What's in a name? The importance of understanding imagery in Tai Chi & Qigong


Names and understanding

The use of poetic and functional names in Tai Chi and Qigong can be difficult to decipher or simplistically obvious. When we first hear some of the names of the postures, it can be amusing and confusing: ‘part wild horse’s mane’, ‘twin dragons emerge from the sea’ and ‘stand like a tree.’

What we need to appreciate is that these names are translations from the original Chinese. So, with as with any translation, things can be lost in the process. Much of the knowledge of tai chi and qigong was traditionally encoded in poetic form or as a song. Many of the students would not have been literate, so the names aided in the memorising of the sequence and its applications. Additionally cultural and philosophical differences, along with the inherent secrecy of martial arts culture, could lead you to misunderstandings and getting the wrong end of the stick.

However, when we hear these names, we instantly get a picture or concept in our mind. Combining this with seeing the physical movement creates is a connection. When practicing Tai Chi and Qigong it is not enough to merely perform the physical mechanics; both the intention and the energy (qi) must be alive and flowing. The use of more poetic or metaphorical language aids us in fully realizing the complete function and expression of the posture.

Stand like a Tree

For the posture ‘stand like a tree’, we instantly get an image in our mind of a tree. However, everybody’s tree will be different, not only in shape and size, but also in species. The type of tree does not really matter in this case because it is the concept of a tree that is important: standing tall, rooting deep, drawing energy up and connecting with the heavens, etc.

'Stand like a tree'

Parting the Wild Horses Mane

If we look at ‘parting the wild horse’s mane’, the interpretation of the phrase can be taken in a couple of ways. One way to interpret this posture, is that one arm is resting against the neck of the horse and the other combs or brushes the mane downwards. This implies that the downward brushing hand is more active and will produce a downward pulling force. On the other hand, if we interpret the phrase differently, our rising arm becomes the neck of the horse and the palm the head, so things start to change. Our horse is now parting its own mane by rolling or tossing its neck, so the rising arm has a spiralling or filing action, and the focus is more on this arm striking. So, both interpretations are valid depending on the desired application.

'Parting the wild horses mane'

In Qigong things become more complicated, as the name of the movement will illicit a certain interpretation and there is always a hidden reference in the name. This may refer to a specific acupressure point, Qi flow cycle, organ, breathing method or many other things.

Twin Dragons emerge from the Sea

For example, ‘twin dragons emerge from the sea’: here we are given the image of two mythical beasts rising out of the sea. Be aware first of all, that Chinese dragons are different to the European dragons. Now what can we glean from this phrase? Most obviously there are two of something, and they are above the sea or emerging from the sea. In general, if there is sea or water in the phrase, it could be referring to a flow of Qi, a concentration of Qi, a connection with the kidneys or bladder. Because the phrase is referring to two or twin, we can understand that it is relating to the kidneys. Also the kidneys sit or emerge from ‘the sea of Qi’ or Lower Dan Tien area.

Consequently, when you are performing the ‘twin dragons emerge from the sea’, combined with the knowledge of the focus, and with the action, you can now refine your action and concentrate the mind on the corresponding area. Once you are familiar with the movement, you realise you are rocking back and forward on the lead foot, which will stimulate the Yong Quan or Bubbling Well point of the foot, which is related to the kidneys.


Delving deeper below the surface meaning of the names, many things can be revealed. Postures you have known for years can be refreshed and appreciated more. A lightbulb moment casts new light into dark corners. Enjoy your Tai Chi and Qigong practise and know that 10,000 things come from 1.

by David Pelling

©Copyright 2021 Lighthouse Tai Chi® All Rights Reserved.  


Popular posts from this blog

Lighthouse Tai Chi® Spring Newsletter 2022

Embodying Tai Chi in the Sword by Judith van Drooge

5 Elements Theory - Pathway to internal and external harmony by Heather Reade