Those Unpredictable Weapons

The steel whip makes a “whirrrrr” as it cuts through the air. The performer suddenly bends his elbow, wrapping the whip around itself, then extends his arm, shooting the dart-head of the weapon straight as a diving hawk. The whip cuts an additional slicing circle, then wraps around the performer’s neck only to instantly unravel, resuming its flashing orbit.

This is a demonstration of one of the “soft” weapons of Kung Fu. Soft weapons are instruments with flexible joints of rope, chain or cord that allow them to bend, wrap, and wind around your body.

The mastery of soft weapons requires a high level of skill. And while everyone is familiar with the “grandparent” weapons of kung fu-the sword, saber, staff and spear—the exact place of the “soft” weapons in the development of Kung Fu skills is often misunderstood.

Double broadswords are sometimes closely parallel, and at other moments distinctly separate, taxing the practitioner skill in wielding them .

The Curriculum of Weapons

Yet the secret of the “soft” weapons is very simple. It resides in the idea of unpredictability. In many Kung Fu systems, the traditional progression toward the unpredictable is brilliantly logical. First will come the grandparent then the double weapons, and finally the soft weapons.

In Shaolin Kung Fu, for example. the first weapon a student learns after the grandparent weapons is double daggers. Then he moves on to the double sabers. Such double weapons pose an interesting set of problems in that your left and right arms must work together and match each other. Often the feeling is that the wrists are tied by an invisible rope. When this occurs, body turning and footwork become essential for they direct the linked hand actions. In fact footwork is so telling that when evaluating double swords performances,  good judges will generally watch the feet more than the hands.

The tiger hook swords which are sharp on all edges, are the next to be learned. These weapons cannot even touch the body or each other. Their standard requires that they must be kept separate and away from the practitioner. Keeping them at this distance can be as dangerous for you as they are for an opponent. The Tiger Hooks require large an accurate arm motions coupled with precise wrist actions sort of like juggling a ball and a plate simultaneously.

Obviously, the more unpredictable the behavior of the weapon, the more expertise is needed to control it. Spinning two sabers, for instance, is more difficult than wielding a single one. The knives can clash suddenlywith each other, suddenly you have to master footwork, suddenly everything is chancy.

Soft and Dangerous

The yin/yang staff is one of kung fu's "soft" weapons. Its whirling front club is erratic and unpredictable.The practitioner must make sure his or her front hand is not struck by the wildly whipping end.

But of all the varied types of instruments, the soft weapons most prominently force the user to deal with spontaneous, unpredictable technique. The practitioner progresses slowly and methodically, ever increasing the danger and fickleness of the weapons. The progression is careful but relentless.

You often begin with the yin/yang staff (the forerunner of the nunchaku). This staff, with one long end and one short end, twirls and spins very rapidly. Every time you thrust it, the head goes wild. You can have no idea which path the head will take. One possible target can be your own hand. The yin/yang staff has a sufficiently familiar body to be somewhat controllable—like a short staff—but you have to be constantly alert to  that whipping, slashing club head at the far end.

As if two sections didn’t pose enough of a challenge, you then move on to the three-sectional staff, an ingenious and complicated instrument. This weapon was used for personal combat, rarely in battle. Although in legend it is mentioned as a battlefield weapon, its staff-like body was not powerful enough to contend with armor. But it is perfect for Kung Fu training.

Even more than the yin/yang staff, the three-sectional staff has a very important characteristic—it heightens your awareness of  the space behind you. It rarely spins without one end disappearing at your back and the other just kissing your peripheral vision. It twists like a cord but strikes like a club. The weapon is sometimes an extension of your body— sometimes an extension of your enemies; it all depends on your skill.

The three-sectional staff requires the kung fu stylist to think in two directions at one time. One moment the staff is collapsed and is a short weapon, the next moment it telescopes to a long weapon.

And the three-sectional staff has several variations: it can fold like a fan, wrap like a snake, whip like a rope, and shoot like a dart. Every time you throw it, you have to pay particular attention to how it returns. It may boomerang back at you, around you or even behind you. From this we begin to respect one of the most important tenets of Kung Fu: that reverse action is as important as normal action, and that power can be created on the return trip. Sometimes the weapons forms are the only way to really appreciate this. When we return to our hand sets, we have gained a fuller, richer understanding of  possibilities.

