The late Tian Zhaolin may have been the most practically skilled fighter in
the Yangshi taijiquan lineages after the third generation of the Yang family. A
student of Yang Jianhou and nominally of Yang Chengfu, Tian endured official
hazing and persecution in post-1949 Shanghai, finally passing away in 1960.
Like Chen Fake, Tian was regarded by many as a dangerous relic of
Pictures of Tian Zhaolin demonstrating Yangshi spear exercises with Dong Ying Jieh can be found here (Tian is wearing the dark clothes):
Tian Zhaolin's son is going to be coming to Britain in September to
demonstrate and teach what he trained in with his father. In subsequent posts,
I'll put up an interview with Tian's son, done with the son's leading student.
The interview reflects the concepts and history commonly associated with
Yangshi tradition, often viewed skeptically today. But the concepts at least
were integral to the very real and high-level of practical fighting skill that
independent accounts accord to Tian Zhaolin.
Yang's Taiji Boxing's Secrets
Q. I still do not understand the energy problem. Teacher, you are the
engineer. Can you explain this energy from the scientific perspective?
A. Well, although I have some scientific training and knowledge, I still
have a long way to go. Also, because boxing is such a vast field and such a
refined area, even as an engineer, I wouldn't dare to comment with certainty
or with complete confidence.
Today you explored somewhat the relationship between force and energy. This
problem is simple; at the same time it is very complicated. I only offer
you my personal understanding and personal perspective on this issue.
How do they differ? - First, force originates from muscle extension and
contraction. When all the combined forces reach your hands through your
joints, they will total approximately several tens of pounds. Most of these
forces are exhausted going through the various joints. However, the whole
body energy can be mobilized to send it to a particular point. This is why
the practice of boxing requires all the joints be connected properly.
Consider that a lion or a tiger are kings of all the forest animals. Yet,
their real force is not that much greater than that of a cow. So, how can
they fell a cow? Also, consider that the leopard is an extremely fast
running animal. May be you can achieve some awareness or enlightenment from
observing their situation and their use of force versus energy?
Secondly, force is visible often for a relatively lengthy time period but it
is somewhat rigid and unchanging. Energy, on the other hand, even if seen
as a mere flash, is highly flexible. Then, consider that although a martial
artist may hardly be able to lift an object weighing one hundred pounds, he
can easily knock a person down.
Third, when a learner enters middle age, their force will always diminish
but their energy will stay at the same level.
Fourth, force travels in a straight line, therefore, if you wish to use
small force to overcome big force, you will have to induce an opponent and
make him miss the target. Or, you must follow his momentum and detect the
point from which to launch. There is no other way of dealing with an
opponent's force. But, small force can be used to change direction of a big
force. So, when we combine forces, large and small, basically you may
decide the resultant direction in accordance with a vector parallelogram.
On the other hand, energy may not only be straight; it may also be twisted.
When reaching a high level of taiji skill, it is kind of like a microwave
type of thing. Energy may be thought of as a wave. This is why in the
practice of taiji, five bows are required in your body. All boxing movement
has peng, a lifting energy. Peng is round. Peng is supportive. Peng is
Q. If energy comes out like a wave, then can we say energy is a wave?
A. Yes, yes, and this is why I say when you have personal experience you
will get his idea right away. Just consider that when boxing books discuss
energy, they also mention the shaking, penetrating, and tip-weaving
energies, and also exploding energy.
Q. Certainly that shows the seriousness and the consistency of the sciences.
Do force theory and wave theory conflict?
A. There is no conflict. Consider an airplane flying. The plane generates
sound. Sound is a wave manifestation.
Q. Can we practice force and energy at the same time?
A. Yes, however, if we are discussing how to learn boxing, we should first
learn force, learn the gestures. Then later practice energy, practice the
circle, and practice qi. Once the learner is familiar with these, they may
Q. Can you explain to me how force is described in physics?
A. Yes, F = MA, where "M" represents the quality, mass, and "A" represents
velocity. IF the quality is maintained and the velocity increases, then the
force increases in direct proportion. This is precisely why small force
should not attempt to confront big force. However, because there is
direction inside, a small force may influence a larger force. Therefore, in
boxing, if you use force to hit and should you miss, you will have momentum
that is difficult to change.
Energy is not like that. Note that when you throw a pebble in a pool of
water or into a quiet pond, the wave goes out in all directions. Yet a leaf
floating on the surface of the water does not change location because of the
wave passing underneath. In other words, a wave can pass from one point to
another point, in the water medium, yet all the water molecules remain in
their original location. That is characteristic of wave phenomena.
