Body Parts

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:

  1. 手 Shǒu      Hand
  2. 脚 Jiǎo        Foot (also means kick)
  3. 肘 Zhǒu      Elbow
  4. 膝 Xī            Knee
  5. 拳 Quán     Fist
  6. 头 Tóu        Head
  7. 尾 Wěi        Tail
  8. 背 Bèi          Back
  9. 腰 Yāo         waist
  10. 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

Taijiese

Taijiese is what I call my lexicon for Tai Chi. It encompasses many Chinese terms of art and words and phrases used during instruction, as well as the names of the forms and movements of Tai Chi. It is Chinese for the Western student of Tai Chi.

taijiese

A vocabulary of about 100 words of Taijiese is sufficient for taking instruction from a Chinese teacher who speaks no English.

Anyone in America who is fortunate enough to study Tai Chi with a Chinese master is likely to pick up at least a smattering of Chinese. Students are also likely to learn names, most often English names, for the movements of the various forms they study. Less often do they systematically set out to learn all the names of all the movements in Chinese. But I have done this, and I’ve found it to be easier than I expected and more valuable than I imagined, as a supplement to classes, lessons, and practice.

Taijiese is a very specialized vocabulary, one not covered in most tutorials and programs for learning conversational Chinese. Even dictionaries and phrase-books are of limited use, omitting words and phrases unlikely to occur in everyday situations. And when you do find the words and phrases used in Tai Chi, the meanings given in the dictionary usually have little relevance to the practice of Tai Chi.

Chinese is a difficult language for a Western speaker of English to learn, but learning Taijiese is actually quite doable. For one thing, the vocabulary is relatively small. For everyday conversation in  most languages, you need a vocabulary of about a thousand words. A vocabulary of fifty words is a very good start in Taijiese. Learn one hundred words and you will be fairly fluent. And because Taijiese is used in such a specific context, it’s easier to understand and make yourself understood, as compared to everyday conversation, which can range over many possible topics. Pronunciation and regional accents are less of an issue, too, for the same reason.

I’ve added a new section to this notebook, Taijiese in the main menu, where I’ll be collecting all my various lists of useful words and phrases. If a reference like the one I have been building for the last few years exists, I am not aware of it.  I haven’t got everything uploaded yet; I’ll be adding more links soon.