Imagine a wheat field of steel stalks, swaying and flashing in the sunlight. That’s what you would have if you brought all the straight sword players daily to the same park for an hour. This is because there are millions of Kung Fu players alive today who practice the straight sword and find it endlessly fascinating. To some it symbolizes Kung Fu itself but we’re not looking for symbols here. To others it is a high art, calling up images of Kung Fu masters and poets playing “sword in the moonlight” and taking the occasional drink of warm wine or brushing the occasional poem to a lost love. Whatever its allure it’s worth a few minutes to contemplate the reasons and the callings.
The thing about the straight sword is that it becomes a more valuable weapon the longer one studies. Straight sword is an investment in your Kung Fu bank of knowledge. I am reminded of this from the old adage that states “A hundred days to master the staff, a thousand to master the saber and ten thousand to master the straight sword.” That’s thirty years! And still people begin the journey…
The Miao Dao or Leaf Saber developed through the centuries to transmutate into the astounding creation of the samurai sword adopted in Japan. But the straight sword remained a weapon distinctly Chinese and characteristically devoted to personal not battlefield combat. It may be this dueling image which calls up visions of the evil and twisted Kung Fu renegade and his heroic counterpart battling it out in some lost clearing that has imbued the weapon with its special flavor and almost mythic status.
The straight sword has two edges: a back and a front and this itself is emblematic of Kung Fu with its eternal concern for balancing the Liang Yi, the Twin Powers of Yin and Yang. Every action with the sword which cuts one way has a mirror image, given the special requirements of the human body, that cuts in the opposite manner. Reach out with the sword then retract it like a folding wing of a gliding crane. The old Western saying that “a two edged sword cuts both ways” has an altogether different meaning from the Eastern standpoint which does not suggest that you can cut your opponent OR yourself with the sword but rather that the sword offers at least two solutions for every problem.
The sword’s thin, flat double edged body inspires this dualistic thinking. This double sided nature, ultimately controlled by the wrist, necessitates some very distinctive positions, even for the well rounded Kung Fu player. These postures, from slightly off balanced to wonderfully extreme, all demonstrate that sword skill is centered around the wrist, and that the whole body must express this fact. This is one of the three Big Demands in swordplay. The sword doesn’t just require a flexible wrist but also a strong one and, even more important, a wrist that has its own intelligence. For instance, the hilt of the sword passes under the wrist when draw a circle in the air before you. The ability of the wrist to know just when to “jump” over the sword hilt is a level of skill that generally only develops with time, patience and some obsessive practice.
The next big consideration concerns eyes. The straight sword is thin and fast. The weapon moves so rapidly even the eyes of the practitioner can barely follow it. The ancient masters recognized this and believing that the “sword was good for the eyes” developed special eye training methods. Fast and accurate vision is a must due to the sword’s unique nature which can be summed up in one word, “Jie”, or to intercept (as in the Cantonese pronunciation of Jeet Kune Do: the Way of the Intercepting Fist). The sword’s preferred strategy is expressed by moving to the side of an incoming attack and meeting the opponent’s action with a cut directly to his arm or body. No block involved because the sword is a maddeningly flimsy instrument for blocking. The eyes must be able to anticipate the opponent’s attacking limb passing in front of your face while your radar simultaneously zeroes in the target of your own counter attack. In the art of the sword quick eyes means short engagements.
The third bonus from sword play is a footwork that is light and quick. There is some historical evidence that actual fighting sword play might have been influenced by the graceful circular cloud walking in women’s court performances of the single and double sword as an art form. Whatever its derivations the strategy of sword, move and intercept requires a light and sure side step to execute its flashing counters. Sword footwork cross, mince, turn, circle and skip. The movements always guide you off the line of the opponent’s intent and out of the line of fire. The steps evade and the sword responds.
Wrist. Eyes. Steps. These are the outside skills demanded by sword. Its graceful, efficient and continuous movement also requires a centered heart and a calm mind. This makes the sword the epitome of yin energy in the Kung Fu world. In many cases this relaxed calmness adds a balance to the rest of the style. Is it any wonder that so many people enjoy this pleasant yet subtle weapon?
We offer a lot of straight sword material at PLUM. Here are a few items which we think might be worth your consideration.
Jianshu, Jason Tsou’s comprehensive book and DVD on the art of Chinese fencing itself.
Peter Frohlich’s new book, Hidden metal of Tai Chi Chuan explores the idea that Tai Chi may also have been a fencing art and the connections from this hypothesis.
Famous teacher Wang Pei Sheng has a popular vcd: Wu style Tai Chi sword
Our very popular Tai Chi Mantis double handed sword vcd
and finally, a LuShan Flying Dragon sword