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, and in fact, it is not. It is 抒怀剑, shūhuái jiàn, lyric (lit. express emotion) sword. The originator of this type of sword, and creator of the popular Yi Jian Mei sword routine, is 朱俊昌 Zhū Jùn Chāng. Read about him and shuhuaijian here: http://www.shuhuaijian.net/ [I owe thanks to Song Chen and Martin Mellish for this information.]
Professor Zhu is a teacher of dance, but he was trained in the martial arts from an early age. Odd as some of the movements in Yi Jian Mei 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.
The movements of Yi Jian Mei are so intricate that it’s hard to imagine using them in an actual swordfight, but though intricate, they are composed of familiar jianfa. I have modified my own practice of Yi Jian Mei to stay within bounds of the Tai Chi sword that I am familiar with.
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.
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.
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:
老阳 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.
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.