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The Sword Way

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, October 20, 2014

In ancient China, the way of the sword was widely respected. This was so not just because sword techniques and skills were difficult to learn. The main reason was that moral and spiritual qualities were required in order to attain the highest levels of its art. In order to build a proper foundation for the study of the sword, the martial artist had to master other short weapons, which meant he had to spend a long time in preparation. Therefore, the sword master, known in China as a (jian ke, 劍客), had to have willpower, endurance, and perseverance in order to get through the long and hard years of training. It is said that the sword is "the lord of a hundred arms and the king of short weapons."

Because the sword is mainly a defensive weapon, it requires a strategy of calmness in action, and to achieve this quality one needs patience, calmness, and bravery. Sword users commonly practiced meditation to acquire the calmness they needed. In addition to these qualities, which are needed to develop the required level of skill, sword students learned about ethical virtues from their masters.

The masters would develop these traits in their students by example and by telling inspiring stories from history. First, a student learned loyalty. The student was taught to be loyal to his country, his master, his parents, and his friends. True loyalty even requires the willingness to die when necessary. Loyalty with honor is the highest form of this virtue. The second trait learned was respect, which is closely related to humility. When one is humble, one can then respect the style, other martial artists, parents, and teacher. Another quality cultivated by the masters, and perhaps the most important, was righteousness. The student was taught to act only in the interests of righteousness and justice.

Having achieved these traits, the sword master is respected by the populace and will live a life committed to honor.

About Taiji Sword

Excepting only taiji spear, taiji sword is considered the highest level of taijiquan training. There are a few reasons for this:

1.  Before anyone learns taiji sword, he must first master the basic training and criteria for bare hand taijiquan, including correct external forms, relaxed physical body, concentrated mind, proper breathing, and abundant qi circulation. Without this foundation, even if a student has learned taiji sword, his level of achievement of this art will remain on the surface. Normally, it will take at least ten years of taijiquan practice before a person approaches this level of understanding.

2.  In order to reach to a deep, profound level of feeling in performing taiji sword, a student must already have a deep foundation of listening, understanding, sticking, adhering, and coiling jin. To reach this level of understanding, usually a student must have a few years of correct pushing hands experience. Pushing hands training is the best way to exchange feeling and sensitivity of the taiji techniques between you and your training partners. If you practice taiji sword and try to understand its martial essence, you must learn how to match the sword with a partner. If you are not able to demonstrate the required jin from bare hand training, you will not understand these jin as applied in the sword. Again, normally, it will take many years of pushing hands training to reach a deep level of understanding. If you wish to know more about taiji jin, please refer to the book Tai Chi Theory and Martial Power, available from YMAA Publication Center.

3.  In taijiquan practice, internal qigong training is the foundation of internal strength, which can lead you to a deep, profound comprehension of the art. This is especially true in taiji sword. In order to reach a proficient level of listening, understanding, sticking, adhering, coiling, and neutralizing, your sensitivity and qi must be able to extend from your physical body to the tip of the sword. You must practice until you feel the sword as a part of your body, natural and comfortable. To reach this level, in addition to performing bare hand taiji qigong, you should also learn taiji sword qigong.

4.  Whether you practice taijiquan or taiji sword, the final goal remains the same. You should understand that taijiquan was created in a Daoist monastery, in which the final goal of spiritual cultivation was enlightenment. In order to reach this stage, you must first ponder, seek out, and comprehend the meaning of life. To reach this understanding of life, you must continue to challenge yourself and master your emotional mind. Self-mastery is a necessary prerequisite for self-understanding. When you have achieved proficient levels of taiji sword ability, your body will feel transparent (i.e., totally permeable to the energy), and you will be able to enter the state of "mind of no mind" (i.e., regulating without regulating). Every aspect of your practice, from stance to breathing to spirit, is by its nature regulated to the correct level effortlessly because of the level of skill your practice has brought. It is not easy to reach this stage.

When you learn taiji sword, you first learn the basic sword techniques, which comprise the foundation of each style. In Chinese martial arts, different styles emphasize different techniques, depending on which discipline the stylist has trained. For example, the Southern sword is relatively shorter in length than the Northern sword. Consequently, the emphasis of the sword applications for the Southern stylist is more on defense. In comparison, the Northern sword is relatively longer, and Northern sword users emphasize attacking. External styles have more linear and straightforward techniques. Such techniques must be executed externally, requiring more muscular movements. But the basic techniques of internal styles emphasize more sensitivity and qi cultivation/circulation. Therefore, sticking, adhering, coiling, and circling are the main elements in their practice.

Introduction to Fundamental Training

The sword is the king of the short weapons. Skilled use of the sword is built on the experience gained from working with the saber, which is called the root of the short weapons. Any martial artist who wants to master the sword should first master the saber; otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to understand both the applications of the techniques and the source of power in sword practice.

Although the saber is the root of the short weapons, its techniques and power combinations are very different from those of the sword. For example, the saber uses more muscular power. The dull edge of the saber is designed for blocking vigorously, but this action cannot be done with the sword. The sword is double edged. Using either edge to block will dull or nick the blade. With the sword, only that third of the blade nearest the hilt is designed for vigorous blocking. The sharpened part of the blade should not be allowed to make contact with the opponent's weapon. Therefore, a defensive attack, without blocking, is the best sword technique, and a sliding block, followed by an attack, is the second best. The least desirable defense is to block using the dull area of the blade.

Saber vs. Sword Strategy

The fighting strategy is also different between saber and sword. The saber fighter will try to keep the enemy in short and middle range in order to take advantage of the saber's vigorous blocking and attacking power. To do this, the saber fighter always uses his two hands together. One hand holds the saber while the other is used for coordination and balance, or to grasp the enemy's wrist, arm, or weapon. The sword fighter, however, tries to keep the enemy in the middle and long range in order to use the razor-sharp tip of the sword effectively. In addition, by keeping some distance from the opponent, it is easier to avoid violent attacks.

For applying power, the saber relies on muscular strength, while the sword uses both the muscles and internal power (qi) together, in order to defend against a heavy weapon or a strong attack. Because of the more refined nature of the power needed, the sword calls for more technique, more skill, and more training time.

Even though there are so many differences between the saber and the sword, the saber is still the foundation of sword practice. It builds up the stances, dodging, and the basic forward and backward movements. It also builds the muscles required for sword practice.

Most importantly, practicing the saber will help the student to understand the general applications and fighting strategies of short weapons.

In learning the sword, the student should first cultivate the virtues of patience and calmness, and develop a firm will. He should understand the form and application of every movement.

(The above excerpt is from Tai Chi Sword Classical Yang Style—The Complete Form, Qigong, and Applications by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming.)

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has "made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years." Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.


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