Terminology and Jargon - Part 1
by Dan Docherty (Combat January 1994)

Terminology is simply names or special terms used in our area of study.

Jargon originally referred to the chattering noises of small animals and by extension gibberish. More usually jargon is used to refer to the idioms and special vocabulary used by a particular group or profession. It is not uncommon for such jargon to be both obscure and pretentious.

As the martial arts have evolved and developed so has the terminology and jargon used.

Within the terminology of Tai Chi Chuan there are many references to animals and it is often said that many of the techniques in Chinese martial arts in general and Tai Chi Chuan in particular are based on animal movements.

I'd like to suggest that this is not necessarily the case, even when techniques have names such as "White Crane Flaps Its Wings" or "Golden Cockerel Stands on One Leg".

Are we really to believe that it was not until a bird was observed flying obliquely did there exist the technique of "Flying Oblique"? That not until a tiger was observed being returned to a Mountain after being embraced did there exist the eponymous technique?

I believe that whilst observing animal behavious is likely to have played a part in the development of the art, in many cases the names given to techniques are simply descriptive of the actions performed. Sometimes the names used contain literary allusions, sometimes even jokes.

For example in Tai Chi Nei Kung there is the technique called "Wu Gang Cutting Laurels". This unfortunate gentleman was banished to the moon after offending the gods and was sentenced to chop the cassia trees which grow in abundance there, unfortunately every mark his axe made in the tree instantly healed up. The Nei Kung technique not surprisingly uses repeated chopping movements.

In the sabre form there is the technique "Taking off the Boots while Drunk". This refers to an incident involving the Li Bai, who was renowned for his drinking, his swordsmanship and his poetry, though not necessarily in that order. Under the affluence of incohol, Li ordered the powerful eunuch, Gao Li-shi, to take off his boots for him, thus incurring Gao's undying hatred.

The technique of "Embracing the Moon" exists in both Tai Chi sword and sabre forms. Our old friend, Li Bai, is said to have met his death in 761 AD when, drunk and overcome by the beauty of the reflection of the moon on the Yangtze, he reached out to embrace it and fell in and drowned. Incidentally the name also indicates that when applying this technique we should be leaning well forward, rather than standing erect.

In the Tai Chi spear form there is the technique, "the Black-eared Kite Flies and The Fish Leaps". This is a direct quotation from the Book of Odes, most of which dates from the early Zhou dynasty; i.e. from around 1000BC.

Even "straightforward" names such as "Brush Knee Twist Step" and "Fist Under Elbow are widely misunderstood. Many people think that Brush Knee Twist Step refers to brushing your own knee and twisting your own step whereas the name in fact refers to diverting a kick and destroying the opponent's balance with a palm strike. Likewise because we place the fist under the elbow when performing the eponymous technique, many believe that this is the derivation of the name, whereas the name derives from an upward diversion of the opponent's punch followed by a counter punch to the ribs.

Other names such as "Cloud Hands" are Chinese puns. The character for cloud sounds similar to the character for turning hence the name

Some terminology and jargon is of more recent origin, used to refer to techniques which the teacher doesn't know the correct name for or to techniques which he ahs introduced to Tai Chi Chuan from some other system. For example, one of my teacher's former student's in Australia taught a technique called "Willow Tree", which does not exist in Tai Chi Chuan and , having forgotten some of the Nei Kung exercises made some up, incorporating techniques from Wing Chun.

My teacher's uncle went even further. Never a man to say "no" to his students, he would tell them that Tai Chi had everything other systems had including techniques such as "Kuan Gung Stroking His Beard" and he even changed his form to include such techniques. Even worse, some more specialised techniques, such as "Running Thunder Hand" he deliberately taught wrongly to certain students, one of whom, in Malaysia, was stunned some 12 years ago when with the brashness I corrected the self same technique which he had been practicing wrongly for more that twenty years.

While even fifty years ago most of this nomenclature was probably not very well understood, nowadays, it has become archaic and will remain so unless Tai Chi instructors and students spend some time researching and attempting to understand and explain their art instead of seeking to make it more mysterious than it really is.

It is for this reason that in seminars I get the students to recite the names of the techniques as we do them in the forms.

In the second part of this article I'll deal with jargon.

Terminology and Jargon - Part 2
by Dan Docherty (Combat Feb 1994)

Let's now deal with jargon. As martial artists we have our own arcane and bizarre language which has various dialects depending on the art practiced. There are a number of defences we can make of our use of jargon.

Firstly, jargon is concise and serves as a sort of shorthand in a conversation between experts. It also enables us immediately to "cut to the chase" when engaged in theoretical and technical discussions.

Jargon has a further morale raising and suportive role, enabling one freemason in the Grand Lodge of (in particular) Internal Martial Arts to recognise another without having to don an apron and roll up the left trouser leg, although this is still an optional extra.

For some of us indeed, jargon also serves as a method of keeping our students and other schools in particular and the public in general at bay and to convince them of our possession of recondite knowledge.

Of course, every field of human endeavour has its own special vocabulary and technical language isn't automatically to be considered jargon. When as exponents of the internal martial arts we communicate with one another, it isn't necessarily wrong to write or speak in a way that the man in the street can't understand.

The key test for jargon is whether or not the thoughts expressed could have been expressed more simply without any loss of communication.

