In part, due to the constant referral to Chinese figures and places, discussing Tai Chi history is not easy if you are new to the subject. Like religion and maths T'ai Chi was invented by people,. History is what we choose to remember and what gets recorded dictates what is remembered. China is also a huge country so the exploits of the uneducated majority almost certainly passed un-noticed. It would seem that T'ai Chi is one of the oldest martial arts, but it would be more accurate to say Chinese Martial Arts have a longer recorded history because the Chinese knew how to verbally pass on that history through stories, dance and eventually written records. Claims of Martial Arts and even Tai Chi being thousands of years old are bandied about, but unless you believe people lived in peace before that date, it's not really a very accurate figure.
Give a bloke a stick and an enemy and they'll both figure out ways of hitting each other. If you find any hint of any civilisation, they will have had wars and wars need armies and armies need to learn to fight. To learn to fight you need teachers and teachers need forms. Once you got to that point, you've got a martial art. Certainly the Greeks and Romans knew a thing or two about fighting and swordsmanship.
To labour the point, Aborigines have a traceable history of 40,000 years showing hunting and fighting methods. But their history makes everybody look bad so it doesn't count.
So Tai Chi is put up as the oldest recorded Martial Art, but really they are counting Kung Fu which would seem not to include the idea of Yijing (Ying & Yang?) and the Daoist/Taoist Qigong. So it's not T'ai Chi. However, if the theories are real, they are present in part in Kung Fu too, but the fighter doesn't give them a name. The following seems to be the general concensus of a cereal packet history.
Shaolin Quan (Kung Fu) was credited as being devised by an Indian Bodhidarma Master called Damo who went to China in 527 AD. He created several systems of exercise because the local monks where weak physically. This led to Shaolin Boxing. Damo died, his followers left and the idea was neglected.
1200 - 1300 AD
Step in Jiaoyuanshangren who was a proficient boxer and fencer (suggesting other martial arts are already practiced in a widespread manner) he took the ideas of Damo (now called the 18 Buddha's Hands) and decided to improve and widen the system with his own fighting skills. These where called the Five Quan. Each Quan was based on copying the real or supposed movements of an animal and had only five postures. The orginals where Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake and Crane Quan. One of Jiaoyuanshangrens' followers was Zhang Sanfeng who stayed at the temple for ten years.
Zhang Sanfeng: Born 1247 is majorly credited with turning Shaolin Quan (Kung Fu to you and me) into Taiji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan). He practised using the will. mind, body and (his percieved view) of nature and way the world worked, the Dao itself.
Zhang Sanfeng met a Daoist called Huolong and believed he could become immortal with Huolongs' teachings. He spent many years wandering in the mountains looking for a wise man and enlightenment (he never met one, but apparently a lot of other people did) and on returning to his home discovered all his family had died. Following a change of Government, he believed he would be summoned to serve and teach, so he pretended to be mad and finally fled. He was last seen in 1399.
Emperor Yiuchung bestowed the title of immortality on Zhang who was thought to have lived for 200 years.
There where other styles similar to Tai Chi, but Zhang Sanfeng is credited with incoporating the Daoist/Taoist Qigong and Yijing principles "To finally broaden Taijiquan to help all people enjoy a long, healthy life." He took it beyond fighting to studying and improving life and copying the ideas of Taoism.
1600- 1700 AD
Chen Style: Chen Wangting founded it and each following generation produced a Family Master. The first routine of Chen Changxin is said to be the oldest known "Form" from which all other forms are derived. It was generally shown to close family members. None family members shown included Yang Luchan and Libokui. It was Yang Luchan who became reknowned for really running with the ball.
It would seem Yang style came from Yang Luchans' exposure to Chen following 33 Shaolin hard style.
Yang Luchan was from a farmers family and not of the elite, as a child he learned the hard 33 long form boxing style Chang Chuan from Cheng De Hu an older teacher who encouraged him to seek out the Chens because of Yangs promise as a great boxing talent. The instructor Cheng De Hu felt he required a wider knowledge.
Although Yang Luchan was not accepted at first by the Chen Master, he was said to have learnt some of the art by watching the group after hearing the "Heng Ha!" sound. Eventually he was discovered and allowed to train and became the best fighter of the group. (Bear in mind he was already a gifted hard fighter and at that point would have known both hard and soft strategies).
