Chinese Swordsmanship

I have been studying such an interesting book: Chinese Swordsmanship, by Scott Rodell.

swordsmanship

Rodell describes two systems of swordfighting, both attributed to Yang Luchan (1799-1872), the founder of Yang-style Tai Chi and of the Yang sword form. During the early years of his career (mid-nineteenth century) Yang Luchan kept his swordfighting techniques secret. That Yang system, and the sword form that demonstrates it, Rodell calls the Michuan system.

秘传 Mìchuán: “secretly transmitted, esoteric lore”

The Yang sword form most of us are familiar with, which Rodell calls the public form, was a later development.  The Michuan system has eight named swordfighting techniques (剑法 Jiànfǎ).  The public form has thirteen.

This clears up a mystery for me: I had always heard there were thirteen essential swordfighting techniques, yet the Chen masters seem to name only eight and the Wudang masters nine. So apparently, the number of Jiànfǎ  depends on what system you’re talking about; it is the Yang sword system that has thirteen.

There is still plenty of room for confusion (on my part) and further study. In some cases the same technique has different names in different systems; in other cases, the same name attaches to different techniques in different systems. Rodell does include a chapter on other swordfighting systems, though it is not exhaustive by any means.

The Yang techniques are: dian, ci, pi, beng, ya, chou, dai, ti, ge, ji, jiao, jie, and xi. Rodell describes how each is executed, and while I don’t suppose it’s possible to learn the techniques entirely from these descriptions, they are very useful.

What is also helpful is the way he categorizes the different techniques, beyond the obvious distinction between attacking and defensive maneuvers. He describes the Jiànfǎ in terms of long, medium, or short energy, the part of the sword being used, and the part of the body targeted.

Rodell also sorts Jiànfǎ  by cutting method, of which there are four: deflect or neutralize; straight thrust to pierce; what he calls a “percussion cut” (a chop with the edge of the blade without a lateral draw); and slicing cuts that draw or push the edge lateral to the cut. Hitting with the flat of the blade is in a  miscellaneous category of additional “minor movements” not really part of the system.

The book includes step-by-step illustrations and descriptions of the both the Michuan and public sword forms. It is particularly illuminating is that he provides the applications for each movement. In many, if not most cases, a single named movement involves multiple techniques.

I particularly like the way Rodell relates the sword forms to the use of the sword in actual battle, and the historical material makes very good reading. He even briefly comments on the comparison between Chinese and European swordsmanship. Between the definitions of the techniques, the applications, and the illustrations of how to do the form, history, philosophy, metallurgy, and accounts of Rodell’s own extensive training experience, this is quite a dense book, more a reference or text than a cover-to-cover read. Excellent book, a great find —highly recommended!

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Ba Duan Jin: Second Four

Continuing with the instructional video, which Pan Huai is interpreting from the Chinese. The second four exercises are described in an earlier post. We are adding details and corrections.

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Yao Tou Bai Wei (#5): Having just finished Wu Lau Qi Shang, he has both hands down at the sides, palms parallel to the ground, fingers pointing forward. Swing the arms up and step out to ma-bu-width, as shown in the picture above. He then presses down and braces the hands on the thighs.

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We notice that he does not lunge right and left; that is, he does not straighten the leg he is leaning away from. Instead he (mostly) leaves his hips in place to bend over, as shown above. When bending over, he is looking at the toe of the foot he’s leaning over. As he swings to the side, he looks at the heel of that same foot. See what that does to his head below.

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Looking from above you can see how he rolls his head at the end to come back up:

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Liang Shou Pan Jiao (#6): At the end of Yao Tou Bai Wei, he raises up to the starting position and closes the feet. He begins #6 by pressing down with the hand. At chest height, he turns them palm-up. Notice how high up he does this; he will draw the hands around to the back as high under the arms as he can:

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Then, starting as high up on the back as possible, he presses the fingers along the spine and firmly massages downward. He remains upright until the hand have traveled all the way down to the tail bone, pressing firmly on either side of the spine.

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Bending over he massages down the backs of the legs down to the feet. This part is a stretch for the backs of the legs. He then reaches forward and stretches the upper body upon rising.

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Wo Quan Nu Mu (#7): Sit in horse stance and extend the fist, turning at the waist. Look at the fist. You can see below that his shoulders are well turned aside, which means he is twisting both at the waist and at the neck.

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The hand movement is a little complicated. First open the fist, so the palm faces in (in the grab below, I was a bit late; he starts with the palm perpendicular to the ground):

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Rotate, so the palm faces all the way out:

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Circle the hand as if flat on a wall in front of you, until the fingers point down and the palm faces out.

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Then close the fingers over the thumb. This is quite a stretch in the forearm, wrist and fingers.

Bei Hou Qi Dian Bai Bing Xiao (#8): I have nothing special to add to this one except that you stand up as high on the toes as you can.

Ba Duan Jin: first four

Continuing our study of the Chinese official instruction video (Pan Huai interpreting): here are some of the important points and details for the first four movements. I gave an overall description and illustration of all the movements in earlier posts, and those are generally correct. So this information is a refinement.

Qi Shi

Qi Shi: opening position.

Qi Shi: Preparing form. Feet together, toes facing forward. Arms are at the sides, with a little space between the arms and sides of the body, palms facing back. Step left (first releasing the right heel). Open the arms out to about a 45-degree angle*, then sink and hold the hands in front of the dantian (lower belly) with palms facing in, fingertips about 3 inches apart.

Open arms to sides before assuming Qi Shi position.

Open arms to sides before assuming Qi Shi position.

This posture resembles what we call Embracing Horse in Nei Kung, but the arms are much lower. The knees are not bent very much, either. From the side:

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Shuang Shou Tuo Tian (#1): The hands travel straight up; there is no outward-pushing. Eyes follow the hands, so when the hands are fully extended, the head hangs back.  Then look forward, which allows an even longer stretch straight upwards. Also, when the hands are released, the wrist is flexed so the fingers point up, until the arms are about level, when the hands can scoop down to starting position.

Hands are flexed when lowered. Lead with the base of the hand, continuing the stretch.

Hands are flexed when lowered. Lead with the base of the hand, continuing the stretch.

Speaking of starting position, each movement ends in position to start the next movement. Qi Shi ends by rotating the hands to a palms-up circle with the arms extended below, ready to interlace fingers and begin Shuang Shou. That movement in turn ends with in cross-hands (a little lower and more level, actually), ready for Kai Gong.

Kai Gong Si She Diao (#2): Lift and separate the crossed hands at chest height, weight centered on the right. Then step out to ma-bu width (this is more than shoulder width). Feet should face front, and not be turned out (which means the tailbone is somewhat tucked).

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Extend the left hand and right elbow to stretch at shoulder height. The extended hand is not pointing! It is flexed so the index finger points up. The other hand is not a fist; the fingers are bent at the middle joint (including the thumb), more like a tiger claw.

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Look at the extended hand. Then turn to look at the other hand while extending it and shift the weight back to that side. Return to starting position.bingbu

Tiao Li Pi Wei Dan Ju Shou (#3): As described before. The only reminders would be that the high hand is flexed so the fingers are point in (palm up and flat), while the low hand is palm-down, flat with fingers pointing forward.

This is left hand high, fingers pointing to the head.

This is left hand high, fingers pointing to the head.

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Sink when bringing down the high hand and straighten the legs while lifting. Finish in sunken position with both hands as shown above, ready for the next exercise.

Wu Lao Qi Shang Xiang Hou Qiao (#4): The key point on this one is not to twist the body or bend the back. The head turns to the side without tipping (very much like Owl turns His Head in Nei Kung), chin remaining tucked, so head is suspended. The head turns, but the shoulders do not, although the chest opens. It is not a twist from the waist.

Not twisted at the waist, back straight.

Not twisted at the waist, back straight.

The arms rotate outward, but are not flung back. The hand turns palm-out, thumbs toward the back.

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The instructional video is an hour long. Where all the exercises are shown together, background changes, changing camera positions, even clouds! Obscure the movements somewhat. To watch a demonstration of all the movements in real time (with the same music), try Master Faye Yip’s video, which (unsurprisingly) looks correct in every respect–except for one note…

*Faye Yip does not make a point of opening the arms this way during Qi Shi.

