9 Reasons You Should Stop Spelling Qigong Incorrectly

Share Button

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Look, I get it. I know that you’re attached, and you don’t want to let it go.

I was the same way. But you know what? I stopped.

And it’s time for you to stop too.

It’s time to stop spelling it chi kung. Or chi gong. Or chi gung. Or even the semi-correct qi gong.

In the 21st century, there is only one way to spell qigong correctly, and I just used it in this sentence.

I’ll even give you 9 good reasons why you should stop.

But before we get started, you need to understand the difference between transliteration and translation.

Bear with me because this is important.

The Chinese word that we’re talking about in this article is as follows:

氣 

Yes, that’s a word. And yes, it’s one word, not two.

In the Chinese language, there is no alphabet. Those things you see up there — those are called logograms.

A logogram is a written character that represents a word or phrase.

Remember the Egyptian hieroglyphs that you learned as a child? Those are logograms too.

Chinese words contain one or more logograms.  In this case, the word contains 2.

Translating the Chinese logograms   is easy. The first one means “vital-energy”, and the second one means “cultivation”. When we combine them, we’ve got a word that translates to “the art of cultivating vital energy.”

But we’re still missing something, and it’s important.

What we’re missing is a transliteration of those Chinese characters.

To help you understand the importance of transliteration, imagine that the title of this blog post read as follows:

9 Reasons You Should Stop Spelling Wrong

Would that make any sense? Would you even know what the article was about?

Of course not, and that’s why we need a transliteration. Otherwise we can’t make sense of the Chinese words.

That’s what this post is about — the transliteration of 功. In other words, we’re talking about how the hell we should spell the word in our alphabet.

Here are 9 reasons why you should stop using all spellings other than qigong.

1. Qigong is the Official Spelling

The official, modern transliteration of is qigongCase closed. (Source)

No really! That’s the official transliteration for over 1 billion people. And not just any people — but Chinese people!

Why do a billion Chinese people — most of whom don’t even speak or write English — even need transliteration?

Great question! I’ll answer it below in reason #4, but there are some other things you need to understand first, like…

2. Wade-Giles Sucks

In the 19th Century, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles created a system of transliterating Chinese into our alphabet. The system, completed in 1892, is now called the Wade-Giles system.

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about Wade-Giles: It sucks.

I’m sure that Mr. Wade and Mr. Giles meant well, but what they created is a truly awful system that is unnecessarily complex, defies common sense, and barely gets the job done.

Wade-Giles is an abomination. It should be loaded on to a rocket and sent to the deepest, coldest part of space.

Here’s what Alan Watts, the famous philosopher, had to say about the Wade-Giles system:

“No uninitiated English-speaking person could guess how to pronounce it, and I have even thought, in a jocularly malicious state of mind, that Professors Wade and Giles invented it so as to erect a barrier between profane and illiterate people and true scholars.”

But despite all of this, Wade-Giles was the most popular transliteration system until the 1970s.

It has since been replaced (hallelujah!) by a newer and better system called Pinyin.

Pinyin is the official system that I hinted at earlier, the system that a billion Chinese people use.

But old habits die hard, and a lot of people still use the Wade-Giles system.

Hell, even I still use Wade-Giles because taijiquan is unrecognizable in the West. See! Even people who practice tai chi don’t recognize it!

But I’ll stop if you do! I promise. Anything to get rid of Wade-Giles!

3. Pinyin is the Future

The Pinyin system of transliteration was developed in the 1950s.

Today, it has overtaken the Wade-Giles system (woohoo!) and is recognized as the official method for writing Chinese logograms in our alphabet.

Did I mention that the Pinyin system is vastly superior to Wade-Giles?

A transliteration system like this needs to spell not just the characters , but thousands of other Chinese characters.

Pinyin does this in a simple and efficient way. Wade-Giles does not.

That’s why Pinyin has been adopted as the official system — because it’s better.

If you only know a few words in Chinese, then it’s hard to fully grasp why Pinyin is so much better.

