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.
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?
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?
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?