Yang Cheng-fu c. 1920 and 1934. Tung Ying Chieh & Li Ya Hsuan are at bottom right because there is no photograph of Yang Cheng-fu doing the Li Posture (Press).
The worldwide popularity of Yang style Tai Chi Chuan is due almost entirely to the teachings of Yang Cheng-fu who died in 1936 at the age of fifty-three. While there were other Yang Style masters and instructors who taught select students in the nineteenth and early twentieth century's, their styles remained relatively obscure, and virtually unknown in the West. Yang Cheng-fu on the other hand was among the first to openly teach his family's Yang Style to the public after the overthrow of the Ch'ing dynasty in 1912. Cheng-fu, like no other Tai Chi master, saw his art as a way to unite the Chinese people, and Southern China was particularly open to his teachings. His reputation and teaching style attracted a large number of young, energetic and highly skilled students, and he was able to establish schools throughout Southern China where his son, Yeung Sau (Shou) Chung (Yang Zhenming) (1909-1985), and top students, Li Ya Hsuan, Tung Ying-Chieh, and others taught. After Yang Cheng-fu's death his students carried their master's vision of bringing Tai Chi not only to the Chinese people but to the world. Today those who claim their Yang style is derive from Yang Cheng-fu far outnumber all other Tai Chi Style practitioners in the West, combined. (Tai Chi, as used here, is meant as, Tai Chi Chuan, and not the Tai Chi of the Dao (Tao) philosophy.)
There are, however, nearly as many versions of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan as there are instructors; and, it appears that while each instructor claims his teachings come from Yang Cheng-fu, virtually all have modified the style so much as to make it a different style. However, rather than changing the name of the style, most capitalize on the Yang name and teach what can at best be called a variation of some elements of Yang Cheng-fu's style.
When Yang Lu-Chan (Yang Fukul 1799-1872), modified the "Chen Style" movements he learned from Chen Chang-hsing (Chen Chang Xing) he called his new style, "Yang Style." Chen style, however, was not called Tai Chi Chuan, but rather Chen Family Pao Chui (Cannon Fist) which was not much different from the Kung Fu styles of the 19th Century, and none of its masters has ever achieved the fame or skill of Yang Lu-Chan. After Yang Lu-Chan modified what he learned, he became the most famous fighter in China, gaining the title Yang the Invincible and Yang of the Eight Lords (The eight lords being the Imperial Lords who administered the Eight Banners of the Manchu's). In developing his style, Yang Lu-Chan removed some of the high kicks, leaps, foot stomps and other moves from the form, and made the style distinctly his own, and one that complied more closely to the thirteen Tai Chi postures.
There are only thirteen postures in Tai Chi;
(1) Ward Off
(2) Roll Back
(5) Pull Down
(7) Elbow Stroke
(8) Shoulder Stroke
(11) Guard Left
(12) Anticipate Right
(13) Center Equilibrium.
Yang Lu-Chan was said to have been so masterful and gracious that he never injured any of the many martial artists who challenged him to a fight. All attacks were met with gentle moves that sent the attacker flying but uninjured; and, his new system was called, "Tai Chi Chuan".
Besides his sons, Yang Lu-Chan's most famous student was Wu Chuan-yu (Wu Quanyou, 1834-1902), who founded the Wu Tai Chi Style which even today retains many of those early teachings, and it was Wu Chuan-yu who coined the term "Tai Chi Chuan".
Yang Lu-Chan's first son, Yang Feng Hou (1835-1861) is said to have died early, meaning before his father. Some (including Sam Wong and Master Yee) say he was killed in a fight, and Yang Lu-Chan's second son, Yang Ban-hou (1837-1892) became senior master at the age of 35, when Yang Lu-Chan died in 1872. Yang Ban-hou's most famous student was Wu Chien-chuan (1870-1942), the son of Wu Style founder, Wu Chuan-yu. This followed the tradition of a son learning from the most senior master of the style. It also followed the practice of renaming the style after making changes to the style; and, it should be noted that the Wu Style is far closer to Yang Style today than most of those who have changed Yang Cheng-fu's style without changing the name.