Q. When I first arrived at the farm, every harvest season, I noticed the
huge fields of wheat. I especially enjoyed watching how the wind created
waves that rolled across those fields of wheat. Often I wonder, okay, wheat
has roots, then how can such a wave be created? I am not joking.
A. Well, it is not a joke. Many, many have practiced taiji their whole life
yet still do not understand energy theory.
Q. What do you mean?
A. Look, taiji boxing emphasizes "listening", transformation, grabbing, and
launching jins. Even just a discussion of "listening" jin will puzzle many
people. Some believe that push-hands only practices the sense of touch.
They insist on deleting the word "listening". When my father was alive, he
said, "You cannot change even one single word."
"Listening is the most appropriate word." Just consider how we are able to
hear a sound from the other side of a wall.
Q. Since sound is a wave phenomena, it can propagate in many directions?
A. Yes, remember the word "listening" is the key to understanding energy.
Energy is a wave.
Q. After hearing your explanation I understand much better now. Then, this
is why when a fist hits the front-side of a person, they feel pain on their
backside. The concept of mere force could hardly explain this phenomenon.
But if we use wave theory, it is easy to understand it clearly. So, that is
how energy is able to penetrate. Force can only be reflected; it cannot
penetrate. That probably is one meaning of "force is square' energy is
A. You, my pupil, are so observant. You have such talent to so easily
comprehend and gain enlightenment.
Q. Oh, you give me way too much credit. I have another question : can
say, in a fight, when hitting the other person's body, that penetrating
energy is always used?
A. Not necessarily. Penetrating energy is only one term used to describe
wave phenomena. A wave has many forms. Two different waves can somehow,
without interrupting one another, pass through one another. They can also
move together to create a group of waves. For example, cold jin, disruptive
jin, inch jin: they all have momentum and also exhibit pulse. These kinds
of waves are very short waves. Take, for example, three pool balls placed
together, touching one another on either side aligned in a single, straight
row. Now remove an outer ball and use it to hit the next in line. The
farther ball will move outward at the same speed as the striking ball. What
does this show?
Q. Can we say it is because the wave passed through the second ball to the
A. Yes, and if you understand this idea, you can understand the concept of
launching others in taiji. You only see them touch hands, he does not
appear to move, yet somehow the other is moved away.
First you, yourself, must have enough energy internally. This means that in
your dantian you must have a strong wave, vibration.
Second, you must take advantage of the opportunity afforded in momentum.
Third, all the body's points must be properly connected; there should be no
With these then, you may understand why the previous teacher Yang Shaohou
advised: "First you must do the frame; second, you must know push-hands;
third, you must learn how to practice launching jin." It is more difficult
than merely using force to hit others. But, it also has a much more clever
method. This again is why we say, "Force is dead but energy is alive.
Energy is flexible."
After I heard your previous response, I remembered an old boxing discussion
with an excellent description : "First become familiar with the gestures;
then you may reach understanding energy. From understanding energy, you may
reach the level of the immortal."
Q. Teacher, can we say that every time we touch hands we must use
A. Taiji sparring emphasizes "listening" energy. Certainly, without
listening energy you can spar, however, to do so will show you still do not
Q. Relying solely on one's own force in touch hands seems to be instinctual.
Why does taiji place such emphasis on the use of "listening" energy?
A. The use of force or energy is a measure of a person's skill level. Only
when people reach the level of understanding energy can they go on to reach
the level of the immortal. In addition, since taiji means to start from
wuji, or of being utterly void of qi in the extreme, it is the mother of yin
and yang. This kind of birth is not merely for motion. It also means there
is a kind of soul inside there.
Q. How can one understand that?
A. Thing about that radio over on the table. That radio is more than just
singular electronic resisters, capacitors, wires, and other devices. It is
not merely an assembly of these various devices. Only when you use these
devices, put them together in a certain way, can you receive radio
transmissions. You could say that from nothing came something in there.
Otherwise, it is just a combination of odds and ends, of useless iron,
copper, and plastic, etc.
Q. How is this related to boxing?
A. Taiji boxing is not the mere grouping of the different components. When
we discuss yin and yang, opening and closing, when you breathe, when you
move energy, you must follow a certain sequence. When touching hands, how
you realize your own personal situation, you must use listening.
