I am a student of traditional Chinese martial arts. And like most fellow practitioners I was weened in my training on stories of ancient manuals of legendary skills not able to be taught by living teachers. These come from a variety of sources, including, movies, novels, comic books, and video games, but are also legitimate parts of living martial traditions of today. Teachers have books that they pass down to their students. Whole traditions are recorded in print and held as closely guarded secrets. These are the romantic notions. Despite what is in the movies, told in stories, and often repeated by students (and teachers) the reality of the martial arts manual is much more intricate and labyrinthine than most would assume.
There is a long heritage to the martial arts manual and the popular conceptions thereof. A great number of the modern arts still practiced today are recorded in late Qing and republican period publications. Many of the ‘old masters’ of modern martial arts lore were the authors or teachers of the authors of those books. Arts like Taiji Quan, Shoalin Quan, and Xing Yi have a wealth of material from various authors. Lesser known styles of martial art are also represented in these manuals as well. While bare handed routines and discussions were perhaps the most common, weapon arts like spear, staff, and sword were well attested for as well. In fact, these manuals give insight into a formative period of Chinese martial arts and serve as a record of the modernization of “Wuyi”. This was a concerted effort to bring ancient arts of the Chinese people ( Guo Shu 國術) in to relevance to modern practitioners.
What the great majority of the arts have in common is that they are “folk arts” or “village arts”. These are systems of pugilism, general self defense, or fighting that are passed down primarily orally from teacher to student and outside any over arching military frame work or standardization. They are traditional and personal. They form an identity for the practitioner, a family of bothers and sisters whom they never met. The techniques and method become identifying marks, signatures for styles and systems. As such, many of the manuals published in the early 20th century focus on forms or sets (Dao Lu 導路), philosophy, and many essays by famous teachers and authors on the virtues of Chinese martial arts. The details and “inner teachings” were reserved for serious students to share in the official lineage of the school.
There are another class of martial arts writing and books, however. These books and treatises from the late period of the Ming Dynasty arise out of a tumultuous time and are the product of several fascinating historical events and phenomena. They are generally directed at a military audience, although, during that time, the Literati often dabbled in military writing etc.
Ming Dynasty Manuals and Martial Arts Writing and the Wubei Zhi
The WuBei Zhi (武備志), is a massive military encyclopedia written in the end of the Ming Dynasty. It was published in 1621 and is to this day considered to be one of the most complete of the Chinese military treatises, although ‘complete’ is a relative concept. The entire work is massive, consisting of 240 volumes, 10405 pages, and more than 200,000 Chinese characters, making it the longest book in Chinese history regarding military affairs. The entire volume was compiled by Mao YuanYi (茅元儀 1594–1640?), and is his seminal work that stands out among the other famous manuals and treatises of the time period. Within its pages are explanations and records of weapons, formations, tactics, battle accounts, and martial arts and troop training. It is a sprawling and intimidating text.
Mao included in this compilation the works of many famous military writers of the time. The second volume of “Shoalin Staff Methods” by Cheng Zongyou is included in it’s entirety. “The Fist Classic”, “Shield Techniques”, and “Six Harmony Spear” of Qi JiGuang are also included. The techniques of Trident from You Dayou, the illustrations from the saber form and a reproduction the “Kage Scroll” all grace the pages of the voluminous tome.
Within its section on martial arts, is the “Chao Xian Shi Fa” (朝鮮勢法). This name is the title for the 24 Stances and the Introduction to them. These sections are under the chapter heading “Sword” (劍). Also under this heading are the “Sword Songs” (劍訣哥). It is unclear if these songs are referring to the same techniques in the 朝鮮勢法 or even if they are to be performed with two hands. Never the less they do provide some good reference for the rest of the material.
