Vocabulary for Sword

Learning Chinese for the purpose of studying Tai Chi is not as daunting as it might seem. For sword, for example, about thirty words cover a wide array of swordfighting techniques—most of the technical terms needed for studying sword, in fact.

YJMingBelow I have given the common English translations for the Chinese words, but everyday English tells you nothing. For example: Diǎn means point. But if you don’t know Tai Chi sword and I tell you to point the sword, you will not do diǎn! Because the English word point does not carry the right meaning for swordplay. If you spoke Chinese and didn’t know Tai Chi sword, I could tell you to diǎn the sword, and you still would not know what to do. Diǎn is a term of art. Why learn an English translation? When you can learn two or three dozen Chinese words and speak the language of Tai Chi?

An additional advantage to learning the Chinese terms is that if you have the opportunity to work with a Chinese teacher, as I did last summer, knowing these key terms will make communication so much easier—possible even when neither of you speaks the other’s language at all.

Below I have marked with asterisk (*) the thirteen essential swordfighting techniques in the Yang sword system. For more information about jiànfǎ, you could consult Scott Rodell’s book, Chinese Swordsmanship, or Jwing Ming Yang’s book,  Tai Chi Sword Classical Yang Style. Not that you can learn sword from a book! But these two are good references.

Vocabulary for Tai Chi Sword—táijì jiàn:

剑     Jiàn                        Sword

法     Fǎ                           Method or technique

剑法  Jiànfǎ                    Swordplay

对方  Duìfāng               Opponent or opposing force

崩    Bēng*                   Collapse

抽    Chōu*                   Withdraw

戳    Chuō                     Jab

穿    Chuān                   Pierce

刺    Cì*                         Stab

带    Dài*                      Carry

点    Diǎn*                    Point

格    Gé*                       Block

挂    Guà                       Hang

划    Huá                       Slash

击    Jī*                          Hit

架    Jià                          Frame

搅    Jiǎo*                      Stir/entwine

截    Jié*                        Intercept

拦    Lán                        Block

撩    Liāo                       Lift

抹    Mǒ                         Smear

捧    Pěng                      Cup, hold with both hands

劈    Pī*                          Chop

前    Qián                       Forward

扫    Sǎo                         Sweep

提     Tí*                         Lift

挑     Tiāo                       Carry (on a pole)

跳     Tiào                       Jump

托    Tuō                        Support

洗     Xǐ*                         Clear off/wash

削     Xiāo                       Upward cut or slash

压    Yā*                         Press (down)

云     Yún                        Cloud

斩    Zhǎn                      Sever, behead

*One of the 13 essential swordfighting techniques in the Yang sytem.

Again, I have given common English meanings, but these are terms of art. The real meanings of these terms lies in their execution in the various sword forms. Liāo, to offer another example, means lift, but it means to lift in a certain way, and knowing that liāo means lift in English will give you no clue as to how to use the sword.

Tiào is actually a term for a step, tiào bù (跳步), that occurs in sword forms in combination with qián cì. Tiào bù is a little jump traditionally called Wild Horse Jumps Over the Stream, or Yé mǎ tiào jiàn (野马跳涧). Note that the character for jiàn in this name is not剑 (sword) but 涧 (stream or mountain stream).

Yang Sword Names

I’ve compiled a list of names for the traditional Yang-style sword form, sticking pretty close to the version that I’m learning. I made reference to several lists that I found online, and chose what seemed to me the best English translations (sometimes using my own).

A few comments on the names:

Kui_Xing_bronze_statue_(late_Ming_Dynasty)It might seem odd that the movement called the Big Dipper is also called the Major Literary Star, but in Chinese, they are the same name: Kuíxīng [phonetically, kway-shing].  In English, Orion is both the mythical hunter and the constellation; in Chinese, Kuixing is like that.

[Photo of bronze Kuixing by Pratyeka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45370878]

Kuixing was a great scholar (hence, literary star) who was so repulsively ugly that the emperor wouldn’t give him the honors he deserved. He was so dejected that he threw himself into the ocean. A sea dragon rescued him and took him to live in the heavens. Visit the excellent Cloud Hands blog for an entertaining description of Kuixing, Yèchā the evil or malevolent spirit, and other mythical figures.

大Dà  is big or great; Da Kuixing is the Big Dipper (Major Literary Star). 小Xiǎo is small;  Xiao Kuixing is the Little Dipper (Minor Literary Star).

