The Origins and Development of Taijiquan

Part of the book "Chen Family Taijiquan - Ancient and Present" published by CPPCC (the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) Culture and History Committee of Wen County, 1992

Translated from Chinese and photos - Jarek Szymanski; J.Szymanski 1999




"When you ask me where I come from, the answer is Big Scholar Tree in Hongdong, Shanxi"

Chen Family of Chenjiagou village in Henan province, the place Taijiquan originates from, comes from Shanxi. At the end of Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the laws and principles were abandoned, political affairs were in chaos, calamities were coming one after another, the masses lived in dire poverty and uprisings were breaking out all over the country. Later, Zhu Yuanzhang (first emperor of Ming dynasty, also called Ming Taizu) gradually put down the uprisings and united the country. When Ming soldiers attacked northern Huaiqing Prefecture (today's Qinyang city, in ancient times was a prefecture which governed eight counties, Wen County was one of them), they faced strong resistance from Yuan dynasty garrison led by general Timur and many people were hurt and killed. However the prefecture, a small area, could not endure the pressure from Ming army. After a long time the garrison went out of food, and with no help from outside, was finally defeated. Yuan soldiers apart from killed and hurt, seeing that not much could be done, all dispersed.

After Zhu Yuanzhang ascended the throne, he turned his anger to common people in Huaiqing Prefecture, saying they helped the tyrant to do evil and fought against heaven soldiers; hence he sent troops to "clean" Huaiqing three times and massacre innocent people. According to old stories, Ming soldiers after murdering people and burning their houses, were often leaving on purpose money, food, cloths, etc. at the crossroad in the center of a village. If they found out that somebody took it, new troops were sent to search high and low for a missing article. Although people were hiding with their wives and children, but  eight to nine out of ten did not manage to escape the disaster. After these three "cleanings" all the prefecture and its eight counties, the area of several thousand square kilometers, was covered by blood and bodies, almost no crops could be seen, a single rooster could hardly be heard within thousands villages; on the roads, weeds were knee-deep; the mansions were overgrown with them; a tidy human world in a moment turned into world of ghosts, too horrible to look at. At this point, Zhu Yuanzhang still not satisfied, "imposed tax equal to original one's triple value" to Huaiqing prefecture.


Monument to Big Scholar Tree (Da Huaishu) in Hongdong County, Shanxi Province

According to historical records, in the first years of emperor Hongwu (another name of Zhu Yuanzhang taken after he became emperor, used for counting years; Zhu was emperor from 1368 to 1398; thus 1368 was the first year of emperor Hongwu), Zhu Yuanzhang carried out mass migration and wasteland reclamation policy to recuperate and build up his strength; he set up a migration office in Shanxi province Hongdong County and arranged three large scale migrations forcing local inhabitants (Shanxi Province was one of the most populated provinces in China at that time) to move to sparsely populated, mainly because of calamities and wars, areas, including Huaiqing Prefecture. Although some of these immigrants were not from Hongdong County, however, since the starting point for all the migrations was below an old scholar tree (Huaishu) there, there is the saying about ancestors coming from "Big Scholar Tree".

In the fifth year of emperor Hongwu (e.g. 1372, although some say it was the seventh year; according to the study of Wen County gazetteers, there is no contradiction between these two statements. Chen Bu moved from Hongdong to Chenbuzhuang in the fifth year of Hongwu, while from Chenbuzhuang moved back to Changyang village in the seventh year. In this text the "fifth year" statement is used) an ordinary man from Shanxi Hezhou Jincheng County Dongtuhe village, Chen Bu, with his whole family fled from famine to Hongdong and was also forced by government officials to move to Huaiqing.

Chen Bu, sincere and honest man, was skillful in fist and weapon fighting. On the way, he was helping those in need and danger and was very respected by other immigrants. They all left their homes and worked forever, "ate in the wind and slept in the dew"; "under canopy of snow and frost" went through many hardships escorted by officials "like wolves and tigers" who were urging them on, before they reached Huaiqing Prefecture passing through many different places.

