Translation Questions: “Taiji,” “Form,” and “Posture”

Translation Questions: “Taiji,” “Form,” and “Posture”

Postby Audi » Mon Mar 05, 2001 9:06 am

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of my first T’ai Chi book in Chinese from the Association. I am hoping it will resolve a host of linguistic and practice questions I have been harboring for some time. I am also apprehensive because I cannot really understand, read, or speak Chinese with any fluency and so am wondering if the book will end up as an interesting living room ornament. Be that as it may, I wanted to pose a bunch of linguistic questions and/or comments about the form that might be of general interest.

I thought it might make sense by beginning these posts with comments/questions about the terms “Taiji” (“T’ai Chi”), form, and posture, since these form the basis for everything else. After that, it might make sense to go chronologically and discuss the Preparation Posture, the Beginning Posture, and the four- or five-posture series known as Grasp Sparrows Tail. After that who knows? I have linguistic and cultural questions or comments about almost every posture, but will wait to see the level of interest. Feel free to jump ahead of me if the spirit so moves you.

Taiji:
The art we share is now mostly called “Taijiquan” (or T’ai Chi Ch’uan). From what I have read from various sources, I am fairly confident of the following assertions, but would love confirmation or correction of my statements.

The term “Taijiquan” was first applied (by Yang Luchan?) to the martial art he demonstrated and began to teach in the mid (?) 1800s in Beijing. The “quan” part of “Taijiquan” means “fist” or “empty hand fighting system” (sometimes translated as boxing). This is essentially the same word as the Japanese word element “ken” or “kem” in Kenpo, and may be the “kwon” in Tae Kwon Do. (Anybody know about “kwon” for certain?). My guess is that it is also the inspiration of the “te” in “Karate,” which means “hand.” (“Kara” originally meant “Chinese/Tang,” but is now interpreted as “empty,” because of Japanese homonyms and a wish to change emphasis.)

The term “Taiji” refers to the generative aspect of “Wuji” or the “Dao” (“Tao”) that gives rise to Yin and Yang. It means “Great Pole(s)/Polarity/Extreme/Extremity” and contrasts with “Wuji,” which means “that which has no pole(s) (or polarity/extreme/extremity)” and which corresponds more or less to the Ancient Greek concept of Chaos. The term “Taijiquan” would then have been understood as a name for a primarily weaponless martial art for which the concepts of yin and yang were important.

An alternative view I have heard, though perhaps not seriously meant as an etymological explanation, is that “Taiji” refers to the central ridge pole of a building. The “tai” in “Taiji” can mean “greatest“ or “highest”; and “ji” can mean, “extremity,” “pole” as in North Pole, or “ridge pole.” The term “Taijiquan” could then be understood as meaning a martial art where keeping your spine straight and supportive as a ridge pole is important. I find this interesting, because I have read that to withstand earthquakes, Japanese temples (and maybe Chinese ones as well) are built so that the roof and frame essentially hang from the central ridge pole, rather than being upheld by the walls.

Many books also translate “Taijiquan” as something like “Supreme Ultimate Fighting Art.” The implication is usually that T’ai Chi is the best of all martial arts. While I can see the linguistic justification for this, it strikes me as an odd translation, given the references above. Do such translations really reflect what nineteenth century inhabitants of Beijing might have understood? Is this what “Taiji” primarily means to modern Chinese?

Form:
When we say we are practicing a 103-movement form, what exactly is meant by the word “form”? What is the usual Chinese word for this? My understanding of the purpose and importance of the form in T’ai Chi has varied fairly considerably over the years. As I have pondered this, I have realized that I am not sure what is meant by such an odd word as “form.”

My first exposure to the word “form” was through the native Japanese word “kata” in Kempo Karate. This word can be written with two different characters with similar meaning, both of which are pronounced “xing2” in Mandarin. One has an earth radical on the bottom, and the other has the three-dot radical on the right. As far as I can discern, in both Japanese and Chinese, these characters between them can be translated as “form,” “shape,” “type,” “mold,” and “pattern,” among other words. Is the sequence of postures we perform perhaps a “pattern,” rather than a “form”?

