Tai chi has risen in popularity from being a relatively unknown practice that was only shared among families to being taught and accepted world wide. Most of us have been drawn to tai chi chuan because of the increasing knowledge about its physical and mental health benefits. Not to mention that it is really fun, gives you an immediate community, and like a few rare sports, it’s something we can do across the lifespan. However, there is a lot of confusion about the meaning of tai chi in English because this martial art encompasses so many philosophy, fighting and health benefits. To make matters worse, an English pronunciation of the words make many different words sound the same.
Tai Chi Chuan means “Supreme Ultimate Fist” when translated directly. It is a Chinese internal martial art that combines slow, circular movements to teach attack and defense skills and physical conditioning to improve balance and strength. Philosophy also plays a big part in the meaning of tai chi as the slow movements promote relaxation and well-being.
Understanding the meaning of tai chi is not only important for explaining what you do to your friends. Let’s face it, it’s embarrassing for those of us that are already practicing or for those who are interested when we are asked “What does tai chi mean?” and we struggle to come up with an answer. Understanding the meaning of tai chi also gives you the roadmap for greater progress. Let’s break it apart:
What does tai mean in tai chi chuan?
We have to deep dive into a bit of philosophy here to understand the meaning of tai chi. Tai (太) means supreme, great, or even extreme. I think it’s easiest to think of it as “furthest away” in the sense in English as “extreme,” like the extreme end of a object. So what tai means is that it is the furthest away or greatest opposite of something. The direct translation of “tai” as “supreme” or “extreme” is meaningless without understanding what it is being compared to. In this case, it is the extreme opposite of “wu” (无) which means “nothing” or “without.”
Confused yet? Let’s simplify things. Chinese philosophy considers the original state of nothingness to be “wuji” (ultimate-nothing). It is usually represented by a circle and is the state all of us are after when we are doing standing or sitting meditation. One step past this, when a movement shifts from “nothingness” into something, a polarity occurs creating two extremes. For example, when you step you are simultaneously pushing off the ground and falling forward. So when you move from nothing (wu) you are transitioning towards an extreme (tai) which is usually depicted as a yin-yang symbol.
Doing tai chi is physiologically and metaphorically a practice of keeping the extremes in mind so that you can always stay centered and in balance. Let’s move on to the second character “chi” where most of the confusion lies.
What does chi mean in tai chi chuan?
Unfortunately the meaning of tai chi in English gets really confusing because we pronounce “chi” as in energy (qi gong) the same way we pronounce “chi” as in tai chi which actually means “ultimate.” Keep saying tai chi and qi gong the way you do, but understand that “chi” (極) from tai chi is used in Chinese to describe the earth’s pole, a roof’s top edge, uppermost, or highest. This is an easier way to think about it because are moving and balancing the furthest points away from the center.
Back to philosophy and physical movements. If you are kicking in one direction without moving your weight in the other direction, you would fall over and be out of balance. So in a really simple sense of the word, “chi” (極) is making us consider and be mindful of everything that is out of balance. From a philosophical perspective, if you are are to think of a business deal or relationship that is too much of any one thing, it is doomed to fail. Understanding the meaning of tai chi gets us moving, thinking, and practicing being in a balanced state. Really extremes of any kind are never good: emotions, temperatures, etc. Hopefully you can see at this point how your health and life benefit by a continual consideration of the extremes, and how to move back to the safe a cozy center. Let’s add the last word “chuan” so we can complete the picture.
What does chuan mean in tai chi chuan?
Chuan (拳) is a Chinese character that translates to fist or boxing. So the direct meaning of tai chi chuan is “supreme ultimate fist” and the “chuan” part is intended to express two very important points:
- The same balance and centeredness also creates the power to fight correctly and can be used this way. The same calmness of mind is needed to read a situation correctly before you act with enraged emotions. Tai chi strengthens and heals the body. While today this usually means protecting us from bad seated postures and work stress, it also means curing us from injuries or making us more resistant to whatever life throws at us. So yes, there is a fighting aspect to the art.
- Tai chi chuan is an active, physical process. Many of the schools in the U.S. lean towards a more relaxed enjoyable training. However, we get the best results from doing the form when we are pushing ourselves by going lower, going longer, and continuing our learning.
A good definition of tai chi chuan is one that helps us understand why we are doing the art and how we can benefit from continued practice. In this, it is best to think of it as learning to take in to consideration the ultimate (極 chi) extremes (太 tai) of any situation and following a physical practice (拳 chuan) so you can get the health benefits and learn the philosophy to apply to other areas of your life.
Why is there so much confusion in the pronunciation and meaning of tai chi?
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 tai chi mix the two systems such as in a blog post I say titled: “Finding the Tao (Wade-Giles) in Qi Gong (Pinyin).”
What do I need to be concerned with when spelling tai chi?
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
|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 Gong||Ch’I Kung||Chee Gung||Energy Work|
|Taiji Quan||T’ai Chi Ch’uan||Tie Jee Chuan||Taiji Martial Ar|
Tai chi Pronunciation 101: Why do people say tai chi differently?
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 tai chi 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/. For example 1 = western speakers and 2 = Asian language speakers.
In short, if you are not a native mandarin speaker, continue to pronounce it Tie CHEE and CHE GONG and spell it however it is most familiar to you. Instead, put your effort into understanding the meaning behind the words.
Keep Reading!: Tai Chi vs. Qigong