While there are dozens of distinct variations of Tai Chi, Mainland China has promoted five specific family lineages. Each style is named after the surname of the founder. These are Chen, Yang, Sun, Wu, and Wu.
Chen style is the oldest, attributed to Chen Wangting (1580-1660). Yang style is the next oldest, founded by Yang Luchan (1799-1872). It is derived from Chen and is by far the most prevalent style of Tai Chi practiced around the world. Sun style is the youngest, created by Sun Lutang (1861-1932) in his autumn years. Then there are the two Wus.
In Mandarin, these two Wus have different tones, so although they are homonyms when written out in pinyin, they are two completely different words. The older Wu has the falling then rising third tone. The Wu that is the topic of Master Yang's new video has the second tone, which just rises. The Chinese characters are completely different even though they might sound the same to an untrained ear.
The Tale of Two Wus
Wu is a popular word in Chinese martial arts, as well as in Mandarin in general. There are over sixty different characters that can be romanized into the pinyin spelling of wu. Each has a different meaning. Fortunately for the martial arts, we only need to engage two of them.
The 'elder' Wu Tai Chi was founded by Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880). Sometimes this Wu style is referred to as Wu Hao. Hao Weizhen (1849-1920) was the first person outside of the Wu bloodline to learn the style and a significant proponent of it. This makes for a clearer distinction for those of us who are not fluent in Mandarin, but it isn't always used.
Complicating matters, this first Wu is a surname that literally means 'martial.' It is the same Wu character as in Wushu (literally 'martial arts') and Wudang. Wudang is the famous mountain range in Hubei province where many attribute as the birthplace of Tai Chi. It is also the inspiration of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan.
This raises the question 'Why isn't Wudang included among the five styles of Tai Chi?" There's no question that Wudang Tai Chi is a major style especially because in many creation stories, Wudang is attributed as the cradle of Tai Chi.
Some attribute this omission to post Cultural Revolution reconstruction. Wudang could be translated literally as 'martial regards' but like with the surname, this Wu doesn't necessarily refer to the martial arts. It refers to Zhenwu, the patron deity of Wudang mountains. Zhenwu is a major god in the Daoist pantheon. Some believe that it is this religious foundation resulted in the exclusion of Wudang Tai Chi from China's top five. Communism disregards religion. As Karl Marx said, "Religion is the opium of the people," so some critics believe that Wudang Tai Chi was purposefully expunged because of this. Communists also emphasize the power of the people, so to spotlight the families of Tai Chi by surname has merit. However, this postulation fails to account for China's stalwart promotion of Shaolin Kung Fu which is intimately connected with Buddhism.
But back to the Wus, to be honest, the two Tai Chi Wu styles have always confused me. When researching them in English, there are seldom notations of tone distinctions, so you must remember to distinguish them by the names of the individual lineage masters just to know what is being discussed. I've seen plenty of live and video demonstrations of both Wu and Wu Hao, but despite their unique characteristics, I'm still confused about which is which sometimes. I suspect the same is true for many observers who don't speak Mandarin fluently and have a poor ear for the tone differentiation. The homophonic names have inhibited the spread of both styles of Wu Tai Chi beyond Mandarin speakers.
The Wu Tai Chi 45 Form
The Wu style that Master Chenhan Yang is propounding in his new instructional video traces its origin to Wu Quanyou (1834-1904). This Wu is strictly a surname and is attributed to a venerated clan from the southern states of China. Wu was a military man, a Manchu in the Imperial Guard, and a contemporary of grandmasters Yang, Sun, the other Wu, and Hao. While this is a newer form than the other Wu, it's not that much younger. The three variations descending from Yang style all happen within the same generation.
Wu studied under Yang Luchan and his son, Yang Banhou (1837-1892). Wu was known for his ability to neutralize hard attacks. Upon retirement from military service, Wu established his own school of Tai Chi and produced several notable students.
Master Chenhan Yang teaches the Wu style Tai Chi compulsory routine in Wu Tai Chi: 45 Form. This was compiled in 1988 by the Chinese Sport Committee. Many reformations were made in Chinese martial arts around this time. Compulsory routines were created for most of the prominent martial arts styles. Generally, these were shortened from the original forms, balanced to be more symmetric in their expression, shortened by reducing redundancies, and standardized for competition. The original Wu Tai Chi form is 108 movements, just like its precursor, Yang Tai Chi. This compulsory is less than half of that.
To be honest again, reviewing Wu Tai Chi is a bit challenging for me. As I mentioned in my previous review of Master Yang's Sun Tai Chi instructional video, Chenhan is my friend so there is some bias. And as I just said, I don't know much about Wu Tai Chi beyond what I've seen in demos and videos. Nowadays, my Tai Chi practice is limited to Sun Style. I dabbled in some Yang Style a long time ago, and even though I was certified to teach Yang, I've long forgotten it. Neither experience feeds into much understanding of Wu Style. It makes me hesitant to make any comments on the validity of the compulsory form versus the traditional one, because I'm confident anyone who practices Wu style could school me quickly about my assumptions.
Following Master Yang
What I will say is that this video gave me a decent workout, which is always satisfying. I only followed along for the first few lessons and found them illuminating. Wu has a unique structure for Tai Chi. When stepping forward into bow stance lunge, the body leans forward. Typically, your head and waist are aligned so your head is directly above your waist, so your balance is more centered. In Wu style, your nose is aligned with your front knee and toes, which pitches your body forward with a triangular structure. That feels over committed to me, more aggressive into the attack, but watching how smoothly Master Yang moved in and out of that posture gave me a sense of how it might work.
For anyone with an eye for Tai Chi, Master Yang's form demonstrations are beautiful to behold. His stability in stance work is something to see. Watching him step forward into bow stance and shift his weight backwards with that subtle rocking of his upper torso is exquisitely sophisticated, something a practitioner of any style of Tai Chi will notice if they follow along. His single leg poses are rock solid, and the stability of his shoulder height slow motion kicks are something I aspire towards. When he sinks into a drop stance, he makes it look so effortless. His lines of energy – of qi flow – have textbook clarity. He demonstrates an exemplary expression of Tai Chi, something you can see no matter what lineage of Tai Chi you might practice.
While I enjoyed Wu Tai Chi: 45 Form, it won't convert me to the style. I have plenty of my own material to practice already. However, that doesn't mean I didn't learn from the video. Quite the opposite, Master Yang's lessons were easy to follow. His sound advice on common mistakes were spot on. He once even caught me with a correction right while I was making the error. Being able to predict my misstep was a solid testament to his experience as a teacher. It's exactly that level of expert guidance that I look for in video instruction.
For Tai Chi practitioners, it's important to look at other styles
Whether it be Wu, Yang, Chen, or Sun, it's all Tai Chi, and the variations in emphasis are quite instructive. This can be a lens to study your own style, to deepen your understanding of your own practice. Master Yang's clarity of explanation and precise demonstrations present a wonderfully informative way to learn the fundamentals behind Wu Tai Chi. You can jump right into his lessons, follow along at your own pace, learn how Wu Tai Chi works, and get a great workout. The video gave me a great taste of what Wu Tai Chi is about and I may revisit it now and again, just to see what more I might steal for my own practice.