Trust me when I say that there is little to no disagreement among modern scholars. This is why Pinyin is taught in virtually every university that teaches Mandarin Chinese in the U.S.

Arguments against Pinyin typically come from people who know neither Pinyin nor Wade-Giles. Usually, these are people who learned a few Wade-Giles words in the 1970s or 1980s, and are stuck in their ways.

Of course, anyone who previously published a book with chi kung or chi gong in the title will probably put up an argument as well. I empathize with their copyright headaches, but arguments like this can be ignored simply because they are biased.

4. Even the Chinese Use Pinyin

As I mentioned earlier, a billion or so Chinese people use Pinyin — and not just people who practice qigong!

We live in the computer age, and the tool of choice for inputing information into a computer is the keyboard.

There are keyboards that use Chinese characters, but as you can imagine, they are clunky.

Remember, there’s no alphabet! When I studied Mandarin Chinese, I learned to read and write about 2000 different characters.

And that’s nothing! Native speakers know about 4000 to 7000 characters, and scholars know far more.

Imagine fitting all of that on a keyboard!

That’s why modern Chinese people use Pinyin instead.

It’s ironic that Chinese people who can’t speak a word of English and don’t need transliteration are using Pinyin, but it also makes perfect sense.

To input Chinese into a computer, they simply type in the Pinyin transliteration of the word. This is easy for them because it’s a phonetic system. So they are really just sounding out the Chinese words in our alphabet.

Once they type the Pinyin word, the computer pulls up a list of possible Chinese logograms.

Then they click on character they want. Et voila!!

Of course, these people can read and write Chinese characters by hand, but this system works faster for many of them, especially on a mobile device.

You won’t see anyone in China typing in “chi kung” or “chi gong”. That’s because they all know Pinyin.

If a billion Chinese people are spelling it as qigong, then you probably should too.

5. There’s No Such Thing As a Traditional Spelling

“But chi gong is the traditional spelling!” he said.

Sadly, this statement came from a qigong instructor. (Not one of my instructors! They know better!)

It’s a ridiculous statement, and I hope you can already see why. If not, you’ll see in a moment.

Westerners have been trying to spell out confusing Chinese sounds for roughly 150 years.

I suppose you could call this a tradition, but that’s not what the instructor above meant. He meant that chi gong was a traditional CHINESE spelling.

I know what he actually meant because I asked him to clarify his original statement. He doubled down on his ignorance by insisting that the spelling chi gong was thousands of years old.

(His statement reminded me of a conversation I once had with a man who was adamant that the Bible was originally written in English.)

In other words, this qigong instructor thought that chi gong was an ancient, Chinese spelling. This is, of course, utter nonsense.

I don’t want to confuse you, but the ancient, Chinese spelling of qigong isn’t even 功!

That’s a relatively modern, umbrella term for a variety of ancient Chinese energy-cultivation arts. You can read more about that in my article about the 5 Categories of Qi Cultivation.

6. Google Matters

I believe that qigong is about to explode in popularity. In fact, I believe that it will eventually be bigger than yoga.

Books will be published (including mine). New blogs will pop up. Articles will appear in newspapers and magazines.

And the vast majority of them will use the spelling qigong because publishers always prefer official spellings (see #1).

When someone wants to learn more about that fascinating art that she read about in Time magazine, she’ll type the following into Google:

q – i – g – o – n – g

Right now, billions of people on planet earth have no idea what qigong is, regardless of how you spell it.

As awareness of qigong grows, people will be looking for quality information on the subject. And that usually starts with a Google search.

If you are helping to provide quality information about qigong, then please use the Pinyin spelling so that your information can be easily found.

On the other hand, if you are like the qigong instructor I mentioned above and you are spreading ignorance, then by all means continue using the spelling chi gong!

7. None of the Spellings Are Phonetic Anyway

Some people argue that the spelling “chi kung” is more phonetic.

It’s especially confusing because of that weird “q” in the word qigong.

But it’s easy to explain.