Principles of Qigong

This continues the translation and interpretation of the official Chinese instructional video on Ba Duan Jin (the Eight Brocades). My friend Pan Huai is translating for me as we both study this qigong form.

The following are key concepts for understanding the content of this part of the video and for understanding the practice of Qigong:

  • Yinian—the mind or will that commands Qi.
  • Qi—energy, sometimes also called life force. Vitality.
  • Hu xi—breathing (hu = exhale, xi = inhale).
  • Shen—facial expression, through which inner mood or emotion is visible.
  • Qing—mood or emotion.
  • Xing—outward appearance of the body as a whole; posture, carriage.
  • Jing—spirit; the essence or center of being from which energy flows.

How these concepts relate: Qing, the inner state (mood, emotion), is readable from outside through both Shen (facial expression) and Xing (posture, carriage). Qi (energy) flows from the Jing (spirit) and is directed by Yinian (the mind or will).

Qigong could be described as the practice of directing, at will, energy from the jing (spirit) to the shen and xing (outward expression and posture). The video provides three principles for how to practice Qigong.

principle3Reading the right column first, from the top down:

Rou He Huan Man

Rou means soft or gentle. He (pronounced like “her” without the R) means coming together, combining or coordinating. Rou he can be translated to mean that body movements are soft, gentle and coordinated. Huan means slow. Man is grounded; in Tai Chi, this relates to knowing where the body’s weight is centered. Huan man means standing steadily and moving smoothely, knowing where the weight is centered.

The left column from the top down reads:

Yuan Huo Lian Guan

Yuan means rounded; curved or circular. Huo is relaxed, loose, or nimble. Lian means connected. Guan means in sequence, or strung together. In the practice of Qigong, movements are soft and rounded, and connected in sequence.

principle2The second principle reads (again, starting at the right, top to bottom):

Song Jin Jie He

Song means loose or relaxed. Jin means tight or tense. There is a point of stillness in a movement, like the fullest extension of a stretch, the point where one movement ends and another begins. Or where one repetition of a movement ends and the next begins. Jie He means coordinate, in the sense that the loose, relaxed movement and the moment of tension flow from one to the other in a deliberate way.

The left column reads:

Dong Jing Xiang Jian

Dong is move, or movement. Jing is stillness. Xiang jian means both are present, by turns.

In the video, the looseness and relaxation is described as involving all the layers and aspects of the mind and body. The body relaxes on four levels, from the outside in: skin, muscles, bones, organs. Four aspects of the mind, from the visible outward expression to the deepest layer, are expression (Shen), posture (Xing), breathing, and mood or emotion.

So the practice of Qigong a deep state of physical relaxation together with a calm internal state that is reflected in relaxed breathing, expression and overall body posture.

principle1The third principle reads from the top right down:

Shen Yu Xing He

Shen and Xing are defined above as facial expression and overall body posture, or the carriage. Yu means and; He is come together or coordinate. So the expression and posture should be commensurate; in harmony.

In the left column:

Qi Yu Qi Zhong

I am not typing in accents. Qi occurs twice in this sentence, but it’s two different words here (they have different intonations). The first Qi is the familiar term for energy or vitality. The second is a pronoun referring back to the first part of this principle; it refers to Shen and Xing (expression and posture). Yu means contained in, and zhong means in the middle. Energy is contained within them (Shen and Xing). In the practice of Qigong, facial expression and overall body posture are suffused with Qi.

These principles can be compared  to Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Important Points for the practice of Tai Chi. The last five points are the most relevant here (eg, stillness in motion, use mind not force, internal and external coordinate, upper follows lower), but as we move closer to the actual descriptions of the Ba Duan Jin forms, we’ll find that some of the first five important points apply as well. That’s next.

History of Ba Duan Jin

My friend Pan Huai is interpreting for me the official Chinese-language instructional video for Ba Duan Jin (Eight Pieces of Brocade), a popular Qi Gong routine. If you know Chinese, you can watch the video for yourself:

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The video begins with a brief history of Ba Duan JIn. The earliest evidence of the form was found in the Mawangdui Han Tombs excavated in 1972-1974. The archaeological site is in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in south-central China. The tombs date from the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD).

