Continuing the examination of the Four Words in Chinese swordsmanship brings us to the character Ge 格.
To block, arrest, impede, obstruct, deter, halt, hinder, intercept, parry. The seemingly simple idea of stopping something from hitting you by placing something else in the way has 10,000 permutations, 10,000 synonyms, and 10,000 interpretations of what it means in swordplay. In short, “blocking” is no simple matter.
The very concept is controversial, with different camps holding very specific beliefs and understandings of the term “parry” or “block”. In most languages, the term for ‘parry’ is ‘block’. Not too much to discuss here. But people have a way of delineating different things that are similar by narrowing the definitions they use in certain contexts. With parries and blocks, almost every teacher will have some differing stance or interpretation of these words/concepts. As a consequence, “parry” has many narrow definitions depending on who you talk to. Some see it as any defensive maneuver that aims to stop or prevent a strike from hitting you. Others put forth the idea that parries are not “hard blocks” or “static blocks” as these would be antithetical to swordplay. Some want to parry with the edge, other want to exclusively parry with the flat. Some say that parries and blocks are different things. The differing expressions run the gamut.
The character “Ge 格” can be similarly translated and has therefore, the same differences in interpretation as in other languages. Like “Xi 洗“, the word as it is used in Ming Dynasty texts has evolved over time. The word also has many non sword or combat related uses, muddying the waters even further. Today the word is used mostly to mean a framework, style, pattern, or standard. This comes from the old senses of the word meaning boundaries, frames, shelves, partitions etc. Ge has the implication of creating boundaries around something. This can be conceptual or literal. This “partitioning and containing” idea is most likely the primary sense that is being extrapolated for sword technique.
Defense or offense?
One thing we should address before continuing is about offensive, (striking), versus defensive, (parrying), techniques. The line between them is exceedingly thin. The same action done with the sword and body can take on any form that the situation calls for. Meaning, the difference between a strike and a block is , often times, a matter of intent. the action that one uses to hit a target is identical to the one where you are defending from the same.
Because of this, there is a lot of overlap between Chinese words used to denote sword techniques. As we will see, 格 and many of its related techniques are used to strike the opponent and not the weapon. Many other offensive techniques are used to defend. So what is it that we are really talking about?
Some movements and actions will lend themselves more commonly to either offense or defense. From there, such things can be specifically talked about in relation to their performance rather than their semantics. This is why 格 , as it is thought of today, as well las the other of the four words, are most usefully seen as categories and not specific techniques. We have other ways of talking about the specific types of parry or block when discussing actual fencing.
Which bring us to…
The practical issues
No matter what type of sword you use with what art from what part of the world, the weapon its self does not significantly differ from place to place. The materials used, the context they were found in, and specific features will vary, but the basic principles of a sharpened metal bar are fairly universal.
There are three main ways to prevent a sword blow from hitting you using your weapon. You can receive the blow on your weapon. This is simply placing your weapon between you and the incoming blow. You can deflect it away from you. This involves having the angle of the weapons such that the momentum from the blow is directed away from the defender. And finally you can beat the incoming blow. This entails striking at the incoming blow with the intent to stop it or divert it.
From there you can get further permutations. If you receive a blow but do so before they have finished their arc, this is called “interception”. If you receive a blow and hold it it is called “binding”. etc. This is true of the way we express an evolving understanding of something. As we look back on fencing and fighting with swords, we can see added sophistication to the terminology used. 格, alone, no longer suffices in describing a technique. Is it passive? Is it active? Are you countering at the time time or are you waiting to respond at a certain moment? We now have words for these sophistications in understanding. So, as Li TianJi has said, the old words are not used much anymore in favor of more descriptive or accurate concepts.
Martial arts texts
The definition and origin of the use of 格 is relatively simple compared to the different aspects of the interpretation of 格. The word appears most prominently in Ming and Qing era texts. Mao Yuan Yi茅元儀, from whom these four characters are ostensibly the origin, uses it again, as a classification of technique rather than a technique in and of its self. He identifies three “blocking methods” two of them appear in the text and one of them does not. In the text it’s self, there are four methods of blocking described. These are given traditional names rather than single characters. But the use of the Character 格 is established at least at the end of the Ming in 1624 or so.
