Taiji quan is often translated into English as “Supreme ultimate fist”, which is pretty obscure. In fact, the term is made up of two expressions. The second, quan, is straightforward enough and means “fist”; from this we can infer that although today’s Tai Chi includes weapons techniques, it is originally based on bare-fisted boxing. The meaning of the first term, taiji, is far more complex and indeed impossible to convey fully in a few words. Literally, it can mean “the ultimate pinnacle”, and might be described as the active principle of the Dao. To put this in more modern terms, if we think of the Dao as constituting the entire natural universe, then the taiji might be seen as the underlying laws or principles which govern the action of the Dao. In Chinese philosophy, although the Dao is the whole universe, it remains an undifferentiated unique, and goes through a series of transformations, or differentiations, which progressively give rise to lower levels of laws or principles, and in the end to all observable natural phenomena, including living things, and of course ourselves.
The first of these differentiations gives rise to the two models, Yin and Yang, which are constantly in transformation from one into the other, so that in Taoist philosophy nothing is fixed and constant, everything is in a process of change from itself into its opposite and back again. Taiji quan might then be best (if rather long-windedly) expressed as “boxing based on the ultimate principles of the natural world”. It is the ultimate principle of the universe which finds expression in the fluid movements of Tai Chi, constantly shifting from Yin to Yang, from defence to attack, from soft to hard, from weak to strong.
This is why, unlike other Chinese martial arts, Tai Chi places so much emphasis on the development of the body’s internal strength. This is why it has adopted one of the favorite images of Taoist philosophy: that of water, which appears weak and insubstantial and yet which is able to wear down mountains as it flows, always seeking its natural path.
This brings us to a profound difference between Chinese philosophy, and especially Taoism, and Western philosophy as it is expressed in and emerges from the Christian tradition. In Christian thinking, Heaven exists outside the natural world, the natural body is therefore seen as an impediment to the development of heavenly spirituality. Indeed, mind (or spirit) and the physical body may be seen as fundamentally opposed: the body being the seat of sexuality and physical desire of all kinds, is seen as subject to the devil; the soul is something ethereal, not belonging to the natural world but to the world of God. To attain God therefore means denying or even rejecting the body.
For Taoism such a separation does not exist. If the ultimate goal of the sage is to attain immortality, he does this not by rejecting the body or the physical world but on the contrary by refining it, strengthening and refining the body’s own qi. The ultimate goal of immortality is simply the final point on a continuum: by preserving and developing the body’s harmony and natural energy one can attain good health, longevity, and – perhaps! – immortality.
This introduces us to the notion of qi, absolutely fundamental to Chinese philosophy and medecine, and in Tai Chi. The notion of qi incorporates both the physical energy of the universe, and so of the body, and what we might call spiritual energy. Here again, we see the non-separation of body and spirit: achieving spiritual understanding is inseparable from the body’s physical development.
The practice of Tai Chi is therefore inseparable from Qi gong, literally “the practice (or development) of qi”, which aims at improving the body’s energy and well-being through breathing, stretching, and meditation.