GUEST AUTHOR: Michael Heveran has spent the past ten years practicing a variety of martial arts, especially European sword arts such as Girard Thibault’s rapier system and Achille Marozzo’s sword and buckler. His unarmed background includes Wing Chun, American Kenpo, Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, and Capoeira. Michael’s writings can be found at Antitheses, a blog devoted to conceptual questions in martial arts.
Note: This article contains many Chinese characters. If your computer can’t read Chinese characters, you will probably see empty squares or question marks instead. If you want to see the Chinese characters but can’t, refer to Wikipedia’s guide to installing East Asian language support.
In the world of martial arts, China is incredibly influential. Unfortunately, few martial artists have taken the time to learn anything about the Chinese language. A surprising number of misconceptions are due to simple ignorance of the language. I believe that every martial artist should be a cosmopolitan martial artist, knowledgeable about a wide range of arts from across the world. With that in mind, I’ve put together this primer on Chinese. A little bit of knowledge about the Chinese language will go a long way to set a foundation for learning more about Chinese martial arts.
Names matter. It’s very hard to learn about a subject without a name you can assign attributes to. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion over the names of Chinese martial arts. This is very bad, because when naming systems are inconsistent, it can disrupt the way your mind stores information. Suppose I read a book about Xingyi. In my mind, I file that information under the “Xingyi” column. Then I see a video about Hsing-I, and I file that information under the “Hsing-I” column. But Xingyi and Hsing-I are exactly the same art, just written differently. If I didn’t understand that fact, I might even waste my time trying to find differences between Xingyi and Hsing-I.
With that in mind, there are three things that you need to know in order to understand the names of Chinese martial arts.
1. The Western World Doesn’t Know How to Romanize Chinese
Chinese uses a non-Roman writing system. There is no alphabet, so any attempt to represent Chinese sounds with our alphabet is necessarily an approximation. For example, the characters could be romanized as gong fu, kung fu, gung foo, and so on.
To avoid confusion, the Chinese government has adopted a standard Mandarin romanization system called Hanyu Pinyin, or “Pinyin” for short. Pinyin is a good system that is used almost universally by modern students of Mandarin, and is ubiquitous in mainland China.
However, the Western world doesn’t seem to realize that there is a standard system. Westerners continue to use older romanization systems such as the Wade-Giles system, and that’s when they use any system at all. That’s why Chinese names are so inconsistently written in the West; the writers don’t adhere to the standards.
2. Some Martial Arts Use Mandarin, Others Use Cantonese
Chinese is famously comprised of many dialects. Mandarin is the official dialect of China and by far the most useful. Both systems that I mentioned above – Hanyu Pinyin and Wade-Giles – are meant for Mandarin.
Cantonese is also important for martial artists. Cantonese is spoken primarily in southern China, especially Hong Kong and Macau. Most of us know about Cantonese because it is over-represented in the West, although it may only be the 3rd or 4th most commonly spoken dialect in China.
Because Cantonese is not the national language of any country, there is no standard way of romanizing it. Two common romanization systems are Yale and Jyutping, but there are several other systems in common use.
Cantonese is commonly used for southern Chinese martial arts such as Wing Chun and Hung Gar. However, any teacher is free to teach in whatever dialect he likes. It’s not uncommon to see the same martial art under a completely different name depending on the origins of the teacher.
3. Chinese Characters Can be Simplified or Traditional
Chinese characters are the clearest way to express a Chinese name. If you can read Chinese characters, it’s best not to translate or romanize them at all. But even then, there’s a problem. In the 1950s, the Chinese government simplified the writing system in an effort to increase public literacy. Since then, there have been two sets of Chinese characters: Simplified and traditional.
Mainland China and Singapore use simplified characters, while traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and many Chinese communities overseas. Both sets of characters are useful, depending on where you live or what you study.
Case Study: Tai Chi or Taiji?
