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The Evolution of the Yang School of Taijiquan

by Gu Liuxin


Yang FuKui (1799-1872), better known as Yang Luchan, was born in Yongnian County in Northern China's Hebei Province. Because of poverty, he had to leave his home village at the age of ten for Chenjiagou in Wenxian County in Central China's Henan Province to make a living. He served as an attendant in the Ch'en family there and learned the "Lao Jia" (Old frame) style of the Taijiquan as well as "Push Hand" and combat with weapons from the famous Chinese boxing master Ch'en Ch'ang-hsing (1771-1863) After thirty years of industrious study and practice, he returned to Yongnian. Before his departure to his home village, Ch'en Ch'ang-hsing told him that since he had become a skillful martial artist, he would not have to worry about food and clothing for the rest of his life.

The local people in Yongnian County held Yang Luchan in high esteem and praised his Taijiquan as "cotton boxing", "soft boxing" or "solvent boxing" for its wonderful effects in overcoming the strong and beating the adversary without injuring him, and for its flexible attacking and defending tactics.

When Yang Luchan returned to Yongnian County, he put up at the Tai He Tang drugstore, which was run by the Chen family of Chenjiagou. The house belonged to the Wu brothers (Wu Chengqing, Wu Heqing and Wu Ruqing) who were all enthusiasts of the folk martial art. They admired Yang Luchan's superb skill and learned martial art from him.

At that time, Wu Ruqing was a councillor in the Sichuan office of the judicial department of the imperial court. He recommended Yang Luchan to teach Taijiquan in the ancient capital city of Beijing where many nobles of the Qing Dynasty learned martial art from him. The House of Prince Duan, one of the royal families in the capital, employed a large number of boxing masters and wrestlers, and some of them were anxious to have a trial of strength with Yang Luchan, but he invariable declined their challenge politely. One day, a famous boxing master of high prestige insisted on competing with Yang to see who was the stronger. The boxer suggested that they sit on two chairs and pit their right fists against each other. Yang Luchan had no choice but to agree. Shortly after the contest began, that boxing master started to sweat all over and his chair creaked as if it were going to fall apart. But Yang Luchan looked as composed and serene as ever. Then he got up, and in a gentle tone said to the onlookers: "The master's skill is indeed superb. Only his chair is not as firmly made as mine." The other master was so moved by his modesty that he never failed to praise Yang's exemplary conduct and unmatched martial skill. Later on, whenever anyone wanted to try his power with Yang Luchan, Yang would throw the challenger to the ground without injuring him. In this way, Yang Luchan gained great fame and high prestige and was nicknamed "Yang the Invincible". He was later appointed martial art officer in the Qing court with rank higher than a seventh grade official. When he paid a visit to to Chenjiagou to see his old friends, he received a warm welcome.

At that time there was a martial arts master named Liu who had taught thousands of students. One day, he challenged Yang Ban-hou (1837-1892), who was Yang Luchan's second son, to a contest. Yang Ban-hou, who was then in the prime of his youth and a bit bellicose by nature, accepted the challenge without hesitation. During the contest (which attracted hundreds of people) Yang Ban-hou sent his opponent reeling to the ground several metres away with a stunning blow of his palm. Since then, Yang Ban-hou was also called "Yang the Invincible".

The number of people wishing to learn Taijiquan began to increase. To meet popular needs, Yang Luchan gradually deleted all the difficult movements from the series called the Taijiquan solo form such as jumps and leaps, explosions of strength and vigorous foot stomping. After revisions by his third son Yang Chien-hou (1837-1917), this series of movements came to be known as "Zhong Jia" (medium frame). Later it was again revised by Yang Ch'eng-fu (1883-1936), the third son of Yang Chien-hou, which finally developed into the present "Da Jia" (large frame) style because of its extended and natural posture and slow and even movements. It was different from his uncle Yang Ban-hou's style which was known under the name of "Xiao Jia" (small frame). "Da Jia" is now the most popular Yang school of Taijiquan.

