How Old Is The Term Taijiquan?

(I wrote this article around two years ago as a response to Stanley Henning’s work entitled ‘Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan’. The tone and design of this work is generally dismissive and denigrating toward the subject of Chinese traditional culture, and represents, in my opinion, a continuation of the imperialist Eurocentric attitude that is essentially ‘materialistic’ in nature, and implicitly ‘intolerant’ to any other world-view. Astonishly, this attitude that misrepresents Chinese culture is prevalent (even dominant) amongst Western martial arts media, and is found within martial arts online discussion forums, etc. One or two Taijiquan magazines in the West even partake in this attitude that demeans the Chinese cultural basis of the martial art they practice and support. Working from Chinese language source texts – which I do – I can say without a doubt that Henning’s viewpoints are not acknowledged as legitimate, and are ignored in China. The idea that certain lineal descendents of the Wu family of Taijiquan claim to have written the Yang family Taijiquan Classic texts appears to be only a Western trend – as this idea is not accepted within China. Indeed, such a claim is viewed as the Wu family trying to raise their lineage of Taijiquan above that of the Yang, but again, such a phenomenon could only happen in the West, outside of the cultural controls of Chinese culture. What is important is that the traditional Chinese cultural heritage is acknowleded and treated with respect. SDD)

The following link is to a copy of an article (by Stanley Henning) regarding the origin and date of the term ‘Taijiquan’;

Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan: By Stanley Henning

Henning discusses the origin of the term ‘Taijiquan’ and suggests that it was invented as late as 1854, and that any attempt to contradict this date is a product of both ignorance and myth originating within Chinese culture. Henning is not stating this explicitly, but he is implying it by presenting and passing on information in a specific manner designed to lead the general reader toward this particular conclusion. This is the section of Henning’s article that clearly defines his intention;

‘Yang style books, tended to copy the Zhang Sanfeng story of the origins of Taijiquan.  Infact, they even went beyond the call of duty by attributing portions of Wu Yuxiang’s writings to Zhang Sanfeng. After all, what self respecting founder would fail to pass on a few pearls of wisdom? Wu was merely the founder’s ghost writer. Anyway, who would know? Actually, the most important Yang Style “classics” are from Wu’s writings, except for Wang Zong Yue’s Taijiquan Theory, and there are some who believe Wu even penned it as well as coined the term “Taijiquan” around 1854, but that is another story!’

The references Henning gives for this final statement (numbered “22” in his text) are emarkably ‘sparse’ considering the implications and impact that this conveyed i nformation is bound to produce, the single reference reads as follows;

‘Zhao Ximin Op Cit’

Throughout the article, Henning writes with vigour and confidence. He firmlybelieves that he has the moral and intellectual upper-hand to comment authoritatively upon this subject.  Yet at the end of the paragraph in question, even when he delivers the final crushing blow (to traditional thinking), he distances himself from the implications of his own statement with the words ‘there are some who believe’, giving the distinct impression, upon closer examination, that perhaps he does not necessarily subscribe to the view (his writing projects), which is premised upon a single reference.  It must be concluded, however, that the end of this paragraph lacks the usual confidence that exudes throughout the rest of the article.  Why should this be? 

Henning’s article itself is in reality an attempt at projecting a strictly ‘materialist’ Western paradigm upon a set of historical circumstances that developed within a different cultural milieu. Indeed, the initial premise for the article rests upon Henning’s obvious and expressed dislike for a book entitled ‘The Art of Tai Chi’, by Paul Crompton.  The central reason for this dislike, is that the book by Crompton (so Henning believes) conveys within its pages the myth that Taijiquan might have developed from the Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng – a common enough opinion found within Chinese language sources. This, of course, if it were true, would imply an ancient origin for the art of Taijiquan. However, this idea, (present in virtually all traditional schools) is not conveyed as a ‘fact’ by Crompton as he clearly refers to it as a myth, albeit an inspiring one.  Even Henning has to admit this when he directly quotes from Crompton;

“True or not, the very existence of the legends tends to elevate Tai Chi and make it some thing to be striven for.”  (The Art of tai chi: By P Crompton – Page X)

However, this single statement, according to Henning, serves as the motivation behind his article.  Henning uses Crompton as the justification for his attempted dismissal of the Zhang Sanfeng myth in its relationship to the development of Taijiquan.  Indeed. this is the true objective and intention behind Henning’s article. Crompton is used (rightly or wrongly) as a catalyst for the negative assessment of Zhang Sanfeng. Nothing Henning presents in this regard is original, and his rhetoric appears to be more of an attack on Chinese culture, rather than an as a legitimate attempt to establish objective historical accuracy.  All the facts he uses are available elsewhere and Henning is careful in his presentation of them. The idea that Taijiquan has more than one origination story, or that it is not possible to know fully the real beginning of the art, again is not new.  Many traditionalists, both Western and Chinese, tend to know simultaneously nowadays, both the mythological and the historical narratives – (the former speculative, the latter factual), and as such, are able to integrate and present them for what they are.  The vital and most important point that Henning misses (or chooses not acknowledge) is that ‘myth’ does not have to be destroyed – for ‘historical fact’ to be established. This is the greatest flaw in Henning’s article. In effect, he presents nothing academically ‘new’, other than his own view-point, which clearly expresses that he does not favour Chinese mythology, in relation to the historical assessment of Taijiquan development. This is especially true of the ‘1854’ date he tentatively presents as the time the term ‘Taijiquan’ was invented.

Unfortunately, as Henning presents virtually no evidence to back this theory up, this statement may be viewed as being as unreliable as the mythology he attempts to discredit.  The facts that Henning presents, are presented well, fulfilling the agenda he is striving to establish, but crucial pieces of information are omitted in his narrative.  Consider, for instance the fact that the emperor Taizong (1627-1643), called himself ‘Taiji’. Henning does not go into this aspect in much more detail, other than to say that when an emperor uses a name, it is forbidden for others to do so.  This is correct, but the emperor Taizong lived during much of the lifetime of Chen Wangting (1600-1680), and Henning does not make the obvious connection that as a result of the taboo surrounding the emperor’s name, the Chen family could not have publically called their art ‘Taiji’ even if this was its actual name.  However, according to the well known Chen stylist Davidine Sim, an even earlier taboo stemming from the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) was also in effect regarding the use of the term ‘Taiji’, linked to the Taizu emperor, although the term ‘Taiji’ does occur (in the commentary section) of the much earlier Book of Changes (Yijing), dating to around 300 BCE, and has been associated with martial practice for many hundreds of years.

The body of Henning’s article may be considered a rehash of the old ‘Wudang’ vs. ‘Shaolin’ mythology, with the facts (where they can be established), presented in a logical, if not meandering fashion; dates, names of emperors and portions of lineages, etc.  China’s ‘Self Strengthening’ movement is mentioned near the end, as the final impetus for the association of Zhang Sanfeng with the development of Taijiquan – but oddly enough, Henning (who has written in military journals), does not acknowledge that this movement developed in China as a response to the rampant Western Imperialist aggression typical of the time.  Curiously Henning makes no reference to the pre-Song uses of the term ‘Taiji’ which are known to refer to the practice (and usage) of martial arts.  It is ironic therefore, that Henning would refer to Chinese myths and legends as ‘ignorance’, when so much of his historical omissions and oversights could well attract a similar criticism.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2012.

%d bloggers like this: