Blog, Ma Xianda, Tong Bei Studies, Translations

Ma Xianda: A brief history of Duan Bing and its characteristics-短兵格斗简史及其特点

The cover of “Chinese Duan Bing” by Ma Xianda

The following is a selection from the book “Chinese Duan Bing” by my teacher’s father, Ma Xianda. Ma Xianda is probably best known for his contributions to Modern Wushu and teaching Jet Li what would become his specialty set, Fanziquan. In fact, Ma Xianda was the inheritor of an important martial arts lineage of traditional martial arts and the Ma family have been at the forefront of most of the major modern events in Chinese fighting  arts. He contributed to the first Wushu curriculum, the integration of western sports methods and ideas, and was one of the principle developers of the sport of Chinese fencing, known as Duan Bing. 

Ma Xianda

Duan Bing was a part of the original line up of Wushu in the 1950’s. Most people are unaware of the fencing sport that put to use the forms and movements of tao lu into a practical purpose. Bare handed arts had San Da, and Jian and Dao had Daun Bing. The Ma Family has been involved from the beginning and it was Ma XianDa and his brother Ma Yingda who competed in the very first event at the national level. Duan Bing goes back further in the Ma Family having its roots in military exercise and recreation.   

Ma Xianda (right) with his brother Ma Yingda (left) competing in the 1953 National Duan Bing Tournament

The Ma Family has done much to improve and expand the Wushu curriculum and bring a modern approach to traditional martial arts. This book, as far as I am aware, is the first book on the sport of Duan Bing to be published in China. It is a complete text on the sport including rules, training, and strategy. Ma Xianda’s comments on the sport and its development are important to all of wushu and Chinese weapon arts. As he states in this introduction, even the traditional schools of Chinese swordsmanship have been without an arena in which to test the skills set down by the various systems. Duan Bing set out to provide just that arena. 

Ma Xianda as National Champion in 1953

The sport has developed since this publication, evolving into more and more formal sporting areas, developing protective gear, standardized weapons, working out rule sets and officiating. Much of this work is still being done by the Ma Family at the Jian’Gong Academy headed by Ma Xianda’s younger brother, Ma Mingda and his son, Ma Lianzhan. Ma Yue, my teacher, has also been working with us here in the states to develop and popularize the practice to a wider audience here. With the rise of HEMA and the development of new training weapons and gear, the future of Duan Bing looks bright. 

Ma Xianda training with his son Ma Yue.

A full biography of Ma Xianda is warranted, but more information on Ma family Tong Bei martial arts can be found here. This will be the first of a series of sections, the translations of which I will post in the coming months. 


(There are two different words for swords in the Chinese languages; Jian剑 and Dao刀. Jian is the double edged straight sword and dao are single edged sabers, knives, and cleavers. For this piece ‘sword’ will be used for ‘jian’ and ‘saber’ for ‘dao’. )


A brief history of Duan Bing and its characteristics

短兵,是中国武术兵刃中以剑、刀为代表的短兵器的总 称。它是两兵相交、相较、相抗、击刺、相搏的对抗性格斗武 术形式, 而非剑、刀术套路演练和套路竞技的形式。在中国漫长 的武术史、剑刀史上,自近代火药武器的广泛应用以来,热兵 器逐渐取代了冷兵器在兵事和武备上的作用,武术以及武术中 的各类兵刃,其对抗、格斗、斩击的较艺作用,在逐渐地衰微 和削弱,于是其技法上的演练,有向武艺美化、表演化的形态 发展的趋势。即使是十分传统的武术流派、拳种,虽在传授上 重技击、言实战、讲用法,但在实质上却缺少检验和校正实用 技法的手段。故在长期的历史进程中,一些优秀的技能、拓 式,因缺少验证的方法和机遇,而难以鉴别其技法、招式的质 地。在浩瀚的武术门类中,出现鱼龙混杂或鱼目混珠的现象 说在所难免,但从某种意义上来说,却阻碍了武术技能健康、 正确的发展。

