A Tengu whispered in my ear…

After being invited to the group Chinese Sword Arts I thought I should write something specifically about sword/weapons training. I thought I would share it here as well.
It is my opinion that most Chinese sword taught today is misunderstood and passed on as best as people can but still considered a ‘mystical’ or ‘esoteric’ method of training that should give benefits like the ability to fight with a sword, better body connection, “internal cultivation” and so on but is rarely well explained.
I am no master swordsman by any means but I do feel I have some insight from the training I have done with Chinese Weaponry and Sword in particular. Although there are many topics I have already mentioned I would like to focus on the practice of forms and their relationship to combat and combat practice.
I believe that the main issue with Chinese sword fighters today is that they learn only from forms and not from combative practice and sparring which if the forms were doing their jobs would not be a problem right? Well I think the issue lies with a basic assumption made by the forms themselves and their practice. If one were to look back in time to when a sword teacher was passing the art on to a student who would very likely need the weapon to protect his life or the lives of loved ones, would the training be different?
Perhaps the forms themselves would remain the same, classical sets like those found from the Wudang lineages are very old and likely not changed much through the passage of time. Even if today the versions of these sets we see appear flowery or overly complex I suspect they are still quite close to the original form when it was created. However, it is my opinion that the forms themselves were not the foundation of sword training at all but instead a higher level aspect to the training once the real foundations were laid in training.
I believe the issue today is that the students of the past would have been taught to actually fight first! Learning solo and partner drills to create technical understanding and connection to the sword and the opponent first. Then moving towards sparring with one another with not only each partners input to help increase skill but the teachers input themselves which would include demonstration and sparring with the teacher as well to test a student’s ideas and the teachers skills themselves.
These types of drills still exist but are rarely seen or taught it seems as they are deemed ‘basic’ and somehow that has become a dirty word. Basic is foundational, fundamental that which everything is built upon and without the basics the rest of the structure has no footing to stand on. This is like learning Tai Ji (Tai Chi) without its combative side, or Kung Fu styles without sparring. Effectively it creates a performance art where a tiger once stood. If one is to really pursue these arts not only are the foundations the most important but must be trained rigorously forever! The best swordsman I have ever met, watched fight challenge matches, tested himself against other swordsmen of other disciplines trains his foundations almost exclusively. When sparring with him it is apparent as the efficiency and timing present in his art is enough to dismantle nearly anything without recruiting secret techniques or special skills.
Forms seem to be the catalog of training for swordsmanship. When placed upon a strong foundation of basics they present many things to the player; methods for fine tuning strong body connection and integration of the sword into the movement of the body as well as more complex techniques that can be used in combat. I suspect may of the movements from a combative point of view in forms come from experiences swordsmen had in real combat, puzzles and problems for which they found answers and want to pass them on to their students. My brief time studying Iaijutsu and Kenjutsu involved not only the forms practice but discussion of how past masters used methods they cataloged in the forms to solve difficult problems like being arrested by multiple people, being attacked while seated and so on.
A brief look at some of the movements found in the Chinese forms from this perspective show some interesting puzzles and their solutions like the various disarms one sees in the beginning and ending of sword forms showing not only the movement itself but the importance of keeping the off-hand alive and involved in the combat as a weapon. Too often does one see players spar with only their swords and forgetting they know martial arts as well, seems unwise from a perspective of martial cultivation or from combative ability.
I believe weaponry needs to be approached from this more basic fundamental level. Examining the weapon for what it is, a tool and the aspects that make it a good tool for the job. Training in its use for its job first with drills and partner practice before moving to complex forms practice that we then as practitioners’ hope will magically give us sword skills one day. One day is now! Tearing down the reverence for the package of the form allows us to take it to pieces and look at its lessons more clearly, a necessary step in understanding and training intelligently towards our goals.
Jason Deatherage is a great swordsman and writer on the art; I invite you to check out his writings on http://www.piercingcloud.com/

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