History and culture

Origins of chinese martial arts

Behind Taijiquan we find a fascinating history that is closely linked to the development of martial arts traditions in China. Unfortunately, there are few written records, compared to a large number of oral traditions. This results in many different interpretations of what Taijiquan historically was and what it is or what it could be today.


This process of interpretation was started in China in the 19th and 20th centuries by Chinese scholars. Even then, Taijiquan was becoming a kind of "national cultural asset" and thus also a political point of contention during the Chinese republic (1911-1949).


As with almost all Chinese martial arts, most of the individuals involved as practitioners and teachers had a rather low level of education. Genesis stories were therefore often passed on orally and had a strong mythical touch. Very few of these stories can be historically validated, especially since they often emerged long after the actual development of the martial art. In the case of Taijiquan, the figure of Zhang Sanfeng, a Daoist immortal, was woven into the history of its origins via various detours at the beginning of the 20th century.

A historical view of Taijiquan places it right in the context of other Chinese martial arts styles. The practice methods that exist today are all based on the same development of war and martial arts that began in China in ancient times. However, this development only became visible relatively late, namely at the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD).


The couple of centuries that encompassed the Ming dynasty were also formative for Taijiquan. The actual place of origin of Taijiquan itself was a farming village in Henan Province called Chenjiagou , which was founded in the 14th century by a certain Chen Bu and still exists today. One of his descendants is held responsible for the development of the later Taijiquan: Chen Wangting .


He was part of the Chen family, lived from 1597 to 1664, and apparently had a military career at a younger age. As part of his retirement, he returned to the village of his birth, where he studied scriptures and taught martial arts to the youth. One of the writings he used was that of General Qi Jiguang , who died just a few years before Chen's birth.


Tajiquan in the time of the Ming


Qi Jiguang embodied an epochal development in the martial arts history of China. Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, representatives of the Chinese military began to record the methods of warfare and martial arts of that time - essentially for the first time in Chinese history.


Qi Jiguang (1528 to 1588 AD) had made a name for himself as a military leader, primarily through his victories over pirates on the Chinese east coast. Due to his personal fame, his writings also received quite a bit of attention.


Since the battlefield was even still mostly dominated by cold weapons at that time (firearms were already in use but not that widespread), the focus of his interest was on training in armed combat. Nonetheless, his records also included unarmed combat, which he saw as a fundamental tool in military training. His detailed writings are one of the first of a number of treatises on Chinese martial arts. And it was through Chen Wangting that his ideas found their way into the development of Taijiquan.


Of course, Chen Wangting also included other practice traditions that had long been established in China - the generations following him would do the same thing. Since ancient times there were traditions of gymnastics, meditation and breathing, which were closely linked to medical theory and are now considered to be the forerunners of modern Qigong. Here too, during the Ming dynasty, a kind of merging process began between the military-combative and health-oriented exercise traditions. As can also be seen in later texts, the focus was still on the application of combat - the gymnastic exercises were integrated into the combat training.

The way to the modern age

What Chen Wangting's martial art looked like exactly can no longer be understood. The generations after him all went through the training system and made it their own, each generation also changing it. The outside world cared little about the tradition within Chenjiagou. Taijiquan was not unique in this regard: Many of the martial arts traditions that still exist today have their origins in the rural regions, where they were passed on in family villages, ethnic-religious groups, or sometimes in monasteries.


A big change came in the 19th century when Chen Changxing was teaching an outside student who would later become famous: Yang Luchan. Little is known about him biographically, not even how he came to Chenjiagou and was able to learn there. He later went to Beijing, at that time also the capital of China, and achieved great fame as "Yang, the unopposed" (because he apparently couldn't find anyone who could take him in a fight).


Yang and his sons established the Yang style of Taijiquan. This family tradition was the basis for various other family styles (whose founders mostly learned from the first generations of the Yang family) as well as for the later simplified versions of Taijiquan that spread across the globe.


Chen style Taijiquan remained rooted in Chenjiagou itself. It was only after the Yang family had made their method known in Beijing that the first representatives of the Chen family began to publicly teach their tradition themselves.

One of the central figures of Chen style Taijiquan in the 20th century was Chen Fake (1887–1957, 17th generation of the Chen family, far left in the picture). He was a great grandson of Chen Changxing and was considered an outstanding master of the style.


His nephew Chen Zhaopi (1893–1972) had already started teaching the martial arts of the Chen family in Beijing. When he was about to leave Beijing, he asked his uncle to teach classes in the capital instead of him. Chen Fake then moved to Beijing with his family, where he trained a number of well-known students, including the very famous Feng Zhiqiang (1928–2012).


His two sons Chen Zhaoxu (1911–1960) and Chen Zhaokui (1928–1981, center of the picture) were also known for their skills. Chen Zhaoxu died only a few years after his father, while Chen Zhaokui stayed mostly in Beijing and taught there. It wasn't until the 1970s that he visited his family's village several times. He had some well-known students and instructed his son Chen Yu (right in the picture) in Taijiquan.


Today's representatives


Chen Yu was born in Chenjiagou in 1962, but spent most of his life in Beijing, where he still lives today with his wife and his son Chen Shiwu. In line with family tradition, Chen Shiwu has already started teaching Chen-family Taijiquan - and is following in his father's footsteps.

Chen Yu accompanied his father Chen Zhaokui on his travels to other cities, including Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Chenjiagou. Since Chen Yu was his father's only son, Chen Zhaokui attached great importance to correct, conscientious training. The corresponding rapid progress of Chen Yu also lead to him assisting his father with teaching from an early age.


In Chinese martial arts circles, Chen Yu is highly valued for his impressive skills and his very special practice of Chen style Taijiquan. He remained unknown internationally for a long time because he had no interest in teaching larger numbers of students. In addition to a variety of honorary positions, Chen Yu is President of the Chen Zhaokui Taijiquan Society.


In 2009, Nabil Ranné (left of Chen Yu) and Konstantin Berberich (to the right behind Chen Yu) founded the Chen-Style Taijiquan Network in Germany. As tudi (students included in the martial arts chronicle) of Chen Yu, both had made it their goal to teach Chen Yu's Taijiquan in Germany. For this purpose, they regularly give workshops in various German cities. If you want to find out more about the comprehensive workshop program, you can check the CTND website .