Taijiquan, known in the West as Tai chi is an ‘inner’ Chinese martial art, in contrast to ‘outer’ martial arts such as Shaolin kung fu.
Internal martial arts (Neijia) tend to develop first of all the inner strength and vital qi energy flowing through the body. The school of reference is the Wudangs Monastery located in the mountains of the same name in central China.
In contrast, external martial arts (Waijia) favour practices aimed at strengthening the physique and are said to have originated in the Shaolin Monastery, after which the famous school is named.
Many great martial arts masters liken the difference between inner and outer to that which exists between the two Taoist principles Yin (‘darkness’, ‘cold’, …) and Yang (‘light’, ‘heat’, …): two opposing principles, but which coexist in harmony complementing each other, like ‘two sides of the same coin’.
Origin of Taiji: between history and legend
According to one legend, Taiji was created by a Taoist Immortal named Chang San-feng (or also Zhang Sanfeng) while observing a fight between a cobra and an eagle. It is said that Chang San-feng was fascinated by the snake’s defensive tactics: if the cobra had tried to escape, it would have been wounded by a stinging peck and strangled to death in the grip of the eagle’s claws. By controlling its fears and maintaining total concentration on the eagle’s various lunges and retreats, the cobra managed to avoid being hit by the eagle’s beaks and managed to bite the eagle’s neck, killing it.
Other theories on the origin of taiji narrate that this discipline developed over the centuries from the exercise sequences of the great kung fu masters, which is why it represents a synthesis of the internal and external styles of Chinese martial arts.
Whatever the origin, which is now mingled with stories and legends, the bottom line is that tai chi, according to historical sources and records, was born at the end of the 17th century, but only reached its current level of popularity among the population around the 20th century. Today, it is very common to see groups of elderly (or not so elderly!) people practising various styles of tai chi in Chinese city parks. One of the favourite parks is the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing.