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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Yang-style 56-sword

Fifty-six sword is the standardized version of Yang sword taught in China today. I am confused by the number of Yang sword forms I see, not only in videos but in practice. However, this is one version that I can pin down. Last year, I worked my way roughly through the sequence, using an excellent demonstration video by Fan Xue Ping, but although I got to where I could follow my practice group, I am not at all satisfied. I’d like to get to the next level.

56fish

One good reason for learning the Chinese names of the forms is that you can Google them and come up with all sorts of videos and information that you can’t find by searching on the English. The name for this form is 杨式五十六式太极剑 (Yáng Shì 56 Shì tàijí jiàn). I’ve found not only a list of the names, but also an entire series of instructional videos by Li Deyin AND music with oral commands! I’ll be working my way through all of this material over the summer.

As for the list of names, there are two. What I am posting here is a PDF of the traditional (or poetic) names. As with 32-sword, there are also instructional names. In most cases, those names consist of the stance and the sword technique. So, for example, Dà Kuíxīng shi is the traditional name for the movement we call the Major Literary Star (or the Big Dipper). The instructional name is Dúlì fǎn cì—stand on one leg and reverse-stab [overhead].

PDF: 56-sword Poetic Names of Movements

The links to the instructional videos are below in order. They are in Chinese, of course. But even though I understand only a bit of what he says, I learn from his gestures and demonstrations of particular moves, and from watching the repeated demonstrations by his student. It helps to know bùyāo (don’t want)—which is what he says when demonstrating what you should NOT do.

The first video is mainly lecture, so much of the content is lost on me. There are Chinese subtitles; I would love to know what they say! I tried capturing and deciphering a few, but that proved much too difficult. Sometimes these videos take a long time to load.

  1. About sword
  2. Moves 1-3
  3. Moves 4-7
  4. Moves 8-13
  5. Moves 14-20
  6. Moves 21-25
  7. Moves 26-31
  8. Moves 32-38
  9. Moves 39-47
  10. Moves 48-56

The word for music is Yīnyuè. My Chinese friends love to practice with music and have music for all the forms they know. When learning, trying to get the movements and the form right, of course it’s best to work mainly without music. But music makes group practice fun.

I especially like music that includes the names of the movements. Hearing the names helps me learn the Chinese, and the oral commands are good for pacing and repetition. The music is often a bit too fast (太快! Tài kuài! Too fast!), especially for the sword forms. But even that is good for getting the sequence thoroughly ingrained. If you know the form well enough you can keep up.

I added 音乐口令  Yīnyuè Kǒulìng (music with oral commands) to the end of the name of the form to get this: 杨式五十六式太极剑音乐口令, Googled,  and lo and behold I found nice music for 56-sword with the traditional names for all the moves! Here it is:

Yīnyuè Kǒulìng for 56-sword (for download)

I have edited the list of names to agree with the oral commands in the music, and they also agree with the names in the instructional videos (with one or two minor deviations). So between the videos, the music, and the list of names, I have all I need to learn 56-sword as well as I can without an instructor. And of course I am also fortunate to have a practice group with at least one member  who has learned the form from a master and can lead pretty reliably. So this is my summer project for 2017.

Wudang Mountain

Just got back from China. I traveled with a group (fewer than twenty) from all over the US plus four from London. Our leader was Jesse Tsao, wonderful Tai Chi master and teacher (taichihealthways.com). We saw some amazing sights on a three-day Yangtze River Cruise and four-day tour of Wudang Mountain.

purpleheaven

Purple Heaven Palace, Wudangshan

The temples on the mountain were beautiful: Purple Heaven Palace (紫霄宫, Xǐ Xiāo Gōng), Tianyi Zhenqing Palace (天乙真庆宫tiān yǐ zhēn qìng gōng) and Dragon’s Head incense burner, and the Golden Summit. The summit in particular was breathtaking.

goldensummit

The view from the Golden Summit

There’s a school half-way up the mountain, next to the hotel where we stayed. We visited with the master, who told us (Jesse interpreting) about the history and philosophy of his school, and who kindly gave us each a signed copy of a little book. I can make neither heads nor tails of it, but I will surely treasure it. Must figure out what it is.

yuxu

Yu Xu Palace Courtyard

Yu Xu Palace, which I have seen in so many videos, surprised me. It always looked to me as though it was set in a vast remote plain. There are no plains to be had in that part of China, however, and Yu Xu is in fact right in the middle of Wudangshan village (武当山, Wǔdāngshān). The interior of the Yu Xu Palace was closed for renovation, so we saw only the famous courtyard. Loved it.

chenfixed

I did some Chen on the mountain.

