History of Tai Chi (Origins): From the East to the West

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

Close up of Temple Architecture in Wudang Mountain Taichi
Xinjian / Shutterstock.com

Tai Chi is an ancient martial art that forms part of the Chinese culture. There are multiple versions of Tai Chi available, which makes it mildly confusing to the average person. To most people, Tai Chi is just a slow form of exercise to be enjoyed at a local fitness class, but to those that are deeply ensconced in the art, it is far more than that. People do not realize that Tai Chi has a long and interesting history that dates back centuries.

If you wish to participate in Tai Chi classes and truly enjoy the health benefits while understanding the true meaning behind the art, having an understanding of the martial art’s history is somewhat important. I would go as far as to say it is essential.

The history of Tai Chi: Tai Chi was created by Taoist Monk, Zhang San Feng. It was first designed as a fighting practice, anything between 700 to 1500 years ago, and has mostly evolved to become a meditative form of exercise. Over the years, various simpler versions have been created to suit teaching the Western world.

But, that is not all you need to know about the history of Tai Chi, there is a lot more to learn.

If you do a bit of online reading, you might find the history of Tai Chi to be somewhat confusing. The stories you read might lead you back to different creators, but they all link up in some way.

To make things easier for beginners to understand, I took the time to piece together a summarized version of the complete history of Tai Chi. If you want to learn more, just read on below.

Who Created Tai Chi and What is the Concept Based on?

Taoist Monk at Wudang Temple Taoist Martial Art called Tai Chi
WeiShen / Shutterstock.com

Many newbies want to know what Tai Chi is and what it is based on. It all comes back to Zhang San Feng, who was a Taoist Monk back in the 13th Century. He is said to have lived between 1279 and 1368, but to be fair, no one knows if Zhang ever really existed. Zhang was apparently spending time at the Purple Summit Temple on Wudang Mountain in China when he came across a crane and a snake in combat.

Legend has it that the crane was striking aggressively at the snake and instead of striking back or taking combative action, the snake was swiftly dodging each strike, while moving in unison with the crane, tiring it out. The snake appeared to be using the crane’s energy against it. And when/if the crane were to attack the tail of the snake after all of its efforts, the snake would possibly strike and win.

At least that is how the legend goes. It was this relationship of energy between opponents and the self-defense style (evasive action, yielding, and attacking) that inspired Zhang to create Tai Chi Chuan, which is what we now know as Tai Chi.

Who Was Tai Chi Passed on to?

You might wonder what happened to Tai Chi after that, and that is where it can get a bit tricky to follow. The trail of Tai Chi teachings from the time it was created until today is immensely difficult to follow. Not much has been recorded, and often, the historical stories are conflicting. All we really have to go on is a legend.

Taoist priest at Qingyang monastery Taichi
Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock.com

According to legend, Zhang San Feng spent some time teaching and developing his fighting art and eventually settled on the 13 classic Tai Chi postures, which are associated with the very first version of Tai Chi ever practiced. No one to this day truly knows precisely how these postures were practiced.

The next big name in Tai Chi history is that of Wang Zongyue, also referred to as Wang Tsung-Yueh. According to history, he developed the second classic version of Tai Chi by converting the 13 original classic motions into a more smooth and synchronized version. The smooth transition of movements created by Wang made it possible to teach Tai Chi to others with relative ease.

The Role of Chen Wang-ting in Tai Chi as we know it today.

Many people have heard of Chen Wang-ting and assume that he was the creator of Tai Chi, but that is not entirely true. Chen Wang-ting merely used the basis of classic traditional Tai Chi, along with his research into boxing and his military experience, to create various forms of Tai Chi that he taught and passed on only to his family members. These versions were kept strictly in the Chen family as a single unit, but there seemed to be a split in the family somewhere between 1700 and 1800 – about 14 generations down the line.

