by Tanya Korovkin
The previous four posts in this series discussed the first eight energies (techniques) on the list of the 13 energies of the sword. This list was created, reportedly, by General Li Jing-lin, China’s most celebrated swordsman of the early 20th century. The 10th-generation lineage holder of Wudang Sword, Li Jing-lin had a profound interest in taijiquan. Indeed, it is generally agreed that Taiji Sword originated in Wudang Sword and that General Li played a significant role in moulding taiji sword practices.
In the 1930s Li Jing-lin’s list of the 13 sword energies (along with their analogies to the 13 Postures of Taijiquan) was published as part of a book authored by one of his students, Huang Yuan-xiou. In our times this list, with or without variations, is often used in taiji sword manuals and classrooms (for references, see “Resources” at the end of the post).
In this article, I will examine the last five energies on Li Jing-lin’s list: Split/Pi, Intercept/Jie, Stir/Jiao, Press/Ya, and Clear/Xi. They tend to be more subtle than the first eight. Their analogies to the 13 Postures of Taijiquan (in this case, the five Wuxing-related stepping patterns: Advance, Retreat, Step Left, Step Right, and Centre) are also more complex.
Sections 1 to 5 of this post discuss the characteristics of these five sword energies. As in the earlier posts, I will use examples from several taiji sword forms, such as Yang Sword 54, Sword 32, CMIA Sword 16, and Five Section Two Person Sword. Where possible, I will also draw comparisons with the previously reviewed sword techniques. Section 6 examines the associations between the sword techniques and the Wuxing Elements. Section 7 is a conclusion.
1 – Split (Pi)
The first of the last five energies on the list is Pi, translated as Split or Chop. At first glance, it does not look either subtle or complex. “In Pi – writes Huang Yuan-xiou – step forward and chop straight downward at the head” (p. 31). Of course, it doesn’t always have to be “the head,” but typically this technique involves a vertical cut done with the middle portion of the blade. It is a little bit like chopping wood with an axe: it has a certain hacking quality.
One of the best example of the Splitting technique is probably a movement called Shoot the Geese (for the ending posture: see https://tambulimedia.com/tai-chi-sword-and-the-cop/).
It can be found in several forms: Yang Sword 54, Sword 32, and Five Section Two Person Sword. Split is also used in Birds Fly Over the Waterfall (Yang Sword 54) and Comet Runs After the Moon (Sword 32). In CMIA Sword 16 this energy is used twice in the middle of the form.
Splitting may look like a fairly robust technique, but it can be also done lightly, as in Welcome Wind Flicks the Dust (Yang Sword 54). On some occasions, it can be also done at an angle. Sam Masich and Scott Rodell, for example, describe the movement called White Tiger Wags the Tail (Yang Sword 54) as Split. Stuart Olson, by contrast, describes it as Strike/Ji (the same energy as in Phoenix Spreads Its Wings, but now with the leg as a target). In other words, Masich’s and Rodell’s intent is to “hack” the leg with the middle part of the blade, while Stuart’s intent is to “strike” it with the top.
2 – Intercept (Jie)
Contrary to Split, which is typically an offensive technique, Intercept has a strong defensive component. The Chinese term for this energy is Jie which may mean, in addition to intercept, receive, stop and check. The objective here is to stop the partner’s advance, typically by targeting his or her wrist. Yang Jwing-Ming defines this energy as “using the tip section of the sword to intercept and attack diagonally upward, downward, or backward. Technically Jie is a fast chop to the enemy’s wrist, to intercept a stab” (p.59).
The proactive, offensive element makes Intercept different from such defensive techniques as Block/Ge, Lift/Ti and Press/Ya, all of which aim at preparing the grounds for an attack. Steve Higgins talks in this connection about “stealing the march,” i.e., meeting an attack with an attack of your own. To be sure, Intercept is not the only way we can steal the march on our partner: Draw/Chou and Carry/Dai can be used with this objective too. But this is certainly one of the most efficient and effective ways: it requires only a small movement targeted at the wrist to make the partner want to withdraw.
The person on the right in this photo is performing Intercept at the wrist, https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/wudang-sword/.
A good example of Intercept in Yang Sword 54 is the movement called Right Whirlwind. The same energy is used at the beginning of CMIA Sword 16. The movement called Circling the Wrists in Five Section Two Person Sword can be also seen as a series of intercepts combined with a side-wise cross-stepping. In this case the partners take turns in targeting and withdrawing their wrists while also walking face to face to the side. All in all, Intercept appears as a subtle defensive-offensive technique, generally targeted at the partner’s wrist.
3 – Stir (Jiao)
In some situations, Stir (Jiao) may look somewhat similar to Intercept. Thus, while some practitioners describe Circling the Wrists as a series of intercepts (Jie), others identify it as Stirring (Jiao). The Chinese term Jiao can be translated as stir, envelop or wrap. All these words suggest rounded and usually repetitive movements: like stirring soup in a cooking pot.
There seem to be at least two different types of this sword technique. One is what Stuart Olson calls Straight Stirring (pp.183-185). It involves small circular motions that can be used instead of the more linear intercepts in Circling the Wrists.
The second type is Crosswise Stirring which is much larger in scope. While Straight Stirring is generally targeted at the wrist, Crosswise Stirring may have more than one objective. The immediate priority is blocking the partner’s sword by deflecting it, in an arc, to the side. Continuing the arc and making it into a circle, one may also target the partner’s arm or leg. Finally, if performed vigorously, Crosswise Stirring can destabilize or, to use Zhang Yun’s words, “shake the root” of the partner.
Cheng Man Ching’s Partner Practice http://taichivideos.org/cheng-man-ching-tai-chi-sword-training
In Yang Sword 54, Crosswise Stirring is used in Wind Rolls the Lotus Leaf (Olson) and Left Whirlwind (Masich and Olson). Crosswise Stirring can be also found at the end of Five Section Two Person Sword, when the partners circle each other’s swords, looking for offensive opportunities and, not having found them, disengage and finish the form.
4 – Press (Ya)
The Chinese term Ya is usually translated as Press or Hold Down. Contrary to Intercept and Stir (which can be used both offensively and defensively) Ya is a typical defensive technique. In this sense it is similar to other major defensive techniques, such as Block/Ge and Lift/Ti. One should keep in mind though that these three defensive techniques have different directional connotations. Block employs usually a lateral energy, even though in some cases, such as Straddle and Block in Yang Sword 54, it can be also applied upward. Lift, in turn, always has an upward component. As for Press, its objective is to stop the incoming sword by pressing it down.
Press can be done either palm down or palm up. In both cases, it is advisable to meet the partner’s blade at the more or less right angle. Additionally, in the case of the palm-down Press, one should push the tip down, so that it would be more difficult for the partner to withdraw his or her blade.
Press is used in CMIA Sword 16, after (or along with) the change of direction in the middle of the form. In Yang Sword 54, this energy can be employed, according to Masich, in Dragonfly Touches the Water (Rodell prefers to use Block/Ge in this movement). In the same form, Olson uses Press in Part the Grass in Search of the Snake. Interestingly, in this last case Press is used with the advancing steps (a reminder that, even though the offensive techniques are usually associated with advancing and the defensive ones with retreating, there is no strict rule on this matter).
Press is also used in Five Section Two Person Sword. A short exchange between the two partners in the movement called Waiting for the Fish demonstrates both the strong and weak points of this technique. In this case, Partner B uses Press in response to Partner A’s failed attempt to execute Split/Pi on his or her wrist. To have a better control of the partner’s blade, B meets it at a wide angle and presses the tip of his/her own blade down. This looks like a good way to execute Press, but partner A manages to escape and proceed to a counterattack.
Of course, we are dealing with an orchestrated form here. If it were free play, the outcome might be different. Even so, Waiting for the Fish in this form demonstrates both the effectiveness of the Pressing technique and the difficulty of holding the partner’s blade down for a prolonged period of time. Scott Rodell notes in this connection that the advantage gained by Press can be lost as fast as it is gained, so that it must be quickly followed by an offensive technique.
