Origins of T’ai Chi Ch’uan
There are at least two stories that I know about how T’ai Chi came to be. One concerns animals and shows the Taoist roots, the other monks and T’ai Chi’s Confucian aspects.
Chang San-feng (1391-1459), an accomplished martial artist in a Shaolin style of fighting, conceived of replacing strength and hard-hitting force with suppleness, timing and balance while watching a confrontation between a crane and a snake. It must have been the quality of their movements that struck him — the snake striking swiftly and smoothly recoiling in seamless counterpoint to the crane’s sharp thrusts and graceful footwork. Each evading the advantages of the other’s weapons by never allowing them to get a clean shot, a direct hit. Both knowing that if it can’t get a bead on you it doesn’t matter how big the whammy is. Unlike the hard style, external arts, there were no forceful blocks where either combatant resisted the others attack directly. Rather they moved their entire bodies in shadow-like motions with a minimum of actual physical contact, locked in a primitive dance. They adhered almost invisibly to each other, carefully measuring each others movements in search of an opening.
There is a story about the great T’ai Chi Master, Yang Cheng Fu, wherein he disarms a swordsman widely regarded as one of China’s very best with a single thrust. He explained his success by saying that he had noticed a disconnect between the swordsman’s sword and chi (energy) whenever he turned his sword over and simply inserted his own sword at precisely that point at exactly the right instant. The same precise timing Chang San-feng saw in the crane and snake!
Another story holds that T’ai Chi was developed so that monks on the way to market could defend themselves from robbers without disturbing their inner focus and composure or acting out of aggression. T’ai Chi sparring adheres to Confucian principles where one always seeks the best way and even in conflict works to nourish the way of an attacker in the same spirit as the Buddhist principle of working for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
Like many oral traditions, it’s difficult to say which is more correct. However, both stories illustrate important aspects of T’ai Chi and there’s nothing about either of them that precludes the other from being true.