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.
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.
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.