Jargon, Chi and Hocus-Pocus

Any activity has its own unique language which will be more-or-less meaningless to those not undertaking it.  For example, the only reason I know that “purl” is a knitting stitch is because I went and looked it up.

This is make-believe. We can’t do this.

Tai chi is no different.  However, it has the added challenges that much of this jargon is in a different language, and that language just happens to be Chinese.

Chinese is tough for many reasons.  First of course is the fact that it isn’t written out the same way as alphabet-type languages like English, Italian, Vietnamese or Korean.  It’s difficult to puzzle out the meanings of Chinese words from the characters themselves – you have to have some facility with the language already before this is possible. 

Chinese can be phonetically spelled out, but this presents its own problems.  Writing Chinese words in Latin alphabets – a process known as “Romanization” – typically follows two spelling conventions:  Wade-Giles and “pinyin.”  Wade-Giles is the creation of two Englishmen in the 1800s, and pinyin was developed by the Chinese themselves starting around the 1950s or so.  Wade-Giles has gradually fallen out of fashion in favor of what the Chinese prefer, but you’ll still see both. 

Take for example the name of our art.  Tai chi is a simplification of the Wade-Giles form t’ai chi, and the pinyin form is taiji.  They all mean the same thing and are pronounced the same.  The long form of the art we learn is Yang jia tai chi chuan/taiji quan which means “Yang family tai chi fist” or “Yang family tai chi boxing.”

This points toward another challenge in translating Chinese words.  Many Chinese words have “clusters” of meanings, and you have to pick out the correct meaning from the context.  We have this in English too.  Take the following sentence:

My cool friend and I went to a cool bar on a cool day and enjoyed a cool drink while a cool band played, but the bassist broke a string and almost lost his cool, but my friend said “You need to cool down?” and the bassist said “Nah, it’s cool.”

You didn’t need any help picking out the correct context for all the times I used “cool” in the sentence – you did it automatically in your head.  Well, Chinese is basically a whole language full of such words.  In the above case, chuan/quan has a cluster of meanings all related to fighting with empty hands.  Tai chi chuan/taiji quan therefore means “tai chi boxing” or “tai chi empty-hand fighting.”  We oftentimes take the word chuan/quan out in order to de-emphasize the martial nature of the art, or sometimes just for brevity’s sake.  It will be used, however, if the intent is to distinguish empty-hand tai chi/taiji from the forms using swords, as in tai chi dao (tai chi sabre) or tai chi jian (tai chi straight-sword).

The word “chi” often causes confusion too.  The sound “chi” means a WHOLE LOT of different things.  In tai chi/taiji, the sound means “ultimate.”  You’ll sometimes see tai chi chuan translated as “supreme ultimate boxing,” but this is a mistranslation.  Tai chi/taiji is its own word with its own meaning, which we’ll discuss in a future blog post. 

Back to that “chi” word.  You’ll hear chi/qi (note the different pinyin spelling) referred to in many martial arts, as well as in the qigong warmups we do before we start the instruction.  This word – chi/qi – is pronounced almost the same as the chi/ji in tai chi/taiji, but they are unrelated.  It has a cluster of meanings related to breath, air, internal energy, energy-just-generally, and so on.  Again, we have to puzzle out the context. 

In martial arts, chi/qi is a sort of untranslated shorthand for internal energy, a term with similarities to Western concepts such as “vital force” or “metabolism,” but with differences.  Like “vital force” and “metabolism,” chi/qi is unitless – you can’t say “so-and-so has this many units of qi.”  It doesn’t work like that – it’s not a life-bar like in Mortal Kombat.  It’s closely related to the chi/qi in Chinese Internal Alchemy, a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which we’ll discuss in the future.

If you look at any martial artist – it could be a jujitsu or aikido player throwing an opponent, a karate player crushing a brick, a muay thai player kicking someone in the face, a tai chi player effortlessly tossing someone away – you could describe what they’re doing in a couple of ways.  You could use Western scientific and engineering principles, breaking each action down to a series of force vectors, mechanical advantage, centers of gravity, moments-of-torque, Newtons and kilograms-per-square-centimeter, and so on.  You’d have a huge volume of data on the throw or the punch or the kick, but it wouldn’t tell you a bloomin’ thing about how it was done.  It’s similar to the saying that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog – you learn more, but the frog (and the joke) tends to die in the process.

