“My dad is bigger than your dad”
This is the classic banter of school kids in the playground, and unfortunately it’s pretty much the same banter your get from a lot of Tai Chi people..”My style is better than your style”
You’ll be happy to know, that is not what this post is about, it’s not about pitting the styles against each other, it’s simply about making the navigation of the Tai Chi world a little bit easier for you.
Before we start here is something to consider…
Before we jump into the different styles, it’s important to know that there are common themes that bind different Tai Chi Chuan styles together, certain characteristics that must be met for a style to be called “Tai Chi Chuan”. Some of the important ones are listed here:
All styles of Tai Chi Chuan should:
- deliver health
- develop combative skills
- aid personal development
- include partner work
- include weapons training
- follow the Tai Chi classics (texts written centuries ago by established masters)
Bear in mind that some styles stress benefits in different measures, some styles are patently more effective at aiding certain health issues than others and some are more obviously martial.
Generally all styles are underpinned by Taoist philosophy, though you need not be a Taoist to train the art.
…and with that let’s started with the big 5
Founder: Chen Wan Ting (1580–1660)
Contrasting stories abound on the subject of the creation of Chen style here are the two most commonly told stories.
Story number one has a Master from Wudang Mountain (famous Taoist site held as the birthplace of Tai Chi Chuan) named Jiang Fa passing through the Chen village in Henan province and seeing the villagers training martial arts. An altercation came about between Jiang and villagers and the result was Jiang Fa taught a Chen family martial arts master Tai Chi Chuan which they then incorporated into their Chen village martial arts, later giving rise to Chen style Tai Chi Chuan. This may have happened around the 18th Century.
Story number two tells of Chen Wan Ting, an avid martial artist in Chen village, fusing his family martial art, that may have looked something like Shaolin Kung Fu given the close proximity to the Shaolin Temple, with Taoist concepts like Ying Yang and with internal training Chi cultivation methods. After much research he produced Tai Chi Chuan and it’s been handed down to generations in the Chen village ever since. This may have happened around the 17th century
Generally, Chen style is the most overtly martial looking version of Tai Chi Chuan, mixing slow and explosive movements, which include jumps, stamps, punches and kicks. The stances tend to be long and deep.
Chen Changxing- 1771–1853- Teacher of the infamous “Yang Luchan” a.k.a. Yang the Invincible
Chen Fa-k’e -1887–1957- Left the Chen village for Beijing, took on challengers, and spread the Chen style
Chen Xiaowang- 1945 – present- The current flag bearer of the Chen family and 19th generation lineage holder.
Founder: Yang Lu-chan (1799–1872)
Yang Lu-chan learned Tai Chi Chi Chuan the Chen village when he was relatively young. This was strange because he was not a family member and the art was kept very secretive by the Chen family. Legend has it that Yang was there working as a servant and spied the clan training secretly at night, he’d then train what he’d witnessed by himself. Some way or another Chen Changxing discovered Yang’s secret training hobby instead of being angry he was very impressed with Yang’s progress and took him on as a protege. After many year’s training Yang was in rude form and took off around China and finally Beijing whilst challenging all comers to fights and never losing.
Because of his success in fighting he acquired the name “Yang the invincible” and was asked teach the imperial guards in Beijing, thus becoming a highly influential martial arts teacher. Later he even taught members of the royal court, because these aristocrats were more interested in health he altered teachings to make them more accessible editing out explosive and challenging movements. This softer more accessible form then became very popular in the public and was promoted by his sons and grandsons.
Yang style is the most widely practised today and generally, the movements of Yang style are long, slow and flowing, with medium depth of stances. However, within the Yang style there are also small, medium and large frames (referring to stance size), that have high stances, and fast forms which include fast and explosive movements.
Yang ChengFu- 1883–1936- Grandson of Yang Luchan, he is one of the main teachers responsible for bringing Tai Chi Chuan to the public by teaching openly and also editing difficult moves form the form.
Yang Shao Huo-1883-1936- was Yang Chengfu’s older brother he had a very stern nature and developed his own style that had high and low stances and was peppered with sudden explosive movements.
Yang Jun- 1968-present day- Yang Jun is the current 5th lineage holder of the Yang family and teaches in Seattle.
Founder Wu Chuanyou -1834–1902- and Wu Chien-chuan -1870–1942-
Wu Chuanyou was an officer in the Qing dynasty military in the forbidden city and a top student of Yang Luchan. He later also learnt from Yang Banhou, Yang Luchan’s son. He became highly skilled in his own right an developed his own style characterised by short, small movements and this style was later popularised by his son Wu Chien-chuan. Wu Chien-chuan moved from Beijing to establish a school in Shang-hai and later Hong-Kong, this and his family’s later work lead to Wu-Style being the second most practised in the world today.
Generally, Wu-style has short, small circular movements, is performed slowly and typically uses higher stances. However, it does contain some low stances and also a fast form done at fighting speed.