The Han Dynasty was a high point in the production of fines silks and brocades, and numerous extraordinary textiles were found in the Mawangdui Tombs. Many of them were painted with intricate scenes, and one of them, called Dao Yin Tu, shows figures exercising.

Dao Yin (or Tao Yin) is an ancient precursor to modern Qi Gong and Tai Chi. Dao Yin is also the name of a modern form of Qi Gong. The Dao Yin Tu (Tu means drawing) shows more than forty exercising postures. At least four of them are similar to postures of what is now known as Ba Duan Jin.

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More about the Mawangdui Tombs:

The earliest written record of Ba Duan Jin dates from the Northern Song (pronounced soong) Dynasty (960–1279). The routine is described as well as illustrated. The Song Dynasty documents contain the first written mentions of the name Ba Duan Jin.

Ba means eight, Duan means pieces or sections, and Jin refers to the finest silk, or brocade. Jin has the connotation of a person’s best, most precious and decorative possession. The Ba Duan Jin Qi Gong is composed of eight postures, and the name suggests that this form of exercise is the most valuable thing a person could have.

According to one Song Dynasty source, the exercises were performed at midnight (!). There were both standing and seated versions of Ba Duan Jin. A number of variations on the standing form have evolved over time.

A Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) manual describes the postures of Ba Duan Jin by name and provides illustrations. The figure below, which is from a Qing Dynasty manual, shows the sitting form of Shuang Shou Tuo Tian (Two Hands Hold up the Heavens). A script, which can be chanted, guides the sequence of movements.

Image courtesy of Gueyang Shanren

Image courtesy of           Gueyang Shanren

In 2001, the Taiji and Qigong department of the Chinese National Sports Committee set out to study and standardize Ba Duan Jin. Experts from a number of fields such as physiology and sports medicine participated in the study.

Experiments were conducted to determine which versions of the exercises and also what sequence of postures were the most beneficial and effective. The resulting standardized Ba Duan Jin routine is described in detail in the official instructional video that we’ll be studying in this series of posts.

Next: the essential principles of Qi Gong.

Ba Duan Jin 4

Exercise seven is wò quán nù mù zēng lì qi. Nu mu is angry eye! Wo quan is grasp (or maybe clench?) the fist. Zeng is increase (and li, as we’ve already learned is put in order). Qi here is vital energy (as in Qi gong).

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Start in horse stance with both fists chambered. The movement is well described by Rashka. Inhale while punching with the left. Open the hand and rotate. Inhale, clench and withdraw. Repeat on the right. Do this four times.

The movement (one English version) is Punching with an angry gaze. Or Clench the Fist and Glare Fiercely.  The benefit is increasing Qi–vital energy. Rashka calls it Punch with Fierce Glower to Build Strength.

Lastly, the eighth movement is bèi hòu qī diān bǎi bìng xiāo, Dian is jolt. Rise onto the toes, then drop down on the heels with a jolt. In the version I do, rise high, then lower about halfway before dropping the heels. Do this eight times. The benefit: Bing is illness; xiao is disappear. Make illnesses disappear.

Ba Duan Jin 3

The fifth exercise is yáo tóu bǎi wěi qù xīn huǒ. Yao here is shake or rock; tou is head; bai is move; wei is tail; qu is go away; xin is heart; huo is fire. Once again, the first part of the name describes the movement, while the second half describes the benefit. Rock the head and move the tail to get rid of “heart fire” — is this about heartburn???

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Cloud Hands gives the name of this one as Big Bear Turns from Side to Side. Master Faye Yip, in her video, rocks from one side to the other and rolls the head. Repeat left and right four times.

Number six is liǎng shǒu pān jiǎo gù shèn yāo. Liang is two or both (hands) and pan is climb; jiao is foot or leg. Two hands climb (down) the legs. And the benefit: gu is strong; shen is kidney; this yao is waist. The two yaos have different accents.

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Do eight repetitions of this nice gravity stretch. Doing this exercise just twice a week for the last six months has noticeably improved my flexibility. If you lay your hands along your feet, you can get a nice pull through the heels of the hands.