Historical Martial Arts, Jian Jing, Translations

Jian Jing劍經: Part 1-Preface

The Ming dynasty of China is one of the most impactful and formational periods in later Chinese history. Many great accomplishments came from the era, spurred on by a tumultuous society in flux. Toward the later part of the period a few things came together that are of massive importance to us in the Chinese martial arts. 

Violence and Literature

First, the end of the Ming was marred by much violence in the form of rebellions, invasions from foreign enemies, and the Jiajing wokou raids (嘉靖大倭寇) that were occurring on the coast of the China. This is, of course, the famous fight with the “Japanese Pirates”. Although it is probably more accurate to call them “coastal pirates” as many of them were not of Japanese origin but rather locals and other Chinese Ming traitors. It is during this conflict that some of the legendary Generals that we talk about in martial arts circles, made their stamp on history. 

Printing and publishing in the Ming Dynasty made books and topics available to many people not often afforded such access.

The next important component to our story is the Ming publishing boom. With the proliferation and integration of printing presses, the Ming society was flooded with books and publications.  Where before, reading was often something that was not as common outside of the literati and the Scholar class, with the advent of mass printing and publishing, books became more available to more people. This caused a large mixing of previous social norms, allowing people who had not been traditionally able to access certain topics to disseminate this knowledge to many people who, in turn, would never have had the opportunity. 

The literati began practicing martial arts and studying military affairs, and military officials were publishing poetry and writing their own books on military strategy, training, and other topics. This particular meeting of minds forms the bedrock of many of the martial arts traditions today.

No better example of this are two generals key to the Coastal Crisis: You Dayou and Qi Jiguang. Both men were of the military class, educated and groomed from an early age to take the Imperial Military Exam and assume the role of military commander. But, both men were also known amateur  poets and authors of their own works (a novelty at the time). It is largely thanks to these two men that we have a large portion of the Martial Arts knowledge we have today. 

Steles originally erected in 1559 in commemoration of Yu Dayou, now in the grounds of Zhenhai Middle SchoolZhenhai, Zhejiang

Yu Dayou

Illustrations of a technique from Jian Jing as drawn in the Jixiao Xinshu
by Qi Jiguang

General Yu Dayou was a principle General in charge of the Coastal Pirate situation. In 1550, he published the book: Zhengqitangji 正氣堂集, ”Compilation of Vital Energy”. Within this volume is a section cited “Jian Jing 劍經 -Sword Classic”. This is an expansive manual on the training of martial art for military purposes, and one of the earliest of its kind known. This Treatise, is one of the foundational texts for the historical heritage of Chinese martial arts books going forward. An explicit training manual on the use of weapons and the training there of. While the are no illustrations or diagrams included in the original text, some have been added by later authors/publishers. This section has also been copied and included in several other volumes of military treatises including Jixiao Xinshu 紀效新書 “New record of Military Efficiency” and the WuBei Zhi 武備志 “Catalog of Military Technology” often, in it’s entirety. 


Jian Jing: Sword Classic

A section of Jian Jing as it appears in Zhengqitangji

Jian Jing is one of the most extensive of training manuals from the period. As mentioned, the Ming Dynasty was a violent and tumultuous time. The Ming Military was in steep decline and the need to recruit soldiers from non military sources was common, especially in the Coastal conflicts with the Woku. Also, the gentry had a great need to train and maintain private protection for their estates and themselves. This placed a certain demand on books about such training, not only in military and formal warfare, but in the training of individuals, what we today collectively call “martial arts”. Jian Jing is one of these texts that was influential in its day, and continues into the future thanks to many of the republications it has had through the centuries.

The text it’s self contains general advice, much of which we can hear echoed in other martial arts of today like Taiji, a section on the use of the Trident, and over a hundred separate entries constituting of largely training or sparring scenarios that illustrate the use of the weapon. These entries contain a great amount of information and can offer not only drills to practice, but insights into strategy and weapon handling. Lists of names of techniques are included, as well as explanations of the basics of troop formations and ideas. Many of these terms and concepts follow the writing of other authors of the time as well the names of the techniques.