A couple of minor notes on translation: Língmāo, which is sometimes translated as alert cat, is an arboreal cat called a civet. Shǔ can be either a mouse or a rat. So Lingmau shu is sometimes translated as Civet Catches Rat in English.

Also, the list makes reference to both 大鹏 Dà Péng and 凤凰 Fèng Huáng. The former refers to a giant legendary bird, while the latter usually refers to the Phoenix. Sometimes one or the other is translated as Roc. I’ve translated both as Phoenix.

Often the poetic names of the sword movements turn out to be idiomatic or figurative expressions in Chinese. Qīng tíng diǎn shuǐ (Dragonfly Touches Water), for example, is an idiom for superficial contact.

Xuán yá lè mǎ (often just lè mǎ, Stop the Horse) has the sense of reining in a horse at the edge of the precipice; it is an idiom for acting in the nick of time.  I particularly like this one, because the move is an about-face, which suggests turning to face an opponent just in time to defend oneself.

Shùn shuǐ tuī zhōu (Push boat with Current) is an expression for taking advantage of a situation for one’s own benefit. Sort of like catching and riding a wave.

Liú Xīng gǎn yuè (Shooting star catches the moon), literally a meteor catching up with the moon, is an idiom for swift, decisive action.

Tiān mǎ xíng kōng (Heavenly Steed Crosses the Sky) is an idiom for bold, imaginative action. In writing and calligraphy, this expression describes an unconstrained, expressive style. Some words for sword techniques, most notably dian, ti, and hua, are also names of pen or brush strokes in calligraphy and painting.

My favorite name is Hǎi dǐ lāo yuè (Scoop the Moon from the Bottom of the Sea).  The image is that of trying to get hold of the moon by grasping at its reflection in water—an idiom for the hopeless pursuit of an illusion. What we might call a wild goose chase.

Incidentally (on the subject of names that are idioms in Chinese), 海底针 Hǎi dǐ zhēn, Needle at Sea Bottom (which is not in this form but in many others) is like our expression, needle in a haystack, for trying to find a tiny thing lost in a huge mass.

Sword Play

The Chinese word for sword play is 剑法 Jiànfǎ. I’ve seen more than one list of sword fighting techniques; they vary according to style. I just recently found a really interesting video on Wudang Tai Chi sword applications by Master Yuan Xiu Gang.

wudangmaster

Master Yuan lists thirteen essential sword fighting techniques: Pi 劈, Ci 刺, Liao 撩, Sao 扫, Tiao 挑, Gua 挂, Dian 点, Hua 划, Jiao 搅, Mo 抹, Jie 截, Beng 崩, and Ti 提. English translations of these terms of art are, respectively, chop, stab,lift, sweep, jump, hang, point, slash, stir, smear, intercept collapse, and lift.

A tutorial on Tai Chi Sword Basics by Master Huaicheng Lu is very helpful. He says there are more than twenty sword fighting techniques, but he covers only twelve. His list includes some of those mentioned above–dian, liao, pi, mo, jie, ci, and sao–plus 拦 lan (block), 斩 zhan (sever, behead), 削 xiao (an upward cut or slash), 云 yun, and 穿 chuan (pierce).

yangmaster

The sword form Master Huaicheng Lu demonstrates is 42-sword, the combination form. The video has an English voiceover.

In Chen Ziqiang’s instructional video for Chen style sword, he lists nine sword fighting techniques: Pi 劈 (chop), Ci 刺 (stab), Liao 撩 (lift), Sao 扫 (sweep), Gua 挂 (hang), Dian 点 (point), Tuo 托 (support), Jia 架 (prop), and Beng 崩 (collapse).

Yet another list (from an earlier post) adds 带 Dai (carry), 抽 Chou (withdraw), 击 Ji (hit), 格 Ge (block–not sure how/if this is different from lan), 洗 Xi  (clear off), and 压 Ya (press). So that’s more than twenty altogether.

Chinese for Tai Chi

I’m in a Chinese newspaper! Hu Pei, the amazing teacher that I worked with last summer, is back in Jiang Yin, where she is a highly respected instructor and coach. She has been interviewed in newspapers and on TV about the fact that she had an American student while she was in Austin.

chinesenewspaper

The headline (took me a while to figure this out) is  文化为媒, 她在美国教太极拳: Wen hua wei mei ta zai meiguo jiao taijiquan, which means that she is bridging cultures, teaching taijiquan in America.

The big question from the interviewers was, How could she teach an American when she didn’t speak English? And she explained that I knew Chinese for Tai Chi. When people ask me if I speak Chinese, I say that I speak Tai Chi-ese. I think I’ll start calling it Taijiese.

