According to the folk tales Tai Ji Quan was born out of the observation (or a dream) of a Daoist Monk. He (based on the legend his name is Zhang Sanfeng) witnessed the battle between a bird (crane) and a snake. The grace and the flexibility of their movements that they inspired him to create this martial art.
It is obvious here the long-term belief of the Chinese people that everything is connected to the nature, as in many other Chinese martial styles there is the imitation of animal movements. It is also obvious the connection attempted to the Daoism, another deep belief through the ages about Dao and how it can be found within all things in life.
Documented history though places the birth of Tai Ji Quan about the 1600 and attributes it to the genius of a charismatic man in China's Henan Province and the village of the Chen family, Chenjiagou (literally the Ditch of Chen Family).
According to family records of Chen Village, Chen Bu was a martial arts master who started the tradition of practicing them in the village. The Chen family was originally from Hong Dong, Shanxi Province. Chen Bu, considered the founder of the village, moved from Shanxi to Wen County, Henan Province in 1374. The new area was originally known as Chang Yang Cun or Sunshine Village and grew to include a large number of descendants of the Chen family. Because there were three deep ravines (Gou) next to the village it remained known as Chen Jia Gou or Chen family ditch. From this point on, Chen Village was known for its martial arts.
The special nature of Tai Ji Quan’s practice was attributed to the ninth-generation leader of Chen Village, Chen Wangting (1580-1660). He codified the pre-existing Chen practice into a main body of seven routines. This included five tai chi routines, a 108-move 'long fist' style routine and a more rigorous routine known as Cannon Fist. Chen Wangting incorporated various elements of Chinese philosophy into his martial arts training to create a new approach that we now recognize as internal martial arts. He added the principles of the theory of Yin and Yang, (the universal principle of complementary opposites), the techniques of Daoyin (leading and directing energy), Tui na (the push and pull of energy), the theory of energy and the theory of meridians from the Traditional Chinese medicine. In addition, Wangting incorporated the boxing theories from sixteen different martial art styles as described in the classic text Ji Xiao Xin Shu ("New Book of Recorded Effective Techniques" ~ 1559-1561) written by the Ming General Qi Jiguang (1528- 1588).
With the establishment of the Chen style, traditional Tai Ji Quan begins to evolve both within and outside of the Chen family. Chen Changxing (1771-1853) broke the family's instructions to keep the art indoors by teaching the Chen style to his talented and hard-working student Yang Luchan (1799-1872) who hailed from Yongnian, Hebei Province. Yang Luchan later created the Yang style and passed his routine on to his sons, Yang Banhou (1837-1892), who developed the "small frame" of the Yang style, and Yang Jianhou (1839-1917). Yang Jianhou's son, Yang Chengfu (1883-1936), was the one who introduced the Yang style to the wider public.
Wǔ Yuxiang (1812-1880), who first learned Tai Ji Quan from his compatriot Yang Luchan, gained a more complete knowledge of Tai Ji theory from Master Chen Qingping (1795-1868) and with the help of his nephew Li Yishe (1832 - 1892), combined the techniques he learned from the Yang and Chen styles culminating in the development of Tai Ji theory that led to the formation of his own distinctive Wǔ style.
The fourth of the five main styles is Wú, which was created by Quan You (1834-1902) and Wú's son Jianquan (1870- 1942). Quan You first learned Tai Ji Quan from Yang Luchan and Yang Banhou. Wú's refinement of Yang's “small frame” form approach gave rise to the Wú style.
The fifth and most recent style of Tai Ji Quan originates from Sun Lutang (1861-1932), who learned Tai Ji from Hao Weizhen (1849-1920) a descendant of the Wǔ style. By incorporating Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang (two other forms of internal Chinese martial arts), Sun Lutang developed his own unique style called Sun.