It's said that Yang Ban Hou was equal in skill to his father, and was, like his father, called "Yang the Invincible". Ban-hou modified the Style by reverting to many of the original hard moves that were designed to injure the opponent. He was known to be extremely vicious - even sadistic - and some say this was because he vowed no one would ever again kill another Yang in a fight. No matter what his motivation, or who the opponent was, Ban-hou would deliver a devastating attack that would break an opponent's bone, knock him unconscious or paralyze him. His movements were compact, and he called his style "Yang Small Frame" (Yang Xiao Jia).
The first eight are "Jings" or hand, arm and upper body moves. The remaining five are directions of moves, relate to foot and body movements. None of these postures is a kick, leap, foot stomp, or any other move Yang Lu-Chan, or Yang Cheng-fu, eliminated from the style.
In 1959 my brother, Al Tracy, and I demonstrated the Kenpo Karate we had learned from Ed Parker for Sam Wong. I was surprised at how many of the techniques Sam Wong knew, and even at his age (97) he was able to show us variations to the techniques. Sam Wong had seen Yang Ban-hao fight several times, and told us that Ban-hao's techniques were similar to Kenpo, but tighter. He watched Ban-hao blind one opponent using the same Kenpo technique we demonstrated; and, another time he paralyzed an opponent using the same Kenpo elbow strike to the back we demonstrated.
Master Yee who trained with Yang Jain Hao, had also seen Yang Ban-hao fight two time, when Yee was a young boy, and told us Ban-hao used the same Kenpo techniques we knew, but that he was extremely vicious, and after breaking one attacker's arm he chopped the man in the throat, and followed it with an elbow stroke that broke the man's jaw. It was a standard Kenpo technique my brother and I demonstrated, but as Master Yee, said, Ban-hao's moves were more, "Vicious powerful".
Both masters said the Kenpo kiai was executed the same as Yang Ban-hao and Yang Jain-hao, but with different sound. Ban-hao and Jain-hao made all sounds through the nose, both on the aspiration and exhale, but the exertions of energy was at the same point of focus. They also said the Kenpo stance and way of moving was closer to Yang Jain-hao's style, and while the defense techniques were similar, Kenpo was more like Yang Ban-hao's in that the moves were hard and intended to injure.
Yang Tai Chi Chuan of that period was quite different from what we in the West know as Tai Chi today. There were slow moves interspersed with fast, sharp, explosive moves combined with fierce facial expressions, shouts, screams, and frantic arm and foot movements.
Yang Lu-Chan's youngest son, Yang Jian-hou (Chien-hou, Jinghu 1842-1917) modified the Style to make the moves softer and more expansive than his brother's, and keeping with tradition called his new style "Yang Zhong Jia" (Yang Medium Frame). This was the style my Grandfather practiced, and this style more closely follows the Song of the Thirteen Postures. The breathing of Yain-hao's style is done only through the nose while emitting resonating sounds both on aspiration and exhaling.
Yang Jain-Hou's third son, Yang Cheng-Fu (1883-1936), made even further modifications and produced what we in the West know as, Tai Chi Chuan. He called his style "Yang Large Frame" (Yang Da Jia) and the style is more expansive, softer, smoother, and slower than his forbearers. These modifications were, however, made over several years, and Cheng-Fu's early style conformed more closely to his father's teachings at least until after his father died in 1917.
