Yi Jian Mei Revisited

I first learned this beautiful sword form in 2016. It is unusually dramatic and theatrical, having its origin in a hugely popular song and both television and film dramas, the latter dating back to 1931.

This time around I found the following video on sword flowers (剑花 jiànhuā ) very helpful:

For more about this form, names of the movements, lyrics of the song, and links to instructional and performance videos, see these earlier posts:

Yi Jian Mei is not without its detractors. Some say it is not even Tai Chi Sword, but I think this overstates the case. Odd as some of the movements might appear, I have seen most of them in one source or another in less well known, but definitely authentic, Tai Chi sword forms.

For example, this (to me) odd-looking position, called Fukan Renjian in Yi Jian Mei, is from the Michuan (secret) Yang Sword form that Yang Luchan taught the Manchu Imperial guards in the 1850s. The illustration here is from Scott Rodell’s excellent book on Chinese Swordsmanship.

That said, the movements of Yi Jian Mei are so intricate that it’s hard to imagine using them in an actual swordfight (though it would make for a very exciting battle!) and I admit that I have modified my own practice somewhat to stay within bounds of the Tai Chi sword that I am familiar with.

The Sword of Li Jinglin (3)

Continuing from The Sword of Li Jinglin (2), chapters 6-11 of the treatise (I am using the Brennan Translation) describe how training progresses from solo practice to two-person sparring sets and then to free-sparring.

Here, Li Tianji demonstrates a two-person sparring set in Wuhan in 1984 (that’s Li with the dark shoulders):

Solo practice involves studying and practicing the thirteen sword techniques. To prepare for solo practice with a sword, a student should first be proficient in empty-hand internal arts. The same principles apply. Those of us who only ever practice solo sword forms have not progressed beyond this initial stage of training.

Practicing with a Partner

Having achieved in solo practice familiarity with the thirteen jianfa, a student would then move up to sparring with a partner. The simplest two-person sets involve studying how the sword techniques fit together to make triangles.

For example, two sparring partners would take turns answering Jie (a check) with Ti (a lift) to make a triangle above. Other combinations form triangles above, below, to the left or to the right.

The next stage of training involves Yin Yang sword circling. A student must first learn this combination of jianfa as an individual practice.

阴阳剑圈 Yīn Yáng Jiàn Quān

For a Yin sword circle, Ci (a stab) is followed by Chou (draw) with Yin grip to the right. A Yang sword circle is formed when the stab is followed by Dai (drag) to the left with a Yang grip. A complete Yin Yang jian quan is a stab followed by a draw to the right, followed by another stab and a drag to the left.

As your body retreats, your sword advances (Ci). This combination stab/draw/stab/drag is similar to the two moves near the beginning of 32-sword that are called Xiang You Ping Dai (toward the right, level carry) and Xiang Zuo Ping Dai (toward the left, level carry).

When you are proficient at making sword circles, you would then try coordinating the circles with an opponent. Your stab and draw to the right would be met by your partner’s stab and drag to the left, and visa versa.

You alternately advance to thrust and then your sword retreats with a drag to the left or a draw to the right. One person stabs, the other defends with a draw and stabs; the first defends with a drag and then stabs, and so on.

Each of you would be (in actual fighting) trying to slip in a cut to the wrist, but the purpose of this sparring exercise is to learn how the Yin and Yang circles fit together. Sword circles can also be tilted, alternately using TI (lifting) with Shao Yin grip and Pi (chopping) with Shao Yang grip. Students must achieve skill at triangles and two-person circling before moving on to the next stage of training.

Two-person sparring sets

The sparring sets prescribe how one person attacks with one technique and the other responds with a countering technique. For example, one chops to the other’s head, the other responds with a block and a drag to the waist.

Initially, the sets are practiced with fixed stance and slowly, with correct posture and clearly defined jianfa. With skill, the partners can begin moving in circles, advancing, and retreating as in the video above). At each stage and in each set, partners trade roles to learn both sides of the exercise.

Ultimately, students abandon the choreography and free-spar. The most advanced level of training is free-sparring against multiple apponents or against a long weapon such as a spear.

Skipping any stage of practice is strictly forbidden. Only after completing all the stages of training in the prescribed order would one be prepared for real sword fighting. From the thorough and diligent practice of all the elements—jianfa, footwork, advancing and retreating—internal power issues through the sword, and the art of the sword emerges.

In the words of Sun Lutang: 剑与身合为一 (Jiàn Yǔ Shēn Héwéi Yī) Sword and body become one.

The Sword of Li Jinglin (2)

Continuing from The Sword of Li Jinglin (1), the 1931 treatise defines 13 essential sword techniques and eight grips. In the treatise, the word 势 Shì, meaning forms or powers, is used for the sword techniques. Usually, I see the word 法 fǎ for techniques, as in:

  • 剑法 Jiànfǎ – Sword techniques (jian is sword)
  • 手法 Shǒufǎ – Hand positions, grips (shou is hand)
  • 步法 Bùfǎ – Footwork (bu is step or stance)

Here is an interesting video demonstrating the grips and forms. The text on the screen for each technique is taken directly from the treatise and can be readily found in the Brennan translation.

In the treatise, the jianfa are described in terms of footwork, targets, and grips. They are illustrated by photographs. An interesting point: The target is most often the wrist. It can also be the head or waist or leg, but more often, it’s the wrist.

This makes sense. The hand that holds the sword (protected by the handguard) is the part of the body that is nearest to the opponent’s sword. If you can get inside the range of your opponent’s sword at all, the closest target would be his wrist.

Moreover, a cut to the wrist with a sharp blade would almost certainly damage muscle and connective tissue needed for handling the sword. If the wrist of your sword hand were cut, you would be effectively disarmed. In a serious swordfight, with a damaged wrist, you would be at your opponent’s mercy.

Grips

The grips are defined in the treatise in terms of 阴 Yīn and 阳 Yáng. Yin grips are all more or less palm-down, tiger mouth (虎口 Hǔkǒu) facing left. Yang grips are palm-up, tiger mouth facing right.

in the middle (中 Zhōng), where the yin side meets the yang side, the tiger mouth points straight up or down. The grip that points up (palm facing left) is called 中阴 Zhōng Yīn. Point the sword straight down (palm facing right) and the grip is called 中阳 Zhōng Yáng.

Brennan explains the grips in terms of a clock face. The Tai Yin (fully Yin, palm-down) grip points the sword to 9 o’clock. Tai Yang (fully Yang, palm-up) points to 3:00. Zhong Yin points to 12:00, Zhong Yang points to 6:00.  The grips that tip upward, to 10:30 and 1:30, are called 少 Shào Yin or Yang; those that tip downward are called 老 Lǎo Yin or Yang.

Starting with the arm rotated all the way inward, so the palm faces right and the sword points down, as you slowly rotate your arm outward, you would pass through the eight grips in this order:

  • 中阳 Zhōng Yáng – 6:00, hukou facing down, palm facing right
  • 老阴 Lǎo Yīn – 7:30, hukou facing lower left corner, palm facing lower right corner
  • 太阴 Tài Yīn – 9:00, hukou facing left, palm-down, level
  • 少阴 Shào Yīn – 10:30, hukou facing upper left corner, palm facing lower left
  • 中阴 Zhōng Yīn – 12:00, hukou facing up, palm facing left
  • 阳 Shào Yáng  – 1:30, hukou facing upper right corner, palm facing upper left
  • 太阳 Tài Yáng – 3:00, hukou facing right, palm-up, level
  • 阳 Lǎo Yáng – 4:30, hukou facing lower right corner, palm facing upper right

At Lao Yang, your arm is rotated all the way out as far as it can go. To go from Lao Yang back to Zhong Yang, you would have to flip your wrist over. These grips are demonstrated at the beginning of the video above.

Sword techniques

Working my way through the treatise, I am reminded of a saying: “The more I learn the less I know.” I expected the techniques described in the treatise to correspond neatly to the techniques named in 32-sword. They do not.

The thirteen forms or jianfa are:

  • 抽 Chōu (draw) can be 上 Shǎng (upward) or 下 Xià (downward)
  • 帯 Dài (drag) can be 直 Zhí (vertical) or 平 Píng  (level)
  • 提 Tí (lift, carry) can be  向前 Xiàngqián (forward)  or 后 Hòu (backward)
  • 格 Gé* (block) can be  下 Xià (downward) or 翻 Fān (overturned)
  • 击 Jī* (strike, hit) can be 正 Zhèng (upright) or 反 Fǎn  (reverse)
  • 刺 Cì* (stab) can be 侧 Cè (upright) or 平 Píng (level)
  • 点 Diǎn (tap)
  • 崩 Bēng (flick) can be  正 Zhèng (vertical) or  翻 Fān (overturned)
  • 劈 Pī (chop)
  • 截 Jié (intercept) can be 平 Píng (level),  左 Zuǒ (left),  右 Yòu, (right), or  反 Fǎn  (reverse)
  • 搅 Jiǎo can be  横 Hèng (horizontal) or 直 Zhí (vertical)
  • 压 Yā (press)
  • 洗 Xǐ* (clear)

*Asterisks denote the original four techniques taught by Li Jinglin’s Wudang Master Song Wei Yi.

An interesting point: we are told that beng and dian use energy directly from the dantian, as opposed to energy that issues through the legs, waist, and arms. The instruction for dian says that the body and arm should not move; only the hand (wrist) causes the sword to tap. It is the same for flicking (beng).

I note one discrepancy in the otherwise helpful video above: Chou is demonstrated both right and left. As I read the treatise, Chou is always to the right, an outside movement, away from the body. Dai is always to the left, an inside movement across the body. I have not had instruction in this sytem of swordfighting, so that’s just my reading of the treatise.

Next: Stages of training and sparring sets.

The Sword of Li Jinglin (1)

Li Jinglin (1885–1931) was a military leader during China’s Warlord Era. The Qing Dynasty, China’s last, was overthrown in 1912, and regional armies controlled the country for a couple of decades after that. The political history of that period is kalaidescopic and tumultuous, and Li Jinglin was active throughout the rise and fall of the various factions.

Li Jinglin

An accomplished and influential grandmaster of martial arts, Li is best known to those of us who study Tai Chi as China’s greatest swordsman. Li was schooled in the martial arts from childhood and learned sword as a young man from the great Wudang Grandmaster Song Wei Yi. Li became the 10th generation lineage holder of Wudang Dan Pai Sword.

Li also studied the sword of Yang Luchan by way of Yang’s sons and collaborated with masters of many other sword traditions, testing and selecting the most effective swordfighting techniques. Among Li’s closest associates were Yang Chengfu, Li Yulin (same surname, no relation), and Sun Lutang. Li Tianji, son of Li Yulin, was trained according to Li Jinglin’s teachings and later created the modern 32-step Yang-style sword form.

Li’s Wudang master, Song Wei Yi, was the first to create a manual for Wudang Dan Pai Sword. This manual was published in 1923 in Beijing and widely promoted and amplified by Li Jinglin. A disciple of Li Jinglin, Huang Yuanxiu, published a new, illustrated edition of the manual, Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art,  in Shanghai in 1931, the year of Li’s death. The various sword techniques are demonstrated by Huang and another Li disciple, Chu Guitang, in photographs.

Huang and Chu demonstrate

The Wudang Sword Treatise, while based on the art of Song Wei Yi, represents the culmination of Li Jinglin’s wide-ranging lifelong practice. Paul Brennan provides a translation of this work, along with the photographs:

Brennan Translation: Wudang Sword

At the beginning of the treatise, in his own calligraphy, Li Jinglin writes:

“The key in sword practice is that your body moves like a swimming dragon, never coming to a halt. After practicing over a long period, your body will unite with your sword, then your sword will merge with your spirit. There will be no sword anywhere, and everywhere there will be a sword.”

Read more about the life and times of Li Jinglin:

Next: notes on the substance of the treatise.

Huawu Fan Review

This has come to be my favorite fan form, partly because this time around I found and used the teaching videos of Master Zeng Nailiang himself, creator of the form. Read about him here: Kung Fu Magazine-Professor Zeng Nailiang.

To me the most beautiful demonstration of this form is that of Sing May Chen (Irvine World Tai Chi Day 2015). In this grab she is doing 飞凤回首 – Fēi fèng huíshǒu (Flying Phoenix Turns Head):

Here are the links to Master Zeng’s four-part tutorial, totalling about 45 minutes of instruction. I especially appreciate his emphasis on the martial aspects of the form and the use of the fan as a weapon. That is Master Zeng’s daughter demonstrating the moves at the beginning of each segment.

  1. Movements 1-8 (9:55)
  2. Movements 9-20 (11:25)
  3. Movements 20-32 (11:52)
  4. Movements 33-42 (9:26)

The name of the form is 华武太極扇  (Huáwǔ tàijíshàn). Huawu means “Flowery Martial” Tai Chi Fan, and here is a list of the 42 movements (PDF). For more about Huawu Fan and links to more video demonstrations, see my earlier posts: Huawu Fan (tagged).

28-Step Tai Chi Fan

After a year and a half of isolation, my long-time neighborhood weekend practice group has resumed its routine, and I am so glad.

Yang Li demonstrates 28-Fan

At a nearby park, we start with about a half-hour of basics: baduanjin (the eight brocades qigong), 24, 42, 32-sword, and kungfu fan. What we do after that varies. Right now, we are learning a new fan form: 28-step fan.

The name of the form is 杨氏28式太极扇:Yáng shì 28-shì tàijíshàn (Yang-style 28-step Tai Chi Fan). We call it èr shì bā shàn (28 fan) for short. The form is relatively new, created in 2014, and is quite popular in China. It has many intricate and enjoyable movements, but it has no level-of-difficulty moves, so it is appropriate for people of all abilities. It makes a good ensemble piece too, for group practice or performance.

China Wushu is a great YouTube station with tutorials for many forms, including 28-fan. A very beautiful demonstration by Yang Li (pictured above) begins at 1:20 in the introduction to a series of teaching videos. The whole series:

Or go to the full playlist here. Here is a list of the 28 movements: PDF.

Xi Yang Mei

This famous fan form was created in the early two thousands by Li Deyin as part of the pageantry that surrounded the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is the second of two fan forms that Li composed for that occasion. The first was Kung Fu Fan. Both routines immediately became very popular.

This form is called Xi Yang Mei (Beautiful Sunset), or 56-Fan, or Fan II (第二套 dì èr tào, “the second way”). It is one of the most sophisticated and spectacular modern forms, first performed in Beijing by Li’s daughter, Faye Li Yip. Here she gives an amazing performance:

Xi Yang Mei is eclectic in style. Its movements are drawn from Tai Chi (both Yang and Chen), Bagua, Long Fist, Bajiquan (never heard of it! I had to look it up), sword, staff and spear, Northern and Southern Fist, even Beijing Opera. Like the music that accompanies it, Kung Fu Fan, it is a celebration of the Chinese martial arts.

Li has made more than one instructional video for this form. A new one, posted in 2020, is the first I’ve seen that has English subtitles. While I prefer to listen for the Chinese instructions (see the PDF below), it is very helpful to have English translations of the discussions where Li explains important points and also identifies the provenance of the various movements.

The tutorial is in three parts, each about thirty minutes long:

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

Here is a list of the 56 movements and Li’s instructions for each: PDF Xi Yang Mei Instructions

Xi Yang Mei is a good bit more difficult than Kung Fu Fan. Also, while Kung Fu Fan is a great ensemble piece, Xi Yang Mei is more suitable for a solo performance. You do see groups of three performing Xi Yang Mei—I have performed it with two other people myself—but it’s a lot easier to field a group for Kung Fu Fan.

Xi Yang Mei is an endlessly absorbing form to study and practice. I first learned it from my friend and teacher Hu Pei Yi, and I have studied Li’s various tutorials over the years, but even so, watching this latest set of videos, I see a whole slew of corrections for myself:

Obviously, I have a long way to go yet! I can only admire the elite performances in Li’s video—I particularly like to watch Fang Mishou (on the left in the opening demonstration), who is Li’s wife and an accomplished Tai Chi master in her own right.

One especially interesting point: Talking about this form as an exercise for older practitioners, Li says that it elevates the heart rate to about 120 beats per minute, and a maximum of 150 beats per minute in its most demanding parts. Perfect.

Last year, my doctor, who knows I do Tai Chi every day, asked me about whether my practice was sufficiently aerobic. He was no doubt picturing slow, Yang-style Tai Chi (which involves more exertion than most people realize, if they haven’t tried it). Next time I see him, I’ll tell him about the heart rate for Xi Yang Mei.

Sun-style Tai Chi (3)

The Sun 73 is a modern form designed for competition. As such, it is between 6:00 and 6:30 in length and eliminates the repetition in the traditional long form. Also, as is usually the case with modern forms, it is more left-right balanced than the old form.

My current teacher here in Austin, Grandmaster Aiping Cheng, learned from Sun Lutang’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun. Years ago, the Chinese government made a video of Aiping performing the Sun competition form, and this is the standard for judging the form. Unfortunately, the copy on YouTube is incomplete (only the first three minutes) and not the best video quality.

The name of the form is 孙式七十三式太极拳竞赛套路, Sūn shì Qī Shí Sān Shì Tàijíquán Jìngsài Tàolù, which translates as Sun-style 73-Step Tai Chi Competition Form. Below, Gao Jiamin demonstrates the Sun 73 with Li Deyin providing the names of the movements.

I have compiled a list of names by transcribing from this video. PDF: names of movements in the Sun 73.

Li Deyin has also made a teaching video in two parts, each part about an hour long.

Part 1: Beginning to Separate Right Foot (sections one and two)

Part 2: Step forward and punch down to end (sections three through six)

The 98 and the 73 start out the same—the whole first section is the same, in fact. But then in the second section of the 73, several of the movements occur on the unfamiliar side: Lanzhayi is on the left, single whip is on the right, and cloud hands travels to the right.

In section three, ban lan chui is on the opposite side from usual. The four corners of Fair Lady Works the Shuttle (section five) are in a different order in the 73; the order in the 98 is the same as in the Yang 108: SW/SE/NE/NW. In the Sun 73 the corners are SW/NE/NW/SE.

Finally, here is Gao Jiamin in back view:

As usual, I got Jesse Tsao’s instructional video from Taichihealthways.com. Between that and Li’s videos above, I learned the form well enough to schedule some private lessons (outside, masked) with Aiping. I actually learned the 73 first, and found it pretty easy to move up to the 98 from there.

Sun-style Tai Chi (2)

The Sun-style long form that Sun Lutang describes, move by move, in his book, Taijiquan, consists of 98 movements and echoes the overall structure of both the Chen and Yang long forms. It’s quite a bit shorter, however; it only takes about seven and a half minutes.

Here is a video of the Sun 98, with names, demonstrated first by Liu Jingshan (刘金山), then by Sun Lutang’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun.

Sun Jian Yun dedicated her life to preserving her father’s teachings. Li Yulin, father of Li Tianji and grandfather of Li Deyin, was a close disciple of Sun Lutang, and all three (father, son, grandson) have carried on the tradition as well.

My list of the movements in the Sun long form is derived from the book and the names given in the first video above. Where the two lists diverge, I have followed the video; footnotes in the book indicate that Sun’s form continued to evolve after he published the book.

PDF list of movements Sun 98: https://elizabethbuhmann.files.wordpress.com/2021/05/sun-style-long-form-98.pdf

My daily backyard practice in 2021 begins with the Sun 98. I learned the elements of Sun style from Grandmaster Aiping Cheng in 2020, and learned the 98 using Grandmaster Jesse Tsao’s instructional video (available on Taichihealthways.com).

I love the gentleness and accessibility of this style of tai chi; it’s perfect for an ordinary (and older) practitioner like me. These days, a modern competition form in Sun style, the Sun 73, seems to be more widely practiced than the old form. More on that next.

Sun-style Tai Chi (1)

Sun Lutang (1860-1933), founder of Sun-style Tai Chi, was a martial artist of formidable reputation. Aspiring fighters came from all over Asia to challenge him and study with him. Sun’s arts were Xingyi and Baguazhang. He learned Bagua from Cheng Tinghua and Xingyi from Guo Yun Shen, both dominant masters in their time.

To get an idea of what Sun practiced in his fighting career, here’s a great video of Master Xia Boya demonstrating Sun-style Baguazhang and Xingyi. As a bonus, at the end he performs 32-sword (“Li Tianji’s Sword”). It’s the most beautiful demonstrations of that form that I have ever seen.

In 1914, when Sun was in his fifties, he met Hao Weizheng, who taught Sun what is now called Wu/Hao Tai Chi. In these later years, Sun abandoned fighting, focusing instead on healthful exercise and longevity. When young men came to him to learn to fight, he told them to find another teacher!

As Sun incorporated Wu/Hao into his practice, he developed his own style of tai chi, one that contained elements of Bagua and Xingyi as well. In this next video, a 4th generation disciple of Sun Lutang practices Xingyi. You can clearly see some of the distinctive elements of Sun-style Tai Chi, such as the back-weighted 30/70 stance called 三七势 Sān Qī Shì (literally “three seven form”).

The Sun style is characterized by lively and distinctive footwork involving 跟步 Gēn bù (the following step), neat turns, and a signature opening and closing of hands (kai shou he shou) that follows every major movement in the form.

开手  Kāi shǒu  Open hands

合手  Hé shǒu  Close hands

Sun tai chi is also comparatively upright and small frame, with no extreme low form, so although it has all the benefit of other styles, it is particularly accessible for people of all abilities, and is especially favored by the elderly.

Here’s a great video from a Sun-style martial arts conference, in which you can see Sun-style Bagua, Xingyi, and Tai Chi:

Despite having little opportunity for education in his early life, Sun became a distinguished scholar through sheer intelligence and hard work. He wrote several important books, including one on Xingyi (published in 1914) and one on Bagua (1916).

The book pictured here was written in 1924. This volume is available in translation by Tim Cartmell and it includes a very interesting biography of Sun by Dan Miller, based on interviews (also translated by Cartmell) with Sun’s daughter, Sun Jian Yun.

The biography contains a tantalizing anecdote about a mysterious letter that was delivered to Sun’s home upon his death, and a maddening story about how his diary, containing a detailed record of his entire career and teaching, was lost.

The book is illustrated by photographs of Sun himself demonstrating the movements of his form. In the photo shown here, Sun demonstrates sanqishi when performing the Sun-style Shantongbei (flash through back).

See also Styles of Tai Chi. I will be posting two more pages on Sun-style Tai Chi, one on the traditional long form and another on the modern competition form.