So far, we have been talking about Press with the tip of the sword pointing down. Zhang Yun, however, writes about a variation on this technique, whereby the tip is pointing up. In Yang Sword 54 and Five Section Two Person Sword, the tip-up Press is used in the movement called Plant Incense on the Altar. In the two person form, Partner A (on the right in this photo of Sam Masich and Chantal Fafard) uses the tip-up Press in response to Partner B’s Draw/Chou targeted at A’s neck or head.
5 – Clear (Xi)
Xi, translated as Clear or Wash, is the last energy on Li Jing-lin’s list. To some extent, it looks like the beginning of Crosswise Stirring; the objective here is to clear the partner’s sword out of the way. Scott Rodell defines Clear as a rounded movement used to catch and stick to the partner’s blade. Yang Jwing-Ming also points out that this is usually achieved by turning the hand outward.
A predominantly defensive technique, Clearing allows one to control, for a moment, the partner’s sword. This moment is very short (even shorter than what we have with Press), but this may be all we need for going into a counterattack. The connection between the two blades is also very light. There is no body weight put into Clearing, as it is often the case with Block/Ge or Press/Ya. Instead, with Clear, it is the body that follows or chases the sword.
The Clearing energy is used more than once in Five Section Two Person Sword. In Dragon Stands at the Cauldron Edge, for instance, Partner A employs Clear before proceeding to Thrust/Ci. Later on, in Yellow Bee Enters the Honeycomb, Partner A resorts to the same technique, also before Thrusting.
Similarly, when the movement called Falling Flowers (Yang Sword 54) is performed as a series of Draw/Chou and Carry/Dai, Clear is used as a transitional energy between these two techniques. Indeed, according to Olson, Clear can be found in almost any application as a preliminary action or a transition between two techniques.
6 – Sword Energies and Wuxing Elements
The last five energies on Li Jing-lin’s list are seen as analogous to the five stepping patterns in the 13 Postures of Taijiquan. Each stepping pattern, in turn, is associated with one of the five Wuxing Elements, or Phases. Thus, Advancing Step is associated with Metal, Retreating Step with Wood, Step Left with Water, Step Right with Fire, and Center with Earth (see Garofalo, among others).
The analogies between the last five sword energies and the taiji stepping patterns seem to be, however, far from perfect. The first analogy (Split and Advancing Step) looks quite convincing because in sword forms Split is usually done with a forward step. Intercept, however, can be done with both Retreating and Advancing Steps. Furthermore, Clear does have a feeling of staying in the center, but Stir and Press do not have any directional connotations.
But then, of course, the analogies on Li Jing-lin’s list cannot be seen as the only way of relating sword energies to stepping and/or Wuxing. As part of his 13-Power Sword partner drills (see Adriaan Blaauw and Jill Heath), Sam Masich teaches the Five Phases drill which uses a different combination of sword techniques and stepping patterns. Still another drill linking sword energies to Wuxing Phases is taught by Steve Higgins.
It should be mentioned that Wuxing, as an organizing principle, is used not only in taiji but also in other internal martial arts. In xingyi, for example, each Wuxing Element is associated with a certain sword or hand technique (see Di Guoying). Interestingly, some of these associations show an affinity with the analogies on Li Jing-lin’s list
Thus, Metal in xingyi sword is represented by Split (Pi). This technique is described as a powerful downward motion of the blade, as if one were chopping wood. A nearly identical description of Split/Pi is used in the 13 Energies of the Sword.
Water in xingyi sword is coupled with Drilling/Zhuang. Soft and subtle, this technique is used, in James Saper’s words, to sneak past the opponent’s defences. Bruce Frantzis, in his videos on xingyi hand techniques, compares Drilling to the eddies in a water flow, a comparison that could be also applied to Li Jing-lin’s Stirring/Jiao.
One may also find an element of similarity in the case of Earth (Crossing/Heng in xingyi sword and Clearing/Xi in on Li Jing-lin’s list). Heng is described as crossing the centreline while turning the hand either in or outward. With Clearing/Xi, one sticks to the partner’s sword while turning the hand outward. Both techniques have a certain sense of centredness.
