My Experience with the San Cai Sword (and How it Failed Me)

I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see that the San Cai Sword is available in this new set of DVDs by Adam Hsu. It is truly a great sword set and worth the time to master it. First, of course, is the fact that the single person performance set is almost exactly the same as the two-person combat version. Is there any clearer indication that the set has superior usage?


The Heaven/Earth?Human sword of Kung Fu

And, indeed, the movements of the partner-form validate the construction of the single-form by a number of key points. First point: both sides of the form emphasize counter-striking and intercepting over sword blocking. If you have played with the sword you will realize that blocking is difficult indeed with this light, but sometimes too light, weapon. This priority to intercept rather than block leads to the next standard developed over centuries of real dueling, the use of evasive and positional movements to set up the interception with the weapon. Here the San Cai Jian is difficult because difficulty is the only answer to the problem. If you just look at the sword from the “outside” you might well think it is a rather mild and medium two-person form.


Famous straight sword of Kung Fu.

But practicing it and testing the timing and the exchanges with another person will soon change your mind on this. The body twisting, the use of the front blade and the back blade, the angling of the torso to aid in both interception and evasion all attest to an inventor who knew his or her technique.

The San Cai Jian is said to be from the Xing Yi style though no one knows for sure what its origins might be. If it is Xing Yi it retains that essence/form relationship so evident in Xin Yi and Xing Yi training. San Cai is based on the levels of the so-called Three Powers (sometimes translated as the Three Talents) namely, Heaven, Humankind and Earth. The clean distinction concerning the angle and height of the attacks also emphasizes a Xing Yi type of directness yet sophistication. Some of this confusion may actually be a clue, since Xing Yi’s famous and fundamental stance is known as either the San Ti (Three Bodies? This common term has many attempted explanations but few good ones) and the San Cai stance, Three Powers, just like our sword form.
Given all these attributes you might very well wonder why I stopped teaching this excellent form. Well, when I introduced it into my school I decided to show it, initially, to my Tai Chi class for a number of reasons. I am perennially trying to interest them in usage, even if only from the classical and postural standpoint. I thought the San Cai sword would be a nice complement to the more common Yang 13 Methods sword and, as a bonus, give more experience and understanding about the technique of the straight sword.

I taught and my class dutifully learned first the “A” side and then the “B” side. Though we all knew that this is also a two-person form, I made the point many times that the best insurance was to know the form well enough that there would be no hiccups even when your benign, moderate and well-behaved partner was just gliding in to help you. Having practiced with just such a spirit—like that of gamboling lambs—we proceeded to the next stage and, just as I had promised, began work on the partner versions with all the spirit and cooperation of a ballroom dance school.


San Cai Jian, the two-person sword

However, subtle changes slowly crept across the floor. I blame some of it on the genius of the form itself. Since each movement was actually an interception of the partner’s, it did not take time for people, especially my male students, to “jump the gun” and intercept almost before their partners had reached the crucial point of each move. Somehow the idea that restraining oneself until the perfect peephole appeared was a bit open to interpretation. And, just as rapidly, I suddenly had two loose line of red-eyed Conans armed with wooden weapons; falling on one another with flailing attacks and stuttering timing. It was as though every motion was meant to fool the other fellows and render them—no matter how good the intentions—as confused as a column of legionnaires suddenly attacked by Celtic warriors shifting out of the forest,  running them down like southern chaff before northern storms. Something manifest in the swords had transformed my quiet and restrained Tai Chi class into a peck of Picts, pillaging and pining for the swash of swords against bucklers, with the cold breezes of anticipated dawn attacks rifling their skin. Such might be the stuff of legends.

The San Cai is, indeed, filled with Three Powers, especially if we count Energy, Agility and Strategy. Will I teach it again? Without a doubt because, when it is transformed correctly, the timing of those perfectly executed counter-strokes are almost without peer in the world of martial training. Perhaps, next time, I will emphasize the single sections a bit more and introduce the partner-work in small doses. This form captures a whole way of thinking, a new one, and cleaves to the general rule of Kung Fu that changing your thinking is the first step and the final goal, simultaneously, of the practice.

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