The earliest references to Tai Chi Chuan date back to the T'ang dynasty which detail "patterns" that were practiced by hermits in the mountains in China. There are many different stories concerning the origin and creation of Tai Chi Chuan. The most popular legend, which has little factual substantiation, is that of Zhang San Feng, a Daoist, who was reputed to be over 6 foot tall and a powerful fighter who had mastered Shaolin Boxing, caught sight of a crane fighting a snake.
Intrigued by the yielding, smooth evasion and darting counter attacks of both creatures, was inspired to develop a form of boxing which would embody the natural philosophy of the Dao. He was reputed to have studied in the Wudang mountain region, and utilizes mind focusing techniques and Qi Gong internal energy training to develop an internal style of fighting. It is thought that from these beginnings, the internal Chinese martial arts of Ba Gua, Hsingi and Tai Chi Chuan developed.
The only history that can be verified can be traced to the Chen family village, Chenjiagou. This style was founded by Chen Wang-t'ing, a soldier in the imperial Ming army.
This soft boxing was finally popularized by Yang Luchan (1780-1873) who, through diligent effort, learnt the Chen family boxing. He traveled China as a representative of the Chen family style and offered challenges to all fighters and was reputed never to have been beaten. He then went to Beijing, where he taught the art to the Manchu court. It is said to have been at this time that he changed the Chen style, which was dynamic and physically demanding, to be better suited to the courtiers who were not used to such physical demands and developed the 108 move Form.
This Yang school of boxing was destined to become the most popular form of Taijiquan. All other styles of Tai Chi Chuan developed either from the Chen or Yang styles. The most well known are the Wu style, the Sun Style and the Hao style. Although each style has its own particular "flavor" and they appear different in their external performance, they all keep to the principles laid out centuries ago by Chang San-Feng.
It is of note that there were a number of different approaches to the Yang style. It is said that beginners first learnt the "Large Frame". This is physically more demanding and emphasizes waist movements, and large movements of the hands and arms. From this twisting and spiraling movement, the whole body is stretched and is said to bring great health benefits. When Yang Cheng Fu talked of solo practice, he suggested that one should first be open and stretched to improve health, then later to practice the compact movements for self defense.
Yang Jian Hou developed the "Medium Frame" style. The emphasis here was on martial technique, with the movements being smaller and broken down in to more circular techniques.
Yang Pan Hou developed the "Small Frame" style which develops Chi and Spirit. Here the movements have become more compact and the circles are based on the rotation of the waist and coiling the body. and is an advanced style.
Yang Cheng-Fu had one student by the name of Cheng Man-Ch'ing (1901-1975) who became the greatest master of his time. With his master's permission, he shortened the form to 37 postures and made it the most popular of all the forms practiced today.
Cheng traveled to the United States to teach and took on students of all backgrounds, which is one of the reasons his particular form is so popular today. His form is characterized by its upright spine, "lu" or "roll-back" energy, and the its powerful softness. It is Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing's style that is taught in the Internal Alchemy school.