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After the Meiji Restoration, Kano developed Judo: a modern fighting art devoid of feudal associations.
Funakoshi followed suit: introducing an Okinawan fighting art to mainland Japan. It was called 'karate' (China hand).
When you read a little more about the origins of the Okinawan art, there is usually some mention of karate being adapted from Chinese martial arts.
This final point is most curious.
China maintained a feudal society for millennia.
In such an environment, martial arts tuition was not something casual.
Teachers were very choosy about who they taught their arts to.
A student misdemeanour could result in serious consequences for the unfortunate instructor.
China invented modern paper and kept it secret for 700 years.
They created weaponry during The Warring States period that wasn't 'developed' by the West until The Middle Ages (centuries later).
Yet, we are asked to believe that Chinese martial artists taught their skills to the Okinawan people...
Okinawan karate became more
sophisticated by continuing relationships with Chinese combat arts experts,
Okinawans began concentrating on some of the finer details, especially those
of the Chinese internal arts like taijiquan.
These arts stress subtle muscle movements and the stretching of tendons and
ligaments. Anything that reflected a Chinese influence would have been
highly regarded and recognised as
Why would Chinese warriors share their skills with Okinawan peasants?
Doesn't the story sound just a little bit unlikely?
A far more plausible explanation: Chinese fishermen shared their peasant fighting abilities with Okinawan fishermen.
How much martial skill does a fisherman possess?
In feudal China, is a peasant going to learn high level combat skills?
A Chinese soldier would only be taught the basics; what they needed to know.
To invest in complex training requires money and time. And the Chinese are notably frugal (and practical) when it comes to money.
Advanced martial arts were reserved for officers and nobility.
Forget China and think about feudal Japan...
Would a Japanese samurai teach a peasant how to fight?
Combat skills were never shared with peasants; it would be suicidal.
The peasants outnumbered the nobility. Only a fool would teach them how to fight.
Yet we are expected to believe that Chinese warriors taught combat skills to Okinawan peasants?
The Japanese are famous for their ability to innovate, adapt and develop the ideas of other cultures.
They do this very well.
However, they can only work with what the knowledge they have access to.
If the questions regarding the karate origin story give rise to offence, look at all the knee injuries suffered by many karate students...
What happens when a fighting art is developed without many of the key principles, insights, skills and training methods?
People fill in the blanks with what they know.
Misconceptions are inevitable.
Barry was telling us a story about the woman who
always cut the end of the ham and somebody asked her why she did it. She said,
"Well I don't know, my mother always did it that way." And they asked her mother
and she said, "I don't know, my mother always did it." And they asked grandma,
and she said, "Well, I did it because otherwise it wouldn't fit into my biggest
(Chungliang Al Huang)
Many Chinese martial arts tell the same origin story: an ancient expert watched a fight between a bird and a snake.
From this they developed the system.
How can every story be true?
The answer is simple: the story is a creation myth.
The origin of taijiquan
What is the origin of taijiquan? Who knows?
Various authors provide credible seeming accounts but there is no actual evidence to substantiate the stories.
As with Okinawan karate, the real origin of the art may be quite humble.
Does anyone really know the truth? Does it even matter?
There are 4 traditional styles of taijiquan: Chen, Yang, Wu and Hao.
But it is important not to get too hung up on taijiquan styles.
The Taijiquan Classics were written by Chang San-feng, Wang Tsung-yueh and Wu Yu-hsiang.
Wu created Hao style, but there are no known styles attributed to Chang or Wang. How come?
What is the truth?
Nobody knows the truth.
At best we can be sceptical of history. Treat stories as being stories.
Oral tradition, eye witnesses, books and manuscripts are not reliable sources of information.
Anyone can get a book published.
If you cannot find a publisher, you can pay for it to be published yourself.
History should be treated with scepticism.
Scepticism is healthy
What is 'history'?
The branch of knowledge dealing with past events
A continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person
The record of past events and times
A past notable for its important, unusual, or interesting events: a ship with a history
A systematic account of any set of natural phenomena without particular reference to time: a history of the American eagle
None of these definitions
mention the key factor: 'bias'. History is an
interpretation of what occurred. It is not fact.
Point of view
Quite often, the ruling power at a given time re-writes history. They give their version of what happened, their perspective.
Do the Japanese see Hiroshima in the same way that the Americans do?
It seems unlikely.
The presence of the mind at the centre of everything causes bias.
We are fundamentally subjective.
Everything we experience is filtered through our memories and our perceptions.
No one is objective.
We accept or reject a historical perspective relative to whether or not it pleases us.
If somebody puts information in a book, people have a tendency to accept it as being accurate.
Why is this?
Is a written story any less true or false than a legend? Why do we accept one and reject another?
A University essay relies upon reference to prior essays and research. The past insights are seen to somehow authenticate and validate the present.
This is quite an odd convention.
Taijiquan is not modern.
It may indeed be hundreds, if not thousands of years old...
Who knows for sure?
The attitudes, culture and philosophy surrounding the art are not modern.
If a student expects to make progress they should respect this.
And be prepared to embrace ways of thinking and acting that are perhaps unfamiliar.
In many martial arts schools the practice was carried out in secrecy and the
school's very existence was frequently concealed from the authorities. For
example, taijiquan is based on body of principles known to be around 2000 years old
yet it was not revealed until 1750.
When a master of taijiquan faces an opponent he brings to the confrontation thousands of years of philosophical, martial and practical thought. He has lived most of his life according to the principles established centuries ago and in the process, he has strengthened his body and probably earned a long and healthy life.
18 January 1997
Last updated 29 April 2021