By the time of Song Wei-Yi, this had started to be expounded upon. Song did not publish his Treatise until 1930, but it is the next extensive written description of the technique in a martial art’s text that I am aware of:
There are five parrying methods: Left, right, following, connecting, launching.”
This trend continues during the republican period. Many schools of swordsmanship sprouted up in this era and with it a great diversity of terminology followed. This best exemplified in the 13 methods of WuDang Jian that Li Jingling set down in his method of Wudang Sword. These thirteen technique words were spread through many sources that came through the Central Guo Shu 中央國術館 institute, where Li taught and was an important administrator. Most traditions of Yang Family Taiji use these same 13 characters in their sword arts.
Li did not set anything substantial down in writing himself. But, in 1931, Li’s student Huang Yuanxiu黃元秀 published “Essential Methods of Wu Dang Sword 武當劍法大要”. In it Huang describes the essence of the skills taught by Li, including each of the 13 methods. Most of the skills are printed in a two person format, where the technique is being applied to an opponent. This is the closest we have to an actual book of fencing and fighting with swords explicitly. Some of the descriptions and photos are difficult to decipher, but it represents a good view on one interpretation of these words.Basically, Huang describes two types of 格; Xia Ge下格, upward blocking （literally “Underneath block”), Fan ge 翻格 flipping blocks:
下格。以中陰劍。斜勢由下向上格敵之腕。身體偏向右方。故右足實而左足虛。左手戟指。作半圓形。即第三套下節。上格腕式。如第十六圖。○Huang Yuanxiu黃元秀 Major Methods of Wu Dang Sword 武當劍法大要
For upward blocking, use a “Chong yin” 中陰 position to go diagonally upward from below, performing “ge” to your opponent’s wrist. Lean the body to the right. Your right foot is full, left foot empty. Left hand sword finger. Make a semicircle. This occurs in the later part of Section Three of the set: “Upper bock to the wrist” See photo 16:
翻格以避敵近身之劍。而翻格其腕。此法奇險。非身法虛靈。手法圓活者。不可用也。卽第一套翻格帶腰之翻格式。上手行格腕時如十七圖。Huang Yuanxiu黃元秀 Major Methods of Wu Dang Sword 武當劍法大要
Flipping blocks are to avoid the enemy’s sword when it is close to your body. Then, use the flipping parry at his wrist. This technique is unusually risky. If your body is not nimble or your hands not lively, you cannot use it. This occurs in Section One of the sparring set: “B, do an overturned block, then a dragging cut to A’s waist.” See photo 17 (blocking to the wrist):
Later in the 20th century, Li TianJi furthered the development of Wudang Jian while within the Wushu apparatus in China while the sport was still growing. Li focused more on Song’s writing, even including portions of Song treatise in his own book, Wu Dang sword Art武當劍術. Li’s method seems to try to expand upon the previous ideas set down, yet also makes an attempt to bring the method into the future. 格, to Li, was one of the four fundamental types of technique, like Mao, but includes Song’s descriptions of how these are manifest.
用劍尖或劍刃前端挑開對手的進攻或兵器。現代多稱為挑劍， 挂劍。武當劍中稱左右挂劍為順格，連格，上挑為沖天格， 左跳為左格，右挑為右格或反格。 Ge uses the tip of the sword or Use the forward edge to pick(tiao) to open the opponents hand or weapon. In modern times we have many names for these actions like Tiao Ge (flicking/picking parry), and Gua Ge (hanging parry). In Wudang swordsmanship, left and right hanging parries are called, “Shun Ge” and “Lian Ge”. High flicks are called “Chung ge”. Left flicks are Left Ge, and Right flicks are Right ge or reverse ge.Li Tianji 李天驥 Wu Dang Sword Art 武當劍術
Lastly, Yu Chenghui in the later part of the 20th century, created a two handed sword set based on some the Ming Dynasty concepts and writings. In his formulation of such, he uses the four words as a guide to the basic actions of the Jian. He classifies 格 as the “hard defense”, meaning it is uses to stop or directly oppose incoming attacks. The soft defense of Xi is for deflection.
Beside the direct descriptions of 格 in the literature, 格 serves as a category and genre of defensive techniques. I am using the general idea of Ge as “to parry”. Again, different schools have different traditions and teaching aides, but we will talk about the sources here and my own learning and practical experience. I welcome any other interpretations and or expressions of this material.
There are a few techniques which fall under 格 in Chinese sword tradition. The two main expressions of this are; Ti提 raise and Ya壓 press. Other words like Gua挂 to hang, Tiao挑 pluck, flick or carry. Other schools have other chatters that can be included here. The difficulty with any of this comes down to and action can be offensive or defensive, a strike or a parry, depending on what the situation is at the time. So some interpretation is almost always needed.
Ya壓 press, is the opposite of 提 where a downward press defends from a strike from underneath. It is very good at dealing with thrusts. Being able to cover and divert the weapon away while maintaining your own positioning.
Use the flat of the blade to press down on top of the opponents’s sword. There are many uses for the flat of the blade in the middle and the rear.Li Tianji 李天驥 Wu Dang Sword Art 武當劍術
Ti (提 raise) is a common defensive technique. This is analogous to the “Hanging Parry” from western styles of fencing. It is the raising of the sword which defends. Jin Yi-Ming in “Dragon Shaped Sword” uses 提 one half of the “hanging parry”:
提:提勁於劍尖。劍柄在上。劍尖朝下謂之提。由左上方向右前下方。虎口朝下。掌心朝外。此法用截取敵人手腕。Jin, Yiming金一明 Dragon Shaped Sword 龍形劍
Ti: Guide the energy to the sword tip. To have the handle up and the tip down is called carrying. From the upper left, go forward to the lower right, the tiger’s mouth facing downward, the center of the palm facing outward. This technique is used to cut the opponent’s wrist.”
Means “to hang” or “to suspend”. It is partner to 提, being on the opposite side of the body, as described by Yi Jin-Ming:
“挂:提勁於劍尖前裏鋒。由右上方向左下方。謂之挂虎口朝左後方。掌心朝前下方。此法專為擊落敵人器械而用。Jin, Yiming金一明 Dragon Shaped Sword 龍形劍
Gua: Guide the energy to the sword tip and forward section of the inside edge. To go from the upper right to the lower left is called hanging(Gua). The tiger’s mouth faces to the left and behind. The center of the palm faces forward and downward. This technique focuses on knocking down the opponent’s weapon.
Both are high parries that take advantage of upward movement and a downward slope of the blade.
Tiao挑 is more difficult to decipher. 挑 has been classified in a few different ways through the years. Most generally, it involves the tip striking or flicking up to do a parry or strike. The action being with the tip makes it common to be talked about when speaking of Ci 刺 techniques. It can be used as an offensive technique, but as the years approach the 20th century, the meaning seems to have morphed from a flicking with the tip for a upward dotting strike, to a quick parry with the tip. The attacking method was mostly replaced by Beng崩 meaning essentially the same thing.
挑 means to carry on the end of pole or carry something out on the end of a pole. This gloss can be a little hard to grasp with this technique. It can also mean to pluck, flick, choose, and incite. But the feeling of manipulating or feeling resistance at the end of your blade is the main idea being expressed. Song Wei-Yi describes using 挑 as a type of 格:
To parry(格) is also to Flick (挑). Parry left, following hand flick. Parry right, Phoenix hand flick Link two parries and flick to each side. But, to perform the launching parry, you must go low and flick straight up. “
Li Tian Ji Describes the mechanics of using the tip and the forward edges of the tip to create the technique:
Ge uses the tip of the sword or the forward edges to pick(挑) open the opponents attack or weapon. In modern times we have many names for these actions like Tiao Ge (Plucking parry), and Gua Ge (hanging parry).”
Li specifically indicates that this actions done with the tip. It is used to either attack the hand or the weapon. This is done with the end of the sword blade and not the body as is often the custom for parries. It depends on quick disruptive beats and deflections with the tip of the sword.
Jie 截，Sao 掃，Liao 撩
As the sophistication of a sport or activity becomes more developed, more and more details are added to its descriptions. As mentioned before, the idea of a “parry” is not a simple one and encompasses a great many actions. Moves like Jie- to intercept, Sao-to sweep, and Liao-to lift up skirt categories. Sometimes being defensive and at other times offensive. Yet, they are often found in blocking roles during free combat. As with any category or group of related ideas, there is bound to be some over lap and debate on the criteria for inclusion in the group.
A mention should be made about the common instructions to target the wrist. In many of the photographs we have, one fighter is often making a touch at the wrist of their opponent. This instruction is a very common one in later period manuals from the 1930’s on. In fact, the idea of cutting the wrist has become fundamental to Chinese Jianfa in some circles. But what exactly does it do and what can that tell us about things?
At first glance, emphasizing a cut to the wrist would most likely be from a “first blood” type dueling culture or society. While that may be the case, we simply have no evidence of such a thing at this time. Another possibility is that it is a polite and gentlemanly thing to do in practice or in a duel. Rather than going for the hand and fingers, a much more vulnerable and critical target, going for the wrist can preserve your opponent’s hand from injury and weapon from damage.
The interesting thing about the wrist being targeted with Ge is that it is being presented as a defensive technique. As an actual method for dealing with attacks in free sparring, it is worthless. Simply striking the wrist will not stop anything from hitting you. It works with stabs when you get out of the way. But any strike from above or the side will hit you with no impediments.
If, however, you target the weapon or blade of the opponent, the technique works amazing well. Not just as a parry to protect your self, but it also positions you with your sword tip on their line, setting up for a thrust. The action is easy to perform and offers more follow up options.
Flat vs edge (劍面或劍刃-sword face or blade edge)
The argument over wether to parry with the flat or the edge of the blade is not a new one. Nor is it limited to discussions of Chinese Jianfa. If one spends almost any time in sword circles, they will have come across one person or another claiming that parries should only be done with the flat of the blade and never the edge. Interestingly, I don’t see the converse argument made much, that one should never parry with the flat. It seems that the question really is “do you include edge parries in your system or not”? There are some universally accepted uses for the flat of the blade in defensive actions. But what about the edge? Won’t that destroy your sword?
If one makes the argument that Chinese Swordplay in general never uses the edge in parries, this is a difficult proposition to prove. Absolutes are almost never correct, especially when applied to something as dynamic as fighting or swordplay. There is a rather large gulf between the days when swords were used primarily for defense and fighting and today when they are used mostly for sport and recreation. Being separated from a time when these things were common place and many people were aware of some basic facts about swords and swordplay can allow some rather spurious claims to survive longer than their shelf life.
Practically speaking, it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where you could avoid all parries with the edge. Just by virtue of two independent non-cooperative opponents swinging blades at each other, edge to edge contact would seem to be inevitable. Historical artifacts show a large variety of edge damage on combat weapons. Also, a variety of edge tempers and hardnesses are able to be seen in historical swords. Peter Dekker of Mandarin Mansion explains that Swords from all periods show variation between specimens. Sometimes this can be a result of a smiths mistake, or the carbon content of the steel used. Other times it can be deliberate. A hard edge cuts well, but is more difficult to repair and can chip easier. A softer edge blunts easily, but is easier to repair and resharpen. If the weapon is being used against an unarmored opponent, the need for a fine hard edge is diminished a bit.
There is no specific directive to only parry with the flat that I have seen. 格 techniques seem to encompass both strategies. And within the texts, not much has been delineated along those lines. Li TianJi advocates using the edge for 格, the flat for 壓, but does not state a preference for either. There does not seem to be any explicit instructions of flat versus edge in any of the Wudang published material even by Li’s time. But even in these sources, which are no way a complete picture of Chinese Jianfa, there is a mix of edge and flat parries. There do seem to be a number of modern practitioners and authors who have latched onto this of “never using the edge” idea and ran with it.
