Legend has it that Tai Chi originated in the Wudang mountains, but the earliest concrete record dates from the seventeenth century. Chen WangTing (1580-1660), from Chen village in Henan Province, was the founder of Chen-style Tai Chi. His statue stands in the center of the courtyard to the Tai Chi Museum in Chen Village.
Yang Luchen (1799-1872) learned Chen-style Tai Chi during the time of Chen Changxing, the 6th generation master after Chen WangTing. Yang was the first non-family member to learn the art, and according to legend, he did so by subterfuge, taking a job in Chen village and watching lessons in secret.
Eventually, Yang was discovered and surprised the master with his ability. Yang stayed on and studied with Chen Changxing for a total of ten years. When Yang left Chen village, he was sworn to secrecy about the Chen routines and soon developed his own Yang style of Tai Chi.
Two of Yang Luchan’s most notable disciples were named Wu. Looks and sounds like the same name to us, but they are written differently (武 and 吳) and sound different to Chinese ears. These two disciples were Wu Yuxiang (1812-1880) and Wu Quanyou (1834-1932), and each founded his own style of Tai Chi.
Wu Quanyu studied with both Yang Luchan and Yang’s second son, Yang Banhou. Wu Quanyou’s style is today called Wu-style. The Wu long form closely tracks the Yang-style long form but is characterized by more of a grappling style, different footwork, different hands, and a distinctive leaning posture.
Wu Yuxiang first learned Yang Tai Chi from Yang Luchan. Then Yang introduced him to Chen Qingping, 7th generation Chen master. Chen Qingping practiced a small-frame version of Chen-style Tai Chi that was influenced by an ancient martial art called Zhaobao.
Wu Yuxiang eventually developed a distinctive style that incorporated elements of both Yang and Zhaobao-Chen. One of the best-known followers of his style was Hao Weizhen (1842-1920). Wu Yuxiang’s style of Tai Chi has come to be known as Wu Hao in the West, to resolve confusion between the two Wu names.
Wu Hao is still practiced today but is not as well-known as Chen, Yang and Wu. This is partly because, at the turn of the twentieth century, Hao met Sun Lutang (1860-1933), a fighter of formidable reputation. Sun did not practice Tai Chi. Sun’s arts were Xingyi and Baguazhang.
Sun learned Wu Hao Tai Chi from Hao and then developed his own style, a fusion of Wu Hao Tai Chi, Xingyi, and Baguazhang. The Sun style, thanks to Sun’s reputation and wide influence as a teacher, went on to become quite popular. You could say that Wu Hao was eclipsed by the Sun.
Today, the four most popular styles—Chen, Yang, Wu, and Sun—are represented in combined forms like 32, 42 (the modern competition style), and 48. A more detailed history and comparison of the styles described in this post, can be found in a book by Andrew Townsend, The Art of Taijiquan, An Examination of Five Family Styles.