The History of Tai Chi

Children and adults alike love stories, be they true accounts, fables or folklore. When it comes to the history of Tai Chi, there are so many different stories that it is literally impossible to separate fact from fiction. Let’s take a look at a few interpretations of the story of the legendary individual many believe was there at the very beginning.

Most believe Tai Chi originated more than 2,000 years ago in China, as a form of qigong, which has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine. The movements were originally designed for self-defense, usually without weapons, as well as to promote inner peace and calm. Tai Chi training, as well as knowledge, was passed from Master to student, which not only created distinct lineages, but many unique methods as well.

The essential principles of Tai Chi are based on ancient Taoism (also spelled Daoism), which stresses the natural balance and harmony in all things. Tai Chi has also been interpreted and influenced by different leaders and philosophies, including Buddhist and Confucian.

Now, let’s look at some theories regarding how and when it began. Even though some authorities claim Tai Chi started around 2,500 years ago, the first reference to Tai Chi can be found in the Book of Changes over 3,000 years ago, during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-1221 BC). Other accounts date the origins of Tai Chi to the 8th century. Others, the 12th. And still others, the 15th.

I think you get the point.

Chang San-Feng (various spellings exist) was a legendary character from the 12th (or perhaps the 13th or 15th) century, who is frequently given credit for having created what we currently think of as Tai Chi. Many say he was a Taoist priest, although according to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, he was a Shaolin Monk who decided to leave the monastery to become a Taoist hermit. David-Dorian Ross, in The Essentials of Tai Chi and Qigong, presents yet another lineage story, positing that Chang went into the Wudang mountains to study the philosophy of Yin and Yang with the monks in the Wudang Temple.

According to one legend, Chang observed five animals (a tiger, dragon, leopard, snake and a crane) and determined that the snake and crane were the ones most likely to overcome strong, unyielding opponents. According to other accounts, Chang observed only a snake and a crane as they were fighting. Regardless, based on his observations, Chang, along with the monks, are said to have developed a set of exercises that imitated the movements of the animals. Chang also added some key philosophical concepts, plus flexibility and suppleness, to the inchoate system, including the core philosophy that the forces of Yin and Yang must be in balance.

Keep in mind that the history of Tai Chi also includes an interweaving of Chinese martial arts, healing arts and philosophy, as well as science and evidenced-based biomedicine. But regardless of how it began, the last fifty years have witnessed Tai Chi expanding into the West, where it is now taught in hospitals, sports clubs, colleges and community centers.

If you haven’t tried a Tai Chi class yet, please take a moment to check out our schedule of classes. We are also offering drop-in classes for current students, as well as those who would like to give Tai Chi a try!