Tai Ji Quan

Translating "Wudang"

Sifu Cheng originally named his Taiji after the sacred Daoist mountain Wudang Shan 武當山. What does Wudang 武當 mean? And what does this tell us about the meaning of Wudang Taiji Quan 武當太極拳? Let's begin by taking the characters individually.

Wu - Wieger's classic book gives its composition as stopping (zhi ) by means of lances (ge ) and this character has a range of meanings around "martial" and "military".

Consider the example wushi 武士; literally "military gentleman", it means "warrior" or "knight". This is a distinct term to bing meaning "soldier". Bing is a picture of hands (gong ) wielding an ax (jin ) and refers to a relatively unskilled soldier. Wushi 武士, in contrast, is a skilled, trained practitioner of the martial arts. Note that the term wushi 武士 is used in the familiar phrase wu shi dao 武士道 (bushido in Japanese) meaning "the way of the warrior".

Dang - Wieger gives the meaning as "to value", "equal to", "to match", although the contemporary Oxford Chinese dictionary also includes "to work/serve as", "to manage" and "to bear" or "to accept" amongst a range of additional meanings.

Mark Wright (personal communication) also notes that Karlgren cites Meng Zi 孟子 (Mencius) as using dang in the sense of "capable".

Shan - this is the most straightforward of the characters. This is a picture of mountain peaks, and it simply means "mountain".

So, what can we make of the compound phrase? Dan Docherty, a Taiji uncle of mine, has this article where he gives the translation of Wudang 武當 as "match the warrior", making the translation of Wudang Shan 武當山 "mountains matching the warrior". Whilst the phrase as a whole "mountains matching the warrior" makes some sense, it is harder to make sense of Wudang as a phrase on its own: "match the warrior" - what matches the warrior? Further, wu 武 does not mean "warrior", but "martial" or "military".

Given the character meanings discussed above, I'd like to suggest a literal translation of the term as "Martially Valued Mountain", or perhaps more colloquially, Mountain of Martial Value. Given the historical prominence of the mountain as a source of martial arts, this makes some sense.

This would then mean that Wudang Taiji Quan 武當太極拳 could be interpreted as meaning the style of Taiji Quan with martial value. Alternatively, if we take the meaning of dang as "capability", then we have Martially Capable Taiji Quan.

I would like to thank Mark Wright for helpful discussion on this translation.