Monday, July 3, 2017

How Realistic is Your Taiji Sword Form?

I've done the Government of China official short Yang form of taiji sword for quite a few years, but I've recently become somewhat frustrated with it. I learned from a pretty good source, a woman who was on a provincial wushu team from the People's Republic, so I cannot find fault with her expertise. It's just that I've spent a bit of time learning about swords from people on-line who discuss the European tradition, and I simply cannot believe that wushu sword techniques are realistic. Let me explain why.

How could I possibly suggest that wushu sword forms aren't realistic?
photo by "Wushu One Family", c/o Wiki Commons

Using a sword is a complex issue because it involves a lot of different physics problems. Consider, for example, the issue of "cutting". This is not as simple as you might think, because it involves applies two directions of force at the same time. To illustrate this point consider the following YouTube video.

This is what my the fellow who initiated me into Daoism used to call a "circus trick". It looks impressive, but it's really based on simple physics. The point is that the sword hammers down onto the fellow's abdomen without importing any sliding movement. This means that when the sword goes through the watermelon and meets the towel, it just bounces off instead of cutting.

A water melon has very different qualities than human skin and cloth. It is rigid and has almost no tensile strength. This means it splits very easily. In contrast, skin and cloth have much greater tensile strength, so they are very difficult to split. Moreover, there is an added complication: skin slices very easily---cloth not so much. If the guy with the sword had tried to slice or saw through the watermelon, it would have taken some effort and the sword might very well have gotten stuck. So what the sword hit what is in effect a laminate consisting of watermelon, a towel, and, the karate teacher's abdomen---all three of which react to cutting in very different ways.

So the key to the trick is the sword splits the watermelon, then bounces off the towel. If the towel wasn't there, then there might have been a little bit of residual sideways, slicing motion from the cut, which might have cut the sensei's abdomen (note that the fellow wielding the sword cut his hand while cleaning the blade.)


The sword splits the watermelon only because it is rigid. If it wasn't, the sword would bend around after it hit the watermelon, which would probably cause it to bind and stick. To understand this point. Let's look at another circus trick, this one done by people who perform as Buddhist martial monks. (They may actually be Shaolin Temple monks---but I'm told that a lot of the guys who perform for tourists are just acrobats and not real monks.)

The secret to this trick is that penetration---like from the tip of a spear---can only happen if the force is directed at right angles to the body. If there is even a slight bend in the "spear"---and the "spear" has enough flexibility---the harder you push on it, the more the spear bends, and the more it bends, the more the force comes from the side of the spear blade and the less it comes from the point. If you look carefully, those "wax wood" spears don't act anything like a real one. First, they have a pre-set bend in them, which the two helpers aim towards the floor. Secondly, after the demonstration is over, they hold a very definite, much greater bend after the fact. This shows that the spear shafts are not made of a really strong, mostly rigid, and, only slightly springy material (like real wax wood.) Instead, I suspect that what they really are are thin, easily bent, mild steel rods with something over top that makes them look like wax wood. 

This is an issue not only with spears, but also with swords. If the fellow slicing the watermelon had been using one of those floppy wushu jians, the blade would have deformed when it hit the fruit and bounced around inside the fruit---not neatly splitting it, but probably getting stuck. 

This isn't the most floppy wushu/taiji jian I've ever seen, either.
Photo from the "Wudang Store"

There's a third issue at play here. That's the shape of the sword. A straight sword acts very differently from a curved one. A curved blade imparts slicing motion with just about every move it makes, simply because of its shape. This makes it much more effective in cutting. In fact, the shape and movement of the blade is so important to the way a sword cuts that the edge can sometimes almost seem irrelevant. I found this out once when I was "fooling around" in my taiji club with a blunt, aluminum "willow leaf sabre".

A willow leaf sabre,
original art by Nazanian, c/o Wiki Commons
I saw a small poster tacked up on the bulletin board that was supporting a group that I knew was a bit of a religious cult. So I stabbed the poster with the tip of the sabre, pulled it off the board, tossed it up in the air, and, did a draw cut (from my taiji sabre form) on it in mid-air---which neatly cut it into two pieces, which then lazily fell to the floor.

(I'm not trying blow my own horn here. There is no way I could do this on command, but it was an amazing example of Zhuangzi's idea that there is tremendous power in spontaneous action.)

A more prosaic way of understanding this point involves thinking about what happens when you suffer a paper cut. No one could ever use a piece of paper to cut anything, but we all have experience of quite painful cuts from drawing the edge of a sheet across our skin "in just the right way". Exactly the same issues are at play when it comes to swords.
If you look at the above drawing of the willow leaf sabre, you will see that between the curve of the blade and the handle, there is a complex "S" curve to the whole sword. This means that when you thrust the blade forward, draw it back back, or, chop from top to down, you are always going to be imparting some sort of slicing motion to the edge. That's the whole point of the shape. It would be a bad idea to try to do the watermelon trick using a willow leaf sabre. It might still work OK, but it's best to no take any risks.

