Origins of Tai Chi - Part 2. The spiritual & philosophy


Before we look at the development of How Tai Chi came to be. I want to look at the various factors that have influenced the development of Tai Chi. By this, I mean the spiritual beliefs and philosophy. There are three main religions in China, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. There are actually many others, such as Islam, Judaism, shamanism and the various religions that other ethnic minorities practice. For centuries, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism have had the most influence and in different ways.

Confucianism is the school of thought that were based on the works of Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC), a philosopher who wonder across China during the Spring and Autumn period (Circa 722 and 479 BC) teaching a band of students and influencing rulers of various states. Confucius taught his students the value of benevolence, filiety piety, orderliness in the home and society. It was this that Confucius was better known for. Though less of a religion today, the tradition of Rites, the worship of one's ancestors and various ceremonies are Confucian in nature.

Confucius was considered the First Sage and left behind a body work work, which are still considered to be amongst the core classics. The Confucianism we know today comes from Mencius. Mencius (Circa 372–289 BC) was a philosopher of a later generation. He was known for his wit and the Chinese consider him the Second Sage. Mencius made Confucianism more relevant for the times, yet he is rarely discussed outside Asia.

Daoism is China's original religion, yet least understood of the three. Unlike other religions, it is not an organised religion like eg. the Roman Catholic Church. Like minded people come together to practice, worship and live together. If you don't agree or you want to do something else and you have the abilities to go your own way, you do. This is how sects grow, split and develop into something else. In Daoism, there is no such thing as a heresy.

The origins of Daoism come from the ancient traditions of the shamans and the schools such as the Yin-Yang School who combined the concepts of the Yin-Yang principles and the five elements. Even in Daoism's early days, the movement was a loose collection of thinks. Of the most well known is Lao Tzu (Circa 6th or 5th century BC), the author of the Tao Te Ching and a contemporary of Confucius. Another well know Daoist figure is Zhangzi (Circa 369 BC – 286 BC) amongst others. Daoism can be split in two areas, Daoism as a religion and Daoism as a philosophy. Both are interrelated, but commonly seen as one. Daoism differs from Confucianism, in that Daoists they don't see the need for excessive rituals, conventions and rules that Confucians do. Daoist prefer to live with nature, spontaneity and promote compassion. Confucianism appeal to the rulers and the scholarly class, but Daoism appeals people from all walks of life. Buddhism in China was heavily influenced by Daoist thought. Which in turn, spread to Tibet, Korea and Japan.

Buddhism came to China during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) through the Silk Road. Buddhism was already established in Central Asia at that time and this was a time when the Greeks were still in Central Asia. Much evidence of this period exists and there statues of the Buddha that have been made by Greek artisans. Over time, Buddhism's influence in India waned, but was well received in China. Originally, Buddhism was supported by the state, not as a religion, but as a school for moral education.

Temples were in fact founded as schools and the character for temple Si (寺) originally meant ministry or government building. Whilst Buddhism developed into a religion, the role of the temples remained as centers for learning. Education in ancient China was encouraged, but not everybody had access to tutors and books. If you were to study and become a scholar, the only places that had libraries and literate people were actually temples. The Buddhism practiced in China is called Mahayana Buddhism, or Northern School (The Great Vehicle), but it wasn't always this way. In the early days, Buddhism in China was more like the Buddhism practiced in Thailand, The Theravada or Southern School (The School of the Elders). The changes happened through the centuries. If you were wondering when Shaolin kung fu will appear, the answer is that it came much later. Bodhidharma came to Shaolin Circa 550AD. His training left a big impression on temple life. But the Shaolin kung fu and warrior monks did not happen until Li Shimin (598 – 649AD), the Second Emperor of the Tang Dynasty requested their help. Bodhidharma introduced into China Ch'an Buddhism (禪), or better known in the Japanese pronunciation of Zen. Ch'an practice was about meditation and it was a accessible to all walks of life. Ch'an Buddhism incorporated a lot of Daoist practices and without which, Buddhist teaching would not appeal to more potential followers. The play on proverbs is one aspect, ceremonies were another, as Chinese festivals were incorporated. On the practical side, temples became bigger institutions and monks no longer went on regular alms collections. Instead, they farmed as much as they could, in order to be more self sufficient. Vegetarianism was also borrowed from Daoism. Shaolin became a melting pot for martial artists. Some were refugees, others were lay students and some were warriors seeking refuge at times of war. Many left something behind and good ideas and techniques will be learnt and copied.

