Historical Martial Arts, Translations

ChaoXian Shifa: The introduction

The Introduction 

The introduction of the section entitled ChaoXian ShiFa is a simple and straight forward breaking down of the skills need in two-handed swordsmanship according to this style. There are five categories, each with a certain number, either 3 or 5, of methods or stances that would be indicative of them. The exception to these rules is the first category, “Beginning Practice” which has 4 sub categories. 

These 5 categories represent a strain of thought that continues today in only a few lineages of Jian Fa. The four techniques (Ji, Ci, Ge, and Xi) are the foundation for The Dan Pai style of Wu Dang Jian, famous for their “13 Sword techniques”. Yu Chenghui, when developing his two handed sword routine, divided the techniques into four basic methods that correspond to the four categories in the “ChaoXian ShiFa”.


Starting practice


Observation, striking, deflecting, and stinging


This passage can be understood as basic training, or beginner’s practice. It simply states the type of training that ones to undergo when picking up this weapon. It’s items are easily attributed to the following categories, Ji, Xi, Ci. The Character yan眼 is the only one not mentioned later in the text. 

Yan眼 or observe, look, refers to a specific type of training aimed at increasing visual acuity. This involves looking up and down, left and right, and looking around. These training techniques were practiced into the republican period although it is not known how long and to what extent these regimens were trained with by military groups. 

It is odd, in a cultural sense, that Wards (Ge) were not included in the beginning training. It is a common observation that many Chinese systems favor the numbers 3, 5, and 8. Often going to great lengths to avoid 4. Here it’s inclusion would be logical but it is absent. But, it could very well be an oversight.


Five Strikes


Leopard Head strike, Straddle Left strike, Straddle Right strike, Left Wing strike, Right Wing strike


To Strike, 擊 (Ji) is to hit with the edge the sword. The term is used fairly regularly to mean any attack with the edge. The term is still in use in modern times and is often modified by another character. All of the Stances mentioned in this category are represented in the main text that follows. 


Five Stings


Scale the Fish Thrust (lit. Reverse Scales), Exposed Belly Thrust, Double Clear Sting (to the eyes or eye level), Left Clamp stab, Right Clamp stab


刺, Ci-“sting”. This may seem a strange translation but I find this word encompasses attacks with the tip of the sword in a clear way. This can be stabs and thrusts but also quick flicking cuts with the edges of the tip. These are called tiao 挑 and dian 點. 挑 is a cut with the false edge of the tip usually from beneath. 點 is a similar attack with the true edge of the tip. 

挑 meant to carry something at the end of a pole and that is the feeling or type of energy that one should strive for in this technique. It is like a spring or a flick with the end of the sword. It is often called 崩, to collapse, now.

 點 means to dot or to point to. It is also a stroke in calligraphy, an art that is often tied to swordplay. These two techniques make translating 刺 as sting rather than “thrust” as a general category more serviceable. Often these characters are found together with 刺 ending a short clause. If 挑 or 點 is followed by 刺, we can understand  this as the first character being a modifier of 刺. So 挑 刺 would read “to flick with the tip of the sword”  or more simply, “to flick”.

Of these 5 techniques, one of them is not described in the text. For the others, different translations were rendered to reflect the type of technique described. The “Scale the Fish” and “Exposed Belly” are thrusts as they seem more powerful in application. The Right and Left Clamps are glossed “stab” because of their quicker nature. The “Double Clear” is glossed “sting” to keep it open to the possibility of it being not a straight thrust but a flick or dot with the edges of the tip. 

“Double Clear” means to both eyes. This technique is not described anywhere else in the text. So, any guess to what type of technique this would be theoretical. In this version, it is being interpreted as a cut to both eyes or temples with the tip of the blade. The assumption that being made is that it is similar in performance to the “Silver Python” block.  


Three Wards


Raise Cauldron block, Tornado block, Drive the Wagon block


The Wards correspond to basic parrying maneuvers. The word “ward” is used when describing the general category and for the positions themselves. Where there is movement or direct opposition “block” is used. Often when speaking of the defensive action, the word “parry” will be used (e.i. Use the “Raise the Cauldron Ward to parry a strike”). For clarity sake, “block” and “ward” relate to the position or technique.  The words “parry” and “defend” will be used for the act as performed by the swordsman.  In reality, there is little difference. 

Raise the Cauldron and Drive the Wagon are both represented in the text. The Tornado block is not mentioned anywhere else.

The idea of the Tornado Block however seems fairly obvious. Although again we have only guesses at this point, but the fact that “tornado” (旋風, Xuan Feng. Literally “revolving wind”) is used in other martial arts to name techniques that turn all the way around does give us a clue. One can use turning the hilt to create a parry and it is likely that this is describing a turning parry. It maybe similar, if not identical, to the “Silver Python” block in the text. 


Three Deflections


Phoenix Head deflection, Tiger’s Mouth deflection, Flying Dragon deflection

洗, Xi-“wash”. The character 洗 is one that gives a fair amount of trouble although it is a term that is still sometimes used today. It is usually glossed “to wash” but in our context it means to deflect or clear. Techniques that involve sliding your blade down or around the opponent’s weapon are all considered 洗 techniques. Consequently, one can see many techniques as being categorized as 洗 techniques. The term is not specific in direction or action but is far more a type of movement that can be seen in a variety of settings. Words like grind, smear, rub, shear and many others can be argued to be included. As such, the word 洗 is not used as much today in favor of more precise terms. This is true of many of the terms and concepts present in the Ming Dynasty. Modern martial artists do not use these terms in this way any more, if at all. There are exceptions and since these texts have been circulating, many of them have begun to make a come back. 

Xi is a difficult character to translate, but here we mean deflections. A deflection should be distinguished from a parry in that one is using the angle or position their own weapon to divert the opponents weapon off the line and off target. If done correctly one make and land an attack as this is happening and therefore one is normally in contact with the other weapon.

The Tiger’s Mouth and the Flying Dragon deflections are not depicted anywhere else in the text.  The tiger’s mouth could be something similar to the “Left Wing Strike”. The name referring to the area of the movement of the hand. But, the character is a bit different for “mouth” (穴 as opposed to 口) and while Tiger’s mouth is a possible translation, Tiger’s Cave is more likely the intent. This is all conjecture, of course. But seeing as the two phrases are both used, it can be assumed that they do differ in some respect. 

Relation to the 24 Stances

The introduction offers some clues to the interpretation of the main body of the text consisting of the 24 Stances. Some of the techniques described appear in the text illustrated and with commentary. But a good number of them do not. All of the Strikes are accounted for. But the others have some mysterious moves. The stings are missing the “Double Clear” or “Double Eye” sting, the wards are missing the Tornado Block, and the Tiger’s Mouth and Flying Dragon deflections are missing.

As we will see in the 24 stances, these terms are used to locate various methods in the system. Defensive technique and offensive technique are designated through this system. While these are not alway cut and dry definitions, they do serve to organize the techniques.

Next we will look at the 24 stances themselves.

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