In teaching Tai Chi classes in Chicago for several years now,  I’ve had students occasionally ask about the words  ‘taiji’ and ‘taijiquan’.  They wonder what is meant or conveyed by those words that might be different than the more common ‘T’ai Chi’ or ‘T’ai Chi Ch’uan’.  When I answer, “Nothing, they’re the same things” it seems there is always some explaining to do.

As English speaking people attempted to write down the sounds of the Chinese language they ran into a lot of problems.  The Chinese language has many sounds that do not occur in our language and we really don’t have a way to represent them adequately.  One of the first methods that evolved as a means to do this was called the Wade-Giles system which was created by 19th century  English scholars.  This is where ‘T’ai Chi’ comes from.  Eventually, in an attempt to standardize and improve the accuracy of transliteration, the Chinese government, in the mid 20th century, came up with its own method of transliteration which is called the pinyin system.  This is where ‘Taiji’ comes from.  So, although the style and form of the words might be different, they are really saying the same thing. They are attempting to represent the sounds of the Chinese language for a word that translates as ‘supreme extreme’ or ‘supreme ultimate’-T’ai Chi or taiji.

So it is with our T’ai Chi practice as well.  (My own preference is to use the older Wade-Giles, even though it is probably not as proper these days, in deference to my teacher, Waysun Liao, who is Taiwanese by birth and continues to use this transliteration himself) 

T’ai Chi has five major styles that have evolved over the years.  Listed in order of seniority, from oldest to newest, they are Chen, Yang, Wu (Hao), Wu and Sun.  Listed in order of popularity, from most practitioners to least, the list becomes Yang, Wu, Chen, Sun and Wu (Hao).

The style of T’ai Chi I happen to teach is the Yang style and, as mentioned previously, is the most popular style being practiced today.  Yang style T’ai Chi is characterized by slow, steady, soft and expansive movements which makes it ideal for the general practioner.  Wu style emphasizes parallel footwork, small circle hand techniques as well as the more martial applications of grappling, throws, joint locks and breaks.

Chen style is more physically active than Yang with more vigorous bursts of power, lower stances and with a specific emphasis on ‘silk-reeling’.  The Sun style, like the Yang, also has smooth, flowing movements with a gentle posture and high stance but it has unique footwork and uses an open palm throughout. The Wu(Hao) style has small, subtle movements and is highly focused on balance, sensitivity and internal energy development.

But, like ‘T’ai Chi’ and ‘taiji’, all the styles really represent the same thing.  And that same thing they are representing is the art of, “How do I use my mind to move my life energy (ch’i) so that it can move my body in the way that is most effective or appropriate in the moment.”  This is one way we can define the practice of T’ai Chi.

It’s my own opinion that it’s silly and futile to discuss which of the styles might be better.  I happen to teach Yang style not because I did extensive research into the relative merits of the different systems of T’ai Chi when I was getting started, but because it happened to be the system of a man who impressed the socks off me (or maybe I should say knocked me out of them) with his ability in the art. 

So, please, don’t go looking for the ‘best’ T’ai Chi system to practice. Decide how you can practice whatever T’ai Chi system you’ve been exposed to, or whatever T’ai Chi you’ve learned to date, in the best way possible. The final entry of The Eight Truths of T’ai Chi in Master Waysun Liao’s definitive book, T’ai Chi Classics, gives some guidance in that regard.   Seek perfection sincerely.  Establish life.  When you have settled the spirit, you may cultivate the ch’i.

Think right and  happy practice!