“Duan Bing” (Short weapon) is a general term for short weapons as represented by swords and sabers in Chinese martial arts. It is a form of competitive martial art in which two combatants engage, compete, confront each other with stabs and hits, rather than performing sword and saber routines and drills for performance competitions. In the long history of martial arts and swords in China, and ever since the widespread application of gunpowder weapons in modern times, firearm weapons have gradually replaced the role of cold weapons in military affairs and armament. The combative arts are gradually declining and weakening, so the practice of their techniques have a tendency to develop into the form of martial arts intended for beautification and performance. Even in very traditional martial arts schools and styles, although they teach and speak of true heavy combat and usage, they lack the means to test and correct practical techniques in their essence. Therefore, in the long-term, it is difficult to qualify excellent skills and techniques due to the lack of opportunities to verify them properly. In the vast variety of martial arts, it is inevitable that there will be bad apples or wooden nickels*, but in a sense, this hinders the healthy and correct development of martial arts skills.

* [The phrases “鱼龙混杂” and “鱼目混珠” literally translate as “Fish among Dragons”, and “Fish Eyes among Pearls” respectively.  These are from two sources: Fish among Dragons is from the Tang era “Poetry of the Fisherman” 《和渔夫词》by Zhang Zhihe 张志和. ”Fish eyes among pearls.” is from Giving Liu Kun” 《赠刘琨》by Jin Dynasty author Lu Chen 卢谌. The meaning of the first is describing a group with both bad and good people in it. The second is describing fake things mixed in with real ones.

在源远流长的武术发展的历史长河中,无数的先贤英杰 对改变上述现象倾注过不少心血,但由于历史和自身的局限中国短兵 乙教学训练竞技收效甚微。当今武术领域中的短兵格斗、长兵格斗、徒手散 搏,以及各种不同类型的武技相搏、相较的形式,即使是散存 于各门各派中的竞技形式,亦大都未能形成格局,或者被冷落 于民间,乃至近乎散失。

In the long history of the development of martial arts, countless sages and heroes have devoted much effort to changing the above phenomenon, but due to the limitations of their own and of history, training in Chinese Duan Bing has met with limited success. In today’s landscape of martial arts, ( i.e. short and long-weapon combat, unarmed fighting, as well as various types of comparative martial arts and combat) even the competitive forms scattered in various schools and styles, are still mostly unsuccessful in establishing a framework. This must be established or it will fall to folk tradition, then it will nearly be lost.

本书所说的“短兵”较技形式,它非新生儿,而是中国古 老传统的剑刀格斗技法的延续,根基深远,内涵丰富。对于它 的发生与发展,当从以剑刀法为代表的上古谈起。限于篇幅, 只是求其简述而已。至于剑刀法的历史宏论,当由专项史学家 们去探讨和论证。

The form of “short-weapon combat” mentioned in this book is not a novel practice, but a continuation of the ancient Chinese sword and fencing traditions, with a profound foundation rich in content. As for its invention and development, we should start from the swordsmanship represented in ancient times. Due to space limitations, only a brief description is given. As for the grand historical theory of swordsmanship, it should be discussed and demonstrated by specialists and historians.

第一节 短兵格斗的历史渊源

Section 1: the historical origin of Duan Bing

在中华民族五千年的文明史中,劍刀文化是寓于其中的重 要组成部分。所以称例刀文化源远流长,历史久远,是因为它 是从中华民族的原始劳动中萌生和孕育出来的,并与之同进 步,同发展。在原始人群中,为求生存,与兽斗,与人斗,与 自然斗,进而部族间争斗,虽属生产活动,而争斗所用之械, 又属生产工具,亦含兵器因素。无论石质、木质,或采用自然 用具,乃至应用器具的技能和方法,都是后生兵器的“母 体”。虽说“原始人的狩猎,不是竞技,那是求其生存的真挚 的生产活动”,正是在这一漫长的生产活动中,孕育产生了一 切文化,在格斗技能和运用长短不同、质材相异的工具中,首 当其冲,必以为先的是各式兵杖的萌生。所以说,短兵刃的发 生与发展,与中华民族文化的发生与发展是相机而生的,且在 民族文化的发展进程上,占据了重要位置。

The culture of swords and sabers is an important part of the 5,000 years of Chinese history and civilization. Therefore, it is said that the culture of the sword has had a long history and evolution. This is because it was born and bred from the labor of the Chinese people, and has progressed and developed simultaneously with them. Primitive peoples fought with animals, nature, and other tribes in order to survive. Although it is a productive activity, the production of  tools also included weapons, including the weapons of war,. Whether of stone, wood, or collected materials, in addition to the skills and methods of application, all are the mother of living weapons. While it is is said, “the hunting of primitive man cannot be called competition, it is a sincere productive attempt at survival.” It is from this lengthy period of development from which all cultures were born. Among the different weapons, the first to be brought to bear is the emergence of all kinds of sticks. Therefore, the occurrence and development of short swords coincided with the occurrence and development of Chinese culture. This played an important role in the development of national culture.

今日所称的“短兵”史,就是剑刀史。“短兵”这一称 谓,就是历史上以劍刀为代表的短兵器的总称。当然,严格地井,剑、刀有各自的发展史,刀史就不详述了,仅对在短兵内 函中占据主导地位的剑史加以简述。以明其大概而已。 

The history of Duan Bing is the history of swords(Jian) and sabers(Dao). The term “Duan Bing” is the general term for short weapons such as those represented by swords and sabers through history. Strictly speaking, the saber has its own history. The history of saber will not be discussed in detail, only the history of swords as it relates to Duan Bing will be summarized. 

更远的不谈,仅自公元前770 至前 256 年的东周时期,剑的形制, 已是各式各样,在剑法理论上的“说剑”、“论剑” 以及“剑道”等等,已是十分深奥。剑有长剑、短剑之分,且 形态各异。使剑之法有“斩剑”、“斩击”、“击刺”、“相 击”、“相劈” “遥击”等等,不一而足。纵览中华民族武 术发展史,以及剑刀演进史,可发现公元前数百年间,在剑 里、剑法、剑势、铸造等诸方面就已盛极一时,故它对以后的 演进与发展,奠定了雄厚的基础。

Furthermore, since the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770 BC to 256 BC), the sword has gone through many variations. Within the theory of swordsmanship, there are “sword sayings”, “sword discussion”, and “the way of the sword” etc. all very profound. Swords are divided into long and short swords, and have a variety of different shapes. Creation of the sword’s methods include, “cutting sword”, “cutting strike”, “stab”, “mutual strike”, “mutual chop”,  and “distant strike” to name a few. Looking at the development of Chinese martial arts and the evolution of swords and sabers, it can be seen that for hundreds of years before the common era, the sword, swordsmanship, and sword making had flourished, and so laid the foundation to its future development and evolution. 

例如吴越时期,名扬天下的宝剑铸造者干将、莫邪夫妻两 人,所铸之剑,天下无比,历代史家载于史书典籍,代代相 专。此时,使剑高手,也人才辈出。相传春秋后期,越国女子 (人称“越女”)剑法超群,无人匹敌。越王勾践将伐吴,向 越女求教剑法。越女说:“其道甚微而易,其意甚幽而深。道 有门户,亦有阴阳。凡手战之道,内实精神,外柔安仪;见之 以好妇,夺之似惧虎。布形候气,与神俱往。查之若日,偏若 拳虎;追形逐日,光若佛仿。呼吸往来,不及法禁。纵横吸 顶,直复不闻。斯道者一人当百,百人当万,王欲试之,其验 即见。”越王闻后,对越女的高论表示钦佩,乃命越女教将士 学习在当时无人可以胜过的越女的高超剑技。

