Tai Chi is an abridged name of taiji quan 太極拳.Taiji translates literally as “the great polarities of yin and yang,” while quan means “boxing” and “balancing.” In this light, taiji quan can be interpreted as the “supreme boxing” or “supreme balancing.” The origins of taiji quan and its development were much more complex than that of Qi Gong. Begun as a local humble martial arts practice in Northern China, taiji quan now become a gift to the entire world. Hundreds of thousands of Westerners practice taiji quan on a daily basis for physical and mental health. Douglas Wile remarks, the leading taiji quan scholar in the West, “touching the lives of more Westerners, and perhaps more deeply, than books, films, museums, or college courses, t’ai-chi ch’uan is often the entrée to Chinese philosophy, medicine, meditation, even language.” (Wile, xv)

Taiji quan cannot be captured by definitions. Like religion or art, it is a complex social-organism consisting of numerable sects, cults and philosophical systems, and evolving construction and interpretation through practices. If traced the evolution of taiji quan at the level of general philosophical background and semi-historical figures, for instance, the theory promoted by the Yang Family 揚氏 and many others, then the transmission of taiji quan often begins with the alchemist Zhang Sanfeng 張三丰 who lived through the end of Song dynasty (960-1279), Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a time span of more than four centuries. Following this instigation, Zhang Sanfeng’s transmission was passed on through Wang Zongyue 王宗嶽, Chen Zhoutong 陳州同, Zhang Songxi 張松溪, and Jiang Fa 將發. These legendary figures were the root and trunk, the lineage branches have been grafted on in places like Mt. Wudang 武當山, Chen Village 陳家溝, Zhaobao Town 趙堡鎮, and Yongnian County 永年縣.

However, the historical, the theoretical, and the mythological approaches only can supplement each other to some degree, modern people and the intellectual historians, Wile urges, “will want names, places, and dates and will insist on evidence of principles and practice coming together.” (Wile, xvii) A notorious difficulty encountered in the Chinese scholarly discourse in Western languages is the fact that the classic Chinese and English (or any other indo-European languages) have no common historical origins, and thus the conceptual schemes are greatly distant behind the linguistic facades. Back in the early 1700s, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz sought the project for a universal script, and reflected: “Chinese characters are perhaps more philosophical and seem to be built upon more intellectual considerations,” while Nicolas Fréret determined that “Chinese script is indeed not a philosophical language which leaves nothing to be desired.” Jacques Derrida, one of the top drawers of postmodern human sciences concludes: “The concept of Chinese writing thus functioned as a sort of European hallucination. This implied nothing fortuitous: this functioning obeyed a rigorous necessity. And the hallucination translated less an ignorance than a misunderstanding.” (Derrida, 80)

Next to this “European hallucination” of Chinese language is the intricate rigidity of Confucian historiography. Pei-yi Wu, reputed as the Chinese Foucault, remarks that it was almost impossible for religious or lay writers to escape from the rigid canons of Chinese historiography. (Wu, 72) Since the same classical language was used by religious or lay historiographers with the same consequences, the taiji quan historiography, scarce as it was, never escaped from the rigid canons of Chinese historiography. In the taiji quan discourses scholars are even trapped more deeply. Paralleled with the “European hallucination” of Chinese and the “rigidity of Chinese historiography” is the scarcity of reliable documentary evidence—primarily writings of masters and secondarily biographies and histories—at tracing the origins of taiji quan, and the systematic theory of taiji quan.

The historiography of taiji quan has been a battleground in the Chinese culture essentially between two polemic camps since the 1930s: the foremost modern taiji quan historian Tang Hao 唐豪 (1897-1959) and his Chen family-centered camp credit Chen Wangting 陳王庭 with creating taiji quan based on the Chen family lineage, which has generated somewhat a spiky sense of cultural chauvinism to the non-Chinese, and an imperious sense of Chen patriarchal monopoly of taiji quan to the Chinese; while the Zhang Sanfeng-centered camp, including the Yangs 揚, Wu 武 (Hao 郝)s, Wus 吳, Suns 孫, Zhaobao 趙堡 (He 和), Wudang 武當, and the others, avow Huang Zongxi’s 黃宗羲 (1610-1695) “The Internal School began with Zhang Sanfeng” and Li Yiyu’s 李亦畬 (1832-1892) “Taiji quan began with Zhang Sanfeng of Song dynasty,” and take comfort in what Wile calls “as parochial as aggrandizing one’s own lineage or as patriotic as exalting the whole of Chinese culture.” (Wile, xvii)


Derrida, Jacques. 1997. Of Grammatology. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wile, Douglas. 1996. Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty Albany: State University of NewYork.

Wu, Pei-yi. 1990. The Confucian’s Progress: Autobiographical Writings in Traditional China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

All material copyright
© YeYoung Culture Studies