As far as tai chi is concerned, we had several amazing sessions with Jesse. Most fascinating to me was a comparison of the first sections of the four traditional long forms (Yang, Chen, Sun and Wu). I had never understood how closely the first part of the Yang 108 parallels the first part of Laojia.

On the last two mornings, we found a group at a park in Wuhan. Master Tan led us through the traditional Yang-style long form and 24; then we did a qigong routine that was new to me. She called it shí bā shì (十八式, 18-forms) Tai Chi Qigong (太极气功, Tàijí qìgōng). I found a video and a list of the names of the movements. Nice routine. Master Tan’s recording, like the track to the video, includes cues for breathing. 呼吸 hūxī is breathe; hū  is exhale and xī  is inhale.

mastertan

Tai Chi and Qigong with Master Tan in Wuhan city park

18-form Tai Chi Qigong video and names of movements:

  1. 起势       Qǐ shì
  2. 开阔胸怀 kāikuò xiōng huái             open the mind/heart
  3. 挥舞彩虹 Huīwǔ cǎihóng                  wave the rainbow
  4. 轮臂分云 Lún bì fēn yún                   circle the arms to divide the clouds
  5. 定步倒卷肱 Ding bù dào juǎn gong
  6. 湖心划船 Hú xīn huá chuán             row on the lake
  7. 肩前托球 Jiān qián tuō qiú               hold up the ball in front
  8. 转体望月 Zhuǎntī wàngyuè             turn over the full moon
  9. 转腰推掌 Zhuǎn yāo tuī zhǎng        turn waist push palm
  10. 马步云手 Mǎ bù yún shǒu                horse stance cloud hands
  11. 捞海观天 Lāo hǎi guān tiān              fish the ocean to see the sky
  12. 推波助浪 Tuī bō zhù làng                  push to make waves
  13. 飞鸽展翅 Fēigē zhǎn chì                    pigeon spreads his wings
  14. 伸臂冲拳 Shēn bì chōng quán        stretch the arm to punch
  15. 大雁飞翔 Dàyàn fēixiáng                  wild goose soars
  16. 环转飞轮 Huán zhuǎi fēilún             ring around the flywheel
  17. 踏步拍球 Tàbù pāi qiú                        step and slap
  18. 按掌平气 Àn zhǎng píng qì               push palm for calm energy

We also did a Beijing-style silk-reeling Chen routine that blew me away, but I don’t have any idea how to find it on the Internet. Still looking for that one.

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.

Yang Sword Videos

I am returning to Yang sword after first learning (most of) it about four years ago. Since then, I have learned several modern sword forms, which makes for some interesting comparisons. More on that in the future.

There are many variations on this traditional form; I haven’t found a video yet (outside of those made at Master Gohring’s school) that is exactly like what we do. None of the many versions are exactly like each other, either. Here is a very old video of Cheng Man Ching:

 

I notice that many, if not most, versions move a little more quickly than we do, with distinct jabs and stabs. An exception is this excellent Yang-style Tai Chi Sword with Chinese  names of movements on the screen:

I also particularly like the video by Peter Tam Hoy doing a version that is pretty close to ours, first on the list below. The clip by Jesse Tsao is part of a longer instructional video available on his website, taichihealthways.com.

Videos of Yang-style Tai Chi Sword:

In Chinese the form is called Yáng-shì tàijíjiàn (Yang-style Tai Chi sword). 杨 is the character for the surname Yang. It may be followed by either this character: 式 (which means style) or this one: 氏 (which means clan or family). The Pinyin (shì) is the same.

