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.