Part 4: The Development Of Yang Style Taijiquan

Taijiquan first became a noted martial art through the prowess and teachings of the founder of the Yang style of Taijiquan, Yang Lu Chan. It was largely through the efforts of the first 3 generations of the Yang family that Taijiquan has such a large following in the world today. The Yang lineage also resulted in three of the five most important schools of Taijiquan today. To them the Taiji communities of today owes a great debt.

Yang Lu Chan, the founder of the Yang style of Taijiquan learnt his art from Chen Chang Xin, a martial arts master from the Chen Village in Wen County, Henan. Chen Chang Xin was versed in his family martial art Pao Chui (Cannon Pounding) and was also a student of Jiang Fa whose master was Wang Tsung Yueh. From this lineage, the art was traced back to the Internal Boxing founded by Chang San Feng, a Taoist residing on Wu Dang Mountain, the founder of Wu Dang martial arts, second in popularity only to the Shaolin school.2

Yang Lu Chan's Teacher Chen Chang Xin

From noted Taiji master and historian Wu Tu Nan's interview with Chen Xin, a noted Chen family martial artist and historian3. We learn that Chen Chang Xin was teaching his students when Jiang Fa was passing through the village, returning from a visit from his mother in Henan and on his way back to his Tofu store in Shanxi. He happened upon Chen Chang Xin and when he saw how he practiced, he could not help but laugh. Having revealed his presence, he hurried away. Chen Chang Xin took offence at the laughter and persued him, grabbing Jiang's shoulder from behind. Jiang simply turned around and Chen was thrown to the ground. Realising that he had met a superior martial artist, Chen asked Jiang to accept him as a student. Jiang specified that he would return after three years to teach Chen and he did so.

Because Chen Chang Xin had studied under Jiang Fa, the seniors of the Chen villiage forebade Chen Chang Xin to teach the family art of Pao Chui which they had been famous for several generations, gaining the title `Pao Chui Chen Family'. This may very well be the reason why Chen Chang Xin held his classes at night in his back court yard.

So it would seem that Chen Chang Xin's martial art would have been part Pao Chui and part Wu Dang Internal Boxing which would lend credence to the common belief first voiced by noted Taiji historian Hsu Chen that the Taijiquan we know today was Chen family Pao Chui softened by input from Jiang Fa4. From early Chen martial arts manuals we can see such a influence. The earlier Wen Xiu Tang Ben martial arts manual does not mention any form called '13 postures' or `Taijiquan'. The later Liang Yi Tang Ben is the first to mention the art but calls it in addition to '13 postures' also '13 sections'.

How Yang Lu Chan Learnt The Art

There have been many variations of the storey of how Yang Lu Chan learnt his art from Chen Chang Xin. All are variations of the simple fact that Yang Lu Chan journeyed from Yung Nien southwards to the Chen villiage to eventually study with Chen Chang Xin. The most commonly accepted version is also one that is probably the most credible5.

We know that Yang Lu Chan was born poor, a son of a farmer. He loved martial arts and had studied Shaolin Hung Quan6 with a local boxer, building up a good martial arts foundation. One day as he was passing by the Tai He Tang owned by Chen De Hu, a member of the Chen family of the Chen family in Henan, he witnessed an encounter between a shop assistant (who was a member of the Chen family also) and an unruly customer. The customer attacked the shop assistant who dispatched him with ease, causing him to be knocked out the door of the shop. Yang Lu Chan had never seen such an effortless repost before and enquired after Chen De Hu, seeking instruction in this superior martial art.

Chen De Hu disavowed any great knowledge but offered to recommend him to Chen Chang Xin, a great martial arts master in the Chen village. As the Chen family were rather protective about their martial arts, only family members were taught at that time. Chen De Hu wrote a letter recommending Yang Lu Chan as a servant to work for the family so that Yang could learn their martial arts.

Yang travelled there and worked as a servant, earning his room and board and studied martial arts with Chen Chang Xin. As he was an outsider, Yang was not allowed to learn the Chen martial arts. As a servant he was instructed not to go into the back court yard for whatever reason. Yang felt that this was strange but thought nothing of it. One hot and humid night, Yang could not sleep. He got up and went for a walk to relieve the heat. As he walked about the house, he heard strange noises coming from the back court yard. Not able to go into the court yard, he went round the wall surrounding it and found a small hole in the wall, large enough for him to peer through and see what was happening.