Under Cheng-fu, Tai Chi was no longer kept "secret", and following the surge in Chinese pride and nationalism that swept the nation after the Revolution, he emphasized health, and it was for this reason that many of his new students were not the most physically fit. By teaching students who would have been rejected by other schools, Cheng-fu found they became stronger as they trained; and realized that even the infirm could benefit from his Tai Chi. Over the years, Cheng-fu removed all of the fast snapping kicks and snapping punches so that all moves were made with the same slow, even, softness throughout the form, making the form "continuous, without interruption". His student, Gu Liuxin explains this as, "Later, however, he changed to slow, gradual kicks, with the placement of fajin (issuing energy) in the kick being concealed within. Other boxing powers and methods were also transformed to a continuous pace with no breaking of the cadence, and from a hurried to an even pace." (Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan by Fu Zhongwen p.6 (1999, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California) translated by Louis Swaim). By doing this, his Large Frame style became known as "Yang Cheng-fu Tai Chi Chuan," which distinguished it from that of his uncle and brother's.
The changes Yang Cheng-fu made from 1917 to the year before his death may account in some part for the reason there are so many variations of Yang Cheng-Fu's style. Those who trained with Yang Cheng-Fu in the early years maintained many of those early teachings, while his later students took on the teaching of Yang Cheng-fu's later style. Many of Cheng-fu's students renamed their style after changing it, while others continued to call their newly invented style "Yang Style."
One admirable exception to this was, Tung Ying Chieh (1898-1961), who after moving to Hong Kong, called his style, "Tung Style;" (Pinyin, Dong) and it was called "Tung Style" when Tung Ying Chieh personally taught me his "Slow Set" (1956-57). However, when his style was brought to the Los Angeles in the 1970's it was promoted as "Yang Style," and it has only been recently that the style has taken on the name here as "Dong Style." Yet there are many Dong Style instructors who still call their style Yang. They argue that their style originated from Yang Cheng-fu, and therefore it is Yang, and not surprisingly, they don't know the difference between Dong and Yang style. I would direct those who follow this line of thinking, to Not Think Dishonestly.
This web site is dedicated to the Fixed Postures established by Yang Cheng-fu in 1931 photographs, which were memorialized in 1934, in The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan. (There is an excellent reprint by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California, translated by Louis Swaim.) The original book was published less than two years before Yang Cheng-fu's death and was intended as an advanced methodology of Yang Cheng-fu style. It was written on behalf of Yang Cheng-fu by Chen Wai-ming and followed Chen Wai-ming's A Manual of Taiji-quan, and Tung Ying-chieh's Application Methods of Taijiquan, to which Yang Cheng-fu lent his name.
When the book was published, Yang Cheng-fu's students complained that the world would now learn their secrets, to which Yang Cheng-fu replied that one could practice the style for a hundred years and never learn Tai Chi Chuan. That was because to learn Tai Chi, you must be taught Tai Chi. He also cautioned that any further modification of the style would lead to disaster.
Both statements have proven to be true and each succeeding generation of Tai Chi instructors has modified the Form to hide and obscure the moves so that in the West, few instructors today know what the actual moves are, and if they do, they omit them from the Form, making Tai Chi Chuan little more than an exercise. Tai Chi Chuan can certainly no longer be claimed as a fighting style in the West. This is not an idle claim as my brothers, Al and Jim Tracy, and I trained many "World Class" martial arts fighters with the Tracy System of Kenpo, while I am unaware of any western Tai Chi instructor who has trained a single world class fighter.
Tracy's Karate dominated the tournament scene in the late 60's and 70's, with such notables as Joe Lewis, Jay T. Will, Al Dacascos, Jerry Smith, Jerry Piddington, Dick Willett, Roger Greene, Steve LaBounty, Orned "Chicken" Gabriel, Ray Klingenburg, Steve "Nasty" Anderson, Jack Shamburger, Will Taylor, Bart Vale, and dozens more. As I stated when Al Tracy and I created, "Kenpo for Self-defense, Tai Chi for Life" in 1967, "A year of Kenpo Training is better than twenty years of Tai Chi." At the time my brother and I had been practicing Tai Chi Chuan for twenty-five years; and that statement applies even more today than it did forty years ago. Kenpo of course refers to Original Kenpo, and not the American Kenpo that would later degenerate Kenpo to a mediocre fighting style. Having been the first non-Chinese certified by Grand Master Doo Wai to teach Bak Fu (White Tiger) Kung Fu and having trained in Hung Gar, Choi Li Fat Pai, and other Kung Fu styles, I can also say that a year of training in those styles would also be better for self-defense that twenty years of Tai Chi. Nor can it be said that all Tai Chi Chuan could even be used for self-defense after 40 years, as most Tai Chi Chuan has lost its fighting ability; Today it's only good for what is called Push Hands. However, even Push Hands has been modified so much over the past seventy years as to make it totally ineffective. Thus, a year of training in Wing Chung's "Sticky Hands" would be better than twenty years of Tai Chi "Push Hands."