“Tai Chi” is perhaps the best example of romanization problems. Let’s take a look at how this is supposed to be written:
Hanyu Pinyin: Taijiquan
Wade-Giles: T’ai Chi Ch’üan
The name “Tai Chi” seems to be a bastardization of the Wade-Giles form. In other words, someone saw the Wade-Giles version but didn’t understand the apostrophes or the umlaut. As a result, in the West you can see all kinds of variations: Taijiquan, Tai Chi Chuan, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Taiji Chuan, T’aichi Quan, etc.
Some writers try to get around romanization by translating the name into English. This might work for simple names, like White Crane or Northern Praying Mantis, but Taijiquan does not translate well. “Taiji” is an ancient and complex metaphysical concept. “Quan” literally means “fist,” and signifies that it is a method of fighting. Some English translations of Taijiquan include: “Supreme Ultimate Boxing,” “Fist of the Great Ultimate,” “Supreme Pole fist,” etc. These are essentially meaningless translations, so the name is best left untranslated.
If you can’t translate the name and Chinese characters aren’t an option, then you had better pick a romanization system and stick with it.
Bring on the Names
What follows is a table of names for a variety of Chinese martial arts. Each name is written in English, romanized Mandarin and Cantonese, and both simplified and traditional characters. It is meant as an extended list of examples, not anything like an exhaustive list of Chinese martial arts. Names are sorted alphabetically by their common names, which are frequently inaccurate. When there are multiple entries in succession in a single cell, that means that there are multiple valid options.
If you’d like to know more about the information in this table, please refer to the FAQ at the bottom of the page.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do all of those numbers and lines mean?
They tell you the tone of each syllable. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal, which means that the tone of a syllable affects its meaning. Mandarin has four tones – or five, if you count “neutral.” Cantonese essentially has six tones, but it’s a little more complicated. In Pinyin, tones are expressed with little lines above certain vowels. In the other romanization systems above, tones are expressed with numbers.
If you’re only interesting in reading small amounts of Chinese in the West, tones may not matter to you. Most of the time, Chinese is not romanized with tones.
What does Quan/Ch’üan mean?
The word Quán is the most common suffix in Chinese martial arts names. It literally means “fist,” but it’s often translated as “boxing.” In reality, it means something like “way of fighting” or “martial art.” So to fully translate the name of White Crane(bái hè quán), you would actually end up with “White Crane Martial Art.” This translation is redundant, although it’s more accurate than “White Crane Fist” or “White Crane Boxing.”
I don’t think that we should translate the word Quán. “Fist” is a literal translation, but doesn’t really make sense. “Boxing” is antiquated and inaccurate, chosen by translators who were under the false assumption that Chinese martial arts are analogous to Western boxing. If you want to preserve this part of the name, just say it in Chinese instead of English.
Are there other ways to romanize Chinese? Why did you pick these four romanization systems?
Of course, there are all sorts of romanization systems, but I picked the four that seemed most widespread. For Mandarin, this is an easy decision: Pinyin is standard in China, while Wade-Giles still clings on in the West. Cantonese isn’t nearly so standardized, but Yale and Jyutping are both relatively well-known systems.
What about dialects other than Mandarin or Cantonese?
There are many dialects of Chinese other than Mandarin and Cantonese, some of which are more widely spoken than Cantonese. But Mandarin is by far the most common, and Cantonese is disproportionately well-represented among martial artists in the Western world. Most names of Chinese martial arts that you can encounter in the West can be traced to one of these two dialects.
How do I find the equivalent pronunciation in Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese?
First, copy the traditional Chinese characters for the name you are interested in. Then paste the characters into an appropriate online dictionary. It’s important that you find a dictionary that is dedicated to that particular language, not an all-in-one dictionary like Google Translate. You’re not just looking for the English equivalent, you’re looking for how it is romanized.
Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese all have multiple writing systems, so you may be required to use a specific search field for Chinese characters. Each of the following terms refers to Chinese characters:
Vietnamese: Hán tu.
Why did you choose these particular martial arts?
