Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan
A historical perspective
The Evolution of Wu Style Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan)
Grandmaster Wu Quanyou (Wu Chuan Yau) (1834 – 1902), was a Manchurian member of the Imperial Guard in Beijing, and the first of the family to develop his skills to a level of great distinction. He was trained by Grandmaster Yang Luchan, “Yang the Invincible” as he was known. Grandmaster Wu was taught the large circle and the majority of his skills were developed from Grandmaster Yang’s teachings, although later Wu’s official teacher was Yang’s eldest son, Master Yang Banhou, to whom he became a disciple, as this was the protocol followed at the time .
Master Banhou was a severe teacher and was fond of beating and injuring Wu during push hands training, and over the years this caused Wu to limp. However, there was one period during the 1860s when Banhou had to go from Beijing to Huangping for several years, and so Grandmaster Yang Luchan resumed teaching Master Wu. He inquired as to what had happened to cause the impediment, and when he learned the truth Grandmaster Yang decided to teach the Small Circle to Master Wu. This is where the essential skills of neutralisation were perfected, which were to become the hallmark of Wu Family Tai Chi Chuan. In fact Wu’s genius at neutralisation earned him the status of Grandmaster Yang’s most formidable student. When Master Banhou returned from his travels and they pushed hands, he realised that Master Wu had been taught the small circle secret methods, as he was unable to find any opening to attack. Subsequently Master Wu was given permission to begin his own school of Tai Chi Chuan.
Wu Jianquan (Wu Chien Chuan)
Grandmaster Wu’s son Jianquan (1870 – 1942) was taught the same series of methods, true to the Yang Family teachings, as his father. As little more than a baby boy he would have witnessed training sessions and was raised with a rigorous training discipline.
When Grandmaster Yang Luchan died in 1872, the Wu father and son team were to develop a bond that in time realised innovations that would distinguish their art. In 1887 Grandmaster Quanyou began his own school in Beijing teaching only the Large Circle, and not only to disciples or to the elite, but to the general public. Together, he and his son pioneered the Form, eventually teaching the tighter small circle which became their trademark.
Master Yang Banhou died in 1892, and in 1902 when Master Wu Jianquan was thirty-two years old, his father Grandmaster Wu Quanyou passed away. During the first decade of the 20th century Grandmaster Wu Jianquan developed the fast and slow sets with changes to streamline the form, and made innovations in push hands and the applications for self–defence.
In 1916 Xu Yusheng, a student of Master Yang Shaohou (grandson of Luchan), opened the new Athletic Research Institute in Beijing and invited co-founder masters Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu (Shaohou's younger brother) and Wu Jianquan to instruct there, along with other great martial arts experts such as Sun Lutang. For the first time the top Sifus all made their art available in the one institution for everyone. This was a continuation of Grandmaster Wu Quanyou’s vision.
This was a golden age for these masters who reexamined their forms to make them more accessible to the public. The result was the birth of the modern Yang and Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan / Taijiquan. They remodelled the hand forms to be easier to learn, and removed the jumps, leaps, scurries, stamps and other difficult movements, though to some extent these were still continued in the weapons forms.
Wu Gongyi (Wu Kung Yi)
The first graduating ceremony of 1919 included Master Wu Gongyi (1900 – 1970), his brother Master Wu Gongzao (Wu Kung Cho) (1903 – 1983), and also the first westerner, an American professional wrestler called Mr Williams.
Trying his luck on one occasion, he challenged Grandmaster Wu Jianquan; unfortunately for him he was quickly and deftly floored. However he remained thereafter as a respectful and dedicated disciple.
Grandmaster Wu Jianquan encouraged his students to practise with the principle of “Song” (loosen and relax) and to practise the form 10,000 times within three years, advising also that they should develop according to their own needs, emphasising health and longevity, as he wished his art to benefit the Chinese nation and the rest of the world. In 1924 Master Wu Gongyi was appointed Tai Chi Instructor to the Huangpu Military Academy.
