“To order Peking or Beijing Duck? To do Tai Chi or Tai Ji”? That is the Question!
For those who have encountered various Romanized spelling of Chinese words on a menu, however exotic or creative, there may come a time you want to find out what the Chinese words truly are for that Duck dish. Or if you tell someone you practice the Chinese martial art form, do you say Tai Ji or Tai Chi? There are also a number of other Chinese words that has been mispronounced for a long time in our American vocabulary that it may be fun to have a look at some. I agree that if the dish is tasty, the spelling of the name may not be that important to folks who approach food with only culinary gratification in mind. But for those who are interested in language and are curious about another culture, this may be worth some discussion which may even prove interesting. We do, however, have to acknowledge that many westernized Chinese words did come from the ancient written language that should be recognized and not summarily dismissed just because we cannot be bothered to say it correctly. Since 2008 when the Olympic Games were held in Beijing, China, I have been asked if Beijing and Peking are two different places. This triggered off discussions on other Chinese words that have lived a very murky and confused life. For instance: “Chop Suey” and “Egg Foo Yang”, two other culprits of the Chinese/American menu that are not exactly how they were originally written from the Chinese language. “Chop Suey” came from “Za” 雜（miscellaneous）, and “Sui” 碎 （ broken pieces of various things）. “Egg Foo Yang” from “Fu Rong”, 芙蓉，a flower; it may be used to describe the eggs being fluffy like the delicate petals. I couldn’t help laughing our loud when I saw an appetizer on a Chinese menu listed as the “Poo Poo Tray”. How that happened, I have no idea. Perhaps the chef who invented this dish have some problems with both English and Chinese language, and those who know the origin of the language and can say it correctly are outnumbered by the masses that couldn’t and did not care. These are the moments when I feel it is worth my time and effort to try and bridge some culture gaps. China is a vast nation made of several ethnic groups where they live a multicultural life style and speak a multitude of dialects while the written language is the same. The early immigrants who came to America to seek a new life and open up restaurants may have had to improvise from their limited English to create an exotic menu for their western customers. As I teach Chinese language, Asian culture as well as Tai Ji and Qi Gong, I have had to explain to my students that the word for the martial arts form is Tai Ji 太極 meaning literally “extremely vast and limitless”. It cannot be confused with the word 氣“Qi” (often written as “Chi” from an older translation system), Qi 氣 means breath, energy and life force. This is possibly why it is confusing for many people when they say Tai Chi 太氣instead of Tai Ji 太極. I would like to add that Chinese language is not composed with an alphabet. Each word is an individual symbol that carries a unique meaning, which is connected with other words to create various expressions and convey complex meanings. Even though some words may sound alike, the written words all have individual meanings and cannot be confused. Tai Ji and Qi are different words in Chinese. Tai Ji is the martial arts form which emphasize on using the study of Qi, breathing, to create energy and enhance life force. But one does NOT do Tai Chi! This is a common misusage of two totally different Chinese words. Today, the official Chinese Pin Yin system as recognized by the United Nation is the correct method for learning how to pronounce Chinese words. The same can be said about many other words we encounter in our American vocabulary, which have their origin and root from another language. but forgotten and spoken differently, or changed to suit the convenience of the speaker. This article is not to argue which is the “official” word to use as we indeed live in the big melting pot. But when someone mispronounced a last name from Spanish like “Trujillo” to “Tru-jello”, or mix up two totally different Chinese words and don't bother to learn it correctly, then we need to make a better effort to respect each other’s language and culture. As a Chinese American citizen, who has benefited from a bi-lingual education and appreciates other cultures, I am devoted to promote multicultural education for our younger generations because they are our future. When I taught at the University of New Mexico, I coordinated study abroad programs and led students on study tours to China. I have benefit from my multicultural studies, and find great joy in sharing my heritage with anyone who is interested. It is my sincere belief that when there is respect and understanding with good communication between people, there will be peace and harmony for our world.
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Pearl Weng Liang Huang, Founder of