The Yang School of Taijiquan was born out of the Ch'en School Taijiquan (known as "Lao Jia or "Old Frame"). The Yang Style movements are relaxed, even and graceful like the drifting clouds and flowing stream, quite unlike the Ch'en Style which alternates slow with quick movements, and vigorous with restrained and controlled actions. The performance of the Yang Style of Taijiquan is terse and simple and always moves in a circular path, just like "reeling off raw silk from a cocoon". The movements are naturally combined with breathing which should be deep and should "sink to the Dan Tian" (the point in the lower belly slightly below the navel). Here again, it is quite different from the Ch'en Style which combines "sink deep breath to the Dan Tian" with "breath circulation in the lower belly".

Good for the health and known for its curative effects, the Yang School of Taijiquan which is easy to learn has caught the fancy of an increasing number of people, and that is why it is more popular than the Ch'en School.

The magnificent skill of three generations of the Yang family won them great renown throughout the capital. What was noteworthy was the fact that they unstintingly passed on their skill to many young people, which is perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many followers of the Yang School of Taijiquan today. In 1926, Yang Ch'eng-fu was invited to teach Taijiquan in the South successively in Nanjing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Hankou. Thus the Yang School of Taijiquan spread throughout the country.

Noted for its extended and natural postures, well-knit and steady movements, the Yang Style of Taijiquan combines vigor with gentleness, with its actions following a circular path. Each and every form or movement contains the technique of countering and overpowering the adversary.

The Yang School of Taijiquan has three frames (form): high, medium and low. The learner may determine the amount of exercise in accordance with his or her age, physical condition, objectives and specific requirements.

Because the movements are extended and natural, gentle and lissom, graceful and unique in style, as well as simple and easy to learn, the Yang School of Taijiquan has won the favor of a large number of martial arts enthusiasts.

Yang Ch'eng-fu, one of the founders of the school, was a great martial arts master of his time. Whenever he practised Taijiquan, he strictly followed the routines and was never lax in his movements. The movement of his entire body exemplified the quintessence of Taijiquan exercises. Yang Ch'eng-fu once said: "Taijiquan is an art with strength concealed in the gentle movements, like 'an iron hand in a velvet glove' or a needle concealed in cotton". He cautioned learners to always keep to the roundness and relaxation in their movements which, he said, must be gentle, natural, flexible and smooth as well as synchronized with one's mind. Actually, this is a summing up of his own experience and attainment.

After Yang Ch'eng-fu came to the southern part of China, he gradually realized that Taijiquan had the efficacy of treating chronic disease, building up one's health and bringing longevity. When he gave Taijiquan exhibitions in the "Zhirou Wushu Association" during his early days in Shanghai (which were set up by his disciple Chen Weiming, an editor working in the "Qing Dynasty History Institute"), he performed the movements of kicking with speed and force. Later, however, to suit the needs of treating chronic disease, he changed them to slow movements with inner exertion of force. In such movements as punching downward and punching the opponents pubic region, he made only imitations instead of manifest exertions of force, thus making the set of movements continuous and evenly paced.

Yang Ch'eng-fu was a stalwart and handsome man. Creating a style all his own, he had mastered extraordinary skill in "Tui Shou" (Push Hands) and was good at both attack and defense. Though his punches were delivered in a gentle manner, they were as hard as steel bar wrapped in soft cloth. He could deliver a stunning blow with only little action, and no sooner had the opponent felt that he was attacked than he was flung several meters away without being hurt. While other schools might regard injuring the opponent as the main objective, Yang Ch'eng-fu merely overpowered the opponent without hurting him, thereby blazing a new trail for the art of attack in the martial arts. It is small wonder so many learners not only wanted to master the skill but enjoyed doing so.

