The Four Words as discussed in the previous installment, form a sort of conceptual base from which to build a system of sword fencing. Although, it has been pointed out by many, that much of modern swordsmanship is lacking in a foundation like the one laid with the Four Words. Esteemed writers and teachers often lament the lack of understand of the Four Words. In the words of Professor Ma MingDa:
“These four words are traditional terms in the practice of Chinese swordsmanship and, by researching the ancient literature, can be seen as its origin. But, in general, modern Chinese fencing has morphed into an empty flower, the classical terms are already forgotten.”
Ma Ming Da; Wu Xi Lie.: 2003
In an effort to bring back some thought and discussion on these concepts, I want to take some time to give a detailed look at what these words mean and how they can be understood to us modern practitioners
洗, Xi-“wash”. The character 洗 is one that gives a fair amount of trouble so it seems like an ideal character to begin with. 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. This is true of many of the terms and concepts present in the Ming Dynasty.
洗 is a difficult character to translate, but here we mean deflections. A deflection should be distinguished from a block 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 makes and lands an attack as this is happening and therefore one is normally in contact with the other weapon.
In Wudang Jian as taught by Li TianJi, 洗 is described in this way:
运用劍刃攻取方。《武當劍》解锋为：“洗者，乃劍锋往来摩动也“。”洗“为古伐劍法， 包栝平洗，上洗，下洗，斜洗。 “洗” 法已为撩，带，抽，截，斬，扫，等劍法所取代。劍法术语更趋向细戚，分门别类，因而“洗” 法一词，現在已很少使用。
This is to use the sword edge to attack along the sides [of the opponent]. Wu Dang Sword explains it like this: “Xi is the sword edge going back and forth with a filing movement”. “Xi” is a category used in ancient times that included, flat Xi, upper Xi, lower Xi, diagonal Xi. Today, the term “Xi” has been replaced by liao, chou, jie, zhan, sao, and other such terms. Sword techniques tend to be more finely defined, so the word “Xi” is not often used today.Li Tian Ji- Wu Dang Jian Fa
The first detail that should jump out is that 洗 is initially described as an attack. And this is a feature, it can be used as an attack or defensive motion depending on if you are targeting the weapon or the person. This is something that comes up from time to time. I believe that this is one of the primary reasons for the linguistic drift we see into the modern, post modern and new formulations of swordsmanship.
The techniques that Li cites as modern incarnations of the concept of 洗 are:撩-liao, to lift, 带-dai, to carry or hold, 抽-chou-to draw, 截-ji, to intercept, 斬-zhan- to sever, and 扫-sao, to sweep. These of course are from Li’s own interpretation of the concept but, we can find some meaningful touchstones as to understanding the over all idea.
Other schools will include different words under the idea of “Xi”. Modern schools also may simply use “Xi” as a stand alone concept or technique. Now days, most schools use “Xi” to mean a circular type of parry or deflection. This appears to be a modern interpretation as even Li states that “Xi” is a back and forth motion.
Song Wei-Yi’s description of “Xi” does not clutter the topic with other characters and instead talks about the ways one can apply the technique:
There are four deflection (xi) methods: Flat, diagonal, upper, and lower. To “Xi”, is moving back and forth with the edge. Flat deflection is a flat slide. The high deflection slides from tip to bottom. The lower deflection slides from bottom to top.Song Wei-Yi: WuDang Jian Pu 1930
In “The Major Methods of WuDang Sword”, Huang Yuanxiu describes “xi” as an upward cut.
This method uses the “Middle Yang” grip. Support the sword in your grip and step in aggressively to attack the opponent’s body. This is an upward “pi” or chop. The right foot is in front and is full. The left foot is behind and is empty. The sword finger traces a half circle around. Perform an upward “Xi” cut in section four of the set. Like in illustration 41.Huang Yuanxiu- Major Methods of Wudang Sword.
This method of reducing the general terms continues throughout he 20th century. The four words thus morphing into more specific terms and techniques as Li stated above.
What does “Wash” mean anyway?
In today’s parlance, the term “Xi” is often applied to a circular motion. I imagine this is about modern conception of “washing” being in a circular bin or washing machine. While that movement does exist, (often called “coil”縈 or “wrap”縈). This is obviously a direct response to the English gloss of “wash”. That word, however, does not carry the same variation in definition that “Xi” does.
The word comes from the action of washing clothes and the siding movement back and forth is key to the concept. The concept is first described in the Ming Dynasty, and it’s lineage from that time is well storied. At the time, to wash your garments meant scrubbing them on a rock or wash board. This back and forth scrubbing and grinding is the action that I believe is the intended technique.
The flat of the blade is used primarily in most of these types of techniques, although the edge is also of great importance. By sliding the blades you get slices, deflections, and grazes. And thats is the point. Wether the action is directed at the person or the weapon determines what kind of technique should be used, edge or flat, but it is all about slicing, shearing, or shaving away the surface or sides of the target.
Translations by various authors have produced a number of glosses that are used from school to school. Of them, words like clear, slice, grind, rub, file, skate, all seem to fit quite nicely. I tend to use “deflect” when speaking of sword technique.
As far as the different words used to talk about “Xi” techniques being used today, there are a few that are very helpful in understanding the concept. Keep in mind, these are my own interpretations of these characters and techniques. Many schools use the same words to denote more or less specific things. I do not claim to be presenting the authoritative interpretation. Only the one that I have arrived at through my study. I welcome discussion to help make this information useful to all .
Jian means to shear or it means “scissors” or “shears” just as in English. This is a word used extensively in Ming era writing. It features prominently in the ChaoXian Shifa 朝鮮式法of the Wubei Zhi 武備志. It is a motion that seeks to skate along the horizontal surface of the target, wether it be the opponent or weapon.
In English the two senses of the word “shear” being used are a “shearing force” and to shear as in a sheep. Shearing Force is any force applied perpendicular to the object. Along with the word shears which is named for the action of the blades against each other, this concept is quintessentially a “Xi” type of technique.
摩 Mo: To rub, smear, slide, skate
Mo, or scrubbing or rubbing is a useful word and technique to examine with the concept of “Xi”. It describes the action of sliding along the surface of the flat or flat to edge. This occurs often when in a bind. One can make contact with the opponents weapon near the tip or “quick” and bind then slide down to the “strong” near the hand guard. This can help trap their blade, help deal with an aggressive opponent, or be used to thrust in opposition.
In practice, Mo is used most often to deflect the incoming weapon and direct it off line. It is most often described as a “passive” technique, meaning the opponents action is what is creating the interaction between the blades. Essentially you allow the opponent to slide along the blade while controlling where they end up. This can be contrasted with the next character, “Cuo” in which it is your sword or weapon making the action.
錯/銼Cuo-To Grind, to Sharpen, to file
Cuo, is to grind, sharpen, or file. The implication here should be obvious. There is the suggestion of pressure as one slides along the blade. In contrast to Mo, cuo seems more active and destructive in nature. The idea of grinding down or sharpening the opponents blade is fairly strong.
Cuo techniques are very good for forcing the blade off the line and therefore creating openings in the opponent. This also appears to be done exclusively to the weapon. The technique usually ends with a strike to the neck or torso, but the action its self is describing the interaction of the blades.
La means to pull, draw, or to drag. Le means to scrape off, to rub, or to stroke. This technique is often a draw cut going from the strong to the quick of the blade. It utilizes the whole of the edge. These methods are done mostly with the edge. It is an offensive move by nature allowing one to breach cloth armor more effectively. However, the same action can be done to the other’s weapon if one is in a bind with them. It can also be used as an effective parry
Even though these techniques are more often applied to the opponent than their weapon, it is the back and forth motion of a draw cut that is being identified. The slicing action, which is in this case going away from the opponent, is another aspect of the “Xi” type of movement. This time dragging the edge across the target rather than striking with it.
But what about the circular motions people call “Xi”?
I have spent a lot of time talking about a back and forth motion with “Xi” type techniques. However, the most common interpretation is in a circular motion. There may be some disagreement on this distinction, but I do not see them as mutually exclusive positions. In the circular movements like 縈, 攪, and 圏, the “Xi” action of the blades sliding along each other is still present. In fact, these techniques often work best when combined with an arc or circular movement. The way I am looking at it though, the important concept is the one of using the length of the blade in defensive and offensive manner.
The word “Xi” is a common one to find n many sword manuals and treatises. Many styles of Jian fa elude to it although many of their interpretations are nebulous and imprecise. Understanding that its origin is most likely Ming Dynasty or before, gives us insight into the way it was used in the past. As we have pushed jian fa forward, the term has been divided into other words that are more precise for labeling sword techniques. 洗, however, as a concept is one that is fundamental to Chinese swordplay. Wether it be in the Ming Dynasty or the present day, these types of techniques are quintessential to Chinese fencing.
Understanding the basic idea behind so many techniques should yield its own benefits. I hope that this has at least spurred on some deeper thought on the topic. I also hope this serves you well in your practice.
- 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.
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- Wu Tunan吳圖南, Taiji Jian太極劍, 商務印書館 The Commercial Press, LTD, July, 1936 [translation by Paul Brennan, Nov, 2015]
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- -and Jeffery A. Bolt. Northern Shaolin Sword. Boston, Mass., USA: YMAA Publication Center, ©2000.
- Zhang, Yun. The Art of Chinese Swordsmanship: A Manual of Taiji Jian. New York: Weatherhill, 1998.
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