In Mandarin Chinese, which is the official dialect of China, the characters are pronounced as follows:

  • “chee” (rhymes with “free” and sounds like the beginning of the word “cheese”)
  • “gung” (rhymes with “hung”, mostly)

In this example, I chose my own spelling (i.e. “chee gung”) in order to help you understand the pronunciation.

But I made up this spelling. And I could make up more of them because we can only approximate the Chinese sounds in English. For example, the exact “gung” sound is impossible to describe.

In Mandarin Chinese, there are several “ch” sounds. We need to spell them differently, but there are only so many choices that make sense.

The “q” was chosen to represent an aspirated “ch” sound that doesn’t exist in English. The “ch” spelling is used for a different sound.

When they created Pinyin, they could have just as easily reversed the “q” and “ch” sounds. That would probably have been better for the qigong world.

But remember, they weren’t doing this to clarify things for modern qigong practitioners. Their goal was to create a system that worked for thousands and thousands of Chinese characters, and they accomplished that goal.

8. It’s Too Late for Tai Chi

It will take time for Wade-Giles to die its final death.

For example, look at the spelling of tai chi chuan. That’s a simplified version of a Wade Giles abomination: t‘ai-chi ch‘üan.

The correct, Pinyin spelling is taijiquan. But no one recognizes that. Even people who practice tai chi don’t recognize it.

The spellings tai chi chuan and tai chi have gained traction since the 1970s, and are far more searchable. In fact, the searchability of these spellings is why I reluctantly chose to start using them back in 2010.

For complex historical reasons, qigong is only now growing in popularity in the West.

Let’s not make the same mistake that we made with tai chi…I mean…er…taijiquan! Let’s spell qigong correctly!

9. A Qigong Revolution is Coming

A revolution is coming to American soon.

The revolution will change the way that humans view medicine, self-healing, and prevention.

The revolution will include the existing, cutting-edge field of Western medicine called Mind-Body Medicine. But the revolution will also incorporate ancient self-healing wisdom.

I believe that qigong will be at the vanguard of this revolution.

But there are also other aspects of ancient Chinese culture that will join this revolution.

Tai chi (um…I mean taijiquan) will definitely be part of the revolution.

And so will the Chinese art of acupuncture (spelled zhenjiu in Pinyin).

And Chinese herbal medicine (spelled zhongyao xue in Pinyin)

And Chinese massage therapy (spelled tuina in Pinyin)

And even Feng Shui, the art of creating harmonious surroundings with a good flow of energy.

There is a wealth of ancient Chinese knowledge that the Western world — and perhaps the entire planet — desperately needs.

As this knowledge comes out, we will need words.

We will need to cite and search lots of Chinese words and names, not just those for qigong and taijiquan.

Those words will be standardized using the Pinyin spelling. You can help the revolution by using the correct words now.

If you have any questions about anything that I wrote in this article, please post your comment below. I know it’s a confusing subject, but I’ll do my best to clarify things for you!

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.

Share Button

, , ,

28 Responses to 9 Reasons You Should Stop Spelling Qigong Incorrectly

  1. Diego Mejia February 28, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks for the informative post! Without getting into the immense subtleties of the Chinese language, what text or website would you recommend for pronunciation guidelines? I understand you made up your own, as explained above, based on your practical knowledge of Chinese… Do you have any additional tips?

  2. Tom Shea February 28, 2017 at 5:27 pm #

    Hello Anthony…terrific article here. I teach a little Tai Chi…I hesitate to type that but I do understand what you are saying as I have seen it spelt a few ways as well.
    I am teaching tai chi to baby boomers via videos…my niche..and am glad to hear someone of your status clam the coming Qigong and Taijiquan revalution!
    I will stay with Tai Chi spelling as I am an old dog..
    Peace,
    Tom Shea

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais February 28, 2017 at 5:29 pm #

      To be fair, I still have it spelled “tai chi” at the top of my site! But that’s why I think it’s even more important to spell qigong correctly. The revolution is coming!

