In old China, the different schools of martial arts were passed down from generation to generation within the family. So was Taiji Quan within Chenjiagou, or Chen Village, Henan Province, until Chen Changxing of the 14 generation broke this tradition in the 20-30’s of the 19th century by teaching the skills to Yang Luchan, who later created the most popular Yang-Style.
Yang Luchan was born into a poor family in 1799 in Guangping (present-day Yongnian) County, Hebei Province. He made a living by selling fine-grained yellowish soil used for making briquettes.
A man of sturdy build, with broad shoulders and powerful arms, he was known far and wide for his great strength. His wheelbarrow was always loaded with no less than 800 catties (400 kg) of soil, which was quite enough to meet the needs of half a street in the county seat.
Hence his nicknames of “800 Catties” and “Half the Seat.” Toiling and moiling in this way, he could earn just enough to support his family.
On the Western Street in the county seat, there was a traditional Chinese medicine store called Tai He Tang, owned and run by people from Chenjiagou.
It was said that they were good at a kind of slow-motion shadow boxing called Taiji Quan and they practiced it behind closed doors every day after opening hours. Thus no one knew exactly what it was.
One early morning Yang came to the county seat as usual, pushed his wheelbarrow to the door of the store and knocked. One of the attendants let him in without any suspicion. While taking his time to unload his harrow, Yang watched the shop attendants practicing Tuishou (Push Hands) in the courtyard.
It was quite different from the Hongquan Kungfu he had learnt. Their movements were gentle and slow, as if they were swimming leisurely or feeling for fish in a river.
“What kind of fighting art is this?” Yang said to himself with a sneer.
Unwilling to waste his time watching such nonsense, he left right after unloading, and thereafter he just laughed whenever people talked about Taiji Quan.
One day, he happened to see a crowd outside the medicine store. Hearing an exchange of angry words, he put his barrow by the roadside and edged his way through the crowd.
There were the Zhao brothers from the Northern Street shouting and swearing at the attendants. They wanted to return some herbs they had bought earlier and get a refund..
“All the herbs sold here are good”, one of the attendants said. “We can return the money if you insist. But as for the herbs, once they are sold we never take them back. You’ll have to take them away.”
“We mean business today,” one of the Zhaos roared.
“You’ve got to take the herbs back whether you like it or not!” With this he picked up the parcel of herbal medicine and hurled it at the attendant, who caught it in his hand with amazing dexterity and, with just a flick of his hand, threw it back, splashing the medicine all over the Zhao’s face.
All the Zhaos rushed at the attendant.
With seeming effortlessness, he threw them out one by one into the street.
It was only after quite a while they were able to get to their feet. The incident created a sensation in the town. Having seen it with his own eyes, Yang Luchan was convinced of the real power of Taiji Quan.
“It’s marvellous!” he remarked. “If this attendant is so skillful, his master must be even more terrific.”
From then on, Yang delivered soil to the store at a regular time every day and left without collecting any money. The manager had sent it to Yang’s home but it was returned intact.
To find out Yang’s intention, the manager invited him to a dinner on the eve of New Year’s Day. After three rounds of drinks, the manager asked, “There is an old saying when someone gives you a present he must have a request to make. If there is anything I can do for you please let me know.”
“I want to learn Taiji Quan.”
“That’s easy. But you had better learn it from really good masters. I’ll introduce you to Master Chen Changxing in Chenjiagou.”
Taking out a writing brush and a piece of paper, the manager immediately wrote a letter of introduction for him.
A few days later, Yang Luchan set out on his journey to Chenjiagou. It took him only four days to cover the 400km.
Chen Changxing treated him courteously with nice food and wine, but never mentioned anything about Taiji Quan. Yang became impatient with time and implored him to accept him as his pupil.
“I’ve stopped practising for years,” Chen said smiling. “You’d better learn from someone else.”
Yang’s heart sank when he heard Chen’s words which amounted to a flat refusal. No matter how much he pleaded, Chen was adamant.
Yang had no choice but to bow out.
Time went by and it was the depth of winter. Snow began to fall in big flakes and one afternoon did not stop until the next morning.
When the attendants in Chen Chanxiang’s house opened the door to sweep away the snow they saw someone lying on the ground. It was a beggar in tatters with a dirty dark face. He was shivering with cold and seemed to have lost consciousness.
They carried him into the house. When he came to, they found him to be a mute. Feeling sorry for the man Chen Changxing let him stay.
Being physically strong, the beggar did all kinds of work, carrying buckets of water from the nearby well, sweeping the floors and cleaning the house, making the fire and cooking. His diligence and thoroughness won the hearts of everyone.
Having successfully concealed his identity, Yang Luchan did household chores in the daytime, and in the evening when the family and Chen’s disciples started practicing Taiji Quan he would stand by and watch attentively, memorizing every movement.
On the fifteenth day of every lunar month when the moon was full, the Chen family held a contest at night, which was a special attraction to Yang. Since he was a mute, the Chens did not mind his presence.
Every night, when the whole family had gone to sleep, Yang would get up and practise all the parts he had memorised.
Three years passed without incident then one night when Yang was practising as usual, Chen Changxing happened to get up. When he saw someone in the courtyard, he called out, “Who’s there?!” “It’s me Luchan,” Yang blurted out in his unguarded moment.
Chen Changxing asked in great surprise: “You’re a mute. How can you speak now ?”.
Yang told Chen how he had disguised himself as a dumb beggar to get himself accepted and how he had learnt Taiji Quan by watching and practicing late at night for three years.
Deeply moved by Yang’s determination, Chen asked him to show him what he had learnt. Taking off his jacket, Yang demonstrated all the routines he had picked up. His performance, skillful and true to the Chen style, compared favourably with that of Chen Changxiang’s children and nephews.
“Since you’ve been working so hard at it,” Chen said, “you may stay here for another three years. I’ll teach you personally.”
Yang was overjoyed and kowtowed again and again. From then on, the two got along so well they looked like Father and son. Chen passed on to his new disciple all the essentials of Taiji Quan and combat skills with barehands and weapons and the ways of training inner strength.
When he returned to his home town, he was a proficient and versatile wushu master.
Knowing how to avoid and subdue forceful blows in fighting, he gained a reputation for his “Cotton Boxing”, also known as “Tender Boxing” or “Softening Boxing”.
In 1850, Yang Luchan helped the Desheng Armed Escort Bureau to get back a large amount of silver which had been entrusted to it by the Prince of Duan, a member of the imperial family, but had been robbed by highwaymen.
This won the Prince’s favour and Yang was invited to teach wushu in his mansion. In the meanwhile, he often took time off to teach the common people in Beijing.
He revised and rearranged the “old frame” of the Chen style, and created a new style of his own, based on a “small frame” and with the most difficult moves omitted. Further changes were made by his posteriors until it developed into the present Yang-style Taiji Quan.
by Yang Gulfu
The Heirs to the Yang Tradition.
The banner of Yang-Style Taiji Quan is now in the hands of Yang Luchan’s two great-grandsons Yang Zhendou and his older brother Yang Zhenji. The pair were taught by their father Yang Chengfu (1883-1936) and worked very hard to master the essence of the an.
It has been said that both their movements closely resemble their
father’s and both are renowned for their skill at pushing hands.
Yang Zhenji is the president of the Handan Wushu Association, whilst Yang Zhendou is the president of the Shanxi Yang Style Taiji Quan Society.
Both work tirelessly to promote their family’s skill and today Yang Style Taiji Quan is one of the most widely practised of the five schools of Taiji Quan.
The Yang Style Taiji Quan is a legacy of our family and a precious gem of our nation’s culture.
by Yang Zhenji