For example, in the Wuyue period, the famous swordsmiths Ganjiang and and his wife Mo Xie, forged swords that were unmatched in the world. At this time, swordsmen also came out in great numbers. According to legend, in the late Spring and Autumn Period, the women of the State of Yue (known as the “Yue women”) were superior and unmatched in swordsmanship. King Goujian of Yue was about to attack Wu, and asked the Yue women to teach him swordsmanship.The Yue women said: “The way is very simple and easy, and the meaning is very deep. The Way has portals of Yin and Yang. The way of hand to hand combat, the inner strength of the spirit, the outer softness of peace of mind; seeing a good woman is like the fear of seeing a tiger. Spread the shape in wait, Qi and Spirit go together. The investigation is the sun, the inclination is like a boxing tiger, chasing the shape day after day, the light is like the Buddha. Inhaling and exhaling, coming and going, are not prohibited by method. Vertical and horizontal inhale to the top and remain straight and do not make a sound. A person that follows the Tao should bear 100, 100 men should bear 10,000, if the King wants to verify, it will be promptly shown. After hearing about it, the King of Yue expressed his admiration for the high theory of the Yue women, and ordered the Yue women to teach the soldiers their superb swordsmanship that was unrivaled at that time.” 

春秋时期的越女剑法,及其剑论,成为后世剑坛上著名的 典籍。在两千多年前,以越女为代表的女子剑击、剑论如此高 迢,可以想见,在夫权社会的当时,男子剑法也不会逊色。其 实,在当时剑技、剑论之盛,为后代所推崇和承袭,并在时兴 时落地发展演进着。

In the Spring and Autumn period, the swordsmanship of the Women of Yue and their sword method became famous classics in the canon of sword technique for future generations. More than 2,000 years ago, women’s swordsmanship, as represented by the Yue Women, was quite advanced. It is conceivable that men’s swordsmanship was superior considering the time in society when the husband ruled. In fact, at the time, fencing and sword theory was wide spread, respected and inherited by future generations, and so developed and evolved during times when it was fashionable. 

时至三国时期,曹操的次子,魏文帝曹丕,他作为一代帝中国短兵乙教学训练竞技王,又是建安文学创始人之一的大文豪,其剑术之高超,成为 历史称颂的名剑家之一。曹丕自幼习武,骑射弓矢终身不衰, 更擅长击刺之剑法,阅师甚多,曾从河南史阿学习剑法。并得 京师名剑手王越之正传。一日与善长手搏的奋威将军邓展论 剑,酒酣耳热,两人以甘蔗代剑,比试剑法。曹丕三次击中邓 展手臂。邓展意不平,心不服,再试,邓展又被击中前额。曹 丕与邓展比试剑法的故事,成为后世武坛佳话。我们从此也了 解到两千年前剑法的盛行。其实在以后的历代,剑术(也包括 刀术)在军旅、武事和整个社会中一直居昌盛位置,并在历代 传习进程中,积累了极其丰富的剑论和剑技,为后代留下了十 分宝贵的财富。

During the Three Kingdoms period, Cao Cao’s second son, Cao Pi, Emperor Wen of Wei, taught Duan Bing, training and athletics as a generation of emperors in China. He was also a great writer and one of the founders of Jian’an Literature. His superb swordsmanship has made him one of the most famous and celebrated swordsmen in history. Cao Pi had practiced martial arts since childhood, riding and shooting bows and arrows without end. He was better at swordsmanship and fencing, and had many teachers, he studied fencing from Henan Shi’a and received the true transmission from Wang Yue, a famous master from the capitol.One day, Deng Zhan, the brave general who had good masters, wanted to fence. Drunk on wine, the two used sugar cane in place of their swords, in order to compare swordsmanship. Cao Pi hit Deng Zhan’s arm three times. Deng Zhang was unhappy about this and tried again, only to be hit in the forehead. The story of Dao and Deng’s duel has become a popular story among us current martial artists. We have since learned about the prevalence of swordsmanship two thousand years ago. In fact, in later generations, swordsmanship (as well as saber skill) was used by the military. Military affairs and society as a whole have always been a prosperous station, and in the process of passing it down from generation to generation, it has accumulated a wealth of fencing theory and skills, leaving a valuable resource for future generations. 

