Like it or not, the continued existence of Chinese martial arts through the later part 20th century is largely due to modern Wushu. Many deride the modern sport as being a corruption of traditional martial art, trading substance for flash. And it is true, the current level of the sport is very far removed from the traditional arts that inspire it. However, Modern Wushu actually plays a very important role in the survival of traditional martial arts and helps set the stage for our current foray into historical research and experimentation.
Chinese martial arts had a hard time of it in the later half of the 20th century. The new programs and economic policies of Communism had an enormous detrimental effect on the practice of martial arts. Participation in martial arts waned. Contrary to popular belief, the government’s effort to create Wushu was a way to preserve the practice of martial arts in China. While the government didn’t explicitly ban the practice of martial arts, the Cultural Revolution was hard as well. The Red Army aggressively forbade the practice of anything feudal or superstitious. The local officials and police were unable to to protect the traditional martial artists, bonesetters, and herbalists and so, many of the institutions in which these people served, like schools, apothecaries, and university programs, were dismantled. Many styles and schools had to go underground. But, the practice of Wushu continued though out this troubled time, although not without their own issues. But, because of the sport of Wushu, many styles were able to find relevance later in the competitive arenas, and thus, were able to survive into the present day.
Much of this is due to the fact that many of the famous Wushu masters and founders were from traditional backgrounds. This, of course, was more common in the early days when there was no set Wushu curriculum to follow. Almost all of the Wushu athletes were from traditional arts in the beginning. In my career as a student, I have had the great fortune to train with a few of them, and while I was also dismissive of the sport, my experience with these individuals has widened my perspective entirely and given me a profound respect for what these people had accomplished. The masters that began the sport back in 1958 all come from storied backgrounds and offer the best parts of themselves to the creation of the sport. One of these individuals is, Li Tianji.
Li Tianji 李天骥
Master Li Tian Ji (1915-1996) is best known in Chinese Martial arts circles as the inventor of the 24 step Taijiquan set. He was in fact, a fiercely traditional minded artist, but desired to see his beloved arts passed on to new generations. His teachers include his father – Li Yu Lin (李玉琳), and his teacher, Sun Lu Tang (孙禄堂), as well as Zhang Zhao Dong (张兆东), and Li Jing Lin (李景林). He has written books on many internal arts like Wudang Sword, Xingyi, and Chinese Martial arts in general among others. To this date only two of his books have been translated into English.
He learned the Wudang Sword system from his father and later, Li Jinglin. This is the ostensible extension of Song Wei-Yi’s lineage. Li knew this and readily talked about it, even though his form and system had significant differences. His knowledge of Wudang Swordsmanship was extensive, and his influence on modern Jianfa should not be understated. his years at the Shandong Martial Arts Academy allowed him access to many famous masters and styles of the Republican era, including Li JingLin and Wudang Sword.
He graduated from the Shandong Martial Arts Academy in 1931, becoming a professor, the executive of the Harbin Wushu Federation, soon after and the first head coach of the Chinese Wushu Team in 1955. In 1956 created the first standardized forms in Chinese history: 24-Form Simplified Taijiquan and 32-Form Simplified Taiji Sword. Because of this, he is often called “The Father of Modern Wushu”. He has trained in many arts, but is best known for his practice of Taiji, Bagua, Xing Yi and swordsmanship.
WuDang Swordsmanship 武当剑术
The following is an excerpt from Li’s book on Wudang sword, Wudang Jianshu武当剑术, published in 1988. The book is a fairly complete introduction to the practice of sword skills that Li trained and taught. It contains history, basics, training drills, a solo form, and two matching sets (two person forms that resemble fighting). The book ends with excerpts from Song Wei-Yi’s treatise from the 1920’s.
The selections here are of Li’s description of the various characters and words used in Wudang Swordsmanship. Seeing that much of this blog is devoted to the linguistic intersections, this was a good place to begin. Li’s definitions, and interpretations of these words are a fairly good representation of what the general consensus on them would be. This is no surprise as it is due to Li’s efforts that Wudang Jian is so well represented in Wushu. The sheer number of students he has taught over the years can begin to illustrate his reach. For this reason, his views are required reading for anyone wishing a well informed position on such topics.
This also is a good illustration of the type of evolution we see in the development of these styles. From the four words of Mao Yuanyi, through the 13 Methods of Li JingLin, and into the modern day terms used in addition to these, Li presents a continuum that reaches back to the Ming Dynasty. This shows a microcosm of what inevitably happens with living traditions. Even within a frame work, individual interpretations always come into play. These diverge and specialize, creating many terms and a wide range of meanings. While this is a problem for translators and historians, martial artists are in a unique place to benefit from this discussion. We are bound, mostly, by practicality. Knowing the ways other interpret material can be very helpful in understanding one’s own. It is in this spirit, that I offer this translated excerpt.
Four Methods Sword
古代劍法把擊，刺，格，洗，四種劍法，祢為四母劍法. 武當劍術對此四法十分重視認為“凡舞劍者， 即用劍四法， 四法互柏連環， 憑空擊舞，用之得當，則取勝如反掌“。
In ancient times, Ji, Ci, Ge, and Xi were considered to be the seeds of all swordsmanship and called the “Four Mother Sword [techniques]”. In Wudang swordsmanship, these four methods are very important, “All those who brandish the sword, using the four methods, and combine them into a continuous whole, dancing at night (practiced alone), properly used, will be victorious.”
The Ancient meanings are not the same as the modern ones. Some of the methods are still in use today, while others have changed meanings, and some old names have been abandoned replaced by new ones. Now, according to the Order of Wudang Sword techniques, the Four Methods are explained as follows:
擊-用劍尖或劍刃前端一至三寸處,短促抖腕發力, 如敲擊鐘磬。可上下點擊,類似現代點劍、崩劍。也可左右 斜擊或平擊。其中劍端向小指一側方向擊出稱“正擊”,如向 下、向左擊頭、擊腕等動作;劍端向拇指一側方向擊出為“反 擊”,如擊(貫)耳、扣腕等。擊法動作,在現代劍術中亦多 使用。
Strike- Use the tip of the sword or the forward one to three inches of the edge and sharply shake your wrist like striking a bell. You can employ a vertical dotting strike, like the modern ‘dot’ and ‘flicking’ sword. You may also swipe flat left and right. Among them, if you strike toward the little finger toward to the pommel it is called a “Proper Strike”. If down, moving the pommel leftward, the wrist will make the movement; when the blade end of the sword goes toward the thumb sideways, it is called a “reverse strike”, like striking with the wrist. The strike is still used in modern swordplay.
刺——用劍尖部位沿劍身方向直取對方。古代現代皆為 主要劍法,廣泛應用。刺劍分為平劍刺(劍身成水平面),立 劍刺(劍身成豎直面)兩類。刺劍方向可前後,可左右;也 可斜上取頭頸,斜下取足膝。結合步法、身法多種變換,又 有進刺、退刺、獨立刺、跳步刺、騰空刺、換手刺、轉身刺、連環刺等各種形式和方法。
Sting/stab- Use the tip of the sword to strike the opponent straight along the direction of the blade. This is the technique used most by both ancient and modern swordplay. Ci techniques are divided into two types; flat stabs (the body of the sword is in the horizontal plane) and Standing (vertical) stabs (the sword body is in the vertical plane). The direction Ci techniques can be used is forward and backward, left and right, they can angle up to reach the head and neck, and angle down to hit the knee. Combined with footwork and body work techniques, many variations can be realized, like; Advancing thrust, retreating thrust, isolated thrust, leaping thrust, flying thrust, changing hand thrust, turning body thrust, connected thrust, each being seed for various methods.
格-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。
Parry- Ge uses the tip of the sword or the forward edge to flick and open the opponents hand or weapon. In modern times we have many names for these actions like Tiao Ge (flicking 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.
洗-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。
Deflect-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 exactlty defined, so the word “Xi” is not often used today.”
Wudang Sword Methods have been deduced and refined by Li JingLin and assembled into the “13 methods”. In addition to the aforementioned four methods of striking, stabbing, blocking, and deflecting, the other nine are described as follows:
抽—劍刃由前向後滑動攻擊。現代抽法多用立劍。平 抽擊則稱為“帶”。在傳統劍法中,曾有陰手為“抽”,陽手 “帶”的分法。
Draw- The blade slides from front to back to attack. Standing Sword is often used with drawing methods. Flat strokes are called “Girdle” cuts. In traditional swordsmanship there used to be a division between “Drawing with the Yin Hand, and “Girdling” with the Yang Hand.
帶—包括直帶、平帶兩種。直帶指立劍由前向後抽擊, 代已統稱為“抽”。平帶指劍刃向左或向右弧形斜帶,揮臂 要,力在鋒刃,均勻悠長。
Girdle- this includes both straight girdle and flat girdle. Straight girdle uses standing sword and draws back and forth from front to back, these were called by the ancients collectively “Drawing”. Flat Girdling refers to the edge pointing left or right and swung in an arc, swinging the arm is important, see the force in the edge even and long.
Lift- bend the wrist and lift the arm to draw the sword back and up, the blade is vertical. Wudang swordsmanship, the turnoff the forearm inward is mostly used for the backhand draw.
Dot-Bend the wrist to press down and peck down. The sword body is standing (vertical). Put the strength in the tip, short and powerful.
崩-屈腕上翹,使劍尖由下向上啄擊。劍身成立劍, 称上崩。若使劍尖由左向右啄擊,劍身成平劍,稱平崩。若後臂內旋, 屈腕下壓,使劍尖由下向上啄擊,劍身成反手立劍, 称後崩。崩劍力貫劍尖,沉臂屈腕,陡然發力。
Flick/collapse-Bend the wrist so that the tip of the sword flicks up to peck from underneath. The sword body is standing, which is called upward flick. If the sword pecks from left to right with a flat body, it is called “flat flick”. If the rear arm is rotated inward, bend the wrist and press down, the tip goes from form bottom to top to peck, the sword body becomes a backhand or “reverse” standing sword, and flicks. In Flicking sword, the energy goes straight through the tip, drop your arms and bend your wrists producing force suddenly.
