The Evolution of Taijiquan

Further Conversations with Master Wu Wenhan

By Dave Barrett, translated by Yang Jun

journal-25_page40_image1DB: Can you tell us about the importance of Wang Zongyue and why his theories helped create Taijiquan?

WW: I am very happy to see you again and talk with you. Your question covers three points. First concerns the history of Taijiquan. Last time we spoke about Yang Luchan’s return to Guangping town from Chenjiagou. At this time at Chenjiagou and Zhaobao town they did not use this term Taijiquan to describe their techniques. It was called the Long Fist or 13 postures. Who created Taijiquan? At that time no one could say for sure. According to Yang Lu Chan, his teacher was Chen Changxing and his teacher was Jiang Fa, and his teacher was Wang Zongyue. Beginning in 1911, with the creation of Chinese National Government, research began into the question of who created Taijiquan. One of these early theories was that Taijiquan was created by Zhang Sanfeng.

DB: Who started the story about Zhang Sanfeng? Now it seems that modern research has discredited this theory.

WW: Around 1910 a scholar named Guan Baiyi found a chapter in a book which reported that someone named Wang Zong taught internal martial arts in Shaanxi during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Guan Baiyi supposed that this Wang Zong was the same person as Wang Zongyue. But the problem here is that Wang Zong and Wang Zongyue were two different people. So that this misunderstanding lead to the belief that Taijiquan should be traced back to Wu Dang Mountain. This is still a question debated by historians; maybe Taijiquan should be traced to the Taoist practices of Wu Dang Mt., maybe not. In 1921 Mr. Xu Yusheng published a book. He was a student of Yang Jianhou and a study/brother of Yang Chengfu. He described a carved funeral inscription on a stone. Hong Junshi was an important philosopher during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and his funeral stone describes a Taoist from Wu Dang Mt., Zhang Sanfeng, who dreamed that an immortal taught him the form motions.Later this style was spread in Shaanxi by Wang Zong. They called this an internal martial arts style. In his 1921 book Mr. Xu Yusheng supposed that this art was Taijiquan. He also proposed that Wang Zong and Wang Zongyue were one and the same. From this theory emerged the idea that Taijiquan’s founder was Zhang Sanfeng. The problem is that some 600 years separate Zhang Sanfeng from the Qing Dynasty and the careers of Chen Changxing and Yang Luchan. At the beginning of the Ming dynasty there was another Zhang Sanfeng, their names sound the same but are written differently. So also some people think this Zhang Sanfeng created Taijiquan. So this confusion stems from 1921. There are many loose ends to this theory, too many questions to have a clear picture.

DB: What is the current understanding of Zhang Sanfeng among historians?

WW: From the tourist’s point of view, many consider Zhang Sanfeng the founder of Taijiquan. Before 1949, most people also believed this. In the 1930’s the central martial arts university professor, Tang Hao, went to Chenjiagou three times during 1930-31. He thinks Taijiquan was founded by Chen Wangting and nothing at all connects back to Zhang Sanfeng. But there are many areas of debate about this. After liberation the government position also reflected this approach, and the Henan provincial officials have promoted this line as well. So many feel Chenjiagou is the hometown of Taijiquan but my feeling is that this is not correct. Who is the true founder of Taijiquan? Actually this was a gradual evolution. During the 1840’s Yang Luchan, after his return to Guangping from Chenjiagou did not teach exactly what he had learned from Chen Changxing. He made many changes, for example the names of the motions were different.

DB: We talked about this in our last conversation and at this point historically there was a very interesting intersection between Yang Luchan, Wu Yuxiang and the writings of Wang Zongyue.

WW: Let me tell you about this. Up to this point we have not found anything about the personal history of Wang Zongyue, what his background was or what type of martial arts he practiced or who he studied with. We can only examine his writings. Firstly he lived during the Qianlong era of the Qing dynasty (1735-1796). His writing style, the structure and phrases he used are also found in books written during this era. This is how we have placed him historically. If he was alive during the Ming dynasty he could not have referenced Qing dynasty phrases in his writings. Secondly, his writings referenced Confucius and Mo Tzu, so we can infer that he was educated and literate. This special style of writing called “the eight legged essay” is divided into 8 sections; every section requiring the same number of words and is organized thematically. I have written an article analyzing the style and structure of his writing. It is clear that he was a scholar and prepared for the imperial examinations. One aspect of his theory reflects the importance of a vertical or upright posture and equilibrium in balance; this comes from the Chuang Tzu and the Warring States period (475-221 BC). There was actually an imperial department during the Han dynasty (206BC-9AD) that enforced a leveling balance of economic factors and Wang Zongyue references this in his writings. This type of terminology shows us that he was highly educated.

