Taijiquan: Symbol of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Culture
Stanley E. Henning

I studied Taijiquan and Xingyiquan in Taiwan between 1970-72, and during that time I became deeply interested in Chinese martial arts history, culture, and theory; and especially where Taijiquan fits into this complex and fascinating study. Taijiquan was treated as somehow different from other martial arts; often hailed as the crowning example of an “Internal” martial art. But what does this really mean? I quickly discovered that understanding this was no easy task as no reliable text on Chinese martial arts history was available in English at the time; making it hard to place Taijiquan in its proper perspective. The 1930s saw the beginnings of various attempts to apply serious, scholarly research into the origin of Taijiquan, and we are greatly indebted to both Tang Hao and Xu Zhen for their pioneering contributions.  Building on these efforts, in 1991 Shen Shou published Taijiquan Manual (太極拳譜) through the Chinese Martial Arts Association, the official governing body for martial arts in the People’s Republic of China, which tried to lay the issue to rest once and for all by offering the ‘official’ account. It does so by arbitrarily attributing Taijiquan’s foundation and development to the enigmatic Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) and others. However, in spite of this pronouncement Taijiquan’s genesis remains open to debate, and the subject continues to fuel new speculations and spawn alternative origin myths. The latest episode in this ongoing saga revolves around a genealogical register recently 'discovered' in Henan, which 'proves' that the Li family village of Tang Cun, rather than Chenjiagou, is Taijiquan’s 'real' birthplace.

In this article, however, I will not indulge in further speculations on Taijiquan’s putative origin, or discuss the continuing struggles to try and identify it with the so-called internal school of martial arts and the legendary Daoist hermit Zhang Sanfeng (張三丰). Instead, I will attempt to objectively compare the basic principles espoused in Taijiquan Theory (太極拳論) and other key writings by Wu Yuxiang (武禹襄, 1812-1880) with martial arts concepts expounded in classical Chinese texts and historical manuals, including the Story of the Maiden of Yue (越女故事, c.100 CE), Tang Shunzhi’s (唐順之, 1507-1560) Martial Compendium (武編), Qi Jiguang’s (戚繼光,1528-1587) Boxing Classic in the New Book of Effective Discipline (紀效新書,拳經捷要篇) , Yu Dayou’s (俞大猷, 1503-1579) Sword Treatise (劍經), and other well known Ming-Qing period martial arts writings, including Chang Naizhou’s (萇乃周,1724-1783, known as the Scholar-Boxer 儒拳師) Martial Arts Book (萇氏武技書) and Boxing Classic: Essentials of Boxing (1784, 拳經拳法備要), which contains writings possibly passed on by a Ming period Shaolin Monk named Xuan Ji (玄機, Profound Opportunity). I think this comparison will in turn help determine Taijiquan’s proper place in traditional Chinese martial arts culture irrespective of its origins. 

I will begin by referring to the Story of the Maiden of Yue in the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue (越女故事, 吳越春秋, circa 100 AD), which offers the earliest and most succinct description of Chinese martial arts theory. The crux of the theory concerns the interaction of yin and yang in martial practice, and the interrelation between inner concentration and external calm. In fact, the dynamic application of the yin and yang principle were later developed to a much more significant degree in the martial arts systems that collectively came to be known as Taijiquan. Similar to the Story of the Maiden of Yue, Taijiquan’s central principle, described at the beginning of Taijiquan Theory, is adherence to the principle of yin and yang, which is now couched in terms of Taiji, or the unifying 'Supreme Ultimate' concept. It was in the Song period, about 900 years after the Story of the Maiden of Yue was written, that the philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) created the Taiji symbol, which translated the principle of the yin and yang interaction into a graphic medium, and thereby indelibly imprinted the concept on people’s minds. Later, the philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200) incorporated the Taiji concept into what came to be known as Neo-Confucianism, which became the most influential school of thought in China until the introduction of Western science. If one subscribed to the view that Taijiquan Theory was written by Wang Zongyue, as the martial arts historian Tang Hao claimed, then the name ‘Taijiquan’ may be traced to the 1790’s. However, Tang based this claim on papers he found in a used bookstall in Beijing in 1935. Prior to this it was only known that Wu Yuxiang claimed to have obtained Wang Zongyue’s Taijiquan Theory between 1852-1854.  While the name ‘Taijiquan’ may only be safely  traced to the mid-19th century, ‘Taiji’ as a martial arts concept is used in earlier writings, including Wang Yuyou’s (王餘佑1615-1684) Thirteen Broadsword Methods (十三刀法) (late 1600’s), Chang Naizhou’s Martial Arts Book (late 1700’s), and Boxing Classic: Essentials of Boxing (1784). Indeed, yin and yang and its associated opposites –– hard and soft, empty and full, movement and rest –– appear in all five of the Ming-Qing period sources I consulted (see chart below for comparisons).

The second important concept in Taijiquan Theory that is described in all referenced materials is that of ‘knowing one’s opponent while hiding from him one’s intentions’. This might be described as managing the element of surprise, or as Boxing Classic: Essentials of Boxing puts it, taking advantage of ‘profound opportunity’ (玄機 - xuanji). It also involves a combination of careful observation of one's opponent with a swift spontaneous response which attempts to mask one's own techniques, or as a famous Daoist thinker Ge Hong (葛洪 284-363) once said, "all the martial arts have secret formulas to describe important techniques and have secret mysterious methods to overcome an opponent. If an opponent is kept unaware of these then one could defeat him at will."

The third major concept in Taijiquan Theory is actually of Confucian origin and expounded in Mencius’ writings –– 'to give up one’s views and follow others'.  This concept is expressed in various forms in three of the five Ming-Qing period writings I referenced, but perhaps best encapsulated in Yu Dayou’s laconic, pragmatic phrase: ‘I quietly await while the opponent is busy, I keep cadence and allow him to contest.’ (Sword Treatise) That Yu called his staff manual Sword Treatise may seem strange at first, until one realizes that he may be alluding to the Story of the Maiden of Yue, where Yuenu describes her sword technique as applicable to ‘all forms of combat’. One’s attitude, a crucial psycho-physiological factor in hand-to-hand combat, is described in the Maiden of Yue Story as “strengthen[ing] the spirit within, [while] appear[ing] calm without.”  One can tell that both Taijiquan proponents, Wu Yuxiang and Chang Naizhou, quoted this passage from memory, while it is described in more layman terms in Shaolin Duanda Techniques Combined Boxing Manual, in Boxing Classic: Essentials of Boxing, which appears to be a manual within the manual. This section or portions thereof may have been copied from a military manual left in the monastery during the Ming period, this is likely because martial arts trained monks from the Shaolin Monastry were commonly incorporated into militia groups during the Ming period. General Yu Dayou, mentioned above, insisted on observing the monks' staff fighting skills, he was not impressed with what he saw and took two monks along with him on his mid-16th century anti-Japanese pirate campaigns to give them practical training in hopes that that at least one of them might use this experience to improve the staff fighting skills in the monastery. 

Shifting attention now away from the theory of Taijiquan to the practice of Taijiquan I would like to compare source references on the key elements of qi (氣 vital energy) and jin (勁 power/force) and the evolution of Taijiquan’s forms and techniques.

Looking at the key elements of qi (氣 vital energy) and jin (勁 power/force) in martial arts practice, the Story of the Maiden of Yue describes qi at two levels –– first, mental alertness and calmness; and second, physical coordination of breathing and movement. Taijiquan Theory describes the interaction of energy and power as key to effective practice as does Boxing Classic: Essentials of Boxing, while discussion of the role and different aspects of qi occupies a large part of Chang Naizhou’s Chang’s Martial Arts Book, particularly in the opening chapter, entitled 'Discussion of Central Qi (中氣論)', where he discusses the Taiji concept and he identifies martial preparedness with what he calls 'central qi'.

Secondly, one discovers that with rare exceptions the thirty-two forms (most references claim twenty-nine out of the thirty-two forms) illustrated in General Qi Jiguang’s Boxing Manual are found in the sets practised in the Chen Family Taijiquan system. An additional technique, taishan-yading 泰山壓頂 (Crush With the Weight of Mount Tai) is used in sparring practice (sanshou 散手), which related to a routine titled Short Hitting (duanda 短打) ( Xu Zhen 徐震 ,《太極拳考信錄》,卷下,13,『散手』). This discovery is very interesting as it hints at a deeper connection between Taijiquan and Qi Jiguang, with a potential connection to materials not included in New Book of Effective Discipline, but later published in Secretly Transmitted Short Hitting Methods (秘傳短打法) in New Book of Military Preparedness (武備新書, 1630). Taijiquan’s techniques clearly owe much to General Qi Jiguang’s thirty-two boxing forms and other Ming period sets. This is particularly true of Chen Family training practice, which has several important contact training routines: pushing hands / tuishou (推手), expanded / diagonal dalu (大扌履) and the all-encompassing winding hands / chanshou (纏手) technique or more commonly know as 'silk reeling energy/force' (纏絲勁) in modern Chen manuals.
The action of linking circles and spiral motions, which is core to the winding hands techniques and key to generating force in Taiji application, clearly shares some commonality with traditional Ming-dynasty spear techniques that also require the linking and sticking circular work to control and gain advantage over the opponent. I exhort my readers to compare the technique of winding hands to descriptions in contemporary spear manuals, particularly Meng Lu Tang Spear Method (Meng Lu Tang Qiangfa, 夢綠堂槍法, purportedly written by the Shaolin Monk Hong Zhuan 洪轉, in Wu Shu’s (吳殳, 1611-1695) Record of the Arm 手臂錄). Indeed, we may as easily interpret Tang Shunzhi’s phrase –– ‘hand palm-down covers and hand palm-up lifts” (陰手蓋陽手挈) –– as a description of winding hands, as that of Shaolin Yinshou Staff (陰手棍). In either case, one uses this technique to deflect, push away, and neutralize an opponent’s blow in an alternating helical drill shaft motion which facilitates the issue of various modes of force, including punching, seizing, twisting, pulling, pushing, and even throwing an opponent to the ground. Indeed, we may easily interpret Tang Shunzhi’s phrase –– ‘hand palm-down covers and hand palm-up lifts” (陰手蓋陽手挈) from a Shaolin Yinshou Staff (陰手棍) manual –– as a description of winding hands.