  3. Beverley H. Kane, MD February 28, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

    Well, I must disagree. I had two years of Chinese in college, with a native speaker, using the Wade-Giles romanization. At least it was phonetic. Who cares now that “chi” without the aspirant apostrophe is actually pronounced “ji”? (Tai chi really is W-G t’ai ji and not dai chi.) When Pinyin emerged, I was disgusted. Now I teach qigong at Stanford (smart people with huge Asian population) and no one–***no one***–who isn’t Chinese or who hasn’t heard of the practice doesn’t pronounce it “kee gong.” I have taken up Chinese again and continue to rail against Pinyin. If I were more xenophobic, I would consider “q” for “ch” a Communist plot. Along with “zh” for “ch/j” and “x” for “sh.” In advanced study of Mandarin one does begin to appreciate the different positions of tongue and jaw for ch, j, zhhhhh (like the French “j” in “je”) and a few sounds in between. Labials and fricatives and all that. BTW, my favorite Chinese language site, Pinyin notwithstanding, is Yellow Bridge: it has Eng-Chin Chin-Eng translations, sound files, etymologies–fascinating character/ideogram/logogram histories–and animated stroke order with beautiful calligraphy.

  4. Sifu Anthony Korahais February 28, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    Beverley, let me be clear that Pinyin is 100% phonetic, and far more intuitive than Wade-Giles. But you have to learn it to appreciate this.

    I understand the confusion with “kee gong”. That’s just a quirk of the Pinyin system, and something that we in the qigong world need to deal with.

    The same thing happened with Wade-Giles, and arguably worse. For example, “Taoism” will be mispronounced for a long time thanks to Wade-Giles. And of course, the same goes for tai chi.

    It used to annoy me when people would say “kee gong”. Now I view it as an opportunity to start a conversation. People are always fascinated to learn the real pronunciation!

    And let’s not forget that people still mispronounce it when it’s spelled “chi gong”. Maybe it’s a bit closer to the correct pronunciation, but it’s far from correct!

  5. mannotw February 28, 2017 at 11:39 pm #

    Good article, and I agree with everything but your suggestion of ‘hung’ as having the same vowel sound as the ‘gong’ in qigong. I’ve been a Mandarin speaker for 40 years, most of that time living in Asia, and I’ve never heard anyone pronounce it that way. The vowel in ‘gong’ is more like the ‘o’ sound found in the word ‘phone’, although obviously we’re missing the ‘ng’ connection in this parallel.

    I’m really nit-picking here. I hope you don’t take offense. Your posting helps to correct a lot of misconceptions.

    Cheers!

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 1, 2017 at 8:21 am #

      Hi Manno. Of course, you’re right about the vowel. But it’s REALLY hard to get Americans to pronounce it correctly. As you know, the Mandarin vowel in qigong is tricky, and doesn’t really correspond to any English vowel. Even your suggestion of the vowel from “phone” isn’t quite right. Ask 10 Americans to say it that way, and I’m sure you’ll agree that none of them are saying qigong correctly.

      Maybe I’ll shoot a video on the subject. My Mandarin pronunciation isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good.

      And thanks for the conversation! I consider this a healthy form of nitpicking!

  6. Mihail Ricinschi March 1, 2017 at 7:30 am #

    Hi, Anthony, and thank you,
    Fortunately, I’ve learned properly to spell the words you are referring to – qigong & taijiquan.
    Practice is more difficult.
    Anyway, there is a difference – you can also write about it – between taiji (not an abreviation of taijiquan) and taijiquan itself.
    Regarding the meaning of qigong, it not only means “cultivating the energy” but also (I think so) “the energy that cultivates”, It’s not only about your intention (practice) but also the result (aim?) of it – personal developing, I hope.
    All the best and good energy,
    Mihail

  7. Suyog March 1, 2017 at 10:07 am #

    Cool post! It’s great you known Mandarin. Must have been so difficult to learn. And yes the world needs a lot of Chinese arts and sciences. It is revolutionary to know that acupuncture works. Accepting one of these opens possibilities to other traditional sciences and claims too which are easily dismissed by rational modes of thought.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 1, 2017 at 10:36 am #

      Thanks, Suyog! I only know a little Mandarin, but yes, I worked VERY hard to learn it. One day, I would like to learn more, and also to delve deeper into learning classical Chinese.

