Tai Chi Weapons

This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Tanya Korovkin, courtesy of Cold Mountain Internal Arts. This is a taster for the very scholarly series Sifu Korovkin is writing on the Thirteen Energies of the Sword. These will appear here, again, with her kind permission.

Sifu Tanya Korovkin

Tanya Korovkin is a long time taiji practitioner. Her focus is on Yang and Atado Wudang Taiji. She has studied with Steve Higgins, Sam Masich, and Ron Williamson. At the 2009 Canadian Taijiquan Open Championships, Tanya earned a silver medal for her performance of Old Yang, as well as bronze medals for her Yang Sword & Saber performances. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation (CTF). Tanya is member of the Toronto Zen Centre and Associate Instructor at Cold Mountain Internal Arts. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.​

Taiji Sword: History and Internal Principles 

This article was presented at the First Canadian Taijiquan Federation Autumn Moon Symposium, Kitchener, September 2017.

When, years ago, I heard Sam Masich saying that Taiji Sword came mostly from Wudang, I did not know what Wudang was. I knew, of course, that there was a mountain called Wudang; it appeared in old kung fu movies. That’s where — according to legend — Zhang Sanfeng, the Daoist sage and mythical founder of Taijiquan, had presumably lived. But that was all. Later, after I started digging into the literature on Chinese martial arts and went to the Atado School of Defensive Arts (Kitchener) to study Wudang Taiji, I found out that there was much more to it. There is, indeed, a close historical connection between Wudang and Taiji, mostly Yang, Sword. Below I will outline this connection (sections 1 and 2). I will also examine the internal principles behind it, such as the use of qi (section 3) and the transformation of yin and yang (section 4).

1 – Wudang Sword

In China, straight sword (jian) was, and still is, held in high regard as a symbol of wisdom and personal integrity. It was not widely used, though, on the battlefield. Before the Chinese military modernization in the late 19th century, the army’s standard weapons were bow, spear, and saber (curved sword, or dao). Similarly, the Shaolin monks favored spear and saber, in addition to their traditional weapon, staff.  Early Taiji masters did not seem to have much interest in sword either. The Chen style was based largely on General Qi Jiquang’s boxing manual which emphasized unarmed combat techniques. There are no references to sword in Taijiquan Classics or Yang Banhou’s 49 Documents, the two mst important manuscripts in the Yang style tradition[1].  In other words, Taijiquan was born mostly as a style of boxing, or unarmed combat.


In those early days, those who excelled in the art of swordsmanship were the Daoist priests and monks. It should be mentioned that Daoism is based on a philosophy of quietude and closeness to nature. However, in the context of endemic violence characteristic of imperial China, the Daoists came to rely on straight sword for self-defence. Eventually, sword became largely seen as the Daoists’ weapon, in the same way as staff was considered to be the weapon of Shaolin monks [2]. 

Of particular interest to the Daoists were the inner workings of the body and mind. They explained these workings in terms of the circulation of internal energy (qi) and a mutual transformation of the opposites, yin and yang. Daoists widely used these two principles in their health-related practices, such as breathing and slow-paced body movements reminiscent of the present-day qigong. Unsurprisingly, their martial art, Wudang (named after the mountainous area where some of the most important Daoist temples are located), also became based on these principles.

Wudang was developed at approximately the same time as the Shaolin martial art, i.e., long before the rise of Taiji. In its combative aspects, Wudang is somewhat similar to Shaolin. However, while Shaolin uses mostly the external methods, Wudang (the same as Taiji) relies on the internal principles. Indeed, in our days, a slower version of Wudang, known as Wudang Taiji,  is often taught as part of Taiji curricula.

For centuries, the Daoists held their martial art training secret. This was particularly the case of Dan Pai, the largest Wudang Sword school located in the Wudang Mountains. This secrecy (most probably never complete) was broken in the late 18th century, when the 8th-generation lineage holder, Zhang Yehe, chose a non-Daoist, Song Weiyi, as his successor [3]. One of the beneficiaries of this unprecedented event was General Li, nicknamed “Immortal Sword Li” and “The First Sword of China,” who played an important role in the development of Taiji Sword.

