Taiji sabre (刀 dāo) – introduction

There are two short weapons in taiji: the sword ( jiàn) and the sabre ( dāo). The jiàn is a light, straight, double-edged sword, the choice of the nobility and of religious, requiring a high level of skill and a still mind.

By contrast, the dāo is a heavier, curved blade with a single cutting edge. In China it is said: Jian is like a flying phoenix; dao is like a ferocious tiger. The sabre, having a simpler technique, is the “root of the short weapons” – the first short weapon to be trained. Whilst it lacks the subtlety of the straight sword it should not be underestimated; it too fosters the development of high level skills.

The word dāo means simply knife, which is one reason why the Chinese remain so resistant to the Western knife and fork at their dining table. Dāo (flat tone) is not to be confused with dào (falling tone) (formerly written tao) – the way.

The sabre set has many benefits. Most obviously, it exercises the shoulders – helping to open the upper gate.

The weight of the weapon helps with sitting and promotes a unified, whole body movement: it is simply too difficult to wave a heavy weapon around just with arm strength. Sabre play thus improves our empty-handed form. A typical wooden practice sabre weighs a pound and a metal sabre two to three pounds, but the Yang family practiced with sabres that weighed at least five pounds, so for our purposes the heavier the better.

There are many different sabres in China. The word dāo is also used for the halberd, a sabre on the end of a long pole that was used by infantry to defend against cavalry. But even the sabre proper has many different varieties.

Today we most commonly see the oxtail sabre (niúwěi dāo 牛尾刀), a staple of Kung Fu movies (just look at Michelle Yeoh in the still above from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). This is a heavy weapon with a broad blade, for which reason it’s sometimes called a broadsword in English. It appeared in the 19th century as a civilian weapon (even an untrained person can do a lot of damage with one) at a time when firearms had made armour redundant and was never issued to the military. Because of the flare at the end of the blade, the centre of gravity of the oxtail sabre is not very close to the hilt, making it a powerful slashing weapon at the expense of manoeuvrability.

The oxtail sabre was also not the traditional choice in Taiji. Yang style sabre continues to use the willow leaf sabre liǔyè dāo 柳葉刀), which has a gentle curve along its entire length and often a curved handle as well. This developed from the goose feather sabre (yànlíng dāo 雁翎刀 , see the photo below), which in turn developed from an earlier weapon used on horseback by the Mongols – the weapon that made the Mongol horde under Genghis Khan so feared and effective. These weapons are not broadswords but occupy a middle ground between a straight sword and an oxtail sabre – much narrower than the latter. The guard was very small; one can see instantly the similarity to the Japanese katana.

The oxtail sabre is however popular among Kungfu stylists and that’s why wooden sabres are made after the pattern of the oxtail sabre. It would be better to use a wooden willow leaf sabre but they are simply not available.

Sabre techniques: attacking

The sabre, like the straight sword, can be used to stab: either superficially (poke), or a deep thrust (ci ). Most often it is used to chop – a powerful cut designed to cut through leather armour or to attack the neck. Chopping with the sabre is normally done at an angle (kan ), a movement called throwing the shuttle, but can also be straight down ( , hack).

The sabre is also used to slice (huà ), a method of attacking unarmoured parts of the body such as the hand or wrist, or the leading leg. It’s not necessary to cut off the opponent’s hand: it’s sufficient to make him drop his weapon. We see slicing of the hand at the end of Hide Sabre and Push as the weapon is held horizontally and pulled back towards the waist.

Finally the opponent can also be attacked with the hilt, for example with a blow to the temple (hit tiger left) or to the ribs (hit tiger right).

Sabre techniques: defending

In taiji sabre, stabbing attacks are blocked by neutralizing the incoming blade – deflecting and sticking to the blade (a taiji skill developed in push hands). According to one story, a famous sabre player known as Magic Sabre Zhang once had a bout with Yang Jianhou (son of Yang Luchan and father to Yang Chengfu). Armed only with a horsetail duster, Yang easily defeated Zhang by sticking to his blade, leaving Zhang unable to deploy any of his techniques.

When the blade is deflected one can move either inside (i.e. to the side of the opponent’s body) or outside the attack. Moving inside it is then simple to switch to attacking with an upper cut. Moving outside, one then spins round to attack (a movement not seen in our set).

Chopping attacks are avoided by holding the hilt high with the blade at an angle (a structure described as resembling a roof), such that the incoming blade is deflected to the side (as in roll the sabre).

An incoming sabre can also be blocked using sheer strength, and followed up by a push involving both arms, with the back of the blade being pushed by either the empty hand or the back of the empty forearm.

Don’t think that sabre techniques are necessarily designed to block another sabre. The opponent may have a spear. In this case, the defender must first intercept the attack and then rapidly close the distance, perhaps with a lunge.

In taiji dāo the weapon is mostly held with a single hand, with a two handed grip used relatively seldom. Occasionally the other hand is used to reinforce a technique, which also keeps it out of harm’s way. This does not mean that the empty hand never does anything: it can also strike or grab.

Rolling the sabre

Rolling the sabre chán tóu 纏頭 is a move that allows defence to shift to counterattack. An incoming chop is deflected down to the left. The sabre then rolls chán around the back of the head tóu and strikes down in a diagonal chop (throwing the shuttle), or cuts horizontally (zhǎn ) – literally, behead). The full movement is then called, rather graphically, chán tóu guò nǎo 纏頭裹脑 which means roll-head-wrap-brain! Note that in Mr Moy’s taijidāo the initial deflecting block is used to extend the spine, pressing down with the lower palm and stretching up with the upper hand.

Hiding the sabre

Any movement in which an opponent cannot see the sabre is called hiding or concealing (cáng ) the sabre. In our form, after rolling the sabre and throwing the shuttle, the path of the weapon is reversed and the weapon is held behind the spine as if being sheathed in a scabbard on one’s back. This is the main kind of hiding the sabre but the weapon is also “hidden” if, for example, it is held horizontally as we stand side on to an opponent, such that they can only see the handle.

In the next part of this article we’ll look at the Yang Sabre Set, before concluding with a third part looking at the set taught by Mr Moy.


Books and articles

Needle at Sea Bottom

What is the meaning of this movement – what would a Chinese person understand by its name? The word ‘needle’ might remind them of the legend of the Monkey King, who for a weapon used a magical iron pillar, twenty feet long, that he could shrink to the size of a needle and tuck behind his ear. This iron pillar, the legend says, was used by Great Yu to “fathom and fix” the depth of the rivers and seas when he brought the Yellow River under control (the river used to flood repeatedly). This is an historical event that took place 4000 years ago; the Chinese refer to it as Great Yu Controls the Waters (大禹治水 dà yǔ zhì shuǐ). This magical weapon was found for Monkey by the Dragon King and Queen, who lived at the bottom of the sea.

But perhaps we are pushing a needle to the bottom of the sea, rather than picking one up? This may be the correct explanation, but the sea may not be where we first think it is.

In this view the sea would refer to the ‘sea of qi’ 氣 海 qì hǎi, in other words the lower dan-tien (the energy centre in the belly). There’s even an acupuncture point here with this name (CV6). The bottom of this sea 海 底 is not the seabed, but the pelvic floor. Martially, it seems that the move was originally used to attack the cavity between the hip and the groin. If the strike was not sufficient to disable the opponent, one continued downwards in order to push the opponent to the ground.

Yang Cheng-fu demonstrates “Needle at Sea Bottom” (1931)

Here is Yang Cheng-fu demonstrating Needle at Sea Bottom in his book The Essence and Applications of Taijiquan. Yang describes using the movement to break free from a grab of one’s right wrist at the end of the previous ‘Brush Knee’. The opponent is pulled first towards you and then down, uprooting him. “The movement’s intent is like a needle probing the bottom of the sea”. There is no mention of striking with the hand, but we should remember that the book was written and published quite late in the development of Tai Chi: in 1931. By this time several movements had lost their original purpose; a classic example is White Snake Shoots out Tongue, whose original meaning was only preserved in oral transmission.

The way Mr Moy performed Needle at Sea Bottom himself was similar, although with a narrower base so that the weight remained in the back foot. However the way he taught it was a bit different. To beginner and intermediate students he showed a table stretch with straight legs, designed to stretch not just the legs, but the back and spine:

Needle at Sea Bottom – a table stretch.