劍經并序:Sword Classic Preface

  猷學荊楚長劍,頗得其要法。吾師虛舟趙先生,見而笑曰:若知敵一人之法矣,詎知敵百萬人之法本於是乎? 猷退而思,思而學,學而又思,思而又學,乃知天下之理原於約者,未嘗不散於繁。散於繁者,未嘗不原於約。復以質之,先師曰:得之矣。

I [Yu Da You] am a student of the Jing Chu Longsword, having learned the essential methods.  My teacher Mr. Xu Zhou Zhao looked and laughed as he said:  “If you only know the method of one opponent, how will you know that the methods of 100 opponents originates from this?” I retreated and pondered this over and over, learning then pondering, pondering then learning, then realizing that the principles of everything originate from the simple,  and did not spring from the complex. That which is complex originates from the simple, never the other way. I returned to discuss the topic and my teacher said: “You have it!”. 

夫首之大, 嘴牙之小,不相稱焉,兩不相為用也。手足之大,指爪之小,不相稱焉,兩不相為用也。身之大,手足之小,不相稱焉,兩不相為用也。鳧以掌大而不能棲,鶩以嘴大而不能啄,鳶以翼大而不能擊,狼以尾大而不能掉,鹿以角長而困,豕以肉多而喘,駑以鬣濃而鈍,虎以項短而力,兔以前短而狡,雞以爪細肩廣而善鬥,犬以毛淺尾銳而善獵。疾病之人,手足鞅掌者懶,臍腹彭亨者倦,頭項癭瘤者偏,腰膂薄弱者痿,前急後曳者躓:無不有勢存焉。

A man’s head is big and his teeth and lips are small, they are named differently because they are used differently. The hands and feet are great while the fingers and nails are minor, how can we call them the same thing when they are different? The body is large and the limbs are small, they are not regarded as the same because they are not the same. A mallard has large feet, yet cannot perch. A domestic duck has a large beak, yet cannot peck. A kite has large wings, yet they cannot flap. The wolf has a large tail, yet cannot swing it. Deer have long horns and yet are skittish. The boar has large muscles, and yet they pant. An old horse has a full mane, and yet is stupid. A tiger has a short neck, and yet it is powerful. Rabbits have short front legs, and yet are crafty. Chickens have fine claws and broad shoulders, and are good at fighting. A dog has short fur and a sharp tail, and it is good at fighting. A hurried man will be weary, and his limbs will be slow as if bound. Those that have a belly like Peng Bo, will be tired. Those with a tumor or goiter on their neck will inclined to one side. Those that have a weak spine and waist, will be all but paralyzed, those who’s front(top) is too fast and the back(bottom) is too slow, shall stumble:  everything exists in its own way. 

聖人制兵師之陣,必有奇有正,必有從有伏,必有揚有備,必有前後、有中央、有左右,必有握奇,必有遊闕。其陣不一,各有輕重、饒減、盈縮、遠近、疏數之權。度大以稱小,小以稱大,人以稱地,地以稱人,無不勝也。然則舍萬 物之情,以求行陣之法者,遠矣。

The Sage’s troop formations will surely have the unconventional and conventional, the obvious and the subtle, the attack and the preparation. It must have forward and backward, central equilibrium, left and right. It must grasp the unfathomable and settle in wandering. These formations are not a single thing, but each has light and heavy, bountiful and wanting, expansion and contraction, far and near, and the consideration numbers. Consider the big to balance the small, the small to balance the big, men shall balance earth, earth shall balance man, and there will always be victory. But, those who do not consider the 10,000 things, and instead seek the techniques of troop warfare has lost their way. 


A fight with one man has five components: one body in the center, two hands, two feet, with actions of forward, backward, left and right,. They each have their own defense and attacks. There is standing and kicking, one should not neglect any part. In a team of five the method is each man is armed, the old ways establish the teams number, the team must number five men,  two teams is a is a squad, five squads form a platoon of 50 soldiers; there must be one chariot for every four squads, there must be five chariots total, a company consists of five platoons, a battalion consists of five companies, and a brigade is five battalions, from one man to 10,000 men, the method is the same. 

Translator’s note:I have used the equivalent terms from the U.S. Army unit size names. They are not exactly equal and the numbers are simply ranges for numbers of troops: 伍-team,兩-squad, 隊-platoon, 偏-company, 軍- battalion, 陣- brigade.


When one man fights, the body, hands and feet all have flexion and extension at the joints. That which bends backward, extends forward; That which bends right, extends left. Thus, the fully bent cannot be extended, and the fully extended cannot be bent, the man will be stiff as a board! Even with the five tools of the body, he will not be able to do anything. This is why a squad must have at least three people to perform conventional methods, two to perform unconventional methods. In a file of ten men, seven must be conventional and 3 must be unconventional; among eight brigades, four must be conventional and four must be unconventional, from one man to 10,000 men, the method is the same.  


One who fights with virtue, one body, four limbs extending and contracting, changing and adapting, has no semblance of a boundary.  Because the conventional in front and the unconventional in back, may suddenly become conventional in the rear and the unconventional in front, the normal gathers and the strange disperses, but can abruptly become the normal scatters and the strange comes together. Chariots use the orthodox and the calvary use the heterodox, but can quickly become the Calvary using the orthodox and the chariots using the heterodox; from one man to 10,000 men, the method is the same. 


The maneuverers of 10,000 men are like the extending and contracting of one man; to command 10,000 men is like the five bodies being commanded by the mind, victory is assured. But the body of a man, by seeking the teachers of the methods of warfare , is profound. The Sage gazes down from Heaven, examines the numbers, tests the readiness, pushes the situation, obtains the body, looks at the substance of  the evidence, the wrong idea will deplete their logic, and will use the squad method to teach in a clear fashion.  


A loyal Official, a righteous scholar, will determinedly vow their fidelity, and then will be devoted to the search for the true application. Qi may be used, the attempt to quantify endless time hatches plans, they look at these shadows and ponder; How can this be changed? Searching and longing for the distant alone, how can it be saved before it is too late? I, Yu DaYou will collect the practical methods, in the “Sword Classic”, to record it for future generations to know that real people have illuminated these methods for their benefit. 

用棍如讀《四書》,鉤、刀、槍、鈀,如各習一經。 《四書》既明,六經之理亦明矣。若能棍,則各利器之法,從此得矣。 

The use of the Staff is like studying the “Four Books”. The hook, saber, spear, and trident are like studying a single book. When “The Four Books” are understood, the logic of the “Six Classics” becomes clear as well. If one is able with the staff, the methods of every other weapon can be derived from this. 


Jing Chu Chang Jian荊楚長劍

In the opening, General Yu states that this style is the “Jing Chu Longsword as taught by Xu Zhou Zhao. The word “Jian” or “Sword” is going to become a critical piece in a moment. This style is ostensibly a two handed sword style. However, all of the techniques are shown for staff. The style should be understood as a staff style that can be used to train the basics of weapon handling and use in live combat. Staff was the weapon with which General Yu gained his fame. The introduction contains some key advice regarding the training and use of single soldiers and entire groups. 

Technical observations

The lessons to the reader here are simple but core to the practice of any skill. First, the complex must come from the simple and not the other way around. At first this seems as if it would go without saying. But, during the practice of martial art, one must master the simple basics before ever being able to attempt the higher level skills. Even if one is to successfully employ those high levels skills, they have no frame work of basics to help refine it or even maintain it. The skill will depend on their physical ability to perform said skill. With in the arena of combat, almost anything can disrupt your physical ability. If you have nothing to fall back on, you will simply fall.

As he continues in the introduction the Yu draws comparisons between things in what is one of the earliest explicit examples I have encountered of applying Yin and Yang principles directly to combat, training, and individual practice. This is common now days, but most strongly associated with taijiquan and the other ‘internal’ arts. He does this through series of repeated examples of principles. The natural dichotomy that is represented in Yin and Yang theory is explored in various ways. By showing that difference can be a matter of size or extent, that first observations of things my be the opposite of what one expects (the irony of a ducks bill being big yet not being used to peck), and an exploration of cost and benefit or the idea that an advantage in one area, can produce a weakness in another.

These lessons are key to martial practice. But Yu uses them to foster observations. If one is overweight, they will tire quickly, if they have a growth or an injury, they will move differently because of it and if one is weak in the spine and waist, what we now days call the “core”, they are as good as paralyzed. These last observations not only have truth to them through experience, they also conform to scientific understanding of human movement and fitness. All in all, a fairly advanced line of thinking for the 1500’s. 

All this is in service of General Yu’s argument that the training of an individual fighter, and the act of that single person fighting, is completely analogous to troop movement and command no matter what the size of the group. This highlights the adage, “As Above, So Below”. The human being has their body which consists of component part like limbs and joints. Likewise, Yu shows how Groups and formations are built from component parts as well. He underscores that armies are built up from single individuals and how each group must operate in the same way as do the limbs in a body. Each part has its own attributes and these attributes should be understood completely and how they work as whole. In modern terms, this idea is very close to the philosophy of Ma Tongbei Wuyi, and Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do. Tongbei advocates understanding a complete system of martial art and technique to create a complete training regimen and Lee was famous as espousing the idea that our arts are different but are based on the same thing, namely, human anatomy.