"Listening", transformation, grabbing, and launching, the true purpose is
to use a circle to transform your disadvantaged situation into an advantaged
situation. This is how and why taiji was created. Taiji has no beginning;
there is no end. Everything, everywhere contains change. Everything must
necessarily have some different states of advantage/disadvantage condition,
succeeding or losing, becoming prosperous or going through a state of
deterioration. This is the so-called "taiji everywhere". This is how you
should use listening, transformation, grabbing, and launching to do
Q. Then, can we say that "listening" is not just the physical listening but
has other meanings?
A. Oh yes, yes, "listening" has many more dimensions. But just practice
"listening" jin well. Then you will be able to open energy. This opens the
wave. I use our understanding of the wave phenomena to reason. This
represents a higher level of taiji philosophy. The more educated people
become, the more they become interested in the philosophy of taiji.
Q. It is not easy to understand "listening". Sometimes when people touch
hands they just feel the other's arm but cannot change to listening. I want
to understand how "listening" and touching are related.
A. The early stage of the boxing practice is characterized more by the use
of force and less by energy. You use touching and groping. Everyone who
learns taiji must go through this stage. However, after you understand
energy, the other's intention will pass down to you through their
energy-based wave. If you still use touching and groping to feel the other,
then you can hardly receive and sense those waves. Then, being unable to
receive and sense, how can you know yourself and know others?
For example, we "listen" to the radio. Only if you understand the language,
understand the topic of discussion, or understand the music and the meaning
of the music, does the hearing become meaningful, otherwise, it is just
sound or noise. If you cannot decipher those sounds, how can you know
yourself and know others? This was is called, "If you want to understand
music, you must have the ear for music."
Q. Based on what you have just said, "listening" is very similar to what I
think is the American scientists' discussion of how people communicate. The
communication model is that first there is a sort of transmitter with the
information, a channel, a decoder, and the receiver.
A. But that is only one aspect of the issue. We can say that listening,
transformation, grabbing, launching, this circle, can be called an
information and feedback control system. "Listening" first identifies
information. Then, you change and send out new information. So it is based
on the feedback you receive to reach your goal.
Q. But what is the purpose of it?
A. In taiji boxing there is the phrase, "Stay in the middle". This means to
use the least amount of energy to reach your goal of having an advantage and
creating disadvantage for the opponent. My father often said, "If you come,
come in; if you leave, I will send you out". Please just try to understand
this by yourself.
Q. Teacher, can we say that listening comes from touching but only if you
understand energy does it become real "listening"?
A. You can say it this way : If you understand the meaning, you will
understand that if the other does not move, I do not move. If the other
wants to move, I will move first. You should understand this theory.
Q. Oh, you are talking about the difference between force and energy. After
reaching "understanding" energy then listening reaches a much, much higher
A. Yes, this is the key to learning boxing. First, you must practice. All
boxing starts from the gestures.
Secondly, you must respect boxing and you must respect the teacher. Only
when you respect boxing will you study carefully. Only when you respect the
teacher will you get the teacher's instruction. If you wish to discuss the
real secret of learning taiji boxing : that is it.
Q. I think the teacher's instruction is very important.
A. Well, it is not easy to learn boxing. But neither is it easy to teach.
A gesture is the external form. The external form is easy to teach and also
easy to learn. But energy is an internal quality. Internal things are
difficult to teach and difficult to learn. People soon are at different
levels and also have different ways to practice. Therefore, there is the
Chinese saying, "If you miss by 1/10 of an inch in the beginning, the result
will be off by a 1000 miles."
Q. Most scholars only emphasize the gesture. But if the gesture does not
have internal energy, it can only enhance physical health. It will merely
be like doing exercises in a gym.
A. Yes, and this is why my father (Tian Zhaolin) said, "Good-looking
gestures may not be applicable. What is applicable may not be so
Q. Teacher, I still want to ask the question : when Yang Jianhou was alive,
you say that he often said, "If you are light, then your are flexible." How
is this related to "listening"?
A. Well, when you "listen" to other people's energy, it is analogous to the
use of a weight scale. If you use a large scale to weigh a very light
material, of course, it will not be sensitive enough. This is why when
dealing with diamonds or other precious jewels, we must use a very
sophisticated scale capable of making very small measurements. This is the
Q. Can we say the lighter, the better?
A. Here "lightness" must still carry information that will allow you to note
a very, very small change. This is why we can say that you cannot add even
one feather, cannot allow even one fly to alight on you without you sensing
it. Otherwise, your listening energy is just not sufficiently sensitive.
This means the "lightness" becomes floating. So, light is better; light is
flexible, yet it must not float. Floating is an illness because there is
not sufficient "listening" energy.
