The Wubei Zhi 武備志 by Mao Yuanyi contains the oldest record of two handed sword use in the Chinese literature. Not only is it the oldest it is one of the very few pre-Qing Dynasty document detailing the use of the straight sword or “jian”劍.
The bulk of this text consists of 24 entries for sword techniques. The information in them is often vague or references other authors and tradition contemporary to its self. It is though these 24 techniques or “Shi” 勢.
Barriers to Understanding
There are several challenges to interpreting the information contained in the ChaoXian ShiFa or “Korean Stances” . The first is the very technical language that is being used. Since this was a publication intended for a military audience primarily, much of the language is narrow cast for that audience. Common words take on very specific meanings n this context and often that usage can cause much confusion.
Second, the text takes a semi-poetic form in presenting the information. This was a method of certain writers of the time to present specific information coded in a form that can be interpreted several ways. Some of the text is vague, other parts are idiomatic, and both are among some rather easy to interpret passages as well. While this may of been an adequate method for the time period, it poses a challenge to modern attempts to put it into practical application.
Third, while the form of the text is fairly stable through out, there are crucial pieces of information not included within. While some entries talk vaguely of what the technique can do, there are no explicit instructions relating to responses, tactics, or even what the opponent is doing. We as modern readers are left to discern which of these techniques can be in response to what on our own with only Mao’s incomplete instructions (something he himself admits in the preface).
Fourth, the text it’s self is not perfect. At times the illustrations can be difficult to make out or they seemed to contradict the text. The drawing are very nice for this type of text and still they can be unclear. There is also an issue of error, either in publication, printing, or editing that may have drastic effects on the meaning. Some of these are simple and obvious, but others are not so. Again, these artifacts can muddy the waters that were already fairly cloudy to begin with.
As with most of the information in this text, we must take our understanding from the few places we have access, other historical and cultural writings on similar weapons, and practical experimentation. ChaoXian ShiFa has many similarities and parallels to other systems of fighting with a two handed sword. For a more detailed analysis please see this post about the 24 stances as a group as well as the full translation.
The first stance in the text is the “Raise the Cauldron” stance. It is a simple high bock to an over head strike very common to two handed swordsmanship.
1. Raise the Cauldron
The Ju Ding “Raise the Cauldron” guard represents the “Lift and Carry” block.
It is able to parry powerful attacks from above.
With your left foot forward and your right hand crossing your left, assume the “Carry Flat” posture.
Face forward, draw the blade and strike down the middle.
Take a step back and perform a “Skirt Block” (Qun Lan 裙攔)
The “Raise the Cauldron” guard is designated as a block (Ge格). It is obvious enough from the illustration that it is intended to parry attack coming from above, most likely targeting the head or shoulders. The use of the word “sha”殺(to kill or attack) indicates it can parry blows intended to kill or at least do severe damage. It also indicates that the technique is intended to receive the blow and not to strike against it which will be seen in other techniques.
Here, the left foot is forward and the right hand/arm is crossed in front to the left side. The traditional name “Carry Flat”(Ping Tai 平擡) affirms that the image is accurate in it’s depiction. the character “tai”擡 to carry, also alludes to the passive nature of this ward and receiving strikes.
In this entry, there are two lines consisting of a possible sequence or play. First the instruction to draw back the blade and strike to their center. Then the step back and “Skirt Block”. The first move is quite simply a basic parry riposte done with a two handed sword. A parry from under a downward strike followed by an immediate downward strike of your own. The next instruction is to step back and perform a “Skirt Block”(Qun Lan 裙攔). This technique is not mentioned in the section on sword anywhere, although it is a named technique in spear and staff. Using this as a reference we can surmise the maneuver is a block down to the legs and t the open side or front of the hips. Like a skirt or apron.
This sequence can be done in separate pieces or as one single play. Once the first blow is parried over head(a), and if the strike in return is parried(b), the original attack changes to a low target like the leg, (b) you step back out of danger and cut into the incoming strike (Lan 攔).
The phrase 裙攔 “skirt block”, is found in various spear and staff styles. There is nothing stating that it cannot be done mirrored on the other side of the body. Although in various other contexts, it is written as 群攔 “gathering block” but more than likely an error, and then contrasted with 邊攔 “side block”. Which leads one to believe that the skirt block is referring to the open front of the pelvis or “Big Door”.
Wu Shu mentions this technique in the spear section of his book “手臂錄Shou Bi Lu”:
跨劍勢: 古訣云：「乃裙攔槍法。大開門戶，誘他來逐，我中途拏剁，他虛我實搖花槍，他實我虛 掤退救。」The ancient secrets say: “Here, the skirt block spear method. The big door is open, it tempts another to enter, I take the middle way and hack [at them], If they are empty and I am solid I use swing flowers spear, they are solid and I am empty, I support [with my spear] and retreat to safety.”Wu Shu-Shou Bi Lu
This indicates that it is the “big door” (open side) that is being exposed and therefore defended. This spear technique also makes use of the centerline for beginning the block.
