The Origin of Shadow Boxing

Shadow boxing (taijiquan) is one of the famous branches of Chinese martial arts. More than 300 years have passed since its spread at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty. Its immense popularity in Beijing around the time of the 1911 Revolution, however, gave rise to the saying that the pugilist art was passed down to the secular world by celestial beings; and, as a result, the date of the origin of shadow boxing was shifted several centuries earlier, from the 17th century to the 15th, 12th and even 8th century. "An Illustrated Book of Shadow Boxing" (shadow boxing of the Yang school) published in Beijing in 1921, for example, attributes the origin of shadow boxing to:

1) Zhang Shanfeng, an itinerant Taoist priest of Mount Wudang in the 15th century around the time of the conquest of the Yuan Dynasty by the Ming Dynasty;

2) Zhang Shanfeng, an alchemist of Mount Wudang during the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty in the 12th century;

3) Xu Xuanping, an explorer of mysterious powers in the Tang Dynasty in the middle of the 8th century;

Most of the books on shadow boxing published later than 1921, without research, take Taoist priest Zhang Shangfeng living in the late 15th century as the originator of shadow boxing.

Tang Hao (1897-1959), a martial arts master, and others after research, determined in the 1930s that shadow boxing was originated by Chen Wangting of Wen County, Henan province, in the middle of the 17th century when the Ming Dynasty was about to be replaced by the Qing Dynasty.

Tang based his judgment on the following evidence:

1) "The 32 Forms of the Canons of Boxing" by Qi Jiguang (1528-1587), which assimilated forms of boxing of 16 schools among folks, makes no mention of shadow boxing;

2) The Five Sets of Shadow Boxing, the One Set of Long Boxing containing 108 forms and the One Set Pao Chuai Combat Boxing, created by Chen Wanting of Chenjiangou Village, Wen County, contained 29 of the 32 forms in Qi Jiguang's "Canons of Boxing."

3) Qi Jiguang's "Canons of Boxing" starts with the two forms of "Lazily Belting the Clothes" and "Single Whip," so do the seven set routines of shadow boxing.

4) "The Genealogy of the Chen Families" of Chenjiagou Village has the following explanation under the name of Chen Wangting, their ninth ancestor: Wangting, alias Zhouting, was a knight at the end of the Ming Dynasty and a scholar in the early years of the Qing Dynasty.  Known in Shandong province as a master of martial arts defeating once more than 1,000 bandits, was originator of the bare-handed and armed combat boxing of the Chen school.  Was a born warrior, as can be proved by the sword he used in combat." (see page 12 of "The Genealogy of the Chen Families")

5) The words of Chen Wangting's "Song of the Canon of Boxing" were copied from Qi Jiguang's "The Canons of Boxing."

6) The first two lines of Chen Wangting's "Song of the Canon of Boxing" - "Changes of actions such as extending and bending are so unexpected as to be totally unpredictable. I rely on all kinds of subtle body movements such as twisting and swirling" - describe the characteristics of the "push hands" techniques of shadow boxing, which are absent in the books on martial arts by such late Ming Dynasty authors as Yu Dayu, Qi Jiguang, Tang Shunzhi and Cheng Chongdou.

7) The Chen families of Chenjiagou Village learned Chen Wangting's boxing routines and "push hands" techniques from generation to generation. After five generations, the shadow boxing of the Chen school was passed on to Chen Changxing (1771-1853), who taught it to Yang Luchan (1799-1872), a native of Yongnian County, Hebei Province.  It later developed into shadow boxing of the Yang school, and from which came shadow boxing of the Wu school in a later period.  Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880) of Yonging County learned the original shadow boxing of the Chen school from Yang Luchan and the Zhaobao-style shadow boxing of the Chen school from Chen Qingping, and incorporated the two to create shadow boxing of the Wu school, from which was later developed shadow boxing of the Sun school.  These are the well-known five schools of the traditional shadow boxing routines, whose reationship in evolution and development is very clear.

8) As Qi Jiguang died in 1587, shadow boxing can only he a kind of boxing originating later than Qi's "Canons of Boxing" furthermore, it is one based on the 32 forms contained in Qi's "Canons of Boxing."

The conclusion drawn in the 1930s was that shadow boxing was created around the time when the Ming Dynasty was beng replaced by the Qing Dynasty by Chen Wangting of Wen County, Henan Province, a warrior in the late Ming Dynasty.

In the 1960s, following the discovery of more historical data on shadow boxing, the correct time of the origin of shadow boxing was determined to be the 166os, namely , about 20 years after the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty.  The evidence is that, according to "Annals of Huaiqing Prefecture," "Annals of Wen County," and "Annals of Anping County." Chen Wangting was the chief of civil troops defending Wen County three years before the downfall of the Ming Dynasty (1644), who, following Wu Conghui, the county magistrate, led his troops in beating back the assaulting "bandits."