The Section of the Wubei Zhi dedicated to the two handed sword is remarkable for quite a few reasons, besides being a part of the legendary collection. The style presented in the Chao Xian Shi Fa is much different in philosophy and techniques than the jian styles from the later part of the Qing Dynasty. Absent from the style are the subtle and deftly performed manipulations of the sword. In their place, powerful cuts to both the opponent and the weapon, strong postures and aggressive steps. The postures and methods described seem aggressive in nature. Several passages speak of breaking through a persons defenses. There is the “Waist Strike”, said by Mao Yuan Yi to be the most fundamental techniques of the weapon, described as a full body cleaving strike. Many of the techniques are intended to kill and not disarm.
According to the text, this is a revival of an older style. Mao states that “Swords are no longer used for battle” and that he had to search foreign lands to find it. That would mean, even in the Ming Dynasty, this would be considered Historical Martial Art.
The text it’s self has little explicit information. One must use expertise from other sources to fill in the blanks. This may be the intent, as many treatises were written in a poetic verse style that would allow for interpretation and different manifestations of technique. Through this structure we can glean certain information and Mao has left clues in the form of common Chinese names that are analogous to the ones being presented. These may have been obvious to a Ming Dynasty era military official or aficionado, but in many cases, a modern audience does not have any idea what is being talked about. This of course makes the job of translating and interpreting the information more challenging. But I would also argue more fun.
The Text: 24 Stances
The 24 entries conform to a specific structure that most follow identically. There are only 3 exceptions although the basic form remains consistent. For ease I have separated each component into a line of text. It should be noted that in the original text these spaces and breaks do not exist and there is the possibility that some of them are in error and that those errors could drastically change the interpretation. But, for our purposes here, it will suffice.
- The first line in these entries is a categorization of the technique being discussed. Each posture is connected to one of the four basics types of techniques, Ji, Ci, Ge, and Xi. Also, some the names of techniques are translated differently depending on their context or appropriateness.
- The second line is an explanation of the detailed purposes and application of the technique. It is phrased simply and uses technical language and items. This is one of the most important sections of these entires. There is a lot of information here if you know what the words mean in context.
- The next portion is an explanation of the movement as it is to be used. It begins by directing the hand and foot and then gives a traditional name to the movement. This section remains difficult to translate in a consistent manner. Most of the time it appears to relate to which foot is forward with which side you are turned toward in that stance. But there are some entries that do not seem to match the text. For the interest of simplicity, I have translated the clause as “Using your L/R foot and your L/R hand” to assume the traditional posture. This keeps the interpretation open enough to accommodate possible variations.
- The entries finish by giving footwork instructions and another technique to transition into from the one being discussed. This line is often fairly straight forward with a few exceptions .
- Lastly each entry ends with an instruction to look at the illustration of the posture provided.
The line drawings that accompany the text are one of the most famous features of the work. These images are useful in many ways, but they often raise more questions than they answer. In addition to the aforementioned “left hand/right foot” instruction, sometimes the drawing can be difficult to decipher as to the intended idea.
The illustrations depict a male figure dressed in Ming Dynasty apparel and wielding a two handed sword with what appears to be a disk style guard. The figures are presented facing both directions with no instructions beyond “face forward” offered in most of the text. Some of the drawings seem to contain errors, but since the original intent is not well understood, this could be an assumption. The purpose of the figure facing different directions is not known but it could be the sequence of a form, as Jack Chen is hypothesizing, each picture depicting the direction the player is facing at the time in the set. The issue with this idea is that no opening or closing operation is described. In fact, none of the entries tell you which position to start in for the technique. Again, this leaves things rather open when interpreting these things for use, but the historical accuracy can still be difficult to discern.
