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Author: sprath

One of the Most Important Tai Chi Concepts: Hsu and Shih

Hsu and Shih offer us a way to grasp some of tai chi’s more complex ideas simply by practicing the form.







Tai chi abounds with cryptic, mystical statements that circle around back to themselves.  Let’s take a look at a few from the famed sage Lao Tzu:

“If you would take, you must first give, this is the beginning of intelligence. “

“Those who know do not speak. Those that speak do not know.”

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

“Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy.”

But here he sums it up best:  “The words of truth are always paradoxical.”

All clear now?  I didn’t think so either.  While tai chi is notorious for looping language it also gets credit for creating actual, physical activities that let you experience the concept to gain a personal understanding.  Let’s be fair to the sages and trust that they experienced something monumental but struggled in finding the words to share their ideas.  Luckily they also gave us the tai chi form so we can get out of our head and roll up our sleeves.

Hsu and Shih is important tai chi concepts.  They offer us a way to grasp tai chi’s dualities more easily simply by practicing the form.

Let’s take a look:

Shih; (pronounced similar to “she”) substantial, solid, positive, measured, and careful.

Hsu; (pronounced somewhere between “Sue”and “Shoe”) negative, lively, spirited, flexible, and easy moving.

Let’s start with the lower body because that is easy.  If you have your weight on your right leg it is solid, not really moveable, and important tai chi conceptsintent on supporting you (Shih).  Your empty leg can step, kick, or be kicked (Hsu).  Normally the moving leg gets all the attention while the planted leg does the dirty work. But BINGO! It shouldn’t be this way.  In tai chi you should be concentrating on keeping a strong stance AND what to do with your empty leg.  This is Hsu/Shih; taking both into account at the same time.  Direct your mind to make the stable leg more stable and the light leg lighter.  Don’t favor.

Hang with me while we visit the upper body.  Whichever body part you are thinking about is positive (Shih) because it has your intention.  Do not perform a stance without focusing on one of your hands. If you are performing a move, put your mind on the part.  For example, when you are punching, put your eyes and your mind on your fist.

Why should I be concerned with the tai chi concept Hsu and Shih?

There is great benefit in being able to simultaneously conceptualize both extremes of a concept.  For example, it makes you balanced or gives you a way to improve your balance.  It can be frustrating if someone tells us to be balanced because we think we already are.  Same goes for being told to “just relax.”

Point 1:  Shih and Hsu are constantly changing.  When you take a step the empty leg becomes stable and full and vice versa.  Without Hsu/Shih you are in a stance, you come out of balance, you go into another stance.  Hsu/Shih allows the progression to be continual.

Point 2:  Shih and Hsu are always taking place simultaneously.  This is an important idea because you don’t practice one and then the other as both should always be occurring.  You add your intention to the movements, clean them up, and differentiate them.

Point 3:   What is the overall purpose of this?  We begin by putting “thought” into one part of the body.  This then leads to being able to put thought into all parts of the body to produce martial force or healing.

Point 4:  Where else is this leading?  Feeling Hsu/Shih begins in our bodies but is the basis for “feeling” when an opponent has shifted their weight (intention) and is planning a defense or attack.

As a practical measure stop and think, which leg is stable?  Can it be more stable?  Which leg is empty?  Is it truly light?  Which hand am I focusing on?  Is the other relaxed?

important tai chi conceptsHow does this apply to real life?

Think of the tai chi form as an experimental playground.  You work on your form and, for arguments sake, get to a point where you can feel what balanced is.  It is just that, a gut feeling.  Then when you are at work and about to play your expected role in an argument, it doesn’t feel right so you move your thinking to this central place.  Now you are more open to see each side of an argument, and trust me, more valued as an employee.  Or, you are cooking and think that a meal is “missing something.”  You bring the base ingredients into balance and then add more of the one that you want to stand out (spicy, sweet, etc.).

Shih Prepares for Hsu, Hsu prepares for Shih.

Tai chi 101 : Is it Tai Chi, Taiji, taichi, or T’ai Chi Chuan? Yes.

Tai Chi is not only filled with new, difficult-to-define words but there is disagreement on how they are spelled.  This disagreement has then led to variations on how words are pronounced.








Here is a little history and an explanation.

Chinese is made up of characters and ideograms to represent the concept of what they are writing about.  Whereas the writing you are currently reading  is a string of sounds that your brain puts together to get the concept.  Up until recently, most writings on Chinese topics in English used the Wade-Giles system.  This is a system that was developed by a British ambassador to China (Wade) in the mid 1800s and refined into dictionary format (Giles) in 1892.  However, the letters that were written did not always match the sound.  In the late 1950s linguists from China developed the Hanyu Pinyin system which does a more consistent job at representing the same sound with the same letter.  Where this leaves us today is that most resources on taichi mix the two systems such as in this recent blog post title: “Finding the Tao (Wade-Giles) in Qi Gong (Pinyin).”

What do I need to be concerned with?

Below is a chart of words that are commonly spelled in different ways.  Be comfortable and accepting of the different spellings, know the common pronunciation, and be familiar with what is being referred to.


Common Words Related to Tai Chi

Pinyin Wade-Giles Pronunciation Defined
Dan Tian Tan T’ien Don Tien Elixir Field
Dao Tao Dow The Way, a philosophical pursuit
Dao De Jing Tao Te Ching Dow Day Jing Daoist Classic
Lao Zi Lao Tzu Lao Dzuh Daoist philosopher
Qi Ch’i Chee Life Energy
Qi Gong Ch’I Kung Chee Gung Energy Work
Taiji Quan T’ai Chi Ch’uan Tie Jee Chuan Taiji Martial Art

Tai chi 101 results:  The Linguists Weigh In

For those of you who really take interest (nerd out) on the intricacies of the language I will present the phonological explanation for all of the confusion.  The differences in spelling are due to one sound being perceived as a sort of sister sound.  “Minimal pairs” are sounds that share the same articulatory placements.  For example, the mouth movements for /b/ and /p/ are identical except that /b/ has the voice box turned on.  You can put your hand on your throat and whisper puh and buh to experience this.  The common minimal pairs with common errors in taichi words are:

D – T Dao – Tao tongue touches behind the teeth
G – K Gong fu – Kung fu tongue touches high in the back of the mouth
J (from judge) – CH tai chi – taiji tongue touches the palate

On computer tests of dialect differences a recording begins by making a hard voiced sound (B!).  Little by little the voicing (vibration) is removed and the listener has to tell when the /b/ has turned into a /p/.  Participants with different native tongues identified different places.  What this adds up to is that languages can have two slightly different sounds and both call them /b/.


You can read more about the naming of tai chi here.