As the foregoing discussion reveals, Taijiquan is a traditional Chinese martial art in both form and theory, which integrates the concepts of yin and yang, taiji, etc. into its practice, and developed from historical forms in unarmed and spear martial arts. Indeed, the very name ‘Taiji’ connotes the unity of internal and external forces, which is a key concept lying at the heart of Chinese thinking, thus making it an ideal symbol for mainstream traditional Chinese martial culture.



Davis, Barbara, The Taijiquan Classics: An Annotated Translation, Including a Commentry by Chen Weiming, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004.

Fung, Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962.

Henning, Stanley E., “Chinese Boxing: The Internal Versus External Schools in the Light of History and Theory”, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1997, 10-19.

_____, “Chinese Boxing’s Ironic Odyssey”, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1999, 8-17.

_____, “The Maiden of Yue: Fount of Chinese Martial Arts Theory”, Journal of Asian Martial Arts , Vol. 16, No. 3, 2007, 26-29.

 ______, "Ge Hong: Famous Daoist Thinker & Practical Martial Artist", Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2007, 22-25.

Kennedy, Brian L. and Elizabeth Guo, “Taijiquan Wrestling”, Classical Fighting Arts, Vol. 2, No. 13, 44-50.

Shahar, Meir, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008.

Wells, Marnix, Scholar Boxer: Ch’ang Naizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial Arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2005.

Wile, Douglas, T”ai Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art, New York: Sweet Ch’i Press, 1999.


Chang Naizhou  萇乃周. 1936.  《萇氏武技書》徐震, 整理,  台北:中華武術出版社,1973.

Gu Liuxin 顧留馨,《炮捶:陳式太極拳第二路》, 北京:人民體育出版社, 2006.

Li Kerong 李克榮 『陳王廷的《拳經總歌》與太極拳無關』,  《武當雜誌》, 2006-4-18.

Ma Li 馬力 編  《中國古典武學秘籍錄》  兩卷, 人民體育出版社,2006. 內容包括《武編》選,《劍經》,《拳經拳法備要》,《萇氏武技書》等主要引用資料.

Qi Jiguang 戚繼光 《紀效新書》, 馬明達  點校, 人民體育出版社, 1988.

Shen Jiazhen 沈家楨《陳家太極拳》香港新文書店,1968.

Shen Shou 沈寿《太極拳譜》人民体育出版社,1991.

Tang Hao 唐豪. 1936, 《王宗岳太極拳經研究》,  Hong Kong: Unicorn Press, 1969.

_____,  唐豪. 1936, 《太極拳宗師王宗岳考》,  Hong Kong: Unicorn Press,1969.

Wang Xingya, Li Libing, 王興亞, 李立炳, 『李巖籍貫與太極拳源流新說』,《中州學刊》2005年7月第4期. 

Wang Zongyue, etc., 王宗岳等《太極拳譜》,沈壽  點校,  人民體育出版社,1995.

Wu Wenhan  吳文翰《武派太極拳體用全書》, 北京體育大學出版社,2001.

Xie, Sanbin 謝三賓. 1630.《武備新書》, 卷五,手足篇增補,秘傳短打法,16a-28b. 東京都立中央圖書館,市村文庫藏.

Xu Zhen 徐震, 1935, 《太極拳譜理董辨偽合編》, 台北:真善美出版社,1965.

_____. 徐震, ed., 1936, 《萇氏武技書》台北: 中華武術出版社, 1973.

_____. 徐震 , 1936, 《太極拳考信錄》,台北:真善美出版社, 1965.

Zhang Ru’an 張如安,『內家拳師張松溪 生平辨誤』, 《體育文史》, No. 4, 1988, 28-30.

Zhao Ye 趙曄,《吳越春秋全譯》,  張覺, 譯註,貴州人民出版社 ,1994.


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