Q. Today I just realized that my greatest benefit and goal is to understand
"listening" and the theory of the system.
Teacher, your taiji boxing comes directly from family tradition and legacy.
Can we discuss how to make later generations understand this traditional
A. Sure, but in boxing, I can never dare to reference myself to the previous
generation. I know that there are lots of people better than me. Here
today you mention taiji boxing's value. I cannot estimate that. Boxing
reaches the higher level when the internal/external can be connected. Then
all the theory becomes one, regardless of whether you use soft or hard;
develop to five yin and five yang. However, if you do want to strive and
finally do reach this level, you will see that there is no end to it beyond
So, therefore, the higher level people, when they touch one another, when
they spar, they really know and can tell when the other person is developed
to a higher degree. Chang San Feng said, "There is no fixed frame." That
says that boxing actually does not have a fixed rule. This refers to the
gesture. This is only a way of thinking. But you have to learn those
gestures first. That is how you enter the door. For example, if you learn
to do painting, first you learn the framework, the basics. After you
understand the framework, then you can get rid of the frame and paint at
your will. My father, Tian Zhaolin, often said, "Taiji boxing is boxing
guided by taiji philosophy. There is no beginning and there is no end. The
beginning is the end; the end is the beginning. This is called 'long boxing' ".
Everything, everywhere, in the universe continually transforms and
changes. Everything is in this circle. But if you are really to understand
this theory, you must have persistence and perseverance. When just reaching
a most difficult part, perseverance is needed. Each time you step up to a
new level you will reach a different understanding. This is the
wonderfulness of taiji.
Q. If everybody's awareness is different, will that develop into different
styles of taiji boxing?
A. No. But, if you only see it as a boxing gesture, you could say that.
But taiji boxing's true meaning is not merely a gesture. For example, there
is a book of literature entitled, "Stone". People even make different
interpretations of the content. So, taiji understanding, body awareness
depends on the individual's practicing method, progress, feeling,
understanding, and awareness. This does not mean that, because you have a
different awareness, you can change the essence of taiji boxing.
Q. If this idea is so simple, why cannot everyone learn this?
A. What you observe, you only see that on the surface. It is really not the
real nature of the thing. When people try to understand the true nature (of
the thing) they must make a really huge and difficult effort to get rid of
the first, false perception in order to discover the true essence. They
must get rid of the raw in order to discover the sophisticated nature, the
true nature of what is being observed.
Taiji boxing deals with listening, transformation, grabbing, and launching
jins. The beginning step is "listening". Listening means exploration,
investigation. When we deal with the concrete material, it first means that
if others move fast : you move fast in response; if others move
slowly : you follow slowly. However, it is not so easy to even reach the
listening, transformation, grabbing, and launching levels.
Q. Does taiji boxing have to reflect nature (listening, transformation,
grabbing, and launching), so that if we have the gestures alone, can we call
A. If the gestures are really guided by taiji's theory then they must show
the boxing's nature. Wang Zongyue's boxing theory, along with the
discussions of several other ancestors, all proved that, if the gestures
show the boxing's nature, it really matters not whether we call it taiji
boxing. There are other names used for this, e.g., Chang Chuan (Long
Boxing), soft boxing, pre-heaven boxing, and whole heaven boxing.
Q. Teacher, this is very interesting. May I also ask, taiji as boxing :
what is the initial meaning?
A. My father, Tian Zhaolin, said, "I use boxing to understand how everything
in the universe moves." In other words, it is just "system theory" in today
's language. We just discussed "listening". We said that if you have a
radio, if you combine all the component devices of that radio, together,
combined in a certain manner, they become a new system.
That is how taiji was produced. We are speaking here of our planet and the
solar system, of silver atoms to electronics, of day and night. That is a
system. You should understand taiji as a system that uses the circle to
overcome an enemy. Understand how many circles, whether they move forward
or backward; whether and how the circles are connected, visible, invisible,
how they show all the theory of unity of opportunities, of yin and yang.
Q. Teacher, how do you view the routine?
A. The routine is also called, "making a frame". Actually, from the
beginning to the end, it is one circle.
Like music, the starting rhythm changes from slow to intense; from exciting
to explosion; then, returns to the slow. Similarly, repetition of gestures
is necessary to run and change energy.
Q. How do you see the different schools?
A. All schools are good. You can reach the level of the immortal in any of
them. Learning the traditional taiji boxing only means that you will use a
shorter time and less physical strength to finally reach that higher level.
