TAI-CHI'S FIVE MAIN SYSTEMS - WHICH ONE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
By Sifu Mark Cheng
Chinese martial arts talk a lot about
internal power and the use of chi (or
qi) energy. In any discussion of internal martial
arts, Tai-Chi inevitably comes up. With
a name meaning "supreme
ultimate fist" and a growing following worldwide, Tai-Chi holds
the greatest popularity of any of the
so-called "internal" martial
arts. The health benefits of Tai-Chi
practice are hard to argue. Several major
medical research universities have conducted
studies that tout its effects on lowering
high blood pressure, decreasing stress levels, and lowering the
incidence of falls among the elderly - the #1 cause of injuries
requiring hospitalization for that age group.
However, there are many styles of Tai-Chi training out there to
choose from, and "instructors" are popping up all over
the place, hoping to capitalize on the craze and claiming to teach
styles that descended from everyone from Yang Cheng-Fu to Mao Tse-Tung.
The reality of the situation is that there are only five main styles
of Tai-Chi that are recognized by the Chinese government, and by
most traditional Tai-Chi masters. According to Venice, California
based Tai-Chi authority and researcher Daniel Yu Wang, they are:
1. Yang style, most likely founded by Yang Lu-Chan
2. Wu style, founded by Wu Quan-You
3. Sun style, founded by Sun Lu-Tang
4. Wu Yu-Xiang style, founded by Wu Yu-Xiang, which later became
the Hao style,
and 5. Chen style, of which the true founder is uncertain.
Wang, who trained extensively in Beijing since his youth, is obsessed
with the training methods and origins of the different cognates
of traditional Tai-Chi. He traveled extensively in mainland China
to conduct research on Tai-Chi's history and fighting applications,
learning all five of the major styles of Tai-Chi and becoming well-versed
in their practice and history.
For the new Tai-Chi enthusiast, however, making a choice among
these styles can be a daunting task. According to Wang, "Among
these styles, the earliest to become popularized was the Yang style.
Next would be Wu style, then Sun style. The least widespread would
be Wu Yu-xiang's style. Chen style only became popular as of the
1930's. Outside of these five styles, there are those who studied
one of these systems and imbued it with their own techniques, thus
creating their own styles." Thus, a plethora of new exercises
bearing the name "Tai-Chi" became popularized over time,
especially in the United States.
Wang relates his own personal experiences with Tai-Chi students
explaining, "Most beginners are not too picky with what they
learn, availability being their chief concern. However, problems
might arise when the student comes across a style whose features
may not match him or her properly. For example, an arthritic 65
year-old would probably not be highly suited to begin training in
Chen style, with its explosive and sometimes athletic movements.
Those who begin Tai-Chi training for the purpose of improving their
health often start more comfortably with Yang style. But those with
special concerns or conditions in terms of health should be more
careful about which system they begin with."
Because the Yang style of Tai-Chi is the most popular and most
widespread around the world, it is more likely for a student to
run into a practitioner of the Yang style than that of most other
styles of Tai-Chi. Yang style teachers are the most common and greatest
in number. Wang summarizes the appealing points, "Yang style
is very open and smooth. The movements are light, smooth, soft,
and slow. Because of this, they truly have the greatest following
among the beginners of Tai-Chi."
For those with knee problems, or the elderly, Tai-Chi is commonly
recommended as a form of exercise, but let the buyer beware. Not
all styles of tai-Chi training are suited to every body type and
condition. According to Wang, these individuals should begin with
Sun style. He explains, "Sun style is also called huo bu (live
step) Tai-Chi. Its special feature is called jin bu bi gen, che
bu bi sui- which means that when one foot steps forward or backward,
it is followed by the other foot which lands close by. [This type
of footwork is a trademark of Hsing-Yi Chuan, which founder Sun
Lu-Tang was quite learned in.] The knees are thus bent very slightly,
placing few demands on that often injured joint. The time that each
stance is held is for a relatively short amount of time, and the
body posture is held higher up. Compared to Yang style where the
front stance front leg should be bent to 90 degrees, this is very
casual. This makes it easy for one with weak legs or poor balance
to perform. The hand movements are relatively smaller in frame and
just as smooth as any other style, also making it more accessible."
Nowadays, there is a growing movement to discover the fighting
applications of the Tai-Chi form. The New Age exercise crowd and
the gray-haired set are slowly being joined by the rough and tumble
kung-fu enthusiasts who want movements and training that they feel
is viable in combat. "For younger people with real power who
are more aggressive and don't wish to train with slow movements,
they should start with the Chen style," says Wang. "The
essence of Chen style Tai-Chi is sometimes expressed as:
Gang rou xiang ji - Hard and soft mutually help each other.
Kuai man xiang jian - Fast and slow are linked together in progression.
Physically, the center of gravity is also kept very low. So if
one does not have a basic level of raw physical strength, then their
understanding and mastery of the Chen style will be limited."
The Wu style of Tai-Chi is another one of the five main systems.
Its history is closely linked to the Yang style, as the Wu style
is based on the Yang style "small frame" form. Wang is
uniquely qualified to speak on the Wu style, as he trained with
two of the most well respected Wu style specialists in Beijing -
Ma Han-Jing and Wang Pei-Shen. "For those who wish to learn
very finely detailed movements that easily produce internal energy
and strengthen the posture with a higher degree of difficulty, then
they should learn the old Beijing Wu style, which came from the
Yang style small frame," explains Wang. Continuing to relate
the history of the system, Wang continues, "In the 1930's,
Yang Yu-Ting of Beijing came on the scene as a prominent Wu style
master. He taught students like my teachers - Ma Han-Jing and Wang
Pei-Shen - and systematized the style, dissecting every movement
into a series of smaller, clearer movements. This resulted in 326
segments with extreme detail in terms of direction, intent, breathing,
and a list of other requirements. Because his Tai-Chi skill and
virtue was so great, many of the martial artists of Beijing became
his students and followers. So from the 1930's to the 80's when
he died, Yang Yu-Ting became the premier Taiji master of Beijing." The
system that Yang Yu-Ting left behind was perhaps the most rigorously
defined style of Tai-Chi, perfect for those who require absolute
precision in every movement and enjoy the challenges such training
In the end, the individual student must decide for him/herself,
taking into account previous martial arts training, fitness level,
prior medical conditions, and availability. Tai-Chi, although growing
in popularity, is still not as commonplace as Taekwondo or Karate.
Many martial arts studios are beginning to offer Tai-Chi classes,
or classes with slow movements mimicking Tai-Chi, so prospective
students should be discriminating about what system they choose
to spend their time and/or money on. The temperament of each system
is unique, and the individual with strong ideas about what he or
she wants will be most careful about which system they learn.
About the subject: You can contact Daniel Yu Wang for seminars
or private training information at (310) 396-8482. About the author:
Mark Cheng is a Combat Shuai-Chiao practitioner and martial arts
researcher based in West Los Angeles, California.