The Shamanic Origins of Tai Chi

By Stefan Verstappen

“Only the multi-disciplined warrior, the techno-shaman, can scale the walls of ignorance and shed light over the prevailing darkness. The warrior spirit must guide this process.”

The Warrior’s Edge, Alexander, Groller, Morriss

Under the moonlight, in a village somewhere in the Golden Triangle, the Ka-ren Shaman moved slowly and methodically. He was showing us the movements taught him by his Shaman, which had been passed down through the tribe for generations. The Shaman moved strikingly similar to a Tai Chi master.

The Golden Triangle is a roughly drawn geographic area that overlaps the borders of three countries: Myanmar in the west, Laos in the east, and Thailand in the south. This area gets its soubrette from its most profitable export, the golden excretions of the poppy—opium. The terrain of small brown mountains and narrow forested valleys is ideally suited to guerilla tactics. In the past this incomprehensible landscape acted as a barrier against the encroachments of the Burmese, Chinese, and Cambodian empires, allowing the area’s indigeonous hill tribes to maintain their own autonomy. More recently, the triangle’s remoteness continues to keep much of civilization at bay. Both Buddhist and Christian missionaries have failed to convert but a small number of the people away from their ancient animist beliefs. The Shaman or medicine man still plays an important role in the life of the isolated villages. In 1987 the author visited with the Ka-ren in one of the more remote areas of the Triangle. There he was fortunate enough to spend an evening with a Shaman and witness his spirit dance. It was there that the connection between this tradition and that of the Chinese martial arts seemed to meld.

Tai Chi has often been described and written about as form of meditation—a moving meditation. The purpose of meditation is to alter one’s consciousness in order to achieve a variety of goals from relaxation and healing to extending one’s lifespan and many even believe that it helps develop supernatural abilities. The picture that most often comes to mind when we consider meditation is that of the Yogi, the Buddhist, and the Taoist, sitting cross-legged in a temple. The key ingredients are silence, stillness, and solitude. Contrast this image with one of the continually flowing and sometimes explosive movements of Tai Chi, and it would appear to be the antithesis of the conditions needed for meditation. From where then did this unique concept, the linking of physical movement with an altered state of consciousness, originate?

The five elements and their associated heraldic animals represent an ancient knowledge of how heavenly forces could be manipulated to affect earthly destinies. The central ritual of Taoist magic consists in the ability to call up the forces of these spirit generals and indicates that the heraldic animals are indeed the essence of supernatural powers.

The Chinese Pau Kua, Ong Hean-Tatt

In the older martial arts traditions of China, Burma, the Philippines, and Malaysia, there are systems of self-defense that are based upon the combat movements of either real or mythical animals. The better known styles originated in China and include Tiger, Leopard, Lion, Crane, Eagle, Phoenix, Snake, Dragon, White Ape, Monkey, and Praying Mantis, to name a few. Most of the movements of these styles are more complex and vigorous than their passive cousin Tai Chi, and are thus even further removed from the traditional requirements of silence and stillness. Yet it is in the grand ballet of the animal styles that the connection is closest to the ancient origin of moving meditation. That connection can be seen in the oral traditions.

Standing Shaman

Every style has its own folklore regarding its origins. Often they are like parables that teach moral and philosophical lessons as well as the style’s origins. But there is also a pattern to many of the tales. The following story is typical of these and contains classic story elements that point to an even older origin.

In 15th century China, Wang Lang was a young bully who had studied martial arts from a young age. He would strut and intimidate the locals with displays of Kung Fu, but the older men in the village were unimpressed. “Ah! Who do you think you are?,” they would mutter, “Your skills are nothing compared to even a Shaolin novice.” Stinging from such rebukes, Wang vowed to find this Shaolin Temple and defeat its master. After an arduous journey, Wang reached the temple and challenged the monks to a duel. Initially the monks ignored him, but day after day Wang issued his challenge and finally the monks accepted. Expecting to duel with the master, Wang was chagrined to find himself faced with the lowest ranking monk. Even more humiliating was his quick defeat at the novice’s hands. Wang sulked off to the nearby mountains where he trained for months. After his confidence was restored, Wang returned to Shaolin and defeated the novice monk that had beaten him earlier; however, his next opponent was a senior monk who flounced him effortlessly.

Wang again retreated to the mountains to contemplate his failure. Then one day, while sitting in meditation, Wang was distracted by sounds coming from some bushes nearby. Investigating the source of the commotion he discovered a struggle between a praying mantis and a cicada. As he watched, Wang was fascinated by the mantis’s martial techniques. He captured the mantis and kept it in a cage built from sticks. He used a straw to poke and attack the insect in order to study its fighting strategy. Wang incorporated the strategies of the mantis into his martial arts and returned to the temple. He then defeated every one of the monks sent against him. The abbot finally ordered a stop to the contest after conceding victory to Wang. The abbot was curious about his unique style of fighting and asked Wang how he came about it. Wang told the story of his encounter with the Mantis. Having also learned humility from the insect, Wang Lang became a Shaolin monk and his Praying Mantis style became famous throughout China.

As a parable this tale illustrates three of the most important strategies of warfare: deception, speed, and surprise. There are also the moral lessons: persevering in the face of failure, learning humility, and the benefits of learning to be in harmony with nature.

But from the perspective of cultural anthropology such folktales may contain an ancient memory of an even older tradition, that of the “Vision Quest.” Common to Shamanism, the Vision Quest is a ritual whereby a young warrior first undergoes a period of training after which he sets off alone into the wilderness. He must bear the hardships of isolation while fasting and meditating until he has a vision. The vision usually takes the form of an animal that reveals certain secrets. This animal then becomes the warrior’s kindred or guardian spirit and shares his powers with the warrior. For example, if the visionary animal was a fox, the warrior would take on the qualities of cunning; an eagle would bestow far sight; a bear strength, and so on. Compare the elements of the Vision Quest to the story of Wang Lang: his training and initial defeat, his departure into the wilderness to contemplate his failure, the encounter with the Mantis who reveals secrets of strategy and tactics, and finally, Wang’s triumphant return possessed with the powers of the Mantis, as well as a newfound humility.

