Some Hidden Secrets Of Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan (That I Know Of)

In many ways T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan) is a mysterious and elusive art. This is not surprising as it has had a fairly shrouded past, like many of the Chinese martial arts. Till relatively recently, life and death combat were common place in China and so it was important to keep the secrets of the martial arts well hidden within families and clans. The arrival of western firearms in China and the defeat of Qing dynasty’s troops in the late 19th century had an enormous negative impact on traditional martial arts training, and made this need for secrecy less important.

Yet a reluctance to reveal the essence of these arts still seems to linger amongst the Chinese community to this day. Here are some examples of these lesser known aspects I have discovered over the years from the style of Tai Chi this site is concentrating on - the Yang family style:

Standing Qigong Training

According to a set of notes I received from Master Chu King hung, Official No. 3 disciple of Yang Sau chung, whilst training with him in London in the 1980s, Master Yang Sau chung (the eldest son of Yang Chengfu) only released the standing qigong training to the public in the 1950s. Since then mainland China has gone through a qigong boom in the 1990s, so that now all sorts of qigong, including standing training, have become quite well known. Before this the training was a secret part of the Yang family curriculum.

Form Training with Different Heights and Circles

Some of these ‘secret’ or perhaps, to be more accurate, less well-known aspects of Yang family training, began to emerge whilst I was training with Master Chu King hung; others have ‘surfaced’ in the years since. For example, Master Chu came into our class one day (back in the 1980s), well after I had completed the three revisions of the form that is part of the family curriculum (yin/yang form, open/close form and centre-move form) and, to our great surprise, started to teach us the form all over again in a different way. It was much lower and there was much more of a ‘lean’ in the postures, and the arm positions had smaller circles in them.

Upon my return to Australia a little while later for a holiday, I showed this new form to Erle Montaigue, an ex-student of Master Chu’s, and thus a Taiji friend of mine, who was setting about making a name for himself in the Taiji world. Erle was dismayed at the differences between what he had learnt from Master Chu and what I showed him. Unknown to me, in somewhat of a panic, he sent an audio tape over to Master Chu asking him why he had changed the form.

This caused problems for me when I got back to London as I was confronted by Master Chu because of some of the things Erle had said on his tape. Master Chu and I had quite a row as a result and at times during it I was afraid he was going to throw me out of the school. I told him I thought he should clarify what was going on with the form training to the students to prevent the sort of confusion that Erle was suffering from. In the end, because I had been completely honest with him and argued my ground he shook my hand and said “now I know you, you a good man”.

He explained to me that Grand Master Yang (Sau chung) had instructed him recently to start teaching the medium height/small circle form in his school. This was the first inkling we had that the form could be taught at three different heights and three different circle positions in the arms. At some later point in time, some of Master Chu Gin Soon’s students (the official No. 2 disciple of Grandmaster Yang in Boston, USA) visited our school in London and demonstrated a version of the form done even lower.

I was subsequently to discover that, according to Master Ip Tai tak (the official No. 1 disciple of Grandmaster Yang based in Hong Kong, and Master Chu Gin Soon’s schools notes), the form was traditionally taught at three heights – high, known as the “Stork” or “Crane” form; medium height, known as the “Tiger” form, and low, known as the “Snake” form. The latter was done so low it could be done under a traditional Chinese table!

The high form is for beginners and has been described by the Yang family as the “Enter the Door Frame”, and is designed to stretch ligaments, connective fascia, twist the waste, and joints to loosen you up. It is a whole-body exercise designed to transform an ordinary person into a warrior. This is the form that has been popularised by the Yang family for the general public and is often used for its health benefits. Once your legs and ligaments are strong enough more advanced students go lower and lower. The reasons for this are discussed at more length in the next article, but put simply it is good for both health and combat training.

The Fast Form

Another aspect of traditional training in Yang style Tai Chi that is less well known or ‘secret’ is the existence of a fast form, known traditionally as Chung Quan (Chang Quan) or ‘Long Fist’. Early on in my tai chi career I had discovered references to it by Yang Cheng Fu himself, for example, in Douglas Wile’s well known book T’ai-chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions published in 1984 by (p.7). I was also aware, as reported in Wile’s book, that when Yang Cheng Fu had first arrived in Shanghai in the 1920s his form still featured fast kicks and strikes.

Also one was aware that Yang style had evolved out of Chen style, which has forms with alternating fast and slow movements known as pao chui (cannon/hammer fist) and the question was had the Yang family retained a version of it? I was intrigued by all this and had had discussions with colleagues about it including  Erle Montaigue and soon discovered that he was obsessed with finding it and later claimed he had found it and published it online (whether he did or made a version up himself still remains a mystery).

There was also a very good and pretty exhaustive series of articles published by Alex Yeo in Tai Chi Magazine[1] between 2002 and 2003 attempting to detail the complete Yang family system. It reveals a bewildering array of forms and approaches. It can be quite confusing with some of Yang Chen Fu’s respected disciples reporting the existence of a fast form, like Chen Weiming, and others, like Fu Zhongwen, denying it and saying there was only the solo form and that fast sets were just “speeded-up” versions of the solo form.

Yeo (2003b, 50) reports that the earliest mention of the Chang Chuan is in Chen Weiming’s 1928 book TaijiSword[2] and alsosays a student of Chen Wei Ming published a book in the 1950s depicting the Chang Chuan he had learnt from Chen and then later from Yang Chengfu’s son Yang Sau Chung (Yang Shouzhong). Yeo (2003b, 51) also refers to Yang Sau Chung’s lineage (Ip Tai Tak) in Hong Kong as continuing the fast form heritage.

What has emerged since is definitive evidence of a contemporary fast form coming down in Yang Sau chung’s lineage. This form has been referred to by Chu Gin Soon’s students, and in fact is discussed and the sequence listed on the Chu Gin Soon website[3].The same fast form has been demonstrated by sixth generation Yang family disciple John Ding on video[4], and also by students of Chu Gin Soon’s school on YouTube and their websites[5]. Like the earlier Chen form it alternates slow and fast patterns of movement. This set is still largely unknown and kept for advanced students, and thus many Yang style practitioners think the slow solo form is the only set in the Yang Chengfu system.

Specialised Training Techniques

Another controversial area involves the Snake form. As can be seen from the lineage chart the No. 1 disciple of Yang Sau Chung, Ip Tai Tak, took on two disciples. The first was John Ding in 1998 (based in London, UK) and the second Robert Boyd in 2001 (based in USA). In recent years Boyd has been claiming that the Snake form is the true, ‘secret’ form of the Yang family and emphasises the use of a deeper infrastructure of the body – core muscles of the scapulae, spine, ribs and illiopsoas muscles of the pelvic girdle. Even though he studied the higher Crane form and the Tiger form he now dismisses the Tiger form because he claims it creates postural faults that prevent the emergence of true ‘internal’ power. Understandably his claims have caused outrage amongst disciples of the Tiger form associated with the Chu Gin soon lineage[6] .

John Ding, on the other hand, states that while the Snake form has the potential to deliver some of the higher aspects of tai chi chuan it can only do so if it is based on a sound comprehension of the traditional long form. The implication to me is that the Snake form only comes after mastering the other forms. In John Ding’s syllabus[7] he teaches all three forms (Crane, Tiger and Snake). He also lists the Fast Form in his syllabus.

The final area I want to mention to illustrate some of this less well known aspects of the traditional Yang family tai chi syllabus was taught by Master Chu King-hung. It consisted of some quite detailed and complex head movements coordinated with the yin/yang, open/close and centre move aspects of the traditional form. Master Chu called it the neck spiral or head yin/yang form.

Conclusion

In four generations there have been six people teaching at least four variations of Yang Style Tai Chi. Past Masters like Yang Ban Hou emphasised small frame and others like Yang Chien Hou the medium frame, and Yang Chengfu the large frame. Is it any wonder that so many different forms and approaches to training have evolved? All one has to do is look at video demonstrations by Vincent Chu[8] to see this great variety and where the forms of some of the derivative styles like Wu came from. Also Alex Yeo’s articles reveal the same diversity of training approaches. It seems that the current Yang family lineage schools have synthesised many of these approaches.

So in today’s Tai Chi world we have, on the one hand, people practising ‘popular’ Yang style tai chi in a highly simplified form who know nothing of the depths of the family art. On the other, we have disciples of the Yang family lineage itself arguing over who has the correct detailed approach to training.



[1] Yeo, A., 2001, A New Look at T’ai Chi Origins, T’ai Chi, 25:4, pp. 21-27.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_______, 2002a, The Development of Modern T’ai Chi, ibid, 26:1, pp. 47-53.

_______, 2002b, The Origin and Development of Yang Style, ibid, 26:3, pp. 41-46.

_______, 2002c, Yang Style Development – 2, ibid, 26:4, pp. 59-60.

_______, 2002d, Yang Style Development – Part 3, ibid, 26:5, pp. 47-60.

_______, 2002e, Yang Complete (?) Systems – Part 1, ibid, 26:6, pp. 47-50.

­­­­_______, 2003a, Yang Complete (?) Systems – Part 2, ibid, 27:1, 99.42-45.

_______, 2003b, Yang Complete (?) Systems – Part 3, ibid, 27:2, pp. 48-51.

_______, 2003c, Yang Complete (?) Systems – Part 4, ibid, 27:3, pp. 44-47.

<[2]See Chen Wei Ming, 2000, (trans. By Barbara Davis) Taiji Sword and Other Writings, California: North Atlantic press, note 6, p. 85.

<[4]Yang 200. An Insight into the ancient Chinese Art of Tai chi Chuan, toward the end.

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