If you look at the sword used to cut the watermelon, it is a straight "ninja" type sword. This is the absolute best type of sword to use in for this trick, as the straighter the sword, the easier it is to us it in a straight chopping motion with minimal slicing action.
A "ninja-type" sword,
From a commercial website


What this means is that for a sword to "work" it simply cannot be floppy. And it is more work for a straight blade to cut than it is for a curved one. And cutting is more difficult than people think, because of the issue of armor and clothing. This again has something to do with the watermelon trick---that little towel on the skin actually acted like a piece of armor.

Most people don't understand this, but for millennia the most basic type of armor wasn't plate, chain mail, or, even leather---it was quilted cloth. Here are three types, from three different times and cultures. 

The Ancient Greek Linothorax

A Medieval European Gambeson
Photo from  Centraal Museum Utrecht, c/o Wiki Commons

Aztec quilted cotton armor, the Ichcahuipilli
From Mexicolore
This issue goes beyond just quilted armor and circus tricks involving watermelons. That's because it turns out that it was often quite difficult for a person wielding a sword to cut through just the clothing that an opponent was wearing. To explain this point, here's a video by the excellent Matt Easton explaining the issues.

With this thought in mind, consider the clothing that the Mandarin in the picture below is wearing. He has a fur lined robe plus layers of clothing below that (cold climate plus no central heating!) Think about how hard these layers of cloth would be to either cut or penetrate in a sword fight. No floppy modern wushu blade would be able to do it.

This guy might as well be wearing armor!


There are other issues beyond the ability to cut. For example, a sword has to have a certain "heft" or mass to be able to parry blows from another weapon. A really light, floppy blade won't be able to force another weapon out of the way. If the blade doesn't just bend around the other sword, staff, spear, or, whatever, the lack of weight will simply overwhelm the arm and push it out of the way.


In addition, we also need to understand how jians were actually made in pre-modern times. Most people are aware of how Japanese swords are made from layers of folded metal---with a soft, resilient core holding a hard, yet somewhat brittle edge. What this means is that compared to modern, European swords Japanese swords are actually really heavy. That's because the folded metal, lamination technique requires a significant cross section. Jians were traditionally made the same way. (Unfortunately, the best illustrations of this were all labelled in either Russian or Japanese, but hopefully the casual reader can get the point. The different coloured sections have different degrees of hardness and resilience.) The consensus among scholars is that the Japanese sword making techniques used to make katanas were copied off Chinese techniques used to make jians. This means that a historically accurate jian would have to have a similarly quite large cross-section. This would add dramatically to the weight of the sword.

Illustration by Tosaka, c/o Wiki Commons

Years ago, I went to a workshop led by a leading light on the Canadian taiji sword team and in the intermission I asked about whether she ever trained with a "real sword". She gave the standard "I'm far too evolved to do such a thing. Are you planning to go out and kill people?" response. I thought that that was kinda lame, but she was the teacher, so I just accepted it as her point of view and finished the workshop.

I kept thinking about the subject, and did a little research on the Internet. Eventually, I found a source in China that said they sold real jians---ones that were modern copies of old ones that were actually used in combat. It cost a few bucks (but of course it would) but it has a real high-carbon steel blade, etc. When it arrived, I was really surprised. First of all, it weighs three pounds. This causes all sorts of problems in the Yang taiji jian set. I'm a big strong guy, but the first part of the set where the sword is held in the left hand is a total killer. It takes a lot of strength to hold that three pound sword balanced by the force of one or two fingers as you hold it backwards in the left hand.

After that, the exquisite, slow motion control that this woman exhibits is simply impossible with that monstrous, three pound chunk of high-carbon steel that I own. 

This raises the question, was I "ripped off" by that company in China? Actually, I don't think so. To understand this point, consider the hand grip on the sword. Almost every modern taiji jian you can buy has the hilt of the sword pointing forwards---just like on a Western sword.  

Here's your standard type of "guard", on a oak practice Jian
Photo from the Sei Do Kai Supplies website

But this "traditional" jian has them pointing backwards. Why?

Here's the "backwards" sword guard.
(I added the cord wrapping onto the wooden handle.)
I came across a book by a martial arts teacher who said that modern jians all have their guard facing the wrong way because there was a period in modern China where the government confiscated and destroyed all the real swords. When martial arts were brought back into favour, anyone setting out to make new swords was stuck copying weapons from opera companies, which were not much more than toys. Probably they were influenced by Western swords, which have a solid hilt whose purpose is to catch a sword blade and protect the hands. The guy who wrote the book then went on to say that the backwards hilt is no good because if you trap a sword blade in it, you can easily have your sword ripped from your hands.

This last bit of the argument seemed bogus at the time, and I could never figure out exactly what he was talking about. I have an alternative hypothesis, one that seems to make a lot more sense to me. In Western martial arts, there were always schools that taught a person to hold their sword with a finger on the hilt. In fact, this became so popular that there are a great many surviving Western swords that have a special "finger ring" on the hilt to protect that digit.