DB: We are talking now about clues to the mystery of Wang Zongyue.

WW: Yang Luchan says that his teacher was Chen Changxing, Chen Changxing’s teacher was Jiang Fa, and Jiang Fa’s teacher was Wang Zongyue. From these comments we can place Wang Zongyue in the Qing dynasty. What kind of martial arts did Wang Zongyue teach at Chenjiagou? Not a sequence as we understand form practice today. He used Peng, Lu, Ji, and An to create a two-person exercise called Da Shou. All of his writings reference the interaction between two opponents. Yang Luchan and Wu Yuxiang used what they learned from the Chen system and combined these with local Yongnian techniques to create Taijiquan. From the form names, practice methods and theory we can see differences between Chen style and the Taijiquan of Yang Luchan and Wu Yuxiang. My earliest exposure to Chen style was seeing Chen Fake in the 1950’s. When he practiced it was quite external. The Yang and Wu/Hao styles are more inwards and reserved, expressing a very different flavor. For example, in the Chen style the stamping and explosive motions are quite apparent but in the other two styles these are much more internally expressed and hidden. There are many examples of this difference. Before Yang Luchan went to Beijing nobody knew these three words: Tai Ji Quan. The earliest use of this term can be found in the writing of Wang Zongyue.

DB: Why did he use this term Taijiquan in his writing?

WW: Because of his education, his martial training he picked this. Generally speaking in Chinese martial arts there are 3 factors in naming a style: first is the location, where it was developed. A second source is animal names, thirdly, folkloric legends. Why did he pick the term Taijiquan? During the Qing dynasty Confucian ideals were foremost among intellectuals. There was a very popular author during the Qianlong era that began to use this term “Taiji” and his writings and Wang Zongyue’s are quite similar. The yin/yang philosophy pervades the “Song of Pushing Hands” and the “13 Chapters” authored by Wang Zongyue. We are talking about 160 years of development from the time of Yang Lu Chan and no matter what style of Taijiquan, they all follow these foundations laid down by Wang Zongyue.

DB: One last question. Why did the performance of the forms change? Was this because of Wang Zongyue’s theoretical contributions?

WW: Of course the theories were one important factor in this change. But also we must consider the Wu family’s background. At that time in Guangpingfu, the Wu’s were the richest family in the town. There is a class distinction at work here. In traditional Chinese society, the educated elite had a personal sense of decorum and this was reflected in their posture and bearing. How they carried themselves was different than a merchant or a farmer. The expressed gentility and the reserve of the aristocracy also began to affect the performance of strictly martial techniques. They didn’t want to jump around and slap themselves like common fighters. Old time martial arts were quite rough and raw, angry and intense.

DB: This is a fascinating idea that the social status of the players affected the motions of the forms and changed them. When Yang Luchan taught in the Forbidden City he was teaching the aristocrats and had to modify his style to fit their station in life?

WW: Yes, of course, the common slapping and kicking and jumping techniques were not suitable for this class of people. The motions became gentler and the energy more inwardly refined. We have no record of Yang Luchan’s practice style at that time, no photographs, but certainly his practice began to be affected by his station in the Forbidden City. We have a saying in China, “If you work with red dye you become red, if you work with ink you become black.” So today’s Yang style is open and gentle, reserved and calm. This is a result of these social pressures. The same holds true for the styles developed by Wu Yuxiang and Wu Jianquan. As I was watching Chen Zhenglei perform yesterday, his motions are more subtle than Chen Fake’s, so in modern Chen style we can also see this evolution from overt martial techniques to more refined motions.

DB: I want to tell you how much I appreciate our time together, I always learn so much from you and I look forward to speaking with you again about Taijiquan. ☯

Reprinted from Journal 25, Tenth Anniversary Issue, Summer 2009

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