He saw Chen Chang Xin instructing a group of students on martial arts and breathing techniques. Excited, Yang watched attentively and then proceeded to practice what he saw alone when he had the spare time. This went on for some time. As a servant Yang often mingled with the members of the Chen family and was treated as a part of the household. One day, some of Chen Chang Xin's students were practicing and they made some mistakes, Yang corrected them without knowing that Chen was nearby watching. Chen was surprised that Yang knew his art and asked him to explain how he learnt it. Being honest, Yang told Chen how he had come to learn the art. Chen then asked Yang to demonstrate all that he had learnt. After Yang's demonstration, he sighed that Yang, who did not receive formal instruction but learnt by watching, had learnt more than his students and agreed to accept Yang as a student.

After several years, Yang returned home where upon several local boxers wanted to test his skill since he had spent so much time studying at the Chen villiage. To Yang's disappointment, he was defeated. Not disheartened, he returned for a second time to the Chen villiage to seek instruction. Chen Chang Xin, seeing Yang's dedication, taught him more of the art. After several more years, Yang again returned to Yung Nien, again the local boxers wanted to test his skill. This time, though he was not defeated, he did not win easily either. Feeling that there was still room for improvement and that his skills still lacked perfection, Yang journeyed for the third time to the Chen villiage.

Chen Chang Xin was much impressed with Yang's perserverance and resolved to hold nothing back and teach Yang the whole art. But before doing so, he wanted to test Yang one more time. When Yang came to seek instruction, Chen appeared to be asleep, Yang sat waiting patiently till late in the day when Chen appeared to awake, Chen asked him to return on the morrow, saying that he was too tired to teach him. When Yang arrived the next day, Chen again appeared to be sleeping and again the same thing happened. This went on for several days, on the last day, Chen still appeared to be sleeping but this time his head lolled uncomfortably to one side. Yang used both hands to support his teacher's head so that he could sleep comfortably, and since Chen apparently slept the whole day, Yang held that tiring position until Chen awoke, Chen again asked Yang to return on the morrow. The next day when Yang arrived at the specified time, a wide awake Chen Chang Xin greeted him and begain teaching him the whole art. After 3 years, Chen told Yang that he had taught him all there was to learn and that he could return to his home town and that he no longer had any opponents who could defeat him.

Yang returned to Yung Nien where he taught martial arts for a living. So great was his skill that he was never defeated. His art was so soft and yielding that people called it `mien quan' (cotton boxing) or `hua quan' (neutralising boxing). In all his matches, he never hurt anyone. He also travelled widely, testing his skills and making friends with fellow boxers.

Years later, when Yang was in his middle age, he was recommended to teach in the Imperial Court by one of his students, Wu Yu Xiang (who later founded the Wu Yu Xiang form of Taiji Quan). In the Imperial Court he was tested many times but never defeated, earning the prestigeous title `Yang the Invincible'. He was the martial arts instructor for the Shen Ji Battalion and also taught in Royal Households. So sought after was he that he was also called `Ba Yeh' (Eight Lords) because eight princes studied under him.

Yang Lu Chan had three sons, the oldest died early. Yang Ban Hou and Yang Jian Hou both studied under their illustrous father who was a harsh taskmaster. So severe was the training that Yang Ban Hou attempted suicide and Yang Jian Hou ran away several times and attempted to become a monk. Yang Ban Hou was an exceptional martial artist, second in skill only to his father. He also earned the title `Yang the Invincible' for his great skill. Yang Jian Hou was not as gifted as his brother and did not attain as great a level of skill initially but later, through hard work, attained the highest levels of Taiji skill, blending hard and soft to a very high degree. Yang Lu Chan and his two sons all taught in the Imperial Court, their form was identical. Later on, there would be some changes in the form and these will be discussed later.

Taijiquan Gets Its Name

When Yang Lu Chan first taught the art in Yung Nien, his art was referred to as 'Mien Quan' or (Cotton Fist) or 'Hua Quan' (Neutralising Fist), it was not yet called Taijiquan. Whilst teaching at the Imperial Court, Yang met many challenges, some friendly some not. But he invariably won and in so convincingly using his soft techniques that he gained a great reputation.

Many who frequented the imperial households would come to view his matches. At one such gatherings at which Yang had won against several reputable opponents. The scholar Ong Tong He was present and was so impressed by the way Yang moved and executed his techniques and felt that his movements and techniques expressed the physical manifestation of the principles of Taiji (the philosophy) wrote for him a matching verse:

'Hands Holding Taiji shakes the whole world,
a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heros.'

Thereafter, his art was referred to as Taijiquan and the styles that sprang from his teaching and by association with him was called Taijiquan.

