Sword of Tai Chi Chuan

The King of martial Arts Weapons

by Harvey Kurland Copyright 2001 Kurland


Students of traditional t'ai chi ch'uan (taiji quan) usually encounter three weapons: the tao (also spelled dao, meaning "Knife" or broadsword ), the chien (also spelled jien, meaning straight sword) and the chang (spear, or sometimes the staff). There are other less commonly used traditional e.g. halberd and modern weapons e.g. the Tuan Kune, walking stick and fan, as well. As in other Chinese martial arts, these weapons are often categorized according to range. The staff and spear are long-range weapons best suited for the battlefield, while the broadsword and straight sword are short-range weapons designed for personal combat.

Many experts consider the sword the king of short-range weapons. It is relatively small and lightweight, but it can be deadly in combat. A sword fight requires a level of violence and a mental state not many civilized people would want to have, paradoxically we use it as a tool of self- cultivation. Today, people learn how to use the straight sword and broadsword for reasons unrelated to combat: it is used for exercise, mind-body development, practice of a traditional art or competition. Tai chi chuan serves as a perfect medium through which one can learn to use the swords. These weapons and their beautiful but deadly forms are the subject of this article.



The chien has an overall length of about 3 feet. The double-edged blade ranges from 28 to 30 inches long and is 1-1/2 to 2 inches wide. The handle potion runs approximately 9 inches. The upper third or more of the blade and the tip are sharpened. A hole in the end of the hilt is used to attach a sword knot or tassel.

Traditionally, a chien was crafted according to the size of the user, then balanced to his or her comfort. Today, many lighter, non-functional weapons, with widely varying weight and balance, are mass-produced for use in form competition and practice. Practice, dull or wood blades should be used for form training.

The tao (knife) has a single-edged curved blade like a cutlass. Some versions of it resemble the Japanese katana, the sword of the samurai, while others have a much broader blade that can exceed 3 inches in width. This size and shape can give the tao an exotic appearance and add to its chopping power.

In tai chi chuan, the tao is traditionally taught before the chien because it is simpler to use, and it is less likely that the wielders will cut themselves since the weapon has only one sharp edge. Tai chi experts consider the chien the weapon of the scholar and elite warrior and the tao the weapon of the foot soldier. The tao is a very effective weapon.


Learning the Swords

Tai chi students usually start learning the tao after one to three years of training. After acquiring skill with it, they may learn the chien, although some instructors will not teach the chien until a student has studied for 10 years, while other masters don't teach it at all.

Today, however, many teachers allow students to begin learning the swords after they learn the basic tai chi form. For example, the Northwest Tai Chi Chuan Association and the Chinese Tai Chi Chuan Association of Canada follow a specific progression for teaching forms. First, students learn some specific chi kung standing meditation - zhan zhuang, and basic exercises. Then they learn the old style of the Yang family form of Tchoung Ta-tchen. Next comes a short form, pushing hands, Da Lu and a san shou, i.e. a partner t'ai chi form. Students then learn the Tchoung-style Fast Form. This provides a solid foundation in the empty-hand techniques and body movements of tai chi chuan.

The weapons forms are usually introduced next. They include the tao, chien, two-person knife, two-person sword, Kunlun (Kwinlin) Shan sword, walking stick, two-person walking stick, 4-foot staff and long staff. Practitioners then drill in prearranged sword-application forms. After that comes free sparring.

Tai chi sparring with the chien can be practiced like pushing hands. Because the sword is not a clubbing weapon, small circular movements are normally used to slice, nick, cut and thrust. Large chopping movements are not used much during chien training, but such techniques can be found in tao applications. Blocking with the blade of the chien is frowned upon even though the lower section is dull and made for blocking. It is more of a get-out-of-the-way-and-slice type of weapon.


Core Concepts

Every martial art is built around certain core concepts. The art's training methods must reflect those concepts, and each movement must be in harmony with the whole. This allows techniques and transitions to flow smoothly. Not surprisingly, tai chi sword training has specific concepts that must be followed to retain the flavor of the system. Unfortunately many practice the form in a wooden and stiff way which does not reflect the tai chi chuan energy.

