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'A journey of a thousand li starts with a single step.' (Laozi)

General survey on the development of taijiquan

Wu style taijiquan

The historical background most significant to our college commences with Wu Quanyou (1834-1902). Wu Quanyou was of Manchurian descend and served as a military officer in the Yellow Banner camp as well as in the Imperial Guards Brigade during the Qing dynasty. He received instruction in the large circle skills from Yang Luchan and in the small circle skills from Yang Banhou. After finishing his training, he resigned from the military and established his own training hall in Beijing. To distinguish himself from what he had learned from the Yang’s, he mostly taught his taijiquan to the common people and abandoned the divisions of large and small circle skills, emphasizing only on small circles. As such he founded what came to be known as the Wu style. Although Quanyou had many students, there are two individuals that stand out, his son Wu Jianquan and Wang Maozhai (1862-1940). From the last one the Northern Wu style developed with its best-known proponents Yang Yuting (1887-1982) and Wang Peisheng (1919-2004) among others.

Wu Jianquan (1870-1942), like his father, was employed by the Qing court in the palace battalion of the Imperial Guards. In 1914 he was appointed by the government as an instructor to the corps of presidential body guards. Jianquan’s influence on the development of taijiquan, he learned from his father, was very significant. He modified his father’s style, making it more narrow and smooth it by leaving out overt expressions of fa jin (explosive power), jumping and stamping movements. It is for this reason that he is sometime seen as the founder of the modern-day Wu style. In 1916, together with Xi Yuiseng, Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu and Sun Lutang, he co-founded the Athletic Research Institute in Beijing. This was a very significant step in the promotion of taijiquan, heralding a new era of allowing the general public to learn taijiquan openly. In 1928 he moved to Shanghai, where he founded the Jianquan Taijiquan Association in 1935. During his long career Wu Jianquan taught many people, including all his children: Wu Gongyi, Wu Gongcao, Wu Yinghua and his senior disciple and son-in-law Ma Yueliang. Assisted by his children and his son-in-law, Jianquan popularized Wu style taijiquan, which spread to the Southern provinces of China, Hong Kong, Macao and eventually across the whole globe, becoming the second most practiced taijiquan variant in the world.

Especially Wu Gongyi (1900-1970), Wu Gongcao (1903-1983) and their descendants were instrumental in the popularization of Wu style taijiquan.

For our college the lineage that ensued through Wu Yinghua (1907-1996) is of great importance. She began studying at a very young age and by the time she was seventeen, she started teaching in her father’s school. In 1928 she followed her father to Shanghai, where she became his teaching assistant. It is there that she met future husband Ma Yueliang, whom she married in 1930. They had four children, Ma Jiangchun, Ma Hailong, Ma Jiangbao, and Ma Jiangling. Later in their life, they adopted Shi Meilin (aka Wu Yantang). When her father founded the Jianquan Taijiquan Association in 1935, she was appointed vice-president. Wu Yinghua dedicated her whole life to the promotion of her family’s tradition until she passed away in 1997 at the age of ninety.

Ma Yueliang (1901-1988), like Wu Jianquan, was of Manchurian descent. Already in his youth he was a gifted martial artist, studying several styles like: Shaolinchuan, Sanhuang paochui, Baguazhang, and Tongbeichuan. However, Wu Jianquan would only accept him as a student if he exclusively concentrated on taijiquan. He accepted, and from the age of eighteen until Wu Jianquan’s death in 1942, he studied under him. In 1935 he became the deputy director of the Jianquan Taijiquan Association. Ma Yueliang’s skills as a martial artist were nothing short of amazing and at the end of his life Ma Yueliang was chosen as one of the 100 best martial artist in China. The influence Ma Yueliang and his wife had on the promotion and development of the Wu style was enormous. For example, they chose to disclose the formerly closed-door practice of the Wu style fast form in 1982 to prevent it from disappearing. Ma Yueliang taught many high-level students, among whom was his son Ma Jiangbao.

Ma Jiangbao (1941-2016) loved martial arts and started training taijiquan from an early age under the tuition of this father Ma Yueliang. Besides the instructions of his father, Ma Jiangbao received a great deal of extra attention from his mother Wu Yinghua after being unable to complete his study. Publicly recognized as the best family practitioner by his parents, he took residence in the Netherlands in 1986, from where he promoted Wu style taijiquan until he passed away in 2016. Ma Jiangbao is the great inspiration and it is in his honor that our college is founded.

Although our college is primarily dedicated to the Wu style according to Ma Jiangbao, prior to Wu Quanyou, the development of taijiquan already had a long history. So, there is a lot to cover, we tried to give a general overview and surely a lot of important individuals are not mention. Nevertheless, starting from the beginning…

Legendary periode

There are many stories about the birth and origins of taijiquan. Most of these stories are historically hard to prove, because most of them belong to the lore of fable and legend. Nonetheless, legend has it that taijiquan was invented by Zhang Sanfeng, a Daoist hermit who supposedly lived during the Song dynasty (if he ever lived at all). It is being told that he created taijiquan after witnessing a fight between a snake and a crane. Greatly impressed by the snake’s flexibility and defensive tactics against the brute force of the cranes attack, he was inspired to create a system that mimics the snake’s behavior by combining what he learned in the Shaolin monastery (hard style gongfu) with aspects of neigong (internal qi cultivation).

