As I sat in the Chen Village 'Cinema' (i.e. a single room shop that also served as a the shop keeper's and his families living room, kitchen and bedroom) watching the opening battle scene in Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator', it dawned on me that for over 2000 years, wars in China have been fought in roughly the same way, and Chen style Tai Chi, along with a handful of other bodyguard styles, is probably the best preserved relic from that era.
During pre-modern times, the Northeast Asian countries, i.e. China, Japan and Korea, compared to their Southeast Asian counterparts, were advanced civilisations. By that I don't mean that they were better in a judgemental way, mealy that hey were more organised and technologically advanced. So you might expect a continuity and refinement in their military arts that would not have been paralleled elsewhere in Asia.
The military heritage of Tai Chi comes partly from its geography. A lot of the battles that were fought in China were up in the north. Shanxi, where the Chen family came from before settling in Henan, was the main military base for defending the Middle Kingdom from barbarians from the north. It seems that "rock hard northerners coming down to beat up southern softies" is quite a universal problem. In contrast the martial arts of South China and South East Asia were folk arts, practised for self defence. The don't have the technical body of knowledge that the northern styles have.
The last time a member of the Chen Family got tooled up and went to fight a war was likely to have been Chen Wanting during the start of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when China was conquered by the Manchus. Perhaps he was not on the front line, but at least he was a soldier in the days when martial arts were martial arts. After the defeat, Chen Wanting went back to the village to live. It was then that he was said to have created Tai Chi, drawing on the martial arts that were popular at the time, and combining them with Chinese medical theory.
Chen Wanting may even have had outside help when he created Tai Chi. After all, he was almost certainly not the first person to connect Chinese medical theory with martial arts, nor was he likely to have been the last. Indeed there is an inevitable logic about Tai Chi that makes me wonder if at one time most styles had similar concepts that have now been lost or distorted. But now what is important for us is that his skill was transmitted through a large family, a family big enough to ensure that each generation would have enough talent to succeed the previous one, and one where each generation could be taught from childhood in the traditional way.
Apart from the odd explorer, China first came into contact with the west during the Ming Dynasty. However because of the ostrich mentality of the Chinese, they ignored western technology, with dire consequences for the country. However it did mean that Tai Chi was preserved.
When your Great Granddad was fighting in the trenches of the first world war, Japan was becoming a modern power, and the coastal regions and in land ports of China were dominated by foreign concessions, in the interior of China Chen Fake was still using Tai Chi and primitive weapons to defend cities against outlaws. Apart from the odd musket, the interior of did not see wide spread use of modern fire arms until the Civil and Japanese war, and then it was only the roaming armies that had them. Guns cost money, and only the emperor could afford them.
In feudal China martial arts were not taught openly until the introduction of fire arms. Before then only two people outside the Chen family were taught: Jian Fa and Yang Luchan. Yang Luchan was a body guard in Beijing. One of his sons, Yang Banhou, was shot during the boxer rebellion. Seeing that the days of Tai Chi body guards was over, Yang Luchan's grandson, Yang Chenfu, would have most likely decided to market Tai Chi as a health exercise for the upper classes. Maybe if he was alive in the era of sports sponsorship, Olympic taekwando and pay-per-view TV he may have made a different decision and turned Tai Chi into a modern combat sport.
Chen Fake, the great grandson of Yang Luchan's teacher, would have been the same generation as Yang Chenfu. It was actually Chen Fake's nephew, Chen Zhaopei, who first began teaching outside Chen Village. Chen Fake would soon follow, as would his son Chen Zhaokui. For whatever reason they didn't modify their art for the upper classes. Maybe it was because the Yangs had that market stitched up. Probably it was because they were too old fashioned, unable to accept that Tai Chi as a military art was now obsolete. Or maybe they just wanted to try and preserve the original art. As a result, they taught other martial artists, such as existing Xingyi exponents.
There is another reason why Chen style Tai Chi is largely unchanged. It is because the lifestyle in the village is largely unchanged. Before 1964 there was no electricity. Before 1983 there was no tap water. Before Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the 1980s a motorbike would have cost the average farmer several years wages, though there were a few publicly owned tractors. There were public telephones, but you couldn't get a phone line in your house until 1995, and then it would cost you a months wage or so.
Now a lot of houses have a fridge and a television, and the Tai Chi school in Chen Village is on the internet. So things have changed a bit. The current generation of Chen masters underwent completely traditional training, but also competed in modern competitions. So there you have it, from slicing and bludgeoning people to death to modern combat sport all in a couple of generations. And, importantly for us, with each successive generation more of the secret skill is being taught openly to outsiders.
My intention in writing this was not to blind you with a list of cryptic Chinese names and obscure dates in order to justify yet another fanciful theory about the glorious past of Tai Chi. Nor is it to set apart Tai Chi or Chen style Tai Chi apart and above other styles. It is simply to try and give you a historic perspective on Tai Chi. A lot of things have happened in China over the last one hundred years, and you have to see Tai Chi within that context. I am not a historian, but I do know where the generations of the Tai Chi family tree fall withing the context of Chinese histroy, and I hope that most of what I have written will stand up to some historical scrutiny.