What is the Meaning of 太极拳 Taiji Quan (AKA Tai Chi Chuan)?
One of the great misunderstandings brought to the west with the popularization of “Tai Chi Chuan” is the meaning of its name. This practice is constantly referred to as ‘Grand Ultimate Fist” among more bizarre translations. It is also fairly (and painfully) common for people without an understanding of Chinese language to try to understand and translate the name as if it was “Tai QI”, believing that the second character relates to QI meaning omnipresent essential universal energy.
Some of the confusion relating to the commonly used Tai Chi Chuan relates to the fact that this particular spelling in English comes from an antiquated system of converting Mandarin Chinese sounds into romanised English spelling. This spelling originates from the Wade-Giles romanization method which is no longer used in Mainland China. This system uses a specific arrangement of punctuation to denote tones and certain sounds which English does not have. While an honest effort, as a conversion to English it is neither particularly user friendly nor clear in portraying these sounds. The spelling, Tai Chi Chuan, phonetically in English would more accurately be written as, Tie Jee tchwanne, the last part ending like the Female name, Anne. So as we can see there is not even a phonetic similarity to the word, QI, meaning energy, which phonetically could be accurately spelled as Tchee.
Some other errors in understanding originate from the efforts of Chinese immigrants to the west possessing little or no knowledge of English, or Westerners with the same lack of Chinese language, attempting to explain the term, Taiji (太极) to westerners by using common dictionary definitions. One of those definitions can be found as, “grand ultimate fist, another grand terminus fist. Neither are particularly useful.
The accurate truth is that “Taiji” 太极 is a Chinese cosmological concept that well predates Taijiquan. The fist (martial art & health system) was took the name of an existing philosophical concept as it was both designed in its image, as well as illustrates it. The term, Taiji 太极 represents the flux, the change, and relationship between and within the opposing and complimentary forces of Yin (negative, feminine, dark, formless, attracting) and Yang (positive, masculine, bright, substantial, repulsing). The Taiji concept refers to the constantly changing and dynamic interplay between these energies that is the foundational action that hold the universe together.
This concept, Taiji is one way to express the workings within Dao, which refers to, essentially universal existence, and the ‘way’ it operates. The word itself can simply translate to ‘way’ which is similar to ‘path’ or ‘road’ in Chinese. Dao, not only refers to the way things are, but also to being on the ‘path’ of practicing a method of bringing one’s self to harmony with the way things are. Dao is a very big topic, but the common diagram that most would be familiar with seeing that represents Dao, is called the Taijitu, which is the diagrams with what is known as two fishes, one black with a white eye, one white with a black eye, chasing eachother in a circle. Each extreme contains a kernel of it’s opposing energy. This is again, Taiji.
One interesting interpretation was given to me years ago by my first Taijiquan teacher, Chen Jinhong, as, “from the most extremely large to the uncountably small (few)”. Essentially, the meaning here is the movement, or relationship between the greatest unfathomable extreme, to the smallest unfathomable kernel. This again, is the relationship between Yin and Yang. Interestingly, it also sounds very much like western science’s theories of the workings of the ‘big bang’.
Understanding the above points, the actual meaning of Taijiquan, or Tai Chi Chuan or 太极拳 is, the Taiji concept fist system, or to be very lengthy, the fist system based on the dynamic relationship between Yin and Yang. The possibilities for obtuseness or verbosity both may be reasons why anyone would want to avoid getting into the subject altogether and look for a simple dictionary definition, which of course is likely to be totally inaccurate.