Read the rest of this page first before checking out Jarek Szymanski's work (his whole site is priceless) and Douglas Wile's excellent “Fighting Words”. These sources represent the most modern research I could find regarding the origins of Taijiquan.
It is important to remember your goals for learning Tai Chi. To that end, history does not matter. Did Chang San-Feng invent Tai Chi? Did it come from within the Chen family? Is it Taoist, from Wudang, or Buddhist, from Shaolin? Or is it Confucian? To a large extent, these have become meaningless questions. If you want to learn Taijiquan, it is important to do it. Yes, understanding the history can help you find a better teacher, to a point. But there is hardly a use in arguing history – unless of course your teacher asks you to do so.
With that in mind, we're free to speculate.
It becomes difficult to pin down the true history of Tai Chi mainly because there appear to be two credible stories for its founding, and within each story there appear to be several versions of what happened. What we will try to do here is present each story in a fair and equal manner, list any proofs for such a story if they are known, and then allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. However, if you're looking for my personal take on things, I have begun to side more with the Chen Village version of events – after all, everyone knows that Yang Lu-Chan learned Tai Chi from Chen Chang-Xing in the Chen Village, so there seems to be little reason to doubt their version of events. That being said, there is a big difference between what is talked about casually and real historical research. Let's do our best to understand what is just a story and what is history here.
The classic Zhang San-Feng (Chang San-Feng) origin theory states that there was a Taoist monk by the name of Zhang San-Feng, and that he created Tai Chi boxing after watching a snake and a crane fighting. Each time the snake would dart in to bite the crane, the crane would deflect with his wing, and each time the crane would peck the snake would twist his way out of it somehow.
However, it should be obvious that no one can invent a fighting art by having a dream. What's more, when one examines the art as taught by the Chens, the Yangs and other Tai Chi families it is obvious that the form is directly related to existing martial arts. For example, a great deal of research is available which shows that Shaolin Hong Quan and Chang Quan was used to formulate the original Chen routines, and that Yang Lu-Chan had introduced some moves from the Plum Flower boxing he had learned in his youth. Let's look past the surface at the Chang San-Feng legend.
According to historical documents regarding Zhang, we learn he was born in Shaowu, Nanping, Fujian during the Southern Song dynasty and lived until the mid-Ming dynasty. His given name was Tong (通) and his courtesy name was Junbao (君寶). He specialised in Confucian and Taoist studies, scholarly and literary arts. During the reign of Emperor Shizu in the Yuan dynasty, he was nominated as a candidate to join the civil service and held office as the Magistrate of Boling County (博陵縣; around present-day Dingzhou, Baoding, Hebei). While touring around the mountainous regions near present-day Baoji, Shaanxi, he saw the summits of three mountains and decided to give himself the Taoist name “Sanfengzi” (三丰子), hence he also became known as “Zhang Sanfeng”.
Writings attributed to Zhang Sanfeng include the Da Dao Lun (大道論), Xuanji Zhi Jiang (玄機直講), Xuan Tan Quanji (玄譚全集), Xuan Yao Pian (玄要篇), Wu Gen Shu Ci (無根樹詞) and others. These were compiled into a collection known as The Complete Collection of Mr Zhang Sanfeng (張三丰先生全集), which is found in Dao Zang Ji Yao (道藏輯要), a series of Taoist texts compiled by Peng Dingqiu (彭定求) in the early Qing dynasty. It also contained introductory notes on Taoist martial arts and music.
It should also be noted that there appear to be other documents which show Zhang had lived in different areas or times, but I don't have this information handy. The point here is that there are records which point at a historical person who was a scholar and a martial artist.
19th century documents preserved in the archives of the Yang and Wu Tai Chi families state Zhang Sanfeng's master was Xu Xuanping, a Tang dynasty Taoist poet and daoyin expert. Zhang Sanfeng was also an expert in the White Crane and Snake styles of Chinese martial arts, and in the use of the jian (double-edged Chinese sword). It's interesting in particular that the snake and crane arts are referenced here. If I were to speculate, I would assume the dream story is a corruption of the true story which states that Tai Chi came out of an amalgamation of existing martial arts. This therefore begins to concurr with the Chen Village theory.
The Chen Village origin theory states that Chen Wang-Ting had improved upon existing martial arts of the day, and created an early form of Tai Chi. We know that certain shaolin forms such as red fist boxing and changquan were practiced in Chen Village, to the extent that the forms are basically the same as what was taught in Shaolin (but modified to fit the Tai Chi ideals).
With respect to the Chen Village Origin theory, also see the entry on Li Family Origin Theory.
The Tongbeiquan origin theory is, de facto, the Chen Village Origin theory, only pinpointing how and when it came to Chen village is a bit problematic. See: Tongbei and Xingyi and Tongbei Origin Theory. You will also want to read the article Taizu Changquan Origin Theory.
One story states that Jiang Fa and Chen Wang-Ting were co-students under Zhang San-Feng at a taoist temple. And then that Wang Zong-Yue was Jiang Fa's student. This seems unlikely to be true 'as stated', however there may be something to this story.
So, according to historical record of the Chen Village, Wang Zong-Yue was a schoolteacher in Chen village for quite a number of years. During this time Yang Lu-Chan was working and studying in the Chen village. much of the time that Yang Lu-Chan was learning Taijiquan there.
If I were to speculate I would say it is a very convenient deflection away from the Chen family, to state that the art was passed down hundreds of years prior via a pair of mythical taoist sages. This would alleviate many of the problems which could occur for the Chen family if Yang Lu-Chan was discovered to be teaching a watered down version of his art in the Imperial Court.
However, it is also fair to say there is more to the story than a convenient deflection. At this point I defer to other sources which present more competent research. Please see Tongbei and Xingyi.
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