The split was seen in two versions of the Chen style Tai Chi art being formed:

  • Chen Yu-pen – practicing new frame versions of Tai Chi.
  • Chen Chang-Hsing – practicing old frame versions of Tai Chi.

The Western World Gains Access to Tai Chi (Chen Styles).

Ju Ming Taichi by Ju Ming is a Taiwanese sculptor
Meunierd / Shutterstock.com

When the split happened in the Chen family, outsiders learned of the art form and began practicing it too. In fact, in the villages and towns close to the Chens’ family village, several modified versions of the practice were being learned and passed on. And this is how the art of Tai Chi became available to widely across China. Today, there are several versions of Chen style Tai Chi.

Most Tai Chi classes today are based on the Chen family’s style of Tai Chi. Chen style Tai Chi is said to be quite energetic in comparison to classic Zhang style Tai Chi. When practicing Chen style, the body needs to be relaxed, and the movements must be fluid, but it does also involve quick striking, jumping, and even kicking movements.

Who Is Yang Lu-Chan and How Does He Fit Into Tai Chi History?

If you have done a bit of reading on Tai Chi in the past, you might have also read about a Yang Style Tai Chi, but I have not spoken of Yang in the history mentioned above. Does Yang exist? This is mostly due to the confusing legends that seem to surround the history of Tai Chi.

Yang Lu-chan

Yang Lu-chan, who is thought to have lived between 1799 and 1872, is said to be a person who had a very keen interest in learning Tai Chi. Unfortunately, the Chen family would only teach the art to their family members and that left Yang on the outside, hoping desperately to learn more. In an attempt to learn more, he got himself a job as a servant of the Chen family. Rumour has it that he spent a considerable amount of time spying on Tai Chi lessons in the family and would practice secretly in his room.

The Chen family caught Yang spying on a practice session and was put to task, fighting other students. Apparently, his skill was impressive enough to earn him the attention of Chen Chang-Hsing, who took him on as an apprentice to learn the intricacies of old frame Chen Tai Chi. Yang went on to teach his own modified version of Tai Chi and thus played a vital role in passing on the art of Tai Chi to the rest of the world.

And that is why you might hear of Yang Tai Chi and Chen Tai Chi when looking into potential Tai Chi classes to attend.

When was Tai Chi First Taught in America?

Some might say that the art of Tai Chi traveled all the way to America along with Choy Hok Pang.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco California taichi
ESB Professional / Shutterstock.com

Who was Choy Hok Pang?

He was one of Yang Chengfu’s students and the first person who is known to have taught Tai Chi in America in 1939. His son (Choy Kam Man) later followed him to the USA to teach Tai Chi in San Francisco in 1949 right up until his dying day, 55 years later. However, Choy Kam Man only taught Tai Chi in Chinatown in San Francisco.

How did Tai Chi become a mainstream practice in America?

The glory of that goes to none other than pro dancer, Sophia Delza, who was a Tai Chi student in 1954. In that year, at a show held in an art gallery, Sophia provided a demonstration of the art of Tai Chi, and the American public loved it and wanted to learn more. She went on to host several classes of Tai Chi, thus spreading its popularity in the USA.

A Chinese Tai Chi Master, Zheng Manging, is said to have later opened a school teaching Tai Chi in New York in 1964, thus fuelling the spread of Tai Chi in America and on a global scale.

All in all

As you can see, the history of Tai Chi can be rather complex, and as a result, difficult to understand. Hopefully, this summarized version tells you everything you need to know about the history of the art of Tai Chi; where it comes from, and how it managed to spread from a small area in China, practiced by only a few, to being a global phenomenon, practiced by millions.

Temple Architecture in Wudang Mountain taichi
Xinjian / Shutterstock.com

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He covers topics like spirituality, philosophy, finance, sports, games, and food. JC earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business with a Marketing Concentration at Mercyhurst University. He is a certified USPTA professional who teaches tennis in the New York City Metropolitan area. He has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.