I know almost no conversational Chinese, but I have learned the Chinese names for the movements of the forms I’ve studied. It started out, for me, as the purest form of learning: I didn’t have an objective or purpose in mind. I just wanted to know the names.

But I have since found that there is much to be gained by learning Chinese names for movements, but by far the greatest pay-off (and one I never expected) was that when I had the opportunity last summer to work with an outstanding Chinese teacher, I was surprisingly well prepared to communicate with her.

The forms that I do with my Chinese friends are all contemporary forms–24, 42, 32-sword, 42-Sword, Wudang Tai Chi Sword, and Li Deyin’s two fan forms. The names of the movements for these forms (unlike the traditional forms) are descriptive rather than poetic. Or it might be better to say they are instructional. The movements still have the old poetic names, but the instructional names are what we use in practice.

So, for example, Tian Ma Xing Kong (Heavenly Horse Crosses the Sky) is now Xu Bu Dian Jian. Xu Bu–empty stance– and Dian Jian (point sword) are both terms of art, and if you know what they mean, the name of the movement tells you exactly what to do.

Conversely, if you learn all the names of the movements, you will know the terms for the various stances, sword techniques, parts of the body, directions, kicks, and so on. These instructive names break apart to form a substantial working vocabulary for learning Tai Chi from a Chinese-speaking teacher.

That is exactly what happened to me last summer. Ms Hu could tell me that when I do Pi (the sword technique) the blade should be ping, yidian xia (level, slightly downward). There were only a few additional words I needed to learn, such as yidian (a little), yao/buyao (want/don’t want), yuan (rounded), man (slow), and (hopefully, by the end of the day) hen hao! Very good.

It was a fantastic experience working with Hu Pei, and she taught me so much! I can’t wait for her to come back.

Script for Ba Duan Jin

My practice group uses music with instructions to do the Eight Brocades. Pan Huai found the script and gave me both Pinyin and a translation (which I have amended slightly to follow English usage in martial arts as I know it). Here’s how it goes:

健身气功八段锦
jiàn shēn qì gōng bā duàn jǐn
Health Qi Gong Eight Section Brocade

预备式
yù bèi shì
Preparing form

Yu bei shi is an instruction for every form, so it’s a good bit of vocabulary to know. When you hear it, step left.

左脚开步;与肩同宽;屈膝下蹲;掌抱腹前
zuǒ jiǎo kāi bù ;yǔ jiān tóng kuān ;qū xī xià dūn ;zhǎng bào fù qián
Step left to shoulder width, bend the knees and sink down; hold the hand in front of the belly, palms facing in

Some of these words are already familiar: Zuo is left, Jiao is leg, Kai is open, bu is stance. Qu is bend, xi is knees. Zhang is palm. Bao is embrace.

中正安舒;呼吸自然;心神宁静;意守丹田
zhōng zhèng ān shū ;hū xī zì rán ;xīn shén níng jìng ;yì shǒu dān tián
Body centered and straight, relax; breathe naturally, calm your mind and facial expression, focus your mind on the Dan Tian

Hu xi is breathe; hu is exhale and xi is inhale.

两手托天理三焦
liǎng shǒu tuō tiān lǐ sān jiāo
Two Hands Reach up to the Heavens to regulate San Jiao

The first exercise i the set. San Jiao is the “triple burner” — a concept in Chinese medicine that refers to the generation of heat within the body. The instruction for this first movement is simple: lift the arms with fingers interlaced, then lower them to the sides. We do the movement six times, but the script ends on the last “Lift up,” after which the arms are lowered to the starting position for the next exercise (which is crossed hands).

上托、下落
shàng tuō 、xià luò
Lift up, Lower [the arms] down (6 repetitions)

左右开弓似射雕
zuǒ yòu kāi gōng sì shè diāo
Draw the Bow to Shoot the Eagle

Script for the second exercise. Gong is bow. Bing bu is feet together. We do this one three times on each side. Again, the last bing bu is omitted and instead you take the position for the next exercise  (feet together, sink down, right hand palm-down, left ready to lift).

撘腕、开弓、并步
dā wàn 、kāi gōng 、bìng bù
Cross the wrist, draw the bow, feet together (3 repetitions on each side)

调理脾胃须单举
diào lǐ pí wèi xū dān jǔ
Raise hand on each side to adjust the Spleen & Stomach

Instruction for the third exercise. Shang is upwards, xia is downwards. These words occur in a lot of instructions and forms; good to know. Again, 6 reps–three on each side–and the last xia luo is omitted. Move to position for the next exercise, which would be with both hands down, level with the ground, palms down.

