The last article I had published in Kung Fu Magazine in April 2014, thought I would share.
Sleeve Darts/ Daggers 袖鏢
Traditionally there are four important weapons in the curriculum of Chinese Martial Arts. The Staff, Broadsword, Sword and Spear. Much is written about the importance of the sword in martial arts training as a weapon and as a self cultivation tool and as the sword holds an almost mystical place in our minds, little is written about the other weapons, even the fundamental ones I listed above. If we delve into the other traditional weapons with all their differences and training methods we would have an encyclopedia of weapons training. In my training my Ma Family Shifu spent a great deal of time with me on weapons practice always careful we did not “just dance” with them as he put it, no he was sure to test every weapon we learned in sparring, and if you could not stand your ground against him your tenure was not up with that particular weapon yet. Since the sword is always the focus of articles in martial arts magazines, I will leave that other writers, instead lets focus on something more unique.
In the traditional lists of weapons in China we find reference to the 18 weapons of Shaolin, which of course is an arbitrary number since there are far more the 18 of them, but 18 being a magical number they chose it, Confucians love numbers! Amongst these weapons we find all kinds of interesting and unique death dealers, meteor hammers, hard whips, chain whips, monks spades, deer horn knives, bandit knives, dagger-axes, hatchets, benches and hooks. This could go on but I would like to focus this article on something less written about, a unique weapon from our family style – Shízhǐ biāo 食指鏢 literally index finger dart.
The Finger darts resemble the Ermei piercers and perhaps one pre dates the other but they have a couple of fundamental differences from the Ermeishan weapon. The darts do not have a spinning ring fastening them to the rod and are generally shorter in length. Sometimes these non spinning finger darts were also referred to as sleeve darts Xiù biāo 袖鏢 since they were sometimes carried hidden within the long sleeves of the jacket. When I was to learn them my Shifu discussed the measurements of the weapon and at the time I had a job working with steel rod, so I made about a dozen pairs for my brothers and I, seemed like a family weapon should be shared all around to me!
Now simply put these are short hidden daggers, the ring is worn on the index finger and their usage is quite simple. Since the intention of this article is to share openly about the training the keywords of the weapon (generally not for public teaching) are: Hook, Spin, Stab, Cut, Hit, Slap (Palm) and Climb (鉤, 轉,刺,切, 擊,掌, 爬).
Hooking is to use the rods short end (protruding from your hand) to dig into the opponents flesh and hook their arm, leg and so on.
Spinning is referring to opening your hand and letting the rod free. This is the use of the ring to allow you to free up your hand to grab the opponent without dropping your weapon.
Stabbing is exactly what is sounds like, driving the spike into the opponents body.
Cutting is using the sharpened point as a slashing weapon.
Hitting refers to punching with a closed fist and using the ring as a weapon.
Slap is the method of opening the palm of the hand and putting pressure on the rod with the thumb and pinky finger to hold it in place, then using palm strikes with the iron rod as a sort of brass knuckle.
Climbing is the real gem of the methods. This is where you block or hook into the opponents flesh and then by rotating the wrist, drive the other point into their flesh and continue to do so and climb up their body, flipping the dart end for end until you have the opportunity (created by pain) to drive the spike into their throat or other fleshy bits. With a dart in either hand you can see how destructive this can become very quickly.
Sleeve darts are simple to train, the preferred method other than working with a dull set with an opponent and sparring is to bring them to the wooden man. Sticking, Hooking , Stabbing and Climbing up the limbs and body of the wooden man give you an idea of how to manipulate the darts to cause the most damage in the most efficient way. Targets are obvious with favourites being the eyes, temples, base of the throat (Tian Tu – The Celestial Pivot – Ren 22), armpits and so on. If you can stab it it is a good target for sharp iron spikes and like any good weapon its training and use become seemingly obvious and easy to train, all that remains then is more depth of understanding and higher levels of skill.
But this article is not meant to be about the usage of a rare weapon, or even introducing and preserving it in print. Now that we have taken a look at the weapon itself and its usage, which is fairly obvious, we can look deeper into the mindset of the sleeve darts and how training it relates directly to your martial mindset, ideally reflecting deeply into your practice.