Here's a reproduction of a late medieval Milan sword with a finger ring.
Photo from the Deepeeka Wiki
When I learned about this totally practical European adaptation to heavy swords, I tried to do the same thing with my heavy jian and found out that the "reversed hilt" on it was absolutely ideal for this.
My improved grip on the heavy jian.
Author's photo
IMHO, what this means to me is that what we see as a "hilt" to protect the hand of the person holding the sword was really more about giving the hand more purchase to hold and control a very heavy blade that was designed to chop through and penetrate layers of armor and/or heavy clothing.


I think that this has profound implications about how we should do the taiji jian form. First of all, some of the moves are simply impossible to do safely with a heavy, long sword. Moves that involve flamboyant over-the-top moves with maximum wrist flexibility are just asking to damage the tendons in the arm. As well, moves that are effective and useful when done at speed become dangerous if not impossible when done very slow. That's because the "heft" or mass of the sword works with the taiji player at speed whereas it works against them when done very slowly. It seems clear to me that the modern taiji jian forms were heavily influenced by the use of totally impractical, floppy wushu swords. That means that when people are doing them they are not actually practicing a martial art, but rather a type of dance or gymnastics. 


Many people have no problem with this. They are just jocks or jockettes---like that woman on the Canadian taiji team---but if you want to do taiji as a spiritual practice you have to work within the limitations of the art. And the most important limitation is that it has to actually work. I'm not saying this because I intend to go out and get into sword fights, but because I want to avoid fooling myself about what I am doing. Our biggest problem as human beings is our almost infinite capacity for delusion. Most of us bumble and stumble through life with all sorts of goofy ideas about ourselves and the world around us that create lots and lots of unnecessary problems. 

Modern militaries understand this point, and a lot of boot camp is designed to deal with a small set of delusions that make modern people into terrible soldiers.

One of the delusions is that people cannot do very much. By early adulthood most people have been
The "Inverse Tower", an
Outward Bound Singapore training obstacle.
Photo by Chen Siyuan, c/o Wiki Commons
conditioned to avoid unnecessary risks---to the point where they won't try anything that pushes their envelope a bit. Boot camps force people to do some things that are fundamentally worthless from a military perspective, but which look spectacular and teach people to trust the orders of their superiors and their own ability to do the difficult. Modern training seminars for managers do exactly the same thing, which they often put people through zip lines or fire walking. "Outward bound" style schools do the same thing for young people.

There are other delusions too. The idea that each person is an individual and we don't need each other is a big one. So is the idea that we don't have to really pay attention to what we are doing. My wife, who was in the National Guard during the First Gulf War, told me a story from her training. They were finally issued rifles, but a "sad sack" in her unit simply couldn't remember the stern admonition that no one should ever point a gun at anyone unless they wanted to kill him. (Something that my family pounded into my head when I was allowed access to a "22" as a child.) That woman "disappeared" and was never seen again. She was discharged and served as an example to everyone else in my wife's unit. The lesson was "guns, grenades, etc, are totally unforgiving and require a totally different mindset to handle safely---civilian-style thinking will not be tolerated".

Martial arts, like taiji jian, are only worthwhile---IMHO---if we use them to cut through delusions. And I don't see how we can use them for that purpose if we labour under delusions in their practice. The weight of your sword has a profound effect on the form. And if you train with a flyweight, floppy sword you are going to be practicing moves that would be are either worthless in a fight and/or damaging to your body if you ever attempted to practice them with a real sword. My concern isn't with what this would do for you if you ever had to fight against the Mongol hordes---it's about what the effect of this sort of training will have on your mind as you navigate the world outside of the studio. Can you afford to allow any easily avoided delusions into your consciousness?


So what're the lessons learned?

The first one is that I'm going to force myself to totally rethink my taiji jian set and change it so it will "work" with a real jian. That probably means doing it at a proper speed so the weight of the blade ceases to be a liability and instead becomes an asset. At the same time, I'm going to have think about various moves where I will incorporate a double-hand grip. The set obviously already has some of these, but with a flyweight sword it is really easy to "fudge" them. Finally, some moves are simply going to have to be dropped or modified as they aren't viable with a full weight weapon.

The second one is to remember to "hold onto the One". Being a Daoist means looking deeply and objectively at every aspect of my life so I can understand the subtle laws that are what the Dao is all about. At the same time, I have to remind myself that it is only through engagement with the Dao that life ultimately has meaning. We only get out of life what we put into it. "Holding onto the One" means that by putting our full attention, effort, and, creativity into everything we do we can be renewed and inspired by the amazing universe that we are all a part of.


If you found this essay useful, please consider tossing something in the tip jar. Or you might consider buying one of my books. If nothing else, share it through social media. Obviously, I don't do this blog for the money, but dollars buy convenience, and if I can afford to spend a little more coin instead of sweat in my life, it gives me more time to spend on my real loves: Daoism, taiji, and, writing.

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