Q. In taiji boxing there is the bagua with circle and xingyi's straight
lines. There is also the combination of external family's hard energy and
the internal family's softness. Does this show that taiji is perfect?
A. No, no, this is not the case. If you do not understand this, regardless
of how hard you may try to combine everything, you are wasting your time.
Know how to do 1,000 gestures is not as good as understanding one gesture
completely. Boxing has no fixed law. The key is to obtain awareness of
energy through being accustomed to the gestures. Then you may achieve the
level of the immortal. Finally, you may reach the level of true awareness.
But even this is not the end. You may go even higher.
Q. Why do you emphasize that "listening" must come first in practicing
A. This is the essence of taiji. When you respond, it depends entirely on
listening, transformation, grabbing, and launching.
The computer was first invented for use by the military. The purpose and
function was to decipher enemy communications, calculate missile
trajectories, and to make predictions on future events. Predicting future
events involves "listening". Modern weapons are very advanced. Launching
missiles and defensive missiles are really based on listening sensitivity.
Only when you understand listening can you change your disadvantageous
situation into an advantageous position.
Q. What do you think about the direction of taiji's future?
A. Taiji is indeed a national treasure. Only China has this treasure. In
addition to martial art defence and offence, military strategy is implied.
Besides this, universal concepts and physical sciences are also implicated,
and taiji has implications for medical science and in psychological science
theory as well. So, it is really a rarity of the boxing arts. However, times
are different now from earlier. Really, very few people understand it.
Taiji is like stoneware covered with layers of dust. Few people can hope to
really realize the true nature of taiji. Some people unfortunately
misunderstand when thinking that taiji is only for physical health. So, I
think I am not the person to answer your question. Someone else must take
care of this issue.
Q. Teacher, I would like to ask another question : what about history
dividing taiji into different schools?
A. I have not studied this completely yet. I cannot be sure. But I think
that there is no need to create separate schools if the boxing has not gone
through a great transformation and revolution. This would cause the whole
group to become disintegrated. Some people who practice the same boxing, in
the past would exhibit some differences. Sometimes it looked so different,
even for fellow students, it may have been called a different style of
boxing. That is okay. However, for people who really reach a high level of
enlightenment, their whole body achieves transparency. These achievers are
not concerned with superficial labels and do not try to create this type of
school or that kind of school.
Chang San Feng was the founding father of taiji. He did not create
different types of separate schools within the system. Some outsiders
believe that because taiji differs from shaolin, they call taiji the
internal family boxing and shaolin the external family boxing.
Later, Wang Zongyue passed down his skill to the two schools of South and
North. These two schools did not divide until the end of the Ching Dynasty.
Furthermore, what we today call the different styles did not actually begin
until the 1930's and 1940's.
Note that Tian Zhaolin's was also called the "Tian School" by some. When my
father heard of this he said, "All my learned skill came from the Yang
family. Up to this day, I have only learned a small portion. How could I
call it my school when my skill is not equivalent to even one finger of Yang
Jianhou or Yang Chengfu? How could I call mine a separate school? Even if
my skill should become perfect : it is still of Yang's family. This is my
Sidebar: Chen Yenlin was a student of Master Tian Zhaolin and a colleague
student of Shi Huan Tang. Chen is reported to have told others that he
really did not even know that the dantian was the place for live qi and for
restoring qi until he finally noticed his own belly rising after practicing taiji.
The book entitled, "Taiji Boxing, Sabre, Sword, Spear, and Push-hands, was
co-authored by Chen Yenlin and his fellow student Shi Huan Tang while bother
were students of Teacher Tian Zhaolin. Some mistakenly believe that Chen
Yenlin manipulated and stole the material from Yang Chengfu, later
publishing it under his own authorship. Chen Yenlin is unlikely to even
known Yang Chengfu. His taiji and explanations came from Tian Zhaolin.
The book was initiated during dinners when Chen Yenlin invited Teacher Tian
Zhaolin to his home. A secretary on-hand recorded the conversations and
Teacher Tian's explanations. In the original draft, there were photos of
Shi Hung Tang pushing hands with Chen Yenlin. Chen asked Teacher Tian for
photos of Tian demonstrating the frame, however, Tian could not recall where
his photos had been placed. Tian then asked that stick drawings be made of
him in the set. When the book was published, however, the only photos
included were those of Chen Yenlin. This upset both Teacher Tian and his
students. Later the book was republished by yet others.