Daoist martial culture and heath exercises existed during the Spring & Autumn period (Circa 722 and 479 BC), a time when Confucius and Laozi lived. The period of the Warring States followed and ended in 221 BC, when Qin united the whole of China. During this period, China made huge advances in metallurgy and this meant innovation in creating weapons. Weapons are useless without a training regimes and instructions on how to use them (then as it is now). Without which, wars could not have been won. On this example alone, I can say that the the story behind Bodhidharma introducing martial arts to China is a myth. Although Chinese martial arts did benefit greatly from what he brought over.

Mohism (墨家), and what this you might wonder what is it and it has nothing to do with Mao Zedong. Mohism was one of the many schools of philosophy during the Spring Summer Period, in terms of philosophy, it was also a period called A Hundred Schools of Thought (諸子百家, Circa 6th to 221 BC). This period saw a number of schools of thought come and go. Yet only a few schools survived. The rest was absorbed or simply lost. Mohism. Mohism was for the peasantry, to what Confucianism is to scholars and rulers. At one point, Mohism was very influential. Mohism believed in universal love and unconditional love. Mohism was very much into morals and the common good, which little regard to rites and ceremonies that Confucians cherish. However, Mohism was unable to go further than the lowest rungs of society and offered nothing to the scholarly and ruling class. Little remains of this once great school and it is rarely mentioned. But I thought it would be a good idea to let readers who something that is worth knowing. Mohism lives on in the ways you might not know. For without Mohism, Confucianism would be nothing more than a book of wise man sayings. And without Mohism, Daoism would be nothing more than shamans and a Yellow Emperor cult.

Tai Chi is Daoist in nature and based on Daoist health exercises and from the Daoist martial traditions. Qigong has been practiced in China for thousands of years and is a key component in training of the breath. It was said that before Zhang Sanfeng become a Daoist priest, he was in his youth a Shaolin monk. There are few facts to support this, but it is plausible. In the past, Daoist have became Buddhist and vice versa. The founder and The First Patriarch of the Pure Land School of Buddhism, Huiyuan (慧遠) was a Daoist, until he found Buddhism a better path. Pure Land Buddhism became the most popular school of Buddhism in China and Japan.

Confucianism in Tai Chi comes in the form of order, where the teacher is above the students and who in return, they honour and respect. The teacher is return passes on their art and their knowledge to the next generation. The ceremonial aspect and exists in both Daoism and Buddhism. Whilst this is not often seen, there is a joining ceremony and the origins go back a long way. There is also a code of conduct, which is like the Ten Commandments. It seems very old fashioned, but this tradition is not exclusive to Tai Chi and exists in many other schools of martial arts. There are some schools where teachers let students come and treat the school like a buffet table. Or do not respect the teacher as the head, but rather a friend. This seems nice and refreshingly modern, but do remember that it is not a good idea to get too cuddly with your bosses or your school teachers. There are reasons for this, and hence the Confucian saying rings true, "a father should behave like a father and and son, behaves like a son".

Daoism is Tai Chi is the most obvious. But the philosophical and the moral side is also a part of what Tai Chi is about. Exercise, cultivation and self defence in one package. Daoism has not remained the same, had it done so, it would have faded into the pages of history. It is not the Dao to simply remained, but to embrace change. There are many Daoist sects, some are more open than others and they specialised in different practices. Over time, they incorporated Buddhist ideas into their practices, such as meditation techniques such as Ch'an, tantra (originally Daoist and at one time lost), and the theory of Karma and retribution. There were many sects who have adopted aspects of popular Buddhism, but the most famous of these was the Complete Reality School, or the Quanzhen School (全眞). The Sages of the Complete Reality School helped make Daoist more relevant for their age. They became very influential and had temples all over China. The Complete Reality School started in the waning years of the Song Dynasty. The northern borders presented much trouble to a crumbling empire. Notably, the Jin (Jurchen, who later became the Manchurians), the Xixia Empire (from the plains north of Tibet) and lastly the Mongolians. It was a sage from the Complete Reality School, Qiū Chǔjī (丘處機, Circa 1148 – 23 July 1227) who travelled to meet Genghis Khan and taught him about peace and the Dao. The mission was a success and had Qiū not gone, there would have been more bloodshed. Zhang Sanfeng was a part of this movement and he settled on Wudang Shan. During the Ming Dynasty, Wudang received patronage from the emperor and after the Forbidden City was built, the craftsmen went to Wudang to build the temple complexes. Some still remain, others are just ruins. Most schools of Tai Chi credit Zhang Sanfeng as the founder of Tai Chi. The Tai Chi you normally see is either Chen Style, Yang Style or developed from Yang Style. There are still temples that have their own house styles. Such as the Dragon Gate School, itself a branch of the Complete Reality School and founded by Qiū Chǔjī.


Thank you for reading my blog.


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