Tai chi added to Unesco intangible cultural heritage list, 12 years after China first applied for recognition of the ancient martial art

Phoebe Zhang
·4-min read

Tai chi, a centuries-old Chinese martial art and an internationally popular form of exercise, has been added to Unesco’s cultural heritage list.

For more than 10 years (its initial application was rejected in 2008) China has been trying to have tai chi – also known as taijiquan – recognised officially by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

At the time, judges told China it had applied for too many listings for tai chi to be considered for a place. China was told to reduce its applications from the 12 submitted, which included tai chi, Shaolin kung fu, Peking opera and acupuncture, Tencent News reported.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

Taijiquan is not just a sport to make people fit, but also contains Chinese culture and philosophy,” researcher Yan Shuangjun told Xinhua News Agency. “The application started in 2008, and now we made a victory, which will help this sport to reach more places.”

A visitor practices tai chi at the Hezhang Cliff Buddhist Grotto in Shunchang County, Nanping, Fujian province. Photo: Simon Song
A visitor practices tai chi at the Hezhang Cliff Buddhist Grotto in Shunchang County, Nanping, Fujian province. Photo: Simon Song

Tai chi has a massive, devoted global following. Millions of elderly Chinese people practise it every day in city parks, and celebrities and other public figures regularly make public references to their practice of it for the health benefits it is said to provide.

According to the Mayo Clinic in the United States, doing tai chi can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve aerobic capacity, energy and stamina, enhance the immune system and relieve joint pain.

Gisele Bündchen, one of the highest-paid models in the world, incorporates tai chi into her daily life, as does her husband, Tom Brady. Others who have been vocal about its use in their lives include actors Terence Stamp and Paul Adrian, Bollywood star Kunal Kapoor, and musician RZA of the Wu Tang Clan – to say nothing of its importance to martial artists such as Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li.

The traditional Chinese martial art was born in the village of Chenjiagou, in central China’s Henan province, in the mid-17th century. It now has more than 100 million practitioners in more than 150 countries and regions, Xinhua reported.

When granting a coveted heritage listing, one of Unesco’s most important considerations is to assess if the subject of an application represents a “masterpiece of human creative genius”. Other factors include exhibiting an important interchange of human values and “to bear a unique, or at least exceptional, testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation”.

Tai chi practitioners show off their skills. The sport was born in the village of Chenjiagou, in Henan province, in the mid-17th century. Photo: AFP
Tai chi practitioners show off their skills. The sport was born in the village of Chenjiagou, in Henan province, in the mid-17th century. Photo: AFP

Following China’s multiple applications in 2008, the rules were changed to limit applications for cultural heritage status to a maximum of two per year. The following year, China applied for Peking opera and acupuncture. After that, Unesco announced a new rule – each country can only apply for one heritage listing at a time.

In 2011, China successfully applied for Chinese shadow puppetry, a form of theatre that uses colourful silhouette figures made from leather. In 2013, the country’s application was for Chinese zhusuan, or abacus-based mental calculation, which also made it onto the list.

In 2016, Henan province made applying to add taijiquan for the heritage list a priority. There was speculation that Japan and South Korea were gearing up to make similar applications.

The village of Chenjiagou has dozens of taijiquan schools and more than 800 current masters. Well-known masters include Chen Changxing and Wu Yunang.

Five common tai chi moves. Image: SCMP Graphics
Five common tai chi moves. Image: SCMP Graphics

Films, such as the 1994 hit The Karate Kid, have helped launch the ancient practice onto the global stage. The Karate Kid depicts a teenage boy, played by Ralph Macchio, who uses a mix of karate and other Chinese martial arts such as tai chi, to face his bullies.

In 2008, Hong Kong movie Ip Man – a biographical martial arts film based on the life events of the Wing Chun master and teacher of Bruce Lee – received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences. The last film in the series, Ip Man 4: The Finale , came out in 2019.

In China, tai chi is widely represented in film and other media. In 1997, popular Chinese television show Tai Chi Master portrayed the story of a young man trying to learn the art from a real master in a village.

Jack Ma (right) of Alibaba Group and Jet Li in a short kung fu movie. Photo: Simon Song
Jack Ma (right) of Alibaba Group and Jet Li in a short kung fu movie. Photo: Simon Song

Jack Ma, the chairman of China’s largest e-commerce firm, Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post, made a short film called Gong Shou Dao in 2018, in which he plays a tai chi master who is able to defeat a string of foes.

Taijiquan now has worldwide recognition for its value to all humanity.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Tai chi added to Unesco intangible cultural heritage list, 12 years after China first applied for recognition of the ancient martial art first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.