Why Train Sleeve Darts?
The darts come from the Ma Family of Honan Province and my teacher Ma Qing Long reserved teaching them to indoor students and disciples, which makes it sound mysterious and secret but his reasoning had more to do with the weapons purpose and use than any mystical family secret. Just from the aforementioned keywords and applications it is easily discerned the most important part of the use of the sleeve darts; they are meant to be used against unarmed opponents.
That single fact is the reason that they were taught only to students who had made it “in the door” as their character was already examined before they were introduced to what is essentially a weapon meant for cheating. This is where the concept of martial virtue comes into play and as such how the training of the weapon becomes a method for internal alchemy, the stark examination of the self needed to really advance as a person due to your martial training. In order to fully examine the topic of this article we need to define certain terms that are used in the Chinese martial arts world in varying ways with varying meanings. Here Internal Alchemy is referring to the transformation of your character through constant unflinching examination. Putting yourself into situations that cause your character to come into question so you can examine who you really are and have the opportunity to make a choice to transform that person into something else – hence Alchemy.
The idea that the sleeve darts are meant to be used on unarmed opponents brings to the forefront of our consciousness that we are cheating in the confrontation. It is certainly not the hollywood version of honor we are familiar with to take every advantage in a conflict and indeed be armed prior to even facing an opponent. The second fact about the sleeve darts we should examine comes from the stories (legends) my Shifu told us about their use: against unsuspecting opponents. So basically these weapons are an ancient equivalent to prison shanks, attacking unarmed, ideally unprepared opponents in a ruthless way. So the way most Martial Artists look at their arts and Wu De (Martial Virtue) these weapons fall sharply outside the acceptable norm.
This is what brings our character into question and here is where the real training and real purpose of learning such a weapon begins. How can I remain a good person and still train with such a mindset as is implied here? Could I use this in the way it is intended? Why would I ever need to know this information? Does this have a place in my life in the modern world, in my training? Indeed these are important questions and looking inwards for the answers is the transformative process that martial arts is supposed to spark in our lives. Indeed the martial arts themselves are paradoxial as we all pay lip service to the arts being about creating peace and harmony and yet at its most stark our arts are about killing other human beings, quickly and efficiently. Without allowing this to expand into a huge philosophical debate lets just look at this one paradox more deeply to understand how Sleeve Darts can be a real part of a transformative process.
Violence is the key issue here and in order to have choice in our lives about violence we cannot be doomed either to only pacifism or to reacting to situations violently. Without choice there is no martial virtue or building character since the choice is no choice at all, if we do not have the capability of choosing either road we have no power over ourselves or the situation. Understanding violence gives us as martial artists the ability to not allow violence to have power over or control us. It is through our training that we begin to understand what violence is and good training under good teachers goes deeply down this rabbit hole indeed. From simply dealing with a punch in class we move towards unpredictable opponents in sparring and as we mature in our training we are pushed further and further out of our original comfort zone. Soon weapons and methods that cause grievous harm are introduced and we work through the training not only physically but mentally and emotionally until we are comfortable with the options and consequences of our actions. It is when we find ourselves confronted with situations that deal in life and death in a real way, like being assaulted with a knife that a primal part of ourselves comes forth and we have to deal with our own, and subsequently everyone elses mortality. This is is great question we have to deal with as humans, not just as martial artists and it plagues us every day whether we choose not to think of it or ignore it for years, one day each of us will have to face it down either in a violent confrontation or in our own death beds. Who we really are then comes to light, if only to ourselves.
So we come back to the sleeve darts. Training to hide and use a weapon meant to kill an unarmed and perhaps unaware opponent brings the thought of the depth of violence and the fragility of our mortality to light. On the surface it is extreme and most likely nothing we will ever use in combat but the fears it brings forth in ourselves are the real enemy this weapon is meant to teach us to strike down. This is the kind of training that a martial artist should throw themselves deeply in to as our own character and belief systems come into question. In a single moment training interesting and unusual weapons becomes a deep study of our own character, making us stronger people and stronger martial artists as a result.