The quality of Kung Fu practice is rising, worldwide. Yet the race is on. The culture of Kung Fu, the meaning and the heart of the art is in danger. The loss of this is not, as some would say, the loss of an impractical, antiquated fighting art no longer valid. Rather it would be equivalent to the loss of a cultural treasure such as Opera, or Painting, Theater or Meditation. Kung Fu culture is the raft upon which 5000 years of practical knowledge, mythic concepts, Shamanism practices and psychological insights rides. It is a code, but not an unbreakable one. The training in this section isn't so much about the movements; we actually assume you already know them. Rather it is a compilation of those "little details" that are the answers loosening the cipher and Unlocking the Form.

Unlocking the Form #4: A Pivotal Exercise

The straight sword is a weapon in Chinese Martial Arts with a great reputation as a "master instrument". Many, many practitioners play the forms but it is not easy to find a high mastery of the weapon at this date in history. We can look to the basic concepts to have an understanding of what is needed, though. The straight sword is said to be based on a triangle of skills, namely: wrist, eyes and feet. The process of acquiring straight sword skill begins with the wrist. In essence the saber and the straight sword treat the wrist completely differently. A hefty saber has real weight, unlike the weapons often practiced for forms, and will not allow a great deal of superfluous wrist action. The typical movement of the saber is to slice through the target powered by the waist with the main pivot point of the weapon's action being the shoulder. When the weapon has accomplished its purpose and swings or slices beyond the target the wrist is then released and the momentum of the saber is quickly dispersed in a tangent until the saber is wrapped around the body or directionally reversed.

The straight sword will often use the wrist in a completely different manner. In straight sword, the wrist may actually initiate the action. It certainly doesn't freeze until the action is completed as in the case of saber. In fact one of the marks of good straight sword usage is that the movements of the sword: splitting, poking, lifting or whatever are often accompanied by appropriate and simultaneous wrist action.

All this sounds very technical, I know. It means that with very little additional movement a mediocre straight sword flick can be transformed into an expert action. Here are three deceptively simple variations of a basic exercise. Though each is easy to understand they vary greatly in requirements of skill, levels of expertise. The first anyone can do. The second no one can do—consistently. The third everyone should do as much as possible.


Take the sword lightly in hand. Try to keep the guard and handle as relatively fixed as possible while you are circling the tip of the sword in a circle of medium size roughly a foot in diameter. This is an easy and yet essential exercise IF you know what you are doing. Practice in a Clockwise and a Counter-clockwise direction and you will note an important aspect of sword practice. As the hilt circles one way or the other the wrist
action will differ for each direction. The reason for this lies in the fact that the wrist does not bend equally at every angle. It is important to know how to pass the sword hilt under the wrist so it can move in any direction you wish. Remember Kung Fu practice is ALWAYS a combination of simple, intuitive actions and difficult counter-intuitive actions because we can never know which we will need. The sign of skill is to deal with both the comfortable and uncomfortable pathways with equanimity.
The temptation to cheat on this movement will be so great you have to take steps to resist it. In this case the easiest thing to do is to pick a spot on the wall and aim the tip of the sword at it. You should not actually TOUCH the spot with the sword point (unless the frustration of the exercise is so great that you are contemplating using the sword in a way dangerous to loved ones and neighbors). Now that you've aimed the tip at this spot the exercise is easy to understand. Keep the tip fixed and rotate the rest of the sword instead. Your hand should inscribe a circle of about 12 inches. This will create even more problems than the previous exercise. In this case the wrist will actually have to jump over the revolving hilt. Of course practice both ways. You will probably note that one direction is far more comfortable than another. True. But practice both directions anyway. Of course the sword tip will move a bit but the goal is to minimize the fluctuations as much as possible. This isn't really an exercise; it's frustration manifested. But the control gained is invaluable to the mastery of the sword. It cannot be skipped.
Two swords cross. Where they cross, the exact spot on the body, from guard to tip can be a pivot point required by good sword technique. Therefore the practitioner should be able to pivot the sword around ANY of these possible intersections. In this exercise you don't circle the tip or the handle but rather somewhere in-between. Obviously it is best to start at some specific point. Then pick another point. Then, as you pivot, CHANGE the point and let it range all along the sword body. You will be able to see the pivot point as the sword revolves and creates a tipped over hourglass shape in the air.
This third and last exercise can practiced with a partner. We strongly remind you to be careful. Keep the swords low and away from each other's faces. Don't hurry. Make sure you use safety equipment. Pivot your blades around one another's on whatever spot you happen to touch. Practice circling both ways with continuous motion and smooth actions.

There are many more aspects of Chinese fencing on our site but you might check into some of the following. Each of them has interesting information to offer.
Books in English on the Sword
Texts, many of them classic in Chinese
DVD with sword instruction

Beside being the director of Plum Publications, Ted Mancuso is the Head Instructor of the Academy of Martial Arts; Santa Cruz, California.

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