By Master Yang Jun, 6th Generation of the Yang Family
Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan is one of the gems in the realm of Chinese Martial Arts. Ever since the founder of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Yang Lu Chan, his sons Yang Ban Hou and Yang Jian Hou, his grandsons Yang Shao Hou, Yang Chengfu, and the fourth generation (great-grandsons) Yang Zhen Ming, Yang Zhen Ji, Yang Zhen Duo, and Yang Zhen Guo have all worked together to research, change, develop and spread Tai Chi Chuan. It has become extended and graceful, carefully structured, relaxed, gentle, and flowing, while still maintaining the martial arts aspects. It is also a method for improving health and curing illness. Tai Chi Chuan is loved by tens of millions of practitioners, spreading Tai Chi Chuan at home and abroad. It has become the most popular of all Chinese martial arts, providing a remarkable contribution to health of mankind.
This article is a biography of the Yang Family, allowing even more Tai Chi Chuan lovers to understand the history of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan.
Yang Fu Kui, later called Yang Lu Chan (the “Lu” having two different Chinese characters as accepted) was born in 1799 and died in 1872. Yang Lu Chan’s family was from Hebei Province, Guangping Prefecture, Yongnian County and since childhood his family was poor. He would follow his father in planting the fields and as a teenager held temporary jobs. One period of temporary work was spent in doing odd jobs at the Tai He Tang Chinese pharmacy located in the west part of Yongnian City (the pharmacy was opened by Chen De Hu of the Chen Village in Henan Province, Huaiqing Prefecture, Wenxian County). As a child, Yang Luchan liked martial arts and started studying Chang Chuan, gaining a certain level of skill. One day he saw some hoodlums who came to the pharmacy looking for trouble.
One of the partners of the pharmacy used a kind of martial art that Yang Lu Chan had never before seen to easily subdue the troublemakers. Because of this, Yang Lu Chan decided to study with the owner Cheng De Hu of the Tai He Tang pharmacy. Cheng De Hu saw that Yang Lu Chan came from the heart and was eager to study and sent Yang Lu Chan to the Chen Village to seek the 14th generation of the Chen Family, Chen Chang Xing, as his teacher.
Yang Lu Chan made a long and difficult journey on foot to the Chen village in order to acknowledge Chen Chang Xing as his teacher. According the custom of the Chen Family, Tai Chi Chuan was generally not taught outside of the family. Chen Chang Xing stipulated that Yang Lu Chan was to be allowed to enter only as far as the front compound and not into the rear compound.
(Chen Chang Xing)
After spending several years at the Chen village without receiving anything, one day Yang Lu Chan awoke to the sounds of “Heng!”, “Ha!” coming from the back courtyard. Yang Lu Chan climbed up a tree in the front courtyard and peered into the rear compound. What he saw was Chen Chang Xing teaching a group of students Tai Chi. Yang Lu Chan was extremely happy.
From that day on, every night he would go watch them practice, and then secretly practice on his own. After practicing this way for a period of time, Yang Lu Chan’s skill greatly improved. Once while playing around with one of the younger men of the Chen Family, Yang Lu Chan unintentionally used a burst of Tai Chi Chuan energy to push him down. This drew the attention of Chen Chang Xing who personally asked Yang Lu Chan how he was able to do that. After Yang Lu Chan explained the reason, Chen Chang Xing directed Yang Lu Chan to have a competition with a student, resulting in the defeat of the student. Chen Chang Xing was very surprised by Yang Lu Chan’s talent and also saw his sincerity and kind nature. He made an exception and accepted Yang Lu Chan as a student from outside the village.
(Yang Lu Chan)
Yang Lu Chan spent several years practicing hard from morning to night and then returned to Yongnian. At that time, the martial art circles in Yongnian heard that Yang Lu Chan had returned from studying and people came one after another to compete with him. One time while competing, Yang Lu Chan lost control and was knocked down by his opponent. Upset with himself, he decided to go back to the Chen Village to improve his skill. After several more years spent studying, he once again returned to Yongnian to test his skill with the top martial artists. Although this time no one bested him, he also did not have the clear upperhand. Yang Lu Chan thought to himself, although he had gone to the Chen Village twice to study, he hadn’t learned the essence of Tai Chi. Because of this he traveled to the Chen Village for the third time in order to improve his skill.
Chen Chang Xing saw that Yang Lu Chan was sincere in his desire to improve, and that he as also studied very hard. He was deeply moved and gradually passed on his knowledge to Yang Lu Chan.
After several years of hard practice and study, Yang Lu Chan’s skill was pure, and his martial ability was very advanced. He became one of the outstanding Chen Style practitioners. This time when Yang Lu Chan returned to Yongnian no one dared to test him.