Yang Cheng-fu always taught the self-defense applications to his advanced students, and the amount of training one received under Yang Cheng-fu could be seen in whether the student knew the applications and the proper way to perform the Postures. Yang Cheng-fu insisted that his students be able to mimic him, although his beginning and very young students were taught a less fluid style, and this could be seen in those who only learned the basics and went on to teach Tai Chi with that limited knowledge. What most do not understand about Cheng-fu's style is the Postures are not a single self-defense technique, but rather they are an approximation - an amalgamation - of several techniques. One need only look at the postures and Cheng-fu's martial application to see that the application is far from the form. But in those demonstrated, Cheng-fu is only showing a single technique, while there are actually several techniques, each of which is slightly different, yet derived from the same Posture. The Form Posture is, therefore, not how a single technique is performed, but rather the general position from which many techniques can emanate.
Some believe I am being too harsh with Tai Chi. I am, however, applying the same standard to Tai Chi Chuan as I have to Kenpo, which is basically, you must first master a style to be able to change it for the better; and, you cannot legitimately change Kenpo and continue to call it Kenpo any more than you can legitimately change Yang Cheng-fu Tai Chi and continue to call "Yang Cheng-fu Style Tai Chi Chuan."
While there may be legitimate disputes over the transitions from one Posture to the next, how weight is distributed, how the body moves, or the position of the hands in the transitions, there can be little or no dispute about the Postures themselves because Yang Cheng-fu established the standard in his 1931 photographs. If anyone who claims to teach Yang Cheng-fu Style Tai Chi Chuan does not teach the Postures as they are in the photographs, they are simply being dishonest in their claims.
In 1956 I met with Yang Cheng-fu's son, Yeung Shou Chung, who only taught students privately in Hong Kong upon recommendation. After demonstrating the Sets I had learned, Yeung told me it was very close to his father's Large Frame style which he had not seen Form performed in nearly twenty years. He no longer taught Large Frame. That was his father's style, and he preferred his grandfather's medium frame for practice and his uncle's small frame as a fighting style. His style was of course Yang (Yeung) Style, because it was his family's style, but he made a clear distinction between the Yang style he taught, what his father taught and what his uncle, Yang Shao-hou had taught. I was able to have Master Yeung show me many of the different in what he taught, and his father's Large Frame style, but he admonished me to always practice Large Frame because, as he stated, I was young and there were few left at that time who even knew Large Frame.
Tung Ying Chieh, whom I had met a month or two earlier, also admonished me to always practice Yang Cheng-fu's Large Frame, because Master Cheng-fu had mastered the style like no other; and, as he told me, there are many who teach Tai Chi Chuan small frame, but few who know Large Frame as his Master taught. Each time I met with Tung Ying Chieh over a year and a half period, he always had me do the Large Frame style I had learned before teaching me to mimic his own Tung Slow Set. Master Tung believed as Yang Chengfu taught, that you could not know Tai Chi Chuan unless could first do the form the same way your instructor did the form; only then could you find what would be best for you; and what was best for one person was not best for the next. It was for this reason that both Yeung Shou Chung and Tung Ying Chieh taught each person differently, according to his ability.
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