The benefits of learning outdated weapons in the modern world.
Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be talking about why the fan, the sword and the staff are always good to know, even today.
Do you remember that time that you were nearly mugged, when those three blokes in ninja suits jumped down from a nearby pagoda and threatened to kill you for dishonouring the local Shogun? And the only way to save yourself was to draw your sword and battle them to the death? No, of course you don’t, because it didn’t happen. And barring a sudden and inexplicable change in the way we all live our lives, none of us will be in that situation either.
But even so, there’s still a lot of us across the world practising the sword forms, the fan forms, the staff forms in our Tai Chi. Of course, there’s a few other weapons as well, and when you look into other arts there are a whole lot more, some more esoteric and frightening than others. Other martial arts are predominantly defined by their use of certain weapons, and the styles are required to retain them to maintain the structure and very identity of who they are. Others still use them as the logical progression from unarmed combat, giving the practitioners a wider arsenal of moves and at the same time providing experience of dealing with the modern day equivalents. After all, a staff can be a baseball bat, a sai can be a flick knife, and a machete bears more than a passing resemblance to a sword.
You could run through a sword form and still discover the same principles if you were wielding a broom.
Due to all of the above, there are very real, very practical reasons for learning how to use weapons. So what about Tai Chi? We do self defence drills, and we have real world applications for the moves practiced in our forms, but don’t we also peel away the layers of what we do, and look for a deeper meaning in the fighting? The Yang straight sword forms, for example, feature slow and considered movements that stress the importance of good stances and correct weight distribution, rather than working on the fastest, swiftest strikes possible. Likewise, there are Qigong exercises that have the student use the staff as a tool to focus their attention on, and to keep the body’s alignment, as opposed to learning any attacks.
We use the various weapons as training tools, each one providing a different challenge to us – the sword as a test of the practitioner’s balance with a weighted weapon in the one hand; the fan to hone our dexterity and rhythm in movement, and the staff for sensitivity training, pushing us to learn to read another’s intentions through their contact with your weapon. And if we didn’t use weapons, and instead used other inanimate objects without a dangerous element, then we would still be using those objects for the same purposes. In a way, you could run through a sword form and still discover the same principles if you were wielding a broom, a ruler, or a toy lightsaber (although the lightsaber has it’s own forms if you ask Star Wars fans, but that’s another thing entirely).
In fact, this is what it truly boils down to: through the ages, people have always been looking for other ways to improve their training, in any way, shape or form. The old Kung Fu legends claim that many of the animal styles were based on mimicking the motions of the crane, the snake, the tiger, etc. Although if we do believe these stories, then one does have to wonder how the dragon style was created. It takes all sorts to come up with new, often weird and wonderful training practices – professional fighters nowadays can be seen cross training in a gym with advanced breathing apparatus before running through Yoga forms to relax their muscles, mixing the best of the old and the new. And remember, no one will laugh if you’re doing it right.
Which means that while it might not seem to be the case in the first place, the use of weapons is actually a logical extension of our regular practices, being as they are the next step in learning the combat and self defence sides of Tai Chi. Obviously, these forms (and the choice of said weapons) were created back in the day when violence was much more likely in the day to day lives of folk, when bandits and thieves were an ever-present threat. If you’re interested in the stories of these times in ancient China then I can heartily recommend looking into the “world of rivers and lakes” as they’re called, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Western knights and chivalry.
This is in fact a note from history, letting you know that you’re on the right path.
As such, we’re deriving useful information about the body through timeless practices, which certainly speaks to us down the years. These moves and forms must have proved successful back then to manage to survive to the present day, and their effectiveness has kept them in teachers’ consciousness for the rest of us to benefit from in the modern world. So the next time you’re just about to run through a form, fending off imaginary enemies from all corners with a weapon that you only typically see in historical movies, just remember that this is in fact a note from history, letting you know that you’re on the right path.
That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.