Tai chi chuan teaches its basic concepts through several chien solo forms. The most common is the Yang-style form composed of 64 or 56 movements. There are several variations of this standard pattern; that will depend on the school and their emphasis.

Tai chi chuan also has the simplified 33-movement sword form developed by a committee in mainland China in the 1950s. And the Ch'en family style teaches their own versions of this important sword form that has long and short versions and several variations as well. There are many versions of every sword form.


Traditionalists vs. Performers

Some traditionalists complain that a "feminization" of tai chi sword forms has taken place. They point to the fact that most famous teachers are female wushu competitors who execute the forms in a flowing and graceful manner but no martial energy. They complain that real weapons skills are not necessarily pretty, and that fancy movements and decorated outfits degrade the martial aspects of them. Many of the modern moves are clearly not functional.

Some teachers believe that tournament judges reward the pretty movements of wushu forms by scoring them higher than traditional tai chi sword forms which often are not as pretty or flamboyant as the Modern Wushu versions. They argue that there is no place for sporting competition in tai chi chuan, as tournaments merely lower the standard of the art and turn it in to more of a dance. The more "internal" the competitor, the lower the score, they say. This is because many "Internal" masters have very subtle technique and martial movements cannot afford to be exaggerated.

Intent and spirit are important to learn the correct way to use a tai chi sword. It is one thing to wave the weapon around to get some exercise and another to perform it as a mind-body exercise or martial art, they say.

Unfortunately, whenever traditional teachers decide to boycott a competition, they allow the wushu stylists to set the tone for modern tai chi chuan. In this manner, divergent sword-using camps have formed: competitors who do wushu as a demonstration art; those who do traditional, no frills martial arts; and those who combine the two.


Mind &Body In Harmony

One of the best reasons to study any tai chi sword form is to bring the mind and body into harmony. To correctly use the sword, the student must make it an extension of his body.

It is essential to extend the mind through the tip of the weapon. Energy travels from the ground to the feet, after which it's guided by the waist to the sword. There should be a smooth flow of power from the feet to the tip of the blade. The body—not the arm—moves the blade. Moving only the arm shows a lack of connection and understanding of tai chi principles.

The hand that holds the sword should remain relaxed. There should not be a death grip on the handle, but at the same time, firm contact should be maintained. Traditional martial artists frown at the many new "experts" who hold the sword gingerly with two or three fingers, thus allowing it to spin more easily in elaborate patterns. They say such practitioners look more like they are getting ready for a tea party than a sword fight. In sword sparring, merely tapping such a loosely held weapon would knock it out of their hand.

The swordless hand should be held with the first two fingers extended but relaxed. The ring and little fingers are flexed, with the thumb over the ring finger's second knuckle. This is called the secret sword, sword amulet, sword hand, sword fingers or sword-charm position. Some instructors teach that it can be used to poke specific pressure points or balance the energy of the sword.

Some tai chi teachers caution their students never to circle a sword over their head. They believe some swords have magical powers that can injure the spirit or soul of the holder. In the old school, there exists a belief that there are magical swords, which must be used correctly or they will injure the user.

The modern student has many reasons to learn the swords of' tai chi chuan. It is a developmental exercise teaching relaxation and extension of energy. The sword practice can be a tool for developing harmony in one's mind and body. It is a method for exercising the upper body. The form can be a way to improve empty-hand tai chi skills. And, perhaps most importantly, they can add a new dimension to one's tai chi training by linking the student with the history and culture of the art.


About the author: Harvey Kurland, M.Sc., MFS, CSCS, is a tai chi chuan instructor and exercise physiologist. He has certification from Grandmaster Tchoung Ta-tchen to teach and certificate to teach from the Chinese Tai Chi Chuan Association, and is also certified by the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association and International Sports Sciences Association. He teaches for the University of California Riverside and Loma linda University. T'ai Chi Chien, Tao, and Tuan Kune workshops are given regularly at UCR see events. More information on US and Canada classes can be found at So Cal information at NWTCCA at www.dotaichi.com

A video of the NWTCCA sword form and another video of the broadsword forms are available through the NWTCCA at www.dotaichi.com