As tai-chi chuan spread through China new aspects were incorporated as different generations added their own ideas. New forms were added to old styles. Some masters incorporated ideas from other systems to produce completely new styles and some old ideas were lost. By the beginning of the 20th century there were several distinct styles of tai-chi . Five of these, Chen style, Yang style, Wu/Hao style, Sun style and Wu style are commonly known as the five major styles of tai-chi .
The family tree below shows some of the key players in the development of tai-chi . It is by no means comprehensive.
Traditionally, marshal arts in China are taught in one of two ways. The 'closed door' method refers to teaching that is kept exclusively within the family, while the 'half open door' means that the technique is shown to students but only fully explained to family members and trusted disciples.
Chen style tai-chi was for the most part kept behind closed doors until comparatively recently. One important exception to this was the instruction of Yang Lu-Chan who then went on to earn his livelihood from teaching the art. It was this departure from closed door to half open door teaching that led to tai-chi becoming popularised and is the reason why Yang style has become the most practiced style around the world today.
The number of people who practice tai-chi has risen massively during the last century, a fact made all the more incredible when major constraints such as the Second World War and the political turmoil of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (which saw many teachers imprisoned and tortured) are taken into account. An inevitable consequence of such rapid expansion is the potential for a reduction of quality as new teachers emerge with lower levels of experience and less understanding. As a result the importance of lineage can not be over stressed.
There are strict parameters that define tai-chi movement but these are difficult to fully comprehend and harder still to achieve. Circular movement is accomplished by rotating the "tan-tien" on any axis to affect three dimensional movement. In geometry this would be described as the X, Y and Z axis while in aviation it is called role, pitch and yaw. Moving in this way requires a considerable amount of practice. A helpful initial exercise is to use the hands to rotate the abdominal area (training from the outside in). Gradually a feeling of moving from the inside is developed and eventually this feeling can be clearly expressed in movement. This movement then has to be transferred through the body using the connective tissue. The connective tissue also has to control the expansion and contraction of the movement. Add to this the fact that the movement is powered by the lower body with the upper body being a relaxed conduit and the complexity of achieving the baseline skill begins to become apparent.
Yet it has become common practice in many modern teaching systems to teach a sequence of movements without first teaching how to move correctly. As a result the students practice becomes little more than normal movement in slow motion and once this becomes habitual through practice it is very difficult to correct. While there are obvious benefits to learning relaxation through good posture there is far more than that to the wisdom of the ancients. Irrespective of style, it is not the sequence of movements or the external appearance that defines the quality of practice but rather how those movements are achieved. Some of the most respected masters of the art regarded rectifying this as the biggest challenge currently facing tai-chi.
Tai-chi styles are usually named after the family name of the originator. Of the five major styles of taiji two were developed by people named Wu though they were unrelated and form distinctly different branches of the evolutionary tree. The older of these is sometimes referred to as Wu/Hao or Hao style.
If you are lucky enough to have a choice then here are some things to bear in mind.
Chen style is the oldest and most complete style containing all the original wisdom. It is only relatively recently that it has become widely taught, so issues of lineage are less likely. Furthermore there has been a concerted effort within the family over the last few decades to ensure the originality of the traditional forms and to teach how to move correctly from the "tan-tien". It uses dynamic spiraling body movements that constantly wind and unwind the body and contains explosive energy releases. A consequence of this however is that it can run hotter than other styles and the movements are more complex.
Yang style is the most common style, being the first style to be popularised. It is also the most variable style and the hardest to find with a pure lineage. Frequently what is referred to as Yang style are variations on a shortened and simplified sequence of the movements that are based on the form taught by Yang Chen Fu in the 1930's.
The more recent Wu style was derived from an old Yang lineage and retains the inclined postures of that time emphasising a strong structure that assists "peng-jin".
The original Wu style (Wu/Hao) is based upon small frame movements and is often regarded as the most graceful style of tai-chi. It is particularly popular with women and people who have a smaller stature but is not a common style of tai-chi.
Sitting between Chen and the oldest of the Wu styles is Sun style. Sun style is an amalgamation of Wu/Hao style tai-chi with the spiraling movements and dynamic stepping of the two other major Chinese internal martial arts, paqua and xing-yi. Sun style is also a rare style of tai-chi.
If you have options then consider trying them all out. Ideally find a teacher who explains “tan-tien” rotation in each of the movements. Be wary of learning a complexed set of movements from the outset. You should first learn to stand ("Zhan Zhuang") to understand relaxation and posture and for mind/body development, then learn simple movement repetitions in detail. This can be tedious but will lead to better understanding of the movements so that you can visualise the objective. "Missing it by a little will lead one many miles astray".
The atmosphere of the class and how you feel about the teacher can be more important than the style itself. Enjoy yourself.