Lots of people have heard about Tai Chi but don’t know what the name means. (That’s not a problem - most people don’t know what Yoga, Karate or even Kung Fu mean, either.) Some people may have heard of the Chinese concept of Qi (pronounced “chee”), meaning “breath” or “energy” and think that this has got something to do with it. But this is not correct and these mistakes are partly the result of different ways in which the Chinese language is “translated” into English.
The full name for the health and exercise system/martial art known as Tai Chi in the West is “Taijiquan”. The “quan” part means “fist” and by extension “martial art”. Learning Tai Chi partly involves working with movements which actually have martial applications, even though most enthusiasts these days have far more interest in the health benefits than in anything to do with fighting.
So what about the Tai Chi/Taiji part? Well, Tai means “grand” and Chi/Ji means “ultimate”. Does this suggest that Taijiquan is The Grand, Ultimate Martial Art? Again, that’s a misunderstanding. (Anybody who goes around saying that they practise the greatest, most fantastic, cannot-be-bettered martial art is just asking for a beating and traditionally the most skilful masters were expected to be humble and self-effacing, not boastful.)
In fact, the name Taiji refers to an idea from Chinese philosophy which is represented by the well-known diagram below.
The Chinese see the world as working through an interplay of relationships, some of which are Yang (shown as the white portions of the diagram) and some as Yin (in black). Energy, strength, brightness and warmth would be considered Yang qualities, for example, while their opposites, passivity, softness, darkness and cold would be considered Yin.
Some people see the Tai Chi diagram as representing balance, and this is true, but not in the Western sense of something being perfectly balanced and still, like equal weights on a pair of scales. The Chinese view is that there is a constant interplay between the Yin and the Yang, sometimes with one predominating, sometimes the other. This is shown by the way in which the black and white portions get broader as they seem to rotate around the circle. However, it is never a good idea to go to extremes - so when Yang is at its height, there is still a black dot of Yin at its centre (and vice versa), showing that the next phase of the cycle is about to begin.
What has all this got to do with the health or martial aspects of Tai Chi (aka Taijiquan)? Well, it works in all sorts of ways, but one example might be the apparent softness of much tai chi movement, which, being Yin, is designed to counter the chronic tension (excessive Yang) which we tend to hold in the muscles of our bodies. However, it is not a good idea to be excessively Yin all the time, either, so there are times when your tai chi will get you to work on strength and speed. In fighting terms, you might look for an occasion to yield to the opponent (ie you would become Yin) wait for her/him to become overextended or locked and then suddenly and fiercely respond (ie change your Yin into Yang) in order to defeat him/her.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.