Tai Chi, T’ai Chi or Tai Ji?

There’s no simple way to write Chinese sounds in the characters we use in the west (a process called “romanization”, a reference to latin and the Roman Empire).

For a long time the most widespread system in the English-speaking world was one created in the 19th Century by two British diplomats, Thomas Francis Wade and Herbert Giles – the Wade-Giles system. This relied on a mark resembling an apostrophe called an asper to show whether or not a sound was aspirated (made with a breath, like the beginning of the word ‘happy’).

The big problem of this system is that some people were too lazy to use the asper. For example, 太 極 T’ai Chi, has become Tai Chi. What could be wrong with that?

The problem is that we now can’t tell the difference between chi, and an even more important character for Tai Chi players: c’hi, which means energy or vital breath – the Chinese equivalent of the sanskrit prana, the greek pneuma or the hebrew ruach.

These problems were overcome in the 1950s by a system developed by the Chinese themselves called pinyin. The new system re-purposed the letters q, x and z, which hadn’t been needed in the Wade-Giles system, to represent some of the different sounds. T’ai chi became Tai ji, and c’hi became qi. (On this blog, words written in pinyin are coloured teal).

It’s a brilliant solution, but it was too late for us: 太 極 is still written (and pronounced) Tai chi in English, rather than Tai ji, meaning that the confusion with qi (, energy) may last forever. Personally I try to pronounce it Tai ji, when I remember.

This isn’t even the only confusion that we face: there is actually no such language as Chinese – the country has many different languages. We’ll talk about this in the next post.


  • on Zhendic, an online Chinese (Mandarin) dictionary

The Weaving Maiden

In the previous post we tried to explain why the Fair Lady of “Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles” is actually called a jade maiden. Now we turn to the movement itself. Its name implies a woman sitting at a loom, but images of the weaving maiden more often show her spinning thread. In the image at left the jade maiden is depicted as a flying spirit. Why is that? And what is she spinning?

The Weaving Maiden 織女 (zhi-nu) is a character from Chinese mythology, the youngest of the seven daughters of 玉皇 the Emperor of Heaven (literally ‘The Jade Emperor’ – that word again) and 西王母 Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. Her particular task was to weave clouds.

The sisters would come down to earth to play and here a cowherd fell in love with her. She returned his love, and they were married and had two children. When the girl’s parents found out about this they were furious. The girl was returned to heaven and a river – the Milky Way – was placed in the sky to separate them. In China the Weaving Maiden is associated with the star Vega and the cowherd with the star Altair. The Milky Way, known in China as the Silver River or Heavenly River, does indeed run between these two stars. You can learn the Chinese names of these stars, and of the stars representing their children, on the blog Jade Turtle Records.

But the story is not over! The magpies built a bridge between earth and heaven so that the two lovers could meet. Moved by this sight, the parents permitted the lovers to meet on this bridge once a year. This meeting is celebrated each year on the 7th day of the 7th month at a festival called the Night of Sevens (Qi Xi) or Double Seven Festival. (In 2022 it fell in August). This is the turning point of the year, the time when summer turns to autumn; traditionally, it was the time when girls would begin sewing clothes for the winter.

The reunion of the Weaving Maiden and the Cowherd on the bridge of magpies. Artwork in Summer Palace in Beijing.

So now we know who the girl was, but why does she crop up in the name of a Tai Chi movement? Perhaps this story of a heavenly girl and an earthly boy has some kind of allegorical significance for the Taoists?

Well, as it turns out, both the weaving maiden and the cowherd are depicted in the Neijing Tu or Diagram of The Internals (see the image at right), which was discovered in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. Taoists were concerned with internal alchemy – the process of internal transformation – and the diagram attempts to depict this process. The text around the Weaving Maiden refers specifically to the kidneys and the spleen. This doesn’t mean that Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles is designed to benefit the kidneys and spleen: the weaving motion is more to do with the visiting of the four corners. But the Taoists use the relationship between the Weaving Maiden (yin) and the Cowherd (yang) as an allegory of the circulation of energy between the kidneys (the Weaving Maiden) and the heart (the Cowherd) which lies at the root of Taoist Internal Alchemy. That’s a topic for another time.

As precious as jade

The movement 玉女穿梭, Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles literally describes the lady not as fair, but like jade. Jade refers to inner qualities as well as outer ones, and to describe a woman as like jade is to say that she has both beauty and grace. The character for jade, is very similar to the character for emperor, . Jade is a royal stone, known as the Stone of Heaven. It was more highly valued than gold (“Gold has a price; jade is priceless”) and was said to have mystical powers, such as the power to ward off evil.

Two different gemstones are known as jade: jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite has the subtle green colours which we associate with jade today. The first jadeite arrived in China from Burma only in the 18th Century. The Qianlong emperor became fascinated, some might say obsessed with this material, importing tons of raw jade to be worked on by stone carvers and engravers (lapidaries) who often inscribed chinese characters directly onto the stone. The emperor’s collection is said to have run to a million objects!

Nephrite on the other hand has been known in China for thousands of years. It too was highly valued: imperial seals could be made from jade nephrite, but not those of court officials. When Qin Shi Huang unified China and established the Qin dynasty in 221 BC, a seal was carved from a sacred piece of jade nephrite called the Heshibi. The Heirloom Seal of the Realm served as the imperial Chinese seal for the next millennium, until it was lost; its possession was seen as a physical symbol of the Mandate of Heaven.

A jade nephrite seal from the Qianlong period which sold at auction in Paris in 2022 for €914,400. The Qianlong emperor had 1800 such seals.
A 3000 year old jade ring disc or Bi which the Qianlong emperor had inscribed with a poem.

You can learn more about the Qianlong emperor (but not about jade) in an episode of Radio 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects.

In the next post we’ll explore the famous Chinese story behind the name of the movement Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles.