Posts Tagged ‘sword form’

Longquan Practice JianI don’t know about other styles of Tai Chi, or indeed other schools of the same style I practice –  namely Chen, but I guess they’re all slightly different. It’s a human thing, dictated by the character and experience of your teacher, by the character and nature of the group you’re a part of, and by your own nature as well – but one thing I noticed when I began practicing the long sword form was that I began to lose touch with the fundamentals of Tai Chi more or less right away.

It was clear to me that the moves I was learning had a martial application. We practiced slowly, but the intent was obvious and you’d only to speed it up a little, call your sword green destiny and you were no longer this middle aged geezer with a cheap Lonquan practice jian – you were a  ninja –  or at least an overgrown kid, pretending to be a ninja.

The long sword form is the first of the long forms one encounters in Chen, after the shorter, introductory eleven or eighteen open-handed forms. There are forty nine moves. At first it seems impossible anyone could remember that many moves, and if you watch it on your instructional DVD, it seems to go on for ever, but if I can pick it up, anyone can, and it really doesn’t seem as long in the actual doing of the form as it does in the watching of it. But the danger in picking up a long form is that one begins to concentrate on the form itself and not on the feeling of the form.

When I began Chen style, I seemed to progress very slowly. It took me three months to learn the first five moves. I would repeat them over and over, and I would drive home afterwards bathed in sweat, and in a state of supernatural calm that drew me back week after week, hungry for more of the same. But once I began on the forty nine, I think I forgot what I was doing Tai Chi for.

I forgot the basics.

I still drove home bathed in sweat afterwards – but somehow, I was no longer quite as supernaturally calm as I had once been.

I do not do Tai Chi to learn how to fight people  or break bones. However, with Chen, the application of the moves become more obvious as one progresses. It’s an energetic, and occasionally explosive form that’s a joy to practice, but as a beginner, like me, I think it’s easy to lose your way with it, and it’s probably fair to say the sword form threw me off completely.

In the I Ching, Hexagram 22 talks about Adornment. When I read the Wilhelm translation of this ancient book, I fancy I detect the hand of Confucius here, more than Lau Tzu. To my possibly ill-informed, western mind, Confucianism seems concerned with correctness of form, of order, of etiquette – and the idea that such things should reflect or give expression to the underlying beauty of things. However, the I Ching also tells us that these things are essentially adornments, and not the underlying essence – that sometimes they can disguise a hollow sham, and it’s important to be able to recognise the difference. Likewise, forget the basics of Tai Chi, and no matter how well you know the form, it’ll look ridiculous.

I once filmed myself doing the sword form – for the sake of self correction, but I looked so silly, I deleted it. There was nothing worth correcting. It lacked something so fundamental and completely beyond the moves I was performing it wasn’t even worth adjusting. Adjustment was not the issue. Essence was the issue, and you cannot practice essence – you must discover it, tap into it, feel it.  I’ve watched many a westerner on You Tube doing the form, and they all look ridiculous.

Only the Chinese masters seem to have it.

What is it?

I think I understood it once, vaguely, in the early days, when things were simpler, but have since lost it. It’s something to do with breathing and intention, I think. This is easier to maintain when you’re doing a  short form, or a Qigong set, but the longer forms require the support of one’s ego simply in order to persevere with the practice long enough, month after month, year after year to complete them and remember them. In the struggle for it we forget the idea of intention, because intention is a ridiculous concept to one’s ego, as is energy or Qi.

Things only became worse for me after the sword form. I moved on to the Chen Old Frame, the Lao Jia, seventy two movements, then the Broadsword form – and before I  knew it the Pau Chui or Cannon Fist. My instructor tells me I’m coming to the end of the course, now, and if that’s true then I feel like I’m further away from knowing what Tai Chi is at the end of it than I was at the beginning.

At the moment I’m trying to slow down to the point where my imagination and my concept of reality meet, to the point where I can feel the resistance of the air as I move. I don’t know if this is correct, but it feels right at the moment.  I close my eyes. I try to feel it. I try to remember the form and practice it deliberately. I try to develop an awareness of my body and the feel of the sword – its minute vibrations, its weight, its coolness in my hand. I put my mind into my arms, my fingers, my torso, my legs. It’s an imaginary thing, but I try to read myself, concentrate on what I’m feeling, what my nerves are telling me  – and I try to remember that what I’m doing is trying to achieve a state of moving meditation.

I understand meditation.

In meditation we close ourselves down and hang our mind upon the feel of our breaths. Mostly we breathe in a coarse way. If we focus, we can hear our breath – this is coarseness. But if we can slow down,  there eventually comes a point where we cannot hear our breaths any more. This is the sound of the silent breath. We are breathing, but only in our imaginations, and it is also through our imaginations we become aware of the movements of our body, and the movement of this imaginary stuff called Qi.

I read somewhere recently – I wish I could remember where – about a student who turned in exasperation to his teacher and said: this is all in my mind – it’s just imaginary, and the teacher said: Well,  tell me what is not imaginary! Tell me what is not all in the mind!

So,.. what I’m trying to say, as a beginner, as we rush on with our practice of the form, we should try not to forget our first lesson: the position of Wu Wei, of nothingness, nor the way the breath measures every move – breathing in as we draw in, breathing out as we push out, or strike. The form that can be described, like Dao, is not the real form. The real form comes from within and cannot be described – only experienced. For now I’ve completely lost it – just like Dao and life in general – but with patience and practice, I hope I can regain it.

