Taichi, what’s in a name?

The name of our martial art, ‘T’ai Chi Ch’uan’ (or taiji quan in Pinyin) literally translates as ‘supreme ultimate fist’ or ‘great polarity boxing’, but in reality cannot simply be transformed into anything meaningful in English without a bit of backstory. Luckily etymology is one of my favourite diversions…

Ch’uan or quan translates as ‘fist’, but fist in this instance it is a metonym standing for style of boxing, method of martial art, or a martial form, posture or set of postures. (A metonym is where one smaller part stands for a larger thing, eg. ‘the bottle’ for all alcoholic drinks, or ‘head’ for cattle.) T’ai Chi or taiji literally refers to the familiar yin and yang symbol denoting the interplay of energies or qualities found in all manifested things (traditionally in Chinese referred to as ‘the ten thousand things’). The taiji itself translates as The Supreme Ultimate, (tai = highest, greatest) as it seeks to describe everything in the universe, in that there is nothing beyond its scope. It is also sometimes called the great polarity, in this case highlighting the constantly evolving and exchanging modes of yin and yang visually symbolised in the famous diagram.

So ‘supreme ultimate’ in this instance refers to the Tao itself, the Way of Nature. When put together, taiji quan or T’ai Chi Ch’uan means: the martial art [fist] in line with the way of great polarity [taiji]. It doesn’t mean the ‘supreme ultimate fighting style’! That supreme ultimate phrase sure catches lots of potential students by the ego hooks… but it is pointing to the great polarity of Tao, not the relative superiority of the martial art. The martial art seeks to be in alignment with the great polarity, not the other way round.

So I just call it taichi, and leave all the puffing up for those who have the inclination. But that might be because I am an old Tao-bum now, and have seen enough change to know that change itself is the great polarity.

Also, there is Wuji. But that’s another story.

Published by Caroline Ross

Artist, maker, teacher of earth materials, founder of Great River T'ai Chi.

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