they evolved to be something different and bigger. It seems to me that what is important is not that the ancients used martial arts as a way to explore self-cultivation that involved stillness and motion, but rather that today martial arts can serve this purpose, depending on the practitioner and their own goals for training. Indeed the martial arts for me are a way I stay healthy, a treatment for my own disease, and fundamentally a way of life (when I was younger living in Japan I practiced full-contact Karate, but I’ve aged out of that type of purpose to my practice!). I think it is pretty great that something that was once used only for the purpose of violence is now big enough to contain a lot: self-defense (it still works for that), health promotion, marker of cultural identity and aspiration, and practice of self-discipline and cultivation.

For me, contemporary Chinese internal martial arts are an offshoot of Chinese longevity techniques, as at some point in the last few centuries they started incorporating practices that came from Daoist methods of Yang Sheng. While not something they contained from time immemorial, internal martial arts are now a type of physical culture that allows the practitioner to embody, in a very real and tangible way, the core theories on which Chinese medicine are built. The mythology we have created surrounding them tells us not what they originally were in an historical sense, but what they have become and what our own aspirations as practitioners have turned to.

But the best thing to do is actually practice. Click here to read more about our Taiji classes.