Grandmaster Wu Jianquan moved to Shanghai in 1928 and was appointed supervisor to the Tai Chi section of the famous Jing Wu Athletic Association. He took his grandson Wu Dakui (Wu Ta Kwei) (1923 – 1970), followed by his son-in-law Master Ma Yueliang (1901 – 1998) and daughter Master Wu Yinghua (1907 – 1996), who learnt from the age of nine and started teaching at fifteen. In 1933 she became Vice-President of the Wu’s Academy there. Years later in 1954 she would become chief instructor in the Wu Style section at the Physical Education Centre Palace in Shanghai.
Master Yang Shaohou died in 1932. In the same year, Grandmaster Wu Jianquan opened the Jianquan Tai Chi Association, and established the first Wu’s Tai Chi Chuan Academy in Shanghai. The Academy flourished, until it was closed by the Government in 1954. Twelve years later the onset of the Cultural Revolution signalled the start of bitter and continued repression. The Academy wasn’t reopened until the 1970s when Master Wu Yinghua started teaching there again.
Master Wu Gongzao (Jianquan's 2nd son), who had gone to Shanghai to help teach at the Jing Wu Athletic Association, went in 1937 to Hong Kong where he had a large following of students. In 1939 he visited Nanjing to teach at the Nanjing Police Training Centre, and at the Hunan Guoshu Training Institute. In the difficult years that followed, during the Cultural Revolution, Master Wu Gongzao was imprisoned for twenty-five years, and spent much of that time secretly practising and developing many of the Wu Family Qigong (Chi Kung) methods. His elder brother Master Wu Gongyi had been learning the Square Form and small circle form from his “uncle” Master Yang Shaohou at Grandmaster Wu Jianquan’s request, along with Zheng Rongguang (Cheng Wing Kwong), who was a disciple of Wu Jianquan. Zheng was invited to live in Wu’s house as a Wu Family disciple and was asked to develop the Square Form for the purpose of teaching large groups of people on his future travels (Zheng also travelled the Far East as a salesman). This he did by introducing the famous 1-2-3 Square Form counting system which eventually became one of the most popular teaching methods in the Far East. As the student progresses they are then taught the round form, ultimately advancing to the medium and small circles.
Meanwhile Master Wu Gongyi had developed the Sectional Joint System, a unique method of understanding the connected movements of the limbs and body, which was to become the mainstay of all Wu Family practice thereafter.
Wu Dakui (Wu Ta Kwei) Wu Yanxia (Wu Yen Hsia)
In 1939 he opened the first Hong Kong Academy with his son Master Wu Dakui (Wu Ta Kwei) (1923 – 1970), the eldest son of the 4th generation, who then became responsible for the Macau Academy. In the 1950s he was invited to teach Wu’s Tai Chi Chuan in Japan, then continued his father’s efforts in establishing Academies in Hong Kong & Kowloon, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.
Master Wu Daxin (Wu Dai Hsin) (1933 – 2005), second son of Master Wu Gongzao, was sent to Singapore and Manila to open Academies there. Master Wu Gongyi’s second son Master Wu Daqi (Wu Tai Chi) (1926 – 1993) went to Kuala Lumpur to open an Academy. It was Master Wu Yanxia (Wu Yen Hsia) (1930—2001), the daughter of Master Wu Gongyi and sister of Master Wu Dakui and Master Wu Daqi, who looked after the Lockhart Road Academy in Hong Kong along with her husband Master Guo Shaojiong (Kwok Hsia Jong), after she had moved from Shanghai in 1948. When her brothers died, she took over as Chairman of the Wu’s Academy Headquarters in Hong Kong.
“Eddie” Wu Guangyu (Wu Kwong-Yu)
The present Gatekeeper and Grandmaster of Wu Family Tai Chi Chuan
The Official Wu’s Academies
The protocol in all Wu’s Academies at the beginning of each session is the tradition of lighting the incense and respectful salute to the Great Founder Zhang Sanfeng and the ancestors of the Wu Family. The Grandmasters' pictures hang on the wall of each Academy (except for Grandmaster Wu Quanyou - there are no photos of him): Wu Jianquan, Wu Gongyi, Wu Dakui, Wu Yanxia and Wu Daxin, alongside an image of the Great Founder Zhang Sanfeng.
There are other official Academies spread worldwide, including Toronto, Fredericton, Detroit, London, Hawaii, Singapore, Malaysia etc.
