Wuwei Foundation


A Short Biography of the Yang Family

Exerpted from "T'ai Chi Ch'uan for Health and Self-Defense"

by T.T. Liang

Yang Lu Ch'an was a native of the Yung Nien District, Kuang P'ing Prefecture in Hopei Province. In his youth he traveled to Ch'en Chia Kou in Honan Province to learn the art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan from Ch'en Chang Hsing. Ch'en Chang Hsing stood erect like an ancestral tablet. His bearing, in fact, was so upright that he acquired the nickname "Mr. Ancestral Tablet." At that time all of Ch'en's students belonged to his own clan and no outsiders were permitted instruction. So Yang Lu Ch'an at first was excluded because he was not of the same family, but he was so eager to learn that he stayed on without any rancor or disappointment. Although he lived in the Ch'en village for several years, he received no tutelage. Late one night he was awakened by the sound of training shouts coming from an adjoining courtyard. He quickly arose, leapt over the wall, and discovered the building from which the sounds had come. Carefully tearing away a bit of the paper window covering, Yang saw the teacher instructing his students i n the techniques of "withdraw and push" and "receiving energy." With great excitement he observed the movements and each night thereafter secretly returned to the spot. Then he would go back to his own room and practice the techniques assiduously. From th is time on his art increased greatly. Some time later Master Ch'en ordered Yang to enter a match against his other students and all of them met defeat at the hands of Yang. Deeply impressed, the old Master considered Yang to be a genius and taught him all his own secret arts. Yang later returned to his native Yung Nien District and began to teach people near his home. Many students came to him to learn. His boxing art became known as "Hua Ch'uan" (neutralization boxing) or "Mien Ch'uan" (flexible boxing) because all of the movements were soft and supple. Subsequently, he went to Pei P'ing (Beijing) where he taught members of the royal household and was appointed martial arts instructor to the Manchu Banner Battalion. Yang's disposition was very forthright and vigorous. He liked to contest with exponents of any other style or school. He would often go about carrying a short spear and a bag, visiting places all over northern China. Whenever he found one whose art was su perior to his own, he would ask to test him. Even if the other man would refuse a match, Yang would compel him to contest, but so high was his skill that he would never hurt or injure his opponent. His mastery was such that he was never defeated and he thus acquired the sobriquet "Yang the Unsurpassable." 

Old Master Yang was born in the fourth year of Chia Ch'ing of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1799) and died in the eleventh year of T'ung Chih of the same dynasty (1872). He had three sons: the eldest, named Ch'i, died young; the second was named Pan Hou; and the third was named Chien Hou. Each had the ability to hand down his father's art. During the old Master's lifetime many stories about him arose, including the following incidents: 

When the Master was in Kuang P'ing he once had a match with a boxer on top of a wall. The man was defeated and was compelled to retreat to the wall's edge. He could no longer stand firmly, his body inclined backward, and he was about to fall down. At this moment of imminent peril Yang suddenly leapt over to the man from thirty feet away and held on to his foot, thus saving him from falling and being killed. Yang was also very adept at using the shaft of his spear. With a mere flick of his spear shaft he could pick up any light object from the ground. While mounted on horseback, he could shoot arrows without a bow, using only his fingers. Such was his extraordinary skill that he could hit the target every time, missing not even once. 

One rainy day old Master Yang was sitting in his hall and saw his daughter ready to enter, holding a brass bowl full of water. When she was just about to step in but had not yet drawn back the screen, her foot slipped on the wet moss near the doorstep and she was on the verge of falling. At this moment the old master flew to the door in one leap, held the bowl with one hand and supported his daughter's arm with the other, saving her from falling. Not even one drop of water was spilled. From this we can see how marvelous was his art. 

On another occasion when Yang was fishing on the bank of a river, two famous Shaolin teachers were passing behind him. Ordinarily they feared his famous reputation and did not dare to engage him in combat face to face. Now they perceived an opportunity to push him from behind so that he would fall into the river and drown and his famous name would be sullied. So they secretly agreed to attack the Master simultaneously from left and right. Yang's power of vision was extraordinarily acute and he was aware from the outset that some secret plot was going on behind him. When the powerful striking force of the two men had just about come to his body, he suddenly held in his chest and straightened out his back, using the technique of High Pat on Horse. There was only a slight lowering of his head and rising movement of his back and the two men were propelled together into the river. Then old Master Yang said to them, "Today you are both lucky. If you were on land I would like to use one more technique and then you would not escape so lightly." As soon as the two men heard this they swam speedily away. 