自近代以来,因火药武器的广泛应用,取代和削弱了剑刀 法在兵事、武备上的作用,但剑法、剑术和剑本身的社会价值 和精神魄力,依然在人们生活中不亚于当年。记得我的先师先 父马凤图老先生,在向幼年的我传授剑术与剑学时,称剑学是 君子之学。他说:剑,本身形体似一人体,剑纂似人头面,剑 柄似颈部,护手似双肩,剑身似躯体。他老告诫我:佩剑或持 剑,似与君子相伴;身正方可与君子相伍。这是在告诫后代: 身先正,才能以君子之风、君子之德立身。先辈的传授,包含 着极其深刻的武德教育。这正是承袭中国古代文化和礼教的根 本所在。

Since the modern era, the role of swordsmanship in military affairs and as military equipment has been diminished and replaced, due to the advent of gunpowder weapons. But the social value and spiritual power of swordsmanship and the sword itself are still as much a part of people’s lives as it was then. I remember my father and first teacher Mr. Ma Fengtu, when I was young he taught me swordsmanship and sword science , and he called the study of the sword the ‘study of a gentleman’. He said; ‘The sword, it is like the human body; The pommel is like the human head, the handle like the neck, the guard like the shoulders, and the blade is like the torso and body.’ He always warned me; to wear or hold a sword, suggests a gentleman. If you are upright, you can be in the company of gentlemen. This is a warning to posterity; only by being honorable can you use the style of the gentlemen, it is the virtue of the gentleman that is respected. The teachings of the ancestors contain extremely profound martial arts education. This is the essence of inheriting ancient Chinese culture and etiquette.

历史延续至近现代,综观社会名流,乃至达官贵人、学者 士绅,尚剑之风气不减,人们以习剑、尚剑为雅气,即是文人 学士,亦以悬宝剑于厅堂书屋,宜其高雅之风。社会上评其手 臂高下,对善剑者,以剑仙、剑侠、剑胆、剑士、剑客而尊 之。足见剑与剑技在中华文化中的崇高地位。

History has continued to modern times. Looking at social celebrities, even dignitaries, scholars and gentry, the ethos of swordsmanship has not diminished. People practice with swords. People treat swordsmanship as elegant, that is, appropriate for scholars. Swords also hang in halls and bookstores, to give an elegant style.  Society has determined the superiority of this weapon, and respects those who are good at swordplay calling them Sword Saints, Chivalrous swords, brave swords, sword scholars, and traveling swords. This demonstrates the lofty status of swords and swordsmanship in Chinese culture.

在浩瀚的历史典籍中,难觅剑法相较、相击和捶炼剑法相搏,以升华和提高剑技的操练形式和手法的资料。这给后人在 追求击剑之术,达到深奥之径,留下了一块很大的空白。短兵 正是在这一继承和追求中必然产生的变革的产物,从渊源上, 可以说是根深叶茂,源远流长的。

In the vast historical record, it is difficult to find information on the comparison of swordsmanship, sparring  practices, or information to examine and improve the form and technique of swordsmanship. This has left a big gap for future generations to pursue the art of fencing and reach the profound path. Duan Bing is the product of the inevitable change in this inheritance and pursuit. From its origin, it can be said that it has deep roots and a long history.

Ma, Xianda. 中囯短兵: 敎学・训练・竞技. China: 三秦出版社, 2003.

(To be continued…)

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