The Comprehensive Guide to Major Tai Chi Styles

There are four popular Tai Chi styles and many other Tai Chi styles that are lessor known.

Tai Chi allegedly began on Wu Tang mountain around the 1300’s and then spread to other places (most notably Chen village) from there.

Most of the main Tai Chi styles are named after the family that adopted and proliferated the particular style and methods of Tai Chi that they practice.

The most famous styles of Tai Chi taught today are

  • Chen style
  • Yang style
  • Wu (Wu Chien Chuan) style
  • Wu (Hao) style
  • Sun style
  • Chen Man Cheng style
  • Wu Tang style
  • Cheng style
  • Taoist Tai Chi
  • Fu style
  • Li style

Out of these Tai Chi styles there are even greater sub categories as senior students of particular Tai Chi family styles have gone on to propagate their own version of Tai Chi with specific practice methods and various principles emphasized to a greater degree than others.

This can lead to quite a bit of confusion for new Tai Chi practitioners when they are first exposed to other Tai Chi styles and methods as most often they have been taught specifics of their own Tai Chi style-

-but more often than not do not have much exposure to other points of view and more in depth Tai Chi practices so as to understand why someone else’s Tai Chi style could look so different and yet still be correct Tai Chi.

In my first section I will elaborate a bit on what all Tai Chi styles share in common and then in the following articles I will write more about specific differences and points of emphasis.

This is Part 1 of 5.

  1. Tai Chi Styles
  2. Martial Tai Chi
  3. Chen Style Tai Chi
  4. Yang Style Tai Chi
  5. Wu Style Tai Chi

Martial Tai Chi V.S. Tai Chi for Health

Martial Tai Chi may sound like some kind of a specific and strange Tai Chi style that is unlike most of the rest of Tai Chi.

However, it is important to note that Tai Chi began as a martial art and that when you translate the full name, Tai Chi Chuan, it means Grand Ultimate Fist.

A lot of people today try to claim that martial Tai Chi is a perversion of Tai Chi and not the same as (by which they mean inferior to) the Tai Chi for health.

They state that Tai Chi and Tai Chi Chuan are somehow from different roots and that they are a different art created for entirely different purposes and not at all related.

I have even had several folks with lots of letters like PHD behind their name tell me that Tai Chi was never a fighting art and that I made it up because I like teaching martial arts.

I was mostly astounded because I thought having an advanced degree of any kind meant that you did your homework before making crazy statements that are easily disproven by anyone who cares to get publicly and readily available facts.

Grand Ultimate Fist

Grand Ultimate Fist meant the best fighting art available.

If Tai Chi was not originally Tai Chi Chuan then what were they talking about when they named it?

Grand Ultimate what?

If they were stating that this was the grand ultimate health method then they would have named it that.

This would not have been difficult as the Chinese language has specific words for health and method and any other aspect of these words that they would care to use.

The best fighting method in existence?

What could be the reason for naming an art form the Grand Ultimate Fist?

That is quite a moniker and one that would draw a lot of questions and challenges in mainland China.

The name of the art frankly states that not only is it a fighting style but by those who named it and put it forth it was considered the best fighting method in existence.

That is quite a statement to make in China the land of the Shaolin fighting monks and Kung Fu which dates back to at least 500A.D.

Watered down Tai Chi.

Of course as most people are well aware there is quite a bit of Tai Chi that is practiced today that is not martial Tai Chi.

However, any legitimate art that can be called Tai Chi started with the martial Tai Chi and can be traced back to a family style that used it martially within the last 100 years.

So, there is Tai Chi that started out as martial Tai Chi but that can not be considered martial Tai Chi anymore.

Unfortunately it has been my experience that the non-martial Tai Chi has been watered down and stripped of its amazing health properties as well because those who are teaching it usually do not understand the art they are bastardizing at all let alone the martial aspect of it.

So does it live up to the name?

What is it about martial Tai Chi that makes it able to carry the name grand ultimate fist?

I’m going to cover how the major family styles approach this question.

Chen Style Tai Chi

Chen Style Tai Chi is considered by many to be the oldest form of Tai Chi although the historical accounts of Tai Chi claim that it came from Wu Tang (pronounced Wu Dong) mountains.

Chen Style is typically characterized by lower / deeper stances than most publicly demonstrated Tai Chi and by its expressive Fa Jing explosive movements that are rather large and obvious expressions of explosive power release and that are also more obvious in terms of how they would be used to defend yourself in a serious fighting situation.

Chen style tends to be more noticeably winding than a lot of other Tai Chi styles.

This winding action is Silk Reeling or Jian Si Jing and is one of the jings or skills that is taught quite early in Chen style and that help the practitioner to build up the spring loaded energy that is helpful to release good explosive fa jing movements.

The exact origin of Chen style is unclear but it traces back to the 1600’s in Chen Village.

According to one student of mine the original Shaolin Temple is less than one day’s walk from Chen Village and there is likely some (possibly a lot of) influence but the Chen Villagers and senior masters of the art generally hold that there Tai Chi has not had any Shaolin influence.

The 4 other most popular Tai Chi styles today (Yang, Wu, Wu and Sun) can trace their lineages back to Chen style.

There are quite a few different Chen style Tai Chi routines including Old Frame, New Frame, Big Frame and Small Frame as well as a Cannon Fist form that tends to emphasize the explosive Fa Jing.

In the training process Chen style tends to emphasize the self defense to beginners a lot more than the other Tai Chi styles do and there is constant contention between Tai Chi stylists as to who actually has the better self defense and who has the better health systems.

Yang Style Tai Chi

Yang Style Tai Chi is known for its soft, graceful, flowingly expansive movements that ooze with peaceful tranquility to practice or watch.

Yang Style Tai Chi began with Yang Lu Chan. He studied with Chen Changxing the 14th generation Chen style master.

Yang Lu-ch’an (and some would say the art of tai chi chuan in general) came to prominence as a result of his being hired by the Chinese Imperial family to teach tai chi chuan to the elite Palace Battalion of the Imperial Guards in 1850, a position he held until his death

Yang Style was passed from Yang Lu Chan to his sons Yang Ban Hou and Yang Jian Hou who then passed the art to his grandsons Yang Shao Hou and Yang Cheng Fu.

Yang Cheng Fu became the most famous teaching the Yang family art far and wide.

As a result Yang family Tai Chi is now the most popular Tai Chi in the world.

Today, as a result of the teaching of Yang Cheng Fu, Yang Style Tai Chi is characterized by upright postures that maintain body alignment and that are usually taught in very large postures known as large frame.

The art is generally practiced slowly, smoothly and peacefully like water and usually only a trained eye can pick up the martial aspects of the Yang style Tai Chi.

Sung or Soong relaxed softness is emphasized and the moves can be practiced at a low, medium or high height depending on the ability of the practitioner.

The art is known to be quite healthy and martial at the same time.

The Yang Style Tai Chi fighting art is taught in the Yang Family secret transmissions and includes a wide variety of techniques including hand and foot strikes, locks, throws and energetics including the 36 primary jings.

The Fa Jing or explosive energy in Yang style is best known as the type where the practitioner barely moves or does not move at all and the opponent is explosively thrown or popped 6 – 25 feet away.

Dim Mak is also an important part of the Yang Family Tai Chi style art and really involves developing the sensitivity to feel inside of an opponent so that a strike or and energy can be directed into the opponent to an exact organ or area thereby incapacitating or seriously injuring an opponent.

Wu Style Tai Chi

Wu Style Tai Chi as taught in the Wu Ch’uan-yu lineage is characterized by small frame movements and small circle hand techniques mixed with some large frame circular movements.

In small frame Tai Chi every little movement has specific meaning and purpose and as a consequence there is a lot of attention to detail.

The entire body is used and each turn, twist, rise, fall and rocking motion has multiple applications.

Also, within each movement, there are applications for every part of the body.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the style is a specific lean forward from the waist that is unique to Wu style.

All real Tai Chi is concerned with body connection and specifically the connection of the upper and lower body.

The lean that is immediately discernible in Wu Tai Chi is so that the body connection is easily made even by beginners to the style.

As a result of this training method the level of Chi that can be felt from the practice of Wu style is quite noticeable.

There are two major Tai Chi styles with the name Wu.

The characters and pronunciation of the two Wu’s are different from one another and the families are not related.

Wu Chien-ch’üan, the son of Wu Ch’uan-yu became the most widely known teacher in his family, and is therefore considered the co-founder of the Wu style by his family and their students.

He taught large numbers of people and his refinements to the art more clearly distinguish Wu style from Yang style training.

Another important aspect of training in Wu Chien-ch’üan style Tai Chi is the emphasis on Push Hands techniques.

Wu style is known for having a very comprehensive push hands training regimen and practitioners of the style consider it to be the most comprehensive push hands training of any of the Tai Chi styles.

Ma Yueh Liang married Wu Ying-hua the grandaughter of Wu Chien-ch’üan in the 1920’s and as a result he was accepted as a direct family member and learned the art directly from Wu Chien-ch’üan. Master Ma and Wu Ying-hua were both famous for the quality of their Tai Chi in the 1930’s.

In his lifetime Master Ma did much to refine and help spread the art of Wu Tai Chi including creating a freestyle form of Push Hands that became quite prevalent in Shanghai in the late 1980’s.

I had the pleasure and the privilege to study from Master Ma in 1995.

My visit was shown in an article in Inside Kung Fu with a picture of me demonstrating the Wu form for Master Ma and his wife.

The Push Hands that I learned from Master Ma took me deep into the real internal aspects of Tai Chi and have profoundly influenced my studies in the art ever since for which I am eternally grateful.

Speak Your Mind