Many martial artists, even those who have studied Chinese martial arts for many years, still have a number of questions about the structure, use, history, and geographical background of the Chinese straight sword (jian). This is because most students of Chinese martial arts have not also studied Chinese culture. Very little of the available martial literature has been translated into European languages and the number of qualified and knowledgeable masters is steadily diminishing.
Definition of the Sword
There are two kinds of weapons commonly called a sword by the Western world. One is the double-edged, straight, and narrow-bladed weapon, which is called a “jian” in Chinese. The other is the single-edged weapon with a slightly curving, wide blade, which in China is called a dao. This second weapon is also referred to as a saber. If either of these two types of weapon is shorter than the forearm, it is referred to as a dagger (bi shou). Daggers can easily be hidden in one’s boot or sleeve.
Names of Swords
Chinese swords were often given names. These names usually indicated either the sword’s origin or its owner. The origin could be the name of the mountain where the ore used to make the sword was found (e.g., Kun Wu jian), the place where the sword was forged (e.g., Long Quan jian), or the smith who forged the sword (e.g., Gan Jiang, and Mo Xie). Of course, its owner could also name the sword as he or she pleased (e.g., Judge Dee’s sword, Rain Dragon). The sword could also be named for the style of the sequence for which it was designed to be used (e.g., taiji jian).
Names of Sword Sequences
Sword sequences are commonly named for mountains near where the sequence was created, such as Wudang jian); for a division or style of gongfu, such as taiji jian; or for the person who composed the sequence, such as Qi’s family sword (Qi men jian). The creator of the sequence could also name them as he pleases, such as Three Power sword (San Cai jian).
Functions of the Sword
More than most weapons, the sword serves a variety of purposes. Its length and structure made the sword an effective and portable defensive weapon, and it was used most often as a defensive, rather than an offensive, weapon. Because the sword is shorter than the spear, the halberd, and many of the other large battle weapons, the sword lacks long-range killing potential. Thus, in battle, the sword was used when the soldier’s main weapon was lost or broken. In peacetime, the sword was carried by scholars and magistrates, as well as by soldiers. The sword came to symbolize the bearer’s status. This function of the sword developed to the point that some swords carried by scholars (wen jian) were so ornate they could not easily be used for fighting, although this was unusual before the advent of firearms. Lastly, the sword was an integral part of many dances.
Why the Sword is Respected
The sword art has been respected in China not only because the techniques and skills needed to wield it are hard to learn, but also more importantly because the morality and spirit of the practitioner have to be of a very high order to reach the highest levels of the art. The training is long and arduous, and most people first learn to use other short weapons, such as the saber, in order to build a foundation.
In addition, the sword provides both scholars and martial artists with an elegant feeling and self-respect. It often comes to represent the morality and profound accomplishments in Chinese martial arts that its bearer has achieved. Moreover, since many Chinese emperors in the past specially favored the sword, it has come to symbolize both power and authority in Chinese culture, much as it does in the rest of the world.
Carrying the Sword
In China, the sword was either slung from a belt around the waist or hung on the back with shoulder straps. The sword could be either carried over the shoulder in a soft scabbard for easy drawing, or a hard scabbard that could be quickly untied from the back for quick access. The way a person carried his sword depended on the weight and length of the sword—double swords and martial swords (wu jian) were ordinarily carried on the back—as well as personal preference.
How to Inspect a Sword
There are two occasions upon which a sword will be inspected: by the swordsman after using the sword, and by an admirer of the weapon (possibly for purchase). There are several very important conventions to be observed when one inspects a sword, and they should be communicated to the neophyte prior to allowing him to handle the weapon.
First, the sword is always passed from person to person hilt first. This minimizes the danger of accidental injury, which is always a possibility when dealing with any weapon. Second, the sword handler never touches the blade with bare skin because the sweat-salt and oils from the skin will result in corrosion. Third, the blade is always kept at least eight inches (20–30 cm) away from the nose and mouth, since moisture from the breath can also result in corrosion of the blade. Fourth, the sword handler never points the sword at another person, both for safety and out of courtesy. Fifth, the edge of the blade is inspected by holding the sword by its hilt in one hand and resting the other end against the scabbard. If there is no scabbard, the sleeve may be used so that the blade is protected from corrosion.
Finally, although it is not a traditional observance, experience has shown that it is generally not a good idea to flourish the sword while inspecting it. This sort of cavalier treatment of the weapon can often result in accidental injury, especially in crowded areas, and most especially if there are children about. The sword is a dangerous weapon.
It should be wielded only for practice or defense, and safety must always be your first priority.
How to Select a Taiji Sword
Because of the success of modern metallurgical techniques, there is no longer a need for the student to forge his own sword, as was sometimes necessary in ancient times. Excellent swords can be bought at most martial arts supply stores. A modern sword made from spring steel is the equal of or superior to most common swords of antiquity. Plated, nontempered swords are also available and are considerably cheaper than the spring steel variety; however, these are definitely only practice swords. Selection criteria for a taiji sword are as follows:
- The length from the tip of the sword to the handle should be as long as the height from your feet to the base of your sternum.
- The taper of the blade from hilt to tip should be smooth and steady, with no abrupt changes in width or thickness.
- The blade must be straight when viewed down the edge.
- The blade must be firmly mounted in the handle. It should not rattle when you shake it.
- Spring steel blades must be flexible enough to bend 30 degrees and not retain any bow.
- The sword should be balanced at a point one-third of its length up from the hilt end. If it is not, the balance must be altered or the sword will not handle properly.
- The tang of the blade (the part of the blade that extends down into the handle) should be as long and as wide as possible. Often, cheaper swords are merely bolted into the handle and will break easily at this point.
The quality and finish of the wood and fittings used to construct the sword’s handle and scabbard must be adequate. Traditionally, the fittings would be made from brass. Stainless steel might also be a good choice, but I have never seen it used. Cheap wood in the handle and scabbard will quickly crack, rendering the sword useless, no matter how strong the blade.
(The excerpt above is from a sample chapter of Tai Chi Sword Classical Yang Style—The Complete Form, Qigong, and Applications by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming. Pub date: September 2014)