The Most Popular Martial Art in the World

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine: May + June 2015

Most Americans are astonished to learn that Tai Chi is a martial art.  In Western pop culture, Tai Chi is lumped together with yoga as a stress-reducing exercise that’s good for fall prevention with the elderly.  But any martial artist knows better.  In the complete name of Tai Chi Chuan (or in Mandarin Taijiquan 太極拳), the Chuan (or Quan) means “fist.”  It’s a common suffix designated for martial arts.

Clearly, Taiji has made more headway as a gentle exercise program than any other martial art.  While MMA is an international multimillion-dollar industry, it still doesn’t get coverage in newspaper sports sections.  While Judo and Taekwondo are Olympic, their combined worldwide population of practitioners hardly compares to the staggering numbers of Taiji players in China alone.  All around the world, Taiji is propounded in countless senior centers, as well as a growing number of hospitals, as both a preventative and rehabilitative therapy.  This makes the complete population of Taiji practitioners impossible to calculate accurately.  “We cannot tell how many,” says Master Yang Jun (杨军).  “I don’t know.  One time last year, they say Taiji is most popular exercise [that] people [are] using in the world.  Researching Google got the answer.   I don’t know how they did it [laughs] but probably true because in China there is a really big population.”

Master Yang is the fifth generation inheritor of Yang Family Taijiquan in the direct bloodline to the founder of Yang Style, Yang Luchan (1799–1872 杨露禅).  When most people think of Taiji, while they may not think “martial art,” they probably envision Yang style postures.  It’s the foremost style of Taiji in the world today.  This puts Master Yang in a unique position.  At present, the lineage head of Yang Taijiquan is Master Yang’s grandfather, Yang Zhenduo (杨振).  Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo is now in his late eighties.  In 2009, he named Yang Jun as the official fifth generation inheritor of the most popular martial art in the world.

Master Yang Jun has a calm and modest demeanor, just what one might expect from a Taiji master.  He has a slight lazy eye, but both eyes always seem to be smiling.  He is quite fluent in English and only defaults to Mandarin when a word is particularly obscure.   If the success of a martial art is measured by its massive number of followers, Master Yang is perched on the edge of leading the world’s most successful style.  He is hoping to apply the time-honored philosophies of his tradition to continue making it viable and relevant in the modern world.

Part of that Taiji philosophy is to avoid meeting an opposing force directly.  If the world at large fails to view Taiji as a martial art, why fight that?  Master Yang elaborates, “When people say Taijiquan is a martial art, I think it limits Taijiquan.  Taijiquan today, more than 80% of the people practice Taiji not for the martial arts.  So if you honestly think Taijiquan is a martial art, I think it’s a limitation.  Its root [was] created from martial arts, but today is more used for people’s health and exercise, and even includes the mental balance.”

The Roots of Taijiquan

“Today’s Taiji popularity is directly connected with the Yang family,” states Master Yang unequivocally.  As most Taiji followers know, Yang wasn’t the first Tai Chi style.  However, it was first to coin the name.  Master Yang explains, “Yang style Taiji first learned from Chen family.  That’s our first generation in China.  He actually went to Chenjiaguo (Chen family village 陳家溝) three times, and at that time nobody actually know that Taijiquan exists.  In that time – this is a point I [am] not really clear [on] very much because in our hometown, in the beginning, it was not really called Taijiquan.  We called [it] ‘Sticking Fist (zhanquan 黏拳)’ or ‘Cotton Fist (mianquan 绵拳).’

“Later on, Yang Luchan went to Beijing.  [He was] introduced by a friend [and] he teached in one of the emperor’s relative’s palaces, called Duanwangfu (端王府).  He teached in there and actually [was] challenged by many different kind of martial arts.  At that time, nobody really know Taijiquan existed.  The first contributions of the Yang family is Yang Luchan, in his time, made people know Taijiquan exists.

“I don’t really know who exactly made this name, but when he was in hometown that time, xianzhi (county records 县志) has no record – not Taijiquan – [just] mianquan and zhanquan.  So later on they changed.  Nobody really know who made change or when exactly changed to Taijiquan for official name.  Whatever they say today, many people are guessing.  What I’m saying is I don’t know.  There are many stories but none of those I know have been proven.”

From Martial to Health

Although Yang Taiji descended from a great fighting tradition, the style has adapted to be more health oriented.  In retrospect, it was this evolutionary change that provided Yang Taiji with the largest net reproductive success of any other martial style.  “Many people know that after Yang Luchan went to Beijing, he first served as a coach, teaching for the royal family.  And second, he was also coach for the Forbidden Guard.  He has these two kind of jobs.  So Taijiquan from old times is hard.  The way of the practice was very different from today, which I’ve never seen.  I don’t know.  This is just from my family.  They talk like that.  Not everyone from Royal Family member can do it.  Even [though the] Manchurians were horsemen, fighting the war, by that time, they [were] already in the city.  They are not like the past.  They keep modify the movements, make them so the people can do it.  The theory, the principle, they teach the same.  They never change.  The performing, the movements – actually they have many different styles; they all follow the different needs.  Or different marketing, let’s say.  That’s not right word probably.  But following what the people need, they modify.  But our ancestor, they – looking through all martial arts, they have this saying, ‘Xiang tui yong yi zhong he zai, yi shou yan nian bu lao chun (Plan to push forward using thought to finally be, profit in old age – delay years – don’t age – be like springtime  想推用意终何在,益寿延年不老春).’  So in very old times, they were looking for ‘What is martial arts?’  They say it’s helping people’s health, making them live longer, like a never-ending spring.  This is not a saying from our family.  This is from the classics.  The goal is this.  The fight is not the main reason.  Actually today, [this is] one of the reasons why Taijiquan has become popular – more than many other martial arts in China.  Some of the martial arts do have limitation – from your age, your ability.  But Taijiquan, we understand that you can have all kinds of age people come practice.

“One of the reasons Yang Luchan was teaching [the] royal family [was because] they need [to] demonstrate their spirit.  The movements gradually become larger and larger to make them feel graceful.  And this gradually become Yang family’s flavor.  The opening [of] the movements make them feel graceful.  Some styles, they intend to be smaller.”

The Yang Diaspora

Master Yang says, “The third generation is most important for the Taijiquan today.”  He points out that Yang Taiji has always been recognized by high government officials, citing the formation of the Zhongyang Guoshuguan (中央国术馆), a pivotal martial arts academy established as part of a government program to promote health amongst Chinese citizens.  “My great grandfather, Yang Chengfu (1883–1936 杨澄甫), was part of the educational department together with Sun Lutang (1860-1933 孫祿堂).  He was the head of neijia (內家) ­– internal martial art.  The difference is the first two generations, Yang Luchan and Yang Jianhou, they basically stay in Beijing.  Yang Chengfu started in Beijing, then he start moving from north to south.  And everywhere he teach, he leave a student in there and he go to next place.  This is also because at that moment, the government of China did also keep moving from the north.  That is the reason why Yang Taiji [is] so popular and more recognized.”

Another major factor contributing to the spread of Yang style was the creation of one of the first nationally standardized simplified forms, Simplified 24 Movement Taijiquan.  This is arguably the most practiced form of all.  “The 24 [is] actually based from Yang style.  They pull out every movement actually from Yang style, [and] rearrange in different sequence.  The 24 [was] created around 1950, when China [was] in revolution from the capitalists.  And China [was] seeking which kind of way to make everyone involved for the practice, improve their health.  This time they create something easy for people to learn.  That time they got feedback, which is Yang Taijiquan is most popular style.  Based on this, they create a simplified exercise.  That is where the 24 came from.

“Actually the person who [was] in charge of creating it, Li Tianji (1914–1996 李天骥), he is martial artist also.  He actually more learned from Xingyi, Bagua and Sun style Taijiquan, than Yang style.  He didn’t choose Sun style.  He chose Yang style because Yang style is more popular style.  Over the years, for sure at the beginning, a lot of traditional masters, they don’t like this kind of changing.  They have a lot of arguments between the simplified style and the traditional way of practice.  They have a lot of fights.  Now Simplified Taiji 24 is more than fifty years – close to sixty years.  Yes, original Taiji has a different way of the practice.  Simplified has the other way of the practice.  But government [has] been supporting to promote Taijiquan anyway.  The Simplified Taiji actually helped [make] more popular [with] the people who practice Taiji.  That’s even helped all Taijiquan [become] more popular.  From different point of view, actually everyone helps Taijiquan, so it doesn’t matter very much.