Chop-The sword cuts from top to bottom of diagonally. The sword body is either standing or inclined, the swing is big, the speed is fast, and the force is focused in the front middle portion of the blade.
截– 用劍刃橫斷擋阻，斜攻對方。可用平劍阻手向左平截，陰手向右平截; 用立劍從左側向下正截。 也可后手由下而上后截。截劍重在避正取斜，俐向迎擊，用劍刃切斷對方來勢。快速突然，力在劍刃前部。
Intercept-Use the swords edge to block across obstacles and attack the opponent diagonally. You can use a flat sword to block the hand with “Left Flat Ji”, and use yin hand (palm down) to “Flat Ji” to the Right, use the “standing sword” from the left side to underneath for a proper Interception. The focus of interception is to avoid the frontal and take the diagonal, quickly move to meet the strike, use the edge to cut off the opponents attack. Be swift and sudden, keep the force in the forward edges of the weapon.
攪—揮劍作立圓繞環。一般在練習中, 劍尖和劍柄圈 繞立度不同。如劍尖圈繞立圓較小, 劍身運動軌跡成前錐體形。相反,如劍尖圈繞立圓較大,則劍身運動軌跡則成倒錐體形。
Stir- Swing the sword in a vertical circle. In practice, the degree of winding between the hilt and the tip varies. For example, if the tip circles smaller than the hilt, the shape is that of a cone. If the circle around the tip is larger, the shape will be that of an inverted cone.
Press-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.
Other commonly used methods used for the sword.
“The 13 methods” are not the exhaustive example of Wudang Swordsmanship. The number 13 merely coincides with the “Five Elements” and the “Eight Trigrams” and changes them to the martial arts tradition of the “Five Steps” and the “Eight Directions”. Here, some other common sword techniques are presented.
撩-用下劍刃前端由下向前上揮臂攻擊稱為前撩; 如 用劍下刃自下向後上揮臂攻擊, 稱後撩。前後撩劍, 力點皆 在下劍刃前端, 故皆為反手, 前臂須配合內旋或外旋。
Swipe-use the lower front edge of the sword to strike from underneath to the front is called “forward swipe”. If you, using the lower front edge, swing the arm from the bottom to the back, it is called “reverse swipe”. When sweeping back and forth, the point of force is at the forward portion of the lower blade (true edge), therefore they are all backhands, and the forearm must be rotated inward and outward.
掛—用上劍刃前端挑開對方。 按運動方向可分為前掛、 後掛、左掛、右掛、上掛等。掛劍時需揮臂轉腰,虎口上翹, 力在劍刃前端。
Hang- use the lower front edge of the sword to lift and open the opponent. Depending on the orientation of movement, it can be divided into, front hang, rear hanging, left, right, and upper hanging. When using hanging sword, you must swing your arms and turn your waist. The tiger’s mouth is lifted up, the strength is focused on the forward edge of the front portion of the blade.
Smear-the blade is flat, the edges slide left and right in an arc. The point of force slides from the back of the blade to the front, and the forces relatively light.
Cut—The blade is flat, the swords edge swings left or right. The point of force is in the edge of the center or forward portion, it is fixed, the force is relatively strong.
Sweep—Sword bodies flat, turn the waist and swing the arm, using the lower edge of the sword, strike horizontally, take a big swing, the strength is centered in the front half of the blade.
Cloud—Sword body is flat, the sword is at the head and face or close to the chest, the sword rotates horizontally with the wrist as the axis.
Encircle- By the center of the sword body, the tip and hilt both make a vertical circle together.The movement makes the shape of two cones connected at their peaks.
Wrist flower—the sword body is is held vertically, the sword is on the side of the arm, with the wrist as an axis, do a vertical circle.
Press-the blade is parallel to the ground, slice and press down from the top to the bottom. The point of force is in the middle to back of the blade.
托—劍刃與地面平行, 由下向上托舉。力點在劍刃前 部、中部或後部。
Support with the hand- the blade is held parallel to the ground and lifted from low to high. The strength is centered either on the front, middle or back of the blade.
Pierce—The blade extends out through the length of the body to the side of the arm or through the armpit.
This is the briefest of introductions to the work of Li TianJi. I hope to bring more material out for this great figure in the history of modern Jianfa. His take on the common characters here can benefit as all by comparing and contrasting our understanding and the way we were taught. All of the instructions are easy enough to follow and put into practice. We have the benefit of sparing weapons and protective gear, so we can test these techniques closer to the limit of intensity of that which they were intended to work. Through that practice, the hope is more schools of Jianfa will include live fencing in their curriculum. In this way we can pick up the torch, and advance the cause of swordsmanship into the future. And in very real ways, we can see how we are all connected through our love of martial arts.
(This book is very hard to find in the USA. As of this writing I do not have a reliable source from which to buy this book. Local searches of Chinese language bookstores is probably one’s best chance of finding it or someone who can get it for you. Li Tianji has two books that have been translated into english: The Skill of Xingyiquan and A Guide to Chinese Martial Arts).