After the downfall of the Ming Dynasty, Chen Wangting, influenced by Taoism, withdrew from society and lived in solitude.  This can be seen from the second half of the poem he wrote not long before his death: "Recalling past years, how bravely I fought to wipe out enemy troops, and what risks I went through!  All the favors bestowed on me are now in vain! Now old and feeble, I am accompanied only by the book of Huang Ting. Life consists in creating actions of boxing when feeling depressed, doing field work when the season comes, and spending the leisure time teaching disciples and children so that they can be worthy members of the society."

The Creative Achievements Made During the Inheritance of Shadow Boxing

As far as existing historical records on martial arts show, Qi Jiguang was an outstanding person in studying and sorting out martial arts among folks, and so was Chen Wangting living a half century later.  On the basis of the 32 forms contained in Qi's "Canons of Boxing," Chen created sets of shadow boxing routines. Though it is impossible to verify what he assimilated specifically from boxing of other schools, it can be presumed from the great number of forms in his seven sets of shadow boxing routines that Chen also absorbed many strong points of boxing of many schools existing at the time.

Making a comprehensive survey of the data on martial arts left by Chen Wangting, one can find that Chen made the following contributions to traditional Chinese martial arts in the process of studying and sorting out the martial arts of his time:

1) Combining martial arts with the techniques of Daoyin (the concentrated exertion of inner force) and Tu na (deep breathing exercises).

China's health-preserving ways of long standing - the technique of Daoyin, meant to activate limbs and the trunk through mind-directed exertion of inner force with simultaneous movements of body-bending and back-inclining, and the extending and withdrawing of limbs; and the technique of Tu na consisting in deep breathing exercises of the abdomen - are recorded in the writings of such fourth century B.C. authors as Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Meng Zi and Qu Yuan. The Six-animal Exercises created by Liu An of the Han Dynasty and the Five-animal Exercises, which was the result of the revision of the former by Hua Tuo, a famous doctor of the late Han Dynasty, were both health-preserving ways using a combination of deep breathing exercises and the imitation of actions of various animals.  They later developed into Qigong (deep-breathing exercises) and Neigong (exercises of inner-force exertion).
Chen Wangting combined the coordinated actions of the hand, the body, eyes and steps of martial arts with the techniques of Dao yin and Tu na, causing shadow boxing to become a complete system of exercises characterized by anunity of inner and outward power exertion - "practicing a breath inwardly, and muscles, bones and the skin outwardly."  Thus, in shadow boxing, the boxer's consciousness, breathing and actions are closely connected.

2) Creating spiral-like twining and arc movements, which are each connected with the other, smooth and graceful, tallying very much with the Jingluo theory of traditional Chinese Medicine Jingluo - main and collateral channels, regarded as a network of passages, through which vital energy circulates and along which the acupuncture points are distributed). Having their source at the internal organs, Jingluo are spread throughout the body and limbs. If the vital energy circulates normally through the Jingluo and the vital energy in different parts of the Jingluo system is in harmony, the person is healthy and will enjoy a long life, and vise versa. Using the Jingluo theory, with fighting arts as a means of strengthening outward strength and the techniques of Daoyin and Tu na as
that of strengthening the inner power, shadow boxing has tremendous effects of health preservation.

Shadow boxing contains spiral-like twining actions, alternatively extending and withdrawing, being tight and loose, and firm and soft. The boxer is required to direct the Qi (literally "breath," referring to inner vital energy) by mental exertion and to let the Qi, which should be concentrated, spread through the whole body. Qi is originated from the pubic region and pressed through the whole body by gradually twisting one's body with the waist as an axis. With the twisting of the waist and spine, the two kidney parts are alternatively tightened and loosened, thus allowing the Qi to pass through the Ren Channel, the Du Channel, the Dai Channel and the Chong Channel. The Qi is pressed upward to the tips of the fingers by twisting the arms and wrists, and downward to the toes by twisting the knees and ankles. Having reached the extremities, the Qi then returns to the pubic region. Such practice results in strengthened offensive and defensive force of the body and limbs as well as increased explosiveness of such force. In this way, Chen Wangting not only assimilated but also developed the Jingluo theory.

3) Creating the two-man push-hand exercises. Push-hand is a composite practicing method in traditional Chinese martial arts. Since ancient times, there had been separate practices of kicking, striking, tumbling, knocking down and catching. The method of tumbling, practiced in isolation from striking, had developed in an independent way. The other four methods, though practiced in a combined way, had each distinct characteristics.

Owing to the fact that the four methods of kicking, Striking, knocking down and catching often caused serious injuries when executed in real earnest, their practice had been largely imaginary and symbolic, giving rise to fancy but purposeless methods of execution.  Thus, the martial arts, deve1oped painstakingly by masters of older generations, could not be raised to higher levels. This is the reason why a number of famous branches of boxing in ancient China, after being passed on through several generations, lost their original vitality to remain only in name with no one to teach them.

Seeing learners degrade Neijia Boxing with fancy, purposeless methods, Wang Zhengnan, Huang Baijia's master, who lived in early Qing Dynasty, lamented that "this school (referring to Neijia Boxing) is doomed."

The push-hand method created by Chen Wangting consists in two boxers, with hands joined, practicing twining and sticking actions to sharpen the sense of touch of the skin and the sensation within the body. Not only did the method incorporate such combat methods as catching, knocking over and striking, it also improved them. Take catching. Chen Wangting's improved method was not limited to catching the enemy's bone joints to overpower him, but was meant to attack the enemy's vital parts, too. Chen's method was very combat efficient at the time, but, owing to the fact that his kicking method easily caused serious injuries, only the knocking-over method was used.

Creation of the push-hand method dispensed with the requirements on ground space, protective gear and special clothes for practicing, making Chen's boxing into a kind of sport that can be pursued by two persons at any place and at any time. Thus, to the combat methods in traditional Chinese martial arts (kicking, striking, tumbling, knocking down and catching) was added a new content - pushing. At present the push-hand in shadow boxing is tending to become an item of combat sports.

4) Creating a set of basic routines for spear combat, in which the spear is kept always about the opponent. The two-man "sticky-spear" practice, which is among the basic exercises of the kind of shadow boxing using long weapons, solves the problem of safe practicing without protective gears. In practicing the method, the boxer swirls, twines, shoots out and draws back the "sticky spear" as swiftly as wind and in endless cycles. The method provides a simple and easy way for practitioners to raise their martial arts skills.

5)  Developing boxing theories as contained in Qi Jiguang's "Canons of Boxing" and creating the theories of hiding firmness in softness and executing different moves to deal with changing tactics of the enemy. Chen Wangting's creative achievement in pugilist theory is embodied in the first two lines of his "Song of the Canon of boxing:" "Actions are so varied and executed in such a way as to be wholly unpredictable to the enemy, and I rely on twining actions and a host of hand-touching movements."  Hand-touching movements refer to the mutual pressing of two practitioners' arms to develop the ability of quick reaction and gain the technique of "nobody knows me, while I know everybody."

Thus, the outward fighting skills were raised to a higher level where "power comes from within" and "inner energy becomes outward power." This has great significance in the history of Chinese martial arts. It also provided training methods and a theoretical basis for such martial arts masters of later generations as Wang Zongyue, Wu Yuxiang and Chen Xing to further develop shadow boxing.

The principle of practicing shadow boxing is that the whole body is relaxed with emphasis placed on the exertion of the mind instead of muscles. The process is: from relaxation to softness which, when accumulated, becomes firmness, and then, the firmness changes back to softness, resulting in both softness and firmness, with one complementing the other. It is required that quick actions be both preceded and followed by slow ones, and that slow actions be slower than those executed by others, whereas the quick ones go faster than the fast ones of others. Such emphasis on inner rather than outward force provides a new valuable training method for raising the level of martial arts skills.

Today, shadow boxing has become one of the popular forms of Chinese boxing. It has contributed to improving Chinese people's health and attracted the attention of both sports and medical science circles. The number of people practicing shadow boxing abroad is on the rise and shadow boxing is tending to become an international curing and keep-fit sport item. Chen Wangting, by assimilating the essence of a host of boxing forms and bringing forth new ideas, contributed greatly to the creation of a new form of pugilist art - the shadow boxing.

The Evolution of Shadow Boxing During the Past 100 Years

Following the introduction of fire arms 100 years ago, the role of boxing skills on the battle field gradually diminished, prompting martial arts masters to reconsider the goal and the direction of the development of martial arts. Practitioners of shadow boxing raised the slogan: "What is the ultimate goal of shadow boxing? It is to keep fit and prolong life." (See "Rhymed Formula for Practicing 13 Forms," said to be written by Yao Hanchen, Yang Luchan's student, who was a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations.) Evidently this was the idea initiating the process in which shadow boxing gradually turned into a set of keep~fit exercises from a fighting art.

Another factor causing shadow boxing to change is its difficult sets of routines involving great physical strength, which were unsuitable for even highly skilled martial arts masters in their advanced age.

When the seven sets of boxing routines created by Chen Wangting were passed to Chen Changxing (1771-1853) and Chen Youbeng after five generations, few people in Chenjiagou Village could practice the Long Boxing containing 108 forms and the sets (if routines from the second to the fifth of Shadow Boxing (called also the 13 Forms); and boxers in the Chen family were expert only in the first and second sets of shadow boxing routines and in the skills of push-hand exercises and sticky-spear exercises, both involving two persons. Furthermore, from this time on the first set of Chen-family shadow boxing developed into two branches, the Old-style and the New-style, and then, from the New-style came Zhaobao-style, to cater to different learners of shadow boxing.

In order to suit keep-fit purposes, Chen Youbeng created the New-style, which is as extended as the Old-style and dispensed with some extremely difficult actions. Chen Qingping, Chen Youbeng's nephew and pupil, also created a form of shadow boxing, which was compact and slow and, when mastered, could be practiced with additional cycles. Thus, without changing the routines, the practitioner can go from simple to complicated forms to gradually raise his skills. People called this form Zhaohao-style owing to the fact that Chen Qingping lived after marriage in the town of Zhaobao not far from the village of Chenjiagou.

Yang Luchan (1799-1872), who had learned boxing under Chen Changxing, a contemporary of Chen Youbeng, gradually changed the Old-style routines he had learned from his tutor after coming to Beijing to suit shadow boxing to keep-fit purposes.  Yang's version was adapted by his third son Yang Jianhou (1839-1917) to become the Middle-style, which, after repeated adaptation by Yang Jianhou's third son Yang Chengfu (5883-1936), became the finalized Big-style. This Big-style, extended and graceful, has become the famous shadow boxing of the Yang school, the most popular form of shadow boxing in China now.

Yang Luchan and his sccond son Yang Banhou (1837-1892) taught a set of Small-style to Quan You of Manchu nationality, whose son Wu Jianquan later taught the Small-style to others, hence it was called shadow boxing of the (first) Wu school, which now is second only to the Yang school in popularity. The (first) Wu school is similar to Yang school in that it is compact, agile, smooth, even in speed, and devoid of leaps and jumps.

Wu Yuxinng(1812-1880) of Yongnian County created the (second) Wu school on the basis of the Old-style of the Chen family he learned from Yang Luchan at about the time of 1851, and the New-style of the Chen family he learned from Chen Qingping in 1852.  Shadow boxing of the (second) Wu school is compact, with emphasis on bodywork and the exertion of inner power.  It was passed to Sun Lutang (186l-1932) through Li Yiyu (1832-1892) and Hao Weizheng (1849-1920).

Sun was proficient in Xingyi Boxing and Eight Diagram Boxing. Beginning to learn shadow boxing at the age of 51, Sun created a new form by combining the strongpoints of the three schools. Now called shadow boxing of the Sun school, the new form is similar to shadow boxing of the Yang school in postures, and to Xingyi boxing in theory.  He wrote a book entitled "The Theory of Shadow Boxing."

The Old-style shadow boxing of the Chen family was brought to Beijing from Chenjiagou Village in October, 1928 by Chen Changxing's great grandson Chen Fake (1887-1957) and taken up by both old people having practiced various forms of shadow boxing for many years and young men with physical strength. This Old-style shadow boxing has spread to big cities across China over the recent years.

The various forms of shadow boxing, despite having different characteristics and styles, have the same training principle: execution of relaxed actions to create a state of softness, which is accumulated to produce firmness, creating a state of firmness and softness complementing each other.

The generally acknowledged new routines of traditional shadow boxing are the result of repeated revisions by our predecessors after hard practice and serious study. Therefore, they can suit such different purposes as the keeping of physical fitness and the acquirement of fighting skills as long as a right choice of them is made for different persons and the principle of advancing step by step is adhered to. It can be said that, when structuring traditional shadow boxing, our predecessors took into consideration both its popularization and the raising of practicing standards, as reflected in the content and method of teaching of the art. An outstanding feature of shadow boxing, therefore, is its great adaptability.

The New Style of the Chen family, the Zhaobao Style, the Yang Style, the (first) Wu Style, the (second) Wu Style and the Sun Style - they all resulted from the revision of the First Set of the Chen family's Old Style shadow boxing. Different though in style, they are the same in the structure and order of routines, showing a marked process of evolution.

The vigorous actions such as leaping and stamping in the First Set of the Old Style shadow boxing were discarded in the new forms. However, the Second Set of the Chen Style, which still contains vigorous and swift actions such as stamping, leaping and dodging, is markedly different in style from other forms of shadow boxing.

Among weapons used in various form of shadow boxing, the sword and the spear have passed down to the present. Routines involving the use of weapons vary in the degree of sophistication. Furthermore, there are such routines as are adapted from other branches of boxing, with such characteristics of shadow boxing as softness and smoothness. The two-man "Sticky-spear" method, just like the "push-hand" one, is a unique achievement of shadow boxing.

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