Tai chi, or t’ai chi, comes from an mid-19th century system of writing Chinese terms for Western pronunciation, called Wade-Giles. While the effort was to provide a phonetic spelling, even here the intention was that the “ch” sound was pronounced with a “j”.
The true confusion, though, lies in the term chi. In the Wade-Giles system, ch’i is used for the term meaning “life-force energy”.
Ch’i equates to the qi found in qigong. This word’s spelling comes from the pinyin system, developed and published in the 1950s. In pinyin, the q’s are intended to be pronounced with the “ch” sound, so qigong is pronounced “chee-ghung”.
In this article we will use the pinyin spelling of tai chi – taiji – to encourage popular usage of this spelling, as it more clearly points to the intended meaning of the word. Taiji does not, in fact, explicitly refer to life force energy. It, rather, means ‘polarity’ – that is, the harmonious balance of Yin and Yang. The system of martial arts known as taijiquan begins by developing this harmonious balance in the practitioner’s body. For this reason and in keeping with the harmony of opposites, taiji is both a healing art and a martial art. That is, taiji is the art of working with the “supreme polarity” as it manifests in and through the human body. So, for the record, the compound word taiji means “supreme polarity”.