上举、下落
shàng jǔ 、xià luò
Lift up, lower [the hand] down (3 repetitions on each side)

五劳七伤往后瞧
wǔ láo qī shāng wǎng hòu qiáo
Look back to [relieve? prevent?] Five Fatigues and Seven Illnesses

The name of this fourth exercise has been translated so many ways. As best I understand it, the looking backward, then turning forward, has an added connotation of forgetting, releasing, leaving behind. Shang means wound or injury, but here, may also refer to seven emotions: happy, angry, sad, worried, startled (nervous?), frightened, laughing. So maybe the idea is to look back, then leave it all behind. Put it all behind you? As a way of achieving peace and balance. I like this idea.

起身、后瞧、转正
qǐ shēn 、hòu qiáo 、zhuǎn zhèng
Stand up, turn head back, turn to front (3 repetitions on each side)

Zhuan (turn) is a good word to know, as is shen (body). Zhuan shen (turn body) is an instruction that occurs frequently in Tai Chi. We’re told to stand up because in the starting position the knees are bent; they should be bent upon returning to front. The last zhuan zheng is omitted and the starting position for the next movement is both palms facing in.

摇头摆尾去心火
yáo tóu bǎi wěi qù xīn huǒ
Sway the Head and Shake the Tail to get rid of the Xin-Huo

I’m a little mystified by Xin-Huo. Xin is heart and Huo is fire; Xin-Huo is heart-fire. But I wonder: is that heartburn???

上托、下按
shàng tuō 、xià àn
Lift up, press down

This last is the instruction for getting into position (stepping out to ma bu).

右倾、左旋、摇头、摆尾;左倾、右旋、摇头、摆尾
yòu qīng 、zuǒ xuán 、yáo tóu 、bǎi wěi ;zuǒ qīng 、yòu xuán 、yáo tóu 、bǎi wěi
Lean right, swing left, sway the head, shake the tail; Lean left, swing right, sway the head, shake the tail (3 repetitions)

I have to say I am not so sure what “shake the tail” means. The movement is more like roll the head and swing the tail (which you could use for the English instead). The following is the one-time instruction for lifting the arms and moving the feet back together:

上举
shàng jǔ
Lift up [the arms]

两手攀足固肾腰
Liǎng shǒu pān zú gù shèn yāo
Two Hands Hold the Feet to Strengthen the Kidneys and Waist

上举、下按、反穿、摩运、攀足
shàng jǔ 、xià àn 、fǎn chuān 、mó yùn 、pān zú
Lift up, press down, move the hands to the back, message legs (6 repetitions)

Add one last Shang Ju (Lift up) to straighten, then sink into the starting position for the next exercise (fists chambered at the waist).

攒拳怒目增气力
zǎn quán nù mù zēng qì lì
Clench the Fists and Glare Fiercely (or Angrily) to Improve Strength and Qi

Starting instruction:

抱拳
bào quán
Clench the fists

攒拳怒目、抓握、回收; 攒拳怒目、抓握、回收;
zǎn quán nù mù 、zhuā wò 、huí shōu ; zǎn quán nù mù 、zhuā wò 、huí shōu ;
Clench the Fists and Glare Fiercely, grab and clench the fist, pull the fist back (3 times left and right)

Omit the last hui shou to move into position (neutral standing position) for the last exercise. In the script for the one above, in English it would make more sense to say “punch with the [left or right] fist” rather than just clench.

背后七颠百病消
bèi hòu qī diān bǎi bìng xiāo
Bouncing (7 Times) on the Feet, Toes, Heel to Help Prevent Disease

提踵、颠足
tí zhǒng 、diān zú
Lift up heels, bounce on the feet (7 repetitions)

The script omits the last dian zu. Remain in that neutral standing position for:

收式
shōu shì
Close form

两手合于腹前
liǎng shǒu hé yú fù qián
Place your hands on the Dan Tian

体态安详;周身放松;呼吸均匀;气沉丹田
tǐ tài ān xiáng ;zhōu shēn fàng sōng ;hū xī jun1 yún ;qì chén dān tián
Relax the body, breathe evenly, Qi goes back to Dan Tian

Shuang Dao Names

Looking further at the names for the first half of the form using:

rightread2y

I’m looking at the Chinese names because they tend to be the same everywhere. English names vary so much with the translation. Absolute Tai Chi gives the Chinese names, but they don’t give the characters or the standard Pinyin, so it’s a little harder for me to look up the exact meaning of individual words. Master Zhu gives characters but they are images, so I can’t copy/paste to a dictionary.

