From Chen to Yang


One of the great mysteries for me regarding the history of Tai Chi is how “Yang” style evolved from “Chen” style.  The two forms are far from similar, especially when comparing Yang with other styles.  As an example, from the casual observer’s perspective, the Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun forms all look very similar.  The Chen style stands out.


Chen style is characterized by Silk reeling (chan si jin) alternating fast/slow motion, abdominal circular waves and bursts of power (fa jin). The Yang style can be described as encompassing slow, steady, expansive and soft movements with a consistent tempo.  So how do we make sense of the gap between Chen and Yang?


I have discovered three major schools of thought on this subject and I would like to share them with you here and now.


(1)  The Gradual Change


The first and most popular explanation assumes a gradual change over time with each Yang family descendant contributing until final changes by Yang Chengfu completely remove the fa jin from the form.  


This theory begins with Yang Luchan learning the old frame (Chen) style from Chen Changxing, a 14th generation descendant and 6th generation master of the Chen Family martial arts.  Yang, who studied in the Chen village in the first half of the 19th Century, was the first non-family member to be taught the Chen family arts.


After Yang Luchan altered the sequence of the movements in the form, it became known as the Yang style.  Yang Luchan is associated with the “old” and “small” frames.  The small frame became the basis for the Wu style.


Yang Jianhou, son of Yang Luchan transforms the style into a harmonious blend of hard and soft.  Yang Jianhou is associated with the “middle” or “medium” frame.


Yang Chengfu, son of Yang Jianhou, completes the transformation by eliminating the more difficult, hard and soft transitions and creating a consistent and smooth form, making it easier to teach to the masses.  Yang Chengfu is associated with the “large” frame.


This theory makes sense until you take a close look at the Wu style.   The Wu style can be described as a soft, smooth, small and circular with consistent tempo.  A casual observer would find it difficult to tell the difference between the Wu style and a modern version of the Yang style. 


So the question remains, “if the Yang Style gradually evolved with each Yang descendent, why doesn’t the Wu style hold more resemblance to the Chen style?”


Of course, it is possible that Yang and Wu Styles changed together through the years. Apparently there was close contact between the two families with Wu Jianquan and Yang Chengfu occasionally practicing Push hands together.


(2) It was all Yang Luchan


The second theory emphasizes Yang Luchan’s skills as a martial artist, saying that he alone developed the unique aspects of the Yang style by incorporating all he had compiled over his years of training and perfecting his martial art. 


There is no doubt Yang Luchan was a significant contributor to Tai Chi Chuan and truly an amazing historical character.  After he learned the old-frame Chen style, he was never beaten in combat.  Even as a beginner, he defeated all of Chen Changxing’s students.  As a military martial arts teacher for the Manchu government in Beijing, he was frequently challenged.   Because he defeated every challenger, he acquired the nickname “Yang the Invincible” and became the most famous fighter in China.


Yang Lu-Chan was so masterful that he never injured any of the martial artists who challenged him to a fight.  All attacks were met with gentle moves that sent the attacker either flying or bouncing off the ground, but always uninjured. 


It is said that Yang Luchan made the form distinctively his own by removing some high kicks, leaps, foot stomps and other moves and more closely incorporating the thirteen Tai Chi postures.


The question remains “After all the final changes, would the Yang style of Yang Luchan resemble the Yang style of Yang Chengfu, or would the casual observer place it closer to the Chen style?”


 (3) The Jiang Fa Factor


The third theory incorporates a mysterious character into the equation by the name of Jiang Fa (Chiang Fa) who introduces a fresh new style to the Chen Village.


Jiang Fa (Back) with Chen Wangting

Jiang Fa may have been a monk from Wudang Mountain who learned martial arts from a lineage through Wang Zongyue but separate from the Chen family lineage.  It is said he was a rebel against the government and went into hiding in the Chen Village where Chen Wangting took him in.  Jian Fa may have been so grateful to the Chen family that he taught them a secret old soft style called the Wudang internal style.  As the story goes, since the Chen style was intended to stay exclusive to Chen family members, it was this Wudang soft style brought to the Chen village by Jiang Fa that Chen Changxing passed on to his most interesting pupil, Yang Luchan.


 Final Thoughts


Personally, I think each of these theories hold some historical merit and when combined, probably cover seventy percent of the real truth behind the transition from Chen to Yang.


If you have something to add to this topic, please feel free to comment.  Your thoughts are always welcome.


Dave Pankey

Dave Pankey


  1. Michael Britt on March 18, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Upon reading this blog, I found myself pondering the origins and claims of authenticity of Tai Chi or any martial arts form that exists today. My amateur observations of human nature cause me to question whether any single form is exactly the same as it was at its inception. I would assume that even their creators tweaked and adjusted them during their lifetime. I would theorize that several arts or forms were guarded so closely that, due to attrition and inadequate record keeping, they are no longer practiced. They exist today only as legend and myth.
    Insular communities, (i.e., monasteries, villages, martial arts schools), have been better able to maintain control over the evolution and dissemination of certain forms, but they have not been immune. It has been recorded that some of these communities would make exceptions by accepting certain outsiders whose knowledge is integrated. Natural disaster, political, or personal influences, could cause a monk, family member or student to leave such a community and share his knowledge elsewhere. It is possible that this knowledge was incomplete or too difficult for the new students, so parts might be added or omitted according to circumstances.
    With the discovery of these arts by the West, many have traveled to the orient to learn from any masters or practitioners of these arts who would accept them. From this point in time, these arts and forms have evolved exponentially.
    Progress and evolution do not always equate to improvement. Important knowledge, skills, and wisdom can be lost by excessive dilution and willful ignorance. However, I believe the effects and purpose of an art can be preserved if its heart and spirit survive. Some of this I have experienced personally.
    I have come later in life to be a student in the art of Tai Chi. My desire is to develop in it as best I am able. I have been taught that it is a life-long journey rather than a destination. This is a humbling concept, and I look forward to the trip.

  2. Stephen Goodson on December 22, 2012 at 4:58 am

    An interesting chart:

    Wang Chung-yueh (Wang Zongyue), bringing the 3 two-man exercises (AKA the 13 postures) to the Chen Village and modifying their Pao Chui into the Tai Chi Form might be the starting point of the similarities of the Tai Chi forms.

    The Chen style may simply be reverting back to the glory days the hard boxing ‘stylings’ of Pao Chui and thus changing their art.

    Maybe it wasn’t that Yang evolved (away) from Chen, but rather that modern Chen has evolving away from the others.

    Just offering a different perspective on the question. : )

  3. Dave Pankey on December 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

    Stephen – Thank you for bringing us your insightful comments and perspective on the subject. You have offered another reasonable avenue to consider, and I appreciate that.

  4. nicos on March 12, 2013 at 11:24 am

    a certain kung fu magazine once gave a theory that there was a sect of Taoism that flourished in the laoshan district in the early 1800s…(i could have the time frame wrong)anyways as the story goes this sect was called the sect of hidden immortals or something like that(u can tell by now i don’t have the facts100% right?)but anyway one of the dieties worshiped was no other than zhang san feng. the theory is that yang the invincible could have learned from one of these folks(remember mysterious manual by mysterious wang tsung yu which is said to have helped frame yang style?) before forming his own brand of Tai chi. there is no historical evidence to prove this however it makes sense cuz yang style tai chi closer resembles Tai chi practiced at wudang mountain (which is not a recent thing contrary to what recent “experts” say) than chen style.

Leave a Comment