Friday, August 19, 2016

Tai Chi Tip: Tai Chi Chuan or Taijiquan?

When I was first introduced to the Chinese martial arts I was constantly confused by the various spellings that were used to describe each art.  I would wonder if a difference in spelling indicated a difference in style, teaching methods, or practice.  Or were they the same thing spelled differently?  To a young American boy who had no real exposure to Asian languages and no understanding of the major styles of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (TCMA), I was often left thinking that things like Pa-Kua Chang and Baguazhang were two different styles, or Wing Chun Chuan and Yongchunquan were different arts all together, when in reality they are not.  And yes, this confusion even extended into Tai Chi Chuan and Taijiquan.  In my mind I somehow came to the conclusion that if it was spelled Tai Chi Chuan (Often written T'ai Chi Ch'uan) it was more authentic Tai Chi and could be used for fighting, but if it was spelled Taijiquan, then it was for performance only.  Needless to say, that conclusion was absolutely incorrect.  I'm sure this confusion was not limited to my own experience and I would like to take a moment to help clarify this topic for others, at least as far as Tai Chi is concerned.

First of all, when referring to the martial art, the terms T'ai Chi, Tai Chi, Taiji, Tàijí, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Tai Chi Chuan, Tàijíquán, and Taijiquan are synonymous.  They are all referring to the martial art of Tai Chi regardless of style, or even whether one is practicing it for health, fighting, or competition performance.  So why all the different spellings?  Well, one of the first systems for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese written characters, for English speakers, was the Wade-Giles system, from which we get the spelling T'ai Chi Ch'uan.  This system used apostrophes to indicate specific pronunciations of words and, while some people find it to be a more troublesome system, it appears to have worked well for those who understood it.  Sometimes, for simplicity, those apostrophes would be dropped by those who did not know that the apostrophes were necessary for specific pronunciations and this practice led to spellings like Tai Chi Chuan.  However, there is a standard romanization of Chinese characters used in mainland China which is far easier to use for correct pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese words known as Pinyin.  In the Pinyin system the correct way to write Tai Chi Chuan is Tài jí quán (or Tàijíquán).  Accent marks are used to indicate the correct tone that should be applied to each word.  However, once again, English speakers who are not familiar with the tones in Mandarin Chinese often remove the accents for simplicity leading to the spelling Taijiquan.

In other words, it's pretty confusing and messy and the only real way to know for sure that two words written in Pinyin or Wade-Giles are the same, is to compare their original Chinese characters.  The good news is, in most western writings about Chinese martial arts, with a little familiarization of the various spellings of various arts, it can become fairly easy to know what art is being discussed.

The point of this post, however, was to emphasize the fact that all of the above listed spellings for Taiji, are referring to the martial art of Taiji and the spelling does not indicate anything about the style, practices, legitimacy, or principles of the art nor of the practitioner writing about the art.  For example, I know that the "official" way to spell Tai Chi Chuan is Tàijíquán, but that is a very unfamiliar spelling to most westerners.  So, I elect to use the spelling Tai Chi Chuan or even Tai Chi frequently because it is more easily recognized by people who are not familiar with Pinyin or Mandarin Chinese, and by using a term that is more easily recognized, it is easier for curious individuals to find information like this that will introduce them to Taiji and things like Pinyin.

I hope you all found this information useful and I hope it helped you understand why there are so many ways to spell Tai Chi.  Thank you for reading!

To Your Health,
Shifu Andrew Plitt

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