Chinese martial arts can be grouped together or divided infinitely. I’ve seen “exhaustive” lists and came away no better for it. With that in mind, I couldn’t include them all.
I tried to include as many well-known arts as possible, but without too much redundancy. For example, I added Praying Mantis, but not Southern Praying Mantis, Seven Star Praying Mantis or Plum Blossom Praying Mantis. For the purposes of understanding names, I don’t think it’s necessary to include the latter three.
That said, it’s not hard to add more to the list. If there’s a name that you’re curious about, drop me a line in the comments section.
What about martial arts with variations of the names posted above? (e.g. Bagua Quan vs. Bagua Zhang)
This is common. In some cases, it’s the same martial art(or similar) under a different name, but there is no general rule. It may be helpful to know that Chinese martial arts tend to reuse a lot of the same words over and over. A lot of the time, the following words show up as suffixes:
Why didn’t you include Wushu/Gongfu/Guoshu/Quan Fa/etc?
These are generic Chinese terms and not the names of specific martial arts.
Why isn’t there an English translation for X?
It’s not useful to translate every name. For example, Shaolin is just the name of a temple. It doesn’t clarify the issue any further by explaining what Shao and Lin mean. Choy Li Fut is another example of an art which is almost impossible to translate. The first two characters are family surnames, while the last character refers to Buddha. It has been said that Choy Li Fut was a synthesis of three preexisting systems, and that each character refers to one of its predecessors. The name is therefore meaningful in Chinese, but gibberish if translated literally.
Some names contain references to complex philosophical concepts, like Taiji or Bagua. Bagua can be translated literally (Eight Trigrams), but that doesn’t express the meaning behind the concept. Taiji is even more complex, and it’s pointless to translate it.
Where do you get your translations?
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post in the comments section below.
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GUEST AUTHOR: Marie Lazeration Richter began her martial journey nearly seven years ago learning traditional Karate-Do at Shotokan East in York, PA; currently, she studies and serves as a junior instructor in Tai Chi Chuan with Sifu Steve Kleppe at Shao Lin Boxing Methods in Waukesha, WI. As a freelance writer, Marie assisted Master Kwon Wing Lam with the editing of his latest book, “Authentic Five Animals Style Hasayfu Hung Kuen.” She may be reached via email at mlrichter@ mac.com.
Taikyoku shodan. Yoi.
I heard the words. While I was hoping that it was merely a kind suggestion from Sensei, I knew better…it was a command. Karate mirrors life – commands are serious, specific, absolute. My only option was to obey. And funny how it wasn’t the first words that made every muscle seize up, but rather that one, tiny little “yoi.” Be ready.
In this moment, I was to prepare myself to perform taikyoku shodan, one of the first kata, or prescribed series of basic moves, taught to students of Shotokan karate. Ask any higher belt: this was the easy stuff. But somehow my arms, legs, hands and feet became wholly independent appendages – often jockeying for position and colliding with one another while my brain screamed, “Left! Left! No, your other left!” Adding insult to injury is the fact that I am a reasonably intelligent adult who despises failure on any level. Ha! Yoi indeed.
How did I manage to find myself here, blatantly parading my inadequacies in front of men, women and children? Ah, love. It’s true…love will make you do crazy things, especially when you are a mother. My youngest attended classes for awhile and, in the process, piqued the interest of my oldest. Quite specifically, a near-teen boy who still thinks his mom is an ok companion. “Let’s do this together,” he said. Saying no was never an option.
So there we were, my beloved son and I, learning how to block, punch, kick and follow orders in a foreign language. You know how people say that kids are like sponges? Well, let’s just say that while my eldest resembled something akin to a bright, vibrant household cleaning tool fresh from its package, I could have easily been mistaken for some poor, forgotten sea creature whose crevices long refused to absorb anything of value.