The Chen-style forms are often referred to as “routines.” The Chinese word I have seen for this is “lu” as in “yi lu ping an” (pleasant journey). This word basically means “road,” although I have a dictionary that lists the meaning “sequence” as in “si lu” (train of thought). Is this word used to refer to non-Chen forms? Why the difference in terminology? What do other Chinese martial arts use?

Posture:
We call the 103 things we do during practice of the empty-hand form (depending on the length of the form we do and our counting) “postures.” The Chinese term I see for this is “shi4.” My dictionaries do not show the definition “posture,” but do show the definition “gesture(s)” (as well as “feature” and “circumstance”). To my ear, a posture is inherently static, and a “gesture” is inherently something that moves. Can a “shi4” be a static thing? When we refer, for example, to the Lifting Hands Posture, are we improperly mixing up a stance with a sequence of movements? When we see references to the qualities of a certain “posture,” should we rather assume a reference to a sequence of movements, rather than a fixed position? I note the discussion on another thread between Louis and Jerry about “dingshi” (fixed posture(s)). The discussion was fairly clear, but I am still confused as to whether a reference to Lifting Hands Posture could be a reference to a “dingshi” or only to the over all sequence.

The core meaning of “shi4” is, I believe, “power.” Does this have any significance for the meaning of “posture(s)”/“gesture(s)” as applied to the T’ai Chi forms?

Audi
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Postby Michael » Mon Mar 05, 2001 3:40 pm

Audi, it seems that if I have thought it, you ask it. i must add to the confusion here.

I have been taught that "set" (or"routine" which I have heard and read being used in Yang circles also) describes "Postures" or "forms" linked togther. These "postures" or "forms" as I understand it, is the representation of the structure of the technique that has just been finalized or completed.

The word "forms" has always meant to me the "poom se" ("kata")in Tae Kwan do. I do not know the "right or wrong" of it, only what i have been taught.

So I add the word "set" to your question Audi.
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Postby Steve » Mon Mar 05, 2001 10:51 pm

In respose to your comments about "Taiji," I have studied Daoism for some time, so I may be able to handle this one (and, please, anyone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).

According to Daoist cosmology, the original state of the universe was stillness. In that stillness, yin and yang were in such perfect balance that they were indistinguishable from one another. Being in such balance, there was no interplay between them. With no interplay, nothing could happen, and nothing could be created. This state was called "Wuji," or "no extreme."

When the yin and yang energies became distinct, they began to operate in motion, the yin dark and contracting inward, the yang bright and expanding outward. Though distinct, the two poles could not be separated -- at the extreme of one was the origin of the other. This was called the "Great Extreme," or the "Great Ultimate." It was through this interaction that all things in the universe were created: Heaven and Earth, male and female, day and night. All things in the universe are made up of infinitely varying proportions of yin and yang. Achieving harmony in equal proportions is called "Taiji," the Great Extreme or Ultimate. [see Ni, Hua-Ching's book "Entering the Tao" for a complete exposition on yin and yang from the Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic.]

It is this attempt to balance yin and yang with the opponent that forms the basis of Taijiquan's strategy.

Unfortunately, most translations call it "Great Ultimate Fist," which sounds like an expression of superiority. The meaning is quite different in Chinese. Too bad we can't say "Fist of Taiji" and leave it at that.

"Dao" is not "Wuji." It is what caused Wuji to become Taiji. It is the unifying force in the universe, the motivation behind all life and motion. It is the way of nature. The Daoist way, then, is to not resist the flow of natural events but to accept them and move with them.

Water is an especially important image in Daoism, because it has the potential to take on the form of whatever contains it; it moves effortlessly around obstacles; it is the softest thing, able to receive force directly with no injury; yet, it can also strike with such force that nothin on earth can withstand it. A concrete dam may hold back still water, but given time the gentle motion of the water will cause the dam to become weak and eventually fall. Water, therefore, is like the Dao. [Lao Tzu: "The highest good is like water; it flows in places men reject, and so is like the Dao."]

The concept of Dao is far too vast to discuss in human terms. This little introduciton, however, should give some indication of the nature of the thing. What is especially important is that the aspects of Taiji and Dao I've mentioned should sound pretty familiar if you've studied Taijiquan in any depth.

[This message has been edited by Steve (edited 03-05-2001).]
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Postby Mike » Mon Mar 05, 2001 11:22 pm

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Steve:
The concept of Dao is far too vast to discuss in human terms. This little introduciton, however, should give some indication of the nature of the thing. What is especially important is that the aspects of Taiji and Dao I've mentioned should sound pretty familiar if you've studied Taijiquan in any depth.</font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Given that Yang Jun has stated that the Yang form is evolved from the Chen form (a point difficult to argue, given the posture names), it is interesting to note that the Chen's deny that Taijiquan is Taoist. Sometimes we mistake cultural indicators for religious ones, etc. For instance, many of the names of the various Taiji postures are derived from old fairly tales (often shamanistic), but we don't say that Taiji is a Shamanistic art because of that.

In terms of the name "Taijiquan", I still don't know when it was applied. I've heard the stories about how the name came to be applied after Yang Lu Chan left Chen Village, but I once asked Chen Xiao Wang about it and he said that as far as he knew, it was called Taiji (among other things) long before that. In other words, a lot of the "history" is really murky... depends on who is telling it.

Regards,

Mike
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Postby DavidJ » Tue Mar 06, 2001 12:43 am

Steve,

Let me apologize to everyone beforehand for this short trip through a philosophical idea. Image

Your last post here reminded me of this.

I find it amazing that anything at all exists anywhere, and I am greatly interested in all of the forms that existence takes.

Beginnings and ends are part of that which is, and needing a beginning, it came from something that simply is, something in a state of being that didn't need a beginning.

In many ancient cultures it was thought that everything is alive, and that all that is alive has conciousness.

These ideas, taken together, come to the question, "How did conciousness differentiate itself in the first place?"

David

[This message has been edited by DavidJ (edited 03-05-2001).]

[This message has been edited by DavidJ (edited 03-05-2001).]
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Postby Mike » Tue Mar 06, 2001 1:09 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by JerryKarin:
You have to take what Mike said with a grain of salt. First of all, he tends to take the view that since Yang style came from Chen style, anything from the Chen family trumps anything from the Yangs, such as names of moves, etc.</font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Hmmmmmm. I don't really engage in style wars, Jerry, if that's what you're getting at. And I look at Taiji as a whole, with the various styles as simple variants on a theme. The idea that "Chen trumps Yang" is probably an unfair characterization of what I was saying. I made two points:

1. Taiji is not necessarily Taoist. If Yang Lu Chan learned the art in Chen Village and they deny that it is particularly Taoist, Baptist, etc., etc., and you have information to refute that, it would be more important for you to make those points than to toss me under the bus. Image

2. The origin of the name Taijiquan is moot. No one really knows.

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Let's take the names of the moves as an example. Since even if Mike could prove that a name in Yang style was based on a misunderstood name in Chen - which he cannot - by the time you get to Yang Chengfu several generations of Yangs had been at work on it, and the names by then meant whatever the Yangs thought they meant. </font>


Are you saying that you're unaware of that portion of it, Jerry? The homophone errors. I thought that was pretty well known and you can find reference to it in a number of sources. If nothing else, examine the names of the Yang postures in the traditional Yang form... they are statistically and sequentially the same names in the Chen form with a few exceptions. Examine those exceptions... to have different names that sound homophonically very close... c'mon. Let's stay in the real world on this. At least try saying "I'll look into it" rather than disparage my opinions, please.



<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> When Mike purports that the Chens deny that taiji is Taoist, it only begs the question of what they were denying. By Taoism was someone talking about the modern religion, complete with robes, rituals, climbing up ladders of knives, etc? Were they saying it had nothing to do with the philosophy of Taoist books like Laozi or Zhuangzi? And so on. We have no way of knowing what was being denied. </font>


Well, it's certainly a question that you'd probably enjoy asking one of the Chen's, Jerry, rather than simply deny the information. Why not simply state your reasons (including any proof you have of the so-called "southern transmission" theory) that Taiji IS Taoist?

