A few months back, I was on a business trip with my wife. After a long day at an alternative health conference, we decided to stop in a cafe for some refreshments. Just for fun, I asked the server for a “Tai Chi latte”.
I figured it was worth a shot. I didn’t get a cosmic latte, but I did get a delicious cup of Chai Tea, which was almost as good.
If you don’t get the joke, then keep reading. You will soon. Along the way, you’ll also learn about the difference between Qi Gong and Tai Chi. As a bonus, you may also develop a taste for chai tea.
If you’re confused about the difference between Tai Chi and Qi Gong, don’t fret. You’re not alone. Even among Tai Chi teachers (mediocre ones, at least) there is a ton of confusion and misunderstanding. So grab a cup of chai tea, relax, and read on. You’re sure to learn a few things.
Let’s start with some working definitions so that we have a good springboard to jump from:
- QI GONG is the ancient Chinese art of energy cultivation. It is especially beneficial for boosting health, vitality, internal power, and mental clarity.
- TAI CHI is a form of Chinese Kung Fu. It is a martial art that emphasizes softness, internal energy development, and spiritual cultivation. It also happens to be good for the health.
- CHAI TEA is a delicious, spicy beverage from South Asia. It can be enjoyed with or without milk.
So why is there so much confusion out there? Why, for example, does WebMD offer an overview of Tai Chi and Qi Gong — but nowhere do they even mention that Tai Chi is a martial art? I’m not sure how they could overlook such a simple and important fact. Perhaps they need a delicious cup of Chai Tea to help clear their minds?
Before we go any further, we need to fix some terminology. When people say Tai Chi, what they really mean is the art called Tai Chi Chuan.
The word “Chuan” (拳) means Kung Fu or Martial Art. So Tai Chi Chuan really means Cosmos Martial Art or Cosmos Kung Fu. In other words, it is an martial art that follows the natural laws of the cosmos.
Most people leave off the Chuan, especially in America. The term Tai Chi has become ubiquitous. It has gotten to the point where if you say Tai Chi Chuan, people look at you funny. After scratching their heads for a minute, they eventually say, “Oh, you mean Tai Chi!”
When you say “Tai Chi”, it’s technically incorrect. But that’s the phrase in common usage, so good luck trying to change it. Believe me — I’ve tried. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
In an effort to better educate people about these arts, I myself have adopted the term Tai Chi. That’s the only way people understand you. And if they don’t understand you, then you’ll never be able to educate them, no matter how much free Chai Tea you offer them.
Nevertheless, it’s important for us to understand the difference between Tai Chi (a philosophy) and Tai Chi Chuan (an internal martial art). I’ll explain more about this later.
But first, let’s talk about spelling. Chinese is really confusing for Americans. The fundamental problem is simple. How the heck do you spell a word that looks like this:
Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to spell a Chinese word in English. Over the years, there have been different attempts at phonetically spelling Chinese words. The two most widely known spelling systems are called Wade-Giles, and Pinyin.
Pinyin vs. Wade Giles vs. Starbucks
The Pinyin spelling system was developed in the 1950s. Today, it is the official way to transcribe Chinese characters into Western writing. But it didn’t become the official system until the 1980s.
Before the 1980s, other systems were also used, notably the Wade-Giles system.
If you know both systems, you know that Pinyin is the superior one. But that doesn’t matter.
People typically just use what they are familiar with. And in America, people are more familiar with Wade-Giles. That’s why you’re used to seeing the spelling “Tai Chi” (Wade-Giles) as opposed to “Tai Ji” (Pinyin).
If you write an email to a friend and say that you’re taking Tai Ji, she probably won’t understand what you mean. There’s a good chance she’ll think you’re at Starbucks drinking Chai Tea. In that case, she’ll probably be wondering why you didn’t invite her to join you.
If you write that you’re taking Tai Chi, she’ll immediately have a clearer picture of what you mean. Most Americans, without even knowing it, recognize the Wade Giles spelling for Tai Chi.
What about Qi Gong? The Wade Giles spelling is Chi Gong. But today, the Pinyin spelling (Qi Gong, or Qigong) is more widely recognized.
Why? Probably because the art of Qi Gong didn’t make it to America until much later than Tai Chi. Whereas Tai Chi came here in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 20-30 years later that people started to hear about Qi Gong.
Although Qi Gong is more widely recognized, it is also more widely mispronounced. Actually, Tai Chi is also widely mispronounced. Chai Tea, perhaps thanks to Starbucks, is usually pronounced correctly.
Before we talk more about pronunciation, let’s quickly talk about dialects.
There are dozens of them in Chinese, but the two main dialects are Cantonese and Mandarin. Of the two, Mandarin has been adopted as the national dialect of China, and it is becoming the worldwide standard for speaking Chinese.
I’ll use the Mandarin pronunciation for that reason, and also because it’s the one that I speak best.
Keep in mind that it’s only the dialect that varies; the writing remains the same. For example, if you had a newspaper article in Chinese, both the Cantonese and the Mandarin speaker would be able to read and understand it. But if they read it out loud, it would sound completely different.
There is no perfect comparison for English speakers. The best comparison would be someone with a thick Scottish accent who you could hardly understand. You could both read the same books, but reading those books out loud would sound pretty different.
Here are the correct pronunciations using the Mandarin dialect:
- QI is pronounced “chee” (rhymes with “free” and sounds like the word “cheese” without the ending. )
- GONG is pronounced “gung” (rhymes with “hung”, and sounds a bit like the word “gunk”)
- TAI is pronounced like the English word “tie” (the thing men wear around their necks).
- CHI is pronounced like the English word “gee” (as in “gee whiz”).
Don’t make the mistake of saying “Key Gung” for Qi Gong. The first word should sound like “chee”, not “key”. This one annoys me to no end when I hear it from instructors. I would rather them “Chai Gong” than “Key Gong”. At least Chai is tasty.
Most people also also mispronounce the “Chi” in Tai Chi. It should sound like the letter “G”. It should NOT sound like the “chee” from Qi Gong. But, since it’s already in common usage, it’s a tough battle.
If you thought that the Chi from Tai Chi meant energy, then prepare to have your mind blown. The “Qi” (chee) from Qigong does indeed mean energy; but the Chi from Tai Chi does not.
Don’t worry. You’re not alone if you thought this. I would venture to guess that 60% of people who practice Tai Chi are misinformed. Unfortunately, the same is true of many Tai Chi teachers.
In fact, I once met a Tai Chi teacher who tried to argue with me on this point. He thought I was crazy to suggest that the “Chi” from Tai Chi didn’t mean energy.
He’s entitled to his own opinion, of course, but not his own facts. If you encounter a teacher like this, it’s probably best to go find a new one.
- The Chinese character Qi (氣) means energy. That much is simple.
- The Chinese character Chi (極,) means ultimate. That’s a literal translation. When combined with the word Tai (太), it then means “Cosmos”.
So technically, Tai Chi (or Tai Ji in the Pinyin spelling) means “Cosmos”. The typical translation of Tai Chi Chuan is “Grand Ultimate Fist”. It’s an awful translation. It shows a lack of understanding of classical Chinese, as well as Chinese philosophy. As I said earlier, the translation should be Cosmos Martial Art or Cosmos Kung Fu.
Of course, Tai Chi Chuan is based on the flow of Qi (energy), hence the confusion. To eliminate the confusion, a new spelling of Tai Chi Chuan is often used: Tai Ji Quan. This is more correct, but as I said, it’s not widely recognized by Americans.
What about Chai Tea? Well, be prepared to have your mind blown AGAIN! Guess what the Hindi word for tea is? Yep. It’s chai. So when you say “Chai Tea”, you’re actually saying “Tea Tea”. Which is fine, since tea is so delicious.
The Philosophy of Tai Chi
The Chinese philosophy of Tai Chi is an ancient one, and it predates the art of Tai Chi Chuan by many centuries. This philosophy permeates Chinese culture and history. The symbol for this philosophy is one that you instantly recognize:
This symbol is called the Tai Chi Tu (Tu just means “symbol” or “diagram”). This concept was adopted by Zhang San Feng, the founder of Tai Chi, not invented by him. For example, long before Zhang San Feng was born, the Tai Chi philosophy was already in use in Chinese medicine.
So technically, if you use Tai Chi without the Chuan at the end, then it’s not clear if you’re referring to the philosophy, or to the martial art. And since Tai Chi Chuan incorporates the philosophy of Tai Chi, it gets even more confusing for many people. But now that you understand the difference, you can educate them, perhaps over a delicious cup of Chai Tea.
Which One Do You Want?
What if you wanted to order a delicious Chai Tea latte, but you didn’t know what it was called? Even worse, what if you didn’t know that such a thing existed! This is exactly what happens to a lot of Tai Chi students.
Many people go to learn Tai Chi, but what they are really looking for is Qi Gong. They just want some simple, enjoyable exercises to improve their health. They want results, and fast. They don’t want to learn long, complex routines, and they certainly aren’t interested in martial arts. But that’s exactly what they’ll get if they go learn Tai Chi.
Qi Gong is a better option for most people, especially in the beginning. A simple Qi Gong exercise like Lifting The Sky gives you a powerful tool for cultivating health, without all the difficulty of Tai Chi. This is why all of my students begin with Qi Gong. No exceptions.
But later, after practicing Qi Gong for a few months, you may change your mind. You may want to learn something that builds strength, flexibility, and balance in addition to health. You may also want to have the option of blocking a punch or neutralizing a grab should you ever need it.
The Beauty of Tai Chi
Why might you want to learn a martial art like Tai Chi? In my experience, Tai Chi is the perfect martial art for people who think they’re not interested in martial arts. Why? Because it emphasizes using internal power rather than external strength; because it teaches you to use softness rather than aggression; because it teaches you to relax rather than tense.
These skills are not only useful in fighting, but also in daily life. For example, being able to relax under pressure is something that could easily save your life on the highway. In fact, it saved mine years ago when I it helped me to avoid an oncoming truck that was trying to pass a tractor trailer on a small, country road.
If you’re already thinking that Tai Chi sounds like the perfect art for women, as well as non-aggressive men, then you’re exactly right. As a small-sized man (5’8″ and 145lbs), this is why I finally settled on on Tai Chi as the perfect martial art for me. After trying just about every martial art under the sun, I finally accepted that I would never be able to compete with big strong guys when it comes to strength.
Luckily, I don’t have to.
Many of my students are bigger, stronger, and younger than me. Why do they have so much trouble handling me in sparring? Because I don’t play their game.
I don’t use strength. I use Tai Chi.
My Tai Chi is powered by the internal strength that I develop through Qi Gong. Because of that internal energy, I can handle a big and strong attacker despite my small size. And more importantly, because Tai Chi makes me relaxed and peaceful (as opposed to tense and aggressive, like many martial arts), I can still sit down, relax, and savor a delicious cup of Chai Tea.
Drop me a comment below if you have any questions. And if you haven’t already gotten your free e-books and your free lesson, then make sure to grab them here.Best regards, 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 how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.