Master “Cynthia” Wu Xiaofeng (Wu Hsiao Feng) (1949 ~), sister of Grandmaster Wu Guangyu (Wu Kwong Yu or Eddie Wu), who previously taught in Vietnam, teaches currently at the headquarters Academy in Hong Kong.
The 1995 Convention, Toronto
In 1995 in Toronto, Canada, the inaugural convention of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan/Taijiquan took place. The purpose was to invite all Wu Style practitioners worldwide to attend. Regardless of faction and school lineage, various styles and all their offshoot schools, instructors and students, none were excluded. On the contrary, as many Wu stylists as possible were welcomed. It was at this significant event that the history of Wu Family style and subsequent developments were communicated “from the horse’s mouth'' so to speak, of which videos and DVDs are available. The various instructors, disciples and students of Wu practitioners, dedicated to their own beliefs on lineage and stylistic differences, were informed of the actual development of the art within the family proper, while being embraced within the Wu Style community. It is inevitable that practitioners of the variations of the art make their own path, it is the way of the world, of human practice. Hybrid forms take their course, but are still included as part of the whole picture, not estranged. Values held close to the heart are maintained and respected regardless of who or where.
The Gold Book
Master Wu Gongzao’s “Gold Book” was published in 1935, and again in 1980. Finally, in 2005 an English version of this book was published in Toronto, by Master Wu Guangyu with the help of his Toronto disciples. This book is at the heart of the story of Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan. It was the first time the 40 lessons of Yang Banhou given to the Yang Family disciples were published in their entirety.
In 1975 Master Wu Daqi opened the first Academy in North America, in Toronto, and Master Wu Guangyu arrived to take over from his uncle six months later in 1976. ‘Aunty’ Wu Yanxia, whose speciality was the sword, along with uncle Master Wu Daxin, whose specialities were the sabre and his exceptional looseness, visited on a regular basis, teaching and giving workshops. Wu Daxin trained in his early days with Grandmaster Wu Jianquan, and said “training was hard”. Once when I asked him in Toronto what he remembered from those days, he replied, “Soft, he was soft”. His preference was always the square form. Han Xiong Ba Bei, extending the back and relaxing and hollowing the chest, with a straight spine, were his priorities in teaching. Master Ma Hailong and Master Ma Jiangbao (sons of Wu Yinghua and Ma Yueliang) often visited him.
Variations of Form Practice in Wu Style
One of the main differences between the two main branches of the Wu Family, regarding practice of the Hand Form, is the turning of the hip. In the Master Wu Gongyi lineage 99% of all movement originates in the turning of the hip, whereas the Wu Yinghua lineage prefers not to turn the hip. Some schools emphasise the circular forms, others the square form. Some continue the counting system to teach, others do not. Nevertheless all are Wu Style. Individual masters with their own Academies emphasise different aspects of the Quan (Chuan). The unifying element between them all, however, is the maintenance of the essential principles.
In 1993 Master Wu Yanxia eventually became the first female member of the Wu Family to be recognised as Grandmaster and Gatekeeper of the Wu Style. She was very popular and had a large following. She was kind but also stern and dignified, and had a keen eye for correct practice in sparring, form or push hands. She excelled in her demonstration of the Fast Form, as well as the Sword.
When “Aunty” passed away in 2001, Master Wu Daxin was appointed Grandmaster; he was succeeded four years later by Master “Eddie” Wu Guangyu (1946~ ), who is the present Gatekeeper and Grandmaster of Wu Family Tai Chi Chuan, as officially recognised by the mainland Chinese Government. He has made supreme efforts to travel the globe to all the academies to give seminars, in order to maintain the highest standards in the tradition of his predecessors, and to keep the core values of practice intact. He has also made significant contributions of his own, notably in developing the 54 Form, the two-person sparring sets (Sanshou), the Wheelchair or Seated Form, and the 12 Form among others, plus a comprehensive set of videos and DVDs. Key information about Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, including a detailed history and family tree, is available on the website www.wustyle.com.
Author: Gary Wragg
Chief Instructor and Director of Wu’s Tai Chi Chuan Academy, Bethnal Green, London.
© 2023 by Wu's Tai Chi Chuan Academy
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