Wu Chien-chuan -1870–1942- spread the art far and wide and was a respected martial artist ho fought duels
Wu Gongyi -1898–1970- A member of the Wu family who spread Wu Style in Hong Kong and took part in a controversial charity fight in 1953
Wu Kuang-yu (Eddie Wu) 1946-present day- Is the current gate keeper of Wu-Style Tai Chi Chuan
Founder Wu Yu-hsiang -1813–1880
Is the rarest of the big 5 and has the least amount of practitioners. Wu Yu-hisang, the creator of Wu Hao Style, was a wealthy scholar who became a student of Yang Luchan as well as a student Chen Ching-ping an influential teacher from the Chen family. He later developed his own style and also wrote texts on Tai Chi Chuan. It appears he did not teach a lot of students and the style remained fairly unknown until Hao Wei-Zheng taught the style to Li Shen-Duan and Sun Lu Tang. Sun Lu Tang would go on to found his own style.
Generally smooth, slow movements with high stances and small circles.
Wu Yu-hsiang -1813–1880 The creator of the style and much respected scholar
Li Yi-Yu 1832–1892 Nephew of Wu Yu-hisang he developed he wrote several important text on Tai Chi Chuan
Gao Lian-cheng -present day- Is a fourth generation in the lineage of Wu Hao style and appears to be adept in the weapons training and push hands of the style
Founder, Sun Lu Tang 1860-1933
Sun Lu Tang was a skilled in all three of the internal martial arts namely Hsing-yi Chuan, Pakua Chang and Tai Chi Chuan. Using his expertise in all three arts he created Sun style Tai Chi Chuan. A skilled scholar he also published 5 martial arts texts later on in life. In 1914 he was invited to join a group of other highly regarded Tai Chi Chuan masters to teach at the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute where he taught until 1928. This period saw the crystallisation of the major Yang, Wu and Sun styles .
Sun style is characterised by high stances, small movements and follow up steps reminiscent of the Hsing-yi and Wu Hao styles Sun Lu Tang trained in. It’s a very accessible style because of the absence of demanding stances and movements.
Su Lu tang -1860-1933- Was highly respected as a martial artist and there are many entertaining stories about his exploits and challenge fights
Sun Cunzhou -1893-1963- Was Sun Lu Tang’s second son, and was said to be of keen intelligence, it’s also said he attained a high skill in his father’s arts and was successful in challenge fights.
Sun Jianyun -1913-2003- Sun Lu Tang’s daughter was a prominent teacher and maintained a very high quality of movement into old age.
The legendary Taoist, Zhang San Feng, is regarded as the creator of Tai Chi Chuan and he resided on Wudang mountain sometime in the 12th century. He is credited with combining relatively hard Shaolin Kung Fu with soft Taoist Chi Kung to create a new internal martial art that would go on to be the Tai Chi Chuan we know today. His art is purported to have been passed on to Taoists at Wudang and today you will find ascetics training this style at the mountain.
Generally this is mixes high and low stances, with large circles with a slow and even pace.
Note- There is school from Hong Kong that uses the name “Wudang Tai Chi Chuan” as well as “Practical Tai Chi Chuan” you’ll see them mentioned below.
It’s thought that a major influence on this style was Jiang Fa, who you may remember was possibly an influence in the Chen style too. This wouldn’t be surprising as the Chen village and Zhaoboa villages are in close proximity to one another. The style also bears some resemblance to the Chen style and this is probably because of the influence of Chen Ching-ping who married a lady from the village and learned the Zhao Bao style and probably added his Chen style flavour.
Practical Style (Wudang Style)
Cheng Tinhung was a prolific master based in Hong Kong who had two primary teachers, one was his uncle who trained in Wu (Chien Chuan) style and another named Qi Minxuan. Qi Minxuan’s father had trained under Wu Chuanyou the founder of the Wu style. Chen Tinhung earned the nickname “The Tai Chi Bodyguard” for his performance in full contact contests and challenges fights. When asked about his style he often said that his art was born of Wudang mountain and so named it Wudang Tai Chi Chuan. Observers often described it as highly practical, and so it seems “Practical Tai Chi Chuan” was also an apt name.
Chen Pan Ling Style
Chen Pan Ling was a respected martial arts historian who started his training in Shaolin Kung Fu. While studying in Beijing he trained in Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing-yi and Bagua. Later, in 1949, he moved to Taiwan and was given the position Chairman of the Board for the China Guoshu Advanced Learning. He created a combination Tai Chi Chuan set that included characteristic of all three internal martial arts and that became popular with many practitioners on Taiwan at the time.
Chen Man Ching Style
Professor Chen Man Ching was a prolific teacher. Born in China he became a student of Yang Chengu, and at age 32 taught Tai Chi Chuan at the Central Military Academy where he developed a 37 movement abbreviated form. He later moved to Taiwan as Chaing Kai Shek’s personal physician, he continued his teaching in Taiwan founding a school there. Later in 1964 he moved to New York with his family and set up another school attracting a large number of students. Many people credit him with being instrumental in brining Tai Chi Chuan to the West.
Feng Zhi Qiang was a famous master based in Beijing who past in 2012. He trained with Hu Yao Zhen a famous Hsing-yi master and Chen Fake a famous Chen style master. Through diligent training he became formidable, well known for his significant power. He later combined his knowledge from both teachers to create the Hunyuan system, which looks similar to Chen style but with a distantly different flavour. This style has grown in popularity in recent years.
I hope this helps to inform you on the topic of Tai Chi Chuan, you can rest assured that you can get well and truly lost down the rabbit hole when it comes to the amount of esoteric Tai Chi styles they are, there seems to be new styles appearing quite regularly and guess that’s normal with an art that just keeps growing.
All the best