Training with the Taiji straight sword was one of the biggest wake-up calls for me in my personal training. When I first started to practice with a Jian I had only been learning Yang style Taiji for a short time. At this point I was very young and inexperienced; I had not yet begun to delve into the deeper aspects of the internal arts and Taiji was still simply a relaxed version of the hard Gong Fu and Karate I had previous experience in. I added the Jian to my repertoire of forms and thought little of it; so little that I dropped it from my daily practice for some time deciding that it was of no interest to me.
Further down the line into my Taiji training I had begun to understand some of the intricacies of the art a little better. I decided to pick up a Jian once more and see what the form had to offer. I was immediately horrified at the holes in my practice that the Jian so brutally pointed out to me. Previously I had studied Kendo and Iaido which I had become fairly accomplished at. My cuts with a Japanese sword were fairly smooth and ‘clean’ with little deviation from the cutting line; an important factor when using the Katana. However, the Jian I was now wielding deviated from the cutting line as I moved it through the air. Every slight misalignment and disconnection of core power within my body was amplified by the time it reached the tip of the sword so that it wavered back and forth across the ‘line of cut’ which is of the utmost importance within the practice of any sword art.
A large degree of time is obviously spent working on the refinement of bodily alignments when we learn the various empty handed forms of our art. These alignments are grossly obvious at first and rely on a teacher to put them right. As we develop in ability these misalignments become more subtle and exercises such as pushing hands are required to iron out our faults. The adjustments we have made alter the way in which we move and gathers our power into the core which can be seen in the movements of any proficient practitioner of Taijiquan or indeed most other martial arts providing you are experienced enough to spot them. This was the point I had reached when I decided to return to my sword practice. I was fairly unaware of weaknesses within my body structure during the performance of empty handed forms. These weaknesses existed within the core area of my Kua and torso. They remained hidden from my awareness and did not show themselves at the end of my extremities but by the time they reached the tip of the Jian they were now plain for me to see.
To me this is one of the most useful areas of training with the Jian. I have come across teachers who did not study the sword at all as in their eyes it was a defunct art. It is not practical to carry a sword in this day and age so why would I want to learn how to fight with one? In my opinion these people have grossly missed the point. The sword takes a small error and makes it plainly visible. As we work towards ‘cleaning up’ our ‘line of cut’ we transfer the adjustments down into our body so that they are apparent within our empty handed work and indeed the rest of our lives. I noticed distinct improvements in my posture, core strength and pushing hands after only a few months of returning to my sword practice.
The sword also has a direct effect on our mind and how it is integrated into our Taiji practice. It is often the case that beginners within Taiji are blissfully unaware of their own bodies. Most teachers reading this will relate to seeing new students stumble around waving their arms around in an entirely uncoordinated fashion. Their minds are disconnected from their own physical form and a great deal of time is spent in the early stages of training bringing their awareness in towards their core. This ‘internal awareness’ continues throughout the practice of Taiji and in my opinion is one of the greatest ‘healing’ factors inherent within Taiji. The sword takes this awareness and extends it back out of the practitioner’s body towards the end of the blade. As an advanced practice, a student should already have developed a high level of mind-body connection before they pick up the Jian (more than I had on my first foray into the sword). The sword then takes this mind-body connection and transfers it into a mind-body-environment connection; an important part of personal transformation according to the Daoist tradition.
Training in the sword consists of several key elements. These are as follows: the form, cutting practice, sticking training and finally free fencing. In order to fully understand the use of the Jian it is important that we do not ignore any one of these four elements. The form alone is perhaps enough to help us to work through our finer misalignments but it is not enough to fully comprehend the full art of the Chinese straight sword.
Practicing cuts with the sword is primarily carried out in the air. This is the equivalent of shadow boxing. Each individual cut should be performed over and over into the movements are drilled into your muscle memory and sub consciousness. They need to be as natural as clapping your hands in order to make them smooth and clean. It is particularly useful to train in front of a full length mirror where the angle of each cut can be trained against your own reflection. The cuts should be learnt very slowly and then practiced with increasing speed and varying steps so that you are able make distance between yourself and an opponent with ease.
Sticking training with an opponent is of the most entertaining aspects of Taiji training. I have had long time practitioners and teachers of Taiji in my classes who have never had the opportunity to try sword sticking. Five minutes into the exercise they are giggling like small children! Sticking involves two practitioners touching blades with each other and seeking an advantageous position over the other without detaching their swords. This exercise trains the skills of coiling and neutralising with the Jian as well as showing flaws in your footwork. Beginners will usually wave their swords around like two windmills but after some practice they begin to understand the importance of angles, the combat line and varying the ‘pivot’ point of their swords so that they are able to control the opponent’s blade without opening themselves to attack.
Sticking eventually progresses onto free fencing with the swords which means that two practitioners are able to use whatever cuts they wish to strike their opponent. The skills learnt from sticking practice come into play here and advanced practitioners are easy to spot as their blades never directly clash with each other.
No article on the use of the Jian would be complete without acknowledging the difference between training with wooden or blunt swords and using live, sharpened blades. Obviously it is wise to begin with wooden representations of swords. The wooden swords you can buy on the internet are usually inadequate. They are normally two short and the hand guard is too prominent a feature; you begin to rely upon it in your training which is a bad habit to get in to. It is better to make your own if this is possible. Blunt metal weapons are great for this sort of training but be aware that they are usually quite heavy and still sharp on the point so injuries are more likely. Only progress onto metal weapons like this if you are sure of your own and your partners control and you have practiced the Jian for a long time.
Live blades should be saved for only the most skilled practitioners if the Jian, even when practicing solo forms. When studying in China with very experienced swordsmen I saw that even they used live blades sparingly and they approached even solo use with the utmost concentration and focus. The use of a sharpened weapon hones the mind to a very high level; this has long been recognized as a useful tool for serious practitioners of meditation across many cultures. Indeed the sword itself is often seen as a sign of spiritual cultivation and a method for ‘cutting through’ ignorance and triviality. Arguably this was never more evident than in the case of the Japanese Samurai who took the study of swordsmanship to an extremely high level where it blended seamlessly with the teachings of Zen Buddhism.
Movies such as ‘crouching tiger, hidden dragon’ have raised the public profile of the Chinese straight sword and in particular those styles influenced by the Wudang school of fencing. The romanticized view of the lone swordsman relentlessly seeking perfection of their art over countless years has captured a generation of Chinese martial artists and yet the use of the Jian beyond form is still not that widespread. This is crying shame and something that I hope all serious seekers of Gong Fu will remedy when they reach the appropriate level in their training. Just please, let’s not accidentally remove any fingers!