The Hong Kong film industry is also responsible for the massive rise in martial arts at religious institutions in the mainland, starting in the late 1980s, when movie makers began to hire talent, especially from Shaolin. It precipitated the reconstruction of the monastery, which had been completely razed by local warlords in the 1920s, and the establishment of numerous martial arts schools in the area. In their wake, Daoists recovered and expanded their own version of martial training, documented since the middle ages, and soon each mountain lineage began to promote its particular style and brand.
Martial arts in general are a form of physical practice geared toward fitness and self-defense in combination with ethical principles. They inherit two traditional value systems: ancient Confucian chivalry, which encouraged the practice of archery and charioteering as tools for aristocratic self-cultivation and emphasized honor, respect, good manners, precise timing, balance, and composure in all actions; plus traditional Daoist concepts of bending and softness, which stressed flexibility, yielding, humility, nonviolence, inner focus, and wisdom.
Martial practice divides into hard and soft or outer and inner, forms that focus on muscle and strength building, teach fighting techniques, and work toward the defeat of the opponent as well as those that encourage an internal awareness and have healing and even spiritual benefits.
The dominant Daoist form is taijiquan 太极拳 (Great Ultimate Boxing), which allegedly began in the Ming dynasty when the Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng 张三丰 looked out the window of his hermitage on Mount Wudang 武当山and saw a crane fighting with a snake. The two animals turned and twisted in a complex pattern, neither gaining advantage yet matching the cosmic interaction of yin and yang. He promptly started to imitate their movements and created the first sequence of the practice—which he later, together with other patterns, a collection of poetry, and his complete autobiography, channeled to the Sichuan Daoist Li Xiyue 李西月 (1806-1856). Zhang in due course became the patron saint of the practice; he is also the main link to Daoism which—however much it may have favored martial practices—originally had no part in its development.
Historically taijiquan began with the military general Chen Wang-ting 陈王廷(1580-1660) who, after fighting the Manchu conquest in the 1630s, retired to his hometown and began to teach martial exercises consisting of five routines and a sequence of 108 moves. Transmitted through the family, his methods were organized into a slightly less martial system by his descendant Chen Zhangxing 陈长兴 (1771-1853), leading to what is today known as the Chen-style, a series of rather simple moves in the four directions. The Yang-style, on the other hand, goes back to Yang Luchan 杨露禅 (1799-1872), who originally studied Shaolin boxing, then became a student of Chen Zhangxing. His practice is softer and rounder, with wide arm movements, circular patterns, and intricate flexing in the wrists and arms. Spread by his sons and developed further into various sub-lineages, it is the most popular form of taijiquan today.
The name, moreover, goes back to Neo-Confucian and Yijing cosmology and their emphasis on the notion of the Great Ultimate, symbolized in moving clouds and eventually in the well-known diagram, which appeared first in 1613.
Taijiquan is executed from a standing position and involves continuous movements that are choreographed into lengthy and complex sequences. In both its basic, unarmed and variant forms (with sword, fan, stick, or pole), it eschews the development of large muscles and powerful strength in favor of internal suppleness (jin筋), a springiness in tendons, sinews, and ligaments. Rather than using the mind to systematically guide qi (as in qigong, used mainly for healing), practitioners keep it open and relaxed, allowing the qi to flow smoothly in all directions and the spirit to be receptive to all stimuli. The practice combines an open and relaxed meditative awareness with soft, slow, and focused body movements; its overall goal is to flow along with the Dao at creation in a smooth, supple, and relaxed way. Taijiquan is thus both a spiritual and martial practice and today forms the foundation of Daoist training all over China.
Read: Bidlack, Bede. 2006. “Taiji Quan: Forms, Visions, and Effects.” In Daoist Body Cultivation, edited by Livia Kohn, 179-202. Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press.