After Yang Lu Chan turned 40, he was referred by another to come to Beijing to teach Tai Chi Chuan. At a competition ring set up at a lord’s mansion, the challengers were scattered and his reputation swelled. Yang Lu Chan gained the nickname “Yang the Invincible”, and caused the martial art world to rub its eyes at the sight of Tai Chi Chuan. From this time on, many people studied with Yang Lu Chan in Beijing. Many of the relatives and attendants of the Qing Dynasty’s Emperor also wanted to receive instruction. Later, Yang Lu Chan served as the head martial art coach for the Imperial Guard.
In the beginning when Yang Lu Chan was studying, his purpose was mainly to be able to control the opponent and protect himself. While teaching in Beijing, some of the Emperor’s relatives and attendants were not able to master some of the more difficult moves. During this time he also noticed some of the sick and weak who had passed through a period of practice and had become very strong. He came to understand the life prolonging effects of practicing Tai Chi.
Yang Lu Chan gradually started deleting some of the foot stamping, jumping, and releasing energy moves. The moves gradually became slower with the strength on the inside, while still maintaining the martial arts aspects of attack and defense. It was now better suited for all people to practice and develop the curative and strengthening functions. The change of Yang Lu Chan’s thoughts on Tai Chi Chuan would later have a great effect on the second and third generations of the Yang Family.
Yang Ban Hou
The momentum created in the Tai Chi world by Yang Lu Chan throughout his lifetime did not stop with his death in 1872. Yang Lu Chan transmitted all of his knowledge to his two sons, Yu, nicknamed Ban Hou, and Jian, nicknamed Jian Hou, who became the 2nd generation representatives of the Yang Family. Yang Yu, also named Yang Ban Hou, but referred to as the “2nd Son” by all, was born in 1837 and died in 1892. From an early age he and Jian Hou followed their father studying Tai Chi Chuan. All day long Ban Hou would practice hard, undeterred by winter’s cold or summer’s heat. Yang Ban Hou had a hard and fierce disposition. He was skilled at sparring, and especially adept in using the staff (made of bai la wood, over three meters long, and used in the same way as the spear). One day in Yongnian City, inside the stalls located at the East Gate, a fire started due to carelessness. Water surrounded all of Yongnian City and it teemed with reeds. It was late fall, after the harvest, and inside the stall bundles of reeds were piled up into a small mountain. Once one of the stalls caught fire, if it was not put out quickly it would turn into an inferno. At this time, Yang Ban Hou rushed to the scene wielding a spear, lifting and throwing the fiery bundles of reeds. The burning bundles flew through the air like a string of fish, and almost instantly they were all in the water. With the fire extinguished and conflagration avoided, the word of his deed spread quickly through the city.
(Yang Ban Hou)
Later, Yang Ban Hou followed his father to Beijing to teach and challenge the famous teacher Xiong Xian Liu (named Meng Jiao). Since he challenged many other prominent representatives of martial arts in Beijing, the fame of Yang Style Taijiquan increased and many wonderful stories were left to future generations.
Although Yang Ban Hou was very skillful, his temperament was too fierce. He did not show mercy in combat, hitting even his own students. Frequently he made them bleed with his own hands, making it harder for students to accept his teachings.
Thus many of them took respectful distance from him. Although the ability achieved was very high, the students who were able to practice his teachings were very few.
Yang Jian Hou
Yang Jian, called Jian Hou, was nicknamed Jian Hu and called “3rd Son” until his later years when he was referred to as just “old man”. Born in 1842, he started studying Tai Chi Chuan with his father at a young age. Under the strict requirements of his father he would practice hard all day. Frequently feeling that he could not endure it any longer, he tried several times to run away. It was clear that working hard daily at practicing gongfu under his father’s watchful eye caused his skill to greatly improve. Finally he became a man of great talent. Jian Hou took his father’s old frame and revised it into the medium frame. He also mastered the saber, spear, sword and other weapons. His sword skill was renowned for combining softness and hardness. Jian Hou even mastered using pellets (dan4). He would hold three or four in his hand at one time and when thrown simultaneously each would strike a different bird in flight. He earned the fame of not wasting one pellet when thrown.
(Yang Jian Hou)
Jian Hou was of manners sweet and introverted, precisely the opposite of Ban Hou. For this reason his students were numerous. Jian Hou died without illnesses in the sixtieth year of the foundation of Nationalist China (1911).
Legend says that several times before his death, he had a premonitory dream of his destiny. He summoned his family and his students, and had a final conversation with each of them. When the time came, Jian Hou washed himself and was elegantly dressed, smiling elegant at the end. He had three sons: The eldest called Zhao Xiong, the second Zhao Yuan, who died young, and the youngest called Zhao Qing.
To be continued…
- The Newsletter of the International Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Association, Number 2 (March 2000) and Number 3 (August 2000).
- Images taken from “The Yang Family History Fine Art Book” (www.martialgraphics.com) by Marco Gagnon.