An appropriate topic for Halloween season, don’t you think? Knowing the words for body parts is useful both for understanding names of movements and for taking instruction in Chinese.
Above: Gao Jiamin turns her waist (hips too!) for cloud hands. See the note on Yao below.
The word for the body is shēn. A very common instruction in Tai Chi is zhuan shen, literally “turn body,” which means to turn around.
身 Shēn Body
转身 Zhuǎn shēn Turn body
Ten words very frequently used in Tai Chi:
- 手 Shǒu Hand
- 脚 Jiǎo Foot (also means kick)
- 肘 Zhǒu Elbow
- 膝 Xī Knee
- 拳 Quán Fist
- 头 Tóu Head
- 尾 Wěi Tail
- 背 Bèi Back
- 腰 Yāo waist
- 掌 Zhǎng Palm
A Note on Yao
Yao is translated as waist, but in the context of Tai Chi, the meanings of these two words are different in a critical way. We don’t even say “turn the waist” in English; we say “turn at the waist,” and that means turning the upper torso and shoulders but not the hips, a sort of twist. This is not the zhuan yao of tai chi!
I used to turn at the waist when I did cloud hands. When I began studying with Chinese teachers, they kept telling me “Turn the waist, turn the waist!” I was turning at the waist as hard as I could! I’m thinking, “What do they want?” They’re thinking “What is the matter with these westerners? So stiff! Can’t turn the waist!”
Then I read something that caused the light bulb to come on. Was I supposed to turn my hips too? The whole torso? YES! Finally! In English, it might be better to say “turn your body,” but in Chinese, zhuan shen means turn around (involves the feet).
Number three of Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Important Points is 松腰 Sōng Yāo – relax the waist. Doesn’t just mean the upper torso is loose. The whole body core turns freely. Here are a couple of discussions on this point.
“Yao – Usually translated “waist,” it refers to the entire region of the pelvis and abdomen (lumbar). It is roughly what we call “the core” today but sometimes refers to the entire torso.”
— From https://www.taichifoundation.org/glossary-terms-0
More Body Parts
Zhǎng (palm) may also refer to the sole of the foot (shouzhang=palm of hand, zhongzhang= palm of foot). Zhǐ (finger) also means to point. Jiaozhi (foot finger) is toe.
指 Zhǐ Finger
踵 Zhǒng Heel
Kua is the word for the crotch or the place where the leg joins the torso (the hip), but it also means to straddle, as you might straddle a horse (or a tiger!) to ride. Dang refers to the crotch in the sense of a target: zhi dang chui is a punch to the groin.
胯 Kuà Crotch, groin, hip
裆 Dāng Crotch
In the context of Tai Chi, the Chinese word for eye or eyesight refers to eye spirit, the purposeful direction of the gaze to an imaginary opponent, or the hand where it makes contact, or the part of the sword being used in jianfa (swordplay).
眼 睛 Yǎn jīng Eye Spirit
Some additional (less frequently encountered) words for body parts:
腿 Tuǐ Leg
臂 Bì Arm
肩 Jiān Shoulder
The dantian is the center of gravity, but in the internal martial arts it is the center from which energy and power emanate. The qi, or life force, resides in the dantian.
丹田 Dāntián Center of the body
As in English, the word for heart can refer to center of emotion or the mind, but in Tai Chi, it refers to the physical organ. Hu xin quan (literally “protect heart fist”) is the name of a movement to protect the chest. Hu xi jian is another movement using the word for protect: protect the knee (sword).
心 xīn heart
护 hù protect
Bonus vocabulary: the words for breathing.
呼 Hū Exhale
吸 xī Inhale
呼吸 hūxī Breathe