by Paul Zabwodski & Phil Young

See more Sword Play on video here




Like other civilisations there are no clear accounts of early fighting methods or weaponry in the Chinese stone age. Weapons existed before Chinese calligraphy was invented and their origins were usually attributed to early mythical rulers.
The first weapons made of stone were recorded by Shen Yung (2838-2698B.C.). Shen Yung was one of the three mythical rulers along with Huang Ti and Fu Hsi. He is associated with agriculture and the use of herbs as medicine as well as being a teacher of husbandry. There is no contradiction between Chinese medicine and Martial Arts because they are inextricably bound through their common goals of longevity and good health. Shen Yung's documentation of early weapons described stone tipped spears. Later cutting weapons were out of jade, melted gold, while armour was made from leather. It was not until the Chou dynasty 1233-255 that more complex metals like bronze were used. There was a similar evolution in the materials used for body armour such as buffalo hide, paper and lacquer to metal. For the common man the primary weapon was a plain straight stick with a thickened end or crook. Later a weighted stick, the cudgel differed only in handiness and could also be thrown.

Another line of evolution was from a club to the mace, a symbol of established authority which came in various forms, half, rounded, pointed and obelisk like. A split stick with a stone or piece of metal fixed produced the axe, Emperor Huang Ti (2608-2598 BC) made a battle axe of gold recorded as the first military use of the axe.

  The sword originated from the pointed stick, a weapon used for throwing or thrusting, which we know as the spear. If a spear is thrown the enemy could always throw it back so a hook or barb was introduced to capture the flesh. In the spear we find the origins of the sword because in fighting with the spear the top inevitably is broken off and becomes useful as a dagger. There are many types of spears; double pointed, crest shaped, pronged and double edged. The first recorded use of a dagger was invented by Chuan Chu (6th century BC) it was one foot eight inches in length and in even earlier times the edges were poisoned. Earliest daggers were made of green jade with a blade three inches wide. A combination of the battle axe with spear makes the Halberd. The end of a halberd when broken off in battle gave rise to the broadsword or sabre. The broadsword proper was only really possible after the development of strong metals. Imagine trying to wield a sword made from gold and its cutting properties. Eventually the broadsword developed in two popular forms a short sword which was worn on the side of the thigh and a long sword worn at the waist.

However, the length of the sabre is known to have varied from two to ten feet depending upon its function. Following the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang they were considered either male or female. Sometimes honorary titles and supernatural powers or attributes were ascribed to exceptional swords such as shining in the dark or the ability to cut jade without dulling the edge. From the time of the Chin and Sung dynasties the emperors sword had a black sheath adorned with silver and golden flowers. The sabre was decorated extensively, ornamentation usually consisted of naturalistic scenes. Many of the ritual and ceremonial swords having engravings of figures of dragons birds, flowers, bears and symbolic seals. In early military thinking the sabre was seen as an important agent of peace.


The core techniques involve parrying to the eight directions both above and below, hacking, slashing, pressing, pushing, encircling, slapping, binding, using the pummel and guard to strike and disable. Hooking is an unorthodox though effective technique at an advanced level. Some of the Tai Chi Chuan open hand set techniques would be naturally incorporated as and when required such as kicking, single/double punch and shoulder stroke being most common. A distinctive sabre technique which is typical of the grace and flow of Tai Chi Sabre can be seen in the Neck Flower. The sword player employs this four corner technique by spiralling the sword down and around the back of the body covering above and below with the dull edge towards to body to deflect attacks from the eight directions.

The sabre's primary targets are the wrists of the opponent. The wrists usually being the last point of extension of the jing before entering the weapon. More obviously with the fear of a severed wrist or damaged one the opponent is effectively entrapping their own spontaneity. But one should never forget that the whole body is used with an tranquil mind and an encompassing strategy.

In sabre play the emphasis is on the development of sticking energy to connect with and redirect an opponents attack. Sabre technique can be considered as a natural extension of pushing hands technique. Realistic development of the sabre is dependant on flexibility, dexterity, lightness, and the extension and contraction of energetic awareness without the preoccupation of handling a "weapon".



At the flower and the root of the Tai Chi Chuan schools is the cultivation of 'chi' supporting the development of physical, mental and spiritual health. There are various stepping stones in this process of cultivation which the martial artist is advised to approach. A gradual approach through solo form practise and the investigation of individual techniques is fundamental. General principles of Tai Chi Chuan waist movement, chi extension and proper integration of action with inaction produce a strong foundation.

Free form listening awareness flowing from the Tai Chi principles finds its place in both solo and two person sabre play. It is this use of listening awareness that brings the spontaneity that we see utilised by a competent swords person.

Whilst many teachers advocate the practise of the solo empty hand from of Tai Chi Chuan at a steady and even pace such is not the case with the sabre. To consistently practise a weapons form in this way is to introduce a high degree of artificiality into the practise. Realistic use of the sabre involves the sensing of the inherent momentum and inertia of the sabre within each technique.

In Tai Chi Chuan one must unify ones technique to balance freedom of action with appropriate strategy. This strategy is dependent upon Tai Chi spontaneity. The inexperienced player will find that gross physical tensions will inevitably mesh within the body posture and disrupt the continuity of the flow at various points throughout exposition of the sabre play. This leaves little possibility for release of the jing.

Remarkably there is no canon of instruction for the practise of Tai Chi Sabre except for some metaphorical counselling that the sabre has the spirit of a dragon and that the practise of the form itself should follow the antics of a tiger. Nor is there any authoritative record of the names of the movements within the sabre form. According to some sources the 13 movements of the sabre (note here the similarity with the idea of 13 original postures in the Tai Chi empty hand form) were described in a Chinese rhyming song below.



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