Following the three-sectional staff, you have the steel whip. Now things become really interesting. Commonly the advice is “Never smile when you perform  steel whip, you may lose some teeth.” By necessity, the footwork and stepping pattern of the steel whip form must be very sketchy and flexible. The weapon has a mind of its own. Consequently, all the foot patterns and transitional moves are performed freely by feel. You just don’t command a steel whip to reverse direction in mid-flight. One could almost say the steel whip form is like a deck of cards; you can shuffle it into any order but you can’t predict the order.

The steel whip can disappear & reappear from any angle ...

This requires what is known as “feeling” the weapon. The centripetal tension on the steel whip is kept as constant as possible. Thus any erratic change will transmit back through the weapon to your hand. The rings on the whip also help by allowing you to listen for the changes in the whirring sound. When you hear something like a box of key rings tumbling down a staircase, you drop the whip and run because the whip’s orbit is decaying into a dangerous filigree of chaos. Discretion is the better part of practice.

so the intent of the practitioner must always “travel through” the 9 chain links extending to the dart-like tip of the weapon.

As you practice the steel whip. you learn to wrap it around your arm, neck, body and leg. The idea is to keep the momentum going while adjusting your grip and footwork. Eventually your feel for the weapon extends through your entire body. You sense a deviation in the whip and adjust your steps accordingly. Whatever skill level you have reached, the whip is there. If you have strong hands and fast steps. the whip just moves faster. The key is to remember that skills developed with the whip are the same as those without. After all, this is really what is meant by a “system”: everything helps every other thing.

Even more erratic than the steel whip, the rope dart wraps the limbs two or three times, then shoots back out like a yo-yo.

At this point we may want to pick up the rope dart. The rope-dart is so unpredictable that there is no classical form for it. The dozens of ways the dart can return make a form almost an obstacle. The rope-dart can wrap around your body not once or twice, but many times. You can wrap it around one elbow, turn, wrap the other elbow, then turn and wrap the first elbow. Simply by stretching out your arms, you explode the dart outward, stretching the rope line to its limit. Next, you call it back for another movement. The rope dart is a little like playing cat’s cradle with yourself. And the variations are almost endless.

In mainland China and other places, there is now a movement to codify classical forms, to create a performing art out of a fighting art. This is an excellent example of one of the more disappointing aspects of Kung Fu: the tendency to standardize. While there is nothing wrong with a “rope dart form,” it is certainly less useful for the practitioner s own development to have a pre-arranged series of movements than the original intent of adjusting and changing. The rope dart is fascinating when played like a partner or even an opponent. But the sequential choreography of a “tournament form” cannot give the exciting feel of a real practice session with this untamed weapon.

Weapons and the Mind

The variations with the rope dart are limited only by the player's imagination.

All of this should remind us that Kung Fu is a form of research into the nature of change. These “soft” weapons were used in the past as much for improving the students perceptions as for combat. Every beginner must progress through certain perceptual steps. When we first learn Kung Fu, we can only master one move at a time, we think only of the forward direction in front of our eyes, and our steps are sluggish and tentative.

But slowly, as we can handle more and more difficult tasks, these special weapons play a part in extending our perceptions through space. We learn to think “behind” us, to deal with spontaneous movement, and to quicken and enliven our steps. That’s why, in this age of the gun, the “soft” weapons are still useful. If you know what you are trying to develop with them, you will know how to use them. Your practice will make more sense as you slowly master their changes. There’s no such thing as mastery without mastering change. And change is at the heart of Kung Fu.

Kung Fu is about consciousness. Whether the spontaneity comes from the outside (our weapon or our opponent) or from the inside (our feelings and reactions) true mastery means immediate expression and instantaneous melding with the moment. Like a painter, we touch the brush to the paper and create something that never existed before. The outward manifestation reflects a part of ourselves we might not even have known existed. The artist Andre Breton was once asked for a definition of art. His answer was short and simple: “Surprise me.”


DVDs: Some Shaolin soft weapons

DVDs Hooks, Darts and Whips

VCDs TongBei style weapons

VCD Hua Style Double Daggers

An earlier version of this article appeared in Black Belt Magazine, November 1995.