The Chinese Jian or straight sword has long been considered one of the highest levels of internal arts practice. It is said to take a lifetime to master the use of the sword and that expertise in its use relies on a high development of spirit. More than simply a weapon to be trained through forms and fencing it has long been seen as a way of cultivating both refinement and expression of nature. There is a saying within the martial community that beginners use the sword with their body, intermediate students their Qi and masters govern their sword through the Heart.
Looking at classical Chinese art we can see that not only soldiers, but Daoist immortals, artists, philosophers and even medical practitioners are depicted carrying swords. The sword represented the ability of the mind to cut through illusion in order to perceive truth. For this reason, it has been venerated throughout the centuries and countless Chinese scholars and warriors alike have studied the Jian in order to understand the nature of life. It is as much an artistic method of cultivation as it is a military tool.
Extension of the Heart
Within Daoist teachings, it is the Heart that is said to be the residence of the spirit. It is here that life manifests and all movements of consciousness arise. In an art such as Chinese swordplay it is the aim that we contact the spirit and allow it to express itself through to the movements of the blade. In this way, the Heart becomes the centre of the wheel; an extension of Qi from the Heart to the blade becomes the wheel’s spokes and the sword itself is the outer reaches of the wheel’s spinning. Many mistakenly believe that it is the hips’ rotation that governs the blade; this is an error whereby people have transferred external mechanics from unarmed combat into Chinese fencing. It is the movement of the Heart that serves as the origin of the blades actions. It is for this reason that Jian training is always paired with meditation and Qi Gong practice. Before the sword can come to life, the spirit must be found and the Qi stirred into action.
As a form of cultivation this makes the sword a perfect way to move and regulate the actions of the Heart. It is certainly true that, to the trained eye, the quality of a practitioner’s mind can be seen through their use of the Jian. Every subtle shifting of spirit is reflected through the length of the blade and dictates the ‘cleanness’ of each cut and arc of the sword.
A true master of the Jian is an artist in every sense of the word; it is for this reason that the Jian was seen as the highest attainment within the internal martial arts.
Lotus Nei Gong Jian
Damo Mitchell started studying the sword when he was a child. He began with the Japanese sword as a part of his Bushido training. This study continued into exploration of the arts of Kendo and Iaido. Though the training for the Katana is very different from that of the Chinese sword there are still parallels with the way in which spiritual development is the primary motive for the training. The principles of Zen study through seeking perfection of each cut provided a solid foundation for understanding the root of Chinese swordplay.
From the Japanese sword Damo began to study the Jian and other Chinese weapons in his teens. These studies included sword training from three Yang Taijiquan traditions as well as Chen village style. On top of that he spent two years learning the Zhaobao variation of Chen swordplay. Further training involved Northern Shaolin sword usage from Shaolin temple and the Long Fist traditions. Baguazhang sword from the Cheng style was added into the mix a few years later and then finally he studied Wudang swordplay on Wudang mountain itself as well as from Daoist teachers of the Long Men Pai tradition in Shandong province.
It is safe to say that the Jian is one of the main ‘loves’ of Damo’s practice, though the complex nature of the training means that it is generally reserved for only the most dedicated students.
Students usually study the Yang family use of the Jian as a core for their training; this helps develop control of the blade and efficient expression of principle. From here, those who wish to go deeper, explore the use of the sword according to different systems’ methodologies. A sword is a sword; there are more shared mechanics for the Jian between styles than there are for the systems’ empty hand techniques – it is generally the origin and expression of power that vary from style to style.
It is important for a practitioner to use a sword that is made and balanced correctly. When people from outside of Lotus Nei Gong see the swords that we use they generally think them to be too long. Actually, quite the opposite is true, most people are using a Jian that is too short in their practice. A Jian from the external arts is generally a little shorter, but the Jian of the internal arts such as Taijiquan and Baguazhang should be a long blade that helps to extend Qi and spirit far out of the body. If you stand a blade on the ground with the tip by your feet, the hilt of the handle should be at the height of your sternum. People have grown over the centuries. You only need to look at the size of old doorways in castles or take a walk around a museum looking at medieval clothing to see for yourself how short humans used to be. The problem is that though we have grown taller, people are still using old designs for the construction of swords.
The blade should also be well balanced one third of the way from the handle so that it has the correct amount of ‘projection’. One of the earliest skills to understand is connecting your Qi to this point of balance so that you may use your Yi to shift the pivot of the blades cuts up and down the blades length.
The blade should also be slightly flexible. Not ridiculously loose like contemporary Wushu performance blades but not rigid either. In real life, when engaging in duels or other life and death confrontations it would have been more solid blades that people carried but for cultivation purposes we need a slightly ‘sprung’ blade. As our Qi teaches the end of the sword it enables it to bend slightly and pressurise the blades movements in a very specific manner.