The roots of Taoism go back at least to the 4th century BCE. Early Taoism drew its cosmological notions from the School of Yinyang (Naturalists), and was deeply influenced by one of the oldest texts of Chinese culture, the I Ching, which expounds a philosophical system about how to keep human behaviour in accordance with the alternating cycles of nature.
Taoism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and Taoists (Masters of the Tao), a title traditionally attributed only to the clergy and not to their lay followers,
Tao literally means ‘way’, but it can also be interpreted as road, channel, path, doctrine, or line. It is ‘the One, which is natural, spontaneous, eternal, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. It has variously been denoted as the ‘flow of the universe’, or a demonstration of nature. The Tao also is something that individuals can find immanent in themselves.
Naturalness is regarded as a central value in Taoism. It describes the ‘primordial state’ of all things as well as a basic character of the Tao, which is usually associated with spontaneity and creativity. To attain naturalness, one has to identify with the Tao - this involves freeing oneself from selfishness and desire, and appreciating simplicity.
Taoists believe there is a natural balance in all things, and we should live in spiritual and physical harmony with nature. In order to attain a happy existence in harmony with the Tao, it advocates a life of simplicity and naturalness and of non-interference with the course of natural events. The Tao is the natural underlying order of the universe and is intrinsically related to the concepts of yin and yang. Taoism means ‘truth’ and ‘natural movement of nature’.
Originating from the principles of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, Taoism proclaims that inaction, as opposed to action, is a solution to the chaos and anarchy that rules supreme in an advancing world. As Taoism evolved over the years through the teachings of Lao Tzu and other philosophers, it was realised more and more that spiritual development also called for a sound physical being. Teachers like Chuang Tzu (399 - 295 BC) first introduced the movement philosophy through their writings, which forms the core philosophy of Tai Chi. In the sixth century AD, a Buddhist scholar Bodhidharma (known as Ta Mo in China) visited the Shaolin monastery, and introduced the eighteen-form lohan exercise to aid the physical development of the monks. Over time, this eighteen-form exercise gave rise to the 'Wei Chia' school of exercise, which takes an 'external' approach to physical development. The philosophy of Tai Chi is essentially intrinsic; however, the origin of the movement philosophy was grounded in Wei Chia.
In the early 14th century, Zhang Sanfeng of the Wu Tang monastery introduced the concept of duality (Yin and Yang) of Taoism to the external forms of exercise, and introduced the thirteen postures of Tai Chi, the internal concepts on which ‘tai chi’ is based.
These thirteen postures stressed on balance, flexibility, and agility, rather than force, and marked the first shift towards the 'Nei Chia' (internal intrinsic) school of exercise. The current form of Tai Chi is an elaboration of these thirteen postures, developed and modified later by scholars such as Wang Chun Yueh, Chiang Fa, and Hao Wei Chen.
In keeping with the Taoist philosophy, the various Tai Chi forms require students to achieve a calm and tranquil mental status in the face of adversity. So, although its roots stem from martial arts, practiced correctly, it is more of a mode of better living through an understanding of oneself.
In today's world, where life is hectic and fast-paced, practicing Tai Chi can establish some amount of control and relaxation, by preventing the onset of inertia of motion.
Excerpt from Understanding Taoist Movements