A Concise Dictionary for Tai Chi Students

🔗 Introduction

How to Spell “Tai Chi”

Tai Chi was first documented in the early 20th century, and made available to English language readers in the 1940s. In that historical era, the Wade-Giles system was commonly used to represent Chinese words using the English alphabet.

The proper way to write Tai Chi Chuan (太极拳) using Wade-Giles is actually “T’ai-chi ch’üan.” However, it was (and still is) common for writers to omit the diacritical marks.

Decades later, translators adopted Hanyu Pinyin as the preferred romanization system for Chinese characters. The proper spelling became “Tàijíquán.” Like Wade-Giles, Pinyin also uses diacritical marks. And as before, they are generally ignored in casual writing. This gives us the popular modern spelling, Taijiquan.

Spaces are ubiquitous in English writing and absent in Chinese. Formal rules exist for inserting spaces during translation. These rules too are widely disregarded.

Considering all these factors, along with the multiple languages, dialects, and logograms used by native Chinese speakers… there are at least four different ways to spell any word in an English-language Tai Chi dictionary! There is not one single “most correct” spelling.

In this dictionary, we present common and modern spellings first.

How to Pronounce “Tai Chi Chuan”

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Taiji and Quan

Quan (拳) refers approximately to a style of martial arts. However, a Quan has a distinctly Chinese relationship with ethics and health, spirituality, art and social relations. To equate it with a contemporary “martial art” is to distort its methods, history and goals.

Originally, Taiji Quan was the Quan developed by the Yang family (杨氏) during the 19th century. This is probably not its original name. We don’t know exactly when this honorific title was first assigned to the art, or by whom. Backdating styles, founders, titles and techniques is routine within Kung Fu culture.

As Taijiquan rose to fame in the early 20th century, its definition was expanded. Quan traditions originating before the rise of Yang family were added, along with Quan evolving afterwards. This included styles of the Chen (陈), Wu (吴), Sun (孙) and Hao (武) families.

The name of “Tai Chi Chuan” gained worldwide prestige. More new styles were invented, to capitalize on the name itself.

See also: Is Tai Chi Really a Martial Art?

Ch’i, Qi, Chi and Ji

Taiji (太极) is an ancient Chinese philosophical idea. English speakers commonly spell and pronounce it as “Tai Chi,” while actually referring to Taiji Quan (太极拳).

Qi (气) is another ancient Chinese cultural designation. Qi is also commonly spelled as “Ch’i” or as “Chi.”

There is no direct translation for either Taiji or Qi, because there are no words in English which carry the same meaning and context. A rough translation might explain Qi as “energy” and Taiji as “the inceptive polarity.”

The common English spellings of these words, have led many pupils to assume a close relationship. Some even speculate that Chi is at the very center of Tai Chi Chuan!

There is indeed a relationship between these ideas. Nevertheless, the “Chi” in “Tai Chi Chuan” is essentially just a spelling error. Qi 气 and Ji 极 are two entirely different characters. There is no 气 in 太极.

Chengyu Are Not Instructions

Scriptio continua

Early writings on Taijiquan are composed in terse, idiomatic expressions with scant punctuation. They are open to a range of interpretations. They are meant to be clarified through the lens of a reader’s prior experience and personalized education.

For an example of such writings, consider San ren cheng hu (三人成虎). This idiom says “three men make tiger,” but means “an absurd claim becomes credible after it is widely repeated.” Similarly cryptic or ambiguous phrases are common in Taijiquan text.

A modern literal reading of classic texts will not match the authors’ original intent. This caveat applies even to the interpretations of professional translators, and purported subject matter experts.

Other Divergences in Meaning

Language evolves over time. The foundational terms of Taijiquan have accumulated various definitions over the past century. Their overloaded meanings may conflict, or occasionally even contradict.

For example, the famous teacher Zheng Manqing wrote in Taijiquan Tiyong Quanshu (太极拳体用全书), that the secret of Taijiquan is in not using Qi. Zheng’s statement is inimical to the teachings of his own latter-day followers!

Context is essential.

Mistranslations and Fallacies

Taiji has been translated as “Supreme Ultimate.” This connotes first and largest. However it does not mean better than. Taijiquan thus cannot be translated as “The Ultimate Form of Martial Arts.”

As we have said earlier, Quan means boxing, but not exactly.

Taijiquan is sometimes explained as “a style of boxing created to demonstrate Taiji principles.” This is not so. Firstly, because the art predates its current name. Secondly, because there are no such things as “Taiji principles.” Taiji is an ontological model, rather than a moral imperative or scientific theory.

Taiji Quan does have its unique strategies, tactics and priorities; which may be labeled as principles.

Taijiquan jargon is commonly expressed in Mandarin Chinese. However, this does not mean the jargon is commonly understood by Mandarin speakers. Knowing Chinese does not make one a Taiji expert, any more than speaking English would make them a great basketball player.

Taijiquan is neither simple nor straightforward. Personal guidance from a qualified expert is needed. Using this dictionary will not, by itself, allow you to understand Taijiquan… but it may help.