By contrast, two other xingyi sword techniques have nothing to do with what might be expected to be their counterparts among the last five of the 13 energies of the sword. These are Thrust/Beng (Wood) and Pounding/Pao (Fire). Interestingly though, they are quite similar respectively to Thrust/Ci and a combination of Draw/Chou and Carry/Dai. These three energies appear at the very beginning of Li Jing-lin’s list and, because of this, they are not related to the taiji stepping and/or Wuxing Elements.
The existence of similarities between Xingyi Sword and Wudang-related Taiji Sword should not come to us as a surprise. It may be simply an indication that one can do only so much with the sword as a weapon. In other words, the same or similar basic techniques are bound to be found in all sword work, independently from style or discipline. At the same time, the association of taiji and xingyi sword techniques with ancient concepts, such as the Five Wuxing Elements, points to the common philosophical underpinnings and fundamental interdependence of traditional Chinese martial arts.
7 – To Conclude
No doubt, a better understanding of sword energies (techniques) can significantly refine and enrich our sword work. Indeed, sword forms were designed as a way of practicing sword techniques. This means that if we want to be precise when doing a form, we have to know which energy we are using and why.
At the same time, there is no complete correspondence between sword form movements and sword techniques. The same movement can be performed with more than one sword energy. This is where knowledge of the 13 energies of the sword comes in handy. Take the example of a movement called Falling Flowers. If you are retreating while performing this movement (as in Yang Sword 54), most probably you will want to use Lift/Ti as a way to stop the incoming sword. If, on the other hand, you are advancing (as in the forward-step Falling Flowers drill), you may want to use a combination of Draw/Chou and Carry/Dai. “It is all Falling Flowers!” one may say. Sure, but the martial content in each case is different.
We could go into more details in the discussion of the 13 energies of the sword but, as the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Have a good practice!
Blaauw, Adriaan, and Jill Heath, Yang-Style Thirteen-Power Taiji Straight Sword, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_MiDJVA6mo
Garofalo, Michael. Thirteen Postures of Taijiquan, http://www.egreenway.com/taichichuan/powers13.htm
Gracenin, Nick. 13 Energies of Wudang Taji Sword (DVD). Wushu Publishing, 2010.
Di Guoyong, Xingyi Five Elements Straight Sword (Jian), Instructional DVD, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxox3wm2a9A.
Higgins, Steve. Taijijian: A Cold Mountain Internal Arts Notebook, 2015.
Huang, Yuan-xiou. The Major Methods of Wudang Sword. Blue Snake Books, 2010.
Masich, Sam. Traditional Yang Style Taijiquan 54 (DVD). Little Productions, 2005.
__________. 5 Section Taijiquan, vol.2, Two Person Sword Form (DVD). Little Productions, 2005.
__________. Yang Style Taiji 13 Sword, Workshop in Milton, Ontario, May 2006 .
__________. 13 Power Sword, Workshop in Kitchener, Ontario, October 2017.
Olson, Stuart. Tai Chi Thirteen Sword: A Sword Master’s Manual. Multi-Media Books, 1999.
Rodell, Scott. Chinese Swordsmanship: The Yang Family Taiji Jian Tradition. Seven Stars Trading, 2005.
Yang Jwing-Ming, Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style. YMAA, 1999.
Zhang Yun, The Art of Chinese Swordsmanship. Weatherhill, 1998.
I would like to thank Steve Higgins, Sam Masich, Jill Heath, Ron Williamson, James Saper, Kaarina Higgins, and Alexandra Graonic, without whose generous support and advice these posts would not have been possible.
Tanya Korovkin is a long time taiji practitioner. Her first teacher was Jaime Orejuela Luna. Later she studied Yang Style with Steve Higgins (Cold Mountain Internal Arts) and Sam Masich, as well as Wudang Taiji with Ron Williamson (Atado School of Defensive Arts). Tanya earned silver and bronze medals for her Yang performances at the 2009 Canadian Open Taijiquan Championships. She also served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation. Tanya is Associate Instructor at Cold Mountain Internal Arts.