The term t'ai chi ch'uan literally translates as "supreme ultimate fist", "boundless fist", "great extremes boxing", or simply "the ultimate" (note that chi in this instance is the Wade-Giles transliteration of the Pinyin jí, and is distinct from ch'i / qì, meaning "life-force" or "energy"). The concept of the Taiji ("supreme ultimate") appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy, where it represents the fusion or mother of Yin and Yang into a single Ultimate, represented by the Taijitu symbol. Thus, tai chi theory and practice evolved in agreement with many Chinese philosophical principles, including those of Taoism and Confucianism.
Tai chi training primarily involves learning solo routines, known as forms (套路 taolu). While the image of tai chi chuan in popular culture is typified by exceedingly slow movement, many tai chi styles (including the three most popular, Yang, Wu and Chen) have secondary forms of a faster pace. Some traditional schools of tai chi teach partner exercises known as "pushing hands", and martial applications of the forms' postures.
The art received its name when Ong Tong He, a scholar in the Imperial Court, witnessed a demonstration by Yang Lu Chan ("Unbeatable Yang"). Ong wrote: "Hands holding Taiji shakes the whole world, a chest containing ultimate skill defeats a gathering of heroes."
In China, Tai chi chuan is categorized under the Wudang grouping of Chinese martial arts—that is, the arts applied with internal power (an even broader term encompassing the internal arts is Neijia) Although the Wudang name falsely leads people to believe these arts originated at the so-called Wudang Mountain, it is simply a dichotomization to distinguish the skills, theories and applications of the "internal arts" from those of the Shaolin grouping, the "hard" or "external" martial art styles.
Since the first widespread promotion of tai chi's health benefits by Yang Shaohou, Yang Chengfu, Wu Chien-ch'uan and Sun Lutang in the early 20th century, it has developed a worldwide following among people with little or no interest in martial training, for its benefit to health and health maintenance. Medical studies of tai chi support its effectiveness as an alternative exercise and a form of martial arts therapy.
Focusing the mind solely on the movements of the form purportedly helps to bring about a state of mental calm and clarity. Besides general health benefits and stress management attributed to tai chi training, aspects of traditional Chinese medicine are taught to advanced tai chi students in some traditional schools.
Some martial arts, especially the Japanese martial arts, require students to wear a uniform during practice. Tai chi chuan schools do not generally require a uniform, but both traditional and modern teachers often advocate loose, comfortable clothing and flat-soled shoes.
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