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Tai chi chuan, T'ai chi ch'üan or tàijíquàn?

The Difficulties


Chinese characters generally represent the meanings of words rather than their sound. (Our symbols for numbers do the same thing.) We use our alphabet to represent the sounds of the words - a phonetic system.


Chinese uses sounds that we don't, and distinguishes sounds that we think are the same. 'Chinese' is eight different associated languages or dialects, which do, in fact, all sound different.


Chinese is a tonal language: whether the pitch of your voice stays level, rises or falls, and so on, makes a difference in meaning to an otherwise identical sound. Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese six, for example.


The Solutions


Wade-Giles (WG) - the earliest - gave us t'ai chi ch'üan, Cheng Man-ch'ing and Pei-ching for Peking.


The apostrophes indicate a difference in pronunciation and the two dots over the u also make a difference.


Westerners have tended to ignore these extra marks when writing Chinese down, resulting in the simplified tai chi chuan, which is still widely used today. This is inaccurate, because ch and ch' are slightly different,* so we tend to confuse the chi in Tai Chi with what should be ch'i in Chi Kung. (See the Glossary.)


Wade-Giles uses numbers to represent tones, but you almost never see these. (T'ai4 chi2 ch'üan2, for example.)


Pinyin - approved by the Chinese government in 1958, and gradually replacing Wade-Giles. The best-known example is Beijing for Peking.


Pinyin versions are perhaps more accurate but at the same time they are less easy on the Western eye.


T'ai chi ch'üan (WG) is taijiquan in Pinyin.


Cheng Man-ch'ing (WG) becomes Zheng Manqing.


Pinyin uses accents over the vowels to represent tones: tàijíquàn, and you are much more likely to see this, as well as Zhèng Mànq+ng for Cheng Man-ch'ing.


Our choice


On this site we've gone for simplified Wade-Giles: tai chi chuan, at the risk of some inaccuracy, but because it's what most people recognise most easily.


* The apostrophe shows the sound is aspirated - we make a little puff of air at the same time. In English, the k in kill has this, the k in skill does not. In Chinese, these are heard as different sounds, not just different versions of the same sound.


If you're interested in how Chinese is represented using the Latin alphabet, then the articles at Wikipedia are a good starting point.


Wikipedia: Pinyin   Wikipedia: Wade-Giles