Yang Shao-hou (1862-1930). Yang Ch'eng-fu's older brother, was also a famous Taiji master who learned most of his skills from his uncle Yang Ban-hou. Like his uncle, Yang Ban-hou was bellicose by nature. His Taijiquan "frame" style was originally similar to his brother's, but later it gradually changed to the style of high "frame" with lively footwork and well-knit small movements, alternating quick and slow actions. He was swift and powerful in delivering his blows and, with eyes blazing like torches, a grim smile on his face and roaring and howling as he darted back and forth, he was held in awe by others. The technical features of this kind of Taijiquan were: overcoming strong attacks with soft movements, adapting oneself to others' movements and following up with quick attacks, using the motion of "sudden connection" to defeat the opponent with suprise attacks. The hand movement included catching, pushing and capturing, injuring the attacker's muscles and harming his bones, attacking the opponent's vital points and "controlling" his arteries and veins, using "continuous" and "sudden connection" force to throw the attacker to the ground with lightning speed.

When teaching his pupils, Yang Shao-hou would attack them without pulling his punches. His attacking movements were swift and ferocious, and his facial expression changeable and varied. All of this made it difficult for his trainee to imitate, which was why many of them dropped out halfway. And that was also perhaps why Yang Shao-hou's style of Taijiquan was not as popular as Yang Ch'eng-fu's, though the two brothers enjoyed an equally high reputation during their lifetime.

Yang Shao-hou followed his brother to the southern parts of the country and gave lectures in Shanghai and Nanjing. Many officials and rich merchants vied with one another to learn from him.

Yang Ch'eng-fu's techniques improved and matured with the passage of time. In his middle age, his Taijiquan reached its apex, and his performance had that touch of magnificence and gallantry as few masters could acquire. In the book 'T'ai Chi Chuan Techniques' written by his disciple Chen Wei Ming in 1925, there were 37 photographs showing Yang Ch'eng-fu in different postures and four photographs showing Yang Ch'eng-fu doing Tui Shou (Push Hands) exercise with Xu Yusheng. In the book 'A Manual of T'ai Chi Chuan' compiled by Cheng Man Ch'ing in 1934 for Yang Ch'eng-fu, there were 104 photographs. Although Yang's weight was 290 pounds at that time, his movements were natural and relaxed, combining vigor with gentleness. It could be said that he had attained the acme of technical proficiency.

Yang Ch'eng-fu's eldest son, Yang Zhenming (Yeung Shou Chung), has been teaching Taijiquan in Hong Kong since 1949. Yang Zhenji, his second son, is at present the chairman of the Wushu Association of the city of Handan in Hebei Province. Yang Zhenduo, the third son, is now teaching Taijiquan in the city of Tai Yuan in Shanzi Province and is also the chairman of the Research Association of the Yang School of Taijiquan in that province. In November 1961 he went to Shanghai to give a Taijiquan exhibition which caused a great sensation. Many Taijiquan fans made a special trip to Shanghai to watch him perform.

Yeung Shou Chung has three daughters living in Hong Kong: Amy Yeung, Mary Yeung and Agnes Yeung, who carry on the family art of Taijiquan. His first disciple, Ip Tai Tak, is retired and living in Hong Kong. The second disciple, Gin Soon Chu, has been teaching Taijiquan in Boston since 1969, and his third disciple, K. H. Chu, has been teaching Taijiquan in England and Europe for the past ten years.

Author Notes:

Mr. Gu Liuxin was born in 1908. A Taijiquan specialist in mainland China, in the last three decades he represented China many times as a taiji teacher overseas. In 1977 and 1980 he taught taijiquan in Japan where people were amazed at what he could do.

His martial arts training began in 1919 at the age of 11. In the last 60 years, besides practicing on his own and teaching students, he searched out many excellent taijiquan teachers and combined their teaching and knowledge in his taijiquan research. Currently he is the VP of the Sports Medicine Institute, Wushu Research member, President of Shanghai Wushu Association and Editorial member of China Great Encyclopedia Sport Section. He has written or co-authored the following books:

Chen Style T'ai Chi Chuan 1963
Research in T'ai Chi Chuan 1964
How to Practice T'ai Chi Chuan 1974
The Art of T'ai Chi Chuan 1982
Pao Tsui Chen Style T'ai Chi Chuan #2 1983

copyright (c) 2001 Taijiquan Ezine

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