So, we cannot see much evidence one way or the other from the textual evidence. Here we find another problem. There are very few records of any duels, or sword fights either in the written record or the visual record. While wrestling matches, boxing fights, and other public forms of sport fighting existed, there seems to be a void where the accounts of swordplay should be. Therefore, we can not rely on outside observers. Nor can we rely on local accounts that could shed light on the issue. Even photographs of actual fencing contests are so few as to be non existent.
So, without actual footage of fencing with swords, or accounts from outside observers, we are left with photos and film of two person sets and exercises. While these are not true combat or very representative of what real sword duels look like, it may give us a glimpse into their philosophy on this particular question of edge versus flat. There also may be some authors who have directed to never use the edge in defense. I have access to only a small number of period texts. Although with sites like Brennan Translation, many more texts are becoming accessible to practitioners all over. More research into this question is needed. If there is such a prohibition, I would be very curious to see where and when it began.
Obviously, more research is needed for a better discussion of this topic. But from a practical view point, with the limited information we have now, I think it is safe to assume that both edge and flat are useful in defending one from another sword or blade. There is also swords interacting with other weapons like spears, staffs, and other shaft or long weapons. For our purposes in discussing the parry, it seems prudent not to assume an absolute stance on the question.
The Techniques in Action
At the end of the day, much this discussion is academic. In reality, we protect ourselves any way we can. We also bring all of our skills to each encounter. If we train well and test our training against others, many of these questions answer themselves. But we always want to be wary of reaching the limits of our ability and reaching the limits of the techniques potential. These two things are not the same.
Keep in mind that each of these sources is a little different in their approach. The earliest writing on these techniques are from military manuals who’s intent is to train soldiers in as efficient way as possible. Even the more advanced material is intended for generals and commanders and has only a tangental relation to single combat. The Republic period was gripped by a movement called “New Physical Education” (Xin Tiyu: 新體育) which spurred on physical culture in a new way. Martial arts publications were concerned with bringing Chinese traditional exercise and philosophy into the movement that was dominated by Western sports and conditioning. Finally, into the modern era and the structure of Wushu that framed the time period.
Each of these periods represent a point in Jianfa’s evolution.
This is, of course, not the final interpretation. Everyone who takes up the art will add a little to it. Our understanding of terms and techniques can be fraught with obstacles. Through history even written materials are subject to linguistic drift, copy error, and misinterpretations. We can’t often know the true intent of any author or creator this far after the fact. But, we can try to reproduce the conditions that affected them in their time. From there, it is up to us to try to make sense of things. Not only historically. But physically and practically as well. We are subject to the facts and realities of our time as well. We must accept that what ever we figure out, we are applying it to our own game. But, being guided by past knowledge is always a good habit to cultivate.
Further reading/Selected bibliography
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 (translation available: –The Major Methods of Wudang Sword. Translated by Dr. Mei -Hui Lu: Wu Na Chang. Berkeley, Calif.: Blue Snake Books, ©2010. and Brennan Translation)
Jin, Yiming金一明著. Wu Bei Cong Shu. chu ban. ed. Vol. C047, 君子劍 Jun Zi Jian. Tai bei shi: Yi wen wu shu wen hua chu ban, 2005. (Chinese only)
-龍形劍 Long Xing Jian, 新亞書店印行 New Asia Press Oct, 1932 [translation by Paul Brennan, Feb, 2011](Translation available at Brennan Translation)
Li Tianji; Li Deyin, Li Defang. 李天驥，李得印，李得芳，武當劍術 Wudang jian shu: Li Tianji bian zhu ; Li Deyin, Li Defang zhu bian.: Wu Dang Sword Method. Ren min ti yu chu ban she : Xin hua shu dian Beijing fa xing suo fa xing, 1988. (Chinese only)
Mao, Yuanyi茅元億. 武備志Wu Bei Zhi. [China: s.n. ; not before, 1644] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004633695/. (Chinese only. Sword section translation available here: ChaoXian Shifa.)
Song Wei-yi 宋唯一: Wudang Jian Pu 武當劍譜: