S-Words: swordplay lexicon, Sword Lab

“S” Words: The Four Words

In the Chinese martial arts, there are certain words and characters that have special meaning. They are often words that are descriptive of familiar, every day actions. They have traditionally been used as mnemonics to aid in memorization and visualization of the techniques they describe. But, because of the metaphorical nature of this practice, instructions in martial art can get mired in the different ways of interpreting these words. The practice of the Jian is no exception to this. There are many different characters used by many schools. This will be a recurring segment where I will examine these terms.

If we look back in the historical record for the appearances of familiar characters, there are four that are worth examination. They are not universal, as stated before, but they appear much earlier in a recognizable form of a martial art than many others and have enormous significance and influence on many styles Chinese martial art and swordplay. The characters I am referring to are: Ji, Ge, Ci, and Xi. 

The Four Methods of Mao

These four characters first appear in the Ming Dynasty text the Wubei Zhi (武備志) by Mao Yuan-Yi around approximately 1621. They are the basis for the two handed sword style presented by Mao in the text. Mao included an entire section on the training of various martial arts in the Wubei Zhi, which he populated with some of the most celebrated and seminal authors of the period. He reproduced in it’s entirety, Yu DaYou’s Jian Jing (劍經), Cheng Zongyou’s Shaolin Gun Fa Changzong (少林棍法闡宗 ), and several of Qi Jiguang’s sections from JiXiao XinShu ( 紀效新書). The Two handed sword style presented is called ChaoXian ShiFa (朝鮮勢法)– or “The Korean Stances”, but is accepted to be the work of Mao himself. The section is the oldest example of a two handed sword style committed to writing, and is one of the few existing swordplay texts from prior to the Qing Dynasty.

The sword style he presents consists of 24 “stances” ( shi, which is another problematic character but a discussion for a later time) which are descriptions of illustrations the accompany the text regarding the application of various sword techniques. But in the introduction, Mao states that the entire system is based on the four types techniques we are discussing. Each of the 24 stances corresponds to one of these four types of technique. And through out the text Mao names the various stances after the technique they are representing.

This is important to the way we look at these four words and interpret them not only in the historical context, but also in our current practice. These four words generally denote a type of technique rather than a specific one. Each character describing a classification that we can use to understand sword play across many traditions.

20th Century

Li Jin Ling

This idea follows jian tradition up until the 20th century and finds its crystallization in the Republican period, the other period of enormous growth for Chinese martial arts in print. These same four characters are used by Song Wei-Yi (宋唯一), progenitor of the now famous Wudang Jian (武當劒). These characters see an evolution through the Republican period, being reorganized and expanded upon by Li Jing-Lin (李景林). Li intern taught people like Yang Cheng Fu () and Cheng Wei Ming (陈微明) of Yang Taiji (楊氏太極拳) fame, thus introducing the Wudang art into Yang Style Taiji. To this day, most Yang Taiji players who use the jian, will cite the same 13 characters that Li formulated.

Also in during this time,  Jin Yiming (金一明) who also worked at the National Goushu Institute with Li, wrote an examination of ChaoXian Shifa titled “The Gentleman’s Sword” (君子 Jun Zi Jian). Jin’s approach to the material was to add a few small sections mentioning Li Jing Lin’s contribution and presentation of the 13 methods that were derived from the four. Jin offers new explanations to each the stances and presents them as a complete set, or Tao Lu (套路). This of course brings the art into more familiar territory with modern practitioners. However, Jin’s work is a good example of the transition from and obvious knowledge of the original Ming text that Republican era writers had.

Jin Yi-Ming

Jin referenced the Ming Tradition and the Four Words in his book on the ‘Dragon Shape Sword” (龍形劍). He states that in the “Biographical Record of the Han” (前漢書) are mentioned 13 sword styles but laments that the author of the Han text only included things he thought were important, thus limiting the historical record of sword technique. Several chapters on sword work and martial arts are supposedly missing and even earlier Ming authors like Yu DaYou talked about the lost traditions of Chinese Martial Art during the Ming Dynasty in places like the famous Shaolin Temple. It is true, that the publishing boom of the Ming allowed for the creation of a large number of martial arts books and the period is notable for the many treatises that are the earliest we have on record. It would seem that before the Ming Dynasty, the martial arts record was either held in private hands, or was not thought to be important enough to commit to earlier works. It is for this reason that Jin believed these words to be important and details the evolution of jian techniques from the four words,


The techniques (of ancient sword) consisted only of Ge, Xi, Ji, and Ci, and, although these four words are simple classifications, their meaning is not well understood. Further generations used short swords and expanded them into the eight methods of Kan, Liao, Mo, Ci, Chou, Ti, Heng, and Dao. From the Four Words came the Eight Words, from the Eight Words came the Thirteen, then the 24 Sword Techniques. They continued this way until they had the 44, the 88 and the 176 sword methods.

