Let’s face it: Nobody carries a sword today. Although it’s become relatively inconsequential when it comes to self-defense, the practice of certain sword routines and techniques from the traditional Chinese martial arts can help you develop skills that are useful in life. Tai chi sword sparring, for example, teaches a range of high-level attributes from sensitivity and “listening” to avoidance and evasion. It also develops your ability to judge distances and use proper footwork, which can help you in empty-hand sparring.
Perhaps best of all, tai chi sword sparring is a fun way to train. As you’ll see once you try it, the aforementioned skills become a lot more approachable when you’re staring at your partner across the blade of a well-padded sword.
As with all types of training, you must take measures so that no strike can injure your partner. My students and I have developed a sparring sword that features a core made of a lightweight material like wood or PVC plastic piping. (PVC can work, but it gets brittle over time, and then it can break. When it breaks, the ends become sharp and can cut through the padding and tape.)
The core shouldn’t have too much mass because it can hurt when you hit your opponent. It’s good to have a little air space between the core and the padding that surrounds it (foam pipe insulation works well) so the core can rattle around inside. That helps absorb some of the energy of a strike.
The core stops about three inches short of the length you would like the sword to be, but the foam continues the full length. Stuff pieces of foam into the hollow part of the foam insulation to fill it in, then fit a foam cap on the end. Securely tape the entire sword, including the padded pommel and hand guards, and make sure no sharp edges are showing.
It’s also important to wear a face mask or goggles to protect your eyes — just in case something unexpected happens. But no matter how good you think your protection is, never thrust the tip of your weapon directly at your partner’s face.
Although tai chi sword sparring is not used in formal competition, some martial artists have experimented with it in open-weapons-sparring divisions. If it ever becomes a regular event in tournaments, the point values assigned to offensive and defensive techniques would probably parallel those used in sword-sparring practice.
Because tai chi focuses on the preservation of energy and, therefore, the preservation of life as a vital form of energy, the highest point value would be for disarming your opponent with a strike to the hand or wrist. Next highest would be for striking any other nonvital part of his body that leads to his disarming. The lowest point value would be for striking a vital area because theoretically that shows a lack of control and a lack of ability to do only what is needed to defuse the conflict.
At each level, more points would be awarded for making the strike while you were simultaneously in contact with and had control of your opponent’s sword. That would mean you were using your ability to “listen to” whatever changes he makes with his sword and body, then flow with and adjust to them. If you’re not in contact with your opponent, you can’t properly sense his changes or counters.
In the beginning, you should start tai chi sword sparring by limiting yourself to a fixed-step position. Your partner should stand like a statue with his sword out while you practice cuts to the forearm, wrist and hand of his sword arm.
Later, you can attack and your partner can just defend from the fixed-step position. Initially, you can use as a target any region from his hips to his shoulders. At a more advanced level, you can expand the target areas even more.
Once you and your partner feel comfortable sparring from the fixed-step position, you can start moving-step practice. But it’s important to take it slowly.
Although tai chi teaches you to do the least amount of damage necessary to get the job done — for example, cut your opponent’s sword hand to stop his sword attack — it’s important to also practice attacking all parts of his body. And he should do the same to you so you can learn how to counter and defend against a variety of attacks, not just those of another tai chi sword practitioner.
While practicing sword sparring, retreating and advancing linearly are fine, but you may have to set limits according to how much space is available. As you advance, however, you’ll probably get better results if you learn to move in a circular fashion and approach your opponent from various angles.
Specific sparring drills can focus on the tai chi principle of “hollowing out.” Your partner is armed, and you’re not. You both must agree to stay within striking range because otherwise the drill won’t work. You need to avoid the strikes by hollowing out — or slightly moving — different areas of your body. It’s very similar to the way a good boxer will move his head just a little to avoid a punch.
Hollowing out develops the awareness that tells you exactly how far you must move to avoid an attack. That’s not something you can think yourself through; you have to experience it. It’s a great quality for sparring because you learn how to get out of the way without overdoing it.
It’s important to keep a relaxed grip on your weapon, but it can’t be so loose that your partner can knock it out of your hand. However, if your grip is too tight, you may not be able to quickly rotate the handle in your hand, thereby switching your hand guard to defend against a sudden change of attack. And if you hold the sword too tightly, it cannot be moved at the necessary speed or angles. Additionally, having too much tension in your arm causes you to lose sensitivity and responsiveness.
It’s critical to concentrate on using your whole body. While attacking and particularly while defending, the movements of the sword must not come from just your arm. They must come from your torso and tan tien (energy center below the navel). This preserves the strength of your arm and makes your movements more powerful.
Your swordless hand should assume the dim mak hand position. It’s an energy-circulation position that also can be used for striking. It functions as an energy counterbalance to the sword and sword arm. As you expand the range of your sword sparring, you can use that hand to grab your opponent’s sword arm, making him vulnerable to your counterstrike.
Disarming shouldn’t result from sword-to-sword contact. It should come from cutting your opponent’s sword hand. It also can be performed by leading your opponent’s sword to the side and grabbing the handle with your free hand, but that’s not as common.
The fact that you and your partner are using a weapon with a tubular blade does detract a little from the precision that’s normally associated with tai chi sword strikes. It’s nice to have padding that has an oval cross section to simulate the two edges of the blade, but constructing that type of practice weapon is more difficult. Besides, as you get more advanced, you’ll know that the shape of the hand guard reflects the edges of the sword and, therefore, moves in the direction of the cut.
The padding on the blade detracts somewhat from the sensitivity and “listening” aspects of sparring. Your opponent can’t project a lot of energy, and you can’t detect it as well through the foam. Unfortunately, the only other option is to use a wooden sword, and that would mean strikes would have to be kept below the shoulders and serious protective headgear would have to be worn.
In the past few years, weapons sparring seems to have gained popularity in the martial arts world. It’s beginning to show up in tournaments, workshops and training camps. As long as it’s practiced with safety and subtle skills in mind, it can only benefit martial artists.