PRACTICAL TAI CHI SWORD
By J. Justin Meehan © June 2006
There is a Chinese Martial Arts saying that "It takes 100 days to master the Broadsword (Dao) but takes 10,000 days to master the Straight Sword (Jian)." For those of us who only practice the Tai Chi Straight Sword form, it could take a lot longer. This is not to say there is no benefit in practicing the Sword form. Practicing the form teaches us balance in use of the sword, helps us to develop a comfortable feel for handling the sword and helps us to concentrate our intention ("Yi") while extending our energy ("Qi") through an inanimate metal object.
Unfortunately, besides practicing a number of classical postures, not much of a practical nature in the use of the sword can be learned just by practicing the Taiji Sword form. In order to improve our understanding we may need to learn more about the use of the sword and its differing techniques. The more we understand about sword use, the better our sword form should look.
First of all, it may be helpful to examine the shape and length of the Jian itself. Compared with other types of swords we may be able to see for ourselves what makes the Taiji Sword unique as a weapon. When compared with other swords we can see that the advantage of the straight sword is that it gives us about 3 to 4 feet of distance between ourselves and our opponent. It is obviously more as a thrusting weapon than a curved saber or broadsword, however, it does have a razor cutting edge which is sharpest and most effective in the last 3 or 4 inches toward the tip of the sword.
A thrusting sword such as the straight sword has several vital target areas. The most accessible and deadly are the throat, neck arteries, eyes and into the brain as well from these 3 areas. Additionally, arteries at the solar plexus, underarm and groin would produce a geyser of blood pumping from the heart which could result in total incapacity within 10 to 30 seconds.
Liver, kidney and spleen are also available targets. Because of the 1 1/2 to 2 inch width of the Sword it would be very difficult to attack the heart or lungs directly because of the rib cage. A western fencing foil would have a better chance of slipping between or separating the ribs with a single thrust.
Because of the sharp edge especially toward the tip, cutting, chopping or slicing movements would also be effective against the arteries of the neck and against the tendons, muscles and ligaments of the opponents lead hand and arm assuming it is also extending with sword in hand. Attempting to slice any other part of the body might result in some incapacitation, but not likely to end a deadly duel. Attempting a less serious cut or thrust to any other non lethal target area would also possibly result in exposing one's own major vital target areas to the opponent. Unlike the game of chess, an uneven exchange of target thrusts could prove fatal for the person attacking a non-lethal target and a thrusting movement is more likely to be quicker more direct and more penetrating than a slicing, chopping or cutting movement.
While it may take 10,000 days to master the sword there is still a lot that can be learned in the first 100 days. Much of what we can understand about the sword can be understood just by using common sense. First of all, let us just pick up and examine the sword. Compared to other weapons its primary benefit appears to be that it provides a 212 - 3 foot extension of a sharp point to our hand. It is ideal for thrusting primarily and also capable of slicing, chopping and cutting. If we found ourselves in need of a weapon and this was the weapon at hand it would be useful to keep an opponent at a distance of about 4 or 5 feet depending upon how far we held it in front of our body. The greater the extension the greater the reach and the greater the protective distance between ourselves and our opponent.
Using the reach keeps the opponent somewhat at a distance, depending upon what if any weapon he possessed. But extending the arm too straight sacrifices the use of the body of the sword to block, parry or deflect. As a result, keeping the sword in front of our body and pointed toward our opponent at all times, enables us to take advantage of the shortest distance between two points (our sword tip and its target area). Keeping the arm somewhat bent allows us to protect and defend against the thrust of our opponent.
And we see just such a basic "on guard" posture utilized in most types of European fencing and Olympic sports fencing. The sword is held in front of the body, between the lead sword hand and the opponent, with the tip always facing the opponent. It is very unlikely in Western fencing to find "on guard" sword postures where the sword is held behind the body or in such a way as to not point directly at the opponent. And yet in many Taiji and Chinese Martial Arts sword forms we find just such unpractical sword postures, such as "Archer Shoots the Geese" or "Big Star- Standing on One Leg" and "Little Star- Standing on One Leg." It's not that these postures are of no real usage, it's just that they are sacrificing the protective distance that an extended sword offers and removing the effective portion of the blade tip from the vital target areas it should be trying to reach. As a result, while beautiful in appearance, it could prove disastrous or needlessly risky in application. In all fairness, Japanese fencing also uses "on Guard" stances where the sword is held above or behind the body, but it must be understood that the Japanese sword is also a curved bladed weapon primarily used for cutting.
The statement that it would take 10,000 days (almost 27 years) of study, also meant that in all likelihood the sword would only be mastered by someone with the sufficient leisure time for practice and financial ability to pay or other opportunity for instructions. As a result, the sword is often associated with either professional soldiers of higher rank (most common foot soldiers carried either the broadsword or spear), marital artists or aristocrats. Even here though we have to distinguish between the ceremonial and ornamental sword worn by certain scholars and officials with the battle sword, which was heavier, studier and seldom flexible.
Naturally, the battle sword had to be stronger, because it often had to penetrate and cut against arms, armor and other protective coating. The sword available to aristocrats in more urban environments, just as in the fair City of Verona where Romeo and Juliette took place, was often worn as a fashion accessory and symbol of status. To be used in an urban environment the sword would only need to cut through cotton and silk vestments and clothing. As a result having a higher spring steel content allowed a blade to be lighter, more flexible and carry a sharper edge.
But we must differentiate between the types of fighting swords used in the past with actual fighting utility and many of the useless flexible swords used in the recent past and present for Chinese Wu Shu Jian forms competition. Fortunately, now in many competitions rules prohibit sword forms competitors from using a sword that is so thin and flexible that it will not support its own weight when balanced point down on its tip. Futhermore, new international rules standardize competition swords and require greater realistic quality. Most tai chi swords today are in no way representative of the quality and workmanship of classical straight swords of China. Even sturdier but flexible Dragon Well swords pose a practical problem. If a thrust is not completely straight the sword blade may bend instead of allowing the point to penetrate.
The straight thrust uses almost exactly the same posture in both Western fencing and Chinese straight sword usage. A good way to test the usefulness of a practice blade and the straightness of the thrust is to practice against a watermelon. This practice is only advisable for mass market swords as the moisture will cause rust in realistic "high carbon" swords. If the blade is too flexible or the thrust is not straight the sword will bend and not penetrate. Other techniques can also be practiced using the watermelon as a training device. Cut the watermelon in half and, after enjoying the melon first, use the exposed edges of the hollow half for practicing chopping and pointing (using a downward flick of the wrist to cut down, using the point and point edge against the opponent's sword hand, thumb and wrist).
There are also many 2 person routines that can be practiced together by two partners using wooden swords that allow for practice of cutting, pointing, chopping, thrusting and other sword techniques. In some international Wu Shu competition, a sword form competitor will not be given a score unless he/she can demonstrate practical usage of at least 7 basic sword techniques. This could result in disqualification of many of today's Taiji sword form competitors who primarily demonstrate continuous, circular sword movement without well defined basic sword techniques.
Some masters list as many as 30 different sword techniques. Naturally, the most common and important to master include:
- thrusting or stabbing,
- pointing and picking;
- wrapping, and
Each one of these techniques must be mastered correctly, practiced regularly and tested with a partner or opponent under even more realistic but safe conditions.
Some may argue that Taiji Sword does not need all these techniques because of its "sticking sword" practices and exercises. The most often cited example is the old footage of Cheng Man Ching practicing sticking sword with his students. What many people fail to realize is that this was an exercise where only one person is active and the other person only attempts to stick and neutralize. Then the partners exchange roles. It was not a contest between two persons fencing each other. There are also numerous 2 person drills which in some way are similar to push hands practice. Although similar they do not necessarily prepare one for fencing. Only fencing prepares for fencing.
Today's Chinese Wu Shu tournaments often feature fencing competitions with padded weapons. The padding alone often changes the weight and effective use of the sword. We are probably still a long way off before electronic equipment and protective clothing will allow competitors to fence with electronic scoring, just as in Olympic fencing. Fencing competition results in the immediate elimination of many extravagant postures and techniques. There is much that students interested in Chinese fencing can learn from Western fencing practice and theory.
This is not to say that practicing sword form alone is of no benefit in understanding sword usage and taiji principles. Sword form helps us to develop a "feel" for the sword and the movements which compliment the sword's shape and weight. There are important differences, however, between Taijiquan empty hand theory and practical Taijijian sword usage. For instance the Taiji Classics state that "the waist leads the movement" and that "the root is in the foot, develops in the legs, is controlled by the waist" and only then does it function in the hand and fingers. While this maybe true of Taijiquan, it is not always true with sword. Closer in theory to the Bruce Lee lunging lead hand punch, which he derived from western fencing practice, the lead hand moves first. In fencing speed, timing and accuracy are more important that power. The sword blade will do the rest.
These are not the only sword masters but they are outstanding teachers in Chinese straight sword who have been recognized by all as to their high level ability and who have produced outstanding sword students as well:
- He Wei Qi — Long Island, N.Y.
- Liang Shou Yu — Brit. Columbia, Canada
- Yang Jwing Ming - Mass
- Nick Gracenin - PA
- Grace Wu-Monnat (daughter of Madam Wang Ju-Rong) - KS
- Sam Mascich — Vancouver, Canada
- George Xu — CA
- Scott Rodell - Washington, D.C.
- Wu Wen-Ching, Rhode Island (R.I.)
Suggested Books and Videotapes
- Sword Imperatives, a book by Wang Ju-Rong & Wu Wen-Ching
- Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style, a book by Yang Jwing-Ming V7
- The Art and Science of Fencing, a book on European Fencing by Nick Evangelista
- Secret History of the Sword, book on European Sword History by J. Christoph Amberger
- Chinese Swordsmanship: the Yang family Taiji Jian tradition, a book by Scott Rodell
- Othodox Chinese Taiji Sword, a video 32 Standard Taiji Sword Routine and techniques by Wang Ju-Rong
- Five Section Tainian Two Person Sword Form, a video by Sam Masich