[/B][/QUOTE]

Regards,

Mike "Not a Heretic" Sigman Image
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Postby Michael » Tue Mar 06, 2001 1:32 am

It may be better to say that that taiji chuan is based on the Dao De Jing. No one who studies both cannot help but see it. It is not merely cultural, and certainly NOT religious.

I have studied the Dao for many years, and i would say that Steve has stated things fairly well.

For the most part, what has passed for Daoism since it was combined with the folk religion(s) of China has only a minor resemblence to the philosophy found in the Dao De JIng.

What Jerry states about the "names" is correct. In some cases a name was even applied to a different position, where it may have been thought to apply better. Not because they got it wrong. The "name" is of little importance--in the Daoist way of thinking. But if there is some politics involved it can take on a whole new "importance". As Mike said, "history is really murky" especially from group to group.

The questioner asked, "If I want to learn to be unminding, how can I do so?"
The master replied, "Don't notice mind when dealing with objects, and don't notice objects when dealing with the mind."
from Taoist Meditation trans. Cleary
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Postby JerryKarin » Tue Mar 06, 2001 1:50 am

Mike,

Dang, I thought my post was too personal and tried to get rid of it, but you managed to see it and respond to it before I deleted it. I was going to mail it to you instead. Anyway, I do think that Chen trumps Yang is your mindset. As to the history of the names of the moves, we have no way of knowing the sequence of events, nor does it matter. The Yangs had their list and by now there is no question of homophone errors. To say these are homophone errors is like a Jew correcting theological points made by the Christians, on the theory that Christianity was based on Judaism. It won't wash.

Apparently the Taoism question pushes some button for you about 'Southern transmission'. It's irrelevant. I don't know whether Taoism (religious, philosophical, what-have-you) figures in or not. Your statement that the Chen family denies it is specious on two counts, Chen does not trump Yang and what Taoism are they denying? You don't know what the denial means any more than I do. I'm not 'denying the information', I'm saying it's meaningless and is apparently a front for some other axe about southern transmission which you are grinding.
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Postby Mike » Tue Mar 06, 2001 2:04 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by JerryKarin:
<B>
Dang, I thought my post was too personal and tried to get rid of it, but you managed to see it and respond to it before I deleted it. I was going to mail it to you instead.</B> </font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>


Hi Jerry:

Yes, I see no point in getting into personal issues as opposed to debating factual issues.

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"> Anyway, I do think that Chen trumps Yang is your mindset. As to the history of the names of the moves, we have no way of knowing the sequence of events, nor does it matter. The Yangs had their list and by now there is no question of homophone errors. To say these are homophone errors is like a Jew correcting theological points made by the Christians, on the theory that Christianity was based on Judaism. It won't wash. </font>


I'm not sure why you're trying to pin a stylistic conflict on me, Jerry. I have publicly stated here and on this list that not only do I do both Chen and Yang styles, my opinion is that the Yang form is the more productive in terms of straightforward goals. You didn't complain when I posted that.

However, in terms of Taiji, you appear to be trying to divorce the current Yang style from the Chen style. It doesn't work. We certainly do know the sequence of events... the Yang style is evolved (not different) from the Chen style. The original names of the postures and the original meaning is therefore certainly germane to a non-partisan study of Taiji. As I've said repeatedly, I see Taiji as a whole, not as an issue of factions. Read Yang Jun's commentary again and note that he stresses emphasis of peng jin of reeling silk, NOT difference between styles.

[/QUOTE] Apparently the Taoism question pushes some button for you about 'Southern transmission'. It's irrelevant. I don't know whether Taoism (religious, philosophical, what-have-you) figures in or not. Your statement that the Chen family denies it is specious on two counts, Chen does not trump Yang and what Taoism are they denying? You don't know what the denial means any more than I do. I'm not 'denying the information', I'm saying it's meaningless and is apparently a front for some other axe about southern transmission which you are grinding. [/QUOTE]

I think you have forgotten my other posts. The "southern transmission" was started by Wu Yu Xiang and carried forward by Sung Ssu Ming, Wu Tu Nan, et al as part of the general story that Yang-style Taiji came not really from the Chen Village art but from a secret art that Chen Chang Xing learned from Jiang Fa who learned from Wang Tsung Yueh, and so on back to Zhang San Feng. In other words, the "Taoist Connection" is part of the story that is used to denigrate the Chen family who took the time to teach Yang Lu Chan. Perhaps your sense of honor is different from mine, but I prefer to see the Chen and Yang stylists work together amicably rather than have the factional issues (particularly when a number of them appear to be simply untrue). So when you insist on the Taoist connection, it is not so much a "hot button" with me, it is more of my attempt to straighten out and stop the factional content from being preached as the gospel.

