RUNNING ON EMPTY
Errant Knights Part I
by Dan Docherty (Combat June 2001)
In the Chinese tradition, as in Europe and Japan, people travelled on foot or horseback and for self protection would either have an armed escort or carry arms themselves, which before the advent of firearms usually included some type of bladed weapon. In Chinese martial arts there are two main types of bladed weapon. The Dao is any single-edged bladed weapon, which could range from meat cleavers to broadswords/sabres, to halberd type weapons such as the Guan dao. The Jian is a double-edged bladed weapon which also can vary in length.
In Tai Chi Chuan most styles have some type of Dao form, some even having a double Dao method, or a Guandao form. All Tai Chi Chuan styles have some type of Jian form, some even having a double Jian method, while in Hao style they have also a short sword method. However, while in many schools forms are practiced assiduously, practical application either doesn't exist, or is often sadly deficient.
The Dao was the weapon of the common soldier and of the bandit being versatile and effective at medium and short range, while the Jian, a slightly longer range and much more sophisticated weapon, was traditionally the badge of office of the scholar and the military officer. For example my ex-wife's calligraphy master in Hong Kong had a Jian hanging on the wall of his studio, though he told me he didn't know how to use it.
As was the case in Europe and Japan, would-be swordsmen could either seek instruction in the military or from private schools or individuals. Military instruction tends to be more regimented and in large groups. In January 2001, while in the grounds of Changsha museum (which houses the fascinating Han dynasty tomb findings at Ma Wang Dui), I witnessed a platoon of Public Security officers receiving martial arts training which mainly consisted of jabs and hooks combined with high kicks. The riot training I received in the Royal Hong Kong Police Training School was similarly basic, though effective. Using a long (about 2 and a half feet) baton and rattan shield, we practiced, somewhat in the manner of the Roman legions, advancing with forehand swing, backhand swing, thrust and then push back with the shield. It works on a crowd.
This type of training is purely utilitarian and, bereft of any artistic/aesthetic content, cannot be called martial art, but is only crude fighting. Chinese society has long had the concepts of Wen-Wu, the literary/civil in contrast to the martial/military. Many Chinese also practice martial arts in this way, at one extreme training in forms, whether external or internal, for health and strength or competition or training the intent and spirit. At another extreme, some Chinese (mainly police/army) practice like our public security friends only for use in self defence.
As is the case with karate, many practitioners of Chinese martial arts are turning diamonds into coal, because either they don't know the applications of techniques found in forms or know applications which won't work because they do not know the fundamental truth that all forms come from the techniques, the techniques do not come from the forms. This is true of all martial arts, with or without weapons. There are other problems too which cause much of value in Chinese martial arts to remain hidden. The impressive Zhai Hua, who lives with her father in Prague, told me that while living in China they tried to practice unobtrusively as they were often accosted by police and others who would ask to see if her fists were as fast as their bullets.
So how do we become skilled with weapons ? Recently, at Nils Klug's nine day pushing hands meeting in Hanover, Giles Busk, a teacher of Cheng Man-ching style Tai Chi Chuan from the Zhong Ding school, said to me that he was impressed by the directness of the thrusts in my sword demonstration. This kind of focus is trained largely in Tai Chi Nei Kung and also to a high degree in the spear applications. You need strength to train weapons and weapon training in turn gives strength. This is one of the reasons why in many internal Chinese martial arts schools, we train with heavy weapons that we would not normally want to use in a real situation.
An oft neglected aspect of swordsmanship is both sword-drawing and preventing sword-drawing. Usually applications are practiced with the sword already in the hand, but this is not a practical way to go through life. On a short journey or at home, a Chinese might wear a sword at the waist, but on longer journeys, the sword was usually worn across the back for ease of walking. Therefore, just as in Tai Chi Chuan and other Chinese martial arts there are pre-emptive strikes and jamming techniques to prevent the opponent even launching his attack, so there are similar techniques to trap the opponent's sword drawing arm while simultaneously drawing your own weapon and cutting him or striking him with the butt in one movement.
The mythology of the sword from movies, Western and Chinese is of a chivalric code, where we draw our weapons, salute and fight. Indeed we see the same thing in Westerns gunfights, when the reality was often one of back-shooting and drawing on unarmed men.
