In this article we will define the term tai chi chuan (taijiquan), how it is translated, its meaning, and how its practice is a manifestation of theory, principles, and philosophy.

Chinese language 101

We must first look briefly at the Chinese writing system.

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The Chinese language does not use an alphabet of letters as we do in the west. Chinese uses a system of complex characters, or pictographs, to express words, phrases, and concepts. Because of this, a foreigner may be impressed with the beauty of Chinese calligraphy, but won’t have a clue as to its meaning or how to say it. Therefore systems have been developed to transcribe these complex characters into a sound system using our alphabet. This allows the Chinese characters to be pronounced by foreigners.

Today there are several different systems being used for this, and although similar, have differences that may lead one to confusion. As an example we will take the word Chuan, or fist. Fist can be transcribed, depending on which system is used, as Chuan, Ch’uan, or Quan (in the last case, the q has a ch sound, but one would need to know the system to know this.) So one can see why there would be confusion in pronouncing Chinese words correctly.

Definition of tai chi

Tai = grand, great

Chi / Ch’i /Ji = ultimate, extreme

Chuan /Ch’uan / Quan = fist. boxing, martial art

So tai chi chuan translates as “Grand Ultimate Boxing”.

Art, science, and philosophy

Tai chi is an ancient philosophical principle based on the balance of complementary forces. These complementary forces are referred to as yin and yang, and define everything in existence. Yin and yang are in a constant state of change, but always striving to maintain balance and therefore harmony.

A good example of this balance of yin and yang is found in a children’s story known as Goldilocks and The Three Bears. In this story, we remember the porridge was not too hot, and not too cold, but just right. And the bed was not too hard, and not too soft, but just right. We can easily understand this balance from the above example.

Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art (Chuan) based on the balance of yin and yang.

Now we will discuss how its practice is a manifestation of this principle.

Balance of yin and yang

During practice, of greatest importance is this balance of yin and yang.  Examples of complementary forces that come into play are as follows: hard and soft, big and small, fast and slow, up and down, rising and sinking, left and right, front and back, clockwise and counterclockwise, movement and stillness, internal and external.

These forces listed above, are constantly changing back and forth, but always in balance.  For example if the right side of the body moves forward, the left side moves backward because of the circular, spiral nature of tai chi movements.

(See article on Tai Chi Silk Reeling).

Another example would be when used for self defense is, if someone applies pressure to push my right shoulder, I rotate my waist to the right to neutralize the force. I must turn in exactly the same speed as the force is applied. Too slow and I get pushed, too fast and I lose balance. When I move in exact time with the force, it will be neutralized and have no effect, and the one applying the force will lose his balance. (See article on Wuji: The Art of Stillness – Part 1)

One more example of this is in blocking a punch to the face. If one blocks too slowly or too quickly, they will get hit. The block must be in perfect timing with the attack, therefore, not too fast and not too slow, or a balance of yin and yang.

There are two main training methods in tai chi: solo forms, and partner training (Push Hands or Tuishou). Both of these training methods are necessary to cultivate balance and they compliment each other. Solo form teaches us how to move and manifest the principles. Push Hands is a means of testing to see if the actual techniques within the forms work for self defense.

The above article is intended as an overview and introduction to the meaning of Chen style tai chi. Future articles will expand on all aspects of this wonderful “internal” martial art and health and healing system.

Our next article will answer the question, Why Do Chen Style Tai Chi?

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