Are weapons forms more traditional than hand forms?

(Chen Wei Ming – Tai Chi Sword 1928)

I listened to a rather interesting comment in a podcast recently from a Tai Chi practitioner who preferred to do weapons forms rather than hand forms because “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art” and the postures in the hand form are clearly derived from holding weapons, and it was therefore more authentic to practice the weapons forms. The implication is also that the hand forms were retrofitted onto the art, while the weapons forms are the true origin.

There’s some truth in this idea depending on which art you art talking about, of course. Xing Yi for example – there’s no doubt that the weapons forms came first. Doing a Beng Chuan (a straight punch to the belly or chest area) barehand, as presented in the classical 5 Elements form, leaves a lot of questions unanswered – why is your head not protected as you punch forward, for example? Why is your other hand pulled back at your hip where it’s not doing much of anything? What stops them punching you in the face?

(Liu Dianchen, Beng Chuan, 1921)

As a barehand method, it’s clearly sub-optimal. Put a spear in your hand, and even better, wear armour, and  it starts to make a lot more sense though. The hand withdrawing to your hip is pulling the spear back after a thrust, for example.

But if we’re talking about the long, elaborate weapons forms found in Tai Chi, done usually in silk pyjamas, then you’ve got to ask yourself – what good is all that dancing about if your goal is martial effectiveness on the battlefield? Do you think Chinese soldiers, village militia or bodyguards with spears or Guan Dao did this kind of practice? I don’t think they did. Or maybe they did for demonstrations at the many and frequent festivals in old imperial China in the Qing Dynasty, but what use is all that on a battlefield?

While using a spear, for example, might be connecting your art back to an earlier time and usage, I’m not sure that your 180-move spear form, with jumps, twirls and spins is any more “authentic” than a modern day hand form. 

It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!

6 thoughts on “Are weapons forms more traditional than hand forms?

  1. I don’t really care for the terms, traditional, authentic, nor battlefield. I think we are on the same page, but let me be explicit about what I mean.

    Answering your title question depends on how you define “traditional” and what you mean by “authentic,” but these are “loaded” terms. In Chinese society, the more radical an idea or revolutionary a practice, the more “traditional” apologists claimed it to be, calling upon the shades of the Immortals and others, like Zhang Sanfeng, to root the innovation in tradition. This appeal to tradition was a coping strategy to deal with the intensity and instability of change in a society that has been in turmoil for thousands of years.

    In pragmatic western culture, we have interpreted the Chinese notion of “traditional” to mean not only more “authentic” but “more effective.” This often causes us to misstep, and I think this is what you are saying.

    For example, what we, today, call Beijing Opera teaches forms that may date back hundreds of years, which is certainly “traditional” and “authentic,” and such staged performances might well include “jumps, twirls and spins.” We must also be clear what we mean by “effective.” Beijing Opera forms are certainly more effective at conveying to an audience dramatic emotion and violent action on stage than real fighting would be.

    Alternatively, what does a term like “battlefield form or art” imply? That it was used on the battlefield? That it prepared one for the battlefield? What can really prepare one for battle? It is nebulous.

    It is not a very inclusive term either as there are a whole classes of trainings meant for defense, such as, self-defense, village defense, and caravan escort work, that would not be performed in the rank and file of the army vs army battlefield.

    In Chinese, shí yòng (实用), practical; functional; pragmatic; or applied, has been used to describe training that leads to functional skills. Take your pick. I frequently use “practical,” since I am used to that translation of shí yòng associated with functional martial skills.

    If you don’t like those terms, we could abscond from its religious connotation “orthopraxy, orthopractic” meaning correct practices or aligned actions, to mean in this context, training that leads to martial usage. This would be in contrast to orthodox, standardized performance forms.

    Definitions aside, I am familiar with the film of traveling performers on their way to perform for a festival. You speak as if this was just entertainment. Before 1900, this was religion. The Chinese lived in a dual world, the physical world contained within a spiritual universe. Angry ghosts of those who were murdered or killed in battle were the source of many maladies. Regular festivals kept these spirits at bay and brought peace.

    Many villages also put together their own martial art systems from the best sources they could find. These systems physically conditioned and taught skills to those who might be called upon to defend their village or country. Those who practiced gained physical skills and mental conditioning, but the forms also served as a talisman of spiritual protection. This was powerful magic.

    Graham, you seem to be negative about forms. Forms are a gateway and a guide to a martial art. They were never meant to be the sole focus of practical training, only one aspect. For example, only because I best know about Chen taijiquan, Chen Fake taught that in Chen taijiquan, the First Path is composed of three prongs: form training, foundation training (jibengong), and the training method is push hands.

    Teaching of the form includes training in essential applications as the form is learned. Foundation training is not stretching and strengthening, rather trains how to move required by the system. Among other lessons push hands trains how to gain an advantage in the empty-hand “clinch” and, for weapons, in the “bind.” Each of these trains fairly unique approaches in what to do when in close contact with an enemy. These reinforce and correct one another thus accelerating training.

    The First path lays a foundation for later learning in both the Second path and weapons. Each of these training branches, in turn, are multifaceted trainings. The Second path and weapons trainings reinforce, correct, and enhance the First path, so the system is synergistic.

    Weapons forms have the advantage of having the checks and balances of requiring correct weapon mechanics. This may be one reason why they “feel” more practical, however practical training with weapons requires more than just forms.

    Cutting practice for edged weapons and striking practice with impact weapons, for example, checks grip, action, and alignment. Sparring with impact-absorbing weapons or armor or both allow offensive and defensive skills to be developed. Heavy, overweight weapons build endurance, whole-body coordination, and teach agile footwork and balanced body positioning. Without additional aspects to balance and develop our form training, our form is isolated in a bubble.

    So, forms are just one aspect of complete Chinese martial art systems.

    Finally, the interviewee you quote says, “Tai Chi is a battlefield art.” I already said that I don’t care for the expression, but let’s examine the claim. I will address only Chen taijiquan. Proponents of other styles will have to establish whether or not these claims apply to them.

    Chen Ziming wrote a chapter of biographies of Chen family taiji boxing masters. At first, this appears to be a history or lineage, but closer examination reveals that on a timeline, it is pretty random. I think he is trying to establish what kind of art taijiquan is.

    He claims taijiquan was created by a man “brilliant in both literary and military affairs….” I summarize. He says it has been used in protection of officials and for assassination. The art was used to protect the village and kill a major leader of the Taiping Rebellion. Those who joined the army used it in multiple battles. It was used to protect Imperial couriers. Taijiquan was practiced by those passing the civil service examinations; by scholars and physicians. Many practitioners lived long lives, the skills of more than a few gained great renown. Those who practiced demonstrated prowess, courage, and good character.

    So, yes, it was used on the battlefield both in the regular army and in village defense, but that adaptation seems a very limited interpretation of the whole art.

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  2. Richard – good point about the “ritual form performance as preparation for battle”, however it was not battle, it was a ritual performance. So, it may be authentic, but not in the way that it is being portrayed as authentic when the marketing slogans like “battlefield” are applied.

    There is a video taken in China in 1901 that shows a procession of people moving between festivals, and there are plenty of weapons being held and demonstrated, and as you’d expect, it is very performance orientated:

    https://www.cinematheque.fr/henri/film/129752-images-de-chine-auguste-francois-1901-1904/

    Watch around 18.00

    But anyway, “Stay sharp don’t be fooled” was just a parting throwaway line, a pun on weapons training (sharp, geddit?) I’m not sure it’s worth reading too much into it.

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  3. Graham, while I appreciate the injunction, “It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!”, you also could have given your readers more to work with, or you could have challenged the claim with little more evidence.

    For example, my first thought was good marketing tells a simple story about a product, like, “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art.” Unless this is statement precedes or concludes a long explanation of when, where, and how Tai Chi was used to prepare for battle, it’s really just a marketing slogan.

    This works, because to most people, Chinese history and culture are a massive, rich, complex, nebulous blob. If a claim sounds reasonable, most people will accept it on faith. Under scrutiny, the claim must answer, what battlefield? when? and by whom? Otherwise, it is a weak or empty claim.

    The notion that weapon forms “feel” more authentic than hand forms, I think, is rooted in the requirement that weapons have correct and precise mechanics. If we have additional training like, weapon sparring or cutting practice for edged weapons, and correct our form, we feel we are performing a “more effective” form.

    This is a multifaceted topic, let me just include some bullet points that come to mind.

    “Traditional” and “authentic” don’t always mean more effective, or shí yòng (实用) “practical, functional”; they may just mean deeply rooted in Chinese culture.

    Manuals, such as Ming General Qi Jiguang’s, seem, at first glance, to say empty-hand training is simply a foundation for weapons skills. After all, what general would send troops empty-handed into battle?

    General Qi also complained about the poor physical and mental condition of his recruits and emphasized how vital good physical and mental conditioning was to victory.

    A thorough empty-hand training program would teach lessons like, a weapon is only a tool; the whole body is a “fist,” a weapon; and the real weapon is me. This would make soldiers more competent.

    Historically, practical weapon forms didn’t exist often without a practical empty-hand training because these trainings are synergistic, supporting and enlightening one another.

    The battlefield is not the only theater where martial skills could be used. There is a whole class of trainings meant for defense, such as, self-defense, village defense and caravan escort work, that would not necessarily be performed in the rank and file of the battlefield.

    Don’t be too quick to discount the role of ritual form performances during festivals as a preparation for battle. These provided physical and mental skill preparation, but perhaps most importantly psycho-spiritual preparation, the notion that participants were part of something bigger than themselves, among other attitudes, that would help soldiers through difficult and dangerous times.

    The rituals may be different, but preparation rituals exist among soldiers, fighters, and other athletes, even today.

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  4. I had not heard this before, and I enjoyed your analysis of the chicken/egg debate. I was surprised recently to hear a taiji teacher say that some of the moves in the form were not martial at all, but rather designed to open up channels of energy, more like qigong. Hmm…. So clearly there are lots of opinions out there. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

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  5. Thought-provoking post, Graham. I heard that comment about taiji weapons, too. 🙂 I don’t necessarily agree that all the empty-hand movements are derived from holding weapons. Perhaps in Xingyi that could be true, especially in the San Ti stance where you could clearly be holding a spear or staff. But there are too many great fighting applications in every empty-hand Taiji movement that would not be practical at all with a weapon in your hand. I see a weapons form as a collection of applications, so as I perform a Taiji weapons form in my silk pajamas, which are pretty groovy I might add, I am practicing fighting applications. So far, I have found 79 applications in the Chen straight sword form, including deflections, cuts, pommel strikes, scabbard techniques, press (the opponent’s weapon), and more. We practice the applications individually against partners with weapons. In my Xingyi experience, I have used Beng Chuan very successfully against sparring partners. Often, the hand that pulls back has deflected an opponent’s hand first, and sometimes is deflecting a kick or grabbing and pulling an arm to aid in a punch. Striking at the right moment, you don’t always have to be protecting your head, but sometimes, the hand that pulls back has just protected the head. These are just my thoughts. I love your blog and your active pace of adding posts.

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