Regards,

Mike Sigman
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Postby JerryKarin » Tue Mar 06, 2001 2:13 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Mike:
<B> [[snip]]the "Taoist Connection" is part of the story that is used to denigrate the Chen family who took the time to teach Yang Lu Chan.
</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

What this says is you are not interested in the presence/absence of Taoist philosophical components in taiji, only anxious to refute the 'southern transmission' theory. For what it's worth, I agree with you that the so-called southern transmission stuff is bunk. That tells us absolutely nothing about the relationship of Taoism - of whatever type - and taiji. If you would stop trying to refute that southern stuff for a second you might notice that no one is advocating it.
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Postby tai1chi » Tue Mar 06, 2001 2:16 am

Hi Mike,

Well, I think the phrase "not Daoist" is unclear. The answer seems to depend on whether one looks at Daoism as a religion (complete with gods and spirits) or as a philosophical "world view" (characterized symbolically by the "yin/yang" sign." In that sense, taijiquan is no more Daoist than it is Buddhist. However, it is possible to see and say that (at least some forms of) tjq deliberately try to conform to the idea that "yin and yang" should be harmonized, etc. Anyway, clearly the association of a particular "quan" to a particular principle ("taiji") has happened. If it's fair to say that the Chens did not derive their family art from the principles of Daoism, and that the Daoist elements were added later, then was the Daoist stuff put in by the Chens or by others? If by others, --not trying to start a flame war--, then ,might the problem be something like the "neijiaquan" controversy? i.e., there's more than one.
Finally, though, doesn't much of this also depend on how one translates "taiji" --as Audi asked in the first place? Do the Chens translate it as "great pole" or . . . ?

Best,
Steve James
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Postby Mike » Tue Mar 06, 2001 4:06 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by JerryKarin:
<B> For what it's worth, I agree with you that the so-called southern transmission stuff is bunk. That tells us absolutely nothing about the relationship of Taoism - of whatever type - and taiji. If you would stop trying to refute that southern stuff for a second you might notice that no one is advocating it.

</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>


So you're studying the Taoist content of Taiji without establishing that it is Taoist? OK. What about the Shamanistic content? There are Confucian elements, too. I don't think it hurts to note that "Taoism" is not considered an intrinsic part of Taiji in the home village, Jerry... particularly considering the constant play that is related to the southern transmission debacle. Image

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Postby JerryKarin » Tue Mar 06, 2001 4:27 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Mike:
<B>
... particularly considering the constant play that is related to the southern transmission debacle. Image

Mike</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

The only constant play for this southern transmission stuff is in your posts, Mike. No one else has ever mentioned it on this bulletin board.
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Postby Mike » Tue Mar 06, 2001 5:39 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by JerryKarin:
<B> The only constant play for this southern transmission stuff is in your posts, Mike. No one else has ever mentioned it on this bulletin board.

</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Wang Tsung Yueh, the misplaced Jiang Fa, Chang San Feng, Taiji as a Taoist invention, etc., are all part of the so-called "southern transmission" story. Are you saying that I am the only one who has brought these things up on this bulletin board? I don't think so, Jerry.
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Postby JerryKarin » Tue Mar 06, 2001 5:51 am

<BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Mike:
<B> Wang Tsung Yueh, the misplaced Jiang Fa, Chang San Feng, Taiji as a Taoist invention, etc., are all part of the so-called "southern transmission" story. Are you saying that I am the only one who has brought these things up on this bulletin board?

</B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>

Yep! Do some searches and you'll see it's true.
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