The weekend of February 23-24, we had a special event here. My teacher, Master Ma Yue of Ma Family Tongbei, came in to town to teach a group of individuals the basics of the game of “Duan Bing” or short weapon combat. It is also called “Chinese Fencing” as it is the sword sparring analog of Chinese martial arts. The practice is seeing a bit of a resurgence recently after spending some time in total obscurity from most traditional martial artists.
Ma Laoshi’s goal is to bring back this practice among wushu and kung fu schools. He sees it as a way to bring an aspect of traditional martial arts back to weapon training and combat. That is the aspect of competition. Creating a way for different schools of Chinese sword and weapon arts can meet and compete, his view, would only serve to strengthen the Chinese arts who often face much criticism in the light of MMA and K1 type contests. Tao lu just does not seem to impress the modern audience as it once did.
For us, it was more to try a game that many of us had only heard about and seen grainy film reels of Chinese swordsmen in fencing masks. (As it turns out, Ma Yue’s father and uncle are the individuals in said grainy film footage). A sport based on the skills trained in Chinese swordsmanship is something that all of us are very interested in.
A little background into the Ma families relationship with Duan Bing. According to Ma Yue, his grandfather, Ma Feng Tu, used dun bing as a military training exercise. Its purpose was more abstract than we would normally think of military training as being, but it is through this use that the practice finds its entry into the family style. Ma Yue’s father, the famous Ma Xianda, was called “The king of Duan Bing”for his numerous championships and long career of coaching when the sport was still being played in Wushu circles. Ma Yue himself is a Champion of duan bing and a successful coach of other competitors. So there is a lot of professional experience being brought to bear here.
Ma Laoshi and I decided that it would be beneficial to stage an invite only workshop for people who are dedicated and interested in this project specifically. This would ensure that we get the more productive group and time together. The main material would be Duan Bing and Bian Gan or short stick. These two activities go together as the short stick is the signature weapon of Ma Shi Tong Bei, but also serves as a good weapon to practice the techniques used in Duan Bing and swordplay.
Bian Gan is often translated as “hard whip”, but should be understood more as meaning “riding crop”. It is a short stick, of various lengths but always below the eyebrow of the wielder . This length of stick not only serves as a convenient improvised weapon (one can find any number of daily objects that are sticks about this length), but also is a wonderful way to explore the physics of a long thin object of this weight. These movements, while not explicitly swordplay or sword related, can be incorporated in to the manner in which one wields these types of weapons in general. Be it a sword, staff, saber, or pole arm, the use of the short stick as a training method is very adroit and deserves it’s own piece to do it justice.
Duan Bing-短兵 Short Weapons
We began the weekend off straight into the basics of Duan Bing. While this is a fencing sport, and it is based on sword combat, we must always remember that it is its own practice with its own rules and logic. Basic foot work drills and reactive exercises got us acclimated to the environment of weapon combat. Most of us are fairly experienced with various forms of swordplay. From HEMA to Kenjutstu and of course the Chinese systems, so these exercises were very familiar and we took to them quite well.
After the skills portion, we were given the chance to apply the material in some sparring situations. This enabled us to get acquainted with the rules and the rhythm of a match. We were in the studio where most of my classes are held and it is a long space. The traditional game is played in a. Circle with a 9 meter diameter, but we were able to adapt to be played on a more narrow arena.
The game is generally played like this:
- Two fighters square off. Bow to each other then assume a ready position.
- The first person to hit the other with a clear and solid strike gets a point or points.
- The entire body (except groin and back of the neck) is legal.
- Double hits do not count. After blows are ignored. The Referee has the power to nullify a point if the hits are not clear or not of sufficient force or quality.
In addition to the above rules, which are common Duan Bing rules, we had three additional rules;
- If a double hit occurs and one fighter continues into another pose or technique immediately after, the point will be awarded to them. (this did not happen during our matches)
- If a hit is made after a successful parry (e.g. parry riposte) , two points will be awarded. (This occurred several times, although recognizing it as as rule was not always uniform.)
- A strike to the head was worth two points as well. (this was the most common occurrence as fighters tend to want to end the encounter quickly.)
Even when playing in a restricted space, all of us immediately found the game fun and easy to follow. Watching it was easy to follow the action. The game didn’t seem to favor any one of our styles, which we found to be a very good thing. We played some warm up matches to 3 points and then moved on to a game format called “Beat the Champ”, “Bear Pit”, “King of the Hill”, or any number of other names for the winner of each match having to stay and fight the next challenger until they lose.
Beat the Champ is a good game to test out various systems of scoring and rules. There is a definite endurance component as the one who win must remain to fight a fresh fighter. Keeping the matches to 5 points made the action go very fast and evened the playing field so that number of years training and experience became less predictive. In such a short bout, it was any one’s game. Which made the entire affair exciting in a way I did not expect.