2 – General Li and Yang Chengfu

To be sure, Taiji swordsmanship came from more than one source. Historically, there have been several schools of Wudang Sword, apart from Dan Pai (Atado Wudang, taught at the Atado School in Kitchener, is one of them). Swordsmanship was also practised by lay masters who had created their own styles; this may be the origin of Chen Sword. Even so, much of Taiji, and especially Yang, swordsmanship was influenced by the Wudang Dan Pai school. This happened largely because of the friendship between two remarkable individuals, General Li Jinglin and Yang Chengfu.

Li Jinglin was not a Daoist priest or monk. He was a soldier who gradually rose to the rank of general. Where and how did he learn Wudang Sword? There are two versions of this story. One is that he learned it from a mysterious Daoist sage who wore the same clothing during both winter and summer, who appeared and disappeared at will, and who saw his relationship with Li as predetermined by the stars. The second, more realistic version is that he learned it from Song Weiyi, the 9th generation Wudang Sword lineage holder. It looks like Song took Li as a student but then, impressed by his skills, made Li his successor [4]. 

It so happened that roughly at the same time Li also met another prominent master, Yang Jianhou, the third son of Yang Luchan. According to one anecdote, Li became interested in Taiji when an old Taiji master (presumably Yang Jianhou himself) accepted Li’s invitation for a duel, armed only with his smoking pipe. But, as soon as Li unshielded and thrust his sword, the man’s pipe became stuck to the blade and, no matter how much Li tried, he could not get rid of it [5] . 

Be that as it may, Li became fascinated with Taiji. He chose Yang Jianhou as his instructor. Being much younger than his teacher, he made friends with his teacher’s nephew, Chengfu. The two were so close that they became blood brothers [6].  In 1928, when China’s Nationalist government organized the Nanjin Central Martial Arts Academy, both were invited to participate. Yang Chengfu was put in charge of the Taiji Division. Li became the Academy’s Vice-President, also in charge of Wudang Sword. Both appear in this now famous archival photo: Li, wearing sunglasses, in the centre; Yang, seated, first on the left.    

Li Jinglin’s interest in Taiji and his friendship with Yang Chengfu had far-reaching consequences for the Taiji community. As we know, Yang Chengfu transformed the Yang style by creating Large Frame (e.g., Yang 108). He was not unfamiliar with sword but, as his senior student Chen Weiming admits, he had little knowledge of sword fencing or sword techniques. These, of course, were bread and butter to his friend Li Jinglin who, in turn, was interested in Taiji. This led to mutual exchange and collaboration between the two masters[7].   

A result was the rise of a sword form which incorporated elements of both Yang Taiji and Wudang Sword. It was described by Chen Weiming in his book where he made references to both Yang Chengfu and Li Jinglin. Interestingly, Chen Weiming outlined the form’s movements only. He said nothing about their martial applications or sword techniques. These were discussed in what looks like a companion volume written at the same time by Li’s senior student, Huang Yuanxiou. Decades later, the two volumes were integrated into single sword manuals by Stuart Olson and Scott Rodell, with the descriptions of the form movements coming from Chen’s book and those of the techniques, from Huang’s[8].  

The form described in Chen’s sword treatise is now known as Yang Sword 54. Over time, it became one of the most widely practiced sword forms. It influenced the more recent (and equally popular) Sword 32 as well as other newer sword forms. In this way, elements of Wudang Sword travelled from old Daoist temples to the present-day Taiji classrooms, blending with Taiji and gaining thousands of new adherents.

3 – Sword Energy

What made the collaboration between Li Jinglin and Yang Chengfu possible is a fundamental affinity between Wudang and Taiji. Externally, Wudang Sword is characterized, to use Stephan Berwick’s words, by finesse and containment [9].  And so is Taijiquan. Internally, they are based on common philosophical principles, such as the circulation of internal energy (qi).

In the traditional Chinese culture, qi was seen as a life force permeating the universe and providing humanity with immaterial sustenance. It was also seen as associated with such things as air, breath, and vapor.  Indeed, the top portion of the character “qi” stands for a boiling pot of rice, while top one depicts wisps of steam rises from it.                                                                  

Qi

In our days, some Western practitioners see qi as a form of highly coordinated kinetic or muscular energy regulated by the nervous system. Others, however, gravitate towards the classical Chinese view, updated and popularized by Yang Jwing-Ming. Yang Jwing-Ming defines qi as a bio-electromagnetic energy within the human body. He sees it as related to, but independent from, the muscular energy (li). To him, using both qi and li allows practitioners to generate an internal power (jin) which he describes as a muscle movement empowered to its maximum potential by qi [10].  Each of these two views has its pros and cons. Here, I will treat them as two slightly different interpretations of the same, still inadequately understood, phenomenon.

In the open-hand Taiji forms, the qi flow is usually directed from the feet to the lower torso (yao, often translated as “waist”) and further on, to the arms and hands. The soles of the feet, in the Chinese tradition, are seen as the “qi gates”; they connect us to the energy of the earth. The yao also plays an important role. First, it houses the reservoir of energy within the human body, known as the lower dantian. Second, it also acts as a general qi distributor. Turning right and left, the yao directs qi from the feet and the lower dantian to the arms and hands. 

Sword practice is no different, except the qi flow has to be extended even farther, to the sword. This is called projecting qi into the sword. An ability to do so was seen by old masters as the sign of excellence. Thus, Stuart Olson recalls that, when his teacher, T.T.Liang, demonstrated qi projection, the entire blade would quiver violently from the handle to the tip [11].  The mysterious and magical aspects of qi projection aside, though, it is safe to say that imbuing sword movements with the highly concentrated energy of the human body can considerably increase their power. 

When working with sword, it is important to lead qi not only to the sword, but also to the index and middle fingers of the unarmed hand, known as sword secret or sword talisman. This is done partly to counterbalance the energy of the sword and partly because sword secret can be also used for strikes, usually at acupuncture points (strikes like this are widely used, for example, in Atado’s Seven Stars of Nanyin Sword).  

A good way of starting to feel and direct the internal energy, at least according to the Chinese tradition, is sitting or standing meditation and qigong. Yang Jwing-Ming actually developed a sword qigong sequence. It is done without a sword; instead the qi is projected into the sword secrets of both hands. The sequence is done with deep abdominal breathing; it was said in the old days that qi travels with breath [12].    

Another good practice is doing weapon forms without the weapon, simply listening to what is happening, with each movement, inside the body. This may lead to some interesting discoveries. Ron Williamson (Atado School), for example, developed an open-hand Taiji form (Calming Waters) on the basis of Wudang Fan. Also, I found it useful to alternate sword and open-hand sequences from Wudang; this is how Hand and Sword Form came into being.

Experimenting with forms like this may be helpful (and a lot of fun), but a more systematic way of integrating body and sword is through studying sword techniques, also known as sword energies. The pioneer in this area was, once again, General Li. He tried to find an analogy between sword techniques used in Wudang Sword, on the one hand, and the 13 postures of Taijiquan (Ward Off, Roll Back, etc.), on the other.  Indeed, he composed a list of 13 sword energies, with each of them related to one particular posture of Taijiquan. This list of pairs was later published by Huang Yuan-xiou, one of Li’s senior sword students. Later, their work was continued by other sword masters, including Stuart Olson, Scott Rodell, and Nick Gracenin[13].  On the CMIA blog, I reviewed the first six of these 13 pairs[14]. Here, I will use the example of Thrust, or Stab (Ci). 

