Invented tradition and translated practices: the career of Tai Chi in China and the West
AbstractThis thesis takes the primary contemporary icons of Chinese tradition –the popular practice of
Tai Chi‐and subjects its career in both China and the West, to a series of critical interrogations
focusing on three main moments; the invention and (re)imagination of tradition, the practice’s
migration from China to the West, and its translation by its English practitioners.
During the Imperial period, when Tai Chi was defined primarily as a martial art, it was the focus
of a sustained struggle between its official deployment as part of the military machine and its
practice by clandestine societies and insurgent movement. It was simultaneously incorporated
into the push to modernization and promoted as a part of an unbroken cultural legacy that
defined the uniqueness of Chineseness in various forms during Republican China, Mao’s era and
Post‐Mao era. The thesis also looks at the key figures and the process of institutionalization and
indigenisation as the practice generated its own national professional associations and
competitions in England since 1940s.
Based on ethnographic research in the Midlands, the thesis explores the contending
understandings of Tai Chi among its English practitioners. It explores the ways in which British
instructors locate themselves within an ‘authentic’ tradition by way of a latent lineage system.
This allows them to maintain their own personal commitment to Tai Chi as a martial art conflicts
while working with the market drive for mass participation based on concepts of relaxation and
alternative therapy and medicine.
The ethnographic research also explores the ways that students in Tai Chi classes translate it
into an indoors practices with an outdoors imagination, and as a bodily discipline with a spiritual
basis, and how they construct their understanding of this spiritual dimension by drawing on
polysemic interpretations of oriental conceptions such as Yin, Yang and Qi rather than the
standardised references to Taoism in the public representations