Chinese for Tai Chi

I’m in a Chinese newspaper! Hu Pei, the amazing teacher that I worked with last summer, is back in Jiang Yin, where she is a highly respected instructor and coach. She has been interviewed in newspapers and on TV about the fact that she had an American student while she was in Austin.


The headline (took me a while to figure this out) is  文化为媒, 她在美国教太极拳: Wen hua wei mei ta zai meiguo jiao taijiquan, which means that she is bridging cultures, teaching taijiquan in America.

The big question from the interviewers was, How could she teach an American when she didn’t speak English? And she explained that I knew Chinese for Tai Chi. When people ask me if I speak Chinese, I say that I speak Tai Chi-ese. I think I’ll start calling it Taijiese.

I know almost no conversational Chinese, but I have learned the Chinese names for the movements of the forms I’ve studied. It started out, for me, as the purest form of learning: I didn’t have an objective or purpose in mind. I just wanted to know the names.

But I have since found that there is much to be gained by learning Chinese names for movements, but by far the greatest pay-off (and one I never expected) was that when I had the opportunity last summer to work with an outstanding Chinese teacher, I was surprisingly well prepared to communicate with her.

The forms that I do with my Chinese friends are all contemporary forms–24, 42, 32-sword, 42-Sword, Wudang Tai Chi Sword, and Li Deyin’s two fan forms. The names of the movements for these forms (unlike the traditional forms) are descriptive rather than poetic. Or it might be better to say they are instructional. The movements still have the old poetic names, but the instructional names are what we use in practice.

So, for example, Tian Ma Xing Kong (Heavenly Horse Crosses the Sky) is now Xu Bu Dian Jian. Xu Bu–empty stance– and Dian Jian (point sword) are both terms of art, and if you know what they mean, the name of the movement tells you exactly what to do.

Conversely, if you learn all the names of the movements, you will know the terms for the various stances, sword techniques, parts of the body, directions, kicks, and so on. These instructive names break apart to form a substantial working vocabulary for learning Tai Chi from a Chinese-speaking teacher.

That is exactly what happened to me last summer. Ms Hu could tell me that when I do Pi (the sword technique) the blade should be ping, yidian xia (level, slightly downward). There were only a few additional words I needed to learn, such as yidian (a little), yao/buyao (want/don’t want), yuan (rounded), man (slow), and (hopefully, by the end of the day) hen hao! Very good.

It was a fantastic experience working with Hu Pei, and she taught me so much! I can’t wait for her to come back.

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