One day when old Master Yang had journeyed to Beijing, another famous boxer heard that he was called "The Unsurpassable," became envious, and requested a bout. At first Yang was unwilling, so the other boxer took Yang for a coward and pressed his challenge more vigorously. When it became clear that he could not avoid a bout, Yang agreed. He laughed and said, "Since you are so eager to have a bout, why don't you first punch me three times?" Upon hearing this the other boxer was overjoyed. He raised his fists forthwith and proceeded to strike Yang's belly with all his might. But before Yang's great laugh had quite ended, the other boxer was knocked down and propelled thirty feet away. 

Old Master Yang's eldest son, Pan Hou, was born in the seventeenth year of Tao Kuang of the Chting Dynasty (1837). When he was young he began to learn T'ai Chi from his father. Each day he practiced unceasingly, diligently and painstakingly. His father would not allow him to rest even for a short time, and in addition he endured the intolerable pain of being flogged with a whip by his father until he was on the point of running away from home. His temper was irritable and violent; he was very proficient in "free hand" techniques and he enjoyed knocking down his opponents. As soon as he would stretch out his hand, blood would immediately appear from their bodies and some of them would be thrown more than thirty feet away. When Pan Hou was in the prime of young manhood, he once engaged in a match against a famous Shaolin teacher who was very daring and had considerable power. He grasped Pan Hou's wrist and would not let it loose. Pan Hou, using a sudden sharp burst of energy, applied it to the body of the Shaolin teacher. The latter could not stand it and was pushed over. Pan Hou, elated, returned home to give a detailed account to his father. When Lu Ch'an heard the story he laughed and said, "You are happy because you have won. But alas your sleeve has been torn. Can this be called the use of intrinsic energy in T'ai Chi?" Pan Hou looked at his sleeve and saw that it had indeed been torn. He became downcast and withdrew. 

He then began to practice T'ai Chi more diligently than ever before and his techniques gradually reached a very high level. It is a pity that he did not wish to transmit his art to many disciples. He was like a singer with a very high vocal range, who could find few to sing in tune with him. So eventually his art became extinct. He died in the sixteenth year of Kuang Hsu (1892). 

Old Master Yang's second son, Chien Hou, was born in the twenty-second year of Tao Kuang of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1842). Like his brother, he began learning T'ai Chi from his father at an early age. His father supervised his training with such severity that he was compelled to practice for an entire day without being allowed to rest even a little while. He became so utterly wearied in body and mind that he could hardly stand. Several times he attempted to hang himself, but each time was discovered and rescued. We can see that it was his spirit of enduring hardship at that time that enabled him to make a famous name for himself later on. His disposition was much milder than that of his elder brother Pan Hou, so he had many students. In all he taught three different kinds of postures: higher, middle, and lower. His soft and hard energies in perfect coordination, he achieved the great consummation and his art reached a very high level. When he engaged in combat with experts from other schools who were proficient in using knife or sword, he used only a wooden feather duster to defeat them. As soon as he raised his hand, the opponent's hand would invariably be held fast so that he was put into a disadvantageous position, unable to approach. He could also make good use of the spear shaft. He could issue any kind of energy from the tip of the shaft so that whenever it was touched by the staff of another person the other staff and its wielder would be thrown far away. He could knock a person out with any part of his body and could release all his energy in the moment of a laugh or shout. He was also an expert in shooting "bullets" (spherical iron pellets), and never missed his target. With three or four bullets in his hand, he would often shoot down three or four flying birds. Even more mysterious was his ability to hold a sparrow in his palm without letting it fly away. A bird about to take off must first press downwards with its claws and find a firm foothold upon which to exert energy and raise its body aloft. But Chien Hou could interpret the sinking energy of the bird's two claws. As the bird pushed downward, he would relax and neutralize so the sparrow, unable to avail itself of a foothold, could not fly away. From this we can see that his clever, subtle, and ingenious use of interpreting and neutralizing energy was such that no one else could approach his level. When he was advanced in years, he often practiced to develop his intrinsic energy Iying in bed fully clothed. His servants often heard a strange shaking sound at night emanating from the room where he was sleeping. 

He died in the sixth year of the Republic of China (1917), a peaceful death without sickness or calamity. A few hours before he died. he received a premonition of his impending death in a dream. He summoned all of his family members and disciples to assemble before him and gave his final instructions to them one by one. After bathing and changing his clothing, he died with a smiling face. He had three sons: the first was named Shao Hou; the second son, Chao Hou, died young; and the third son was named Ch'eng Fu. 