Combat Or Health

Many have said that Yang Lu Chan softened the form to suit the unfit members of the imperial court, making the art easier and less effective, focusing on health aspects because guns were making martial arts obsolete. There is no proof beyond hearsay for this conjecture. Before Yang Lu Chan entered the imperial court, his boxing was already so soft and neutralising that it attained the name `mien quan' and we have record of a bout where Yang's skill was questioned because his form was so soft, a bout which he won7.

Being in the Imperial Court as a martial arts instructor, it was imperative to turn out students of high attainment. It was literally a matter of life and death since with withholding anything from the Royal family was considered treason. Rather than causing the Yang art to be diluted, it probably added alot more in terms of content due to the opportunity to meet and compare skills with other highly skilled martial artist in the imperial court at that time8.

The Old Yang Form

This is the form that was taught by Yang Lu Chan when he began teaching in Yung Nien. It is also the form taught by Yang Ban Hou and Yang Jian Hou initially. This form still exists today, as do several other older sets which were subsequently dropped because they added nothing to the content of the art, their essences having been incorporated into the large frame. These other sets are the Yang 13 Pao Chui set and the Lift Legs form. Though the latter could have come down to us as the Taiji Long Boxing Form.

Yang Lu Chan and his sons taught the small frame in the Imperial Court and taught the large frame outside it. The Small Frame is not an inferior set but a variation of the large frame to allow combat and practice to be performed in the long sleeved, long skirted imperial robes worn by members of the imperial court. This small frame comes down to us today primarily from Yang Ban Hou's student Quan Yu9 and his son Wu Jian Quan.

The Old Yang Form was also called the `Six Routines' and the '13 Postures'. Six Routines because the long form was broken into six seperate routines and practiced as such until the skill attainment and endurance of the students reached a point that they could link all six together into one long routine and practice it as a whole. The Old Yang Form differs only on details with the standardised Yang Form of Yang Cheng Fu. One needs to note that Yang Cheng Fu himself did not standardise the form. Its just that he spread the form so widely that his method of doing the form became the accepted standard.

The Old Yang Form retains the 'strength explosions' (Fa-Jing) and jumping kicks (one only). We know that the sequence of the Old Yang Form and the standardised Yang Form is almost the same. From the old manual of Wu Yu Xiang also records a very similar sequence.

It is interesting to note that in this old manual the name `Grasp Sparrow's Tail' is used. This points to the fact that the name `Grasp Sparrow's Tail' was in use during the early days when Yang Lu Chan first started teaching in Yung Nien. In a later compilation by Li I Yu, the name of the posture is changed to `Lazily Arranging Clothes' which would indicate a post-Chen Qing Ping date (Wu Yu Xiang travelled to seek out Chen Chang Xin but stayed instead in Zhao Bao Villiage to learn from Chen Ching Ping).

We also note that in the initial handwritten manual (1867) by Li I Yu, in his `Brief Introduction To Taijiquan' he writes that the founder of Taijiquan was Chang San Feng. But in a later handwritten manual (1881), he amends his Introduction to say that the founder is unknown. This could also reflect a confusion of sources in after the death of Wu Yu Xiang and Yang Lu Chan.

The Later Yang Form

At a later period of time, both Yang Ban Hou and Yang Jian Hou changed their forms slightly and in the same way. We don't know if the initiator of this slight modification is Yang Lu Chan, though its certainly possible. Some of the changes was the way the `Grasp Sparrow's Tail' postures were done and the removal of `Turn Body Double Lift Legs' and replacing it with `Deflect Downwards, Parry And Punch' and `Right Kick With Heel'10.

Versions of this form come down to us from Wu Meng Xia who is of the Yang Pan Hou lineage and Wang Yung Quan who is of the Yang Jian Hou lineage. Yang Cheng Fu himself taught this form which retains the strength explosions (Fa-Chin) before he went to Shanghai to teach in public classes.

Yang Cheng Fu's Later Form

Yang Cheng Fu was invited in 1925 by his student Chen Wei Ming to teach in Shanghai. It was there that Yang Cheng Fu began to teach public classes, prior to that it he had always taught in private classes only.

When Yang Cheng Fu began to teach in public classes he taught them from the basics. He removed the strength explosions (Fa-Chin) and replaced them with using qi to extend the limb instead. This is a basic practice which teaches one to bring qi to power the limb, only after this has been achieved can strength explosions (Fa-Chin) be done properly. He also smoothed out the form to emphasize flow, rootedness and relaxation which is primary to the art. Only after the flow, rootedness and relaxation are mastered can changes in speed take place without losing these qualities. These speed changes are evident in Yang Chen Fu's Taiji Long Boxing as well as Yang Shao Hou's small frame.

Other than a few minor variations, his form remained much the same as the Later Yang Form. Yang Cheng Fu travelled extensively throughout China promoting his art. Taijiquan was already well known at that time as a combat art with great curative powers11. Its mode of practice enabled both old and infirmed to take up the art to better their health. Yang Cheng Fu himself was undefeated and was a great boxer, his reputation and ability caused the art to spread far and wide and made it what it is today: the most popular form of Taijiquan in the world.

The great popularity of his form and the huge numbers of people who took it up caused it to become the standard form for Yang Taijiquan. There are those who still practiced the older forms but Yang Cheng Fu's form became the hallmark of the style. Yang Cheng Fu taught and promoted his art as a combat art. There is little evidence other than conjecture that he promoted his art solely as a health art. Both his books12 focus on the art as a combat art and his writings all dealt with the practice towards achieving a combative goal. In practicing the art as a combat art, one gained the health benefits as well, both aspects of the art being inseparable.

Yang Cheng Fu's Advanced Set: Taiji Long Boxing

In addition to the large frame, Yang Cheng Fu also taught an advanced set to be practiced after a high enough level of attainment was reached practicing the large frame. When Yang Cheng Fu began to teach public classes, he dropped this from his public syllabus because this advanced set should only be practiced after learning the large frame. This advanced set was called Taiji Long Boxing. It consisted of 59 postures and is considerably more mobile than the large frame and includes strength explosions (Fa-Chin) as well.

Many advanced combat concepts and practices are incorporated and emphasized in this form. Because its relatively short compared to the large frame, some masters have added additional postures, sometimes resulting in as many as 150 postures. This set is relatively rare today, only a relatively small number of exponents know the form and practice it. Yang Shou Chung, Yang Cheng Fu's oldest son taught this form in Hong Kong where he resided, his daughters and advanced students continue to carry on the tradition of teaching this advanced set to worthy students.

Yang Shao Hou's Small Frame Advanced Combat Set

Yang Shao Hou was also invited by Chen Wei Ming to Shanghai to teach at his Zhi Rou Association. Yang Shao Hou taught the large frame during public classes and his large frame was the same as that of his younger brother Yang Cheng Fu.

Later, he began to teach privately in the homes of students who have already learnt the large frame or Wu Chien Chuan's small frame. In these private advanced classes he would teach an advanced combat set which was later to be referred to as Yang Shao Hou's Small Frame. He began to teach and practice this set exclusively.

Yang Shao Hou was known to be very combat capable. He had been given to his uncle Yang Pan Hou as a foster son and had gained his uncle's skill and his temprament. He had also studied with his father and most probably had instruction from his grandfather Yang Lu Chan as well. His advanced Taiji skills included vital striking, bone locking, bone hitting, sinew splitting, control and blocking blood vessels and psychological attack. Those who watched him were in awe of his abilities and aspired to gain them but few could take his harsh training. It is because of this that he only had a handful of students.

His small frame form was also called the `usage frame' and according to Wu Tu Nan who studied with Yang Shao Hou, this set was created by Yang Lu Chan as a distillation of the essence of Taijiquan. It has elements of both the Old Yang Form and the Small Frame taught by Yang Lu Chan and Yang Pan Hou. Consisting of 73 postures which totals over 200 movements, the form is done very quickly, striving to do the entire set within 2-3 minutes. Even at this great speed the fundamental principles of proper alignment, rootedness, relaxation, continuity of movement, calmness and coordination are not lost. This set can only be properly learnt after mastery of the large frame and its principles.

In order to increase the endurance, strengthen the musculature further and foster proper alignment and root, Yang Shao Hou often made his students practice their postures under a kind of high table which was commonly used in the kitchen for the preparation of food.

Yang Taijiquan Today

It is from Yang Taijiquan that the majority of styles of Taijiquan have developed. Yang Taijiquan continues to be the major style of Taijiquan to be practiced in the world. Sadly, however, many have come to regard it as diluted and devoid of its original martial content. Wang Zhen Nan, a great Internal Boxing expert, once lamented that Internal Boxing was dying out because it did not look strong and some of its practitioners were infusing external techniques into it to make it appear more credible. Fortunately, Taijiquan has had great masters to show that is credible both as a martial art and as a health art.

Yang Taijiquan has not changed all that much since its foundation by Yang Lu Chan, only minor changes have been made to the way its been practiced and its main practice set. Its syllabus is still practiced and still bringing benefits to all who practice it. The Yang family still continues to promote their art vigourously and new generations of teachers are being trained to carry on this glorious tradition.

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