Guan Bing? 光兵 Light Weapons?
The first thing that one may notice when seeing some of the video and images from the weekend, is that we are using the LED lightsabers. This was deliberate on Ma Yue’s own opinion. We had a choice of weapon with which to hold the workshop. The first choice was nylon practice jian from Purple Heart Armory. These are very good for historical and heavier sparring and experimentation. But, the sport of Duan Bing requires a bit faster movement and different mechanics. The nylon jian were too heavy. The lightsabers, on the other hand, were just the right weight and balance with a mid grade blade. Ma Laoshi also enjoyed the light up function of the saber blades. It made them very easy to see and score hits with.
One draw back we had was the durability of the mid grade (1.5 mm thickness). However, the few blades that I used heat shrink over the entire blade seemed to be much more durable. Even with out the full blade covered, we had no blade failures, only a few lost tips.
Tongbei Jin Li 通備勁力
At the end of the first day, Ma Laoshi looked at me and said, “Maybe they need some Tongbei exercises”. I agreed. The exercises that make up the core of Ma Shi Tongbei are very important to understanding not only Ma’s method but martial arts body movement in general. The next day we got to warming up with kicks, footwork drills and short sequences of techniques from Baji, Fanzi, and Pigua.
Many of the group were out of their element here. But everyone did their best to keep up and find some approximation of what we were to be doing. The movements are physically demanding, even when you are familiar with them. When first attempting them, they can be downright murder!
After this “warm up”, we got to the business of Duan Bing again. We paired off to practice our reaction with some drills before moving out to the basketball court and our full sized arena. The traditional Duan Bing arena is a circle of 9 meters across. We settled for a 10X10 meter square as laid out for us. It served it’s purpose quite well.
The bulk of the afternoon was spent playing “Beat the Champ”. We all took turns fighting and judging. The game is fun and we all had a ball playing it with each other. The matches went fairly fast. Often times doubles would start to occur as the match neared the end, both fighters being fatigued and overly enthusiastic to end the bout.
Historical Jian and Duan Bing
We did actually get to try out the nylon jian that are historically weighted. These swords feel almost just like steel when using them although they are a tad heavy for the style that Duan Bing seems to favor. Never the less, we tried them out. While the match was not as dynamic as with the lighter weapons, it still retained its feel and the amount of fun it was. The strikes are a bit slower and need to be more precise as strikes with the flat are not counted, but we found the Duan Bing rule set to be able to adapt to these weapons very nicely.
A special event
The weekend was enjoyed by all of us. Each person had remarked multiple times though the experience that it was one of the most illuminating workshops we have attended. Ma Laoshi’s teaching ability and love of the sport are obvious and contageous. And it seems that contagion was two ways.
Later in the afternoon I heard my teacher say as I was officiating a bout, “I want to do some!”. And a few moments later, he was strapping on the gear and putting on a helmet. We were treated to a little demonstration of Duan Bing as played by a true champion. After 30 years Ma Laoshi played the game that is such a part of his being. It was quite the sight. And luckily I was able to catch it on video.
The weekend was huge success in regard to our goal of exposing some experienced folks to the game of Duan Bing and asses its viability as a sport for Western practitioners. We all agree that this game is fun, fast paced, and easy to follow. That makes it a very good prospect for martial arts and artists today. With the popularity of HEMA and other combative systems using weapons in recent years, the potential for another resurgence of Duan Bing is huge. We were all from different backgrounds and experience level and yet, we were all able to play freely together. I will admit some skepticism as rule sets that are “first hit gets the point” are often problematic. Duan Bing giving the ref the power to nullify points if they are not clear or of sufficient quality was a surprisingly effective strategy. The double hits did come, especially at the end of matches when both fighters are anxious to get it over with. But with good officiating the flow of the match never was bogged down in restarts.
The big take away from this workshop is actually a fairly hopeful one. This rule set and game are really an excellent way to test one’s skill with short weapons. With the right weapon for competition, any school of swordsmanship would benefit from introducing such practices in to their curriculum. We hope to publish more on the rules and dynamics of Duan Bing soon, so that other schools can try to incorporate this game in their training. With any luck we could get a competitive league or tournaments for the sport once again!
All this is of course only in the imagination right now. But stay tuned as this story develops. We hope that we can get the sport popular again and be able to offer Chinese sword practitioners a sport that in which they can compete. But also it is one where the audience is also entertained and can follow the action. This s a rare quality in a rule set. We encourage all practitioners of weapon arts to seek out good safe free play opportunities. If Duan Bing can be resurrected again, it would serve as a very good provider of these types of opportunities.
For another perspective on this weekend, check out Ben’s account of the weekend over at Kung Fu Tea!