  8. Lucas Bueno March 1, 2017 at 10:17 am #

    Very nice! Wait learn a lot with all of you!

  9. Ray Morneau March 1, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

    Thank You, Sifu Anthony, for such a thorough explanation!!! …even answering my follow up question before I could ask it: spelling taijiquan!!! 🌈🎭

  10. Beverley H. Kane, MD March 1, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

    Wrt phonetics, remember the riddle, “How do you pronounce ‘ghoti’ “? Answer: Fish. You use the “gh” as in “rough,” the “o” as in “women” and the “ti” as in “lotion.” Therein lies the perverse phonetics of Pinyin.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 1, 2017 at 3:11 pm #

      Beverley, I’m really surprised at your dislike of Pinyin. It sounds like you just haven’t spent enough time learning it. When you do, you’ll see that your comments are off base.

      The phonetics of Pinyin are not perverse at all. Pinyin uses an intelligent, intuitive, and consistent system of phonetics to represent the complex Mandarin sounds.

      Sure, you have to spend time learning that “q” equals one sound, and “ch” equals a similar but different one. But that’s true of any transliteration system.

      I understand that it was a joke, but I think you misrepresent Pinyin with your comparison to English phonetics. Pinyin is like Spanish, not English. Once you learn the rules, Spanish pronunciation makes perfect sense, and the same is true of Pinyin.

      I hope you’ll give Pinyin a more thorough try. Spend a month or two learning it, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

      • Beverley H. Kane, MD March 1, 2017 at 4:55 pm #

        Anthony, I appreciate your encouragement. And I totally respect your teaching. And while I have studied Pinyin on/off since the 70s, and can pronounce it when I see it in the news, the average English (or Spanish or French) speaker cannot. My husband, an Argentine-born ex-Harvard linguist, has tried to educate me in the way of paleo-linguistic transformations, even those that beg my credulity, such as Epona = hippo = equus. We both agree Pinyin isn’t phonetically harmonious with any Romance language. I have an appendix in my upcoming book that deals with chi, qi, and ji. How will you handle it in yours? BTW, the Father of Pinyin, Zhou Youguang (“ch/joh” –approximately “Joe,” but not really (high tone), “yoh” (not “you,” low tone, ) “gwan’ “, high tone), died this past January 14 at age 111.

        • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 1, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

          I did not know that about Zhou Youguang. Thanks for that info. I love learning new things like that.

          I’ll handle the qi/chi/ji issue like I always handle things: simply and directly. I already wrote about it in a popular blog post, and I’ll have a similar chapter or section in my book.

          http://flowingzen.com/7966/tai-chi-qi-gong-and-chai-tea/

          As for Pinyin, I think it’s worth asking yourself why so many scholars and universities disagree with you. As I understand it, we’re not talking about just a few people who prefer Pinyin, but an overwhelming consensus among people who teach Mandarin. What is it that they see that you do not? Or vice versa, what is it that you’re seeing that they don’t have a problem with?

          Good luck with your book! Send me the link when it’s published!

          • Beverley H. Kane, MD March 1, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

            Heard about Joe Yo’ Gwan on NPR. All I can say is: At Stanford, I’m surrounded with academics who have no clue about how the average person sees life. Preponderance of professors liking something is not a compelling argument in my book, which is about doing qigong (yes, I am using that spelling) with horses. I have a short quote from you (fair use, I hope) heading one of the chapters. Will post when published. Can’t wait to get yours! I direct all my students to your blogs.

  11. Dion Short March 1, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    Thanks for the information! I usually go back and forth between using “chi kung” and “qigong”. I will start using the spelling “qigong” for now on. I enjoyed the blog. It was very erudite. I look forward to continue learning from you. Always and again, THANKS! And let me add: Often, when I do smile from the heart, I state that I am grateful to have you as my qigong teacher. I thought I might let you know that. Thanks again.

