The story of Tai Chi is often conceived as beginning with Chang San-feng – generally regarded as a mythical monk in the tradition of the I-Ching and Taoism- perhaps living around 1368 onwards. He is credited with blending existing health exercises, fighting styles and his own observations (including natural animalistic movements) and strategic thinking into a synthesis which later grew into what we now refer to as Tai Chi. Whether or not Chang San-feng existed it is clear that these many complementary precursor elements were current in Chinese culture over a long period and almost waiting to come together – perhaps just needing the right time, place and person/s to pull all the pieces into one codification. There are many candidates and it may be that no one person is solely responsible – rather perhaps that many interacted and added to the work of their predecessors – these include Chang Sung-chi, Wang Tsung-yueh and Jiang Fa.
However the historical record is clear that in the 1600’s a retired Chinese military officer named Chen Wangting (9th generation member of the Chen family) was the focal person who put the whole package together under the umbrella label of Tai Chi Chuan. At that time the family already had a powerful martial reputation and their own successful style, derived from the legendary Chen Bu 1st generation of the family, who lived in the late 1300s and brought that style to Henan from Shanxi when the family moved there ( Shanxi province is also the traditional origin of both Bagua Zhang and Xingyi Chuan ). This original family style may also have some relation to Shaolin since the Chen village is apparently quite close to the Shaolin monastery.
Chen Wangting is credited with the creation of a number of Tai Chi Chuan forms which were then practiced by members of his family/village who went on to develop what is now known as the Laojia form. The new Tai Chi style he created was integrated by Chen Wangting from the existing family style with martial theories from the 36 postures described by General Qi Jiguang in the Chuan Ching (Boxing classics) section of his Military handbook and ideas from Jiang Fa – a skilled martial artist/prisoner/friend of Chen Wangting – into five routines of Tai Chi Chuan, plus 108 form Long Fist and Cannon Fist form. He is also credited with creating push hands drills and silk reeling as well as emphasising mental/physical relaxation, intention training and balancing slow with fast moves and many other aspects.
It seems that the work of Chen Wangting and work by others that followed, was primarily focused on Martial use but incorporated many ideas and practices from the I-Ching and Taoist thinking as well as from Traditional Chinese Medicine including health exercises from Daoyin and from Qi Gong together with much knowledge about the anatomy and vital points of the human body, and of course made use of the concept of Chi and ideas of chi flow. In a similar way Tai chi seems to have integrated Chin na – joint locks – apparently already ubiquitous in martial arts all around the world, but given new meaning in Tai Chi which provides unique opportunities for both application and for generating power in use.
This period is thought of as a time when personal and family defence were a high priority and brutality was common – members of the Chen family for example are thought to have been involved in both trading in herbs and in guarding caravans and personnel. Consequently it may be imagined that the practitioners of the time were interested in dealing with brutality as efficiently as possible – and taking Chen Wangting as an example, were already capable fighters looking for a better way of dealing with aggression. In addition it seems also likely that many of the experienced fighters would be looking to continue their abilities into older age and perhaps able to work from a perspective of experience in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Thus giving rise to the twin faces of Tai Chi and Tai Chi Chuan – health and martial application. Equally the Taoist lineage brought with it an intellectual approach to observing and thinking about the world both practically and philosophically, thus enabling a thoughtful way of approaching the development of a martial art.
This martial/health dichotomy is exemplified by the story of Yang style derived from Yang Luchan who is said to have learned Chen style covertly while living in the village in the early 1800’s – but to have been accepted as a student when he demonstrated his ability against various family members.