When he left as an adult. Yang started teaching to the Royal Family and became well known. He loved to fight and welcomed any opportunity, seeking out many famous fighters and encountered some setbacks (which he faced by improving his ability by returning to the Chen family twice more) gaining a reputation of being unbeatable. (apparently without injury to his oponents or himself). He became known as Yang Wudi (no enemy, no rival) and was quoted as saying "There are three people I cannot beat. They are made of brass, iron and wood. The rest I can beat." Many point to this as a true indicator that T'ai Chi Chuan works on people, but not objects.
He had three sons, one died very young, Yu, nicknamed Ban Hou, and Jian, nicknamed Jian Hou, who became the 2nd generation representatives of the Yang Family. Yang Luchan died a natural death. The story of how it was then passed on from generation to generation is widely covered with claims of it never fully being passed on from Yang Luchan as none overtook his reputation.
A more reasonable view would seem that he was an extraordinary fighter and just as there was only one Muhammad Ali, the following generations could become very learned and extraordinary fighters, but not to the degree Yang Luchan achieved (who in death became an even more legendary figure). The next major Yang character was Yang Cheng Fu.
A direct quote regarding Yang Luchan from Yang Jun is contained here. I know it says Jun is 6th, that's been changed. The reason given is a generation was missed as Yang Daofang, father to Jun and Bin, was prevented from teaching because of the Cultural Revolution in China during his adulthood.
Yang Cheng Fu. Grandson of Yang Luchan and son of Jianhou (1839-1917). The reason Yang Cheng Fu is important is because he wrote the Form down (including photographs) setting it in
stone so to speak. He too was acknowledged as an extraordinary fighter, he was a widespread teacher, and he made the form standardised and more accessable. He also taught Ch'eng Man Ching who went on to be responsible for popularising T'ai Chi in America. Though, not the Yang Long form. This is still a very sore point with many who feel Cheng hi-jacked the Yang name in the States and in turn throughout the western world.
It's important to remember at this point all of Yang Cheng Fu's sons have just as much of a claim on the Yang Family name. Also his nephew Fu Zhongwen (1903-1994) is arguably the person who closest resembles the form of Chengfu and was the better martial artist.
Yang Zhen Duo. One of the younger sons of Yang Cheng Fu, he went on to popularise the style in the west and write another form book with descriptions and photo's filling in various details not over clear in his fathers book. He also embraced the video and DVD era diplaying the form. However, by then in his seventies he also included his Grandson Yang Jun demonstrating the form in a more virile and younger display in the 1990's.
Yang Jun. Grandson of Yang Zhen Duo.
If you want a full history of the Yang Family it's widely available on the various Yang website and within more or less every T'ai Chi book written.
1.Yang Lu Chan, his sons 2. Yang Ban Hou and Yang Jian Hou, his grandsons 3. Yang Shao
Hou, Yang Chengfu, and the fourth generation (great-grandsons) 4. Yang Zhen Ming, Yang Zhen Ji, Yang Zhen Duo, and Yang Zhen Guo. 5. (great-great-great -grandsons) Yang Jun & Yang Bin, have all worked together to research, change, develop and spread Tai Chi Chuan.
Yang Lu-ch'an passed his art to his second son Yang Pan-hou (1837-1890). Yang Pan-hou became the formal teacher of Wu Quanyou. Yang Luchan was Wu Ch'uan-yu's first tai chi chuan teacher. Wu Ch'uan-yu becameYang Pan-hou's first disciple. Wu Ch'uan-yu's son,Wu Jianquan became known as the co-founder (along with his father) of the Wu style. his third son Yang Jianhou (1839-1917), passed it to his sons, Yang Shao-hou (1862-1930) and Yang Cheng-fu (1883-1936). Wu Yuxiang (1813-1880) who also developed his own Wu/Hao style, which eventually, after three generations, led to the development of Sun style tai chi chuan.
NB: A Yang family generation was missed as Yang Daofang, father to Jun and Bin, was prevented from teaching because of the Cultural Revolution in China during his adulthood.
The variations in transmisssion spring from various styles and teachers who learned the form from named Deciples, their descendants and descendants of the Yang family such as Cousins, etc.
The Dao Of Taijiquan. Jou,Tsung Hwa.
Journal of the International Yang Family Tai Chi
Chuan Association, No 26, 2010.