“Why is the 24 quite popular?  Because every college student has one item they must learn, which is 24.  You have to learn this.  You have to pass exam.  Because every major has a physical education class.   In P.E., one of the item is Taijiquan.  So that’s why 24 did a lot of good things.”

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese masters began the first wave of immigration abroad.  Many were fleeing what would be a brutal century of China’s history, escaping the communists or the Japanese to find more peaceful pastures.  “When Japanese come in, my granduncle moved from Guangxi to Hong Kong.  Dong Yinjie (1891–1960 董英杰), one of my grandfather’s senior disciples, he moved to Hong Kong also.  This is how Taijiquan became known overseas.  From Hong Kong, that’s one point.  Then a lot of disciples – Cheng Man-ch’ing (a.k.a. Zheng Manqing 1902–1975 郑曼青), you probably heard [of].  Because he was in West, more people know him.  He actually first moved to Taiwan.  Then from Taiwan came to mainland U.S.  Dong Yinjie also in the West, but I think he was in Hawaii.  Before them, probably nobody knows Taijiquan.  So because of them, then people started knowing.  They all related to Yang style.  The Yang family spread all over.”

Taiji for Life and Balance

Despite his family pride, Master Yang has a confession to make.  “Honestly, before 14 years old, I don’t really like Taijiquan.  Too slow for me.  Hard for me to stay there calm.  After 14 years old, I start to practice Push Hands.  I start to see the martial arts side so it was more interesting.”

Today, Master Yang’s interest in Taiji has grown to encompass Taiji’s eternal philosophies.  He has gone way beyond Push Hands now.  “You know, it’s still sort of the technical side, discovering what type of technique can be used.  That’s still on the physical side.  The mental side more start from my teaching.  The more I teach, the more I look for the theory – how the physical things relate with spirit, related with our life.  Sometime Taijiquan say, ‘Don’t use force against force.’  How [do] we use this kind of strategy in the real life, not just in the martial arts?  You can extend into different area.  After I start teaching, then I can see this.  Before mostly I still focusing on the small area, which is the martial arts side.

“When you talk of balance in the martial arts, the first thing to do obviously is stand there.  Don’t fall down.  But not only that, the balance in every way.  Everything I see, I always start to compare with Taijiquan principle.  For example, in Taijiquan, how you can keep your balance?  You want to be rooted.  First thing, you want root.  And second, you need to keep your lower heavy and upper light.  How you can keep your upper light?  By yourself, yes, you can do it, but if there is someone affecting you… In Taijijquan, we have this idea [of] not resisting, not directly against.  In many situations – for example, balancing a point – you want to get what you want and they want to get what they want.  Unnecessary to be against each other.  So if you can apply Taiji principles, avoid direct fight, maybe you can work together.  Even we all have different side, we are all one.

“A lot of people say, and this is what I don’t like, a lot of martial teacher always like to say, ‘that martial arts teacher is not good’.  They try to use this kind of way.  I think this is sort of habit from the past; different martial arts teachers, they always like to challenge each other.  Try to make it clear who is the best.  My point is that we all have our view.  The outside world is big enough for everyone.   People are always looking for, ‘I got your students,’ [or] something like that.  [The] best way is to go out to reach instead of focusing on the small area.  We need to help each other.  We have the same goal.  Whatever you do, it promotes martial art.  What I’m do also is promote martial arts.  We [are] basically doing the same thing.  Unnecessary to neutralize each other.  We can help each other to be bigger.  Stay in the positive side.  Look for where we are similar.  Make us united.  If we always try to look at the difference, our world is going to be smaller.

“From this kind of principle understanding, I can go back to the art.  If you only look at the details, how you deal with this technique, it’s too much – just simple techniques.  If you look at you and your opponent as a whole picture, this yin yang change unnecessary from this location what you are doing to you.  You can change from different location.  And from different side, you can find balance for this side.  How you understand from the philosophy side also helps you understand how you affect yourself.

The 5th Generation Lineage Holder

To inherit his family’s legacy, Master Yang is well aware of the burden of his responsibilities, but keeps humble about it.  “One thing I want to be clear.  I don’t really see myself as the head of everyone or whatever.  I think we are working together.  The only more responsibility [I have] is my background.  I have things a little bit different from others.  For some people, being good or not being good, they can follow their interest.  If not good, they don’t want to do anymore, fine.  But me, because I’m from the family, I have this kind of role – duty inside of my heart.  One day I’m going to see my ancestors, you know?  And I want them to be proud of me, not saying, ‘You just do nothing.’  So that puts more pressure on me, so I try to do the best, just from this art form.  I don’t really like to be the head of anything.  That’s not really my intention.  But right now, I know a lot of people can say ‘quit’ but I can’t.  That is my pressure.

Yang Family Taiji Lineage

  • Chen Changxing, 6th generation Chen Taiji (1771–1853 陈长兴)
  • Yang Luchan, founder of Yang Taiji (1799–1872 杨露禅)
  • Yang Jianhou, 2nd generation Yang Taiji (1839–1917 杨健侯)
  • Yang Chengfu, 3rd generation (1883–1936 杨澄甫)
  • Yang Zhenduo, 4th generation (born 1926 杨振铎)
  • Yang Jun, 5th generation (born 1968 杨军) 

“There are so many things – new change – I feel it’s hard catching up when I reach to some age.  [laughs] Right now, a lot of my time is pulled out from self-deepening of the art.  Pulled out means managing things, which means I’m tired for it.  I don’t like doing that.  But I have no way to give up.  I have to do it.  That is something I’m not really happy to do it but I force myself.  I really feel it’s getting hard to catch up.  New things keep changing.

“My goal is, if in my time, if I can build up the standard of training for the future, then I can say I did something.  Today Yang style has a lot of history.  At the same time, [it’s] also complicated.  In the past, there was no system – no way to keep Yang style close to each other.  That’s really a challenge.  Many people call [themselves] Yang style but they all practice very different way.  That can be an issue, for the future become too many different way for Yang style.  My goal, in my time, if I can build a system with whoever wants to be joined together, we build this standard for future Yang style.  We say Yang Chengfu is the one who fixed Yang style form, our model of the Yang style.  We should not leave too far from him.  We have to be inside of this range.

Taijiquan is spreading with more teachers.  We have to have a good way to keep good teachers.  Training teacher is one side.  Also the education side is very important.

“We are mostly focusing on the one form: Yang Chengfu’s long form.  We only have one hand form.  We have one long weapon and two short weapons.  The long weapon is staff.  The short one, we have saber [dao 刀] and sword [jian 劍].  The staff is close to 8 to 10 feet.”

The Role of Taijiquan in Modern Times

All time-honored martial traditions are now facing the same challenge – how to stay vital and relevant for today’s generation.  Taijiquan has entrenched itself within a well-fortified and growing domain, the community of wellness.  Has this compromised its martial integrity?  Is the traditional long form too much for the fast-paced world of today?  Master Yang responds, “I often have questions from people [who] come into my school [and] ask me, ‘How long I can finish this study?’  I don’t know how to answer it.  For people who have no idea about Taijiquan, I always ask them, ‘What is your goal?  Let’s see if Taijiquan can fit with your wish.’  If you are looking for Taijiquan as a calm health exercise, a way of fitness, then Taijiquan can be good for you.  If you are interested in the way of explanation of Taijiquan’s philosophy, how you use into your body, we can talk about in that direction.  I think this will fit.  If you are interested in the martial arts technical side, then we can talk about this side.  Today’s Taijiquan is really a multifunction exercise.

“How you exercise your body, how you use Taiji’s strategy – friends, colleagues and family are united.  Taiji talks about everything unified, so use this kind of principle from Taiji in everything.  Easy to say, but hard to learn.  At first, people are not seeking this part.  But when you understand it, how you can control yourself (that takes a lot of time of the practice of your arts), then in that exact moment, you know what you should do.  Don’t get excited.  Taiji is really interesting to me because it’s so simple – the philosophy side – but it covers so big area.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine May + June 2015

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About Gene Ching with Gigi Oh :
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