Names of the Moving Forms

The practice of Tai Chi mostly consists of performing sequences of movements that we call forms.

式           Shì                          Form

If you’ve learned numbers and counting in Chinese, you are well on your way to learning the names of many Tai Chi forms, because the forms are often named and referred to by the number of steps or movements. So, for example, the most widely practiced form in the world, 24-step Tai Chi, is called, for short, Èr shí sì shì (twenty-four form).

The number alone is enough to identify many forms, but you need only a few additional words to learn the full and proper names. The name will usually include the word for form (shì), táijì, and an indication of what weapon, if any, is used in that form.

太极     Tàijí

Quán means fist, literally, but the reference is to Tai Chi that is performed empty-handed; ie, without a weapon. Tai Chi Chuan, as it is sometimes written in English, or tàijíquán, is the barehanded martial art. Weapons (in my practice) include the double-edged straight sword, fan, and saber (broadsword).

拳    quán      fist (unarmed fighting, may also be called boxing)

剑    jiàn         sword

扇    shàn      fan

刀    dāo        saber

Combine the weapons with Tàijí as follows:

太极拳    Tàijíquán              Empty-hand Tai Chi

太极剑    Tàijíjiàn                Tai Chi Sword

太极扇    Tàijíshàn              Tai Chi Fan

太极刀    Tàijídāo                Tai Chi Saber (or broadsword)

Now it’s easy to put together the full names of many forms, as follows. The contemporary forms are easiest. The name is just the number of steps, plus shí, plus one of the four weapon designations above. Twenty-four is so widely practiced that if you can learn to say er shi si shi taijiquan, you can shake hands with just about anybody in the world who does Tai Chi.

二十四式太极拳    Èr Shí Sì Shì Tàijíquán   24-step Tai Chi [empty hand]

四十二式太极拳    Sì Shí Èr Shì Tàijíquán   42-step Tai Chi [empty hand]

三十二式太极剑    Sān Shí Èr Shì Tàijíjiàn  32-step Tai Chi Sword

四十二式太极剑    Sì Shí Èr Shì Tàijíjiàn    42-step Tai Chi Sword

五十二式太极扇    Wǔ shí èr shì tàijíshàn    52-step Tai Chi Fan

Just for good measure, note that a 40-step empty hand form is sometimes called sì líng—four zero.

五零太极拳   Sì Líng Tàijíquán    Four Zero (40-step) Tai Chi

Often the name of the form also indicates the style of Tai Chi.  The word for style is the same as the word for form: 式 (Shì). Or you may see the word for family or clan (氏shì) used instead of the word for style. The Pinyin is the same, so in spoken Chinese, it doesn’t matter which you use.

There are five main styles of Tai Chi:

杨           Yáng

陈           Chén

吴           Wú

孙           Sūn

武/郝      Wǔ/Hǎo

All of these words are family surnames of the founders of the styles. The combined forms use movements from the Yáng, Chén, Wú, and Sūn styles. The fifth style, Wǔ/Hǎo, is less well known and does not figure in the combined forms.

Combining the names of the styles with the word for style:

杨式太极             Yáng shì tàijí              Yang-style Tai Chi

陈式太极             Chén shì tàijí              Chen-style Tai Chi

吴式太极             Wú shì tàijí                  Wu-style Tai Chi

孙式太极             Sūn shì tàijí                 Sun-style Tai Chi

武/郝式太极         Wǔ/Hǎo shì tàijí          Wu/Hao Style Tai Chi

Note that the characters for Wu, in Wu style and Wu/Hao style, are different (different surnames entirely) and carry different accents; the names are pronounced with different intonation. Hǎo, the surname of a second master in the Wǔ/Hǎo lineage, is added to the name of that fifth style to avoid confusion in English between the two Wu surnames.

