“Tai chi chuan” 太極拳 – casually referred to as “tai chi” – is a deep, meditative, internal Chinese practice. At its original core, it is a martial art, but is nowadays commonly practiced and taught in a manner that strengthens and promotes the mind/body health of dedicated practitioners. Though a myriad of people – several millions – practice it daily around the globe, most don’t even know what the term “tai chi chuan” means. And those that believe they know the translation will offer up the popular canned response, “Grand Ultimate Fist.” Ask those same folks what that exactly means and you’ll probably be met with a blank stare and a stammered explanation.
Let’s first consider what the “tai chi” part of “tai chi chuan” means. To understand that, you first have to understand that “tai chi” is a term from Taoist philosophy. Taoism is the ancient spiritual, nature-based philosophy native to China. The Taoists sought to understand reality and how we are a part of it and exist under its natural laws. The Taoists explained that before the universe came into existence, everything (nothing?) was in a state of “wu chi.” Once you understand the concept of “wu chi” you will instantly have a deeper understanding of what “tai chi” means. “Wu chi” 無極 means “no polarity.” In essence, it is the nameless, incomprehensible state of void or nothingness. If there is nothing, then no differentiation can exist. It’s somewhat the non-existence of nothingness… space… void… When there was a “change” in the state of wu chi, then there was a differentiation – the original wu chi part, and, the changing part. That state of differentiation is a phase called “tai chi.” It literally means “great polarity.” The opposite poles on of this polarity are referred to as yin and yang. Just like plus and minus, each opposite exists because of the existence of the other. The Taoists say that the yin and yang (born from the state of tai chi) give rise to all things and processes in the universe.
NOTE: A grave error occurs when people say “tai chi” means the “great chi,” in which people mistake the homonym “chi” to mean the same as “chi” (or “qi”) 氣 which means the “life force energy.” That word may sound similar, but it is an entirely different word in Chinese! Please don’t make this mistake!
So what does “chuan” mean? It means “fist.” It implies the martial arts practice and discipline of something. For example, in Chinese kung fu, there is a practice of “bai he chuan.” “bai he” means “white crane.” So, bai he chuan is the marital arts practice of the way that cranes (and similar birds) fight. But it is more than that – it’s also about the crane’s nature, how they think, how they move, how they survive… Now, in the case of “tai chi chuan,” it means the martial practice of the state of “tai chi” (the change from no polarity to great polarity). That is why tai chi chuan delves into a serious study of the balance of yin and yang – physically, mentally and spiritually. The goal is to understand this balance in yourself and to be able to manifest a change in your balance of yin and yang. Then, if desired, you can extend that study out to martially affect an opponent. Yet, the martial arts need not always be expressed as outright sparring. The same principles can be used to affect the balance of yin and yang in anything outside of your body – this includes: your lifestyle, your working environment, your opportunities, manifestations, and so on.
And if you really want to write it properly, “tai chi chuan” should be written as “taijiquan.” Just type that into your internet searches and THOUSANDS more search items will pop up for you! Taijiquan is the way it’s written in China, from transliterate the glyphic-looking Chinese language into our Latin alphabet (like what we use in the English language). This method of transliterating Chinese written characters into our alphabet is known as “pinyin romanization.” Why is that so important? Because that is what all of China now uses. It’s what all universities now teach when you learn Chinese, and it’s what all Chinese dictionaries use. Writing it as “tai chi chuan” is the outdated “Wade-Giles” romanization that is slowly falling out of use. Next time you go to a bookstore, pick out a Chinese-English dictionary and see for yourself. All translated ancient Chinese documents are also now being transliterated into pinyin romanization. It’s what all high-level Taoist scholars and researchers use. Wu chi is actually written as “wuji” in pinyin romanization, and Taoism is now being written as “Daoism.” If you use the pinyin way of spelling when you do internet searches about tai chi (taiji) and Taoism (Daoism) you will have have access to much higher quality material.
Pronunciation tip: most people pronounce tai chi chuan and taijiquan differently. That is incorrect. They are both pronounced the same. The best way to pronounce it is like: tie jee chwenn. Please never pronounce “quan” as “kwon!” Pronounce it as “chwenn.” And because Chinese is a tonal language, the closest way to pronounce it like a speaker of Mandarin Chinese (standard Chinese dialect) is like: “tie! jee? chwenn?” The first syllable is spoken with a falling tone – sort of as if with a mild exclamation point. The last two words are spoken with a rising tone – as we do in English at the end of a question. But don’t worry too much about that! I’ve just noted it here because I’m sorry to see so may people being kept in the dark about what taijiquan means and how to pronounce it correctly.
Note that there are other practices that use the term “tai chi” – like “tai chi chih” and others. But do not confuse these with “tai chi chuan.” Tai chi chuan / taijiquan is the old, true Taoist spiritual and martial arts discipline that is officially recognized in China. And yes, all traditional taijiquan forms were developed in China. Taijiquan is considered by the Chinese to be one of their cultural treasures. Luckily, because of many generous teachers, the Western world has also received the opportunity to partake in this treasure that has enriched the lives of many throughout the centuries. May it also enrich yours.