Why many consider the work rare and even a necessity for beginning taiji
learners, actually, the book dealt only with the large frame practice. The
large frame is but a small part of the whole of Yang's taijiquan. It did,
however, do much to promote taiji.
In a previous article (Qi Journal, Autumn 2001), Li Ya Xuan, offering an
example of an extremely rare skill level when he briefly described a
phenomenon exhibited by Yang Chengfu. Li said that during push-hand
practice, when Yang placed his hand on Li's chest, Li would feel extreme
pain deep within his chest. He then would have to disconnect by stepping
Tian Zhaolin also reached similar levels under the guidance of Yang Jianhou
and Shaohou. Once in Shanghai, a newly arrived master of external art,
called "Spear Liu", arrived in town. On a visit to a place of
entertainment, he asked the doorkeeper if he knew of any martial artists
people of merit with real skills in town. The doorkeeper paused for a
moment then told Spear Liu that one Tian Zhaolin was reported to be
particularly skilled. With that, Spear Liu was off to search for Tian. He
finally found him. Immediately upon approach, Spear Liu challenged Zhaolin
proposing that each hit the other three times to determine who was the more
effective. Tian agreed to Spear Liu's proposal but asked Liu about trying a
slight variation first.
Tian proposed to place his hand on Spear Liu's chest and he told Liu that if
he could withstand his touch, Tian would publicly acknowledge Spear Liu as
the winner of the challenge. Spear Liu agreed to this. With that Tian
stepped up and then placed his hand on Liu's chest. After a few moments,
Spear Liu began to feel discomfort in his chest. After a few more moments,
Liu's face began to contort and grimace in pain. Within moments, he
grimaced reflecting such intense pain in his chest that he was forced to
suddenly step back, away, disconnecting from Tian's touch.
After taking a few moments to recover, he acknowledged the superior and rare
skill of Tian Zhaolin. Spear Liu said he had travelled throughout five
provinces, testing martial art adepts, but had never encountered a skill of
[The following was extracted (copied) from a public discussion on the
TCCList Yahoo Group; no editing, aside from simple formatting, has
If you believe this posting causes any copyright problems, please email to email@example.com]
Two Red Lanterns
By Key Sun, Ph.D. & Leroy Clark
The immortal arrives without shape; moves without form; comes and
goes with no trace. Such is the quality of the expert.
Yang Luchan's empty and flexible method used change, constant change,
change within change; a mind derivative, supreme method. His second
son, Yang Banhou, favored cold and disruptive jins. This, however,
was neither honest nor open. Therefore, father did not consider them
seriously. Father said, "That is not the way a `true man' behaves.
Such jins are not entirely based on the mind." Taiji is not just
about severe practice. One also needs to think, to comprehend the
theory, finally, to develop awareness; awareness within and without.
Taiji emphasizes reservation, energy development and manipulation,
change within change, intention/spirit.
Tian Zhaolin (1891-1960) was hospitalized in Shanghai near the end of
his life. One night, his oldest son Tian Hong and middle son
Yingjia, staying by their father's bed, noted he was suddenly excited
after awakening from a sleep. He told them of a dream he just had, in
which, Yang Jianhou and his son Shaohou approached him. Each was
carrying a bright red lantern to receive him and to welcome him to
them after all these years of separation. Finally, he said he was to
going to rejoin them. With that Tian Zhaolin quietly slipped away.
This event showed both his close relationship with the senior Yang
family and his status in their taiji lineage.
Grand Master Tian Zhaolin was a Yang-family taiji direct descendant.
He is one of the most senior non-family students of the Yang family;
more senior than any yet known to the west. Tian Zhaolin's father
passed away when he was an infant. As a young boy of eight years, he
had to sell fruit to support his mother and two sisters. Yang Jianhou
(1839-1917), the second son of Yang style founding father Yang
Luchan, noticed him on his walks to the palace where he taught. He
recruited him as his student and also provided maintenance for young
Tian's impoverished family. Thus, from the age of 13 years and on,
Tian Zhaolin learned taiji from Yang Jianhou and subsequently from
Jianhou's sons Yang Shaohou (1862-1930) and Yang Chengfu
These teachers were exceptional and profound taiji grand masters.
Tian Zhaolin had three sons. The eldest Tian Hong was a school
teacher. The middle son, Tian Yingjia became an electrical engineer
and also followed his father in taijiquan. The youngest son, Tian
Yingrui became a university professor in Shanghai. Only Yingjia
followed his father's path in taijiquan. Tian Bingyuan, grandson of
Zhaolin, learned taiji from his father. Yao Guoqin was selected as
Master Tian Yingjia's primary student. Tian Yingjia has 49
disciples and has taught some 500 students in all.
