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.
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:
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!