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Just one thing

Dr Michael Moseley is well known as a TV presenter and more recently for his radio programme “Just One Thing”, which suggests simple things we can do to improve our health. In a recent episode, The surprising health benefits of Tai Chi, he explored Tai Chi! Dr Moseley looks at scientific evidence for the health benefits of Tai Chi and concludes that “Tai Chi can significantly enhance the activity of our immune system… [and] was as effective as conventional exercise for reducing body weight and visceral fat!”

The programmes are just 15 minutes long – which was also how long he asked his volunteer to practice for every day (students please note!). Listen to it on BBC sounds.

How do you say that? China’s many languages

Chinese characters

Chinese characters are not symbols like our letters, but pictograms – line drawings. Here for example is a person, rén, which shows a person standing (on two legs):

And here is the character for a king or emperor, wáng – the three lines representing him joining heaven (the upper line), earth (the lower line) and the human world (the middle line):

Being pictures, these characters (unlike words in Western languages) don’t tell you how to say them. You just have to learn them, character by character.

Mandarin and Cantonese

China is a huge country with a population in excess of one billion people. Whilst everyone uses the same characters, different peoples within China say these words differently. Sometimes it’s just a small change in pronunciation – a dialect – but sometimes the difference is so great that the word can’t be recognised. In other words: China has different languages, and there’s no such thing as “Chinese”.

The language of government, spoken in the capital Beijing (in the North), is Mandarin, although it only became the official language in 1930. But our teacher Mr Moy came from the south of China; he mostly spoke Cantonese. His most important teacher, Liang Tzu-peng, lived in Hong Kong and also spoke Cantonese. Most of the words they used when teaching were Cantonese and not Mandarin.

So how do we write down Cantonese pronunciation in English? Cantonese has some different sounds to Mandarin; pinyin doesn’t even work. In Canton they mostly use a system called Yale (because of a link to Yale university in the US).

Here’s an example, a word Mr Moy used a lot: yao in pinyin but pronounced yiu in Cantonese. Normally translated waist, the closest word in English is midriff – it refers to the whole area of the body at waist level, including all the insides, especially the kidneys and the lumbar spine. How did Mr Moy write it? He didn’t. His students wrote it down the way it sounded to them; they wrote yu. We’ll talk about the yiu more when we discuss the two most important foundation exercises of Mr Moy’s Tai Chi, 蹲 腰 the don-yu, and 拖 蹲, the tor-yu.

Resources:

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.

Resources:

  • 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, 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 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.

Plum blossoms

Prayer of Japan (Cherry Blossoms), © Reiji Hiramatsu 2012

In the Far East, cherry and plum blossoms are highly appreciated not just for their beauty but as harbingers of spring. Japan is known for its special appreciation for cherry blossom (sakura). The viewing of cherry blossom has such importance in Japanese culture that there is a special word for it: hanami. Emperor Saga held the first cherry blossom viewing party in 812, over a thousand years ago. For the common people, the appearance of the blossom was a sign that the god of rice had come down from the mountain and that it was time to plant rice.

Of course, the blossoms soon fall and for the Japanese cherry blossom is a symbol of the transience of all things. The viewing of the blossoms is thus bittersweet, evoking a feeling they call Mono no aware, the “pathos of things”.

Before Emperor Saga’s hanami the Japanese used to view plum blossom (ume), which bloomed earlier – a custom they are thought to have adopted from China. Unlike cherry blossoms, the plum blooms whilst it is still winter. Plum blossoms are thus a symbol of hope.

This is all very well, but what does it have to do with Tai Chi? Take a look at the photographs below.

Like cherry blossoms, plum blossoms have five petals but the petals have a rounder shape. For Tai Chi players the shape of a plum petal reminds them of the end of a finger, viewed end on, and the plum blossom is thus the image of the whipping hand in the move Whip to one side. The five petals are arranged evenly around a centre, presenting a model for the shape of the hand. For Taoists, being in harmony means being in harmony with nature and the movements are full of references to animals, birds and plants. Tigers, lions, dragons, snakes, eagles, cranes, swallows, water lilies and blossoms all make their appearance, together with the sun, moon, and stars, inviting us to draw inspiration for our practice from nature.

What does Tai Chi mean?

What does 太 極 ,Tai Chi, actually mean?

The second character, (chi), originally depicted the ridgepole of the roof of a simple house. The two ends of the ridgepole are opposites: the implication is that we are separating opposite energies, which in Chinese are called yin and yang, like the plus and minus on a battery.

(tai) means the greatest – the most extreme. In other words, Tai Chi literally means the maximum separation of yin and yang: the condition of the highest possible energy, like a battery with the highest possible voltage, or the tallest possible waterfall. However Tai Chi is more than this: it’s a philosophical idea about the proper harmony and relationship between such opposites.

This idea is depicted in the Tai Chi diagram or taiji tu which shows the harmony of yin (dark) and yang (light) energies which nestle against one another like a pair of fish (note that Chinese culture doesn’t apply a pejorative connotation to darkness or to the colour black). The diagram shows this relationship as a cyclic alternation (imagine the image rotating), yin changing endlessly into yang, and yang into yin.

For the Taoists (a philosophical school associated with Tai Chi), such cyclic change was the nature of the universe and this harmonious relation between opposites was the great ideal, hence the phrase Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate.