The ‘Yang’ Style of Taiji (Tai Chi) was introduced to the Deng Family by my Sifu’s Father, Deng Gum To.
I will talk a little bit about the history of Taiji, and the Various ‘Styles’ or Forms practised today.
Like all good Chinese Martial arts, Taiji has a ‘creation myth’- this one involves the ‘Wudang Mountains’ and a Taoist sage, Chan Senfeng.
‘Chang San Feng’
was born in 1247 and as a young man studied Shaolin Kung Fu. When he was 67 years old, he met a Taoist sage and learned ‘internal alchemy’ and practised for four years, but did not reach a deep level. He travelled to the Wudang Mountain for solitary practise, and after nine years he ‘attained the Tao’ (Way) and lived to be over 200 years old. He created Tai Chi after witnessing a battle between a snake and a magpie, and realised the principle of ‘soft defeats hard’. There are lots of incredible tales of him fighting tigers bare handed, and similar exploits.
The practise of martial arts has been passed down through the Chen Family in their village for hundreds of years. There are reliable historical records showing that the First Generation was Chen Wan Ting, who was born in the late 16th Century. The sixth generation successor was Chen Chang Hsin (1771-1853) who developed the sets that would be recognised and practised today as ‘Chen Style Taiji’. In those days, they were not called Tai Chi, but would have been called ‘Longfist Boxing’ and shared many techniques and weapons with the Shaolin school.
2. Yang Family
Tai chi as we know it today, with the slow, graceful movements, was really developed and popularised by the Yang Family over three generations.
The first generation was Yang Lu Chan. (1799-1872) Like many masters, he began with the Shaolin school in his youth, then he heard about Chen Village and really wanted to study there. He travelled to the village but they would not teach outsiders. Undaunted, he worked nearby in a farm and eventually proved his sincerity and was allowed to study there. After completing his study, he returned home to teach his friends and neighbours, then he travelled to Beijing where he taught the royal family, which made the art much more famous. He had lots of challenge fights and was known as ‘No Rival’ Yang.
The second generation was Yang Jian Hou (1839-1917) who learned from his father. Training was strict and brutal. He was often punished with a whip and wanted to leave home as the training was so hard. Eventually he became a great master. When he taught later, he omitted many of the athletic leaps, jumps and difficult movements, and started to emphasise the practise as a method of improving health.
The third generation was Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936) he learned from his father, but did not begin until the age of 20. Initially, he could not see the point of martial arts, but his father persuaded him of the health benefits. After his father died, he began to practise much more diligently and ended up reaching a very high level of skill, and developing the family form even further. His form is the soft ‘large frame’ that we see today and is considered the ‘orthodox’ Yang form.
Yang Cheng Fu’s eldest son was called Yang Sau Chung (1910-1985). He travelled to Canton and Hong Kong and spread Tai Chi to Southern China. It was from him that Deng Gum To (my Sifu’s father) learned the Yang Family Tai Chi.
3. Li Family and the development of the ‘Modern’ Tai Chi sets.
In China today, the most popular sets are the ‘standardised’ routines of the ’24 Forms’, the ’88 forms’, the ’32 posture Tai Chi sword’, and the ‘Combined 42 Forms’. The first three were based on the Yang style, and the postures of Li Yulin. (a contemporary of Yang Cheng Fu). The last was developed for competition.
There was a famous martial artist called Li Jing Lin (1885-1931) who was called the ‘Sword God’- famous for his ‘Wudang Sword’ technique. He opened a large school of martial arts in Beijing. He wanted to teach Tai Chi in his curriculum and got Yang Cheng Fu as a technical advisor to create a ‘Standardised’ form. This was so that they could take photos as a ‘textbook’ and teach in a more modern way (The old masters, did not ‘fix’ their forms and would adjust them to the individual, or the situation.) The pictures used the famous martial artist ‘Li Yulin’
Li Yulin was a training brother of Yang Cheng Fu, and they exchanged methods and techniques. His main teacher was ‘Sun Lutang’ (1860-1933)- one of the most famous fighters in China at that time.
Sun Lutang was an expert in the Hsing-Yi and Bagua styles, and learned Tai Chi from Wu Yu Xiang (1812-1880) who was a student of Yang Luchan. Later, he created his own style known as ‘Sun style Tai Chi’.
4. After the establishment of the ‘People’s Republic of China’ in 1949:
With the advent of communism, the practise of martial arts was considered old fashioned and was not encouraged. The party initially tried to ban Tai Chi, but was later convinced of its benefits i.e.keeping the population fit, healthy and able to work.
They considered the 88 Form to be too wasteful of time (Since it took 20 minutes to perform.) and wanted to develop a routine that could be performed in 5 minutes, and retain the health benefits, whilst being easy to learn.
Li Tianji at that time was the inheritor of his fathers martial arts (Li Yulin) and was a very famous coach in Beijing. He was asked to develop the simplified routine. He based it on his fathers standardised form, but omitted many of the repetitions, and a few of the more difficult moves. The resulting form was released in 1956, and promoted throughout China as a national treasure and a way of promoting health. This was the ’24 Posture form’.
(IMPORTANT: Many people think the 24 posture form is ‘less martial’ than the orthodox form. I can clearly say this is not the case, as the postures are all traditional as used by Li Yulin. This was before Tai Chi was practised for show. Of course, people who only learn the set, and not the applications or the sparring, will not develop fighting skill, but please understand that is due to the TRAINING METHODS and not actual tai chi postures or techniques in the set.)
The government wanted to spread Tai Chi throughout China. In each province, the top masters were selected to travel to Beijing to learn the routines. In Guangdong province, only two masters were selected. One of those was Deng Gum To.
Deng Gum To (1902-1987) became close friends with Li Tianji, and learned the standardised routines from him: The 24, 88, 32 sword and the combined 48 posture form (Which was later modified to the 42 posture form.) of course, he had already learned Yang style Tai Chi from Yang Sau Chung, before he fled to Hong Kong in 1949.
Because of his status, Deng Gum To was allowed to keep his school open and continued to teach during the cultural revolution, when many of the privately run schools were closed down. He loved to coach children in the modern style, and taught the simplified Tai Chi to the elderly, but continued to teach his Traditional styles of Hap Kyun and Hung Kyun.
His Son Deng Jan Gong- (my Sifu) was one of the first in Canton to learn the ’24 forms’, and won many competitions in Tai Chi, as well as the Southern Styles of Kung Fu.
5. ‘Mon Loy Jam’ and the development of ‘Deng Style Tai Chi’.
Before the name ‘Tai Chi’ became commonly known, many other systems of Kung Fu also had a slow, soft practise method.
In the ‘Hap Kyun’ system as taught by Wong Yan Lum, he called the practise ‘Min Loy Jam’ which means- ‘Needle in Cotton’.
This refers to the ‘hardness concealed in softness’, like cotton wool with a needle inside. Exactly the same training concept as the Yang Style Tai Chi, but different techniques. Some lineages have a separate set called ‘Min Loy Jam’, but originally, it was simply a practise method that could be applied to any of the sets in the system.
Modern terminology describes ‘External Forms’ as being those practised with obvious physical strength, and ‘Internal Forms’ as those practised with use of Intention (Yi) and Energy (Qi) emphasised without using obvious force. On that spectrum: Shaoilin is considered ‘External’ and Tai Chi ‘Internal’. But this is really not correct, as many Shaolin practitioners have a very refined ‘internal’ practise, and many Tai Chi exponents are very much on an ‘External’ level of development- so I personally do not use such a distinction for a style or system.
In my Sigong’s curriculum (Deng Gum To), he would start students with the 24 forms, then the 88 Yang Style. Advanced students would learn the 48 Posture form which is a physically more challenging form. They would also learn the sword and ‘Pushing Hands’ exercises. Students who had completed the Tai Chi curriculum and wanted to continue their studies, he would teach them the Hap Kyun sets, but in the soft ‘Min Loy Jam’ style if they were older. (Young students would start their training with the Hap Kyun curriculum, I am speaking here of Tai Chi students). So for example, he would teach ‘Siu Law Horn’ set, but with the hands as open palms, rather than closed fists, and emphasising the use of the waist and legs in a relaxed co-ordinated fashion. in effect ‘Hap Kyun Tai Chi.’
My Sifu Deng Jan Gong wanted to compile a set of movements based on his decades of experience of Tai Chi, Hap Kyun and Hung Kyun.
Over the last 20 years he gradually distilled the movements into 3 sets of 36 movements each. 20 years ago he taught me the embryonic system in the UK, when he stayed at my school for three months. A couple of years ago, he published the final version in a book, and began teaching it publicly.
The first set is ‘Min Kyun’ (Cotton Fist), which can be done as a ‘chi kung’ exercise for health, but also contains a lot of practical self defence techniques. The set has some explosive ‘Fajin’ movements and looks similar to Chen Style tai chi, in that it contains fast and slow moves, rather than the smooth, even tempo of the Yang Style.
The second set is ‘Min Jeung’ (Cotton Palm). This set is softer, has no fast movements, and the techniques are more oriented to push hands, wrestling and chin na (Grabbing) techniques.
The third set in called ‘Ba Bin Jeung’ which means ‘8 Changes palm’. The set can be practised with fist, fan, sword, broadsword, stick, spear, umbrella or double knives! Hence ‘8 Changes’. Each weapon has its own specific method, but the sequence and choreography is similar for all.
The system is called ‘Needle in Cotton’, ‘New Frame Hap Kyun’ or ‘Deng Family Tai Chi’.
The concept is that they are performed gently, without force, relaxed and enjoyable for health- but each movement contains a fighting application that can be taken out of the set and drilled realistically if the student wants to.
My Sifu is 75 years old now and has trained in Chinese Martial arts for his entire life. These sets represent his own experience and expression of Tai Chi.