In the context of the Internal Martial Arts, we have the further problem that not only are many practitioners ignorant of the terminology, but they don't even know how to use the jargon correctly.

For example :- "....sexual energy is Chi"; "Chi is an invaluable aid in self defence." and each of the Tai Chi "weapons will teach the practitioner some unique facet of extending his Chi"

Possibly the hirsute American Tai Chi expert who has cast these pearls before us knows more Tai Chi jargon than the term "Chi".

Then again, possibly not.

One Tai Chi instructor in Australia has invented a plethora of lacklustre and saddly uninformative terms such as the dreaded "Dragon Prawn". Presumably it gives the opponent indigestion.

Please don't assume that this problem exists only in the West. Gu Liu-sheng, one of China's foremost martial arts writers on Tai Chi Chuan in his book Tai Chi Chuan Shu (The Art of Tai Chi Chuan) uses jargon in a way that detracts from rather than enhances our understanding. One of my Chinese lady students asked me what Gu meant by the term Ning Jin.

The term Ning can be found in one of my martial arts dictionaries, but not Ning Jin. The literal translation for Ning is to twist and it was obvious from the context that Gu meant the use of Lie Jin which is a twisting or spiralling force.

When I was studying for my law degree back in Glasgow in the early Seventies, one of the first things we were taught was that words take their character and colour from those that surround them. This is no less the case with Chinese characters and sometimes the same character is used in different ways within the same paragraph or even within the same sentence.

A perusal of the five major essays that constitute the Tai Chi Chuan Classics: i.e The Theory of Tai Chi Chuan, The Classic of Tai Chi Chuan, An Exposition of the Thirteen Tactics, The Song Of The Thirteen Tactics and The Fighters Song; reveals that while the term Chi sometimes is used to refer only to the breath, sometimes to the circulation, in no instance is it used to mean some kind of force or power. The term used for force or power is Jin/Jing.

In Tai Chi Chuan there are eight fundamental methods of using Jin, each of which is identified with one of the Eight Trigrams. I find that this is one example where the Chinese terms are much more precise than the unsatisfactory translations that exist for them in English. However, as some of these terms such as "lu" cannot be found in any encyclopedia or dictionarysave recent ones that deal only with the martial arts, we have the possibility that they have been deliberately invented to describe a particular action, that they were wrongly transcribed or that there was a problem with dialect.

It is a common trait in the jargon pedants and armchair warriors of Tai Chi Chuan to wish to lecture us on how to use these eight methods to fight. In fact it matters not a whit what techniques are used whether in competition or real fighting, what matters is that they should be effective. Criticism can be acceptable and even valuable, but only where it springs from extensive personal experience and practice.

Many of the brotherhood of the martial arts are in the high risk category when it comes to the use of jargon.

There are insecure individuals who feel they must use it to make an uncaring world believe that it needs their rather dubious services.

There are individuals who are ashamed of their own lack of knowledge and ability and who are therefore driven to find suitable language to mask their shortcomings.

Then there are the aspiring elitists and would be mystics who try and set themselves apart from the common herd by reciting an arcane litany of "reeling silk energy" and "Chi pulses".

We should also consider the marketing concept of strategic semantics. This is the gentle art of conveying meanings which contribute to the selling effectiveness of an advertisement and avoiding any meanings which detract from this.There is a strong link between the use of strategic semantics and jargon which has led many martial artists who have a degree of genuine knowledge and ability to bastardise and emasculate their art so that it fits the marketing image which they have created.

Over the years I've read ads from various instructors deploying strategic semantics; so we learn that Tai Chi Chuan is :

"an unexcelled but non-violent form of self-defence"; 
"a dance of equality"; 
"strength through gentleness"; 
with "continuous yielding pushing hands".

This delightful illusion of joyful people performing their gentle art of Tai Chi in a land of milk and honey doesn't accord with the recent history of Tai Chi Chuan. The consternation that would be created in this paradise if it were to be visited by the shades of the great masters of the past is unimaginable. Men like Yang Lu-chan, chief combat instructor of the Manchu Imperial Guard, or the soldier Wang Lan-ting who, after killing a number of Manchus, had to seek sanctuary in a Buddhist temple.

The reality is that there are many Tai Chi practitioners who would prefer to continue to practice their "dance of equality " than to learn the genuine art from such men.

In the recent past, the great masters were not mystic sages; many of them were not even good men by either Christian or Chinese standards and in some cases couldn't even write their own names. And yet, and yet many of them also employed startegic semantics.

When with the overthrow of the Ching dynasty at the turn of the century, the old order was destroyed and with it the position occupied in it by masters of the martial arts, these masters had to market their art to make it attractive and accessible to the rich men of their day. So over the years we have had "small frame" Tai Chi Chuan, "fast form" Tai Chi Chuan, "simplified" Tai Chi Chuan and so forth.

Many people from other disciplines became Tai Chi Chuan instructors and so started to bring in unrelated and foreign jargon such as references to chakras and acupuncture points to make mysterious the little Tai Chi Chuan they do know. This only confuses the issue further, requiring us to study acupuncture and yoga if we are able to make anything of their contributions.

The internal martial arts have many unique qualities, but these are often obscured by the incorrect and often unneccessary use of technical language which may or may not also be jargon. It is necessary to educate first of all ourselves and then the general public in the correct terminology and technical terms. Unless and until this is done the internal arts will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented.