Tai Chi And The Curious Case Of Its Origins: How Did This Gentle Martial Art/ Exercise System Originate?

tai chi

Tai Chi Chuan, ( prounounced “tie chee chwan”) originated in China approximately 3,000 years ago. It is often called “the soft or gentle martial art”. Today, millions all over the world practice Tai Chi because there are no age restrictions and people of all levels of physical skill can engage in its practice and gain health benefits from it.

Group tai chi chuan Beijing China
Everyone can practice Tai Chi Chuan – image by britanica.com

The word “tai” can translate to “grand”, “supreme” or “ultimate”; “chi” means “life” or”energy”; “chuan” means “fist”. So Tai Chi Chuan translated means “Grand Ultimate Fist”.

It is said that its origins began with the Taoist Monk, Zhang Seng Fung. There are also several other theories as to its origins.

Tai Chi chuan practitioner
Tai Chi Chuan is said to begin with Taoist monks – image by britanica.com

Tai Chi Chuan (pronounced “tie chee chwan”) originated in China approximately 3,000 years ago. Its origins start with the Taoist Monk, Zhang Seng Fung. How it truly began is up for debate.

The Dream

One theory has it that the Daoist Monk Zhang Seng Fung was searching for a fabled elixir of immortality. After one particularly exhausting day, he fell asleep and in his dream, he saw the fighting moves of Tai Chi Chuan. After reflecting upon his dream, and practicing the moves he saw, he realized that these series of moves was the “elixir of life”.

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Daoist Monk Zhang Seng Fung statue – image by wikipedia.org

He experienced great health, strength and flexibility as he continued to practice these moves and he passed down these series of exercises to other monks that did not exercise.

The Snake and the Crane

Another theory has it that while meditating in his garden, Zhang Seng Feng heard hissing coming from the bushes. When he went to investigate, he saw a white crane and snake fighting. He observed that even though the crane was much larger and seemed to have the apparent advantage, the snake was agile and adept in his defense and attacks.

The Snake and the Crane in history of Tai Chi – image by twitter.com

Mesmerized by this example of natural law, he imitated the moves of both the snake and crane, thus creating the “ebb and flow” moves and leg balances that Tai Chi is known for.

The Military Officer Theory

It is also believed that military officer Jiang Fa learned Tai Chi from a gentleman named Wang Zong-Yue. It is said that Jiang Fa hid in the now famous Chen Village, where it is thought that this was one way that the style of Chen Tai Chi was born.

Chen Village of Tai Chi – image by pinterest.com

The Theory of Yin And Yang (prounced “yahng) And How It Relates To Tai Chi

Ancient Chinese philosophers and doctors believed that everything in the universe was connected, and that opposing energies in the universe were a part of the natural law. So for night, there was day; for winter, there was summer; for hot, there was cold.

Tai Chi contains “yin and yang” – image by pinterest.com

Tai Chi movements reflect this philosophy as for moves that flow forward, there are moves that yield.

The “Chi”

“Chi” in Mandarin Chinese simply means energy, life or ultimate. It can also be spelled “Qi” or “Ji”. The ancient Chinese doctors and philosophers believed that consistent practice of Tai Chi promoted great health, flexibility, stamina and especially, longevity.

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Practice of Tai Chi promoted great health, flexibility, stamina and especially, longevity

Why Tai Chi Is Different Than Other Martial Arts; The “Internal Theory”

Tai Chi is considered a “soft” or “internal martial art”. This means that its movements improve the health of the internal organs: the heart, spleen, liver, kidneys, etc., as opposed to the benefits that running, lifting weights or practicing martial arts that put stress on the joints and muscles.

An example of a typical tai chi chuan form push down and stand on one leg reproduced
Tai Chi is considered a “soft” or “internal martial art” – image by researchgate.net

However, many of the Chinese monks, particular those of the now famous Shaolin Temple believed that for ultimate health, one should practice both hard and soft movements while young, then focus on the more meditative Tai Chi as one got older.

Tai Chi is now practiced by people who enjoy engaging in a daily fitness program without stress or strain. There is no age minimum and no physical skill level required. There are also calming, meditative benefits gained because it is executed slowly and thoughtfully.

husband and wife exercising
There is no age minimum and no physical skill level required – image by wisegeek.com

No wonder that this ancient system of exercise, so rich in culture, is so popular today throughout the world.


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