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Ancient Chinese Weapons

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, August 30, 2010

A country as vast as China encompasses many types of terrain. Whereas deserts and high plateaus cover the northern territory, mountain ranges dominate the west. The southeast coast and central zones, favored by the Chinese for thousands of years, are lush and warm with many lakes, ponds and rivers.

These geographic distinctions produced significant differences in the evolution of local cultures. Physical traits as well as ethnic traditions varied from area to area. Such differences caused variations in the weapons that developed. For example, Northern Chinese tend to be taller and more powerful than their southern brethren. Martial artists from the north utilized longer and heavier weapons. On the contrary, Southern Chinese, being shorter and generally weaker, would adopt shorter and lighter weapons appropriate for their stature. As an example, the long rod normally carried by southern martial artists was at least half a foot shorter than that of its northern counterpart.

Weapons and Chinese Geography

Cultural backgrounds and the resulting lifestyles in different areas contributed to variations in weaponry. Northern China, because of the wide expanse of country­side, developed a culture very similar to that of Texas and the old west in North America. These people were wilder and much better at fighting on horseback than those from the south. Southern Chinese martial artists were more of a cosmopolitan type, who lived in a more crowded environment and grew to become better at ground fighting. Also, because of the warmer weather and wide spread bodies of water in the south, southern people were generally better at swim­ming and fighting in the water than northern inhabitants.

Distinctions existed also between people of the west and southeast. Because of the mountains in the west, the local people specialized in hunting with a trident. Naturally, they often used the same weapon when fighting. Also, poisonous animals such as snakes, spiders, and centipedes were common in the western mountains. After thousands of years of experience, people learned how to deal with these poisons. This special knowledge made western martial artists expert in utilizing poison on their weapons to kill an enemy more easily. The southeast, unlike the west, was a great agricultural plain. People used the hoe and harrow for cultivation. As a result, hoe and harrow fighting techniques developed.

Local Distinctions Merged

Furthermore, the country was so vast that in ancient times the central government exerted little control in the areas distant from the capital. During harvest season, large groups of bandits would swoop down and rob entire villages. To combat such attacks, a village would hire a martial artist to teach the young people defense. Because the bandits struck with little warning, the defenders used whatever was at hand as a weapon. Therefore, the people became adept with the hoe, rake, harrow, trident, or other common farming or hunting tools as weapons of defense.

With time, communication and transportation improved throughout China. As weapons spread around the country, local distinctions were lost and martial styles and techniques became a national mixture.

Weapons And Martial Artists

Generally speaking, a well-trained martial artist would carry at least three kinds of weapons. He would have a primary weapon such as a sword, saber, staff, or spear, with which he was most proficient. Usually this weapon was obvious to his enemy and had the most power and killing potential. A secondary weapon would be hidden on his body, perhaps a whip or an iron chain in his belt or a pair of daggers in his boots, which could be used in the event that his main weapon was lost during battle. For use at very long distances or in a surprise attack in a close battle, he would use dart weapons. Some of these easily-hidden weapons (e.g., darts or throwing knives) were thrown by hand, others (e.g., needles) were spat from the mouth, and still others (e.g., sleeve arrows) were projected from a spring-equipped tube.

In choosing his weapons, a martial artist must consider three factors. First, what weapon suits his physical stature? If he is tall and strong, he would take advantage of a long, heavy weapon such as a large saber or halberd, which may weigh over 50 pounds. These weapons have more killing potential because of their length and are more difficult to block because of their great weight.

If a martial artist is tall but not particularly strong, he might choose a spear. With this long but lighter weapon, he can effectively utilize his speed and realize greater en­durance in battle. A short but very strong man might select a thick, heavy saber or a pair of hammers. Such weapons can devastate an opponent at close range.

Finally, a short and weak martial artist can best utilize swords, double swords, double sabers, double rods, or daggers.

The second factor a martial artist must consider when choosing a weapon is the conditions of an upcoming battle. Will he be on horseback facing a similarly mounted opponent? Will he be grounded but his enemy on horseback? Or, will it be a purely man-against-man encounter with no interfering steeds? Each situation requires a different weapon.

Choosing A Weapon For Combat

If fighting horse-to-horse, a martial artist must consider four things: protecting himself, protecting his horse, attacking his enemy, and attacking his enemy’s horse. The reason for protecting himself is obvious. Protecting his horse is almost as important. He remains on equal footing with his adversary only while he is mounted. If the horse becomes disabled or the enemy knocks him off the horse, he is lost. Of course, attacking the enemy is uppermost in his mind. A long weapon such as a long staff, spear, or halberd fulfills all these requirements.

A martial artist on foot, fighting a mounted opponent, requires different weapons. His objective, killing the enemy, can be accomplished more easily if he can force him off the horse. In accomplishing that goal, a hooked sword can be used most effectively in attacking the horse’s legs. Alternatively, he may use a very long, tapered rod to knock his adversary to the ground.

The final factor a martial artist considers when choosing a weapon is his own martial style. Certain weapons lend them­selves better to one school than to another. For instance, Shaolin disciples were apt to use a long rod or spear, whereas Taiji practitioners more often chose the sword.

Religion too, played a role in the development of weapons in China. Monks in­vented weapons that had little killing potential but were still effective for self-defense, or even as tools. Their weapons often served to clear away brush as they traveled the countryside. They were also used much like a hobo’s stick to carry belongings and to use as a walking stick.

During the Han (206 B.C- A.D.220 A.D) and Tang (618 B.C.-907 A.D) Dynasties, Buddhism was very popular. The Han and Tang emperors were all sincere Buddhists. In that era, many weapons were imported from Tibet, which was a stronghold of Buddhism. In the Liang Dynasty (A.D.502-557), priests became more involved with weapons and by the time of the Song Dynasty (960 B.C.-A.D.1280), Shaolin priests were active martial artists perfecting deadly techniques.

To be able to effectively utilize various weapons on different occasions, a martial artist would practice and specialize in at least one long weapon and one short weapon. Because the main principles within each class of weapons are the same, it would be simple for a well-trained martial artist to effectively utilize any weapon instantly. Long weapon training traditionally started with the long rod, whereas short weapon training began with the saber. There is an old saying, “the long rod is the root of all the long weapons and the saber is the pioneer of the short weapons” which implies that the long rod and the saber serve as the foundation for further work within each group of weapons.

Chinese Weapon Proverbs

In Chinese martial society, it is said:

  1. “The spear is the king of the long weapons and the sword is the leader of the short weapons.”1 This saying implies that the spear and the sword are the hardest of the long and short weapons to learn. Once a martial artist could skill­fully apply them in battle, he could take advantage of the techniques and skills which the spear and sword offer.
  2. There is another proverb, “Hundred days of barehanded training, thousand days of spear training, and ten thousand days of sword training.” From this proverb, one learns that the sword is the hardest weapon to learn. The sword is light and requires more than ten years of “internal power” training before one master’s techniques for blocking heavy weapons. In addition, because the sword is usually double-edged, more technique and practice are required to effectively use both edges without dulling them.
  3. Therefore, it is said, “The sword utilizes speed and technique; the saber requires cunning, trickery, and power.”
  4.  It is also said, “Saber, power, won by strength; sword, soft, won by technique.”
  5.  To summarize, one can say, “The saber is like a fierce tiger; the sword is like a flying phoenix; and the spear is like a swift dragon.”

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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COMMENTS

Some people collect weapons as valuable art objects. Some people do the same thing with books. One who trains with weapons gets value from the training directly. The book and weapon are just props.
Angela Laughingheart – September 2, 2010, 11:40 am



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