“Jian” jing? Why not “Gun” jing?

What is interesting about this introduction and telling to the style and mind set of the author, is the reliance on analog in service of understanding. This is a premise which is core to Genreal Yu’s teaching and the content of the Jian Jing. While this is a common place and cultural characteristic, it becomes important to understand the intent of the text. Which is laid out in the last section of the introduction. The Jian Jing is said to be from a sword style yet the entire book is techniques as done with the staff ( and a few Trident mentions). This causes a bit of confusion for people, but Yu addresses it directly: 


If one is able with the staff, the methods of every other weapon can be derived from this. 

This appears to indicate that the staff is viewed as a good training tool to train all weapons. Indeed, if one takes into account all the various lengths of stick that can be created, a stick can be an analog for almost any weapon. Also, it is more than likely that sparring and such would have been done using sticks instead of blades. This of course adds a level of safety that is critical for training while being able to approximate the handling of the weapon. 

But another factor in the staff being called a sword by Yu is linguistic in nature. The term “Jian” may have been a regional and period idiom meaning “staff” or “weapon”. Yu often, in other parts of his writing, refers to staffs as “Jian” or swords. Also, researchers Li Lianggen 李良根 and , Li Lin 李琳 point out in “Jian jing zhu jie.劍經著街” that it is known that in the 16th century in Quanzhou, the staff was called a “long sword” or Chang Jian . The term “gun”棍 for staff is more common. Yu was from that area so the possibility is there.

Taking these things in to account, it is clear the this is a staff manual, as the explicit techniques are for the staff. The use of the word “Jian” is a idiomatic use and should not be understood as an actual sword. Rather, thinking of it as “weapon” is probably more helpful and close to the original intent. The techniques and strategies are all very valuable in a general combat sense. From barehanded to long pole arms, Yu’s intension seems to be to use the staff as his base for delivering these principles of combat. 


The Jian Jing sets many precedents for the Chinese martial arts manual going forward. Its impact on its contemporaries is obvious. It was reprinted by both Qi Jiguang and Mao Yuan Yi. Much of the language used is echoed by his contemporaries and immediate successors. As we will see in later chapters, many names of moves are set down and in turn found in other texts of the period. This not only shows us Yu’s influence on the writing of the time, but also, gives us something to cross reference many of the subtle and often confounding directions set don in Ming Dynasty manuals.

Sets the convention for things to come. Even in the preface here, Yu talks with ideas very familiar to students of Taiji or Bagua. Yin and yang, As above so below, and distinguish things based on their qualities. These are philosophies in the martial arts that continue to this day. 

But we must always be careful when interpreting such texts. The Jian Jing was written a long time ago and in a completely different world than the one we are familiar with. It was intended for a specific audience and it makes assumptions on what is commonly held knowledge by the reader.The linguistic challenges are one thing, but that does not even touch on the cultural, social conventions, and other factors that make reading and comprehending a difficult task. We will never be able to ask the author what they meant, what their original intent was, or know what they were thinking when they set out to communicate what they did. 

We are now a part of this history. We must come in and add our own experiences and knowledge base to the material. And then add said material into our knowledge base. This takes conjecture, imagination, and experimentation. It is less an effort to recreate exactly how things were back then, than it is an effort to find out how they did certain things and take inspiration and understanding from it. We are always going to be somewhere in our interpretations and that is why I encourage more translations and discussion of these topics. 

The real value in these texts, especially the Jian Jing, is very much the same as was originally. To help a combatant improve. While the contexts may change, the lessons are often the same. General Yu has done a significant service to Chinese martial arts by setting down these thoughts for further generations. 

Further translation of Jian Jing are coming! This is a text that can be returned to again and again. Ihope I can help some people find the value that I have found.

Suggested further reading and Selected Bibliography

Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai, ©2008.

-“Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61, no. 2 (2001): 359. doi:10.2307/3558572.

Shapinsky, Peter D. Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies. Vol. 76, Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2014.

Tong, James. Disorder under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty. Stanford University Press, 1991.

Yu, Dayou俞大猷., Liang Gen. Li, and Lin Li. Jian jing zhu jie.劍經著街 Nan chang: Jiang xi ke xue ji shu chu ban she, 2002.

Sword Treatise =: Jian Jing. Translated by Jack Chen. Singapore: Historical Combat Association, ©2011.

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