The present article intends to introduce several contributions of
Tian Zhaolin to Yang taiji. It is in part based on knowledge obtained
from our correspondences and conversations with Masters Tian Yingjia
and Yao Guoqing over the last three years.
The Early Years
Once in the Yang family household, Tian Zhaolin was required to
participate around-the-clock in the practice of their internal art.
Tian Zhaolin became a family member. He lived with the Yang family,
practiced at all hours day and night with them, ate with them, and
slept with them. The first six months Zhaolin was made to practice
stake exercises exclusively. After that the Master began to teach
him the soft, sticky, energy art.
During those early years, shortly after adopting the young boy,
Teacher Jianhou still taught at the palace and other places around
the capital. On his daily walk to various parts of the city to
teach, one always saw a young boy following a couple steps behind the
old master carrying the master's sword. That young boy was Tian
Zhaolin. He occupied a special place in the household of Yang
Jianhou and later became a constant companion of Yang Shaohou. When
Jianhou would learn of his youngest son's sleeping in because of his
late hours, he would angrily order the young Zhaolin to go awaken him
from his late sleep. Zhaolin practiced alongside Shaohou and Chengfu
directly under the close eye of father Jianhou. During the stake
practice, should one of them move even the slightest, ole Jianhou
would quickly come over to strike that person sharply with his long-
handled smoking pipe. Similarly, during the practice of jin, should
one of them hesitate or stop, Teacher Jianhou would quickly approach
and strike that person sharply with his pipe. Those hard strikes
with the long stem pipe were particularly painful.
After some seven years of learning and severe practice, in 1911
Teacher Jianhou ordered Zhaolin to enter a public fight contest
representing his family. Zhaolin was surprised and quickly tried to
beg-off, explaining to his teacher that he did not feel adequately
prepared and did not wish to bring dishonor on the family. Jianhou
responded by telling Zhaolin that he would not have ordered him to
enter such a contest if he did not believe he was well prepared. Tian
Zhaolin followed the advice, entered the contest and won. Once home
after the contest, Teacher Jianhou ordered Zhaolin to follow his
eldest son Shaohou from this point onward. Shaohou and Zhaolin were
often seen together around the capital and at martial art
exhibitions. Tian's reputation began to grow after his success in
that raw fight competition.
Yang Shaohou and Tian Zhaolin were constant companions and were often
seen together around the great capital. Once Shaohou and Zhaolin
attended a martial arts exhibition together. The exhibition was put-
on to raise money for a charity. Western boxing was included in the
demonstration. When the western boxer finished his demonstration,
the audience barely applauded. Then Zhaolin got up on the stage and
demonstrated some taiji techniques. The audience went wild with
applause. This offended the western boxer greatly. He got back up
on the stage and demanded to know from the announcer why his western
boxing demonstration received such little recognition while the taiji
demonstration received such good response. The ring announcer
suggested it was probably because so few in the audience understood
western boxing while they did understand martial arts and taijiquan.
With that the bellicose western boxer immediately demanded a
challenge of the martial artist.
Yang Shaohou was sitting alongside Zhaolin at ringside. Zhaolin got
back-up into the ring and told the announcer he was willing to take
the western boxer's challenge. Shaohou shouted up at Zhaolin to
knock the guy out of the ring. The challenge match began. The two
fighters approached one another. Zhaolin started to circle
slightly. He held one arm up shoulder level and extended the other
to the front. Suddenly the western boxer lunged at Zhaolin. Before
anyone could see, the western boxer was suddenly tossed cleanly from
the ring. It was as if he was a kite held taunt by a string when
suddenly the string is cut and the kite suddenly jumps out, up and
away cleanly. He was bewildered and did not understand what had
Certain elderly gentlemen recall seeing Tian Zhaolin teaching in
Shanghai parks. Hour after hour, day after day, Zhaolin would accept
all challengers, without even asking their names or styles, they
would approach, touch arms, and invariably Zhaolin would launch them
cleanly away. One after another, pop, next, pop, next, pop. The
sight of that was amazing according to witnesses.
Another time Tian was participating in a charity event in Shanghai.
He demonstrated lin kong jin (literally: flying in the air energy).