🔗 Concepts and Theory

Ba gua (八卦) – Eight trigrams (☰ ☱ ☲ ☳ ☴ ☵ ☶ ☷).

Dao or Tao (道) — A path, order, or teaching.

Fang song (放松) — A release of unnecessary tension.

Gongfu or Kung Fu (功夫) — A skill developed with time and effort.

Guoshu or Kuoshu (国术) — A martial art with nationalist objectives.

Hunyuan (混元) — Primordial.

Jin (劲) — A type of refined force.

Jing (精) — The material foundation of life and Qi.

Jing or Ching (经) — A historically important text.

Li (力) — Unrefined force; or any force in general.

Neidan shu (內丹术) — Methods of internal alchemy.

Neijia Quan (内家) — The category of “internal” martial arts.

Qigong (气功) — The skill of working with Qi; or a method of developing the skill.

Sanbao (三寶)Jing, Qi and Shen.

Shu (书) — A book (without the esteemed status of a Jing).

Tiyong (体用) — An essence and its expression.

Taijitu (太极图) — A symbol depicting Yin and Yang, e.g. ☯️.

Wushu (武術) — A martial art; or a performance-oriented martial sport.

Wu xing (五行) — Five phases; or five elements.

Xin (心) — Emotional mind; heart.

Xiu dao (修道) — Self-cultivation.

Yangsheng (养生) — Methods for cultivating health and longevity.

Yi (意) — Intention.

Yin yang (阴阳) — A split without separation.

🔗 Curriculum

Jibengong (基本功) — Basic training.

Taijicao (太极操) — Gentle exercises inspired by Taijiquan.

Dajia (大架) — Big frame.

Duilian (对练) — Partner training, such as forms, drills or sparring.

Taolu (套路) — A choreographed sequence of movements and postures.

Tuishou (推手) — Pushing hands.

Sanshou (散手) — Freestyle sparring, which typically includes both striking and grappling techniques.

Xiaojia (小架) — Small frame.

Zhan zhuang (站桩) — Holding a posture; or standing meditation.

Zuowang (坐忘) — A method of seated meditation.

🔗 Classroom Terms

Baoquan li (抱拳礼) — Fist-covering salute.

Da leitai (打擂台) — An elevated competition platform.

Duanwei (段位) — A formalized Wushu grading and ranking system.

Dui budui (对不对) — Isn’t that right?

Duifang (对方) — Practice partner, or opponent.

Hanfu (汉服) — Outfits (or costumes) historically worn by the Han Chinese people. These include the loose shirts and pants now associated with a “Tai Chi uniform.”

Kuai (快) — Fast.

Laoshi (老师) — Coach, or teacher.

Mianzi (面子) — Face; social standing.

Ni hao (你好) — Hello, how are you.

Shidi or Sidai (师弟) — Junior male classmate.

Shifu or Sifu (师傅) — Expert.

Shifu or Sifu (師父) — The master, in a personal master-disciple relationship.

Shijie or Sije (师姐) — Senior female classmate.

Shimei or Simui (师妹) — Junior female classmate.

Shixiong or Sihing (师兄) — Senior male classmate.

Tongxuemen (同学们) — Students.

Tudi (徒弟) – Disciple.

Wude (武德) — The ethical code of martial arts.

Wuguan (武馆) — Martial arts hall or school.

Zaijian (再见) – See you later.

🔗 Anatomy

Baihui (百会) — A point on the top of the head.

Dang (裆) — Crotch.

Huiyin (会 阴) — A point in the perineum.

Kua (胯) — The area around the hip joints.

Laogong (劳宫) — A point near the center of the palm.

Mingmen (命门) — A point between the kidneys on the back.

Shou (手) — Hand; or hand technique.

Tui (腿) — Leg.

Xia Dantian or Dan Tien (下丹田) — A point roughly behind the navel; or the lower abdomen in general.

Yao (腰) — The area around the lumbar spine; or waist.

Yongquan (涌泉) — A point near the center of the sole of the foot.

🔗 Movements and Stances

Ao bu (拗步) — Twist step. Hand and foot advance on opposite sides.

Bai bu (摆步) — Swing step. The front toes open outward.

Yang Chengfu, 1918

Ban bu (半步) — Half step.

Ca bu (擦步) — Brushing step. The front foot slides on the ground.

Cha bu (叉步) — Crossing step. The rear foot advances behind the front foot.

Chui (捶) — Punch.

Gen bu (跟步) — Follow step.

Gou shou (钩手) — The hook hand in the Single Whip posture.

Gong bu (弓步) — Bow stance. Body weight carried on the front leg.

Jiao (脚) — Kick; or foot.

Jin bu (進步) — Forward step.

Kou bu (扣步) — Pigeon-toed step. The front foot turns inward.

Ma bu (马步) — Horse stance. Legs are typically parallel and body weight is evenly distributed.

Pu bu (仆步) — Drop stance. Low squat with the front leg extended.

Tui bu (退步) — Backward step.

Xu bu (虚步) — Empty stance. Body weight carried on the back leg.

Zhongding (中定) — The center “step” around which other steps (wu bu) are made.

