Complete Jianshu: The Review

We asked one of our long-time customers and correspondents to give us his review of The Complete Jianshu, by Jason Tsou and Art Schonfeld. We had expected a short paragraph, but his review was so comprehensive we thought to share it with you.

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My first impression upon cracking open “The Complete Jianshu” was that this was professionally done. Not only is the layout clear and easy to follow, but I love the fact that this was obviously meant to be a consistently used and referred to textbook. Having the book spiral bound so that it opens flat is genius, and it’s really a wonder that other martial arts books aren’t bound in the same way.

I was also taken by how the book was direct and concise, yet voluminous at the same time. There is a wealth of information to be had here, but it’s without any superficial nonsense that sometimes can be found in other books on Chinese weapon work. Jason Tsou is direct and to the point here: all he is concerned with are the basic techniques and proper conditioning that one needs to have in order to gain competency with the Chinese jian (straight sword). The dvd also was brilliantly done, and works hand in hand with the text book. Everything that is in the dvd is in the textbook, so that one can easily follow along, referring to the book when needed for review. I honestly feel that one is not just buying a well made textbook with a dvd here: one is buying a training course. Everything they need is in this bundle, and considering what’s out out there in the martial arts market at the same price range, that is saying a lot.

I was a bit concerned at first that “The Complete Jianshu” was focusing more on the sport aspect of things, rather than the traditional combat aspects of jian training. I understood the reasoning behind this, as it can be a good way to keep the art alive. But after seeing what happened with fencing in regards to small sword/rapier fighting (there are certain strategies employed, particularly with epee, that would be extremely risky if not downright suicidal to use in real combat, which are regularly used in order to score a hit), I had some concern I’d see something similar with Jianshu. I needn’t have worried, at least in regards to this book. Jason Tsou has made it clear that good technique in the sport aspect of Jianshu should mirror good technique for the more traditional combat aspect of things, and the stances, drills, attacks and defensive movement taught here all seem to bear this out.

I can’t help but compare this to Yang Jwing Ming’s dvd “Sword Fundamental Training” a decent instructional video on basic Chinese sword work, as there are some interesting similarities here. Both works forgo forms training in order to help the student build a good foundation with the necessary basic skills. Both have good drills for both the solitary practitioner and those who can work with a partner. Both gradually help the student to become prepared for free sparring. The differences between the two seems to lie in the approach.

It’s interesting to me how both teachers keep certain aspects of sword training traditional, and other aspects are shown in more modern concepts. For instance, when it comes to terminology, Tsou seems to prefer using traditional terms in traditional ways, while Yang seems to prefer using the terms in more practical ways. As an example, take the thrust and the cut (chop), or Ci and Pi, respectively. In “The Complete Jianshu”, certain thrusts are given different terms, namely the downward thrust is called Xia Za, while the other two thrusts shown are called Zhi Ci and Ping Ci. The same can be seen with the cuts. In this book, downward chops are called Pi, and diagonal cuts are called Kan, differentiating the two. In “Sword Fundamental Training” however, terms are used in a more streamlined way. All long ranged thrusts are referred to as Ci no matter the direction, and all chops are called Pi whether they are diagonal or straight down. This latter approach (which was intentionally done) might be more practical and less confusing to the beginning practitioner, though there isn’t anything wrong with learning a few extra terms.

The actual drills themselves are where one can see the two teachers change their approach. In “Sword Fundamental Training”, the drills seem to be based on more traditional training. Single person drills have the student performing movements in horse riding stance, then in bow stance, and then advancing and retreating in bow stance. In “The Complete Jianshu”, we see what might be considered a more modern approach. Single person drills here have the student performing all moves while advancing in a shuffle step. One can see this difference in two person drills as well. “Sword Fundamental Training” has the students gradually learn to defend themselves by having them drill in pre set movements which gradually builds up the ability to counter attack from just about all angles, and while building up their footwork as well. “The Complete Jianshu “takes a more free form approach, having the students build their two person drills out of the basic movements they’ve been training in, and offers a few to start out with. I don’t really think there is one approach that is better than the other here: both have merit and can help build a strong foundation in sword usage.

