Is Taijiquan Taoist?

I wrote a blog post the other day in which I mentioned that the Taoist origins of Tai Chi are historically unproven, yet the similarity in ideas is obviously there.

I got an interesting comment back on Facebook from somebody linking to a book I wasn’t aware of:

“Roel Jansen: Your information on the origins of Tai Chi is outdated. Please read ‘Tai Chi – the true history & principles’ by Lars Bo Christiansen to get up to date with the latest findings on the daoist origins of Tai Chi.”

So I looked the book up and it exists – it’s on Amazon.

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You can read a lot of the book on Amazon’s “look inside” feature. It’s about the newly found Li family manuscripts from which the author draws some pretty wild conclusions, one of which is that the Taoist link to Tai Chi has now been proved beyond doubt.

The book author has a website too, which contains his main arguments in the QnA:

I thought something seemed a bit ‘off’ with the whole thing, so I looked around and found the eminent Douglas Wile, who wrote two books on the Tai Chi Classics that are very good, and that classic essay on Chan Sang Feng, had written a massive article on these Li manuscripts, (and Lars’ book) which is here:

https://mas.cardiffuniversitypress.org/ … /download/

It’s a mammoth read, but looks at the whole thing from a more balanced perspective, including all the political leanings.

The TL;DR version is: It’s complicated. The verdict is still out :)

Here’s a pertinent quote:

The question of whether taijiquan is the product of Daoism creating a martial art or a martial art absorbing Daoism is a critical issue in Chinese martial arts historiography. If anything, Daoism is an even more slippery term than taijiquan itself, but the issue has become highly politicized, which is understandable in the context of Chinese history and culture. However, for a Western scholar to stumble into this minefield bespeaks a certain naiveté. The assertion of Daoist origins has become associated with cultural nationalism and the search for Chinese identity, often called ‘Chineseness’. Chinese scholars have built entire careers out of championing either Zhang Sanfeng or Chen Wangting, but it is very unseemly for Western scholars to insert themselves in this politicized process of roots-seeking and competing attempts to identify origin, creator, or birthplace as ‘transient points of stabilization’
[Laclau 2000: 53].

I think there are other questions that need to be asked about the whole question of “Is Tai Chi Taoist?”

For instance how many of the concepts we associate with Taoism, like the Tai Chi symbol, the I-Ching, Wu Xing and Bagua are actually Taoist in origin? Chinese Folk Religion, is actually the largest religion in China, and makes use of many things that we in the West think are “Taoist”.

As HotSoup on the RSF forum posted recently:

“There is an opinion that asking a CIMA practitioner from the beginning of the nineteenth century whether his art was “Buddhist” or “Taoist” would make as much sense, as asking a medieval fence teacher whether his fencing was “Catholic” or, say, “Juwish”.

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7 thoughts on “Is Taijiquan Taoist?

  1. Pingback: Sinking in Taijiquan | The Tai Chi Notebook

  2. “I wouldn’t even be silly enough to mention the idea on a Chinese martial-arts forum”

    Factual correction: Scott’s theory is “martial possession rituals” not “dancing”.

    But anyway, as a side issue, the connection between “dancing” and martial arts is widely acknowledged and on martial arts discussion forums. Bruce Lee was a dancer 😉

  3. The Chinese government recently entered the fray and basically said that it appears the Chen Family version of how Taiji originated is the correct one. The problem with all the other claims was that they had some very large gaps in the proof, even though the people just dying to see the Chen claim demolished were disappointed. For the moment, though, it’s official … the Chen Version that their style was a clan style originally brought from Shanxi Province stands.

    And oddly enough, the Chinese government makes no mention of dancing origins for CMA’s. I wouldn’t even be silly enough to mention the idea on a Chinese martial-arts forum.

  4. Ha! Wait hang on, I’ve just discovered some ancient documents in my attic that prove Tai Chi was invented by Queen Victoria…

  5. Pingback: Henan Village Chang family Xiao Luohan | The Tai Chi Notebook

  6. If you buy into the “Li Family” stuff, I have a bridge in New York that I’d like to sell you. “Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan”. Taiji is successful and the number of people claiming to have been in on the source of the “real Tai Chi” (TM) is always growing.

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