Tai Chi and Qigong – What is the Difference?

The terms  “Tai Chi” and “Qigong” often cause confusion. Whilst most people have heard of Tai Chi many are less familiar with Qigong (pronounced Chi Gung), so we thought we would try to explain the difference.

(For information Qigong is sometimes written as Chi Gong, Chi Gung or Chi Kung, but all these refer to the same tradition and discipline. The accepted modern spelling is ‘Qigong’).

Tai Chi Qigong

Both Tai Chi and Qigong share similar characteristics – soft, flowing movements, a focus on breathing and posture and meditative elements that are intended to relax the body and calm the mind.   The main difference is in their original purpose – Qigong is aimed at health and wellness, whilst tai chi is a martial art whose techniques have a defensive or fighting purpose

In the West Tai Chi is most commonly practiced for its health benefits.  Many classes now incorporate the most effective exercise elements of both Tai Chi and Qigong – hence “Tai Chi Qigong”. 

If your primary interest is in learning Tai Chi as a martial art, then you will need to look for a specialised class.   

If your focus is on health and fitness and perhaps learning a little Tai Chi along the way then Tai Chi Qigong or Qigong classes are likely to provide a more relaxed alternative.  They can also provide a steppingstone to the more intricate forms of Tai Chi. 

Tai Chi

‘Tai Chi’ is a martial art that emerged in China about 700 years ago.  Its full title is “Tai Chi Chuan” – a term usually translated as “Supreme Ultimate Boxing”. Various stories and legends exist about its early origins. It was probably taught in family groups; its skills were closely guarded and passed from generation to generation.  The earliest documented tai chi style dates to Chen village in the 17th century, but the discipline was not popularised until the 19th century when Yang Luchan, one of the foremost tai chi practitioners, was permitted to train with the Chen family.  He went on to travel widely throughout China. His success as both a fighter and a teacher helped to popularise tai chi and other styles emerged along family lineages.  The most common tai chi styles today are Chen, Yang, Wu, Sun and Hao – but there are many combinations of these.


The roots of Tai Chi are in a much older tradition called “Qigong”. 

The term “Qigong” is actually 2 words in Mandarin and is usually translated as “Energy Work”.

Qi = Life or Vital Energy
Gong = Work, skill or mastery

It is a comparatively modern term that embraces thousands of exercises and techniques whose purpose is to improve health and well-being. These follow the principles of traditional Chinese medicine and some of them can trace back their roots several thousand years.

The 3 main categories of Qigong are medical, martial and spiritual. As the name suggests medical Qigong focuses on health and healing. Martial Qigong incorporates fighting arts such as Tai Chi and Kung Fu – the emphasis here is on physical skill.  Finally, spiritual Qigong covers meditation, internal awareness and mental focus. Over the centuries all three have become closely entwined – sharing elements and principles with each other.