Qigong, Chi Kong, Tai Chi, Taiji Chuan – Whaaaat?

I’ve written elsewhere about qi, energy, and gong, work, but we still see many variations in the spelling of the words. I appreciate that it’s confusing and that people who have seen the words chi kong or tai chi may wonder if we’re talking about the same thing.

We are, and we aren’t.

Imagine if you will, early travellers in China who had no means of reading or pronouncing Chinese, and Chinese speakers (with their own dialects and pronounciations) who had no means of explaining their language to Westerners. In order to enable Westerners to read and pronounce Chinese words, they first had to be identified, sounded out phonetically and romanised.

One of the first people to attempt to do this was the British ambassador in China, Thomas Wade during the mid-19th century. Herbert A. Giles completed his work and published “A Chinese-English Dictionary” in 1892. This became known as the Wade-Giles system.

It lasted for most of the twentieth century, until the Chinese themselves decided to make an official system. They wanted to make it easy to use the Chinese language through standard typewriters and, more recently, computer keyboards. In October 1949, the Association for Reforming the Chinese Written Language was established.

The development of the new system was a complex process, which had to respect the many dialects spoken in China etc. etc. The committee which had to develop this system got nowhere and  eventually everything went on hold during the Cultural Revolution. It was 1982 before they finally agreed on and launched International Standard Hanyu Pinyin.

By this time, however, we in the west had adopted chinese health systems and martial arts using the Wade-Giles system. Wade-Giles uses an apostrophe to distinguish aspirated consonants and unaspirated consonants, such as pʻa and pa respectively, rather than using separate letters as in Pīnyīn (pa and ba). Unfortunately, many people omitted the apostrophe, assuming that it wasn’t important.

Now this is where it gets relevant for us. If the apostrophe is omitted from the four sounds represented in Pīnyīn by j, q, zh, and ch, they all become ch

Thus, the words for energy work (qi gong) were pronounced just like the words for the supreme absolute martial art (taiji chuan). Inevitably this led to some confusion of the meaning, but since taiji  chuan contains energy work, no one got terribly upset. (Actually, I have seen a few rants on this topic so some people do!) However, we might as well get it right, so, since Pīnyīn was introduced, we have tried to popularise the correct spelling of qigong and taiji chuan to represent their correct pronounciation and to reflect their  different meanings.

So, yes, chi kong and qigong are the same thing. And tai chi and taiji are the same thing. But chi kong and tai chi are not the same.

You can find much more detailed explanations of Chinese linguistics elsewhere, but I hope this helps to explain our little world of j, q, zh and ch!