Taijiquan – also written alternately as taijiquan, t'ai chi and tai chi chuan – is an "internal" (wudang) Chinese martial art (in contrast to the "external" (shaolin) Chinese martial arts. The distinction being looked upon today as a perhaps unnecessary, hair-splitting argument that took place within China's martial arts community of the period 5th century CE, regarding whether the focus should be on mastering strictly the physical techniques associated with martial arts, or mastering these in connection with the mastery of one's own unique abilities, or 'getting in touch with one's qi', or life force, as it were, in a mind over matter sense).
The seemingly unnecessary distinction was not unimportant, however, especially at the time (and may still apply), since, due to the widespread popularity (both then and now, one might add) of the martial arts, or wushu, there was a creeping tendency (perhaps a galloping tendency today) toward "cutting corners", or only learning the more macho, or aggressive, side of wushu disciplines. The internally focused, meditative side of wushu that was aimed at harnessing the qi had unfortunately become neglected, if not entirely ignored. The emphasis on the internal forms of wushu was therefore introduced in order to redress this shortcoming.
Some practitioners of wushu, especially those with an interest in China's earlier, homegrown religion, Taoism (Taoism, alternatively, Daoism, was as much a philosophy as a belief system), likened the distinction between the internal versus the external forms of wushu to the distinction between the yin ("dark", "cold") and the yang ("bright", "hot – though the yin and the yang could represent any particular set of seemingly opposing concepts such as good verses evil, male versus female, etc., the point being that the two were in fact intimately intertwined, or 'two sides of the same coin', as is suggested by the yin and yang symbol itself).
Taijiquan, according to one legend, was developed by a Taoist immortal (the Buddhist equivalent would be one who has achieved nirvanna) by the name of Chang San-feng (alternatively, Zhang Sanfeng ) who was inspired to develop this internal wushu discipline while witnessing a duel between a cobra and an eagle. Chang San-feng was impressed by the defensive tactics deployed by the snake (had the cobra attempted to flee it would have been paralyzingly wounded by the eagle's piercing peck, then strangled to death in the clutch of the eagle's powerful claws). By controlling its fear and maintaining total concentration on the eagle's various lunges and retreats, the cobra managed not only to avoid being hit by the eagle's deadly pecks, but itself managed to deliver a fatal blow to the eagle's neck, killing it.
Other theories concerning the origin of taijiquan hold that the discipline was developed over many centuries as a result of the painstaking work of many different kung fu ("hard-won achievement") masters, and as such represents a genuine synthesis of both the internal as well as the external form of kung fu wushu. Whichever explanation is the most likely (others may yet appear), the fact remains that although taiji quan, according to what is known of it via the historical record, first began to be formulated near the end of the 17th century, while it was first introduced as a complete, ready to be practiced discipline at the beginning of the 20th century.
There are five traditional schools of taijiquan: Chen, Yang, Wu/Hao, Wu and Sun – of which only the first will be introduced here – and two overarching groups of so-called frames, or paradigms: one based on old frames and one based on new frames. The old frame is said to have been created by Chen Wangting, one of the great masters of taiji quan and the founder of the Chen school of taiji quan. Both of these paradigms include boxing routines, where the boxing referred to was so-called empty-handed boxing (nothing either in or on the hand), while today, taiji quan, practiced as a competition sport, generally makes use of boxing gloves, so as not to cause lasting bodily harm.
The Chen school of taiji quan consisted of 5 routines – including a 13-posture boxing routine, a 108-posture boxing routine and a so-called cannon boxing routine involving a disputed number of postures (disputed by present-day experts; some indicate 5, others indicate 13, while still others indicate 15, etc.) – and two categories: close-range and long-range (the term "cannon" can be somewhat confusing in this context, since there existed at the time a number of treatises, or canons (sets of rules, practices, laws, etc.), that dealt with the particulars of various wushu, including boxing, while Chen Wangting's use of the word "cannon" in this specific context is clearly a reference to the much-feared military weapon that was in widespread use at the time, hence the deliberately exaggerated comparison of a boxing blow to the formidable blow of a 100 lb (45 kg) metal cannon ball!).
The macho-like side of taiji quan notwithstanding, the sport is growing in popularity, as much for the secondary health benefits it confers as much as for the sense of self-confidence it engenders. Clinical studies suggest that the practice of taiji quan can lower blood pressure, reduce nervous tension, and benefit the immune system as well as improve the functioning of the digestive, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Today, there are over 100 million happy devotees who practice taiji quan on a regular basis.