The conditions that induce these (altered) states include such common experiences as isolation, fatigue, hunger, and rhythmic sound and thus are likely to be re-discovered by different generations and cultures. Since these states may be pleasurable, meaningful, and healing, they are likely to be actively sought and methods of inducing them remembered and transmitted across generations.

The Spirit of Shamanism, Roger Walsh

The folktales surrounding the origins of other martial arts styles also follow the same plot. A Tibetan monk by the name of Ordator was wandering alone in the mountains when he encountered a battle between a crane and an ape. Thinking that the spindly and fragile crane would soon succumb to the superior brawn and strength of the ape, he was surprised when the crane defeated the ape. He studied the movements of the crane and learned that evasion, distraction, and attacking the enemy’s weak points was the strategy a smaller person could use to overcome a larger opponent. The crane’s graceful hopping and turning movements became the basis for the White Crane style, now famous throughout China.

The folklore surrounding Tai Chi’s origins also reflect the same pattern. The legendary founder of Tai Chi is said to have been a mountain hermit by the name of Chang San Feng who lived during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). He wandered throughout the mountains and learned secret Taoist breathing techniques that made him nearly immortal. (Legend has him living well past 200.) In addition, he learned Shaolin Temple fighting from other wandering monks.

One day, while living on Wu Tang Mountain, Chang heard a hawk screeching and went to see what was happening. What he discovered was a hawk attacking and doing battle with a snake. Although the hawk was stronger, faster, and had superior weapons in the form of a beak and talons, the snake was successful in driving off the hawk’s attacks. The snake’s soft and circular movements evaded the hawk’s attacks. Chang realized that by adopting the gentle and yielding aspects of the snake’s defense, the soft could neutralize the hard, the weak defeat the strong, and slow overcome the fast, and thus Tai Chi was born.1

These folktales share a common plot theme with the Vision Quest. Each includes a challenge or test, followed by isolation and hardship, then a revelation in the form of a vision of a wild animal that acts as a catalyst for the transformation of body and mind. Finally each takes on the attributes of the visionary animal.

_In the fifth century BC there is described the ritual whereby the “inspector of the region” would dress in a bear’s skin and accompanied by twelve other attendants each dressed as a different animal, they would perform the “Bear Dance” which was meant to drive away evil spirits.

Bird Deities in China_, Waterbury, F.

According to his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Eliade recounts that a Shaman must from time to time perform a ritual known as the Spirit Dance. Well known among native Americans, accounts of this practice also date back 4,000 years in Chinese records. During the Spirit Dance, the Shaman moves in imitation of his animal spirit to call on its powers. It is said that the animal spirit actually takes possession of the Shaman’s body and imbues the Shaman with superhuman strength. This principle is also mirrored in the martial arts. Performing the movements of Tai Chi is said to generate a spiritual energy—Chi. Like the Shaman’s infusion from his animal spirit, Chi also bestows superhuman strength. Could it be that performing the stylized movements of a Tai Chi form is based on the ancient Shaman’s practice of dancing the spirit?

The Ka-ren belong to the Thai linguistic group whose origins lie in southwest China, possibly Yunnan or Szechwan. In the twelfth century the Mongols drove whole populations in China southwards. The social upheaval this caused helped to bring to an end to the fabled empires of Pagan and Angkor. The Thai tribes that had been displaced southwards initially settled in the wilderness hill country that bounded these two empires, but when Mongol incursions and civil wars finally destroyed the kingdoms, the Thai came down from the hills and established their own kingdom on the ruins. But not all the tribes came down from the hills. While their cousins went on to found the Thai kingdom, others chose instead to remain in the uplands, living a lifestyle little changed over time. Could the practices of the Ka-ren Shaman be a time capsule of an archaic Chinese martial arts system as it existed a thousand years ago? If so, would this mean that the connection between martial arts and Shamanism was closer and much older than we thought?

While there are several similarities between the origins of martial arts systems and the Shamanic tradition of the Vision Quest, it does not imply that practicing Tai Chi is a form of spirit possession. What it does is suggest is that some of China’s most ancient traditions may be the source, inspiration, or template from which the more refined disciplines, such as Tai Chi, evolved.

So the next time you go out and practice your Snake Creeps Down and Crane Opens Wings in the moonlight, know that not only are you continuing a millennia-old tradition of martial arts, but a tradition that quite possibly goes back through the mists of prehistory to the dawn of mankind itself.


Stefan Verstappen is a writer and martial arts practitioner who has lived and traveled throughout the Far East. His articles have appeared in Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu magazines. He is also author of the book, The Thirty-Six Strategies of Ancient China, published by China Books & Periodicals.

References

  • Alexander, Groller, and Morriss, The Warrior’s Edge, Morrow, New York, 1990
  • Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Pantheon Books, New York, 1964
  • Heinze, Ruth-Inge, Trance and Healing in Southeast Asia Today, Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Co, 1988
  • McKemma, Terrence, Dennis, The Invisible Landscape, Mind Hallucinogens and the I-Ching, Harper, San Francisco, 1993. 1st 1975
  • Ong Hean-Tatt, The Chinese Pau Kua, An Expose, Pelanduk Pub, Malaysia, 1991
  • Walsh, Roger, The Spirit of Shamanism, J. P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1990
  • Waterbury, F., Bird Deities in China, Artibus Asae Publishers, Ascona, Switzerland, 1952