  12. William Tucker March 7, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    Firstly, I appreciated your passion for the subject and your setting out the various issues. I agree that it only makes sense to use pinyin since it is the standard in mainland China, and signs, keyboard inputting etc are increasingly all in pinyin. While I am not a fan of Wade-Giles, to be fair, several of the points you make about it can be equally said for pinyin. They are both phonetic – and they both have letters and letter combinations that need to be learned specifically. For example, the letter i in pinyin is pronounced completely differently after ch than after q. This rule just has to be learned. Just as Alan Watts said that the uninitiated could not pronounce Wade-Giles, the exact same thing could be said about Pinyin.

    Finally, why do you give yourself a title -sifu’? And why do you not use pinyin, as sifu is the Cantonese pronunciation of shifu (the comment box did not allow me to input Chinese)?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 7, 2017 at 3:07 pm #

      Hi William,

      Some of my jibes against Wade-Giles are meant to be humorous. But learning Pinyin is much easier than learning Wade-Giles, if you ask me.

      As for the title “sifu”, it was given to me many years ago by my former teacher. In the kung fu world, the Cantonese is more commonly used than the Mandarin version of Shifu. In fact, I got the title before I spoke much Mandarin.

      The title stuck, and I continue to use it. It’s one of the few Chinese traditions I still keep, although I may drop it too if I find it to be problematic.

  13. Jay Dunbar March 9, 2017 at 8:08 am #

    Agree with your comments on obsolescence of W-G and compelling reasons to use Pinyin. Sharing your article on my school site. I argued same in my dissertation in 1991, “Let 100 Flowers Bloom: A Profile of Taijiquan Instruction in America.” So why you call yourself “Sifu” and not Mandarin “Shifu”?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 9, 2017 at 8:17 am #

      Thanks, Jay. Your dissertation sounds interesting. What is your PhD in?

      As for the title “sifu”, I already answered the same question in this thread somewhere, but basically, it was given to me many years ago by my former teacher. In the kung fu world, the Cantonese version is more commonly used than the Mandarin version. In fact, I got the title before I spoke much Mandarin.

      The title stuck, and I continue to use it. It’s one of the few Chinese traditions I still keep, although I may drop it too if I find it to be problematic.

  14. Cindy March 9, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    After reading these posts on the Chinese language, I need to go meditate. Why?, because these posts stressed me out. I enjoy learning from everyone, but this sounds more like a competition, esp. when one has to throw in Stanford and Harvard with the intent to impress. I am not impressed. Appears like this is not a discussion but a competition.

    At this point this entire posting about language, whether it is Cantonese, Chinese, or whatever “nese”, has turned me off. I am only interested in one type of “nese” at this time, and that’s my “knees” and keeping them healthy!!! LOL

    This is about sharing info without the competition.

    By the way Sifu, in response to Jay asking, “So why [do] you call yourself “Sifu” and not Mandarin “Shifu”?, can easily be remedied if you use “Master.” You certainly have earned that title.

    But perhaps you are like me when I say “titles” do not matter. My name is what matters, since my parents gave me that wonderful gift.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 9, 2017 at 10:41 am #

      I’m sorry this stressed you out! I don’t see this as a competition at all. My intent was to present facts, which I feel that I did. I also expressed a strong preference for the Pinyin system, and gave my reasons why. That’s it.

      As for titles, there’s nothing I dislike more than “Master”. It has far too many negative connotations in English. The last thing I want is people saying, “Yes, Master.”

      I’m not denying that I’ve reached a certain level of mastery. I have. If there were a better word or title, I would consider it, but so far, the best term I’ve found is “Sifu” (or Shifu). And even that may end up being too patriarchal for my tastes.

    • Beverley H. Kane, MD March 9, 2017 at 11:22 am #

      Cindy, sorry you are feeling stressed. We are merely pushing hands here.

Leave a Comment or Question

© 2017 Flowing Zen and Anthony Korahais. All Rights Reserved. Terms of Use