Yes, old and craggy I felt, and none too pleased with the realization, either. But something incredible was happening simultaneously: I continued to try. As feeble and awkward as I felt at times, I never gave up. Through the haze of exasperation and frustration, I recalled one of life’s most important lessons: A failed attempt does not equal failure. Who spoke such sage wisdom? Was it Vince Lombardi, FDR, or perhaps inspiration from Mother Teresa? No, wait…I said that. Certainly to my two kids, and quite possibly to my husband, when whatever was looming seemed just too hard to master. I told them countless times that the path of learning – heck, the road of life – is paved with mistakes. There comes a time when you have to stop focusing on all the wrongs and embrace that one, important thing that’s right: your willingness to stick with it.
Today, it’s different…it may have been the love of my kids that landed me in this alien universe of precision and discipline, but it is for the love of myself that I remain. Although I still hear my brain yelling out directions my body can’t quite follow just yet (or, more likely, the voice belongs to a blackbelt doomed to suffer from apoplexy as a reward for his attempts to correct my shortcomings), I try and focus more on what another part of me has to say in the matter. Regardless, I listen. With unwavering certainty, I know the command will come again. But this time, I am ready.
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GUEST AUTHOR: Bill Antonitis is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. He has studied Shohei-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu karate since 1987 and Gracie jiu-jitsu since 2009. He blogs about martial arts at http://moaimartialarts.com and teaches karate at http://graciefv.com.
I recently began teaching a brand-new karate class for preschoolers and kindergarteners. Let that sink in a moment. If you have worked with this age group before, I’m sure you have a definite opinion about them. (They’re super fun! I’m now an alcoholic.) If you’ve never worked with this age group before, I’m sure you have a definite opinion about them. (How hard can it be? I’ll just lay down the law!)
Let me humbly suggest that no matter your level of experience as a martial artist, teacher, or parent, each class of little kids offers a unique and rewarding challenge. Each meeting of each class offers a unique and rewarding challenge. Each minute of each class offers a unique and rewarding challenge.
They say you never step in the same river twice. That’s especially true when each of your students is riding a miniature emotional rollercoaster during class. (I love karate! I hate karate! I need to go potty! I love karate! Where’s my mommy?) It’s also very difficult to balance the entertainment and interactivity that kids need to enjoy the class with teaching the techniques, traditions, culture, and values of your art. I have yet to achieve this fine balance.
Observing the “Little Dragons” in the Wild
I am admittedly a novice in teaching this age group. I’ve taught them before but always as a substitute for a great class at an exceptional school. It really was easy. Now I’m starting from scratch. This is not so easy. Here are a few of my observations so far.
- Little kids these days have more energy and less attention span than ever.
- Capturing their attention is easy as long as you don’t focus on one thing for too long.
- Working with little kids can cause adult-onset ADHD.
- Kids LOVE structure and routine.
- Structure and routine are your friends.
- Structure and routine go out the window when there’s a new student in class.
- Kids are unbelievably cute.
- Kids know how cute they are.
- Kids use their cuteness to work things over on you.
- Parents are simultaneously your saving grace and your worst nightmare. They alternately focus and distract their children throughout class time—especially if they bring cameras.
- Kids enjoy learning basic punches and kicks. Kids love using basic punches and kicks on each other when you’re not looking.
- Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. A little praise goes a long way.
- McDonald’s got it right when they started offering toys in their Happy Meals. You’d be surprised how hard a little kid will work for a prize at the end of class!
- Remember not to be too serious. They’re only children.
- Finally, never sit down. Ever. No matter how good you are at jiu-jitsu, you will not escape the imminent pig-pile.
So far, teaching 4-6 year-olds has been a blast. A loud and exhausting blast, but a lot of fun nonetheless. As I better learn to meet the needs of my new students, I know I will only improve as a teacher and martial artist. I encourage you to try working with these kids if given the opportunity; it will only help you grow in your art. The smiles and hugs at the end of each class are more rewarding than anything else I’ve accomplished in karate!
If you are an experienced teacher, please share some of your undoubtedly hard-earned wisdom. Your guidance will not only help the children, but some highly interested, somewhat frazzled, and extremely appreciative adults as well.
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