The Cultural Revolution created a massive break in Chinese culture. From then on there was a Before and After when talking about Chinese culture. The last 50 years have been an attempt to rediscover traditional Chinese culture.
Thankfully China has been a literate culture for longer than any other society on Earth. There are plenty of texts dating to the period before the Revolution. The knowledge has been recovered for the most part, but at a cost. The texts and the information has been seen through a modern lens, with a distance created by the Revolution.
In some ways this was inevitable. The living practitioners of the ancient arts (both in medicine and in the martial arts) were mostly dead or in exile. The people reading the ancient texts had only a stunted access to the knowledge.
On top of that, there was also a strong bias within the Chinese establishment towards a western, modern, view of traditional medicine. So traditional techniques like acupuncture were brought into the Chinese hospitals, and taught as a science. The mystical aspects inherent in viewing the body as an energetic field, connected to the Cosmos, were dropped.
Jerry Alan Johnson, in his extensive compendium entitled Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy (vol. 1-5), makes this point clearly. The shamanistic, mystical roots of Taoist medicine have been stripped and sanitized.
The same thing happened with Tai Chi. The people charged with revitalizing Chinese martial arts were part of the Sport Federation. The goal was to create a body of exercises to present to the Chinese public.
The model in this was the Japanese Judo and Karate, sport versions of the more brutal combat techniques that were used by the Japanese Samurai. Tai Chi became more defined, the techniques more rigid. Competitions were established where contestants were judged on the exactitude of their form. This despite the fact that Tai Chi is supposed to be an INTERNAL martial art, whose subtle workings are invisible to the outside eye.
To those interested in finding the roots of Tai Chi, the first hurdle is the modern view of it. One must first and foremost understand that what we call Tai Chi has almost nothing to do with what a practitioner in pre-Revolution China would describe as Tai Chi. Only in a few rare forms are the roots preserved.
Similarly, the fall of the Qing Dynasty brought a different distortion. The ancient roots were romanticized in order to prop up an idealized version of Chinese culture. During the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese martial artists went forth against European fire power fully expecting that their Iron Shirt Qigong would stop bullets, or that the spirits of ancients warriors would rise up from the dead and join in the fight.
What is not in dispute is that Tai Chi was considered a very powerful martial art, tested in the ring and in the street. Yang Luchan taught his Tai Chi to the Imperial Guards, not a group easy to fool on matters of martial prowess. Similarly, Tai Chi is still the go-to practice for health and Qi development. It’s health benefits have been demonstrated scientifically.
What remains today is a mix of old and new, of watered down and simplified, a neutered martial art that still echoes with the power that made it famous 200 years ago. The seeds are still there, ready to blossom if we bring enough attention to it.