Supposedly Zhang transmitted his art to Wang Zongyue, another legendary figure in the history of taijiquan. Surprisingly there is next to nothing known about him. Some sources suggest that Wang lived in the 13th century and others suggest that he lived in the 15th century. Whatever may be, the impact of his contribution must have been tremendous, because the Wu and Li family tradition of Taijiquan see him as the real source of taijiquan. According to popular folklore Wang passed on his knowledge to Chen Wangting and Jiang Fa.

Jiang Fa is another quasi-historical figure and a man of great controversy. Some say he was a servant in the household of Chen Wangting and others say he was a martial arts master who taught his art in the neighboring village Zhaobao some two kilometers from Chen Village. From where he introduced his art to Chen village. If we are to follow this genealogy, we are being told that he was the teacher of Chen Changxing (1771-1853)

Chen style taijiquan

Based on historical evidence Chen Wangting (1580-1660) is most likely to have founded what is nowadays called taijiquan. Chen Wangting served as a general and commanded the Wen County garrison at the end of the Ming dynasty. After the fall of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty he retired to the family settlement where he began teaching martial arts. It is understood that he combined his military experiences with philosophical theories, meridian theory, daoyin, and the teachings of general Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), creating his own martial art. After his death his descendants kept on teaching his art for generations. In this, Chen Changxing must be named. Before him, the martial tradition of his family was only taught to and within the family. Changxing broke with this tradition by accepting an outsider. This outsider was Yang Luchan.

Yang style taijiquan

Yang Luchan (1799-1872) came from poor family background. As a child he liked martial arts. One day he witnessed a fight. The victor utilized a style unknown to Luchan. Upon asking the victor what style he used and if he would accept him as a student, the victor denied his request but sent him on his way to Chen Village to seek his own teacher. Young Luchan travelled to Chen village and became a servant in the household of Chen Changxing. After Chen Changxing discovered Luchan’s rare talent, he accepted him as a student and trained him for eighteen years. After mastering the art, he was given permission to teach on his own. Subsequently, he transmitted old posture Chen style to Wu Yuxiang and later he was hired by the imperial family to teach his art to the Imperial Guard Brigade. Among his students was Wu Quanyou. Yang Luchan had three sons: Yang Qi, Yang Banhou, and Yang Jianhou. Yang Qi died at a young age, but Yang Banhou and Yang Jianhou inherited and transmitted his art.

Yang Banhou (1837-1892) was a master in his own right. Like his father, he was also commissioned by the Imperial family. It is said that he had a bellicose character and taught with the attitude of ‘no pain, no gain.’ Although he had a superlative level of taijiquan, he didn’t like to teach very much, leaving few students. Nevertheless, he was the formal teacher of Wu Quanyou.

Yang Luchan’s third son, Yang Jianhou (1839-1917) also received instruction from his father from a very young age. Contrary to his older brother, he had a gentle character and had many students. He had two sons, Yang Chengfu and Yang Shaohou.

Yang Shaohou (1862-1930), an expert in free fighting, specialized in small frame. His style was more fast and sunken.

Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) was to become one of the most famous taijiquan master of the previous century. Chengfu didn’t care much for martial arts and started relatively late with his training from his father. The death of his father was the incitement for Chengfu to really fathom and master his family’s martial tradition and from that moment he began training very hard eventually specializing in large frame practice. Chengfu can be dubbed ‘the father of modern taijiquan’ for it was he who started trends like universal instruction and simplification of taijiquan. He also stressed that the fighting techniques of taijiquan could be used as a therapeutic exercise. He had many students, the most famous of which are: Dong Yingjie, Tian Zhaolin, Chen Weiming, Fu Zhongwen, and Zheng Manqing.

Wu Hao style taijiquan

In relation to the development of taijiquan, we must return to one of Yang Luchan’s students Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880). For he created the style that came to be known as the Wu Hao style. He was born in a rich family of scholars and martial artists, during the Qing dynasty. As stated above, he learned Chen style old posture taijiquan from Yang Luchan, who introduced him to Chen Qingping (1795-1868), from whom he learned Chen style new posture style. We own thanks to him and his brothers for the many texts he left behind. Yuxiang transmitted his legacy on to his nephew, Li Yiyu (1832-1892). Because of their scholarly background they spend over 20 years studying and formulating a new style. Li Yiyu’s best student was Hao Weizhen (1842-1920), it was he who further propagated their style. It is for this reason that this style came to be known as the Wu Hao style of taijiquan, to distinguish it from the other Wu style created by Wu Quanyou.

Sun style taijiquan

From this lineage the Sun style of taijiquan derived. Hao Weizhen passed on the style he learned from Li Yiyu. One of Hao’s best-known students was Sun Lutang (1860-1933). Sun Lutang born in Hebei had a hard life in his youth. He loved martial arts and became very proficient at Xingyiquan and Baguazhang. Relatively late in his life he learned Wu Hao taijiquan. From his experiences as an expert in these three internal style, Sun Lutang took the best of each creating his own style of taijiquan. His style became the last of what nowadays are considered the five traditional styles of taijiquan.