Yang Chien Hou's eldest son Shao Hou was born in the first year of T'ung Chi of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1862). He studied T'ai Chi Ch'uan from the age of seven. His disposition was stubborn and unyielding. He enjoyed knocking down his opponents and made good use of free hand techniques, very much like his uncle whose characteristics he inherited. His postures were low and brisk, his movements swift and powerful. In every move he sought compactness. When he taught others he adopted the same style: as soon as he stretched out his hand he would attack. The students for the most part could not stand it, so few remained to learn from him. He had profound skill in "borrowing energy," "sudden energy," "intercepting energy," and "hurling-aloft energy." It is to be regretted that he did not wish to transmit his art to many students, so those who know it are now very scarce. He died in the eighteenth year of the Republic of China (1930). He had one son named Chen Sheng. Yang Chien Hou's third son, Ch'eng Fu, was born in the ninth year of Kuang Hsu of the Ch'ing Dynasty (1883). His disposition was mild. As a child he showed no great inclination to study T'ai Chi, but at the age of twenty began studying with his father. Du ring his father's lifetime he did not pursue his studies with diligence and his comprehension of the principles remained incomplete and imperfect. After his father's death he suddenly awakened to his responsibility and began to practice assiduously night and day. Eventually he gained a farreaching reputation. He acquired all of the arts of T'ai Chi, mostly from study on his own. Indeed, he was a marvelously gifted genius. Had he been able to apply his entire mind to study while his father was alive, his a chievement would not have fallen short of his grandfather's. His body was stalwart and his stature gigantic; he appeared as soft as cotton externally but internally was as strong as iron. His "withdraw-attack energy" and "receiving energy" were both superb. In contrast to his elder brother he taught most of his students the higher postures so their movements would be wide open and stretched. Because of his mild disposition many students came to him to learn. His reputation spread north and south throughou t the country. He died in the twenty-fourth year of the Republic of China (1936). He had four sons: the eldest was named Chen Ming; the second Chen Chi; the third Chen Tou; and the fourth Chen Kuo. When we speak of T'ai Chi at the present time, we all hold Yang's T'ai Chi in the highest esteem. Fortunately Yang's descendents were all able to acquire the arts handed down by their ancestors and were able to follow in the steps of their forefathers, urging themselves on to efforts so that the fame of Yang's family would be maintained forever. 

The secret bitterness of Yang Family T'ai Chi

How Yang Lu Chan compelled his sons to practice T'ai Chi and nearly caused a calamity:

It is well known that Yang Family (i.e., Yang Style) T'ai Chi was developed toward the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty by the great master Yang Lu Ch'an. But the growth and eventual prevalence of Yang's T'ai Chi also contains a secret of extraordinary bitternes s and grief. Toward the end of the Ch'ing Dynasty, after Yang Lu Ch'an had successively defeated eighteen masters of the martial arts in their training halls, he acquired the honorific title, "Yang the Unsurpassable." He then wanted with all his heart to hand down the extraordinary skill which he had spent a lifetime in learning to his two sons Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou so that Yang Family T'ai Chi could be developed gloriously and brilliantly under his own descendents. With this in mind, Yang Lu Ch'an adopted a training program of unprecedented severity in supervising his two sons' practice of this art. Frequently he knocked his sons down, causing their heads to bleed and their mouths to be split open. Under this severe training, the two sons met with unspeakable suffering. One must realize that, although a martial arts man may say that all depends upon painstaking and hard practice, natural talent is also an indispensable ingredient. Pan Hou and Chien Hou, under their father's strict supervision, met with unbearable bitterness in their training. What the two sons found most difficult to bear was their father's insistence that they practice according to the maxim, "For ten years one sits near the window (studying), not allowing eyes to stray even once to the garden." Lu Ch'an did not allow his sons to take even one step out of the family courtyard; they were to remain at home training day and night. One might well ask, how long could two youths in their prime endure such treatment? The result was that Yang Pan Hou once scaled the wall and escaped, but was intercepted and brought back. Yang Chien Hou tried to hang himself, but was rescued. Only after these two calamities did Yang Lu Ch'an come to realize the (correct) way of practicing martial art: each one has his own natural talent, and progress cannot be forced. So he could do nothing but become a bit more lenient in his supervision. But Yang Lu Ch'an had also admitted several "outsiders" as his personal disciples. Of these, the senior named Chen Hsiu Feng had attained the highest standard in the art. Just because of this, several incredible and unexpected events took place. 

Chen Hsiu Feng, Standing in Front of Yang's Tomb, Usurps the Title of Head Disciple:

In 1872 Yang Lu Ch'an became ill and died and was brought to his native place for burial. His two sons and disciples carried his coffin to the hillside cemetery. When the coffin of the great Master of his generation had been lowered into the ground, the s enior disciple Chen Hsiu Feng suddenly stood up before the tomb of his deceased teacher and before the earth had even dried he declared, "Yang's T'ai Chi is no longer in the hands of his descendents!" As soon as the words were out, everyone was startled. Chen Hsiu Feng, without politeness, went on to point out that while the Master was alive his two sons had never practiced his art well. Therefore Yang's secret and miraculous techniques had not fallen into the hands of the two brothers; but only Chen Hsiu Feng himself had acquired the Yang family's genuine teachings. Thereupon, Chen Hsiu Feng patted his chest and declared, "I am the only head disciple of the second generation of Yang family T'ai Chi. If there is anyone who is not convinced, please come up and try conclusions with me." Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou never anticipated that this elder student would snatch away the title of Head Disciple even before the earth on their father's tomb had dried. They were furious and wanted to challenge the eld er disciple, but upon considering the matter they remembered that even in daily practice sessions they were no match for Chen. As soon as they practiced with him, they were either knocked out or thrown over. If they were to contest the issue at this time, there would be no advantage whatever. The common saying has it . . . "When the gentleman takes revenge, seventeen years is not too late." So Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou endured their shame and anger without saying a word. They merely shot fierce glances at Chen Hsiu Feng, and silently descended the hill.

Hard Practice To Become the Best and Recover Family Fame:

To take up the tale again, when Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou returned home, they suffered from their inexpressible anger. They also regretted that they had not trained seriously during their father's lifetime because they did not wish to endure the har dships involved. But now they were of a mind to study and practice diligently, so they took out their deceased father's secret manuals and practiced the techniques described in them. The proverb says, "There is nothing difficult under heaven; a persevering will can overcome any obstacle." Accordingly, Pan Hou and Chien Hou, after a period of hard practice, improved their skill by leaps and bounds. After three years they were no longer weaklings, so they went together to seek out Chen Hsiu Feng and challeng e him in order to recover by force the title "Yang Family Head Disciple." At that time Chen Hsiu Feng was teaching T'ai Chi in the Yen Ch'eng district of Honan and had accepted pupils there. Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou sought him out and found him. After a few cold words of greeting, they came to the point, "Elder disciple, did you not say that the genuine teachings of the Yang Family are no longer in the hands of Yang's descendents?" Chen Hsiu Feng averted his eyes and replied, "Ah, I forget . . . How long ago did I say that?" Chien Hou, seeing that he was feigning ignorance, became very angry and flatly pointed out, "Three years ago, when we carried our deceased father's coffin up the hill and had barely finished burying him, you said those words." Chen Hsiu Feng now put on the appearance of understanding completely and s aid with a hearty laugh, "Yes indeed! Three years ago I really did say that. But at that time I did it only to intimidate you two brothers to advance. Now all is well; you have practiced hard and after three years, the Yang Family title can return to your hands again." As soon as he had said this, Chen immediately stretched out his right hand and, lifting the large armchair near him with the sticking energy of his palm, moved it and set it down in front of the two brothers saying, "Very good. You two brothers are not unworthy of being named sons of the great master Yang. This chair can be considered the Head Disciple's Chair. Please sit down." When Chen Hsiu Feng showed off this technique, the Yang brothers looked at each other with their mouths hanging wide open in amazement. 

How the Technique of Lifting the Armchair with the "Sticking Palm" Oppressed the Two Brothers:

The sticking energy of T'ai Chi is divided into three levels: highest, middle. and lowest. A persson with the highest form of T'ai Chi sticking energy can use his flat palm to lift up anything without exerting any strength through his fingers. In terms of Yang Style T'ai Chi, only this can be called genuine sticking energy. The middle level of this energy is described by the saying, "As soon as one touches his clothing, the opponent is immediately thrown over." That is to say, as soon as your palm touches the clothing of the other man, he is already in your trap. No sooner does your palm touch his clothing than he is thrown over. The phrase used in T'ai Chi practice, "Touching the opponent's clothing, he can be pushed down in (any of) eighteen ways" refers to this technique. 

As for the lowest level of technique, it requires that one touch the opponent's body with the hand in order to make him fall, that is, one grasps the opponent's body or limbs. There are two methods. One is borrowing his energy to issue your own energy (receive-attack); the other is to entice the opponent to issue energy, then, after neutralizing, to knock him over. This kind of energy is the most elementary T'ai Chi technique. 

Chen Hsiu Feng relied only on the sticking energy of his one palm to raise an armchair of several tens of catties and set it down lightly in front of the two brothers. This highest level of sticking energy even Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou considered beyond their reach. However, Chen Hsiu Feng's courteous yielding up of the title invisibly relieved the unhappy feeling in the hearts of the brothers, and this can be considered the time when they buried the hatchet and all ended happily.