Chinese, since well before the Tang dynasty, were used to sitting on stools, chairs and benches while eating or drinking, whereas the Japanese even today are more used to sitting or kneeling on tatami mats. This is one of the reasons for the differences in emphasis in both the unarmed and armed martial arts. It is also clear that what will work in a well-lit, spacious matted gym may have to be severely adapted for use in a restaurant or back alley.
In weapons training the same process is necessary as in empty hand training. The first thing is to train in drills and forms and individual techniques so that you develop a degree of experience and insight into the essential nature of individual weapons in attack and defence. After a certain amount of practice, a degree of mastery is achieved in that increasingly it becomes possible for you to achieve the perfect result. The final stage is to practice until there is no technique and you can in any situation be instantaneous and decisive.
This final stage is what Chan (Zen) Buddhism is about, losing your attachment to the material world and becoming detached. In Taoism, it is the stage of "no me no you" where Heaven (yang), Earth (yin) and Humanity (yin & yang) harmonise as one. Practically we become one with the sword. Both Chinese you xia (wandering swordsmen) and Japanese bushi found such concepts useful in developing spontaneity in action, which is something beyond technique.
Errant Knights Part II
by Dan Docherty (Combat November 2001)
Chinese are prisoners of their history and culture more so than we are in the West. In Confucian tradition, social superiors such as teachers are only to be obeyed, not questioned, so there are many unspoken assumptions. This holds true of weapon training. In many Chinese styles where applications are taught it is on the basis of empty hands against empty hands, sword against sword, spear against spear, sabre/broadsword against staff or sabre/broadsword.
Furthermore, I recommend training weapon forms and applications in mirror and for applications doing them against left handed attacks also as you cannot choose your opponent. Firstly it is fun and you really have to relearn the form, secondly it develops both sides of the body, thirdly it is of real practical value if one hand is injured or trapped. Indeed one of my old students Aidan Cochrane, some years ago, for his own amusement and experience went into a combat escrima tournament, and was able in the second round of his contest to use his left hand and rest his right for the third round thus winning the contest.
When I taught self defence to security guards, in the final session I would match them for about 30 seconds against a colleague with a rubber knife, though some were experienced martial artists barely one in a hundred managed to go without being slashed or stabbed. My own master has a number of nasty scars on his face and body from knives and Dao, mainly from being attacked by more than one armed assailant.
Doctor Konstantin V. Asmolov from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow told me that in the traditional Korean sword-fighting that he practices, weapons applications are practiced against unarmed as well as armed opponents and that in his art weapons are taught before hand techniques. This all makes a lot of sense, but problems arise when people lack the emotional maturity and moral qualities to judge whether or not to use a weapon. In many European cultures it is normal to carry a knife, in the Balkans, in Finland, in Scotland. The problem with carrying one is that there is the temptation to use it especially when faced with a stronger opponent or even multiple opponents.
One factor of crucial importance apart from the relative skill of two opponents was the actual quality of the weapons being used. As was the case in Europe with swordsmen seeking out blades of Toledo or Damascus steel, so in China swordsmen sought to acquire "precious" weapons. One of the highlights in the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the scene in a Wu Guan where Michelle Yeoh though the better martial artist sees one weapon after another broken by Zhang Zi-yaês magic sword. You should also understand that throughout Chinese history weapons could also have a ritual function and would not necessarily be designed for combat.
In addition even combat weapons of quality were often embellished with motifs such as the seven stars of Ursa Major, dragons and phoenixes and seal calligraphy (a highly stylized form of writing).
As the three most common Tai Chi weapons are Dao (sabre/broadsword), Jian (straight sword) and Qiang (spear), Iêll discuss these in turn in some detail. The traditional saying in Chinese martial arts about the degree of difficulty of these three is, "Qiang - one hundred days; Dao - one thousand days, Jian - ten thousand days". Personally, I think the Qiang is a lot more difficult than that. All three weapons share certain characteristics. All three weapons can have their applications adapted for use in everyday objects such as sticks, umbrellas or even (in the case of Dao and Jian) rolled up newspaper. In many Chinese martial arts there are names which are often literary allusions for each technique (one technique can be one movement such as a stab or a complex series of moves) this acts as a kind of shorthand for the initiated as well as being an interesting and amusing (if you understand the allusion ) way of remembering the technique.
There are particular techniques or tactics in using each of these weapons, but beyond this we combine applications with appropriate footwork, as with empty hand techniques we have the usual permutations of in & out, up & down, left & right, Yin & Yang, orthodox & reverse, closing & opening etc.. One great fault of many weapon practitioners is to only think of the weapon, whereas there are in fact many important movements in weapon forms with the free hand, the feet and body.
There are two-handed applications with the Dao and the Jian and this can be useful in giving greater control over the weapon particularly faced with a powerful opponent or one who has a heavy weapon such as a Guan Dao. However, in most applications one hand is used to grip the handle while the other is used to support the weapon, to grab the opponent or the opponent's weapon, to lock or disarm him, to push the opponent away or to pull him onto a technique. The feet and knees are used to kick the opponent as where our weapon is occupied in controlling the opponent's or where for example a Tan (upward slash) technique such as "Searching The Sea" is blocked and we follow up with an immediate kick. Additionally kicks to the opponent's weapon or weapon hand can make him lose control of his weapon. Also many weapon applications can be adapted to empty hand fighting and vice versa.
The grip of the weapon changes too; when in an on guard position, the grip should be light, but generally we tighten the grip whenever impacting our weapon with either the opponent or his weapon. For Dao and Jian you generally have a better control of the weapon if the hand is closer to the guard, however, you can extend the range of the weapon by gripping it nearer the butt.
There were also different approaches in weapon skills. For example there were widely available drill manuals written by military experts such as the famous General Qi Ji-guang's Classic of Boxing , which not only deals with empty hand techniques, but also training with long weapons such as spear and halberd and Dao and shield listing the techniques and strategies to be practiced. It should also be appreciated that weapons did not and do not exist in a vacuum and some were developed or altered to deal with likely opponents such as Japanese pirates or nomadic horsemen. As well as such military manuals there were the techniques and strategies peculiar to particular styles and schools of Chinese martial arts, which for obvious reasons were not always widely known outside that school,. Sometimes they might be included in manuals of a particular school available to only advanced students or only taught orally.
In Part 3 I will discuss the weapons individually
Errant Knights Part III
by Dan Docherty (Combat March 2002)
I will now deal with the 3 classical Chinese martial arts weapons individually.
THE DAO Dao is often translated as sabre or broadsword, but in fact any single-edged cutting weapon of whatever length can be classified as a Dao. I will confine my discussion of Dao to the single dao, which is the most common version used in Chinese martial arts. The length depends on the size of the practitioner, but when the handle is gripped, it should be possible to touch the ground with the tip. The Dao was the weapon of choice for the foot soldier, convoy escort and bandit, because it was cheap to make, comparatively easy to use and extremely versatile, particularly at close quarters. The techniques can be adapted for use with a stick or rolled up newspaper or even with bare hands.
Supposedly the Dao was invented by either the legendary emperor Sui Ren Shi (he is supposed to have made it by melting gold) or the Yellow Emperor (traditionally c.2698-2598 BC) who also is credited with writing a Classic on medicine. The god of the Dao is Cang Er and it is identified with the tiger so stances are long and low and there is a lot of crouching, leaping and slashing. The particular Dao form that I practice is called Xuan Xuan Dao. Xuan means dark, mysterious or profound and Xuan Xuan was the Taoist name for Chang San-feng, who is credited with being the founder of Tai Chi Chuan. The famous Tai Chi historian, Wu Tu-nan published a book on this form round about 1930 though his version of the form differs from mine in some details.
For the single Dao there are two main types in Tai Chi Chuan; the more common one broadens out from the handle and is leaf or fish-shaped when placed flat, while the other is more like the Japanese katana and so can be more easily used to stab though it is not so easy to support it with the free hand. In both cases there is usually coloured ribbon or cloth tied to the butt of the weapon. There are various debates about what this was used for; I believe it was simply to wipe off sweat or blood from the hands or possibly to wrap round the hand as a safety measure so you wouldnêt lose the weapon when you impacted with something or someone.
There are 8 major ways of using the Dao. These are:-
1. Pi - to chop/split from various angles
2. Ci - to stab/pierce
3. Tan - to search, slashing upwards to the groin.
4. Tuo - to push up, using the free hand to support the back of the blade
5. Ti - to raise/ lift the sabre usually with the sharp edge facing up
6. Liao - to stir e.g. a diversion and slash in a continuous movement
7. Chen - to sink, using the sabre to press down on the opponentês weapon or body
8. Lu - sideways use of force as in diverting an attack to the side
These are essentially the orthodox techniques. In addition the butt of the Dao could be used for striking vital points at close quarters; the blunt edge could be used where it was inappropriate to cause permanent injury with the sharpened edge; the flat of the blade could be used to bounce or slap the opponentês weapon or arm out of the way and so on. There are techniques which are or can be precautionary as where we entwine the Dao round the body as in "Turn Around Hiding The Sabre" to protect the neck back and legs when we turn.
The dao is a close to medium range weapon and thus most versatile, because only one edge is sharp, the other one can be supported by the free hand or the blunt edge can be wrapped round the body while slashing in different directions. This range also means that there are many Qinna (seizing and holding) and kicking techniques in Tai Chi Dao; indeed many practitioners neglect the use of the free hand whether in attack or defence and become fixated on their and their opponentsê weapon hands.
When I was in the Royal Hong Kong Police Training School were taught to use the long baton and rattan shield for riot control. As with a Dao we would advance with baton and forehand strike, backhand strike, thrust and hit with the shield; repeat till thereês no one left to hit. This is crude but effective against a crowd, but is unlikely to trouble a skilled swordsman when it comes to one on one. As was the case with European swordsmanship, a convoy escort or common soldier was unlikely to be a match for a trained you xia (errant knight) who theoretically at least had spent years perfecting his skills under top level masters.
How effective was the Dao as a weapon? The leaf or fish-shaped Dao is not very effective for stabbing as its very design prevents effective penetration. The guard too of the Dao is purely functional, and not suitable for trapping an opponentês blade. Even in chopping there are drawbacks. On a number of occasions, while working as a detective inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Royal Hong Kong Police, I saw victims of gangland choppings who had been attacked with either kung fu Dao or with butchersê cleavers. While in some cases, fingers or limbs were at least partially severed, some "victims" had received multiple chop wounds to the head and back, but were still able to walk around and function more or less normally. The best targets for the Dao would seem to be against sensitive areas such as the face, joints and bones.
I will continue this theme with the other weapons in Part 4
Errant Knights Part IV
by Dan Docherty (Combat April 2002)
The second classical Chinese martial arts weapon used in Tai Chi Chuan is the Qiang or spear, and a spear is really a staff with a metal head stuck on at least one end for stabbing, cutting and / or hooking depending on the type of head used. Of course the origin lies in the pointed sticks used for fighting and hunting by our forefathers and some, especially the lighter versions, were also used as javelins; the drawback being that as well as throwing away your weapon, it could also be used against you by its intended target. I have not come across reference in modern Chinese martial arts practice to the throwing of spears and I suspect this was almost exclusively a military use of the weapon.
Various types of spear can be found in the hands of deities such as Tai Gong Bing Fa (Supreme Lord of Military Affairs), but more importantly the spirit when using the spear is that of the dragon, an unpredictable and enigmatic character, like many a woman, and so there is much soaring and plunging, spiralling and thrusting.
There are two characters for Qiang, one with the radical for "metal" the other with the radical for "wood"; though a Qiang could theoretically be all wood or all metal, more usually in Chinese martial arts it consisted of a wooden body which usually tapered toward a metal head. This tapering was designed to make thrusting more efficacious and to make the business end more flexible so that you could use the spear to bounce away the attacks of an opponent forcing him to lose control of his weapon and thus also to bounce into a counter-attacking thrust, however, the excessive whippiness of modern Wu Shu spears is unsuitable for this.
The length of the spear can vary somewhat; this can partly be dictated by the height and strength of the exponent. However, when training in Hong Kong, we practised the spear form and drills with much longer (up to 3 metres) and therefore heavier spears than the ones we used for applications, which normally would be less than 2 metres long. Indeed, at a meeting of the Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Association, which I attended in the mid-Seventies, the consensus was that a gent's umbrella was better suited to be employed as a spear than as a sword or sabre as there was much greater control in defence and power in thrusting when using spear techniques.
The most common spear drill is so-called "sticking" or "entwining spears" where two exponents cross spears and walk in clockwise and anti- clockwise circles, while maintaining contact with the crossed spears and circling them also clockwise and anti-clockwise; in effect this is a kind of pushing hands with spears and is also useful in building basic arm and leg strength as well as unbalancing the opponent and trapping his spear.
The greatest advantage of the spear, its length, is also its greatest weakness. In Tai Chi Chuan spear strategy the object is usually to keep the opponent at the point of the spear, however, once the spear is seized or where a swordsman steps inside its range, the spearman is at a disadvantage. At close quarters the feet, butt, rear hand and body of the weapon are used in defence or attack and the spearman might have to let go of his weapon with one or both hands, so that he could close with and strike or grapple with his opponent. In medieval European weapon manuals there are many examples of this tactic. Even possession of a (normally) two-handed weapon such as the spear didn't obviate the necessity of acquiring empty-handed skills.
There are various on guard positions with the spear as with the other weapons, but in most the point is kept towards the opponent. In the Celtic tradition entering a strange land with the spear pointing forward was a declaration of war, but carrying it on the shoulder was a token of friendship. I doubt the shades of the great Chinese spear masters of former times would argue with this tradition.
Ji Xiao Xin Shu, (New Book Examining the Records) as well as containing his Quan Jing (Classic of Boxing), has spear and staff techniques and drills also attributed to Ming dynasty General Qi Ji-guang (1528-87). As is the case with Tai Chi weapon techniques, some have purely functional names such as "Low Thrust Technique" while others borrow names from Chinese history and myth such as "Running Horse Turning Its Head" (From a story about a Chinese Emperor who went to Tai Shan to present offerings to the gods) or even literature such as "Black-eared Kite Flies, Fish Leaps" (from the Book of Odes, also quoted in Mencius).
The principles of spear include adhering, connecting, entwining and stabbing; lifting and hitting, dragging and dotting, often using the opponent's weapon to unbalance him or as a platform to bounce into a thrust, thus making attack out of defence.
There are 8 major ways of using the Qiang. These are:-
- Peng - using force in an upwards direction.
- Lu - use of force to either side
- Ji - use of force straight and to the front
- An - downward use of force
- Tiao - is to lift or stir up, usually exposing the opponent's body, head or limbs for a counter attack by coming up underneath his weapon.
- Tan - is to rebound, i.e. off the opponent's weapon into a thrust or strike, simultaneously making him lose his grip on or control over his weapon
- Qian - means literally dragging / pulling; thus spiralling or entwining the spear causing the opponent to lose balance or lose control of his weapon.
- Dian - is to dot or thrust, focusing all the force on just one point
These are essentially the orthodox techniques. The first four are the warp (vertical and horizontal; the latter four are the woof (diagonal). In addition the butt and body of the Qiang could be used for striking and pushing, one or both hands could disengage and / or the feet could be used at close quarters. The spear could also be used horizontally to push, pull back an opponent or a group of people.
Altogether, it is a great weapon for developing focus and learning how to use total body force. When thrusting, the front index finger should point to the target. Firstly, this helps to develop focus and secondly the extended index finger prevents the front hand and thumb from being put out of action if the opponent has a bladed weapon (though the index finger won't be feeling too clever).
It is a great pity that so many Tai Chi Chuan practitioners never learn the spear. I have taught spear to perhaps more than one thousand students over the years, only a handful are able to demonstrate the combination of power and precision that is required. Regular practice of Tai Chi Nei Kung is essential for quality spear play.
In Part 5 I will discuss the Jian (double-edged sword)
Errant Knights Part V
by Dan Docherty (Combat June 2002)
Let us now consider what was considered the most subtle of Chinese martial arts weapons, the Jian, or double-edged sword. The character for sword sounds the same and is similar except for the radical for the character Jian, meaning to examine (with a view to avoiding possible danger). The spirit of the Jian is that of the dragon, being enigmatic and versatile, able to coil and uncoil, soar and plunge. It is important that we become one with the sword and that is then the dragon, not the sword alone.
In Chinese history there were three types of swordsmen. Firstly, there are the Sword Immortals, "Jian Xian", such as Lu Tong-pin , of Eight Immortals fame; Li Bai, the famous Tang dynasty poet and drinker; Xu Jing-ming and others whose swordsmanship was used for supernatural purposes such as exorcism. Then there are the Sword Knights or Paladin, "Jian Xia", men such as Jing Ke, who almost succeeded in his fatal attempt to assassinate the cruel and tyrannical Qin Shi Huang Di, but died from the seven thrusts he received from that bloody Emperor (3rd century B.C.); Nie Zheng and others who, were thought to exhibit the quality known, still considered important today in Chinese martial arts of "Yi Qi", which is a combination of righteousness and loyalty and whose swordsmanship was used to avenge wrongs; Li Bai also belongs here. He once wrote, "at 15 I loved the sword." and during his wanderings he behaved as a paladin and killed men with his sword. Finally there are the Sword Guests or "Jian Ke", such as Hong Quan, Nie Yin Liang and Gong Sun Da Liang (the latter two are female), whose sword practice was for fun.
Of course there are fabulous stories about the Sword Immortals' abilities, while the paladin used their swords in private quarrels, like the gunslingers, good and bad, in what was the Wild West, and the Sword Guests tended to use the sword in play. There were also, as with the other weapons and as we had in Europe, training manuals on the sword during the Ming dynasty, such as the "Chao Xian Double-handed Sword".
In ancient times there were many famous swordsmiths, such as Gan Jiang from the kingdom of Wu (c. 300 BC), whose steel swords were considered to be supernatural, because of their superiority in sharpness and flexibility when compared to the bronze weapons used by the military. Obviously such superior weapons were more expensive and therefore much rarer. Well-known makes of sword include Dragon Well (originally from Henan Province, but now made all over China) and Seven Stars swords. You can now buy Shaolin swords at the Northern Shaolin Temple, at vastly inflated prices, which are no better than those sold much more cheaply by the local townspeople.
The god of the Jian was Fei Yang, but I have been unable to find out much about this gentleman. There were male and female swords, as there were Dao, and often supernatural qualities were ascribed to it; thus some swords were thought to be able to transform themselves into dragons and there were cases of human sacrifice to honour certain prized swords. The length varied considerably from swords that could be hidden up the sleeve, to the relatively short bronze swords of the Zhou dynasty (c.1100-221 B.C.) to swords which, like the European long swords, could be as much as seven feet in length.
In Buddhism, the sword is the symbol of wisdom and penetrating insight and when wielded by a god is cuts away all doubts and perplexities to clear the way for knowledge of the truth. The Taoists viewed the sword as the symbol of victory over evil and it was wielded by deities, such as Zhong Kui, who uses it to slay ghosts, and Lu Tung-pin, who used it on his travels to subdue demonic forces.
The Tai Chi sword form contains the technique "God of Literature Raising the Wine Vessel" and indeed many swords are decorated with the Seven Star motif emblematic of Ursa Major (The Great Bear) also known as The Plough, and the abode of said God. He is often depicted as standing on a fish, as the carp in the Yellow River was said to swim upstream. Carps, which passed through the Dragon Gate (Long Men), were said to transform into dragons. Dragon Gate is the name of one of the main schools of Taoism and there are references to both fish and dragons in the sword and sabre forms that I teach.
There are dozens of different sword forms in Chinese martial arts; my Chinese martial arts encyclopaedia lists five forms from Wudang Mountain alone.
In Tai Chi Chuan there are many different sword forms. In the Wu style there is a double sword form, though I understand this is a modern (i.e. in the last fifty years) invention, while the Hao style has reputedly a form using a short sword. The sword form that I practice is very similar to the one shown in Wu Tu-nan's book on Tai Chi sword. Wu states that another name for this form is Heaven and Earth Sword (Qian Kun Jian - this can also be translated as Male & Female Sword). In the Yi Jing (Book of Changes), Qian is the hexagram for Heaven and therefore represents the supreme male principle or Yang, while Kun is the hexagram for Earth and therefore represents the supreme female principle or Yin. Indeed this is the essence of the Tai Chi sword form, combining the slow and the fast, the hard and the soft, expanding and contracting, soaring and plunging.
Wu's book often gives the sword applications as being against a spear rather than, as is more common, against another sword. In fact many of the techniques can be adapted equally well for either situation.
Let us consider now the different parts that make up the sword. Firstly and perhaps most importantly is the Jian's double-edged blade. It is both wider, thicker and therefore less sharp at the guard and it tapers to the point and often also to either edge, also the length and thickness are in proportion to one another. This means that the upper part of the blade is mainly used defensively to impact with the opponent's weapon, while the lower part is used to slice and stab the opponent.
The handle and scabbard could be plain and made of the same material as the sword, but often they were made of wood and covered with decorations such as snakeskin and precious and semi-precious stones such as jade. There were also famous Jian, which could take more than a hundred days to make There is a phrase in the Tai Chi Classic, "An Exposition of the use of the 13 Tactics", "Moving the Jin (elastic educated force used in Tai Chi Chuan) like 100 times refined steel". In the same way such swords were refined to remove impurities and thus make them more reliable.
Most Chinese martial arts (as opposed to purely military) swords have a tassel attached to the butt. There is some debate about what this is used for; Some people even practice the sword in such a way as to keep the tassel swinging freely. This may be interesting and fun, but it is fundamentally ridiculous; to use a famous analogy, we should be concentrating on the moon not the finger that points to it I believe the tassel was simply to wipe off sweat or blood from the hands or to wrap round the hand as a safety measure so you wouldn't lose the weapon when you impacted with something or someone.
It is difficult to write an article about even Chinese swordsmanship without mentioning Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), the famous Japanese swordsman. Japan like China was and is a Confucian and ordered society there is a certain way to do things. For example, in traditional Chinese and Japanese society, the concept of left-handedness does not exist. Chopsticks, writing brushes and swords are all controlled by the right hand. It is a matter of fitting in. Someone using chopsticks with his left hand would make the right -handed neighbour on his left feel uncomfortable. The strokes that make up Chinese characters are designed to be written in a certain order by a right-handed person and while drilling a class or a military unit it is highly divisive and troublesome to have someone using the "wrong" hand.
In the sword form that I practice, the sword is passed from left hand to right and back again 6 times; additionally there are some double-handed techniques. It was only recently, when reading a translation of Hans Talhoffer's swordfighting and close quarter combat manual of 1467 (see Medieval Combat, ISBN 1-85367-418-4) that I encountered such tactics in another sword tradition. This book clearly shows that European and Chinese martial arts were contemporaneously developing along similar lines more than 500 years ago. Other tactics include holding the long sword blade with the left hand thus turning it into almost a spear (often a bit of leather which could slide up and down was attached to the blade for this purpose) and, once you have closed with an armed opponent, dropping your own weapon to strike, stab with a dagger or grapple with him.
Yet even in all this order which pervaded Chinese and Japanese society, certain maverick, free spirits made their own order. Musashi was of this breed. He killed his first samurai at the age of 13 by throwing him to the ground and beating him on the head with a stick till he died. Later he was to defeat samurai with wooden swords, an oar and even with a bow. The use of wooden weapons is not strange, as good wood is better than bad metal. There was at least one incident where Musashi used a wooden sword to break his opponent's metal sword in two and I have witnessed a solid metal Chinese broadsword snap in two with the impact form a staff on its sharp edge.
Errant Knights Part VI
by Dan Docherty (Combat August 2002)
Let us deal now with the names of sword techniques. Logically speaking, if we are doing the form outdoors at daybreak, we should start off facing West, with the rising sun at our backs, as fairly early on we have "Golden Needle Pointing South" on the left-hand side. The poetic nature of certain of the cultural references in the names of techniques helps us to remember the sequence and to understand better the eponymous technique.
In 'Male & Female Phoenix Spreading Their Wings' the sword hand and free hand make simultaneous and equally large intersecting circles. 'Li Guang (famous general of Han Dynasty - died 119 B.C.) Shooting An Arrow at The Tiger' requires us to draw back the sword at shoulder level like a bow and arrow before firing it with maximum power to pierce the hide of the tiger (your enemy). Li Bai refers to him in the poem 'Horses of the North', "Who now pities fast-moving Li Guang of Han...?" . 'Fisherman Casting His Net' is an expansive movement where both arms are flung upwards and out while the front leg is also raised; it can be used against two opponents, simultaneously kicking one while parrying or cutting the other.
'Pei Gong (courtesy title of Liu Pang (247-195 BC), first emperor of the Han Dynasty) Cleaving A Snake' is a reference to an incident which occurred one night during his time as a village headman when he sliced into bits a large snake which threatened some villagers. In the sword form when doing this technique, we retract in what is a defensive technique then pulling the sword and front leg up, in what can be an offensive or defensive technique (all this resembles pulling back to draw the sword from its scabbard, before slashing the opponent's leg. 'Tai Gong (Great Grandfather) Fishing' refers to a story about Jiang Shang of the Western Zhou dynasty (BC1100-771). He is supposed to have spent years fishing on the banks of the Weishui River in Shaanxi, often dangling his line in midair without hook or bait, claiming he was waiting to catch a virtuous ruler. In his eighties he was finally made Prime Minister by Wen Wang (Cultural Ruler). Finally there is 'Sparrow hawk Turning Round' followed by 'Peng Spreading Its Wings', a reference to the gigantic mythical bird of the philosopher, Chuang Zi, which indicates that the eponymous techniques should be small contracting and large and expansive respectively. These are just some of the more obvious examples. Of course only two people ever knew these stories; one of them is dead and I can't remember who the other one was.
Next let us look at the technicalities of Tai Chi Swordplay. The principles of spear include adhering, connecting, entwining and stabbing; lifting and hitting, dragging and dotting, often using the opponent's weapon to unbalance him or as a platform to bounce into a thrust, thus making attack out of defence. Though the range is somewhat different, we can use all of these skills with the sword also.
There are 8 major ways of using the Jian. These are:-
Kan - to chop or slice, usually diagonally downward.
Liao - to stir, e.g. diverting and slashing in one continuous movement.
Mo - to stroke or rub; as in a subtle, circular diversion or a delicate slice.
Ci - to stab or pierce in any direction.; usually the flat of the blade is horizontal when stabbing the body to allow it to penetrate the ribs
Chou - is to draw forth, as in an upward diversion using a whipping action.
Ti - is to raise the sword as in a defensive or counter-offensive change of guard. Indeed many techniques are specifically designed for application with a change from left to right high guards or vice versa (e.g. Bamboo Basket Left & Right, or Swift Bird Darting Through The Forest).
Heng - is to sweep across in a horizontal diversion or attack; this is often followed by a thrust.
Dao - is to invert the sword so the butt of the guard is up and the point down. This can be used in a sideways or upward directed diversion or slice.
I should also mention that unlike the Dao, the Jian should not be used to cut over the crown of one's own head. This is not because, as one Tai Chi book has it, that we would thereby sever our contact with Heaven and no longer have the much-beloved "suspended headtop", but because it is simply dangerous to have a double-edged weapon passing over the crown of the head in this way as any misjudgement or impact with the opponent's weapon at this point might result in us being cut with our own weapon.
The unreliability of weapons means greater emphasis must be given to footwork and body evasion and we should try to avoid direct hard impact with the opponent's weapon. The grip should be light. But tighten when impacting with the opponent's weapon or body.
The use of the freehand in Chinese swordplay is as far as I'm aware unique because the index and middle fingers are extended and kept close together while the other fingers are bent. In techniques such as 'Rhinoceros Facing The Moon (Wu Tu-nan calls this 7 Stars Style)' and 'Spin to Rein in The Horse', the sword tip points to the fingertips of the extended fingers of the free hand acts. In techniques such as 'God of Literature Raising The Wine Vessel' and 'Hanging The Golden Bell Upside Down' the 2 fingers form a triangle with the sword tip and the raised foot. In 'Shooting Star Chasing The Moon' and 'Spin & Sweep Across' the free hand acts as a counterpoint to the sword, facing up if the sword hand is palm down and vice versa.
On a more practical basis the free hand was held in this sword-like two-fingered manner because it also facilitates the use of Dim Mak thrusts with the fingers to vital areas of the opponent's body or gripping and closing or tearing veins, arteries and pressure points. Instead of holding the free hand in this way, we could equally well hold a poniard (short dagger) or buckler. Poniard is an interesting word and comes from the Medieval French "poignard", which in turn comes from the French "poing", meaning a fist. In Tai Chi Chuan there is a specific method of pushing hands called Zhou Lu, which is practiced with the fists clenched. This is designed both to make it second nature to grapple even with clenched fists and to use pushing hands skills to control or cut with a weapon when at close quarters with the opponent. As with the other weapons either foot could be used in defence or attack including specific kicks to the opponent's sword hand to disarm him. This completes my review of Tai Chi weapons.
CONCLUSION I don't believe you can truly consider yourself a martial artist unless you possess a whole range of skills which are often inter-related. Weapon training is an essential part of this training. Yet to be good with weapons you need to be agile, calm, focused, relaxed, strong and good in grappling and with the feet. Nei Kung (24 Yin & Yang Internal Strength Exercises) is particularly useful especially some of the more challenging static exercises such as 'Rhinoceros Facing the Moon' and 'Monarch of The Mountain Coming out from A Cave', both of which are particularly useful in training the hips, and strengthening the joints and stance.
In Chinese martial arts the weapons are an excellent form of aerobic exercise, with plenty of leaps and spins, they are also fun and, if you are lucky enough to have a good teacher, highly effective methods of self defence.