The Righteous Blade

You grip the Kuan Dao but you haven’t lifted it yet. Something is different here. The blade is thicker than a saber and yours may have more edges; at the butt end, the metal or wood shaft may be capped with bronze. Your Kuan Dao looks fierce as well as heavy, the kind of thing you would not want to drop on your toe. The bright tassel, at a point on a vertex, resembles a lone swallow in a deserted tree. You try to put that all aside now, hefting the weapon, starting its inevitable dance, barely under your control as it acquires momentum.

Wooden shaft, huge blade, hand guard, tassel (often) and metal butt contribute to one formidable whole that has been wielded throughout much of China’s military history. The “dao,” or saber, is called “master of all weapons,” and it’s this blade that claims a prominent share of the Kuan’s length.  Its most famous practitioner is, without a doubt, General Kuan Yu, an esteemed military figure of the Eastern Han dynasty.

It was during this period that the three “brothers in arms—Liu Pei, Zhang Fei and Kuan Yu—waged battles against Cao Cao for the prize of kingdoms. General Kuan, so fierce that he drove an arrow of fear into all his enemies, wielded the Da Dao (big knife), a version of which came to be named after him. As a folk myth, he still rides the clouds, bringing punishment to evil men and guarding the wise.

Standing tall in almost every Chinese martial arts studio, a statue of Kuan Yu with knife warns evil to go somewhere else. His miniature Kuan Dao in hand, his statue is often enshrined with an offering of fruit requesting his righteous intervention. Many practitioners have survived centuries of Kung Fu training under his watchful figurine and dedicated eye. Not everyone may know that he was once a real person, but many practitioners recognize him as the “god of war.” Ultimately, his Kuan Dao is a talisman still carrying its original power, still intense.

The Big Knife is a weapon demanding cooperation between performer and instrument. For instance, there’s the typical rolling-spin action often found in Long Weapons, but with the Kuan Dao, its character is unique. First, this big knife is heavy enough to demand a smooth and controlled spin. In addition, the blade is held closer to the body—possibly a little scarier, but this positioning helps the wielder gain leverage. Ultimately, this speed and power combine to keep the orbits clean and functional.  Another example: most Northern Long Fist Kung Fu routines have a famous double-leg-fan-jump known as a “Tornado Kick.” In place of this well-known maneuver, the weighted-down Kuan player must jump up,  rotate his body in an aerial roll then plant, with authority, into a horse stance.

The DNA of metal and wood in the Kuan Dao creates a marriage of convenience between a staff and a saber; it produces all sorts of family members with unique measurements, weight, responsiveness and other key factors. Shapes aside, their mission is consistent: the efficient delivery of mortal blows in a warring situation. On the other hand, the familiar image of the high ranking soldier atop his horse and wielding his Kuan Dao might offer a less-than-truthful icon—there is a problem inherent here.  It is said that Kuan Yu’s weapon weighed almost a hundred pounds. Even considering a warrior’s strength, augmented by the power of his steed, this is no easy task. He could certainly increase his chances by locking the haft against his side—the inner arm pressing and squeezing the body of the weapon— but, inevitably, all forward motion is supplied the battle.

If I throw an opponent, the angular momentum of the toss carries me around. Practicing the Kuan’s familiar slicing cuts will also help to gain and further improve this skill. Decades ago, the devaluation of such cold weapons like Kuan, sabre, and spear forced China’s recognition of what would become the technical new face of modern war. Still, teachers had food bowls to fill and children to raise. What had been known before—that each weapon had its own character and movement—was resurrected for Kung Fu practice and, like its traditional cousin weapons, the Kuan transforms its battlefield efficacy into empty hand training methods.

Sans battleground, sans steed one might assume there is little that Kuan Dao can relate to the modern word. Yet the weapon presents  intriguing challenges. One of Kuan ‘s great skills demands gripping and pivoting the weapon almost constantly . In addition the Kuan offers some surprising insights on the art of wresling since you and the weapon will often trade your respective centers of gravity.

When I perform Kuan, the asymmetries of my body gain importance. Example: One way to hold the weapon is with the left hand in front and the right hand at the rear, what might be called “spear” style. An entirely opposite stance puts your right leg forward and right hand gripping the front, assuming right-handedness to start the shaft tight to the blade like a “chopping saber.” There is nothing ambivalent about which hand is doing what. Kuan play puts you in a constant game between momentum and control. With Kuan, you use the weight to block, clash and slam, but also to add its momentum to yours, achieving a greater locomotion.

You can see why the Kuan, a member of the estimable halberd family, is a Chinese traditional weapon. Halberds, in one form or another, are known in cultures all across the world. Huge, shiny and formidable, this is the treasured weapon you practice alone or show to others for those seasonal celebrations. Slashing with Kuan engenders me with the feeling of doing something outside basic street defense, something from an era of heroism and the “impractical” practice of a weapon employed by soldiers in life and death battles for more than 3000 years.

As I progress in the art of Kung Fu, the weapons take on signature characteristics like familiar actors or favorite characters in a book. Before moving, the sinuous Steel Whip coils then strikes,  its turning and wrapping revealing a venomous personality. On the other hand, the Kuan Dao is that ambling figure, gruff, powerful and trustworthy. It is the figure everyone notices, shaking the stage as he mounts.

Tradition is more than a few simple stories about people long ago. Like a handmade sweater, real life and real myth, are knit together to assure richness and spirit and a reminder that myth is not always real, but it is always an art.

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3 Responses to “The Righteous Blade”

  1. Caleb says:

    Will there be a Guan Dao book in the works?

  2. Plum Staff says:

    Possibly, Caleb. A DVD, or maybe a book, or maybe both!

  3. Peter Zoll says:

    My oldest Kuan Dao is a stiff, long, heavy one bought from Brendan Lai long long ago. Still a favorite, but its has been joined by a three-point two-edge; a Kuan dao with a stainless steel shaft that separates into two pieces (infinitely easier to transport); and a so-called wushu Kuan Dao (lighter, shorter, flexible blade). Would any of your readers have heard of (or, better, been taught) a set specifically for Eagle Kuan Dao or for Elephant Kuan Dao?

    Then there is the epic statue in Jingzhou (southern Hubei Province) China. It’s 58 meters (190 ft) tall and weighs over 1,300 tons. The weapon itself is 136 tons. I cannot paste an image here so I would suggest an internet search on ‘Guan Yu Jingzhou statue image’

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