Words of Instruction

More Taijiese: Chinese for the western student of tai chi. Something I said in my original post about Taijiese bears repeating: if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn from a Chinese master who does not speak English, a relatively small vocabulary of the terms of art for tai chi can open up a whole world of knowledge.

[Photo: My weekend practice group for years consisted entirely of women who did great Tai Chi and spoke no English.]

In addition to the specialized vocabularies I’ve covered (for steps and stances, kicks and punches, sword, etc.), here are some general words and phrases I have found useful for receiving instruction in Chinese. The top ten:

  1. 左 Zuǒ – Left
  2. 右 Yòu – Right
  3. 下 Xià – Down, downwards
  4. 上 Shàng – Up, upwards
  5. 平 Píng – Level
  6. 开 Kāi – Open
  7. 合 Hé – Together/close
  8. 后 Hòu – Behind/back
  9. 慢 Màn – Slow
  10. 快 Kuài – Fast, quick

Combine left and right with the words for body parts (listed in another installment of Taijiese) to get 左脚 zuǒ jiǎo (left foot), you shou (right hand), and so on.

A couple more directional indications:

斜 Xié – Diagonal/oblique (usually means toward the corner; 45 degrees)

直 Zhí – Straight, straight ahead

Hòu (above, meaning back) often combines with 坐 zuò, meaning sit:  Hòu zuò is sit back. This is the familiar command to bend the back leg and sink the weight into that leg. Sit back.

抱 Bào – Hold (or embrace)

球 – Qiú is ball

Qiú (ball) is pronounced cho. It is a worthwhile investment of half an hour to learn the rules for pronouncing standard Pinyin. Easy to find, just google it: pronounce Pinyin. Anyway, bào qiú is to hold a ball—the familiar position preparing for Part the Wild Horse’s Mane in 24, or for Grasp the Bird’s Tail. That instruction, by the way, occurs in textbooks dating from Yang Chengfu’s time.

Fu Zhongwen holds a ball.

From Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan, Fu Zhongwen (Louis Swaim, translator): “The heart of the [right] palm faces down. The left palm concurrently passes before the abdomen, following an arc, and arriving beneath the right palm…the two palms are now facing each other as though holding a sphere.”

转 Zhuǎn – turn

身 Shēn – body

转身 zhuǎn shēn, literally turn body, means turn around. It’s not just twisting the torso; the feet move. It’s a 180-degree turn.

When you hear màn (above, slow): you are being told to slow down. When you hear kuài (above, fast) you will usually hear 太快 Tài kuài. Too fast! Again, you are being told to slow down.

More instructional words, phrases:

一点 Yīdiǎn A little

再一次 Zàiyīcì – Again. Do it one more time (repeat)

落 Luò – Lower, sink down. Bend the knees, lower the center of gravity.

看 Kàn – Look, direct your gaze (eye-spirit)

圆 Yuán – Rounded, make a smooth circle

体重 Tǐzhòng – Body weight [AH but I was wrong! My friend Song has explained to me that tizhong is bodyweight as we’d say in English, ‘I weigh 125 pounds.’ The correct word for bodyweight as we use it in Tai Chi is 重心 Zhòngxīn, center of gravity. This is the term you use to say that the weight is on the right or left leg. –EB]

应用 Yìngyòng – Application

动 – Dòng – Move

One of my favorites phrases: 一动全动 Yī dòng quán dòng means literally, “[if] one [part] moves, everything moves.” The movement needs to be connected and continuous, with upper and lower body coordinated, movement from the feet through the waist to the arms and hands.

For movement, as in a movement within a form, I have heard both 动作 Dòngzuò and 套路 Tàolù; the latter may also refer to the entire routine or set.

You’ll want to be able to ask questions. I don’t know conversational Chinese, but in a very primitive way, I can ask questions easily, often just relying on keywords, a questioning tone (rising inflection at the end), and an inquiring expression. It works, with a minimal vocabulary of Taijiese. I try to be polite:

老师 Lǎoshī – Teacher

请 Qǐng – Please

问 Wèn – Ask

I say, Laoshi (teacher), qing wen (pronounced ching wun) (may I please ask?), and then I might just say body weight left leg? Or application? The word for body weight can be combined with left/right jiao. Body weight left foot? Or to ask what the application is, I might just say Yingyong? Application? Again, my questions are not well-formed, but they work.

Your ability to ask questions is hugely boosted if you learn the names of the movements in the form you are studying. This allows you to locate the point in the form where you are confused or where you have a question. For every form I study, I work up a list of names in Chinese with Pinyin, and these are all posted on this website.

More common words that I find surprisingly useful:

然后 Ránhòu next

这个 Zhège – This

是 Shì – Is

不 Bù – Not

Zhège shì/bù shì – This is/is not

知道 Zhīdào –  know

我 Wǒ – I (me)

你 Nǐ – You

Now you can say, Wǒ bù zhīdào (I don’t know) and Nǐ zhīdào? ([Do] you know?).

要 Yāo – Want

Yāo means want; when you hear bùyāo: you are being told what not to do. If your teacher mimics you and says bùyāo (don’t want), you are being corrected. What you’re doing is wrong.

对 Duì (pronounced dway) means right. correct. 吗 Ma converts a statement to a yes/no question, so Duì-ma? means Is this right? If you have been corrected, You can try again and say, Duì-ma? Right? (is this correct?)

好 Hǎo – Good

很 Hěn – Very

Duì! Hěn hǎo! This is what you want to hear: “Right! Very good!” You got it. You are being praised!


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