What is Tai Chi

Today in the Western world the term "tai chi" has become recognised first and foremost as an exercise to promote health and longevity, usually practiced early in the morning by individuals or groups of middle-aged and elderly people. It is categorised by slow movements grouped into a set of martial forms, performed in what seems to be a meditative state. This is, in fact, a simplistic view of what is really a very complex art, steeped in Chinese history and tradition and encompassing several aspects such as martial arts, medical concepts, Chinese philosophy including Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and applicable not only to individual health and as a method of self-defence, but also to social and moral conduct, business management and marketing, and, importantly, to family cohesion.

the meaning of Tai Chi

Attempts at translating the words Tai Chi, or Tai Ji (太極), are unlikely to convey the true meaning, and the term has already become commonly used in the Western world. However, an explanation of its history and concepts can perhaps enlighten those who are unfamiliar with the term. As mentioned, for most Western people, Tai Chi is usually understood as a set of exercises or forms practiced in slow motion to enhance health and maintain youthfulness. It is often written as Tai Chi Chuan, or Tai Ji Quan (太極拳), the last character, chuan, often translated as "fist" and leading to the assumption that Tai Chi Chuan is some form of Chinese Boxing. A more precise understanding would be to take chuan to be a suffix that adds the notion of physical activity.

Tai Chi itself is a term found originally in ancient Chinese philosophy that eventually became associated with an evolving system of principles and exercises aimed at extending the length and quality of life through the study and practice of Nature and its relevance to human life. Later, this was applied to military strategy and martial arts. l The Emperor Sage Fu Hsi, or Fu Xi (伏羲), who lived around 2,400BC, is attributed as the creator of the Tai Chi symbol (see picture) and the Ba Gua (八卦) "eight trigrams" symbols. Fu Hsi studied the cyclical changes of Nature and attempted to arrange knowledge of these cycles into an organised system. The Tai Chi symbol is, as it were, a statement about the reality of Nature, a reality as a continuous flow of cyclic change and blending. The circle represents the fullness of reality, within the circle are the principles of Yin (陰), represented by the dark area, and Yang (陽),the light area. These two areas complement each other in shape yet are opposite in shade.  Each contains some of the other, as seen in the two small circles. The shape of each area also conveys the notion that each flows into the other.

The Ba Gua symbol consists of eight arrangements of three solid or broken lines, often arranged around the Tai Chi symbol. Each symbol represents the major phases of cycles of Nature: heaven, earth, wind, water, mountain, thunder, fire and lake. These were further expanded, such as the heavenly cycle consisting of sun, moon, star, day, night, morning, evening, wind, thunder, rain and cloud phases; and the earthly cycle consisting of mountain, river, lake, swamp, fire, water, tree, flower and grass phases. These are symbolised by various combinations of the eight trigrams into pairs to form 64 hexagrams. The I Ching, or Yi Jing (易經), known also as The Book of Changes, is a collection of principles used to interpret Nature through the trigrams and hexagrams.

Tai Chi and taoism

Taoism (pronounced Daoism) is an inherently Chinese philosophy primarily characterised in the ancient works of Lao Zi (老子) and Zhuang Zi (莊子). ( It should not be confused with Taoism the religion which was a later development of practices and strange rituals loosely based on Taoist philosophy.) The Taoist understanding of Tai Chi is derived from the I Ching (pronounced ee jing). Sometimes translated as 'the grand ultimate', it means the never changing, the one, the all. Nothing lies outside of it and nothing contains all of it.  Often represented by a dot ".", Tai Chi generates the two forces of Yin and Yang. The word Tao, or Dao (道), is usually translated as the 'Way' or 'Path'.  All Nature is created from the Tao and when the Yin and Yang forces are balanced and in harmony together, this also represents Tao. Everything in existence possesses the complementary elements of Yin and Yang, positive and negative, active and passive, etc. Tai Chi itself is created when Wu Chi (無極), a state of 'nothingness', moves. This is really an ancient Chinese perception of the creation of the universe. From nothingness, or non-being, movement begets the beginning of creation, the development of the dual forces of Yin and Yang, that constantly cycle, providing an unending process of creation.

The way of the Tao lies in stillness, Nature responds spontaneously and harmoniously, not deliberately. In application, the natural way of Tai Chi is only to defend oneself with a force much smaller than that used by an opponent. Tai Chi is not intended to injure or cause pain. Only from being relaxed can a Tai Chi practitioner achieve this. The Taoist concept of action without action (無為,無不為) or from a state of nothingness, one can react, epitomises the importance of Taoist philosophy in the application of Tai Chi. This is also expressed by how the Tai Chi practitioner can obtain good health through relaxation, balance, proper breathing and good posture.

Tai Chi and managing your health

People are responsible for their own health. Everyone knows this but rarely pay attention to this fact. There is a limit to how much a physician can help. Suitable exercise can overcome fatigue and restore vitality, and together with a healthy lifestyle, maintain health. Medical science emphasises the dangers of excessive exercise, which produces an abundance of ageing and cancer-causing free radicals. In the animal world, the fast moving and fierce lions and tigers do not outlive the slow moving tortoise or snake. Similarly, those who do rigorous exercise such as athletes will never be as healthy or have the longevity of practitioners of Tai Chi or Qigong.

A review of the health benefits of Tai Chi were outlined in the Harvard Medical Review (2009) and included gains in muscle strength, flexibility, balance and aerobic endurance. It also specified particular ailments that benefited from Tai Chi practice such as arthritis, low bone density, breast cancer, heart disease, heart failure, hypertension, Parkinson Disease, sleep problems and stroke. A review of research of the psychological effect of Tai Chi (Wang et al, 2010) indicated mental health benefits in promoting psychological well-being, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem as well as life satisfaction among healthy subjects and patients with chronic conditions.


  • www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2009/May/The-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
  • Wang et al. (2010) Tai Chi on psychological well-being: systematic review and meta-analysis.BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine,USA.

Tai Chi Research

Read research articles about the benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong for health.