What is Tai Chi?
Tai chi is an internal martial art that combines philosophy, martial arts, well-being and self-awareness. Considered “moving meditation”, tai chi requires focus of the mind and body synchronized with slow, controlled movements. This low-impact exercise, practised with relaxed muscles, improves natural posture alignment, balance and inner peace.
Tai chi is comprised of sequences of specific movements. Each series of movements is called a form. There are five main family styles of tai chi chuan: Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Hao. All five styles have the same origin and share many similarities. However, each style has its own unique characteristics and emphasizes a particular aspect of movement.
Whether you are brand new to tai chi or a current practitioner of one of the five styles, it is useful to learn a little about what makes each style distinctive. To that end, let’s explore the five family styles of tai chi.
Around the 17th century, the Chen family of the Chen Village in the Henan province of China were practising their own unique form of martial arts which became the Chen family style of tai chi. Chen is the oldest form of the five primary tai chi styles. The others are derived from the Chen family style of tai chi.
Chen style tai chi is characterized by its explosive movements including jumps, kicks and strikes. Silk reeling—spiral movements that flow from the feet to the hands—is the foundation of Chen style tai chi. Low, powerful stances develop strength and agility.
Slow, graceful movements are alternated with quick, forceful ones. Chen style tai chi provides a good cardio workout, but requires more athleticism and physical coordination than some of the other styles of tai chi. This style appeals to young practitioners and martial artists. However, the elderly and those dealing with back or knee issues may find it challenging.
The most popular and widely-practised style of tai chi is the Yang family style, founded by Yang Lu-ch’an. His style of tai chi—developed directly from the original Chen style—was greatly admired by the Chinese Imperial family. In 1850, the Imperial family hired Yang Lu-ch’an to teach his modified, less athletic adaptation to their elite palace guards.
The Yang family style of tai chi improves flexibility by expanding and contracting the body using big, exaggerated movements executed slowly and gracefully. The gentle, flowing movements of Yang style tai chi are easily adapted to the physical capability of each practitioner. It is suitable for young children and adults of all ages, for athletes and those with limited athletic ability. The infinite adaptability of Yang style tai chi is the reason it is the most widely-practised style of tai chi in the world today.
The second most popular style of tai chi is the Wu family style, founded by Wu Ch’uan-yu. This military officer cadet trained under Yang Lu-ch’an—founder of the Yang style and martial arts instructor of the Chinese Imperial Guards.
Wu style tai chi is unique in its emphasis on the extension of the body by leaning forward and backward rather than remaining centered, as one does in the other styles of tai chi. The back leg serves as a counterbalance, allowing for added extension without losing balance.
Wu style uses a medium stance, and its movements are smaller and more compact than those used in Yang style.
Prior to studying tai chi, Confucian and Taoist scholar Sun Lutang was an expert in xingyiquan and baguazhang—two other internal martial arts which, like tai chi, emphasize the use of the mind in moving the body. Sun Lutang developed a combination style of tai chi that borrows from various martial arts and tai chi styles. It emphasizes agility by merging the stepping method of bagua (baguazhang) and the leg and waist methods of hsing-I (xingyiquan) with relaxed body movements of tai chi.
Sun style tai chi incorporates unique footwork and gentle, flowing, circular hand movements. With its smooth, fluid movements and swift steps, Sun style tai chi mimics a graceful dance.
Practised by few—even in China—Hao is the least popular of the five styles. This style puts a strong emphasis on internal qi. Practitioners learn to focus internally and make significant internal movements to trigger subtle outer movements. Externally, the movements may look quite similar.
Hao is a more advanced style of tai chi. With a strong focus on controlling the movement of qi (internal force) this style is not recommended for beginners.