I knew when I wrote “The Bandit Knife” book I would have to cough up the DVD of the weapon at some point. That is what I am presently engaged in. Through no intelligence of my own I have found myself with enough time—I believe— to edit what is at least a functional DVD tool for those who actually want to brave the task of learning this classic Shaolin form.
As a teacher, I figure that I have a single mission: to impart information about this subject that is true and useful. Over the years I have added a third criterion to this, making myself a nice little three legged stool to stand on. I have attempted to add some frame or context to the whole process. Otherwise I find myself helping to perpetuate that error pointed out by Robert Benchley, “At Harvard they taught us everything about the chameleon, except why.”
It is not so much “why” with weapons as how. And if you like weapons forms and have the fortitude to read this article I can almost certainly guarantee that you will find yourself in disagreement with something contained herein. This is because, unlike so many others, I happen to think weapons practice important in martial development.
I will explain that there are ideas here not common to martial arts. I have put years of furrowed-brow-cogitating into this, but cannot actually claim unimpeachable logic. Perhaps the man-hours invested testify more to my imbecility than my perseverance.
The first step is to point out that every Kung Fu system has many hand sets but few sets of any particular weapon. There are exceptions. Pigua has many sabers as does Cha Quan, but these are acquisitions from the laws of inheritance and the natural intercourse of people carting their sets from style to style. The point is that there are many, many ways to utilize the hands and legs. They threaten to be infinite. But most weapons forms are more like checklists of the major moves for that weapon. Typically this is numbered at around ten keys moves per weapon (with much blathering and bickering and sub dividing altering that number higher.) In other words, the traditional weapons set is meant to be exhaustive, giving away all the key actions for each weapon. Later sets may introduce new skills but generally they are addenda for the basics. The Norther Shaolin Liu He Spear, for example, is indeed more difficult than the basic spear, but it’s main contribution is simply to reverse the lead hand and make you practice the basic moves on the other side.
The further back you go in Kung Fu history the more conservative the weapons forms become. They emphasize the characters and peculiarities of each weapon the way a character in Dickens retains the color and habits of his personality at all times.
Therefore we learn weapons sets with a different approach than we do hands, whether we know it or not. In Northern Shaolin, again, we learn a hand set alternated with a different weapon set. That’s dozens of different weapons vs. reiterated empty hand forms. A moment’s thought will therefore show us how much more prolix the hands are compared to weapons. And that is as it should be, as right as rain and twice as obvious. (make point)
There is also another obvious but unfortunate aspect here. Few schools actually practice weapons basics. The answer to our inquiry is instantly rendered obvious: how can anyone practice a weapons set with any meaning when he first learned it as a ritualized dance? We do not teach the empty hands that way. Hours of practice time are spent on individual movements like punching, repeated over and over
Would not this be the first stage of weapons? Even more so; someone who walks innocently into your school at least knows how to employ his hands and feet to some degree. They proved that contention just by ambulating past your front door. Any sane person would naturally assume that individual basics for a completely new experience like a weapon might be called for and even encouraged.
If this is true for basics it must follow as that obvious rain did that the next stage is the acquisition of combinations—basics strung on very short string, but strung nonetheless.
One can see that if this argument had any merit the learning of forms would occupy the THIRD step of the process, not the first. Forms would then display the natural timing, segmentation and logic of groups of combinations falling naturally together. This would be a distant cry from the monotonic performances punctuated by dramatic freezes we see today. It would assume an audience that could actually appreciate a skillful delivery of the Pi Da or the Kan strike. Thus I have blown up my own argument and shattered my own contention since, even in China, it is difficult to find an audience that could recognize the correct action of a Liao strike any more than converse intelligibly in Sumerian.
This emphasis on performance and outward display, rather than reflective improvement and gradual progress, is more than an irritating grain of sand; it is a demon of confusion. As the meaning of the movements decrease, it is only natural—especially when one is running after the mirage of championship—to import actions that are more “extreme.” First the non-functional, such as flipping the weapon, or blind jump-spinning is added. Then movements from instruments like the steel whip begin to drift into other weapons. In the latter half of the twentieth century a coven of contemporary Wushu judges tried to keep things authentic by requiring certain skills for specific weapons, but their requirements were themselves as suspect as a three dollar Renminbi note.
We have now reached the stage where high level skill with a weapon—even just basic skills for that matter—is rare. Impressive performances, however, are a dime a dozen, emphasizing an indigestible broth of trivial skills with the weapon, cooked with non-relevant transferred physical abilities such as the splits.
Weapons Have Points
Not to completely abandon myself to the joys of curmudgeonhood, I will make some final—thank the Deity—and relatively optimistic points. First we should at least acknowledge the friendly fact that weapons are actually important in one’s martial career. There is a good baker’s dozen of reasons for this but here are two of the most pressing.
First: If you don’t think weapon practice is important because we no longer use them in combat any more, you should know that many martial artists—as they age—gain more from weapons sets than hands sets and continually increase their skills through their use. As Kendo players will tell you, one of the great things about that pursuit lies in its emphasis on pure skill. In this sport, Grandad can occasionally administer a sound thrashing to grandson based on his superior skill, and not discounting the acquired sneakiness of age.
The second advantage is that all of these weapons which have been maintained in the different styles have been re-framed over the last few centuries to offer highly specialized methods of refining non-weapon skills. The Judge’s Pen and Elk Horn Knives of Bagua Zhang, for instance, are very helpful in exemplifying the principles of that particular system. Weapons are perfect instruments for developing and refining specific talents.
As far as actually increasing one’s skill, like making lemonade, it is still within our technical grasp. True, there are advanced skills and unusual tactics developed over the centuries, but most of the actions are basic physics and should at least look like that. A downward cut should partake of gravity’s encouragement, and a horizontal cross cut can indeed be augmented by the natural turning of the waist.
As far as deepening your own abilities and enjoyment, here are a few ideas: I am aware of how much fun there is in performing with these wonderful instruments. And trophies are nice as dust collectors on the mantle if nothing else. The solutions to the tournament vs. training dilemma should be the same one that Chinese martial artists have used for centuries: have a “private” version of your weapons form and, if you want, a tournament version where you let out all the stops.
Finally, if you want to invest some time in correct practice, how do you adopt a more focused manner of learning with truer results? Simple. As you learn a form, do not rush to memorize the whole thing. Learn a section, transform—through concentrated practice—that section into a strong skill. then add it into the form. The satisfaction may not be public but it will be real. You will slowly create for yourself a string of pearls instead of a rope of sand.