Shi – 式, 勢, 氏

In Chinese martial art the word ‘shi’ comes up a lot.   Chinese being a language with a large number of homonyms, here we’re actually dealing with several different words.

Whether we are talking about overall martial art style or individual posture, the correct word to use is 式. Because in this context, 式 is abbreviation for 样式 (yang4 shi4) – model, pattern, form, type, style.

Historically, we’ve also seen the other shi 勢 used. In linguistics, we call this phenomenon yi ti zi (异体字: yi – different, ti – body, zi – character) – two words with similar meanings, sounds similar or identical, so used interchangeably, but often shouldn’t be. The other shi 勢 can have many meanings, but one common word combination it appears in is jia shi (架勢, jia means frame), which can also be written with the other shi (架式). Jia shi, or zhao shi (招式) means individual skill/posture.

In everyday usage, 勢 can never be used to refer to an overall model, pattern, form, type, or style. Its usage in martial art then probably started off as an error (teacher transmitted it orally, student wrote it down this way), then perpetuated through tradition. This is very common in traditional culture, given the methods of transmission for manual crafts.

Here those two words are sometimes used interchangeably, and there are no meaningful differences.

The other shi 氏, means family name, surname. This word is often used when a given teacher had many outstanding students, each displaying prominent stylistic difference while the essence remains the same. Instead of saying Sun Lutang style, people abbreviate it as Sun Shi 氏. They can also abbreBagua and Taiji groups were very large, and when people meet, they ask what type of practice the other person do, instead of saying “I study with Sun Lutang (or Sun Lutang’s daughter), or I study Sun Lutang type of practice, people abbreviate that as Sun shi (氏). Of course here people also use the other shi 孙式太极拳. Here 式 sounds more formal. However, when people have to use two shi’s in the same sentence, they use different ones, just because it looks more natural that way: so Wu Style 37 Posture (wu shi san shi qi shi) would be 吴氏三十七式.


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