Spiralling In The Chen And Yang Styles

Some Chen family Tai Chi disciples[1] claim these days that their style is the only one still practising  spiralling and that the other styles have lost ‘the deeper aspects’ and ‘have become watered down tai chi’. This is certainly true of the ‘popular’ versions of Yang style, but not true of the how the authentic art is taught by Yang family disciples to this day. In a previous article, Hallmarks of Authentic Tai Chi Training (23 August 2013), based on how I was taught by Master Chu-king hung, I have outlined the revisions of the form we undertook to build the ‘spiral qi’, as Master Chu referred to it, into the form. A cursory glance at the websites of contemporary official disciples of the Yang family will also show that the spiralling concept is still an integral part of Yang family training[2].

In fact, in stark contrast to this claim by Chen stylists, it is considered within the Yang family that, even though Yang style evolved out of Chen style, this type of force became more refined and internalised in the Yang style than in the Chen style. In historical accounts of Tai Chi there is even the claim that the Yang family returned the art to its original subtlety that the Chen family had lost. One view is that Yang received a secret transmission from another teacher, or a secret version transmitted by Chen Changxing who learnt it from Jiang Fa (a lineage descendant of Chan San feng). Another is that Yang modified what he learnt from Chen through cross fertilisation with the rich pool of martial experts at the Imperial Court when he went to Beijing. Certainly it would seem that there are elements of other internal martial arts synthesised into Yang style Tai Chi like Hs’ing I Ch’uan (Xingyiqua) and Pa Kua Ch’ang (Baguazhang).

The spiral movements of the Chen style are much more visible and larger in their form than those in the Yang family style where it is more hidden. I remember Master Chu once commenting on this saying something like Chen style ‘is just like Kung Fu’ – by which he meant more external. Perhaps the most obvious difference observable when you see both styles performed is that Chen style ‘twining’ uses much more overt, ‘silk-reeling’ movements and Yang style more covert, ‘hidden’ and subtle coiling and centre (dantian) movements. So much so in the latter case that they are often only capable of being picked up by the trained eye.

Some commentators offer the explanation that Chen style was created as a battle field art when soldiers were still wearing body armour and that the larger elbow and arm movements of the Chen style (as part of the silk reeling force) were designed to move around the bulges that body armour created. These techniques were especially good for throwing or joint-locking armoured opponents, which is more practical than hitting them. Maybe Yang style in moving to smaller, more subtle, spiral and centre movements, because it no longer needed to manoeuvre around body armour, represents a genuine refinement of technique. I had a Chen style student join my classes at one stage several years ago and he claimed I was generating a similar degree of power to what he had witnessed in his Chen style training but with a lot less movement.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Chen style. I am glad that this original style of Tai Chi is still around and vigorously promoting the fact that Tai Chi is a sophisticated martial art. Other styles, such as the Wu style, probably claim that their spiralling is more refined than the Yang style’s!


[1] Wasson, M., 1997, Chen Xiaowang Speaks Out. Is Chen style the only true tai chi?, KUNGFU, Dec/Jan 1997, pp. 28-33.

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