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Chang Seng Feng Didn’t Invent T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Does It Matter?

The traditional histories of T’ai chi ch’uan assert that the Taoist Master Chang Seng Feng from Wu Tang Mountain developed the art in the 13th Century, after he witnessed a crane fighting a snake. Or in another version, the art is revealed in a dream by the important Taoist Warrior Deity Chen Wu (The Dark Lord). In reality, the art did not emerge until well into the 18th Century as a village-based boxing style, probably in the Chen Family Village in Henan. The association of the art with Chang Seng Feng specifically really dates from the 19th Century, when most of the T’ai chi Classics, were composed.

The question that then arises is: why did early exponents wish to associate it directly with a Taoist authority at a major centre of Taoist practice and activity? The simple answer lies in the quest for legitimacy and prestige. The masters who first made the connection between Chang Seng Feng and the art also expressed their understanding of the dynamics and theory of T’ai chi ch’uan in the great Taoist classical texts, The Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu.

Also, naming the style by using the term of a fundamental Chinese Philosophical concept of T’ai Chi (Great Polarity). The concept of T’ai chi (Great Polarity) is fundamental to traditional Chinese thought, cosmology, religion and medicine. It is to be found in the oldest texts of Taoism, the I Ching (Classic of Changes) and Neo-Confucian Philosophy. The term refers to the way in which the qualities of yin (darkness, passivity, contraction) and yang (light, activity, expansion) are distinguishable in phenomena, yet exist in a relation of mutual interdependence. In traditional Chinese thought, processes of change and development, expansion and contraction, growth and decay, in the natural world, in human experience, are explained in terms of the interplay of yin and yang qualities.

The two stories of the origins of T’ai chi ch’uan also underpin the connection with two powerful and important aspects of Taoism. Developing an art on the basis of observing a crane and a snake follows in the Taoist tradition of ‘naturalness’ and spontaneity, as exemplified in many passages of the Classic Chuang Tzu, in which natural phenomena are cited as best model for human action. The Deity Chen Wu connects with the Ritual and Empowering side of Taoism, in which the adepts seek to access the Tao as the supreme reality, and consequent immortality through meditational, liturgical alchemical and reflective means.

The appropriating of Chang Seng Feng and incorporating Taoist theory into the art, are not an attempt to deceive, so much as an attempt to elevate the art to an equal status and sophistication as Shaolin Temple Boxing. This has long traced its origins to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who introduced Ch’an meditation to China, allegedly in the 5th Century. The Taoist principles of non-contending, softness overcoming hardness, and yielding to overcome force, are also central to the practice of T’ai chi ch’uan, so the association is not illegitimate. T’ai chi ch’uan is not an ancient martial art in terms of the span of Chinese History, but it incorporates Ancient Chinese ideas that date back at least 2,500 years. I shall discuss more of these issues in future blogs.

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