* One more thing! Uncle’s delightfully annoying verbal tick from the 2000 animated cartoon series: The Adventures of Jackie Chan.

Michael Graeme


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The Author's practice Jian "Meadow"

Every grown man needs an excuse to play with a sword. Tai Chi gives you  the perfect opportunity, but there are dangers involved, and they might not be the ones you expect. Swords can be sharp, obviously, but anyone practising Tai Chi with a sharp sword is an idiot and shouldn’t be doing it, so that’s not what I’m talking about here. A Tai Chi practice sword looks like the real thing, feels like the real thing, twangs like the real thing – indeed in all respects it is the real thing – but it’s never sharp, so it’s not cutting yourself you need to watch out for.

What I’m talking about, is getting caught up in the mystique of the sword.

East or West, there is perhaps no greater symbol than the sword. Although they’ve been pretty much out of date since someone invented the machine gun, they still possess a powerful allure. They are phallic and suggestive of the masculine, of Yang, of  Ego.

I am reminded of a scene in Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”, when the rakish Sergeant Troy is beguiling the coquettish Bathsheba with his swordplay, and if there was ever a more erotic sex scene written in a book without actually being written, if you know what I mean, well that was it. As for the ego bit, well,… I noticed when I began my general Tai Chi practice it was just about the uncoolest thing a father could ever have done, in the eyes of his teenaged sons – possibly even worse than dropping his trousers on the Town Hall steps, but when the sword turned up it became another matter entirely.

Swords, it seems, are cool.

Already then, we’re on dangerous ground.

I’m told there is a tradition that the first sword you ever own, you must give a name to it, and it was interesting to see the names chosen by those of us in my little Tai Chi group, who purchased them. We had names like Slasher, Hacker, Killer, Sting – then we had the more romantic ones like Thunder and Snow, and Green Destiny of course. Mine was Meadow, for reasons known only to me, but already,  you see, we are getting caught up in the mystique of the sword. We are personifying the it, we are bestowing upon  it properties it does not really deserve. If we’re not careful we’re going to end up feeling that by the very wielding of this instrument, we are calling down all the powers of heaven and earth.

In short, what we end up doing is idolising the sword.

It’s the standard Chen Form that I do, and like the rest of the Chen repertoire it’s a good thing to practice because it gets you breathing hard, swinging this 32 inch length of steel around. It gets the blood pumping, and it gets you twisting about in ways you’re probably not used to doing if, like me, you sit behind a PC all day.

But do you feel mystical?

I wondered if I would. But actually, you don’t.

Sometimes, I feel slightly stupid when I’m out in the back garden and the microlights are buzzing me. I also admit to feeling slightly  vulnerable when the police chopper circles my house, and I’m half expecting the armed response team to follow – but mystical no. You’ll feel a bit funny when you pick up a sword, perhaps for the first time, and it’s probably best to just get this phase out of the way as quickly as possible, then you can move on with your practice.  Like the rest of Tai Chi, to the uninitiated, there might seem to be something mysterious about it, but truly there’s not.

The Chen Long Sword or Jian, has a certain shape, obviously, a certain length and, of course, a certain feel, a certain balance in the hand. These physical properties make it move in a way that is all its own, and the sword form was developed in ancient times to exploit these characteristics, so it could be wielded in battle in an effective way.

That’s the top and the bottom of it.

If you’ll allow me a moment’s digression, I once worked in a factory alongside a taciturn old curmudgeon, whose task it was to pass on to me, his green apprentice, the wisdom of his long years as an engineer. He told me that in engineering, all I had to remember was that all there really is is cutting metal, and the rest is bullshit. Well, when it comes to swordsmanship, all there really is is surviving and the rest is,… well you know how it goes? But if we’re not in the business of relying upon the sword for our survival, then what are we doing, apart from wading up to our necks in the bullshit? Well, as far as I can tell, as a student of not that many years,  we are using it simply as a tool for teaching us the feel of harmony.

Later on the in the practice, one encounters the Broad Sword. This is an altogether different weapon, one that wants to move in a completely different way to the Jian, and therefore demands a different form. In both cases, though, we learn to move the body in ways that achieve harmony with the weapon. If we can develop a feel for the practice weapon, then this might render us sensitive in other ways, so that we even become aware of the balance and the harmony of movement in our limbs alone. In this way, the sword informs the open-handed form, shapes it, smooths it – renders it more sensitive.

Ever watched those masters on You-Tube and wondered how they manage to achieve that magical “look”.


But you won’t achieve harmony by calling your sword Hacker or Meadow or anything else, or inventing some other kind of ritual to go with it. You achieve it simply by picking the thing up and  doing the form, over and over and over again until you’re so sick and tired of it, the last thing you’re going to feel is mystical. In a bygone era, men stepped out onto the battlefield with nothing but a sharpened piece of iron between them and their maker. It’s understandable then that the swordsman might have invented certain good-luck rituals and superstitions – anything to give you the edge, to make you mindful to keep your nerve when the other guy was losing his. But this is 2009 and those days are long gone. In the western world, sharp swords are wielded only by warring teen gangsters in our benighted cities, the blunt ones by those of us who seek solace in the traditional practices of the east, and in the quest for physical and, dare I say, spiritual harmony?

Michael Graeme


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