When starting out on their journey into the world of Tai Chi, students often have many questions about the underlying philosophy of Tai Chi and its relationship with Chinese culture. We were once again entertained on Saturday 13th May 2023 at our annual Philosophy Master Class by Grand Master Eng Chor Khor with a comprehensive coverage of the history behind the development of what we now know in recent times as Qigong and Tai Chi. He also explained some of the key differences and similarities between Qigong and Tai Chi, two terms that are sometimes used interchangeably and confuse people. He stressed that simply learning the movements of many routines does not do justice to fully appreciating the deep history and understanding the potential health benefits of both Qigong and Tai Chi.
GM Eng Chor opened with a detailed explanation of the origins of Qigong in China which date back more than two thousand years to 6th Century BC. This was a period of great philosophical growth in China led by two great philosophers, Lao Tzu and Confucius. He surprised us when he said that the name ‘Qigong’ was a relatively new term which only dated back around 100 years to the period following the formation of Modern China when new restrictions on past philosophical and religious freedoms were introduced. The term was essentially a re-branding by several Chinese Masters of very ancient exercises and movements drawn from Daoist and other health and longevity arts. They wanted to preserve these practices by highlighting their major contribution to improving national health. Hence it’s easy to understand the translation meaning ‘nurturing life’.
GM Eng Chor went on to explain that fundamental to understanding Qigong is understanding the concept of ‘Qi’ or ‘the life force’ - which exists inside our bodies and extends throughout the universe. He explained the three important elements of Qigong as being Movement (or non-movement), Breathing and Concentration (also referred to as Mindfulness or Intention).
GM Eng Chor then explained that although there are currently many Qigong routines, only four are officially recognised by the Chinese Health Qigong Association. These are the Ba Duan Jin, the Five Animals Qigong, the Five Sounds Qigong and the Yi Jin Jing Qigong. All these routines and some others are taught within the College. For those interested, links to some past articles include the Ba Duan Jin Qigong, the Five Animals Qigong, the 6 Healing Sounds Qigong, the Yi Jin Jing Qigong, the 12 Step Qigong, the Mawang Dui Qigong, the 'Da Wu' (Great Dance) Qigong, the 'Dayan' (Wild Goose) Qigong and the Lohan Qigong.
GM Eng Chor then moved onto the history of Tai Chi, highlighting that all modern Tai Chi styles trace their origins back to the Chen Village in central China. The Chen style was first developed around 1650 soon after the end of the Ming dynasty. With the Ming armies defeated by the Manchurians (who introduced the Qing dynasty), a great Ming General, Chen Wangting, retired and returned to his Chen family village. Having been an expert in the martial arts which had been taught in his village since the late 1300s, he wished to continue to train members of his village which led to development of the Chen style. Although initially aimed at self-defence, the style gradually changed over time to becoming more of an ‘internal martial art’ aimed at improving health and longevity. The Chen style is characterised by many contrasting and complementary movements, including some ‘slow and soft’, also ‘fast and hard’ explosive movements with jumps, kicks and strikes.
News of Chen Wangting’s activities spread across China which attracted other interested persons to join him in the Chen village. These included Yang Lu-chan who had secretly watched (working as a gardener) the Chen family practice over 3 years. Yang Lu-chan then moved to Beijing and started teaching, but saw the need to modify the style before it would be accepted by royalty and noble people. The Yang style that he created has more gentle, round, big, open and slower movements which was also easier to learn and was greatly admired by the Chinese imperial family. The Yang style has subsequently become the most popular style in many Western countries in modern times.
GM Eng Chor briefly explained differences to a third style of Tai Chi — the Sun style. This style was created by Sun Lu-tang and is a combination of Chen and Yang movements. It uses a higher stance, unique footwork and smaller gentle flowing circular hand movements. Lastly, he spoke briefly about the last of the four styles that are recognised internationally - the Wu style. This style was created by Wu Quan with movements that use a medium stance, are gentle, smaller and more compact that Yang movements. The Wu style is more popular in southern China, including Hong Kong. GM Eng Chor added some details of his early experiences teaching martial arts in Sydney before moving to Melbourne in the late 1980s and setting up the Celestial Tai Chi College with Senior Master Chin Min Lian. As the Yang style was most popular in Western countries, they adopted the traditional classic Yang-108 as the foundational routine of the new College along with a number of Qigong routines.
GM Eng Chor went on to explain that only four Tai Chi routines are officially recognised internationally for competition events. The first was the Bejing-24 routine which was created in the mid-1950s by the Chinese Government who wanted people to do Tai Chi but recognised that full Tai Chi routines including the original Yang routine were generally too long, particularly for competition. The Bejing-24 form is based on traditional Yang moves and officially recognised as a standardised form for international competitions. In the mid-1970s, with a growing demand for more challenging competition forms, several other Forms were created. The Bejing-48 form which includes moves from all four Chen, Yang, Wu and Sun styles. This was followed later by the Bejing-42 form which condensed some of these moves. Lastly, the Yang-32 form - which condensed much of the longer Yang-108 and 88 routines.
Before going through several movements, GM Eng Chor noted that names are often linked to animals which has amused many people. But all these abbreviated names come from a direct translation of the original Chinese descriptions –one example being ‘Repulse monkey’, which comes from the Chinese phrase of ‘step back to push the monkey away’.
There was much more, including a short discussion on the five elements - Water, Earth, Metal, Wood and Fire - and their relationship with internal organs. GM Eng Chor concluded with a demonstration of the Wild Goose Qigong routine. Allup, a very entertaining afternoon — and a FREE event not to be missed by anyone who wishes to better understand some of the history and background to the science and culture behind the beautiful, graceful and controlled movements that make up the wonderful world of Tai Chi !
Senior Instructor, Ashburton
Updated: 3 June 2023