On Li Jinglin’s list, Thrust is compared to Split (Lieh) in the 13 postures of Taijiquan. This may come as a surprise. Typically, in Thrust the tip of the sword moves forward. In Split, however, the right hand travels forward and to the side, as in Slanting and Flying. Despite these apparent differences, the two techniques are quite similar in energetic terms. The energy in both cases comes from the sole of the back foot and the yao. This energy makes the torso turn. It turns differently: to the left in Thrust and to the right in Split. However, it is this spiralling energy that propels, in both cases, the movement of the right hand. Without it, it would lose its momentum.

Split

As for the left hand, the same energy drives it back, as in this YMAA photo (figure in black).

4 – “Sticky Swords”

The notion of qi is closely related to the idea of a mutual transformation of the opposites, yin and yang. In Taiji Sword, the expansion or emission of energy (as in Thrust) corresponds to the yang force. By contrast, the contraction and yielding (as in the circular movement that immediately precedes Thrust) is yin. The two forces alternate incessantly: coming to an end, resurging, and coming to an end again. The yin force is deemed to be especially important because this is how we augment our energy by absorbing it from our surroundings.

The idea of yin and yang, along with that of internal energy, gave rise to a peculiar practice from a martial perspective described in Taiji as “sticking.” “When sticking to his opponent,” writes Chen Weiming, “The [taijiquan] boxer does not clutch and grasp. He sticks very lightly, almost like a glue one can’t get off.”[15]   And, of course, this is exactly what the old man with a smoking pipe did when, according to the anecdote, Li Jinglin threatened him with the sword.

In our days, the power of sticking was analyzed by Jou Tsung Hwa with reference to Taiji pushing hands [16].  It all starts, he says, with sensing the opponent’s energy. If we feel that the opponent is going to attack, we yield, borrowing his/her energy and combining it with our own (yin). If, on the other hand, we feel that the opponent is starting to retreat, we follow, sticking to his/her sword (the beginning of yang).  Together, these two movements (yielding and following) are known as neutralization. Neutralization, in turn, prepares the ground for our own attack (fully fledged yang).

The principle of neutralization also plays an important role in Taiji swordsmanship. Its yielding and following elements can be found in some of the 13 sword energies, such as Clear/Wash (Xi) and Entwine/Wrap (Jiao). They are also widely used in defensive techniques, as in this photo of Sam Masich and Chantal Fafard, where a conventional stab is met with a soft, sliding, or filing parry.

One of the best ways to master neutralization is by practising two-person drills. There is a wide variety of them. Yang Jwing-Ming, Sam Masich, Nick Gracenin, all created their sets of partner sword drills [17].  At CMIA, we often do the 8 Points of Fence, developed by Steve Higgins on the basis of European Rapier drills (this exercise can be done as part of both solo and partner work). 

If neutralization is the main feature of partner drills, in two-person forms we want to disengage from our partner in order to increase the efficacy of our attack.  In cases like this, it is our partner who will be using neutralization in order to prevent us from disengaging, so that in the final account a spectator will see mostly yielding and following with some periodic disengagement. “Sticky swords!” said Sam Masich once with reference to Taiji Sword, and the same seems to be true about Wudang Sword two-person performances.[18] 

5 – Closing Remarks

“The essence of practicing sword” – wrote General Li — “lies in moving your body as a swimming dragon. There should be no pauses. After practicing a long time, your body will fuse with the sword, and the sword will fuse with your Shen (Spirit). The integration is seamless.”[1]  In the Daoist philosophy the concept of Shen is associated with the ideas of wisdom and kindness. One does not have to be a Daoist to appreciate the significance of this statement. There is no place in Taiji swordsmanship for aggressiveness or anger. As for the sword itself, it becomes inseparable from the human body, its movements propelled by internal energy and guided by the transformation of yin and yang.

Notes:

[1]   Barbara Davis, The Taijiquan Classics, Blue Snake Book, 2004: 5; Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, Blue Snake Books, 2005: 179; Yang Jwing-Ming, Tai Chi Secrets of the Yang Style, YMAA, 2001.

[2] John Lagerway, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, Macmillan,1987: 268; Yang Jwing-Ming, Taiji Sword – Classical Yang Style. YMAA, 1999: 18. Meier Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts, University of Hawai’i Press, 2008: 156; Livia Kohn, Daoism and the Origins of Qigong2001, .

[3] Huang Yuan-xiou, The Major Methods of Wudang Sword, Blue Snake Books, 2010: 10.

[1] Huang Yuan-xiou, x-xi, 81; Kung Fu Tea, Lives of Chinese Martial Artists,    https://chinesemartialstudies.com/2017/06/09/lives-of-chinese-martial-artists-20-general-li-jinglin-the-sword-saint-of-wudang/.

[4]  Petra and Toyo Kobayashi, Classical T’ai Chi Sword, Tuttle Publishing, 1995: 16.

[5] Petra and Toyo Konayahi, 14.

[6]  Chen Weiming, Taiji Sword, Blue Snakes Books, 2000: ix, 16-17, Petra ad Toyo Kobayashi, 14.

[7]  Chen Weiming; Huang Yuan-xiou; Stuart Olson, T’ai Chi Thirteen Sword, Multi-Media Book, 1999; Scott Rodell, Chinese Swordsmanship, Seven Stars, 2005. Please note that this is not the only existing list of sword energies, or techniques. Zhang Yun, in his  Art of Chinese Swordsmanship (Weatherhill,1998) and Steve Higgins, in Taijijian: A Cold Mountain Internal Arts Notebook (2017) use a similar list of techniques, but arranged in a different order. Sam Masich, on the other hand, has a list of the 13 techniques based on Yang-Jwing Ming’s typology (Sam Masich, Taijiquan Core Principles, workshop, Milton ON, May 2006, and Yang Jwing-Ming, Taiji Sword, 52-79).  In essence, all these lists have much in common.

[8]  Stepan Berwick et al., “Qingping Straight Sword,” in Chinese Swords  edited by Michale DeMarco,Via Media, 2015: 57.

[9] Yang Jwing-Ming, The Roots of Chinese Qigong, YMAA, 1997: 41-43.

[10] Stuart Olson, 233.

[11] Yang Jwing-Ming, Taiji Sword, 33-52.

[12] Huang Yuan-xiou (p.9) offers the following list of pairs:

13 Sword Energy    13 Postures of Taijiquan

Chou/Draw             Peng/Ward Off

Dai/Carry                Lu/Roll Back

Ti/Lift                      Ji/Press

Ge/Parry                  An/Push

Ji/Strike                   Cai/Pluck

Ci/Stab                    Lie/Split

Dian/Point               Zhou/Elbow Strike

Beng/(Explode?)     Kao/Body Strike

Jiao/Stir                   Qian Jin/Advance

Ya/Press                  Hou Tui/Retreat

Pi/Chop                   Zuo Gu/Look Left

Jie/Intercept          You Pan/Look Right

Xi/Slice                   Zhung Ding/Central Equilibrium

Similar lists are used by Stuart Olson and Scott Rodell (see endnote 8) as well as by. Nick Gracenin (Energies of Wudang Taiji Sword, DVD, Wushu Publishing, 2005).

[14] https://www.coldmountaininternalarts.com/single-post/2017/07/08/Thirteen-Energies-of-the-Sword-3-Strike-and-Thrust

[15] Chen Weiming, 84.

[16] Jou Tsung Hwa, The Tao of Taijiquan, Taiji Foundation, 1991: 240-247.

[17]  See, for example, a set of two-person drills performed by Sam Masich’s senior students Adriaan Blaauw and Jill Heath, in 2017 Masich Internal Arts Full Curriculum Week,

[18]  See, for example, Li Tianji’s and his partner’s performance on youtube (Master Li Tianji: Wudang Sword Two-Person Set).

[19] Huang Yuan-xiou: p.xix.

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