Huawu Fan Last Moves

The movements in the last section of Zhongji Huawu Fan are listed below, and I’ve made a PDF of the whole thing. Meanwhile, I have come across a video of Amin Wu doing a beautiful short (9-step) fan form (in an exceptionally beautiful Tai Chi uniform!). The form doesn’t start until about the one-minute mark, and it lasts only a minute.

aminnwufan

The proper name of Huawu fan is 中級華武四十二式太極扇:  Zhōngjí huá wǔ sìshí èr shì tàijí shàn (Mid-level Huawu 42-style Tai Chi Fan). Huá means flowery or magnificent; Wǔ means martial. Here’s a great article about Grandmaster Zeng (who created Huawu Fan) from KungFuMagazine.com

By the way, I have found a great way to type Pinyin–visit Pinyintones.com. It’s a keyboard input feature that is easily turned off and on by toggling the language band icon on the task bar. When it’s turned on, you can type (for example) zhu1 for the long accent (zhū), Ye2 for the rising accent (Yé), shou3 for the down-up accent (shǒu), and fen4 for the falling accent (fèn).

Huawu fan section four:

  1. 野马跳涧 Yé mǎ tiào jiàn: Wild Horse Leaps the Ravine
  2. 狮子托珠 Shīzi tuō zhū: Lion Holds a Pearl
  3. 骏马奋蹄 Jùnmǎ fèn tí: Noble Steed Raises its Hoof
  4. 金鸡抖翎 Jīn jī dǒu líng: Golden Rooster Shakes its Tail Feathers
  5. 太公钓鱼 Tàigōng diào yú: Great Grandfather Goes Fishing
  6. 雄鹰展翅 Xióngyīng zhǎn chì: Eagle Spreads Wings
  7. 飞凤回首 Fēi fèng huíshǒu: Flying Phoenix Turns Head
  8. 游龙戏水 Yóu lóng xì shuǐ: Wandering Dragon Plays in the Water
  9. 仙女指路 Xiānnǚ zhǐlù: Spirit Woman Shows the Way
  10. 收势 Shōu shì: Closing Form

And here is the printable list of all 42 movements: huawufan (PDF).

Hua Wu Fan §3

I am loving Hua Wu Fan, now learning section three, which includes the Weeping Willow, the Drunken Beauty and the Moon Goddess, Cháng’é, who flies to the moon (below):

moongoddess

Here are the names for the third section:

  1. 迎月花开 Yíng yuè huā kāi: Flower Opens to the Moon
  2. 白蛇吐信 Bái shé tǔ xìn: White Snake Sticks out its Tongue
  3. 玉女穿梭 Yùnǚ chuān suō: Fair Lady Works the Shuttles
  4. 迎风掸尘 Yíng fēng dǎn chén: Face the Wind and Brush Away Dust
  5. 海底捞针 Hǎi dǐ tàn zhēn:  Search the Bottom of the Sea
  6. 二龙戏珠 èr lóng xì zhū: Two Dragons Play with a Pearl
  7. 青蛇出洞 Qīng shé chū dòng: Bluegreen Snake Leaves the Cave
  8. 倒挂垂柳 Dàoguà chuíliǔ: Weeping Willow Hangs Down
  9. 贵妃醉酒 Guìfēi zuìjiǔ: The Drunken Beauty [Beijing Opera!]
  10. 嫦娥奔月Cháng’é bènyuè: Moon Goddess Flies to the Moon
  11. 拨云观日 Bō yún guān rì:  Part the Clouds to See the Sun
  12. 蛟龙翻身 Jiāolóng fānshēn: Flood Dragon Turns Over

According to Pengyou Taiji Quan (Friends of Tai Chi), Zhongji Hua Wu Shan is taught at the Huawu Gongfu Centre (no website) in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian Province in China, north of Guangdong, south of Shanghai.

I’ve noted elsewhere that this form was created by martial arts coach Zeng Nai Liang and Hu senior lecturer Wei Xianglian. I see that Master Zeng, one of the top ten martial arts  coaches in China, visited Jason Leung’s academy right here in Texas in 2011. So sorry I missed that!