The word for family or clan can be used as follows (and often is for Yang and Chen style):

杨氏太极      Yáng shì tàijí      Yang-[family] style Tai Chi

陈氏太极      Chén shì tàijí      Chen-[family] style Tai Chi

The traditional Yang Sword form has more than fifty movements; the number varies among the masters (as is often the case in the older forms). So the old long sword form is usually called, simply, Yáng Shí Tàijí Jiàn. The modern equivalent to traditional Yang sword is the 56-step standardized form.

杨式太极剑           Yáng shì tàijí jiàn               Yang Sword (traditional)

五十六式太极剑    Wǔ Shí Liù Shì Tàijíjiàn      56-step Tai Chi Sword (standardized)

The traditional Chen-style sword form has 49 steps. It is called either Chen Sword or Chen-style 49-step Tai Chi Sword.

陈氏太极剑            Chén Shì Tàijíjiàn              Chen Sword

四十九式太极剑    Sì Shí Jiǔ Shí Tàijíjiàn        49-step Sword

There is another 49-step sword form, a combined form with movements drawn from both Classical Tai Chi Sword (Yang Sword above) and the sword fighting practiced in the Wudang Mountains. The traditional Wudang Sword form is properly called just that: Wudang Sword. The 49-step modern combined form is properly called Wudang Tai Chi Sword. In actual practice, however, either form maybe simply called Wudang Sword.

武当   Wǔdāng        Mountain in China where some say Tai Chi originated

武当太极剑    Wǔdāng Tàijí Jiàn             Wudang Tai Chi Sword (combined form)

Two very popular modern fan forms are the 52-step and the 56-step fan forms (aka, 52-fan and 56-fan). They are both combined forms and both are usually performed to the same song (for which they are tightly choreographed). Both were created by Grandmaster Li Deyin in the early two thousands. The shorter of the two forms (52-fan) is also called Kung Fu Fan because its movements derive from the broader body of Chinese martial arts. The 56-step fan form is also called Xi Yang Mei, after the title of the song, which means Beautiful Sunset. The latter is also sometimes called Di Er Tao Shan, meaning the second way. The two forms may also be called Fan I and Fan II.

五十二式太极扇           Wǔ shí èr shì tàijíshàn    52-step Fan

五十六式太极扇           Wǔ shí liù shì tàijíshàn    56-step Fan

功夫扇      Gōngfushàn       Kung Fu Fan [52-fan]

夕阳美      Xīyáng Měi         Beautiful Sunset [56-Fan]

第二套太极扇       Dì èr tào tàijí shàn            Tai Chi Fan II [second way]

Huawu Fan is a lovely modern combined fan form created by national martial arts coach Grandmaster Zeng Nai Liang and Hu senior lecturer Wei Xianglian. The form has 42 movements.

華     Huá        Splendid, flowery

武     Wǔ          Martial, military

華武四十二式太極扇      Huáwǔ sìshí èr shì tàijíshàn       Huawu 42-step Tai Chi Fan

Bonus vocabulary: Twenty-four is a revolutionary style that shortened the traditional Yang-style long form and rearranged it, removing the repetition and focusing on just twenty-four fundamental movements of Yang-style Tai Chi. So 24-form is often called simplified Tai Chi (it is the form, not the movements, that are simplified). Similarly, 32-Sword is a shorter version of Yang Sword, said to be simplified sword.

简化        Jiǎnhuà                                 Simpified

简化太极拳  Jiǎnhuà Tàijíquán             Simplified Tai Chi

简化太极剑  Jiǎnhuà Tàijíjiàn                Simplified Tai Chi Sword

The 42-step combined form and 42-sword (also combined) are both modern competition routines designed to display the performer’s athleticism and mastery of all four major styles of Tai Chi.

竞赛        Jìngsài                   Competition

套路        Tàolù                     Routine (or sequence)

竞赛套路    Jìngsài Tàolù       Competition Routine

Helpful hint: when searching for performance and instructional videos of a form, try searching with the Chinese name of the form. You will get much better results!