Modern practices

These words continue being used as categorical nomenclature into the present day. Modern practitioners have access to many different interpretations provided by various authors. Of note among modern practitioners and masters are Li TianJi (李天驥) and Yu Chenghui (于承惠).  Both approach these words in the same way that Mao, Song, and Jin have, placing them as foundational characters used for deriving the other techniques.

Li Tianji teaching swordplay

As stated before, each school of modern swordplay will have their own words that they use to understand what they are doing. But these four words are common and inform the bulk of the textual and historical material we have on Jian technique. Understanding them can help us understand the other approaches to this art.

So how do these words relate to our modern practice? By looking at how they have been used in the past and are continued to be used today, we can gain some idea of where these techniques fit in our over all understanding of swordplay. Li TianJi followed Song Weiyi in using these words as a spring board for the others. In his book Wudang Jian Shu (武當劍術) he states:

古代劍法把擊,刺,格,洗,四種劍法,祢為四母劍法. 武當劍術對此四法十分重視認為凡舞劍者, 即用劍四法, 四法互柏連環, 憑空擊舞,用之得當,則取勝如反掌

In ancient times, Ji, Ci, Ge, and Xi were considered to be the seeds of all swordsmanship and called the “Four Mother Sword [techniques]”. In Wudang swordsmanship, these four methods are very important, “All those who brandish the sword, the four methods are all connected, they rely on solo practice, use them properly, then you will be victorious.”

Yu Chenghui brings an added level of sophistication to his two handed sword method. Yu designates two attacking methods and two defending methods:

Yu Chenghui

擊劍横向: Ji-attack with the edge. (attacks that come in from the side)

刺劍坚向: Ci-attack with the point. (attacks that come in straight)

格劍刚性: Ge-Hard Defense

洗劍柔性: Xi-Soft Defense

The distinction between attacking with the point or edge is mirrored with contrasting defending with the edge or the flat. Ge, tends to block with more of the edge or the cross section of the blade, just as Ji does in the attack. Xi tends to accentuate the flat or surface of the blade to deflect, slide, and manipulate the opponents weapon. The action is toward and away from the opponent just as in Xi. 

Yu’s style employs a two handed sword, which is particularly appropriate considering the origin of these terms.  His conceptual layout takes a bit from Taiji, mirroring the hard and soft techniques with each other. While it is difficult to see Yu’s performance as being from the style presented in the WuBei Zhi, the foundation of the set is solidly within these four categories.

The Meaning of the Words

This approach to the fundamental characteristics of the sword action is very at home in the modern approach to the art. It is however echoed in the Ming texts like Jian Jing which purports to teach staff techniques as being applicable to all weapons.

Full discussions on each of these characters is in order for sure. But we can come up with some workable definitions simply by looking at the past use of these words. Understanding them and how they work together is a large part of understanding them in practice.

– Ji- to strike or hit. Ji is to attack with the edge. These strikes tend to go across the target in some manner. These techniques also rely on the cross section of the blade and the sharpness of the edge to increase their effectiveness.

– Ci- to stab or to sting. This is simply to attack with the point. These techniques tend to come more straight in than Ji techniques. They not only include stabs and thrusts, but also upward and downward tagging motions. 

– Ge- to block. Ge can mean a frame or to contain something. In swordplay, it means to block or stop and incoming attack. This is usually accomplished by a direct opposition of the incoming strike. Hence this can bee considered the hard defense.

-Xi- to deflect. Xi is the most difficult one it seems. Xi means “wash”, but in the sense of scrubbing, rinsing,  or using a wash board. It is the back and forth motion along the flat of the blade that Xi represents.

These are the basic meanings of these characters as best as I can work out. They are more general than some terms used and this is due to the historical fact that terms have tended to become more detailed and less general. But keeping the four words general has merit. Thinking about other techniques and which one of these four categories they can be placed in is a useful exercise when organizing training routines. One must also take into account that these are not mutually exclusive. Some techniques can be classified in several of these categories depending on the context. 

Multiple Definitions in both Target and Source Languages.

One last difficulty we encounter with this type of language, is that even in the target language the words used are often imprecise and/or used in multiple ways. A good example of this is the word “parry”. Originally from the Medieval Latin “parare” meaning to “ward-off” is ubiquitous in the realms of swordplay. However while most people have a general sense that the word means a “defensive maneuver” there is some argument on to what exactly a parry is and how does it differ from a block,  If at all? Some schools and teachers make no distinction. Others insist on a hard line between blocking and parrying. This mirrors much of what is discussed in regard to the Chinese terms. 

I tend to not look at things dealing with language as correct or incorrect. What is needed here is that we understand the speaker’s intent. We should be able to create meaningful ideas based on what the person is meaning rather than splitting hairs over words like these. If you are speaking with a school that makes a distinction between the two, block and parry, you must acknowledge that if you are to have a conversation with them. Or even to understand them. Even if you do not personally agree with the distinction. Having this dynamic in both the target and source language makes interpreting these terms that much more difficult. 

All of this comes from the fact that not only is this specialized language, the activity it’s self is subject to a good amount of subjectivity. Arguments that are apart from the language used are common. The descriptions of training methods and philosophies will have many  differences even if the words in question are being used to denote the same thing. Training and teaching methodologies are difficult to nail down to begin with, as most teachers will continuously change and adapt their program as they gain more experience with students. This is the evolution of a specialized lexicon. And it is from these four words that most of our current terms are directly descended. 

The Four Words as we see used in Chinese swordsmanship, are interpreted by the training methods of the schools that they are associated with and will differ on specific points. That being said, this way of looking at sword technique is a useful and adaptable way to envision the flow of skills and training to application in free play. Even if your particular school does not employ these words in this way, knowing that some do can give you more tools in which to understand where our collective arts originated and how we can use them now. 

Selected bibliography:

Chen, Jack Jaiyi editor and translator. Sword Manual: Ancient Art of Chinese Straight Sword. Singapore: Historical Combat Association, ©2012.

Huang, Yuan-Xiou. Wu Bei Cong Shu. chu ban. ed. Vol. C005, Wu Dang Jian Fa da Yao. Tai bei shi: Yi wen chu ban :, 2002min 91

The Major Methods of Wudang Sword. Translated by Wu Na Chang. Berkeley, Calif.: Blue Snake Books, ©2010.

Jin, Yiming金一明著. Wu Bei Cong Shu. chu ban. ed. Vol. C047, 君子 Jun Zi Jian. Tai bei shi: Yi wen wu shu wen hua chu ban, 2005.

龍形劍 Long Xing Jian, 新亞書店印行 New Asia Press Oct, 1932 [translation by Paul Brennan, Feb, 2011]

Li Tianji; Li Deyin, Li Defang. 李天驥, 李得印,李得芳,武當劍術 Wudang jian shu: Li Tianji bian zhu ; Li Deyin, Li Defang zhu bian.: Wu Dang Sword Method. Ren min ti yu chu ban she : Xin hua shu dian Beijing fa xing suo fa xing, 1988.

Liu, Shiyan, and Yanpeng Chu. Han Ying Ying Han Wu Shu Qi Gong Ci Hui: A Chinese-English and English-Chinese Glossary of Wushu and Qigong Terminology. xianggang di 1 ban. ed. Xianggang: Hai feng chu ban she, 1991.

Ma, Mingda馬明達. 無系列Wu Xi Lie. chu ban. ed. Vol. A113-A114, 武學探針Wu Xue Tan Zhen. Taibei Shi: Yi wen chu ban you xian gong si, 2003.

Mao, Yuanyi茅元億. 武備志Wu Bei Zhi. [China: s.n. ; not before, 1644] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004633695/.

Zhang, Yun. The Art of Chinese Swordsmanship: A Manual of Taiji Jian. New York: Weatherhill, 1998.

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