Chen Bu saw the place in the south-eastern part of prefecture, with Yellow River to the south and Taihang Mountains to the north, which a was wide expanse of flat land with fertile soil, good place for getting married, working, having sons and grandsons; thus Chen Bu discussed it with his family and they decided to settle down in this place. Together with other immigrants they cleaned it of rotten bodies and bones, cut down "thistles and thorns", built houses of dirt and covered them with grass roofs and in this way a village was erected. Since Chen Bu was a public-spirited person, the immigrants who came with Chen Bu named the village after him - Chen Bu Zhuang (Chen Bu's Village; this village in old times belonged to Qinyang, now it belongs to Wen County Beilengxiang). Although later Chen Bu moved away from there, but the name of the village has been kept without change for centuries. In spite of many administrative reforms, the village still exists with its original name. Local people say that the stone cover for the well located in the north-eastern part of village was in old times "a stone roller used by Chen Bu". Some elders can even tell stories about how Chen Bu and his wife were finding pleasure in helping others.


After two years (e.g. in the seventh year of Hongwu) because the land Chen Bu Zhuang was situated was lowlying and soil saline-alkali Chen Pu decided to find a higher place nearby and settle down. Hence, during slack season, he took some food and set out to make on-spot investigation of the places within ten li (Chinese unit of length, =0.5km) around Chen Pu Zhuang.

This day, Chen Bu arrived at the bank of Yellow River and saw a ridge called Qing Feng Ling (Green Wind Ridge). This ridge, although not very high or precipitous, was like a natural screen, keeping off surging yellow water, torrential muddy waters. There was a village on the ridge, and there was an old Chang Yang temple inside the village. Village was called after the temple - Chang Yang Village. Chen Bu entered the village and saw that on the south was a boundless sandy banks with a murmuring snake-like Yellow River winding to the east. To the north of the village was a high mound in a shape of head of a tiger, called Tiger Head Mound (Hu Tou Gang), although high and hungry for rain, but not failing to be used as farmland. Whole village was low in the south and high in the north, sunny and out of the wind and the crops would be guaranteed even during droughts or excessive rains. Chen Bu was very satisfied with this place. However he heard the villagers saying that there were many bandits hiding in the nearby hills, who would often come out to fight and rob the households and disturb the villagers. Villagers many times reported this to the local government but the officials did not send troops to suppress bandits. Since Chen Bu was a very skilful martial artist, he just laughed at it. Thereupon he fixed a date and moved with whole family from Chenbuzhuang to Changyang Village.

After Chen Bu settled down in Changyang Village, indeed saw the bandits from nearby hills constantly coming to the village molesting its inhabitants and plundering their households. In order to protect the homes and defend the villagers, indignant Chen Bu started preparations, and lead over one hundred of his disciples and young and strong people from the village. They slipped into Qing Feng Ling and, relying on exquisite methods of the boxing passed from ancestors, attacked bandits' lair, wiping them out at one fell sloop. Hence Chen Bu's fame shook the nearby villages and everyday more and more people were coming from all quarters to ask for teaching.

Chen Bu established a martial arts school in the village and was accepting students and passing on his knowledge. The martial art inherited from his ancestors and other styles that Chen Bu brought from Shanxi started to spread far and wide because of this school and practice of martial arts became family custom of Chen clan. Time flies like an arrow, "sun and moon move back and forth like a shuttle", more than two hundred years passed in the twinkling of an eye. Chen Bu's descendants were more and more and there were more people named Chen in the village; Chen family martial arts were passed on from generation to generation and enjoyed great prestige around; since there was a ditch in the village, people changed the name of the village from Changyang to Chenjiagou - Chen Family Ditch.

Chenjiagou in Chen Bu's times did not probably look much different than today




In the middle period of emperor Wanli (1573-1620; his other name was Zhu Yijun) Chenjiagou's Chen clan, counted from the first ancestor, Chen Bu, reached already ninth generation. Just at this time, a shining star on the sky of martial arts was born among nine generation descendants - it was Chen Wangting, later famous for compiling Taijiquan.


Chen Wangting (1600-1680) was also called Qinting. His grandfather, Sigui, held a position of Dianshi (Dianshi was an official position established during Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and later kept during Ming Dynasty as continuation of old tradition; Dianshi was a low-rank official under authority of county magistrate; for many dynasties there was a position of Wei who was responsible for catching bandits, however Ming Dynasty abolished Wei and (...) Dianshi was responsible for tax collecting; since again during Qing Dynasty Dianshi was mainly responsible for county jail and police tasks, so Dianshi was often referred to as Wei) in Shaanxi Province Didao County (in today's Gansu Province). Chen Wangting's father, Fumin, held a position of Zhengshilang (well-educated person nominated to official position through imperial edict). Wangting was the second of Fumin's four sons.

Chen Wangting was very talented and diligent, and studied hard since early childhood, practicing martial arts in the mornings and studying literature in the evenings. He not only received true transmission of family boxing, stand out of the common run, but was also well acquainted in classics of various traditional schools of thought, had great learning. When he grew up he became a man well versed in both martial arts and literature, exceptionally skilful in boxing and weapons, with extraordinary consummate skill of Qinggong (Light Skill, climbing high walls and walking on roofs). In his youth he escorted merchants' caravans in Shandong Province and defeated crowds of bandits; thieves and robbers were trembling with fear on hearing of his name. Since Chen Wangting had red and solemn face, long beard, used to ride a dark horse and hold halberd, his friends from martial arts circles gave him a nickname of "Second Master Guan" (e.g. Guan Yu, a hero from a novel "The Romance of Three Kingdoms"). During the reign of Ming Dynasty emperor Chongzhen (1628-1644) Chen Wangting was promoted by county magistrate and was in charge of township garrison.

At the end of Ming Dynasty, Chen Wangting, already a Xiangsheng (military Xiucai, a person who passed imperial examination at the county level) went to the township to participate in Wuju examinations (imperial examination at the provincial level). During the examination his extraordinary archery skill, "Phoenix seizes the nest" (shooting arrows one by one into the red circle inside the target so that each next one pushes out and replaces the former one), put out other participants.

However since Chen killed a person during the examination he had to flee the examination ground and went to Dengfeng to join the leader of peasant uprising Li Jiyu and avoid misfortune.

Later Chen Wangting went back to his home village to live in seclusion. After the uprising was defeated and Li Jiyu and his family were sentenced to death, one of Li's high-ranking officers, Jiang Fa, disguised himself and went to Chenjiagou as a servant. In order to deceive the outsiders, everybody in Chenjiagou was calling Jiang Fa "Jiang Bashi" (Bashi was in older times the name for long-term and seasonal laborers). Chen and Jiang were publicly known as master and servant, but actually they were bosom friends, everyday exchanging boxing skills, ploughing and teaching children. There are many stories that have been passed up to now in Chenjiagou, like "The heroes from Yudai Mountains became friends", "Chen Wangting accepts Jiang Fa as his brother", "Master and disciple from Mumenzhai demand the cow", "Jiang Fa puts down evil spirits at Yanghaiwa".

It is worth mentioning that since Jiang Fa had certain contribution when Chen Wangting was creating Taijiquan and was Chen's good friend and disciple, later Jiang Fa's name was also recorded in Taijiquan boxing manuals. On the picture of Chen Wangting, which is still kept in Chen Family Shrine, Jiang Fa is the person who stands behind Chen and carries halberd. Chen Xinlan, 76-years old (the book was published in 1992) lady from Chenjiagou, tells the following story:

Chen Wangting and Jiang Fa (holding the halberd)

"I remember my grandfather saying, there was a place called Xiao Wu Chakou ("Crossing of Five Little Roads") on the way to South Zhangqiang at the north-west of our village, around that place there were only old graves, eight poplars grew there, the place was low-lying, so people used to call it Yanghaiwa (Sea Depression among Poplars). There was a lot of trees there and the place was overgrown with weeds, very secluded, and ghosts and goblins, demons and monsters were appearing there and harming people. No matter if that was true or not, no people dared to pass through that place at night; even if somebody had an urgent necessity, he would still prefer to take a longer way around. After Jiang Fa passed away, since he did not belong to the family and could not be buried at the old Chen clan cemetery, some people suggested that he should be buried at Xiao Wu Chakou. Since Jiang Fa was very skillful at martial arts and upright, he certainly could put down wandering souls. As a result, people from the village burried Jiang Fa at Xiao Wu Chaokou. It was really strange, but since then the whole place became peacefull and quite. When I was a child the grave was still there and there was a stone tablet erected in front of it. Grandfather told me that this was the grave of Jiang Bashi. Since I could not read at that time, I do not know what was written there. The tablet was still there in 1958, later it disappeared. When older brother Ziming was still alive (Chen Ziming, ?-1951, famous martial artist from Chenjiagou, who wrote a book "Chen Family Taijiquan Method passed Through Generations") he often pointed at the western (two) rooms of Chen Wangting's old courtyard and was telling me: "Jiang Fa passed away in these rooms". Only after these two rooms collapsed they were pulled down, about thirty years ago; this is the courtyard Chen Tang lives now. Although Jiang Fa's grave was leveled later, but I still remember its approximate position."


"The Origins and Development of Taijiquan"; J.Szymanski 1999 (to be continued)



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Jarek Szymanski 1999-2002. All rights reserved 2002. All rights reserved