Styles of Taijiquan 太極拳之流派
Taijiquan has been around now for over 350 years, and in that time there have been many styles of Taijiquan. By style, we refer to a specific approach to Taiji practice. While the basic principles in Taiji are shared from system to system, different systems focus on movement patterns or strategies that are unique to them. The original system of Taijiquan was developed in the Chen Village starting in the 1600s, and Chen’s Taijiquan was passed down in the Chen family as a closely guarded secret for about 150 years. In the early 1800s the Chen family taught its art to an outsider for the first time, a man named Yang Luchan (楊露禪). Yang eventually left Chen village, significantly modified what he learned, and then started teaching his system to the outside world (it was Yang who is credited with calling this martial art “Taijiquan”). After that, various different approaches continued to be developed, down to the present day.
The five main systems of Taijiquan, in their chronological order of development are: Chen Style, Yang Style, Wu 武 (Hao) Style, Wu 吳 Style, and Sun Style.
The Five Main Branches of Taijiquan
Chen Taiji 陳式太極拳
Chen Taiji is the oldest form of Taijiquan, and the one from which all others sprung. While some Taiji texts and teachers speak of Taiji’s origins with the Daoist Zhang Sanfeng, or with Mount Wudang, these are legends at best and more properly seen as Orientalist fantasies. Chen Taiji is characterized by an extensive curriculum of empty hand and weapons forms, complemented with Silk Reeling, Push Hands, body strengthening exercises, and other adjunct practices. Another special characteristic of Chen Style is that all forms are a mix of slow and fast movements, with occasional explosive and very powerful moves. Since the word Taiji means Yin and Yang, it is important that there is a mix of Yin and Yang (e.g., fast-slow, gentle-powerful, etc…) in all Taiji forms. Chen Taiji is generally thought to be more physically challenging than most other Taiji systems, and continues to focus on the self-defense applications of the forms (by practicing Push Hands, grappling, joint-lock techniques and others).
Chen Style Hunyuan Taiji 陳式混元太極拳 is a type of Chen Style Taiji that was created by Feng Zhiqiang in the 20th century. Feng was one of the most senior and most talented disciples of Chen Fa Ke, the first Chen family master to teach widely to the general public.
Yang Taiji 楊式太極拳
Yang Style Taiji is without question the most popular form of Taiji the world around. Yang Style started with Yang Lu Chan 楊露禪 (1799-1892), a talented martial artist who lived in the Chen Village. While there he managed to convince Chen Changxing to break with tradition and teach him the Chen family martial arts today known as Chen style Taiji. Yang eventually left the Chen Village and became a martial arts teacher to the royal guards for the Imperial Family. Yang Lu Chan’s grandson, Yang Cheng Fu, was perhaps the most influential Taiji teachers of all time. He was primarily responsible for making the movements of the first form all slow, removing most of the fast and explosive movements. Cheng Fu also simplified the movements of the form making more appropriate for practice as a health preservation exercise. It is Cheng Fu’s system that most of us practice today as Yang Style Taiji.
As Taiji became more popular in China, it eventually spread west. Cheng Man Ch’ing (Zheng Manqing) was a Yang style practitioner and student of Yang Cheng Fu. In 1964 Cheng moved to the United States and started teaching Taiji on Canal Street in Manhattan. He eventually was one of the earliest and most influential teachers in the United States, teaching a simplified short-form version of Yang Taiji.
Wu (Hao) Taiji 武(郝)式太極拳
There are two Wu style Taiji systems, although the names are different in Chinese. This Wu Style was developed by Wu Yuxiang (1812–1880), a friend of Yang Lu Chan. In addition to learning Yang style, Wu also went on to study Chen style Taiji. His system is characterized by the use of small circles and a small (high) frame. While Wu-Hao style is the third of the five traditional systems of Taiji, it is the least widely practiced in terms of numbers of students.
Wu Taiji 吳式太極拳
Wu Quanyou (1834–1902) was a military officer cadet of Manchu ancestry in the Yellow Banner camp in the Forbidden City, Beijing and also a hereditary officer of the Imperial Guards Brigade. While in the military he was a student of Yang Lu Chan and also Lu Chan’s oldest son, Yang Ban Hou. Wu Style Taiji was developed by Wu Jianquan (1870–1942), Wu Quanyou’s son. Wu eventually modified the Yang style that he learned, also eliminating most of the fast and explosive movements. Today Wu style postures, in addition to being all performed slowly (in the first form of the system), are all done in a fairly high standing position. Wu style is second in popularity, right behind Yang style.
Sun Taiji 孫式太極拳
The fifth of the traditional Taiji systems was created by Sun Lutang (1860-1933), perhaps the most influential martial artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sun originally studied and master the internal martial art Xing Yi Quan. Sun was also particularly interested in the intersection between martial arts, Daoism, Qigong, and meditation. The importance of martial arts as a tool of self-development was also championed by Sun. After his initial exposure to Xing Yi Quan he also studied and mastered the other internal martial arts Ba Gua Zhang. It wasn’t until the age of 52 that Sun finally learned Taiji, thereby becoming a master of all three of China’s great internal martial arts. The Taiji that Sun studied was that of the Wu-Hao style (Sun studied with Hao Weizhen).
Sun style Taiji is different from the others in that it has more of a dynamic method of stepping, where the rear foot follows behind the first when stepping forwards. Sun style Taiji maintains more elements of Xing Yi and Ba Gua then the other Taiji systems. Sun style though is similar to Yang, Wu-Hao and Wu in that it eliminates most of the faster and explosive movements in the forms that were original to and still practiced by Chen stylists.
Other Taijiquan Styles and Variations
There are a number of other variations of Taijiquan styles, both traditional and modern. Here are a few.
Zhao Bao Taiji 趙堡太極拳
Zhao Bao Taiji is a modern system that is similar to and most likely based on Chen Style.
Wu Dang Taiji 武當太極拳
Wu Dang Taiji is another modern form of Taijiquan. Wu Dang is one of China’s great sacred Daoist mountains, although while this system is named after it, Mount Wu Dang and the temples there have no historical connection to Taiji practice at all. This system was created by Zheng Tianxiong, a Hong Kong native, in the middle of the 20th century. Zheng’s uncle was a practitioner of Wu (吳) style Taiji.
Dong Taiji 董式太極拳
Dong Style Taiji was developed by Dong Yingjie (1898 – 1961), a senior student of Yang Cheng Fu. It is similar in style to Yang Taiji.
Modern Standardized Taiji
As part of the Wushu (martial arts as a sport) movement in modern China, several forms of Taijiquan were created for competition purposes. Usually these forms are made up of elements from more than one of the traditional 5 systems, with a heavy emphasis on Yang Style. At advanced levels practitioners may include very physically demanding postures, or even gymnastic-like jumps. Modern Wushu based Taiji forms are beautiful, although they are usually taught without Qigong/Neigong, push-hands, or other adjunctive practices. The video here is Dr. McCann’s son performing standardized competition Taiji Straight Sword form at a tournament.