The Straight Sword, Magical and Upright

Some weapons are more than just weapons. The katana or Samurai Sword (originally the Chinese Miao Dao) is known as the “soul” of the samurai. The English long bow is a symbol of the common soldier’s rise to power. The American six shooter is the symbol of the West and its rowdy history.

The Chinese straight sword emerges as the premier symbol for Kung Fu itself. The reasons for this are social, political, economic and historical. Some of these reasons may be unknown, some may even be of a shock.

art_swordplay1The sword of ancient times was often shorter, between 17 and 30 inches and about a pound and a half in weight.  The early straight sword was a rigid instrument, its purpose stabbing and hacking. Through centuries it developed in two directions: a hard, semi-rigid weapon suitable for battlefield employment and a more flexible blade generally reserved for personal duals or worn as a symbolic gesture. We see the same thing in Western history as the rapier replaced the saber even though the former would have been relatively useless on the battlefield. But for personal duels the Jian—like the rapier—was more than adequate to do its job.

It was this lighter version that gained the most symbolic power as time rolled on. Here was a weapon perfect as a talisman. The thin, beautifully wrought blade could almost be bent into a circle the released to snap back into a perfectly straight line. This was seen as a symbol of the Superior Man, the perfect Confucian gentleman, ready to yield in the spirit of compromise and yet able to regain his true course without hesitation.

Some versions of the Jian are used in Daoist practice as occultists in the west might use a wand. These ritual weapons, avatars of their metal counterparts, are generally constructed of wood. The association with righteousness makes the Jian/wand a perfect instrument for exorcisms. A Daoist ceremony might call for clearing the demons and spirits from a troubled location while brandishing the wooden sword to all eight directions.

Another example of this mystical connection is a coin-sword, a bunch of antique style Chinese coins all tied together with red thread in the shape of a sword. Hung on the wall above a child’s bed this is said to prevent the capture of the child’s life breath by that female demon who is the Chinese equivalent of the evil version of Lilith, who takes the life of children to avenge herself on all of hated human kind. The coin sword guards the sleeping child and scares off the demon.

The sword has an astrological connection with Wen Chang, the God of Literature, and all who would claim literary glory. Throughout Chinese history the Jian has been associated with scholars and artists. Two of China’s greatest poets: Li Pai (better known as Li Po) and TuFu were life-long sword players and, according to legend, possessed notable skill. Even Confucius wore a straight sword  to official functions, not because he was fond of the weapon—in fact he did not know how to play it—but because it made him feel complete as a gentleman.

The Jian also matured into the classic female weapon. It emphasized a light, lithe body, tremendous flexibility in the back and waist, sure and graceful footwork. Its Yin aspect was also reflected in its strategy. The Jian does not confront, it evades. Its flexible approach bequeaths flexibility to the player. Its double blade cuts two ways, making it double expressive.

The sword was one of the few weapons which women commonly adapted to dance. It must have been an unusual experience to come from the battlefield then attend court and watch the graceful movements of a skilled dancer especially as she performed her “cloud walking” routines. Who knows but some observant soldier might have been inspired to invent a new movement taken, in spirit if not application, from the middle of a famous dance.

And, in some cases, a lady might just develop variations of her own, and a deep skill to match them. Here is one of the earliest records in Chinese history of a martial teacher mentioned by name,  from Professor Kang Ge Wu’s historical reference book: Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts.

 Around 496 B. C. About the 14th years of Duke Ding of Lu: Spring and Autumn Period

Many people in the reigns of Wu and Yue learned and practiced sword techniques. Ma Yuan’s Biography states: “King Wu is fond of sword practicing. A lot of people have been wounded from swords and have scars.” King Yue, called Gou Jian, once invited Yue Nu, a female sword-playing specialist from Yue to teacher his soldiers sword-practicing techniques.

Yuan Gong, a sword-playing specialist, once encountered Yue Nu. They broke off bamboo branches used them as swords. Yuan Gong was defeated in the fightand he fled nimbly like a “white monkey.” In later times Bai Yuan Tong Bei Quan (White Monkey Through-the-Back boxing) developed, falsely claiming Yuan Gong  (Master Monkey) as its founder.

Yue Nu once informed Gou Jian about the methods of bare-handed fighting and presented the basic principles of sword and breathing and consciousness; harmony of the internal and the external; offense and defense; and both static and moving states. (from Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue).


Note: All legend? Let it be known that the Sword of Gou Jian sword was unearthed in December of 1965 in a tomb that had been flooded for over 2000 years. When they removed the sword from its lacquered wooden scabbard, its blade was still untarnished. Never underestimate this delicate instrument or the woman who wields it.



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