Playing the Spear

One definition of a martial artist might be: someone who keeps a spear in his closet.

Like me.

I often come across the spear tassel head high when I’m searching for today’s shirt. Some weapons you leave in the studio, some weapons you keep around because you might want to practice them at any time. It’s been said that the spear genius Li Shu Wen never made a trip to the bathroom without performing the Three Point Exercise a dozen times.

Why the "King" of the weapons?

The spear is ancient, powerful and definitely a major part of military history. In China there’s a whole rostrum of great spear men and ladies. All that’s beside the point, though. The main thing is the spear itself. You can be a beginner and still make it shake and shimmy. You can be a master and go to it each day to learn a little more. Chinese martial people love to point out the versatility and richness of the arts. Well, the spear in particular really is inexhaustible.

I learned my first spear set among the requirements for a black belt in Kenpo. There wasn’t a lot right about the set except that you point the shinny end at the other guy. It was a stiff, tight method with detailed, mostly trivial, concentration on rotating the spear head this way and that in a constant reaming action. The hand actions were useless and the footwork too formalized in Kenpo’s obsession with the cross over, but I caught the bug nonetheless.

This set was all too hard and stiff.

Years later I learned a Luo Han Spear that included hand flipping, body rolls, facile flower motions and extreme spear shaking.

Too soft by far.

But the spear itself is neither soft nor hard. Or a better way to say it is that it can be both: simultaneously.

maximum thrust

Hold the spear in both hands, generally with the butt side in the right hand palm facing toward your body, the left hand palm up. Draw the spear back and shoot it forward. Raise the spear and thrust it forward to the height of that notch just above your sternum; now you have the spear’s greatest length. That’s where most of your initial thrust movements will default to.

Pull the spear back to the guard position and start revolving the right hand using the left hand as though it were an oar lock, just spinning the spear in it with as little friction as possible. Just to prove it can be done completely lock the left arm so there is NO bend in the elbow. If the left hand is held like an oar lock you never need to crock the elbow and therefore never need to lose extension.

The essence of the spear lies in its arching movements. Extended beyond the range of your two hands the movement of the spear magnifies your every action. If you are a little “off” in your control the mistake will be ten times magnified at the end of the weapon. The archs can be tight or large. In the old days iron shapes such as circle and curlicues were attached to walls. The spear player would follow the shape of the circle, maintaining a constant contact, then thrust just at the right moment. The idea was that when your spear came into contact with another person’s your hundreds of repetitions would make the act of circle and thrust into one unstoppable motion.

There is an old saying in Kung Fu, “Play a Long Weapon as though short.” This is more than a clever paradox, it is the literal truth. The length of the spear necessitates that all movements originate at the core of the body. For one thing the arms are just too weak to continually do all the work of the weapon. This is especially true of the Long Spear, ten to fourteen feet, of hard to master conical wood which defines probably the most difficult of all Kung Fu weapons to actually master.

That’s why, when we want to know just how good a practitioner is we are always curious to see their spear or their straight sword work. What is the sign of proper spear play? First and foremost the torso should move and more a lot. Far too many practitioners are quick and strong with their arms but the spear requires more than this. A good spear man looks somewhat like a belly dancer, torso waving and rotating with every motion of the weapon. Next the tip of the spear should move like a “snake’s tongue” darting out quickly and retracting almost before you know it.

There is something so fluid about the spear it seems to slide through your hands like it is oiled. The tassel explodes when you shoot it out then winds like a Dragon’s beard as your hands cut a circle in the air. There are about ten ( depending on how you count) major moves with the spear but the three that are the foundation of the weapon. These are Open, Close and Thrust.

sticky spearplay

Open and Close are shown in every Spear form. The first action is like drawing a huge “C” standing straight up and roughly circling the spear tip from the height of you nose down to the level of your ankle. All this in one fluid counter clockwise movement.

Next you reverse the action, tracing back up to send the tip nose level.

After than you thrust straight forward, height of the throat, as you back leg locks into a bow stance, your kidneys stretch forward and your shoulders send the energy to the razor tip end of the spear. The tassel starts to jump but, before it can spread like a miniature pyrotechnic display, you have already returned to the guard position ready to do it again.

There’s so much more. When I first learned the spear, over forty years ago, it was awkward and stiff. Now, when I lift the weapon, all I have to do is let the spear do what it does best and everything else is easy.

Spear Resources:

A Chinese text on Li Ya Xuan's Yang Spear

Sun style Spear DVD

Wang Pei Sheng's spear

The Lost Track Spear