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Episode 3: What does “Tai chi” Mean?


To explain the meaning of the word Tai chi chuan (or tai chi for short) we should look at my logo. This is the symbol that represents the concept known as taiji

Taiji is a famous concept that is referenced in many different philosophies, including but not limited to daoism, tibetan buddhism, confucianism, zen, hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism. The symbol seems to have originated in India. But elements of this concept are found all over the world. It predates most existing religions, and exists in some form, within most religions. Philosophy, psychology, science, sociology, all deal with this concept, whether they know it or not.  

Quan means boxing, or fist, or martial art. 

So, taijiquan, or tai chi, refers to the martial art that is based on the concept represented by this diagram. ….or this diagram.

Now, when people see my logo, and read my name, or hear me speak Chinese, they ask, “Are you from Scotland.” To which I say, “Bù, wǒ cóng wèi qùguò sūgélán. 

I am told that I have inherited a fair bit of my ancestors’ Celtic madness, and I do get a sunburn if I sit too close to my oatmeal. But I have never been to Scotland, as much as I would love to visit. I could start paddling now and possibly be there by the time the pandemic is over. 

But anyway, 

This healing exercise slash martial art is called Taijiquan in China (Taiji for short), Taai gihk kyun in Cantonese *or Taai gihk). 

In English, we call it Tai chi Chuan or Tai chi, which makes some people confuse it with the word, “qi” as in qigong.  Qi can mean breath, vitality, life force, energy, etc. That is a different character with a completely different meaning. It is related to Taiji in the way that the word oxidization is related to the term “internal combustion engine.“

What we call taijiquan, or taiji for short, was not always called that. Before the 19th century, it was once called “Chen family boxing” or “Thirteen posture long fist”. But later was called Cotton boxing, or Neutralising boxing, transformation boxing. 

It became known as taijiquan during the period from as early as the  late 18th century to as late as the early 20th century. 

Calling it Taijiquan was a brilliant bit of branding, because it associated the martial art with a famous, ancient, and profound philosophical concept. That association has helped not only with the marketing of tai chi, but also as a teaching aid for students of all levels. 

It not only described some of the fundamental principles of the art, but also shaped its development to a certain degree.

Another marketing coup was translating Taijiquan into English as “supreme ultimate boxing “. It is technically correct as a transliteration, but in the same way that “out of sight out of mind” can be translated as “invisible idiot.” It is literally correct, but essentially wrong. 

So, a more accurate translation of the word, taijiquan, would be something like “Yin and Yang Kungfu.”  Accurate, that is. But entirely inadequate. It is better to call it Taijiquan and then learn what the taiji concept is all about. 

Taiji is made of two characters. 

The first is Tai, which in this context means “supreme”

The second is Ji, which, in this context means, “pole” or “extremity” or “polarity”

The concept of Taiji is one that deals with the perception, by an observer, of the dualistic nature of the phenomenal universe. The ordinary human experience is to see everything as related to something else.  It is not a rule. It is an observation.

Examples of Yin and yang:

  • up – down
  • yes – no
  • north – south
  • existing – non existing
  • hot – cold
  • Masculine – feminine
  • high – low

So, when we practise tai chi, we don’t try to make yin and yang happen, or force them to be balanced. We observe the nature of yin and yang, and let our actions be guided by this awareness. This important. 

We cannot balance the universe, we can only adapt to the chaos. We cannot stop violence from existing. We can only regulate it through improved awareness. 

I will get into how this works, or doesn’t work in a future episode. But for now, I will just give a quick summary. 

• Everything can be described as both Yin and Yang.

• All forces in nature can be described as having Yin and Yang aspects.

Whether a thing can be described as either yin or yang depends entirely upon what it is being compared to and upon the context of the comparison.

For example:

  • Hot is yang relative to cold, and tall is yang relative to short. But it would be inappropriate to say that hot is yang relative to short.
  • A hot rock can be liquid. A cold rock can be hard as a diamond. Which is yin or yang depends on how you look at it.
  • A yang quality can have a yin aspect, and vice versa. The height and size of the tallest tree in the forest makes it yang relative to the shorter trees, and allows it to dominate the forest, blocking out the sun, and spreading its roots and seeds around. But by standing above the rest, it is vulnerable wind and lightning, and loggers, and brittleness, and rot, which makes it yin. 

This kind of observation can be applied to martial arts, when you learn to see the weaknesses in the opponents strengths, and the strengths inherent in your own weaknesses. 

It is quite normal for people to think of the taiji concept as some kind of rule to adhere to, or something that one should follow. It is not. It is a description of how it is experience. Science does tell the universe how to be. Science empowers us by observing how the universe behaves and by teaching us new ways to look at it. 

There is sooooo  much more to this, and would love to talk for hours about it. But one thing at a time. I will get into this more in a later episode.