He that uses “Lan” will save the day. Pull it free with one hand, if the spear’s strike lags, then immediately use both side and skirt blocks to defend.Wu Shu-Shou Bi Lu
The Skirt block is contrasted with the “Side Block”, Lan to the “small door” or the back of the body opposite the extended leg. The names could be relating to the feeling one gets while performing the two methods. The “side block will feel more to the flank of the body while the “skirt block” will be in front of the pelvis.
Side blocking, I circle to the outside and enter with a thrust, they will surely open my spear from the front, with my rear hand I lift up [the shaft] to guard the body, the rear leg changes position moving up. If they pull me up from below, I then turn over my hand to press down on their spear, drop your stance into the Middle Flat position. If they escape from above, I extend my hand to raise their spear, overturn the hand to gather the spears, drop the stance down into Middle Flat.Wu Shu-Shou Bi Lu
Doing the Skirt block, I circle to the inside, they will surely open my spear from behind, I then will bind their hand with my spear, I move forward with a diagonal step, sit down and lean in, If their spear comes in high then I push up, coming in low then press down, Sink into your stance and in ready position. The method dictates: “These two blocks used together will defeat the spearman.” This is the correct idea.Wu Shu-Shou Bi Lu
Cheng Zongyou’s descriptions of the Lower Ready position also contains allusions to the technique from Shaolin Gun Fa Chang Zong:
Di Siping(Lower Ready Stance): Siping done low is a response to the high, White Snake Plays with the Wind to grab and drag. Allow him to come in with left or right chops, side and gathering/skirt blocks follow the action. With the stick high you may hit the front hand, but beware of a high shaving strike to your sleeve.Cheng Zong You- Shoalin Gun fa Chang Zong
The image is certainly one of the staff wielder fending off attacks on both sides by performing the side and skirt blocks consecutively. Cheng does not actually describe the what he calls the “gathering bock” but we are calling the “skirt block” in his text. Rather, he has an entry for the “side block” which shows the two techniques as the same just done to different “doors” and then the image for the skirt block is offered with no text. The intent is obviously to show that the descriptions are identical:
On the left side you have the “side block” (bian lan) on the right you have the “gathering/skirt block”. It is not difficult to give and receive to both sides. But, you must pierce and lift with a soft and clever approach. Defending the head right and left against his drilling staff.Cheng Zong You- Shoalin Gun fa Chang Zong
Other Historical Sources
There is a great deal that this style has in common with other longsword styles from other cultures. Pretty much anywhere the sword is used with two hands one sees the same types of techniques appear over and over. While there are some differences in the following techniques, there are enough similarities to be useful.
Some of the subtle differences in the approaches to two handed sword combat is related to the different weapons of each culture. Chinese swords have minimal guards whereas their European counter parts have a long cross guard. This feature does change the way the weapon is used in a few ways, the angles and manipulations tend to accommodate the guard with wider motions. But, it is also used for leverage in the bind and as a striking implement at times.
Come into pre-fencing with your Left foot forward, wings out from both sides, as if you would stand in the forenamed Key guard, drive with crossed hands overhead on your Right, so that the point is aimed high above and outward, thus it is named Unicorn, and stand as shown by the figure on the Right of illustration E.Joachim Meyer, 1570 “A Thorough Description of the Free, Chivalric, and Noble Art of Fencing, Showing Various Customary Defenses, Affected and Put Forth with Many Handsome and Useful Drawings“-translation by Mike Rasmusson
The German Longsword is the staple of modern Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) and Meyer’s treatises covering the weapon are some of the best and most complete available. Within his text, he details the use of the longsword, a weapon very much like the weapon found in ChaoXian Shifa. The description matches very well and while there may be some difference with exact blade angle and intent, this would be true with any swordsman to swordsman encounters in reality anyway. It seems that Meyer is describing a technique that is more forward in intent, but if one simply turns the torso a bit, the almost identical posture can be seen. The blade is angled up slightly, which does not matter much with a crossguard like on the European weapons.
The high parts are guarded with the Ox, which is two moded, Right and Left, thus one can stand in the Ox in two modes, namely the Right and Left modes.
The right Ox will first be described, stand with your Left Foot forward, holding the Sword with the hilt next to your head, high and on the right side, so that your forward point is directed against your opponent’s face. For the Left Ox reverse this, namely stand with your Right Foot forward, hold your hilt near your head on its Left Side as said above.
Thus you have been told of both Ox Guards or Stances, which is being shown by the Left Figure of illustration B above.Joachim Meyer, 1570 “A Thorough Description of the Free, Chivalric, and Noble Art of Fencing, Showing Various Customary Defenses, Affected and Put Forth with Many Handsome and Useful Drawings“-translation by Mike Rasmusson
Ox is another similar position found in Meyer’s System. It is held a bit high and appears to have a greater angle in relation to the opponent. This is explicitly pointed to the opponents face, however, which seems to be different from the Chinese version.
Ox also has explicit left and right sides. Ju Ding does not. At least none in the text that we have access to. While there is definitely unique features of each of these methods, I have always found issues of angle and timing to be easily adaptable. At the very least the Ox guard represents high parries.
These are of course similarities in the textual traditions of each system. In practical terms, this position as described by Mao is a transition from many different positions to affect a particular technique. For instance, transitioning from The Crown (Kron) guard in to a Hanging (Hangen) parry then to strike with an over head strike is a high percentage technique in modern HEMA . Binding or parrying the opponents attack then slipping under it and striking from above. Here as demonstrated by Martin Fabian (the fencer on the Left) although it is done on the opposite side of the body than the JuDing stance, it still fits the criteria in essence:
Keep in mind the technically Ju Ding is only described on the left side of the body. However, performing on both sides does not appear to offer much difficulty. The concept of a high parry and riposte to the head or shoulders is intact here. In fact, the concepts of “Hanging and Winding” are very similar to the instructions in Ju Ding. There is a nice discussion of the two concepts at The Armory blog. They way they are describing Hanging as catching a blow from overhead on the flat of your blade and Winding the act of pulling and turning out of the parry to strike seems similar to Mao’s instruction to “carry flat” and “pull (Che) the blade and strike down the center”. Interestingly, they find that only the version with the blade to the left side is represented in Myers works. Just like in Ju Ding, this seems to be a specific reference to defending blows coming in from the high left.
The practical concerns and issue of the technique are fairly simple and to the point. The text states that it is a blocking method. The image supports this. Obviously the most important position being described is the over head parry. This parry/position is fairly common due to the frequency of the head being a target in longsword sparring.
0:25-The first two exchanges follow the text to the letter. The defense from the powerful overhead blow initiates the play. The defender receives the blow, pulls the sword forward, allowing the blade to be brought back for the next strike. This play feels very quick and allows for coverage from a very common sequences of actions. Trading overhead blows and then defending from a low attack.
0:54- Breaking down the motions in relation to the text.
1:30- This was an attempt to mirror the actions. It also worked with the same efficiency as the other side as described in the text. Our conclusion is that it will work if you defend from your dominant or non dominant side. Although, this entry does not have a right and left version as do some of the other entries. It is unclear if the mirror version (which could be argued to use the “side” block instead of the “skirt” block) was avoided, omitted, or named something different as it does not appear in the text.
1:48- Using “lan” as a passive parry. Receiving the blow is sometimes called “lan” although it is most often used to describe cutting into the strike. The passive block can be effective, although you loose some protection without the opposing force. Here this is accomplished by turning the blade with the incoming strike. The timing must be before their attack or you risk covering the strike and allowing them to get the hit.
2:10- Free play application. The application of the “lift and Carry” or “Ju Ding” block is easy to see and very high percentage. Even trading blows from a series of heavy overhead attacks is smooth and quick. This usually offers the opportunity for the overhead strike of your own.
In free play one key element that stands out in the text is the instruction to “Draw the blade” from the blocking position. The character used is “掣” or “che”. Che is a difficult word to translate and we will encounter it again in the foot work. There is much discussion on to the exact meaning of the term. It appears often in Song dynasty writing such as the “Water Margin” (水滸傳) yet is seemly absent from the Ming Dynasty Lexicon, according to Ma MingDa.
The feeling that this elicits here is a drawing back of the blade by the forward motion of the hands and hilt. It is like sliding the blade out from under the opponents blade while still supporting it in a block. This feeling will come in handy later when this word appears in footwork instructions. But here, we can assume it to mean the pulling out of the blade in order to throw a forward strike from over head.
This is the first entry of the 24 that Mao Yuanyi recorded in the Wubei Zhi. It is a very useful and basic technique that has application is many different martial arts contexts. It is similar to many systems for obvious reasons. One important thing that this entry does is set the pattern for those to come. Each one, with a few exceptions, will follow this structure.
It should be fairly easy to apply in free play, and you are probably already doing this even if you have no name for it. This is one of the reasons it could have been placed in the very beginning of the text. But, as we can see here, the most basic of skills are the ones that will give us the most out of our training.
So, without further ado, I send you out to try it yourself. It is a fun and easy thing to play around with. Just be sure to wear your gear so you can complete your techniques.
Patience, practice, perseverance!