Zhou (肘) — Elbow.

See also: Yang Style Tai Chi Postures List

🔗 Skills and Powers

Chan si jin (缠丝劲) — Spiraling, “silk-reeling” Jin.

Dong jin (懂劲) — Understanding Jin.

Fa jin (发劲) — To apply Jin, such as with an explosive strike.

Hua jin (化劲) — Neutralizing Jin.

Jindian (劲点) — Point of Jin.

Jinlu (劲路) — Pathway of Jin.

Ting jin (听劲) — Listening or sensing Jin.

🔗 Weapons

Dao () — A single-edged blade. May be straight or curved.

Jian (剑) — A double-edged straight sword.

Gun (棍) — A long staff or pole.

Qiang (枪) — Spear.

Tie shan (铁扇) — Iron fan.

🔗 People and Places

Chenjiagou (陈家沟) — Chen Family Village.

Huang Zongxi (黄宗羲) — 17th-century author of the earliest known reference to Neijia. At the time, neijia probably meant “indigenous to our culture” rather than “inside the human body.”

Jianghu (江湖) — The martial underworld culture, real and/or fictional.

Qi Jiguang (戚继光) — 16th-century Chinese military general and author.

Shaolin (少林) — A forest in Henan, China, with a famous Buddhist monastery; the martial arts practice associated with Shaolin Temple.

Sun Lutang (孙禄堂) — Inventor of Sun style Taijiquan; proponent of modern neijia theory.

Tang Hao (唐豪) — 20th-century historical scholar of Chinese martial arts.

Wang Zongyue (王宗岳) — Author of a fundamental Taijiquan text.

Wudang or Wu Tang (武当) — A mountain range in central China; a tradition associated with temples in those mountains.

Yang Chengfu (杨澄甫) — Third-generation master of Taijiquan, responsible for popularizing the art inside China.

Yang Luchan (杨露禅) — Founder of Yang style Taijiquan.

Yongnian xian (永年县) — Yongnian County, Hebei Province. Birthplace of Yang Luchan.

Zhang Sanfeng (张三丰) — Legendary Daoist and creator of Taijiquan.

Zheng Manqing or Cheng Man-ch’ing (郑曼青) — College professor who spread Taijiquan in Taiwan and New York.

🔗 Phrases and Idioms

Ba fa wu bu (八法五步) — Eight methods and five steps; an oblique reference to Taijiquan.

Bu ding, bu diu (不顶不丢) — Do not butt in; do not leave.

Chazhihaoli, miuzhiqianli (差之毫厘谬之千里) — Off by a hair at the start, missed by a mile at the end.

Chi ku (吃苦) — To suffer hardships.

Dong zhong qiu jing (动中求静) — Find stillness in movement.

Guzhuang xi (古装戏) — Historical costume drama.

Hua quan xiu tui (花拳绣腿) — Flower fist and brocade leg; beautiful but useless technique.

Jin zhi ze yu zhang; tui zhi ze yu cu (进之则愈长; 退之则愈促) — Advancing, it seems too far; retreating, it seems too near.

Jing ru shanyue; Doing ruo jianghe (静如山岳; 动若江河) — Still like a mountain; moving like a river.

Jiu qu zhu (九曲珠) — Nine-curved pearl; an intricate passage.

Kai he (开合) — Open and close.

Li ru pingzhun; huo shi chelun (立如枰凖, 活似车轮) — Stand like a steelyard (scale); move like a wheel.

Mian li cang zhen (绵里藏针) — Needle hidden in cotton.

Shi san shi (十三式) — Thirteen powers.

Shuang zhong (双重) — Double-weighted.

She ji cong ren (舍己从人) — Abandon one’s plans to follow another.

Si liang bo qian jin (四兩撥千斤) — A big return on a small investment; four ounces deflects one thousand pounds.

Si zheng (四正) — Four cardinal (Jins), i.e. Wardoff (掤), Rollback (捋), Press (挤) and Push (按).

Si yu (四隅) — Four corner (Jins), i.e. Pluck (採), Split (列), Elbow (肘), Shoulder (靠).

Ti da shuai na (踢打摔拿) — Kick, punch, throw, lock.

Wo xin chang dan (卧薪尝胆) — To strengthen oneself by voluntarily enduring hardship; sleep on sticks and taste bile.

Wu shi you tu ao chu (毋使有凸凹处) — Do not allow protrusions or hollows.

Xu jin ru zhanggong; Fa jin ru fang jian (蓄劤如张弓; 发劤如放箭) — Store Jin like drawing a bow; release Jin like loosing an arrow.

Xu ling ding jin (虚灵顶劲) — An empty, lively Jin at the top of the head.

Yi dao qi dao (意到气到) — Yi dao qi dao.

Yidong quandong (一动全动) — One part moves, everything moves.

Yi yu buneng jia, ying chong buneng luo (一羽不能加, 蠅虫不能落) — One feather cannot settle, a fly cannot alight.

Yong yi bu yong li (用意不用力) — Use Yi, not force.

Zhan, nian, lian, sui (粘黏连随) — Stick and follow.

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