An external adept observer shouted his disbelief and became
incensed. He wanted to challenge him. A relative of Tung Ying Chieh
was at hand and stopped the shaolin master before he could challenge
Zhaolin. He knew Zhaolin would show no mercy and hurt the external
martial artist. Grandson Tian Bingyuan tells of the time some
Shanghai gang members came to the Tian home to challenge his
grandfather. As he opened the door the attackers struck him with an
axe injuring Zhaolin. However, Zhaolin quickly deflected the follow-
up strikes and knocked them some distance away. They took off
running and did not return.
Tian Zhaolin and Chen Yenlin
(aka Chen Yearn Ling or Chen Kung)
One of the most enlightening and widely read books on taijiquan in
the west, as well as in China, has been attributed completely to the
late Chen Yenlin. In fact, in China Chen Yenlin's book has been
republished and reworked several times. Some have claimed Chen
learned directly from Yang Chengfu and that he was a teacher of
Chengfu's children. That is incorrect. Chen Yenlin did not even
met Yang Chengfu. Chen Yenlin learned taiji from Tian Zhaolin for
about a year. Prior to this Yenlin had learned a shaolin art.
Chen Yenlin was encouraged to study taiji by his print shop owner Shi
Huan Tang, who was also a taiji student of Tian Zhaolin. Chen Yenlin
subsequently became a student of Tian Zhaolin. Notably, Yenlin wrote
a couplet in honor of his teacher Zhaolin after his departure in
The work entitled, "Taiji Boxing, Saber, Sword, Spear, and Push-
Hands", was actually co-authored by both Shi Huan Tang and Chen
Yenlin, with the information obtained from Tian Zhaolin. Yenlin would
invite ZhaoLin to his home along with other senior students for
dinner. A secretary would be on hand to record the conversations on
taijiquan. All the information came from Tian Zhaolin. Originally,
the book contained pictures of Chen and Shi pushing-hands. Tian had
been asked for pictures but he responded that he did not know where
he had placed them. Tian then asked an artist to make drawings of
his gestures for the book. However, when the book was published only
Chen's photos were included. In addition, Chen Yenlin also didn't
give Shi Huan Tang the credit . Although Chen's demeanor was frowned
upon by Tian's students and Tian Zhaolin himself, the book is
acknowledged as being a good description of the large frame practice
of Yang's method. However, the large frame is but a small portion of
the original, complete Yang taiji practice.
Tian Zhaolin and Taiji's Original Frame
The small frame was the original frame of taijiquan. It was done
quickly. Except for the early members of the family, most notably
Yang Luchan, Banhou, Jianhou, Shaohou, and the adopted Zhaolin, very
few people who learn Yang's tai chi can do the original small frame set.
When Luchan and his sons came to the capital and began teaching, he
separated some of the original curriculum into component parts.
Included in some of those changes, the small frame evolved, and
slowed into the middle frame. Jianhou finalized some of those
changes. The large frame is distinctly different from the middle and
small frames in that it is nearly devoid of circular motion. In
fact, this is one of the main distinguishing features separating the
large frame from the middle frame. Third generation adept Yang
Chengfu is credited with most of the development of the large frame.
This was done to popularize taiji. In the original taijiquan there
was only one set. Some on Taiwan claim today that a secret set was
taught to Zhang Qinlin by Jianhou. Such is not the case. Others
claim hidden sets were taught by Jianhou's brother Banhou to special
students in the Kuang Ping area. This is also simply not true.
Originally, the taiji taught to Yang Luchan was the small frame. In
fact, whether the frame is done as middle or small or even large
depends entirely on the maturity of the student's practice; nothing
more, nothing less. The popular Master Tung Ying Chieh spoke to this
in his 1948 work.
As beginning students develop maturity of practice the large frame
acquires many circular features and evolves into the middle frame.
Finally, with much more practice the small frame is generated. Key
to the practice as counseled by Yang Jianhou is the exercise Eight
Pieces of Brocade. Jianhou also advised that the set is the external
side of taiji and meant only to lead the student to better energy
development and usage. He said the goal of taijiquan is finally to
leave the set as one incorporates the practice into one's daily walk
and activities. Jianhou also taught that energy is round; strength is square.
Tian Zhaolin was recognized by Yang Jianhou as the most skillful
among the three best students of his family's teaching. They were
Tian Zhaolin, Li Yaxuan and Niu Chun Ming. Tian and Niu notably
achieved the skill of being able to keep a bird from flying from their palms.
About the authors:
Key Sun, Ph.D., is a scholar in Taoist psychology and a taiji
LeRoy Clark, an amateur student of taiji history and a taiji
[Posted in July 2004]