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Yang Style history starts with Yang, Lu-chan (楊露禪) (a.d. 1799-1872), also known as Fu-kuai (福魁) or Lu-chan (祿纏). He was born at Yong Nian Xian, Guang Ping County, Hebei Province (河北，廣平府永年縣). When he was young he went to Chen Jia Gou in Henan province to learn taijiquan from Chen, Chang-xing. When Chen, Chang-xing stood he was centered and upright with no leaning or tilting, like a wooden signpost, and so people called him Mr. Tablet. At that time, there were very few students outside of the Chen family who learned from Chen, Chang-xing. Because Yang was an outside student, he was treated unfairly, but still he stayed and persevered in his practice.
One night, he was awakened by the sounds of “Hen” (哼) and “Ha” (哈) in the distance. He got up and traced the sound to an old building. Peeking through the broken wall, he saw his master Chen, Chang-xing teaching the techniques of grasp, control, and emitting jin in coordination with the sounds “Hen” and “Ha.” He was amazed by the techniques and from that time on, unknown to master Chen, he continued to watch this secret practice session every night. He would then return to his room to ponder and study. Because of this, his martial ability advanced rapidly. One day, Chen ordered him to spar with the other disciples. To his surprise, none of the other students could defeat him. Chen realized that Yang had great potential and after that taught him the secrets sincerely.
After Yang, Lu-chan finished his study, he returned to his hometown and taught taijiquan for a while. People called his style Yang Style (Yang Quan, 楊拳), Soft Style (Mian Quan, 綿拳), or Neutralizing Style, (Hua Quan,化拳) because his motions were soft and able to neutralize the opponent’s power. He later went to Beijing and taught a number of Qing officers. He used to carry a spear and a small bag and travel around the country, challenging well-known martial artists. Although he had many fights, he never hurt anybody. Because his art was so high, nobody could defeat him. Therefore, he was called “Yang Wu Di” (楊無敵) which means “Unbeatable Yang.” He had three sons, Yang Qi (楊琦), Yang Yu (楊鈺) also called Ban-hou (班侯), and Yang Jian (楊鑒) also called Jian-hou (健侯). Yang Qi died when he was young. Therefore, only the last two sons succeeded their father in the art.
The third son of Yang, Lu-chan was Yang Jian (A.D. 1842-1917), also named Jian-hou and nicknamed Jing-hu (鏡湖). People used to call him “Mr. The Third.” He also learned taijiquan from his father since he was young. His personality was softer and gentler than his brother’s, and he had many followers. He taught three –postures—large, medium, and –small—although he specialized in the medium posture. He was also expert in using and coordinating both hard and soft power. He used to spar with his disciples who were good at sword and saber, while using only a dust brush. Every time his brush touched the student’s wrist, the student could not counter, but would be bounced away. He was also good at using the staff and spear. When his long weapon touched an opponent’s weapon, the opponent could not approach him, but instead was bounced away. When he emitted jin, it happened at the instant of laughing the “ha” sound. He could also throw small metal balls called “bullets.” With these balls in his hand, he could shoot three or four birds at the same time. The most impressive demonstration he performed was to put a sparrow on his hand. The bird would not be able to fly away because, when a bird takes off, it must push down first and use the reaction force to lift itself. Yang, Jian-hou could sense the bird’s power and neutralize this slight push, leaving the bird unable to take off. From this demonstration, one can understand that his listening jin and neutralizing jin must have been superb. He had three sons: Zhao-xiong (兆熊), Zhao-yuan (兆元), and Zhao-qing (兆清). The second son, Zhao-yuan died at an early age.
Yang, Jian-hou’s first son, Yang, Zhao-xiong (A.D. 1862-1929), was also named Meng-xiang (夢祥) and later called Shao-hou (少侯). People used to call him “Mr. Oldest.” He practiced taijiquan since he was six years old. He had a strong and persevering personality. He was expert in free fighting and very good at using various jins like his uncle Yang, Ban-hou. He reached the highest level of taijiquan gongfu. Specializing in small postures, his movements were fast and sunken. Because of his personality, he didn’t have too many followers. He had a son called Yang, Zhen-sheng (振聲).
Yang Style Taijiquan can be classified into three major postures: large, medium, and small. It is also divided into three stances: high, medium, and low. Large postures were emphasized by Yang, Cheng-fu. He taught that the stances can be high, medium, or low, but the postures are extended, opened, and relaxed. Large postures are especially suitable for improving health. The medium posture style requires that all the forms be neither too extended nor too restricted and the internal jin neither totally emitted nor too conserved. Therefore, the form and jin are smoother and more continuous than the other two styles. The medium posture style was taught by Yang, Jian-hou. The small posture style—in which the forms are more compact and the movements light, agile, and quick—was passed down by Yang, Shao-hou. This style specializes in the martial application of the art. In conclusion, for martial application the small postures are generally the best, although they are the most difficult, and the large posture style is best for health purposes.
You should now understand why there are so many variations within the art, even within a style such as the Yang Style. After so many years and so many generations, countless students have learned the style and have made many modifications in light of their own experiences and research. It is understandable that a student today might learn taijiquan and find that his or her style is different from another claiming to be from the same source. No one can really tell which one is the original style, or which is more effective than the others. Observations from nature and contemplation of the Dao can help you to determine a style’s –emphasis—either for healing or self-defense—but it is purely a subjective, human determination whether one is in fact “better” than any other. This is a deeply profound area of the art. Self-defense and good health are indeed closely related concepts, separated only by a philosophical frame of mind. Ultimately, such comparisons of techniques are meaningless. It is the time, consistency, and quality of your practice that matters. If you can understand this, even as you strive for deeper mastery of your chosen art, then you have already reached a profound understanding of Dao.
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has “made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years.” Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.