I do think that “The Complete Jianshu” has several advantages over just about all other manuals/dvds though, including “Sword Fundamental training”. First, it teaches about the gate concept that one has to concern themselves with when attacking and defending. The concept of gates are very integral to Kung Fu, and it amazes me how so few books actually discuss this, let alone teach how they are used. “The Complete Jianshu” does, and in a very clear and concise way. Second, it goes into detail about how the grip is used. Usually I see or hear statements about how the grip should not be too tight, or too loose… and that’s it. In the “Complete Jianshu”, it actually goes into detail about exactly HOW one is to grip the jian, and how the grip should change when one is attacking, compared to when one is simply holding the sword ready. Third, there is an emphasis on training with both hands. Throughout the book it is stressed that one should perform all the drills with both hands, and even be ready to switch hands during a sparring session. I don’t think I have EVER seen ANY other book or dvd on the Jian talk about this in depth, let alone stress it’s importance. True, I have seen a couple of sword forms where hands are switched, but it is usually shown as a feature of the form itself, and not as something that one should strive to be able to do at any time.

Then there is the section on warmups, stance training, and qigong. While I have seen some mention of this in varying degrees in other works, I have not seen all three done in such clear detail as I’ve seen here, and all in one place. In the case of the qigong exercise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this in any other book or video. It’s actually made me wonder why no one else has attempted to do this before.

There are a few things here that I am a bit perplexed by which I think deserve some mentioning. It could be because of my lack of experience that I find them odd, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t relate my full thoughts on this work.

In the grips section it is mentioned that one can place their fingers along the hand guard for added support, and in some cases even past it. This is in fact encouraged throughout the book. I find this odd because in other books and videos on the subject this is considered a bad habit, and would not be practical at all in a combat situation, since the fingers could easily be cut. Even Ted Mancuso’s excellent video “T’ai Chi Sword” states that placing ones fingers past the handguard is not a good idea (although it does say one can place their fingers along the guard, just as long as it’s still behind it.). Considering that this finger placement is something I see many other martial arts teachers do when using the Jian, I don’t know if this is because of tradition, habit, level of experience, or simply a different approach to manipulating the weapon. The forward finger placement does make using the jian easier, as evidenced by people doing this with other sword styles (such as rapier). And it is entirely feasible that the experienced jian fighter could grip the sword in this way and avoid getting their fingers hit. Still, I find this to be something that should be discussed by other experts.

Then there is the topic of footwork. I noticed that footwork is mentioned in detail after the other drills. Considering that footwork is arguably the most important part of sword work, I found it very odd that this isn’t placed before the other drills, or used in conjunction with them. The only bit of footwork shown for the single and two person sword drills are the shuffle steps, which are done forwards and backwards. Compare this with “Sword Fundamental Training”, which teaches students to employ their techniques with sideways and circular stepping, besides the more conventional advancing and retreating steps. Granted, in that video, the drills are first done stationary before later moving on to stepping, so students aren’t automatically using footwork in the beginning. Maybe that’s what was the reasoning behind talking about footwork and showing drills for it after the other drills, as to not confuse the student by bombarding them with too much information in the beginning. And the employment of proper footwork does take a while to master, Plus the authors did make it a point to discuss how important circular stepping is when sticking to your opponent’s blade, even showing examples of it. Still, I would have liked to have seen a little more explanation in how the various steps could be used, such as the serpentine step. Sure, because I’ve been messing about with swords for a bit, I know that step can be used to attack the opponent from various angles while advancing, or how the circular and triangle steps can be used to swiftly attack an open gate, but the beginner might not.

Still, all in all, this book does live up to it’s name. “The Complete Jianshu” IS the most complete work I have ever seen on the topic of Chinese swordwork, and it’s the best resource I own on this art, period. It has not left my side ever since I received it. No other video or book goes into as much detail as this one does, and I honestly believe that hard working students training together with this book could build a strong foundation in this art as long as they stick to it. Considering how true Chinese sword skills are in danger of dying out, “The Complete Jianshu” is a boon for those trying their best to keep that from happening. I hope that this end up fulfilling the job that the author’s intended, because it’s more than obvious that they put their all in it.

– Marco Sainte

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