What Are the Different Tai Chi Styles and Which Should I Study?


One of the biggest questions someone asks when they get really excited about starting tai chi is: “Which tai chi styles should I consider?”   And a close second: “Which tai chi style is the best?” What I think they are saying above all else is: “I have heard of all the benefits of tai chi and am ready to invest my time and money, what should I do?”

The problem is made more difficult because asking a current tai chi practitioner or searching online is heavily influenced by what style a person already does.  So, let’s answer that question here so you can evaluate your class or a new one you are considering.  If you are new to tai chi, you are going to be relieved because the answer is more simple than you think.  If you are already practicing, give me about ten minutes here. I promise I will not be running your tai chi style into the ground while I share the exhausting benefits of mine (cue the Chinese music).  On the contrary, I will give you the information you need to get more people practicing.

choosing between tai chi styles

How Many Different Styles of Tai Chi Are There?

There are many styles of tai chi and almost all of them are named after the person, group, or family that developed and practiced the style.  The styles are all different, but in the end they are all tai chi.

There are five main styles based on family names and dozens of other known tai chi styles.  This is not an exhaustive list and is also intentionally not in depth.  I want to give a general description of the styles and highlight how they are interesting and unique.  And then Oh-Holy YouTube!  Let’s cut to the chase and watch some stunning examples of each style and historical footage.

Tai Chi Styles List

The Main Styles of Tai Chi

  • Chen style
  • Yang style
  • Wu style
  • Wu/Hao style
  • Sun style

Lesser Known Tai Chi Styles

  • Zhaobao style
  • Li style
  • Lee Style
  • Fu style
  • Wudang Style

Calling a style of tai chi “other” or “lesser” does not mean less good.  It might just mean that it is less practiced, less available in the west, less popular, or kind of fringy and focused on aspects that aren’t traditional tai chi.  As you will read below, if you have an accomplished practitioner near you giving classes in a “minor” style, lucky you!  As an example:

Zhaobao Style Taijiquan

Zhaobao Taijiquan style is named after the village it originates from near Chen Village in Henan Province, China.  It shares similarities with Chen style taijiquan, and was introduced to the village by famed Chen grand master Chen Qingping.

The Five Main Styles of Tai Chi

What is Chen Style Tai Chi?

Chen style is the original style of tai chi and was founded by the ninth generation Chen Village leader, Chen Wangting (1580–1660). He organized pre-existing training practices into seven routines that were long and short fast and slow.  He also included elements of Chinese philosophy to create a new approach that we now known as the Internal martial arts.

Chen style tai chi is notable for its teaching of explosive power (fa jin) and meshing components of fast and slow movements, hard and soft movements, and low and high stances.  Intrinsic to its curriculum is the study of silk reeling which is the basis for the spiraling movements and internal energy.

Tai Chi Chen Style Video

Short Documentary about Chen Tai Chi


What is Yang Style Tai Chi?

Yang style is the most popular style of tai chi in the world today. It was developed by Yang Luchan who studied under the founder of Chen style tai chi.  Yang became an advanced instructor and was hired by the Chinese Imperial family to teach tai chi chuan to the elite Palace Battalion of the Imperial Guards.  His instruction led to the development of other three major styles of tai chi.

Yang style is slow and expansive with soft movements.  This is due to modifications made by Yang Chengfu who removed the explosive power, jumps, and stomps of Chen tai chi.  The long form, typically 108 movements is longer than most other forms.

Tai Chi Yang Style Video

Yang Tai Chi Historical Video


What is Wu Style Tai Chi?

Wu style was founded by Wu Quan-yu, a military officer in the Forbidden City, Beijing.  The founder of Yang Style, Yang Luchan was the mperial Guard’s martial arts instructor. Wu Ch’uan-yu became one of his students and the senior disciple of Yang Pan-hou, Yang Luchan’s oldest adult son.

For obvious reasons, Wu style shares a lot of similarities with the Yang forms.  However, the stances are distinctly square, postures can be higher, and the style employees a leaning forward and backward throughout the movements.

Tai Chi Wu Style Video

Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan’s Ma Yue Liang and Wu Ying-hua


What is Wu Hao Style Tai Chi?

Not to be confused with Wu Style Taijiquan, Wu/Hao style is a separate family style developed by Hao Wei-Zheng. Few students were accepted in the Wu Style tradition at the time but Hao Wei-Zheng became an advanced student, contributed to the art, and popularized the system in China.  The style was co-named Wu/Hao to pay respect to both influences.

Wu/Hao has a focus on internal martial arts and is known for simple, quick, practical movements and postures with complicated techniques.

Tai Chi Wu/Hao Style Video

Wu/Hao Taiji Historical Video


What is Sun Style Tai Chi?

Sun style was founded by Sun Lu-t’ang.  He was an accomplished XingYi Quan and Bagua Zhang martial artist before learning tai chi.  He created his own style of tai chi also known as Huobao Jia, which means lively pace frame.

Sun style is characterized by fluid, continuous and flowing movements. There is a balanced transference of weight between steps and less kicking and punching.

Tai Chi Sun Style Video

Sun Style Tai Chi Historical Video

How to Get Started with Tai Chi Classes in Your Area

Tai chi classes vary WIDELY!  Classes can be fast, slow, easy, rigorous.  Classes and schools can have completely different goals.  These can include: learning many forms quickly, learning forms slowly, learning only one form, competitions.  They can have a focus on health, martial application, or both.

The take home message is that if you decide to practice tai chi, immediately book 1-4 different classes at different schools. Don’t attend one class and assume that all tai chi classes are the same.  Maybe you will get lucky and find the perfect fit of people, style, and speed.  But maybe not!

I made this mistake when I started studying tai chi and I hope you can avoid it.  I attended a class for a really long time assuming I was doing some good tai chi.  I met some Chen style practitioners in a park and soon realized that my teacher was a first-rate herbalist but that his tai chi classes were just paying the bills and introducing people to his medicine.  Nothing wrong with that I suppose and I made some really great friends.  I just wanted what tai chi promised and wanted to progress.

Should I pay to take a tai chi class or sign up right away?

I support tai chi instructors who are trying to make a living off the art and charge their students.  However, with so much variety it is hard to know which class to take.  Many schools allow you to join the first class for free. If not, ask.  Many ask for a single payment of $10-$25.  Also totally fair.  If they want automatic payments that you can cancel within 30 days or want you to buy a uniform to attend the first class, I would keep looking.

How do I know if a tai chi teacher is good or if the class is good?

Again, the easy answers just keep coming.  It is pretty easy to tell if you have found a good fit.  Here are some pointers to judge a tai chi class:

Five Questions to Determine if a Tai Chi Teacher or Class is Good

  1. Do you feel better after class than you did when you started? We not talking about Olympic-level change here.  Are you more stretched out, warmer, more awake, more calm?  Has your mood improved?
  2. Does soreness go away relatively quickly? You will get sore by attending the weapons classes we hold.  But generally after the next day you don’t feel a thing.  You want a little soreness because it means you are improving your posture and leg strength.
  3. How do your joints feel?   This is a problem that all current tai chi instructors have to own because of decades of bad tai chi instructors letting students get injured.  Your joints should be feel warm and “challenged” but you should not get injured.  The classic example is instructors not correcting students when they torque their knee with weight on that leg. Also, not having a class warm-up routine that includes spiraling of the joints.
  4. Do you like and look like the people in the class?  Let’s face it, we are busy people. You should look forward to seeing your classmates, not afraid of them. The social, communal aspect of studying a martial art is one of the greatest perks.  Secondly, there should be people your age and gender in the class.  If they look like you they probably move like you and the curriculum with support that.
  5. Are you learning and progressing?  We all progress differently.  Over a short timeframe, you should notice that you are benefitting mentally and physically from the class.  But tai chi is also a tool you are adding to your toolbox to use the rest of your life.  As you move through the weeks, you should be able to perform more on your own.  You don’t want to be in a class that covers only one move a month. Nor do you want learn an entire form in a day and move on to something else.  Keep in mind that this last point is also on you.  Students progress when they practice outside of class. Even a little!

So, Which Tai Chi Style Should You Choose?

So, which tai chi style should you choose?  If you are lucky enough to live in a city with options, take in the above criteria along with commute time and budget.  Commute and cost are the top two reasons most students stop attending class.

If you are lucky enough to be in a town with any tai chi, use the above criteria to judge if it is a good fit for you.  You may also want to explore other martial arts.  I know! Heresy, right?  Many small towns have 1-3 martial arts schools that are culturally very different.  There are so many benefits to studying the martial arts or yoga that it is worth while for you to investigate.  I helped a student in rural Wisconsin look for a tai chi school.  Ultimately, there was a great Judo community with a knowledgeable instructor and that was the best fit for him.  No, it wasn’t tai chi. But he was on the path to addressing his health, stress, and social needs holistically.

If you have nothing nearby, you are lucky enough to have the internet.  You can attend workshops infrequently to get jump started or take classes online. The criteria is still the same:  Do you feel better mentally, emotionally, and physically after class, than you did when you began class?

And read more here: How to Choose a Tai Chi Class

References:

Chen Tai Chi

Wu/Hao

Wu

 

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

2 thoughts on “What Are the Different Tai Chi Styles and Which Should I Study?

  1. What a treasure trove of information! This will take some time for me to absorb and I am sure many appreciate the time and effort it took on your part! Thank you. It reminds me of the old joke – How many T’ai Chi players does it take to change a lightbulb? 100 – 1 to change the lightbulb and 99 who say, “We don’t do it that way in my school.” On a side note, Liuhebafa has played a large part in my T’ai Chi life.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. And that’s really funny and appropriate. I never heard that joke before.

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