My Approach to Historical Chinese Swordsmanship

by Mattias Nyrell

This article describes my approach to teaching and practicing historical Chinese swordsmanship. It also attempts to describe what kind of swordsmanship we practice at our club.

What defines our style of JianFa?

The base for everything we do is the Chinese martial art Tai Chi Chuan (TCC), as taught within the Dan Docherty / Cheng Tin-Hung lineage. This branch of TCC is also called Wudang TCC or Practical TCC.

The style of JianFa I teach is primarily defined by the following factors:

The sword form

Our sword form is called Tài Jí Qián Kūn Jiàn (太極乾坤劍, TCC Heaven and Earth Sword). It can be seen as a library of techniques and a tool for practicing footwork among other things. This particular form was first documented in the book "Tai Ji Jian" by Wu Tu-Nan in 1936.

The eight basic sword methods

The eight basic sword methods are eight basic ways of using the swords for attack or defense. All styles of JianFa tend to define their styles by various basic sword methods. These particular methods were transmitted to grand master Cheng Tin-Hung by his teacher Qi Min-Xuan.

Footwork

Wudang/Practical TCC has always had a heavy focus on footwork, and it is of course as important for weapon training as for unarmed training. We practice footwork drills for Seven Stars step and Nine Palace step from day one, but we have adapted the traditional pushing hands drills to be done with sword in hand instead of empty handed.

TCC theory

Common TCC theory and concepts from the five TCC classics, such as "stillness overcomes motion", "softness overcomes hardness" among many others.

Widening the view

Forms, sword methods and applications from other closely related TCC branches are also of interest to our training. Primarily Yang style, Southern Wu style and Northern Wu style. The different styles have evolved the same or similar material in different ways, and studying them can be a way of better understanding how our style might also have evolved over time.

Techniques and methods from other Chinese weapon styles are also of some interest. Not only jian styles but also other weapons. By contrasting what we do against other styles we get a clearer idea of our own practice. Also many techniques in our sword forms are designed against other weapons, for example against spear. There can also be situations like we have in the hand form were there are defenses specifically against techniques from others styles of martial arts, to realize this we would need to have some familiarity with other styles of weapon practice too.

Practical training strategies

Historically correct weapons

The weapons we use for practice must have correct weight and balance to resemble a historical jian as much as possible.

A skilled practitioner can make correct techniques with a bad sword, but a beginner will benefit a lot from the feedback he will get from using a good weapon. A weapon with correct weight and balance will automatically tell the wielder something about how it should be used.

A weapon with incorrect weight and balance will encourage incorrect techniques, especially under stress in sparring. A correct weapon will make it more or less impossible to "cheat".

Teaching swordsmanship to beginners

We teach historical fencing to beginners from day one. No previous experience of TCC, fencing or martial arts is required. This is in contrast to the normal way of teaching TCC jian, which normally requires several years of prior TCC practice. I have tried to use that approach too, but I found that the number of possible students are much too few to start a club that way. Also I feel that if you want to study swordsmanship it is not reasonable to require several years of unarmed practice first.

The approach we use requires a heavy focus on basic skills such as footwork as we can not expect our beginners to already have any such skills. The drills we use - such as guard change drills and practice on wooden dummies - are designed to quickly bring the beginners up to speed so that they can start to spar with the advanced people in a safe and constructive way. Normally the beginners start to spar together with the advanced people after only about four to six classes.

Heavy focus on free sparring

We have a heavy focus on free sparring. We do not use any special set of rules but normally all targets are allowed, and the sparring is done with speed but not necessarily with full force. We obviously adjust to the level of our sparring partner and the idea is that the sparring should be friendly and we shouldn’t be afraid to experiment and to try out new things. In contrast to this we sometimes engage in more competitive sparring also.

I am of the opinion that it is important to adjust the protective gear after the training and not the other way around. For sparring we almost always use hand, head and throat protection so that all targets can be allowed, normally we also use protective gear for the groin, knees, elbows and the upper body.

How is this training different from regular Wudang/Practical TCC?

Our training should be completely compatible. We base our practice on the same form, the same applications, the same eight basic sword methods and the same footwork.

In normal TCC practice the jian is normally taught as the last weapon after 3-5 years of practice, and normally you do not take the step to free sparring but stop at form, applications and the basic sword methods. We do it the other way around, starting with the sword and focusing only on that. Also, we start with the practical parts such as applications and sparring and do not start with the form until later. If the students want they can always continue on to the regular TCC training later on to learn the complete art.

To be able to teach swordsmanship to beginners and to practice concepts important when doing free sparring, we use a number of exercises specifically developed for our JianFa practice. Among others:

What is our relation to HEMA?

The students of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) have the benefit of a huge number of historical manuals written by masters of the past. In comparison we do not have much written historical material, but we are part of a (somewhat) living tradition instead.

Having some exchange of experience with the HEMA community gives us a different perspective which can be very rewarding and inspiring, and increase our own understanding of JianFa.

Sparring with HEMA students can be a great and necessary sanity check, as it is very easy to get stuck in the sparring patterns you develop in your own club. Practicing with lots of different people who also train in different ways, and with different weapons, are a great way to help avoid this problem.