Or you could simply say the player used his or her qi effectively, and then go on to explain exactly how.  In this case, the less scientifically-rigorous term turns out to be more descriptive.

It’s worth taking a moment to lay out what chi/qi is not.  It’s not “The Force.”  It’s not some all-pervading life-energy that high-level players can manipulate at will or toss at people like we’re Airbenders or Jedi Knights.  It’s not a magical force-field that allows adepts to block a punch or a kick with just their will. 

This misunderstanding is largely-but-not-completely a Western New-Age corruption and comingling of several disparate concepts in Chinese medicine, philosophy, folklore and martial arts.  You’ll sometimes hear credulous Westerners (I know several) who hold such a belief about chi/qi – I remember one former classmate alluding to “chi-balls” and once told me “I can feel your chi is somewhat diminished today.”  The truth is I’d been stuck in traffic and was shaking off the rough commute to class, but he thought it was my “chi aura” or some such mumbo-jumbo.

I said “largely-but-not-completely” just now, because Chinese culture has many legends of magical warriors, magicians, beasts or bandits, and their mythical “chi” manipulation has worked its way into these legends.  China has an idealized past very much like our “Wild West” and folklore to go along with it.  What’s more, the history of Chinese martial arts is intimately connected with other aspects of folk culture like street theater/busking, religion and so on.  It’s quite challenging, even for Chinese historians, to separate the various interwoven elements and sometimes, it’s just not worth the effort.

But as relates to our martial art, the several Grandmasters who wrote or said anything on the matter are remarkably matter-of-fact and consistent.  Regarding the claims of magic chi-balls, force-fields and the like, the Masters who have anything to say about it all tend to adopt a position similar to Bertrand Russel’s analogy of the teapot orbiting the sun directly opposite Earth – it might exist, but no credible evidence has ever been shown for it and the odds are strongly against it.

Chi/qi is nothing more than the sum of all the various kinds of energy (biochemical, kinetic, potential etc.) inside us at any given moment.  We will discuss this concept in class, what it means and how to cultivate/maintain it, but we won’t waste valuable class-time tossing chi-balls around like we’re in some Berlin avant-garde pantomime.  My former classmate actually tried this with a few other students, and it looked just as silly as it sounds.  When referring to the outwardly-expressed energy in things like punches, kicks, throws and the like, the Chinese have a separate term – they call it jin and it is somewhat more narrowly defined – we’ll go over this at length in class too.

In laying out what I said above, I may have robbed tai chi of some of its mystery for the student and reader.  I make no apologies for this – Orientalism may make some of the more unfamiliar aspects of Chinese culture appear alluringly exotic and alien, but it also gets in the way of real understanding.  The reader may also begin to see how the serious study of Chinese martial arts can lead to topics like Chinese history, culture, philosophy and so on.  It really is a rabbit-hole, but a rewarding one to fall down.

There are a few more “jargon” terms worth learning, but most instruction in tai chi can remain in English.Yong Quan: “Bubbling Well” acupressure point behind ball of foot

  • Lao Gong (often mispronounced “logon”): acupressure point in center of palm
  • Dantien:  usu. Refers to center of gravity slightly below navel
  • Qi:  All the available energy in our bodies (not “the Force!”)
  • Jin:  Expressed energy of any different types (e.g., Fajin, Ting Jin, Peng Jin etc.)
  • Tui Shou (pronounced “TWEE show”) “Push-hands” or interaction with a partner – we’ll always use the English term but you may hear this.
  • Peng (pronounced “pung”) or Peng Jin:  Warding-off energy
  • Liu (pronounced “lee-ou”):  Rollback – a yielding-neutralizing-and-redirecting movement
  • Ji (pronounced “gee”): Press – a focused push on a small area
  • An:  Push – an “uprooting” energy on a large object/whole body
  • Cai (pronounced “tsai”): Pluck – a pulling off-balance 
  • Lie (pronounced “lyeh”):  Split – any of several opening-out movements
  • Zhou (pronounced “Joe”):  Elbow strike
  • Kao:  Shoulder strike – like shoving a piece of furniture or filing cabinet with your shoulder