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!


Animals and Heroes

Continuing the study of Taijiese (Chinese for Tai Chi): Names of many animals and folkloric heroes occur in the traditional names for the movements in Tai Chi moving forms.

The animals most often encountered:

  • 虎     Hǔ         Tiger
  • 蛇     Shé        Snake
  • 马     Mǎ         Horse
  • 鹤     Hè         Crane
  • 金鸡   Jīn jī     Golden rooster
  • 猿     Yuán      Ape
  • 猴     Hóu       Monkey

[Painting of a tiger is by Zhang Shanzi (張善孖, 1882-1940) http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/ ]

The poor Tiger is embraced but also ridden, hit, subdued, and shot:

  • 抱虎      Bào hǔ Embrace the Tiger (Embrace tiger return to mountain)
  • 跨 虎     Kuà hǔ Ride the Tiger
  • 打虎      Dǎ hǔ   Hit the Tiger
  • 伏虎      Fú hǔ   Subdue (or tame) the Tiger
  • 射虎      Shè hǔ Shoot the Tiger (Bend bow shoot tiger)

The snake creeps down and spits out its tongue. Add 野 yě (wild) to 马 mǎ (horse) to get ye ma: the wild horse, whose mane is parted (ye ma fen zong). The wild horse also jumps across the stream in the sword forms. The crane spreads his wings and the golden rooster stands on one leg. The ape presents fruit, the monkey is repulsed.

Painting “Running Horse” is by Xu BeiHong (1895-1953).

More birds:

  • 雀     Què       Sparrow (Grasp the bird’s tail)
  • 燕子  Yànzi     Swallow
  • 雁      Yàn       Wild goose
  • 雕      Diāo      Bird of prey (hawk, eagle)

Mythical animals abound, most especially dragons, but also the phoenix and roc.

  • 龙     Lóng      Dragon
  • 鳯     Fèng      Phoenix
  • 鹏     Péng      Fabulous bird (Roc)

The animals come in colors:

  • 白      Bái         White
  • 乌      Wū        Black
  • 黄      Huáng   Yellow
  • 红      Hóng     Red
  • 丹      Dān       Red

There’s a white crane (spreads wings), white ape (presents fruit), white snake (spits tongue), and white tiger (swings his tail). Dragons are black, blue-green, and yellow:

  • 乌龙   Wūlóng  Black dragon  (also oolong tea!)
  • 青龙   Qīnglóng  Blue-green (or azure) dragon
  • 黄龙   Huánglóng Yellow dragon

More animals, less common, less important to know, though they do occur in names of movements:

  • 蟒       Mǎng    Python
  • 狮子   Shīzi      Lion (shakes his head)
  • 黃蜂   Huángfēng    Yellow wasp, bee (returns to the cave)
  • 蜻蜓   Qīngtíng        Dragonfly (touches water)
  • 蝴蝶   Húdié    Butterfly
  • 犀牛   Xīniú      Rhinoceros (gazes at the moon)
  • 豹     Bào        Leopard

Bonus: 五禽戏        Wǔ qín xì            Five Animal Frolics


  • 武松    Wǔ Song   Outlaw folk hero (who breaks the handcuffs)
  • 鍾馗   Zhong Kui    Ghost King (vanquisher of ghosts, he wields the sword)
  • 罗汉  Luóhàn     Arhat, enlightened person in Buddhism, has reached nirvana
  • 夜叉   Yèchā    Malevolent spirt (returns to the sea)
  • 哪吒   Nézha   Protection deity (searches the sea)
  • 韦驼  Wéi Tuó (aka Skanda) is one of eight divine protectors in Chinese Buddhism
  • 苏秦   Sū Qín   Historical political figure (380-284 BC)
  • 覇王   Bà Wáng   A warlord whose actual name was Xiang Yu (202-232 BC)

魁星   Kuíxīng  is the legendary scholar for whom the constellation we call the Dipper is named. In the sword forms, we find both the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper (Ursa Major and Minor):

  • 大     Dà          Big (Dà Kuíxīng)
  • 小     Xiǎo       Small (Xiǎo Kuíxīng)

Picture of Wu Song is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi – http://www.britishmuseum.org 

Read about Wu Song: http://www.kungfumagazine.com/magazine/article.php?article=237

Read about Su Qin: http://kongming.net/encyclopedia/Su-Qin

This startling quote is attributed to Ba Wang (Xiang Yu): “Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

Read more about Ba Wang: https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/xiang-yu/m03f26z

Kicks and Punches

More Taijiese: vocabulary for blows with the hands and feet. These terms are good to know both for understanding the names of movements and for taking instruction in Chinese. Mostly, these terms are useful for bare-hand forms.

脚     Quán     Fist


Sun-style punch by Gao Jiamin, Ban Lan Chui (73-step)

Quan (pronounced like chuan) means fist, but it also refers to bare-hand martial arts, often translated as boxing. In English, the Chinese martial arts—Kung fu, Tai Chi—used to be called Chinese boxing. Taijiquan (sometimes written as Tai Chi Chuan) is bare-hand Tai Chi (no weapons), and its techniques involve the use of hands and feet to block and strike.

抱拳   Bào quán      Clench the fists


This phrase, bao quan, in everyday Chinese means to cup one hand around the other as a gesture of respect. Bao means embrace. But in the context of the martial arts, bao quan means to make fists, a gesture more threatening or defensive than polite.

捶 Chuí              Beat, hammer

Quan (fist) may be used to refer to a punch, but Chui is the more common word for a blow with the fist. There are several variations on the punch.

撇身捶       Piē shēn chuí               Fist across the body

Pie means cast away, or fling aside. Shen means body. In Tai Chi, the phrase pie shen chui refers to a backhand punch. Pie shen chui is sometimes (strangely!) translated as “draping” the fist across the body.  In the older forms, the back fist is sometimes called pie shen quan.

栽锤 Zāi chuí  Punch down

Zai means insert, literally, or plant in the ground. In Tai Chi, zai chui is a punch downward, as if to punch an opponent who is already on the ground.

指裆锤 Zhǐ  dāng  chuí   Punch to the groin

Zhi means point (it is also the word for finger), so literally, zhi dang would be pointing to the crotch, and sometimes it’s translated that way. But who points at the crotch in a fight? In Tai Chi, zhi dang chui is a blow aimed at the crotch with the fist.

Strikes with the hands are not always punches:

穿掌   Chuān zhǎng      Strike with extended fingers

Chuan is pierce, a word also used in swordplay. Zhang is palm, and chuan zhang may be called Piercing Palm, or Pierce with Palm. Chuan zhang is not a strike with the palm or heel of the hand but with straight(extended) fingers (usually palm-up).

Other specific punches are named in the various empty-hand forms, especially the Chen-style form called Pao Chui, or Cannon Fist. But the terms above are the most common and useful to know.

Blocks with the hands include:

搬     Bān        Deflect

拦     Lán        Block

Ban means shift (move something heavy) but in Tai Chi it refers to a backfisted block, whereas Lan (which actually does mean block) usually refers to a block with the open hand. The move called ban lan chui is sometimes translated as block, parry, punch. I first learned it as deflect downward, intercept and punch, a mouthful, though a literally accurate translation.

脚          Jiǎo        Foot, leg

Jiao, the word for foot or leg, can also refer to a kick in Tai Chi. The two most common are:

分脚      Fēn jiǎo               Toe kick

蹬脚      Dēng jiǎo            Heel kick

Fen is the verb for separate, so the toe-kick is often called separate (right or left) foot. Deng is literally to step on. Either way, as usual, the translation makes for odd English. Why not just call them fen jiao and deng jiao? Those are the proper Chinese names for the toe kick and heel kick in Tai Chi. Note that these two words are pronounced like fun and dung.

A few more kicks:

摆莲         Bǎi lián                Crescent kick

拍脚         Pāi  jiǎo               Slap kick

擦脚         Cā jiǎo                 Brush kick

旋风脚      Xuàn fēng jiǎo              Whirlwind kick

踢二起                Tī  èr qǐ        Double jump kick

二起脚                èr qǐ jiǎo       Jump kick

The last two terms are used for the same kind of kick. Though it is often called the double jump kick, it is actually more like a double kick jump. Both feet leave the ground and first one foot, then the other, kicks while you’re in the air. The second name above is a more accurate description, literally two (er) raise (qi) leg/foot (jiao).

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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 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.


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.