Friday, April 2, 2010

What's in a name?

In Chinese:


You will see tai chi written in English in a number of ways The two most common are:

  • tai chi chuan
  • taijiquan

How to pronounce it? Tie-gee-chew-an (as best as I can make out). It's important to note that the "chi" in tai chi is not the same as ch'i, energy or breath.

Literally, tai chi chuan means "supreme ultimate fist." I don't think that is too helpful without an explanation. Translating from one language to another is a tricky exercise and literal translations are often "wooden" and sometimes plain misleading. I have heard more than once native French or German speaking philosophers lament at how bad the English translations are. The "literal" meaning of a word often changes when combined with other words in phrases and sentences. Words have cultural associations and lengthy traditions of nuanced meanings. For example, I have tried in vain to explain to American students the meaning of the British English phrase, "Don't be cheeky!" There is no "literal" translation. And this is from two versions of the same language! I fear it is more complex when taking Chinese characters and trying to make English sense.

Let's have a go! From my reading it seems that the final character is easiest. Literally "fist," the character contains meanings associated with the martial arts. I have seen it referred to many times as "boxing." Yet, tai chi and western boxing seem to have very little in common. In a broader sense, "fist" is the response to aggression through disarming an attack. Buried in the concept are understandings of character and action. In other words, "fist" is a varied and complex idea that repays careful study.

"Supreme ultimate" is even trickier! In English the phrase is clumsy and is close to tautology, almost the "best best." Literally tai chi chuan would then be the "very best way of fighting." But, tai chi has a deep rooting in Chinese philosophy. Tai chi is the beginning of all that is, in the harmony of yin and yang. Tai chi is the balance and beauty and perfection of the universe.

Tai chi chuan would then be something more like, "the way of meeting aggression through the natural harmony of universal principles in the constant change and balance of yin and yang." If so, then "way of peace" is a closer understanding of tai chi chuan than "supreme ultimate fist."


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