What does Taiji mean?

The most common translation of Taijiquan (often just called Tai Chi) is great ultimate fist. This is a pretty hilarious translation because it has little meaning in English. With the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and all the irony this implies, it is high time we actually get a working translation.

To do this I must first explain some difficult terms. There is a saying form the Taijiquan classics, "Taiji is born (sheng) of wuji and is the mother of yin and yang." Immediately we have a problem. Wuji is generally translated "emptiness" or "the ultimate void," and it is a term most commonly associated with Buddhism where several distinct types of emptiness are described. While the term Taiji is generally associated with Daoism . It is easy to understand how this conflation of Daoist and Buddhist terminology happened. The vocabulary of Buddhists, Daoists and Confucians has been mixed up a lot in promotion of the idea of "the three religions" (sanjiao). This Sung Dynasty idea, which comes in and out of fashion, recognizes all three religions as important and mutually compatible. It is also the case that many Buddhist terms were translated from Indian languages into Chinese using Daoist terminology, which sometimes led Daoists to then change their vocabulary to distinguish their concepts and practices.
Thus the word that should be used with taiji is not wuji, but huntun.

If you go into a Chinese restaurant and order wanton soup you get a stock made from a combination of beef, chicken, pork and vegetable with dumplings floating in it. Tasting the stock you might exclaim, "hmmm, I can't quite figure out what this is made from, it's a kind of undifferentiated chaos," And that's what the name wanton means, completely undifferentiated chaos--"wanton" in Cantonese, "huntun" in Mandarin. The soup is a representation of a Daoist cosmological concept; the dumplings are the clouds floating in chaos.

An experience of totally undifferentiated chaos is, by definition, the closest a human being, with human senses and anatomy, can come to experiencing Dao. It is what we experience when we taste all tastes at once (thus the soup named for it), or we hear all sounds at once, without any differentiation. It is when we see all color and movement simultaneously, without any references to up and down, in or out, light or dark. It is all sensations- hot-cold, moist-dry, hard-soft,--felt simultaneously.

The funny thing about this experience of huntun is that it is transient. The moment we get there, we start to notice patterns, light-dark, up-down, salty-sweet--suddenly we are observing qi. But what happens right in between the experience of huntun and this recognition of patterns? That is what we call taiji! It is the moment where things have just begun to differentiate, a place where there is still light inside of dark, an experience where up is still inside of down, where warm is inside of cold. The idea is well captured in the familiar yinyang symbol.yinyang

Now that we have replaced wuji with the term huntun, the saying from the Taijiquan Classics above would read:  "Taiji is born from huntun." This is still problematic because birth implies only one direction. Sheng, the term being translated here as "born" can also mean "life," and in this case it means "life" in its total sense-- both manifestation and destruction together.

In this cosmology all things are mutually self-re-creating.  Creation is an event/experience without agency. All inspiration emerges from huntun, but also, all ideas die there.  All aggression arises from huntun and it also resolves/returns to huntun. It is multi-directional. All things which come into existence pass through taiji on their way to manifestation, as do all things going out of existence on their way to disintegration or dispersion.