Debunking the Myths: The Difference Between Tai Chi and Taijiquan
Category : General
What’s in a name? When it comes to Tai Chi, there seems to be a lot more than there should be!
Much of the general public has at least heard of Tai Chi, yet relatively few will be familiar with the term taijiquan. Yet there are numerous Masters and Instructors who will insist that taijiquan is the “real” Tai Chi, and that anything calling itself “Tai Chi” is not Tai Chi at all. Along similar lines, more and more exercises programs titled “Tai Chi” are appearing and boasting that they are faster and easier to learn than “the martial” Tai Chi – when the truth is, these programs may emulate the forms and postures of certain Tai Chi styles, but any resemblance to Tai Chi ends there.
Confused yet? Wait til someone tells you that it’s “really T’ai Chi”. Or “Taiji”. Or “Taijiquan”. Or “T’ai Chi Ch’uan”, and that any other variation is incorrect, or not really Tai Chi.
At this point you could be forgiven for asking, “would the real Tai Chi please stand up?” And while linguistically there is an argument that these terms can mean different things, when we are talking about “Tai Chi”, we really are talking about the same thing. Yet how is anyone without background or experience in Tai Chi supposed to know this?
Hopefully this will help you understand the difference – or lack thereof.
What’s in a name?
The first step towards understanding lies in understanding that the translation of Chinese to English is, under the best of circumstances, quite challenging. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least being that Chinese uses syllables to make up words, as opposed to English words made up of individual letters. This is compounded by the fact that there are a number of different versions (dialects) of Chinese, and over time different methods used to translate Chinese to English, and this has resulted in different English transcriptions of the same words. The following table demonstrates how Tai Chi could be written using three different romanization systems:
|Wade Giles (circa 19th Century)||Pinyin (from 1950)||Modern English (today)|
|T’ai Chi (originally T’ai Chi’h)||Taiji||Tai Chi|
|T’ai Chi Ch’uan (originally T’ai Chi’h Ch’uan)||Taijiquan||Tai Chi Chuan|
The important thing to realize is that regardless of the system used, the meaning is the same: Tai Chi is Taiji is T’ai Chi.
Is there a difference between Tai Chi and Taijiquan?
Again, in linguistic terms, there is a difference in translation between Tai Chi (Taiji) and Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan). However, for the purposes of describing the martial art, I’m going to tell you that these terms are one and the same. Here’s why.
First, understand that taijiquan IS a martial art. When you see a group of 80-year olds practicing their Tai Chi in the park, they are performing the martial art taijiquan. This can be a challenging concept for those not familiar with taijiquan. How can an elderly person moving so slowly be considered to be practicing a martial art, like kung fu or karate? It is because all the movements (forms) have been designed with a martial (combat) application in mind. Though taijiquan is performed slowly, there is no reason that it cannot be performed at a greater speed in order to be used for self defense. In fact, there are many taijiquan Masters who were famous for their martial abilities; one example would be Yang Luchan, the founder of Yang style taijiquan, who was so renowned for his martial prowess he became known as “Yang the Invincible”.
In recent times, and especially today, taijiquan is sought out more for its health benefits than its martial applications. In line with this, the “quan” – meaning “fist” – part is often dropped, resulting in taiji, or its more popular English term, Tai Chi. This does not mean that the martial aspect is not there; rather it demonstrates that the focus of Tai Chi training has become health and well-being rather than self defense. Any Tai Chi Master or Instructor should both know and be apply to explain and demonstrate the martial applications of the forms that they are teaching. Otherwise, one has to question whether what is being taught is in fact Tai Chi.
When is Tai Chi not Taijiquan?
Hopefully you can see that when are talking about Tai Chi, we are actually talking about taijiquan, and that they are one and the same thing. Today, Tai Chi is the popularized name and the one most people will recognize. Put “Tai Chi” into Google, you will get about 240 million hits. Put “taiji” into the same search, you’ll get less than 10% of that (and “taijiquan” will get about 20% of “taiji”). This is why a number of Masters and Instructors like myself are pushing for “Tai Chi” to be used as standard nomenclature so that the general public does not have to be confused by a variety of different names or terms.
However, there are an increasing number of exercise programs that are claiming to be modifed, or simplified forms of Tai Chi, or claim to be only for health, or specific health conditions, without any of the martial aspect included. These programs have often been developed based on real Tai Chi forms, however have had much of the background and fundamental principles that are essential to Tai Chi stripped out of them, to the point where, to the trained eye, they no longer resemble Tai Chi. Further, there are so-called “Tai Chi Instructors” who using the name and concept to promote their activities – often with accompanying claims that their programs are easier, quicker, better for specific demographic groups than “traditional” Tai Chi – who are actually teaching, at best a form of qigong, and at worst, a form of low-impact aerobic exercise. They rely on the fact that the general public does not know the difference, but will recognize the name “Tai Chi” and see it as a desirable form of exercise.
Let’s be clear: while these programs may actually be beneficial to one’s health and well-being, if they do not contain all the elements that make Tai Chi what it is (not just the martial aspect but the underlying theory and philosophy, as well as the techniques themselves), then they are not Tai Chi, and should not be called by this name.
I hope this helps clarify what Tai Chi is, and perhaps equally important, what it isn’t.