A Brief History of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and the Lineage of Santa Cruz Tai Chi

In ancient China, battles and wars between families, clans, and districts waged for centuries and hand-to-hand martial arts skills were needed for survival and protection. Various regions gradually developed specific forms and styles. With increasing civilization, hundreds of schools of unique fighting systems developed, their “secrets” jealously guarded and hidden from outsiders. China also has a long history of acrobatics, dances, and various movement and exercise systems, both physical and mental, and elements of all these historical strands contributed to the climate from which T’ai Chi Ch’uan emerged. Some were referred to as tai-yin or Taoist Breathing. Their exact origin and nature is now obscure but they are mentioned in Chinese chronicles as early as 122 BCE. The famous Shaolin Temple is considered the cradle of Chinese martial arts. Bodhidharma (Da Mo in Chinese) brought Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism to China in the sixth century CE, and legend has it that, at the Shaolin Monastery, he observed that the monks were in poor physical condition from too much meditation and too little exercise, and introduced his Eighteen Form Lohan Exercise. This approach gave rise to the Wei Chia or “outer-extrinsic” forms of exercise.

Zhang Sanfeng is considered the “founder” of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century. He was a Taoist monk, master of the primary martial arts style at that time, the Kung Fu Five Animal forms. The lore is this: Zhang wandered to Wudang Mountain to live as a hermit in search of enlightenment. The Taoist Principal of Wu Wei (accomplishing without effort) came clear to him one day when he encountered a crane and a snake engaged in combat. The speed and directness of the crane were impressive, but the flexibility and elusiveness of the snake neutralized the crane’s incoming attacks. For Zhang, this was the key. He dreamed of a style and form of martial arts based on the teachings of Laozi, “the soft overcoming the hard.” He combined the “action and no-action” theory of Yellow Emperor and Laozi with “Book of Changes” concepts of Li, Chi and Hsiang. So began T’ai Chi Ch’uan (TCC). The Emperor Yingzong honored Zhang Sanfeng with the title of chen-jen, or “spiritual man who has attained the Tao and is no longer ruled by what he sees, hears or feels.”

Zhang taught his skill to a select group of disciples who, in turn, taught a privileged few, but it was several hundred years before any of this tradition was taught to an interested public. Sometime during the Ming dynasty (14th to 17th centuries), Wang Yangming, a prominent philosopher, promoted a mixture of Taoism and Ch’an Buddhism that also had associations with movement systems. During the 1800s, as TCC continued to evolve into both major and minor styles, Chen Cheng-hsing promoted his interpretation as the Chen style. An outsider, Yang Lu-ch’an, posing as a servant, spied on the Chen clan as they practiced. He was eventually discovered, but by then his skill was so impressive that Chen recognized his devotion and talent and agreed to teach him formally. It was Yang Lu-ch’an, known as “The Unsurpassed Yang,” who brought TCC to Beijing and taught it to palace officials and members of the royal family.

Yang Lu-ch’an’s grandson (the son of his second son), Yang Chin-pu, evolved his own style at the turn of the 20th century, now known as the Yang style. It was much softer, slower, and gentler, than the style of his predecessors, with moderate postures and a lithe flow. Yang style is now the most widely practiced style in the world. The first son of Yang Lu-ch’an, Yang Pan-hou, like his father, was retained as martial arts instructor to the Chinese Imperial family. One of his students, Wu Chien-chuan, opened his own school, teaching his Wu style, emphasizing lower, wider stances involving more tension than the Yang style. These two styles influenced a third martial arts expert at the turn of the 20th century, Sun Lu-tang, whose Sun style emphasized dexterous, nimble movements and lively footwork performed at a quick tempo.

Among the Yang style masters was Cheng Man-ch’ing (1902-1975), a student of Yang Chin-pu. Cheng was a successful artist, accomplished in the “three perfections”: poetry, painting, and calligraphy who, at age nineteen, taught poetry and art in several leading colleges in Beijing and Shanghai. In his twenties, he developed lung disease (believed to be tuberculosis partly from exposure to the chalk dust from the school blackboards). Ill to the point of coughing up blood, he began to practice TCC more diligently to aid his recovery. He retired from teaching and devoted himself to the study of TCC and TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). Due to his skills in these areas as well as the “three perfections” he was often referred to as the “Master of Five Excellences.” Because he had taught college in Beijing, his students called him “Professor Cheng.” He wanted to make the long 128 posture form of TCC he had studied with Grandmaster Yang Chin-pu more accessible and easier to learn yet maintain the same benefits. His abridged 37 posture “short form,” and variations of it, are now widely accepted and practiced all over the world. Each variety differs in the inclusion or exclusion of some of the repetitions of postures from the long form, without changing the principles and philosophy that have always been the basis of TCC: balance, yielding, slow movement, and remaining soft, centered, and supple while maintaining stability, strength, and powerful action. These continue to be the essential elements of TCC’s contribution and importance in promoting and maintaining one’s mental, physical, and spiritual balance, strength, and health.

William C.C. Chen was Professor Cheng’s youngest student in China and, along with Benjamin Peng Lo and T.T. Liang, came with Professor Cheng to the United States, where he established the Shr Jung school in New York. Grandmaster Chen went on to found his own school and, like his teacher, slightly modified the form he was taught to emphasize and illuminate the essential principles more clearly and easily for his students. He remains active, teaching worldwide, and freely admits he continues to learn and gain new insights and ideas for helping others learn the art.

Among his students were Greg and Ching Brodsky. Greg started his study of TCC with Professor Cheng in 1964, at the China Institute in New York, and practiced both aikido and tai chi with fellow students that included Lou Kleinsmith and Maggie Neuman. After several months, because of plans to live and work in Europe, Greg requested Professor Cheng to assign him to a senior student under whose guidance he could accelerate his learning. Professor chose William Chen who had recently moved back to New York from Honolulu. Greg had private sessions with Grandmaster Chen several days per week for 6 months before leaving for Europe. Upon returning to the United States three years later, Greg formed his practice around the teachings of Grandmaster Chen. Greg has had several articles published in T’ai Chi Magazine.

Ching began her study of TCC in the mid-1970s. She and Greg created Santa Cruz Tai Chi in the early 1980s. Ching also brought her background in water aerobics, therapeutic and fitness training, plus aikido, and a palpable joy in teaching. Greg brought years of dedicated practice and personal exploration of the principles. Unfortunately, both Greg and Ching had to stop teaching in 2012 due to physical injuries and the long-term aftermath of a car accident and several major surgeries. Before retiring, they chose Mark Bernhard to carry on and build upon the spirit and quality of teaching that make this school unique.

Mark began his exploration of TCC, Qigong, Tui Shou, and Cheng Hsin with Greg and Ching Brodsky at Santa Cruz T’ai Chi in 2001 and has maintained a daily practice since. He has also attended workshops and private lessons with Grandmasters William C.C. Chen and Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo as well as Peter Ralston and Lenzie Williams. In 2012, under sponsorship from Sifu Brodsky, Grandmaster Chen certified Mark as an instructor in Yang Style T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Push Hands. He subsequently assumed ownership of Santa Cruz T’ai Chi and is now the principal instructor. He teaches private students as well and has conducted workshops for health retreats, the staff at eBay headquarters, and the anesthesiology residents at Stanford Medical School. He has also been a practicing Doctor of Chiropractic since 1985 and regularly applies his insights from TCC with his patients. Likewise, his approach to teaching is influenced by his extensive background in biomechanics, anatomy, stress reduction physiology, and energy medicine.