An Overview of the Main Tai Chi Styles
My daddy is tougher than your daddy. We have all lived through this playground paradigm and see the adult version reimagined in all sports and especially tai chi. So why does this mentality exist and what is the answer to the age old question? It is understandable that when someone is newly dedicated and excited, or invested for a long period of time that a strong opinion forms. Tai chi is great but the virtues of one style do not have to be extolled at the detriment to others.
What do I risk by believing that any one tai chi style is better?
You alienate yourself from an already small number of participants. Everyone who has made any tangible progress in tai chi has interacted with other practitioners.
What do I gain by seeing all these separate efforts as contributing to the same development?
You have access to everyone in your community that practices and you find value in all that has been written on tai chi.
Let’s begin by refuting the arguments and then we will conclude with a summary of all of the main styles:
X Style is better: Each style has gained fame and millions of followers for creating real value in the form of writings, forms, instruction, and future teachers. Creating value is the only way for an activity to continue to exist. Therefore, the longevity of each existing style proves its merit.
X Master was the best: Most masters did not live at the same time. Those that did live at the same time were each other’s colleagues, teachers, and students. There are few records of competition between any great practitioners. You would have to create a tai chi version of fantasy football to get to the bottom of this.
X Style is the most popular: There is some truth to this but the first question is popular where? Yang developed out of Chen, but Yang is by far the most popular style. It has benefited from being supported by the political elite, and being in the city that sent out most of the early immigrants from China. Chen Village contrarily, is considered to be in the countryside and the region did not receive favorable treatment in the past from regimes. It was even seen as a threat during certain political time periods. So popularity has more geographical and political implications than it has stylistic proof.
So what do the tai chi styles have in common?
What don’t they? For every difference you could list 100 similarities. That is to say that each style is working to develop a connection between internal power and external movement. Acting in accordance with nature and not opposed. Based on and adding to 2000 years of knowledge. What you see as stylistic differences are a group’s take on certain concepts that they are trying to convey to the masses.
Five main families (styles) are recognized in China and several popular additional lineages exist
Yang Style was founded by Yang Lu ch’an in the 19th Century. The proliferation of tai chi can be attributed to him as the popularity was spread after he was hired to teach tai chi to the royal family. His understanding of tai chi led to the development of the 108 posture form and his teachings directly influenced three other main styles of tai chi. It is characterized by big and open movements and is the most popular form of tai chi studied today.
Developed across several generations of Chen village, Chen Tai Chi is the oldest form and parent to other styles. Chen Wangting codified the practices of tai chi into main forms (frames) which included a 108 long form and an aggressive second frame – Cannon Fist. Chen Tai Chi entered the world scene as Chen Zaopei and his uncle Chen Fake moved to Beijing in 1928 and their tai chi was seen as being a radical departure from what was popular at the time. Several challenges resulted in defeats for their opponents and cemented Chen tai chi’s legacy. Currently, several 19th and 20th generation family members travel and teach today.
Founded by Wu Ch’uan-yu, a military officer of the forbidden city, Wu Style is based on Yang Tai Chi but is shorter and more compact. The compactness of the style is intended to build up and retain energy rather than allowing the energy to expand into extended arms and legs. The stance is equally tight with a limited range of kicks and steps.
Founded by Wu Yuxiang, Wu Hao founders are credited with creating and preserving early texts on tai chi. The art is recognizable for high short stances and smaller movements. Wu Yuxiang studied under Yang and Chen masters and synthesized his understandings of their teachings into a new style. By the 1920s tai chi was gaining popularity and the Hao family de-emphasized broad and difficult movements and made tai chi accessible to large numbers of students.
Sun Style Tai Chi Chu’an was developed by Sun Lutang, a master of two other internal styles, Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. Sun style incorporates the movements of the other two arts. For example, as one foot moves, the other follows in the same direction (Xing Yi) and. Small circular movements of Ba Gua are also found in the hand movements.
Zhaobao Style is a modern form of tai chi that consists of a large (108 moves) and small (75 moves) frame practiced at different heights. It is an offshoot of Chen tai chi and is named after the village where it was practiced.
The Cheng Man Ch ‘ing form was brought to the west in the 1960s and is popular in Taiwan, America, Europe and parts of South America such as Argentina.
Cheng Man-Ch’ing studied medicine, calligraphy, painting, and poetry and began studying Yang Style in Beijing in 1932. He taught tai chi at the military academy and simplified the Yang 108 form into 37 moves. He fled China to Taiwan after the Communist takeover and moved to the United States in 1964. He established himself as a great teacher and produced many distinguished students.
Visit Wikipedia for more in-depth information on each style of tai chi.
Which tai chi style is the best and which tai chi should I choose?
The answer should hopefully be obvious by now. Tai chi development is based on 1) continual practice, 2) positive interactions with other practitioners, and 3) access to materials and teachers that are working towards internal development. So choose a style based on your schedule and commute to keep you practicing. Choose a class that is putting its effort into positive development and sharing information and not on conceit, comparison, or justifying why they are great. Focus on why you are doing something and not the minor stylistic differences. For more information refer to our Choosing a Tai Chi Class .