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The Ultimate Martial Art

By Frank Simons

In this lecture you will learn about the origins and features of Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu, and Sun, the five families of t’ai chi practice. The style that started them all was Chen; grand master Chen Bu lived in the 1300s. But it is the ninth-generation Chen patriarch, Chen Wan-ting, who gets much of the credit for bringing together all of the training practices into two routines. The Chen style is characterized by stances that are deeper and wider than most of the other styles of t’ai chi. The tempo of the routines varies in speed throughout, with soft-slow motions punctuated by faster and more powerful punches, slaps, kicks, and grabs.

Video Presentation
Essentials of T’ai Chi and Qigong, Part 5, The Five Families of T’ai Chi Practice
Thu, Jun 30, 5:30pm
Meditation Center
Callejón Blanco 4
Free, donations accepted

The Yang style is named for Yang Lu-chan, the first person outside the Chen family to be accepted as a disciple and to master the style. Having sworn an oath to his master not to reveal the secrets of the Chen style to outsiders, he created his own style. He made the movements larger, softer, and rounder. The style was still devastatingly effective, but also gentler and easier to learn. Yang style surpassed Chen in popularity and is the most well-known and widely practiced around the world, due to the teaching of Yang Chen-fu, Lu-chan’s grandson.

Wu Quanyou, a Manchurian officer, became so adept he was invited to become a disciple of Yang Lu-chan’s oldest son. He made distinctive adaptations to the original Yang style and developed his own family system, the Wu style, the third of the five families. One of the distinctive characteristics of Wu style is that it is more upright but also adopts an inclined posture—interpreting the principle of a straight spine to mean aligned from the back heel, along the leg, to the top of the head, creating an impression of piercing.

The original patriarch of the Wu/Hao style was a man named Wu Yu-xiang, a scholar and wealthy merchant, and student of Yang Lu-chan. This style is distinctive in that the stances are very upright and quite narrow. The self-defense techniques are small and subtle, focusing on grappling and joint control, much like jujitsu. Wu is considered the third-oldest style, and it is currently the least popular; it is rare and not commonly seen in public. However, it has had a profound influence on all the other styles of t’ai chi and t’ai chi culture through its main contribution, the family writings on the theory and philosophy of t’ai chi chuan.

The Sun style is the youngest and is sometimes called the “combination style.” It was a deliberate attempt to bring together all the major internal martial arts into a unified system. Sun Lu-tang was a serious martial artist who had already studied under the Wu/Hao lineage. He was born into a peasant family, struggled to survive conditions in 19th century China, achieved a classical Confucian education, learned to read and write, and was successfully upwardly mobile. The Sun style is characterized by quick and deft movements, freely advancing or retreating in agile steps. Stances are high, more upright and natural, with the feet no wider than shoulder width. The movements are short and compact with hand movements connected into a corresponding leg movement.


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