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Sai: Ancient Marvel of a Weapon

by Nicholas C. Yang, December 7, 2015

Sai (釵, chāi) is perhaps most commonly known in popular culture today as the featured weapon of choice by the comic book characters Raphael of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Elektra of Marvel Comics. While it is not entirely clear how the sai was created as a weapon, it is widely accepted that the sai originated from mainland Asia several thousand years ago.

Some believe the sai began as a farmer's trident and was modified over time as it was used to fend off bandits and invaders. Others say it was originally a woman's self-defense weapon that started out as nothing more than a hairpin. It is commonly believed that the Japanese sai seen so prevalently today originated from Okinawan karate, which actually carries roots from Chinese white crane. However, white crane is not the creator of sai, as there are several variants of the sai throughout much of Southeast Asia's long history.

Sai A Martial Arts Tool

Some may view the sai as just an antique artifact to marvel at, but the sai as a martial arts tool is far from obsolete or just an image from fan fiction. It belongs to the family of baton weapons, and this type of weapon has continued to evolve through generations to become what we commonly see today in law enforcement. The concept behind such a weapon is having a light, blunt striking object that can be wielded in many different angles, grips, and positions. A nightstick's T-shaped design allows for many flipping options, as do the double prongs of the sai. Just like the sai, baton weapons are commonly seen in law enforcement because they offer a less-lethal option to subdue others. Simply put, the intention is not to kill. This is particularly useful for crowd control and one-on-one fights.

Given the very nature of its construction, though, any baton weapon can still deal a fatal blow. For sai particularly, stabbing attacks are quite dangerous because of its thin design. A sai's prongs can also be quite sharp and, when aggressively applied, can be used for gouging or clawing. Nevertheless, how fatal a baton weapon is ultimately still depends on the techniques, manner, and skill level in which it is applied.

The sai is almost always used as a double weapon. This is because while the sai has advantages in speed, trapping, and maneuverability, its disadvantages lie in being short and in being designed as a nonlethal implement. There is less risk when engaging a sai opponent because the sai does not possess any bladed edges and its range is limited, especially when compared to longer-range weapons like spear, staff, or projectiles.

Because the sai must be quick, it also cannot be too heavy. A combat-ready spear can easily be several times the weight of a pair of sai. Hence, sai must constantly take advantage of being a double weapon. One sai is used to block, lock, or otherwise control an opponent's weapon while the other sai is used to either reinforce the defense or to counterattack. The key is to always have one arm, and thus one weapon, mobile and free.

When handling a single weapon, once the sole weapon is neutralized and locked, there are less desirable options for follow-up, for both offensive and defensive techniques. Such urgent situations often involve closer-range combat or abandoning the weapon altogether. Many sai techniques employ the use of this very concept to gain the upper hand against single-weapon opponents. This concept of "one side attack, one side defend" is actually true for all double weapons, but it is even more crucial for sai, due to its design.

Sai was not exactly designed as a war-ready weapon, as much of the speed and agility is lost if it is made heavy enough to effectively penetrate armor. For penetrating armor, other baton weapons like the hard whip and iron short rods existed. Rather, sai is more of a tool that helps to provide control over chaotic crowds of people. Consequently, it requires much more precision and skill to handle, especially when the opponent is carrying a stronger, sharper, and heavier weapon. Timing is absolutely essential in order for the weapon to be effective. Similarly, the Chinese straight sword, unlike its Western counterpart, is also a lighter and more graceful weapon requiring much more skill and decades of training to effectively and safely use in an intense level of combat.

Common targets are the hands, wrists, arms, and sometimes legs, as they are often in the right range of the sai. As mentioned, because the primary goal of sai is not to kill, torso and head strikes are less crucial. In many cases, the sai is most important for simply disarming an opponent. The two sai can be utilized either simultaneously or by having one immediately follow the other. A common strategy is to counterattack at the exact same time an opponent attacks, as opposed to reacting afterward. Aside from being extremely time efficient, such counterattacks are the most effective because an opponent is less likely to expect an attack while on the offensive.

When attacking, there can often be a false sense of dominance or control, especially where overconfidence is involved. This strategy also follows the saying, "When my opponent does not move, I do not move. When my opponent moves, I move first." Of course, the quote is not to be interpreted in a literal sense, as we cannot bend the rules of time. What it does mean is that although an opponent may engage you first, you should evade and conversely engage the opponent instead, all before the first move is even completed. The sai has an added advantage with its prongs because they are often used to guide, redirect, or temporarily immobilize an opponent's weapon to create the right opportunities for follow-up attacks. I will discuss the specifics behind the sai's physical construction and usage in Part 2 of this article.

A short video of sai performed by Nicholas Yang may be found on the YMAA web site.

Nicholas C. Yang (楊志豪碩士) began training martial arts as a child under the tutelage of his father Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming at Yang's Martial Arts Association (YMAA) in Boston, Massachusetts. He has competed in several international and national traditional Kungfu tournaments, including tournaments sponsored by the U.S. Wushu Kungfu Federation, U.S. Kuoshu Federation, U.S. Wushu Union, International Chinese Martial Arts Championship, World Tai Chi Federation, and Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine. He has won several medals and awards for forms events in both barehand and weapons categories.


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