Historical Perspective of the Tai Chi Chuan Classics
by Dan Docherty
There is a large amount of writing now available particularly in Chinese,
on the theory of Tai Chi Chuan, however, much of it is empty verbiage and
does not repay study. It is fairly obvious that both the technical
knowledge and the practical experience of the vast majority of writers on
the subject, whether Chinese or not, are sadly lacking.
There are numerous problems in translating and explaining the Classics.
Firstly the texts are not exactly a coherent or logical body of work. There
are numerous instances of phrases or concepts from one text being
reproduced in another.
There are differences in emphasis with the Fighter's Song being concerned solely with practical fighting concepts with ideas drawn from Sun Tzu's Art of War, while the other texts all contain concepts about movement and health as well as fighting concepts.
A number of ideas from Neo-Confucian and Taoist philosophy also occur in the texts as well as references to internal alchemy.
Indeed, it is facinating to consider the extent to which texts on Chinese philosophy, Taoist physiology and religion and divination influenced the contents of the Classics.
One thing that all this suggests is that the Classics were written by at
least two different people and possibly at different periods in the
evolution of Tai Chi Chuan. Another problem is that there are different
versions of all these texts.
This is a common problem with classical Chinese texts.
Let's take the Tao Te Ching (Canon of the Way and of Virtue). It was
traditionally said to have been written by a man called Li Er, nicknamed
Lao Tzu (the Old Boy), in the 5th century B.C., although most experts
reject this traditional history of events and believe it to have been
written sometime in the 4th century B.C.
Different versions of the Tao Te Ching existed as early as 168 BC, as
evidenced by the finds at Han Tomb No. 3 in the village of Ma Wang Tui in
Hunan Province, where two versions on the Tao Te Ching were discovered in
1973 (interestingly enough, one of the charts found in the tomb illustrates
Taoist Tao Yin rejuvination exercises).
Not only were these the earliest known versions of the Tao Te Ching, differing in a number of respects from later versions, but one of the two versions had the Tao and the Te sections in reverse order.
Not only over the years have scholars made mistakes in their transcribing
of classical texts, but many have made deliberate interpolations and
This is as true of the Tai Chi Chuan Classics as it is of
more ancient texts. The versions which are given here are those which
appear in my teacher, Cheng Tin-hung's book, "Statement of Requirements of
Tai Chi Chuan" (Tai Chi Chuan Shu Yao) and are the fullest versions I'm aware of.
Translating the Classics
Now there are already a few translations of the Tai Chi Chuan Classics on
the market, so what makes mine different or (hopefully) better?
Well I'd like to think that my deathless prose style makes this work
readable; that my punctiliousness makes this version more accurate; that my
experience as a fighter and as a teacher makes both the translation and the
commentary a more practical "how to" guide than anything else currently
Some of the other translations are less than honest, failing to translate
or explain certain parts of the Classics which the author himself does not
understand. Some translations are flowery and vague, using terms like
"energy" to explain concepts such as "Chi" and "Jin".
This type of jargon makes the Classics an impenetrable jungle for the
average student of Tai Chi Chuan. This is why I've not only translated the
Classics, but have included an Introduction and Commentary to each one as
well as explaining the key concepts with pictures and diagrams. I've gone into some
detail in the Commentary sections although even with explanation the
average student will find it difficult to grasp certain of the concepts
dealt with unless he has the benefit of high level tuition.
One word of warning; there is a great deal of valuable information which is
not to be found in any of the Classics. They are far from being the sum
repository of human wisdom on the subject of Tai Chi Chuan, nor, as you
will perceive from the commentary, do I agree with every word written by
Authorship of the Classics
So just who was or were the author/s? No-one really knows. A couple of the
Classics are attributed to Chang San-feng, the Taoist, who lived sometime
between the 13th and the 14th century AD and who is recognised by most
schools as the founder of Tai Chi Chuan. Others are attributed to Wang
Zong-yue, a strategist of the Ming dynasty.
There are a number of works dating from the Ching dynasty which are
attributed to Chang but which were actually produced by Taoists through the
medium of Fu Chi or spirit writing. This is a process similar to the
Western method of using a Ouija board, in which the spirit world is
contacted and where the spirit responds by writing on sand contained in a
planchette with a writing brush held by the medium. The resulting writings were then attributed to the spirit in question.
Other works were attributed to Chang San-feng in this way. Alternatively perhaps
a later master not knowing who the author was or not wishing to take the
credit for the Classics simply attributed them to Chang San-feng and Wang
Many books relate that the classics were discovered by Wu Chiu-ying, the
brother of Wu Yu-xiang who wrote on Tai Chi Chuan and later founded his own
style thereof, in a salt cellar in a Henan village, but I think this is
unlikely as Tai Chi Chuan was not widely practiced at the that time and it
does seem to be too much of a coincidence. There is a likelier explanation.
Transmission of the Classics
Before Tai Chi students can become disciples and learn the Nei Kung
(Internal Strength exercises), they must Bai Chi, this is a ritual ceremony
involving accepting certain conditions and paying respects before a
portrait of Chang San-feng to his memory and to the master. My teacher told
me that when he went through the Bai Shi ceremony with his master, Qi Min-
xuan, Qi gave him copies of the Classics and made him memorise them by
chanting them when practicing the Nei Kung.
This method of transmitting sacred texts was common in religious Taoism and
I believe that for many generations this was the way that the Classics were
handed down, until ultimately with the arrival of Yang Lu-chan in Peking
Tai Chi Chuan went public and so eventually did the texts.
Firstly this method would prevent "secret knowledge" being passed on to
outsiders. Secondly it was an ideal method for adepts to learn the theory
of their art. Indeed this method is still used to teach important transmissions other
than the Tai Chi Chuan Classics.
My teacher taught me many things privately on a one to one basis. One example of this was the Six Secret Words, invaluable in self defence, which as far as I know he didn't teach anyone else and which are not to be found in any text on Tai Chi Chuan.
Another example was a mantra which he taught me for composing the mind before someperilous undertaking.
This type of one to one tuition is referred to in the Song of the Thirteen
Tactics, "To go through the gate and be led along the path oral instruction
is necessary". The problem with oral tradition is that people forget and with a Chinese oral tradition there is the further problem that many characters sound the
same. Therefore, many versions of the Classics are incomplete or contain
As a result also there are few teachers now capable of leading students along the path and giving them oral instruction even assuming that the student has been able to find the gate.
Interpreting the Classics
Classical Chinese philosophical texts are notorious for their ambiguity and
this has led to later thinkers writing commentaries on these texts to
Of course many of these commentaries would contain political bias,
interpreting the text to give ancient authority to political ideas
supported by the author of the commentary.
A problem with the Tai Chi Chuan Classics is the technical nature of much
of the writing. Any interpretation of the Classics is therefore limited by
the technical knowledge and practical experience of the individual doing
For example if he has little fighting knowledge and experience he is unlikely to have much success in making sense of the Fighter's Song. This has led to two major developments.
Firstly the Classics have been translated to fit the knowledge of the translator. In
many cases said translator has ignored or failed to explain what he does
not know and has over emphasised certain concepts with which he is
Secondly it has led to people changing their Tai Chi Chuan to fit their
often perverted interpretations of concepts found in the Classics, so that
their art in many ways is quite different from that of their masters.
For example compare Wu Kung-yi's postures with those of his father, Wu Jian-
chuan or those of Cheng Man-ching with Yang Cheng-fu.
So we have a cross fertilisation where the Classics as they are understood
by an individual affect that individual's Tai Chi Chuan and that
individual's knowledge of Tai Chi Chuan limits his ability to understand
My own approach has been to make my translation as close to the original
Chinese as possible even if sometimes this means that the English version
does not seem felictously worded. The key to understanding the Classics lies in the Commentary and the illustrations.
In a way the Classics are a never-ending revelation in so far as our
perceptions will constantly change as our knowledge increases. They will
influence our practice which will affect our ability to understand them.
The Classics repay much study and have a wider application than merely to
teach us how to do Tai Chi Chuan.
See Dan's Books Decoding the classics for the modern martial artist
and also Complete Tai Chi Chuan