Chaoyang — — means facing the sun or exposed to the sun. This is what Absolute Tai Chi calls Salute the sun; Master Zhu calls it Sun-facing (the Sun-facing Broadsword). This posture, pictured above, recurs throughout the form.

Dao —  — means knife, blade, or single-edged sword, but it seems also to mean cut (Jess Tsao’s translation) or chop, as in Yi Dao Chao Yang: one cut, salute the sun. (I have to believe that’s a typo in #16: surely it should be “chao” not “chang”.)

“Monkey Hop” – Cha Hua (arrange or stab flowers)

Hua is flower. I can’t figure out what cha is, in cha hua. Master Zhu says arrange; Absolute Tai Chi says stab. This is precisely why I prefer to use the Chinese names: Just call it Zuo/You Cha Hua. Easy enough.

Yi Dao Yue Bu

Yi Dao Yue Bu – Master Zhu Tian Cai

Yue bu is a new one to me. Yue can mean jump or jump forward. Yi dao yue bu is one cut, jump forward, pictured above.

Laojia Erlu Names

Chen Xiao Xing will offer a workshop on Silkreeling and Laojia Yilu in Chicago in April at the University of Chicago.

I’m learning the names of the movements of Laojia Erlu using the Chicagotaiji.com list. Many are familiar from the Chen 38, but I’m a little confused by others. The opening is clear (I list them here for practice):

  1. Youbei Shi
  2. Jin Gang Dao Dui
  3. Lan Zha Yi
  4. Liu Feng Si Bi
  5. Danbian
  6. Hu Xin Quan
  7. Xie Xing
  8. Hui Tou Jin Gang Dao Dui
  9. Pie Shen Quan

Three more moves are listed before #13 Yan Shou Gong Quan ends the first section:

  • Zhi Dang (Pointing to the Crotch)
  • Zhan Shou (Chopping Hand)
  • Fan Hua Wu Xiou (Overturning Flowers and Waving Sleeves)

I’m not 100% sure how to parse this section. The fajin (arms thrown out) after Pie Shen Quan is (I am guessing) part of Zhi Dang, the cross step and punch down (similar to Zhi Dang Chui in the 108 and the Chen 38). Zhan Shou would then be the partial turn before Fan Hua Wu Xiou, the 180- leap to face forward. (That move is a 180 when it repeats later in the form.)

Yao Lan Zhou (Lan is block, and Zhou is Elbow) is the elbow strike. Da Gong Quan Xiao Gong Quan is the turning cloud hands-type move.

Yu Nu Chuan Shuo is a familiar name (Fair Lady Works the Shuttles). The move bears no resemblance to the other movements by the same name, but actually, the four rapid bamboo steps do resemble shuttle action on a loom.

Dao Qi Long is Riding the Dragon Backwards (the three bamboo steps back)–Long is Dragon. Another Yan Shou Gong Quan shows we’re in the right place.

  • Guo Bian Pao – Firecrackers
  • Shou Tou Shi – Beast Head Pose (xu bu, right fist by temple)
  • Pi Jia Zi – Wearing the Frame (the fajin that follows)

Fan Hua Wu Xiou (Overturning Flowers and Waving Sleeves) repeats. Yan Shou Gong Quan closes the second section.

  • Fu Hu is Subduing the Tiger (Hu is tiger) (the low squat somewhat like Hit the Tiger).
  • Mo Mei Gong is Wipe the Brow Palms (the turning palm strike).

Huang Long San Jiao Shui (Yellow Dragon Stirs the Water Three Times) is the set of one-handed cloud hand-type moves. Long is dragon, Water is Shui, San is Three.

Chong is the thrust kick. (You and Zuo are Right and Left respectively). Yet another kick word! To go with deng jiao, fen jiao, bai lian and pai jiao.

Then Yan Shou Gong Quan (which is like punctuation, or a stepping stone in this form) occurs before and after the leg sweep (Sao Tang Tui). Tui is leg here (it can have other meanings). In the traditional 108, the cross form kick is Shi Zi Tui; compare to Shi Zi Shou, cross hands.

Quan Pao Chui (see the post before this one) is the last new move before the third section ends with Yan Shou Gong Quan. The fourth section has a number of names I haven’t learned yet, so I’m not quite done with this language project!