T'ai chi Chuan or taijiquan 太极拳 (Manderin pronunciation) or Tai Gik Kuen (Cantonese pronunciation) 太極拳, both means the same thing. It is deep rooted in the Chinese cultral and history.
Tai Chi literally means 'utmost extremes' but it is not very clear in its interpretation. What extremes? One might ask. Well, when it was discovered centuries ago in China, majority of the populace would not have had any knowledge of alchemy or science (i.e. science was probably in its infancy), but may understand Taoism or Buddhism, but definitely understood the natural world. After all, over 99% of the population were farmers or peasants.
Ordinary people then, understand nature or religion more than science - for example, when a river burst its bank (at its peak), immense amount of energy and volume of water flooded the surrounding area and eventually the level subsided and the water got absorbed into the ground. Then after some time, found its way to become another river somewhere else and the cycle might or might not be repeated!
Taoism believed that Tai Chi came from nothingness, and suddenly two extremes appeared from nowhere and this marks the creation of life. The two extremes can be represented in many forms: e.g. positive & negative / hard & Soft / hot & cold / male & female / light & darkness / etc. From these 2 extremes 兩儀, it divides into 4 season or 4 energies 四象(春，夏、秋，冬 / 風、雷、雨、電), 5 elements (Meta,Wood,Water,Fire and Earth 金、木、水、火、土) and continue to divides infinitely - very similar to cell division. This idea was very similar to the Big Bang theory but it was there thousands of years ago in ancient China, well before the Big Bang theory was introduced!
The movements in Tai Chi are generally smooth, graceful and slow, almost copying the calmness in nature. When practice in a peaceful and tranquil surrounding, the movement makes the practitioner feels very relaxed but in a dynamic way, relieved of all the stress and for that moment, he or she is free from the outside world; especially, if it is accompanied with songs of birds or soothing music. In terms of martial arts, if you change the rhythm of some of the moves and introduce with sudden speed or tension, then the whole form will look very different and has a martial element - very much like Chen's style 陳氏太极 for example. Some say, Tai Chi are meant to prolong longevity and enhance health but not for combat. Others would argue that the art was originated from Chinese martial arts and was being tone down to suit the masses of modern societies.
Whatever the reasons, the art is certainly beneficial to mankind: in particular its breathing techniques, intertwined with softness and hardness and the concept of circles are relevant in almost all the martial arts forms known to man. In addition, the gentle weight distribution is kinder to the joints.
The sudden change between relaxation and tension are very relevant and presence in all proficient martial arts techniques; in particular in application. A good Sifu will pass on and demonstrate this knowledge to the students otherwise the pupils may take a little while to acquire the necessary skills through self study.
Apart from the major 6 styles (i.e. families - e.g. Yang's 楊, Chen’s 陳, Wu’s 吳, Sun’s 孫, Woo’s 武, Wudang’s 武當), there are many others. Also, each family will have their weapon forms as well as the unarmed forms. The weapon can be a big brush, a sword, a spear, a fan or a round ball even!
Tai Chi Origins
The origin of Tai Chi, like all other Chinese martial arts, has several different versions of interpretation. This is inevitable due to the lack of historical records, however knowing some of them may shed some light on the subject.
In China, there is a river name ‘Yellow river’ 黄河 Huang He (the 2nd longest river in China) that flow through 9 provinces and sometimes refers to as the ‘cradle of Chinese civilization’. Its total basin area is about 721,443 square kilometres (286,659 square miles) and it was the most prosperous region in early Chinese history. It flow through mountainous regions, forest, river basins and carries a lot of earth or mud in its travel. As a result the water is of a muddy nature. There is another river in Shan Dong province 山東省、洛河 called ‘Lok he’ which carries crystal clear water from the mountain top down to the river estuaries.
The place (in He Nan province, Wang’s city 河南省、 溫縣) where these two rivers meets, a huge whirl pool was formed, one side circulating with the muddy water while the other side with clear water, perpetuating in an everlasting circular motion. This natural phenomenon was observed by a scholar ‘Fu Yee’伏義 (who later created the ‘book of change’ millennium ago創易經), which later developed the theory of Tai Chi 太極.
In ancient times, people believed that Tai Chi came from the rivers and understandably most of our Tai Chi movements today (regardless of which families) do behave like water.
Incidentally, the place where these water meets were very near to the ancestral home of Chen’s family of Tai Chi 陳家沟 - 陳氐太極拳ｏ About 120 miles South West of He Nan province lies the ‘Shao lin ‘ temple 少林寺 where most of all other Chinese martial arts originates.
Around Sung Dynasty 宋朝 some 600 years ago, there was a monk named ‘Zhang Sam Fen’ 張三豐 who by chance came across a battle between a crane and a snake and was inspired by their movements, together with his continuing observation of the nature world: later developed an internal style of Kung Fu known as Tai Chi Kuen 太極拳.
*Strangely, 300 years later, the same observation was also repeated, but to a buddhist nun, Wu Mae 五梅 the founder of Wing Chun kung fu 詠春拳始創人!*
Later, the founder of Tai Chi (Zhang Sam Fen) 太極張三豐 converted to Daoism and spent most of his time in the pursuit of longevity and strong health; at the same time formed the ‘Wu dan’ school 武當派.
For example, today, Shao lin school少林派 has a renowned status of kung fu in the land which are parallel to the academic status of Cambridge. Likewise, Wu Dan 武當派 is the equivalent to Oxford.
Zhang’s Tai Chi or Wu Dan Tai Chi 武當太極was passed down to his disciples from generation to generation and became wide spread throughout China and by the end of the centuries, the art was expressed in many different ways, though the six families of Tai Chi are the most popular to these days – Chen’s 陳氏, Yang’s 楊氏, Wu’s 吳氏, Sun’s 孫氏, Mo’s 武氏 and Wo’S 和氏. Some has modified the content to accommodate weaker students and this later became the healthy short forms of Tai Chi. For example, Yang’s eight steps form 楊氏八式.
About 300 years ago, in the late 16th Century, Mr. Chen Wang Ting陳王庭from He Nan province (i.e. near the whirl pool place, mentioned in version 1) who came from a reputable Chen’s Tai Chi family and dedicated his whole life in the culture of Tai Chi, Chinese medicine and observation of the natural world at large (i.e. natural science at its infancy). He had created 10 unarm different forms, a fighting form that consists of 108 moves, two man Tai Chi pushing hand drills, Tai Chi sabre form, Tai Chi sword form, Tai Chi staff form, Tai Chi rule form, Tai Chi spear form and took on many good students. These students later founded Yang’s, Wu’s, Sun’s , Mo’s and Wo’s 楊氏, 吳氏, 孫氏, 武氏同和氏太極拳 of present day Tai Chi.