Types of Technique
Each entry is related to one of the Four Words from the introduction. Simply looking at the distribution of these techniques one can glean a very aggressive style very suited to the two handed sword. The techniques break down as follows:
格: Ge, Blocks=4
舉頂格: Lift and Carry
御車格: Driving the Cart
銀蟒格: Silver Python
撩掠擊: Lift and Pass
刺: Ci, Tip attacks=5
點劍刺: Dot Sword
坦腹刺: Expose Belly
左夾刺: Left Clamp
逆鳞刺: Scale the Fish
右夾刺: Right Clamp
擊: Ji, Edge attacks=14
左翼擊: Left wing
豹頭擊: Leopard Head
跨右擊: Straddle Right
展旗擊: Unfurl Flag
看守擊: Stand Watch
鑽擊: Drill Strike
腰擊: Waist Strike
展翅擊: Unfold Wing
右翼擊: Right Wing
揭擊: Uncovering Strike
跨左擊: Straddle Left
掀擊: Lifting Strike
斂翅擊: Fold Wings
横冲擊: Dash across
洗: Xi, Deflecting techniques=1
鳳頭洗: Phoenix Head
Judging from the preponderance of striking techniques, one can see that this is a combative method. It is unclear exactly where Mao had learned these stances, but various scholars like Ma Mingda theorize that Mao had contact with troops coming from the Korean conflict, some of whom had been trained in Qi Jiguang’s Long saber techniques which Mao then applied to the straight two handed sword. This would make sense looking at the strong nature of the stances.
Transitions to stances
In addition to the descriptions and categorization of the 24 stances, each entry give a transition to another stance. Some of these stances are among the 24. Four are not described in the sword section of the text.
- 舉頂格: Lift and Carry – 裙攔: Skirt Block (not described)
- 點劍刺: Dot Sword-御車格: Driving the Cart
- 左翼擊: Left wing-逆鳞刺: Scale the Fish
- 豹頭擊: Leopard Head-挑刺:Tip Flick
- 坦腹刺: Expose Belly-腰擊: Waist Strike
- 跨右擊: Straddle Right-横(冲)擊: Dash across
- 撩掠擊: Lift and Pass-鑽擊: Drill Strike
- 御車格: Driving the Cart-鳳頭洗: Phoenix Head
- 展旗擊: Unfurl Flag-點劍刺: Dot Sword
- 看守擊: Stand Watch-腰擊: Waist Strike
- 銀蟒格: Silver Python-旋風掣電: Whirl Wind (not described)
- 鑽擊: Drill Strike-腰擊: Waist Strike
- 腰擊: Waist Strike-逆鳞刺: Scale the Fish
- 展翅擊: Unfold Wing-舉鼎格: Raise the Cauldron
- 右翼擊: Right Wing-腰擊: Waist Strike
- 揭擊: Uncovering Strike-冲洗: Rinse and Wash (not described)
- 左夾刺: Left Clamp-腰擊: Waist Strike
- 跨左擊: Straddle Left-雙剪:Double Shear (not described)
- 掀擊: Lifting Strike-坦腹刺: Expose Belly
- 逆鳞刺: Scale the Fish-左翼擊: Left wing
- 斂翅擊: Fold Wings-腰擊: Waist Strike
- 右夾刺: Right Clamp-舉鼎格: Raise the Cauldron
- 鳳頭洗: Phoenix Head-掀擊: Lifting Strike
- 横冲擊: Dash across-撩掠擊: Lift and Pass
Using these relationships it is possible to create some short sequences. These sequences can be used for sparring, training, or exploring the intent of the style. We can see that the majority of the stances link to or finish with the “Waist Strike”腰擊. The breakdown of these can give us some clues to interpreting the text. The Waist strike is by far the the most common with 6 entries directing to end with a Waist Strike.
- 6 To Waist strike: Exposed belly, Stand Watch, Drill strike, Right Wing, Left Clamp, Fold wing,
- 2 To Raise Cauldron: Right Clamp, Unfold Wing
- 2 To Scale the Fish: Left Wing, Waist Strike
- 1 To Drive the Wagon: Point Sword
- 1 To Point Sword: Unfurl the Flag
- 1 To Lift and Pass: Dash Across,
- 1 To Lifting Strike: Phoenix Head
- 1 To Left Wing: Scale the Fish
- 1 To Drill Strike: Lift and Pass
- 1 To Phoenix Head: Drive the Wagon
- 1 To Dash Across: Straddle Right
Unexplained actions and traditional names
The 3rd part of the entries, after the directions of foot and hand, is given a traditional name, presumably as a transition or explanation of the action being described. These names remain undefined by Mao but we can find them in other authors’ writings like Yu DaYou and Qi Jiguang. A fair bit of cross referencing is needed to understand these with any level of depth.
- 平擡勢: Carry Flat
- 撥草尋蛇: Part the Grass to Seek the Snake
- 直符送書: Courier Presents Message
- 泰山壓頂: Crushed by Mt. Tai
- 蒼龍出水: Blue Dragon Emerges from Water
- 綽衣: Delicate Clothing
- 長蛟分水: Long Dragon Splits the Water
- 衝锋: Spear Charge
- 托塔: Holding up Pagoda with Palm
- 虎蹲: Sitting Tiger
- 旋風掣電: Whirlwind Strike
- 白猿出洞: White Ape Comes out of Cave
- 斬蛇: Behead the Snake
- 偏閃: Dodge Obliquely
- 鴈字: Duck Shape
- 虎坐: Crouching Tiger
- 獸頭: Beast Head
- 提水: Carry Water
- 朝天: Face the Sky
- 探海: Search the Sea
- 拔蛇: Pull Out the Snake
- 奔冲: Forward Dash
- 白蛇弄風: White Snake Plays with the Wind
As stated before, these phrases and names are assumed to have been recognizable by the intended audience. These are mostly terms and phrases from the Ming and Yuan Dynasties. This is important because it can give us a clue that the style is Chinese in origin at least. Some of these names are still in use today by various martial arts but can vary widely between them. Others are obvious images to be invoked. In all cases, they are phrases that would have been known during the time which is why they are offered little to no explanation.
Interpreting the Stances
Given the open nature of the stances and the entirety of the text, there are several ways one can go about making sense of the information in order to bring it in to free play. The original text did not contain a “form” per se, but other authors have subsequently stitched the 24 stances in various routines.
The first one of note was done in the 1930’s by Jin Yi Ming while he was the publishing head of the National Guo Shu Institute. In the book “Gentleman’s Sword” he presents the 24 stances asa . a single sequence from which he derives the explanations from for the text. To date, I have found no attempt to put his form to film or otherwise.
More recently, the efforts of Jack Chen of the Chinese long sword web page has created his own version of the a set based on the sequence of the 24 stances. He has published this form on the web via Youtube and at the end of his translation of the Chaoxian Shifa. Like Jin, Chen has created his set based on transitions between the stances as presented in the text.
One can also use the transitions described in the text as a blue print for one’s action. This means one transitions from the named stance into the transition stance described and then to the next number stance. This does seem to offer a good deal of possibilities for interpretation and can give one a good hint as to how the technique is supposed to be performed.
This will serve only as a catalog of the various techniques and methods used in the text. I will be looking at each of the 24 stances separately as we go along. Each entry is replete with clues and oddities that make analysis very fruitful. In these future post we will be able to discuss the fine details and begin to learn how to apply these techniques in free play. One important thing to think about is not only the historical accuracy of an interpretation but also it’s practicality. We will refer back to these lists often.
Please check out the explanation and translation of the introduction here.
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Chen, Jack Jaiyi editor and translator. Sword Manual: Ancient Art of Chinese Straight Sword. Singapore: Historical Combat Association, ©2012.
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-正氣堂集-unknown edition, PDF scan of woodblock print.
–Jian Jing劍經,-unknown edition, PDF scan obtained from http://www.chineselongsword.com
–Sword Treatise =: Jian Jing. Translated by Jack Chen. Singapore: Historical Combat Association, ©2011.
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