This is the first of a three-part series on the gentle art of well-being, T’ai Chi: the slow motion martial art originating in China. In the course of these articles, teacher and Practice Works community member Stephen Guesman conveys the profound physical, mental and even spiritual benefits that result from regular practice of disciplines such as T’ai Chi. In this first article, we’ll look at the language—because you see, it’s not T’ai Chi anymore.
It never was T’ai Chi actually. It used to be T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Tai Chi Chuan). The problem with shortening the title from T’ai Chi Ch’uan to T’ai Chi is that T’ai Chi is something else.
Quick, name this symbol:
If you said this is a Yin-Yang, you’ve made an accurate description, but you haven’t named it. The name of this symbol is – you guessed it—T’ai Chi. Does T’ai Chi mean yin-yang? No. So what does T’ai Chi mean? What any Chinese word means in English is another subject that we’ll pursue below, but for now let’s take the usual translation of “supreme ultimate”.
T’ai Chi means not just supreme ultimate but the supreme ultimate: not in the sense of “the best” but rather “the most fundamental”. The T’ai Chi is the supreme ultimate representation of the material world, the fundamental interplay of yin and yang that is the foundation of all things. This is an essential element of Taoism, the Chinese mystical philosophy of which T’ai Chi Ch’uan is an expression (more on this in a later article). A corollary to T’ai Chi would be the difference between a cross and the crucifix. A cross is an accurate enough description but doesn’t begin to convey the significance of the crucifix to those of a Christo-centric persuasion.
If the T’ai Chi is a symbol representing the supreme ultimate, what is T’ai Chi Ch’uan? This once again raises the issue of translating Chinese to English. An iconic language such as Chinese is written as a series of pictures (icons) that have varied meanings. To translate any iconic language to a phonetic language, the translator must make many arbitrary choices. This accounts for why there can be several current translations of an Oriental text; there is a lot of room for interpretation.
Chuan can be simply translated as “fist”, though not very accurately. Chuan could also be translated as “open hand” as in “no weapon”. A fist also holds no weapon. This helps to make sense of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. It was not a rebellion of boxers. It was the Chuan Rebellion, an uprising of unarmed reactionaries against the Westernization of China.
What is T’ai Chi Ch’uan?
In future installments I hope to explore some of the mystical and metaphysical meanings of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. But for now we’re talking about what the words actually mean. To translate T’ai Chi Ch’uan as “supreme ultimate fist” is accurate as far as it goes, but what does it mean? I’m confident it does not mean “the best boxers”.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a martial art that relies on internal strength instead of external. It works with the interplay of hard and soft, receiving and returning, substantial and insubstantial, that is, yin and yang. And it works without weapons.
So T’ai Chi Ch’uan means an unarmed system of defense employing the interplay of yin and yang.
But it’s not T’ai Chi Ch’uan any more.
Remember when the capital of China was Peking and now it’s Beijing? The Chinese did not move their capital or even rename it. What changed was the Western world’s system of transliterating Chinese to English. The current Pinyin System better approximates the sound of spoken Chinese. So T’ai Chi Ch’uan becomes Tai-ji Quan (taijiquan). In the old transliteration, T’ai Chi Ch’uan players worked on the cultivation and transmission of ch’i. Chi and ch’i are completely different words. The new system avoids this confusion. T’ai Chi is now Tai-ji, and ch’i is qi. The body of breath-work exercises known as Ch’i Kung is now Qigong. Tai-ji Quan is itself a form of Qigong (as is Falon Gong).
People who practice Qigong, including Tai-ji Quan players, are concerned with the cultivation of qi.
Although it’s not T’ai Chi Ch’uan any more, the reality of it is there are thousands of books on Tai Chi that are going to keep the old system alive for years to come. But most journalists and scholars are using the new system, so what’s a player to do? I’m going to say and write Tai- ji Quan or taijiquan, but I’m not going to waste my time correcting everybody. Just don’t call it Kung Fu and we’ll get along fine.
Stephen Guesman plays and teaches Taijiquan at Practice Works in Birmingham Alabama. He welcomes comments or corrections to this article. You can reach Stephen at [email protected]; be sure to say “taiji” in the subject line.