The coccyx stretches back and the head forwards, lengthening the spine. Additionally there is a rounding across the shoulder blades and across the back of the pelvis.

To students who were more flexible Mr Moy taught the version he himself performed in which he allowed both knees to bend. This clearly won’t stretch the tendons in the leg, but it creates more stretch across the back of the pelvis, opening the sacro-iliac joints.

Remembering that Tai Chi is an “internal” art (內家 nèi jiā), one further possibility comes to mind: perhaps the sea here is neither a figurative ocean, nor the ‘sea of qi’ of an opponent, but the one inside ourselves?

Further references

  1. Jim McClanahan: The Magic Powers of the Monkey King’s Iron Staff
  2. Sara Olsen: Needle at Sea Bottom

Carry tiger to mountain

What on earth can the name of this movement mean? The names of the movements are recorded at least as early as 1931, when they appear in Yang Cheng-Fu’s book “Applications of Taijiquan“. The Chinese characters 抱虎归山 Bào hǔ guī shān literally say: “Embrace tiger, return (to) mountain”. The tiger is a fierce animal: powerful and dangerous. The mountain is its home. Here the tiger stands for a fierce opponent who is sent back whence they came, but what is the carrying/embracing about? The name has confused many, with some even speculating that bào might actually stand for its honomyn , which means leopard. There’s no evidence for this at all, and it’s not the character in Yang Cheng-Fu’s book (although this would have been dictated to a senior student).

I searched the internet for 抱虎归山 and discovered this scroll by the Chinese artist Zhang Shan-Zi. The scroll dates from 1925, which is before Yang Cheng-Fu wrote his books. Zhang made many tiger scrolls including one bearing as its title the famous Chinese phrase “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

The image makes clear the meaning of “embracing”, but is otherwise a bit of a red herring. The tiger tightly hugs a boulder on a steep mountain side to avoid falling. As Sun-Tzu wrote in ‘The Art of War’ (5th century BCE): “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer”. In the Tai-ji movement, the tiger is the enemy.

How does this relate to the mechanics of the movement? First of all, remember that “Cross hands” is a separate movement: when we cross hands, we are not really carrying the tiger, even if this is a handy aide-mémoire. Yang Cheng-Fu’s book says: “From the previous movement (Cross Hands), presume the opponent closes on me from behind at the right corner”. If the opponent is close, then the movement that follows is a trip. The right leg is picked up and placed behind the opponent’s leg. Then we push him back and trip him over.

How is this like “embracing a tiger”? The answer comes when we look at Yang style Tai-ji. In Yang style, when we step to the corner the left hand falls and the right hand rises. Yang Cheng-fu describes two applications for this movement in his book. If the opponent attempts a strike with their right hand (or foot), then the raised right forearm wraps the attacking limb. Then the left hand pushes them over. See the picture below.

Yang Cheng-Fu demonstrates one application of “Embrace Tiger” – although sadly not the one which gives the movement its name – blocking a right punch with the right forearm before striking with the left palm. From “Applications of Taijiquan”, 1931.

So far, so good, but we still have not ’embraced’ our opponent. Yang Cheng-Fu describes another application: if the opponent attacks with their left hand then after the block the (raised) right hand circles round the back of the opponent. We hug them close, with a movement that some have described as like scooping up a child, before the left hand, continuing forward, knocks them over with a push to the face or shoulder.

In the meantime, after generations of oral transmission and evolution have obscured the meanings of the movements, it does no harm to imagine that when we cross hands, we embrace a tiger.

Relax and let go

Mr Moy, like many Tai ji teachers, told his students to relax. What he actually said was fang sōng放 松.

Perfectly relaxed: a pine tree.

Sōng is an essential quality for tai chi practitioners. It means loose, but the character also means a pine tree. You can see the pictographic representation of a tree in the left hand half of the character, with branches hanging down from the trunk – this is more clear in an older version of the character which has more branches. The branches hang loosely, but the tree retains its structure – something that is no longer implied by the word “relax” in English, which today could easily refer to someone collapsed on their sofa, with no structure.

Fang means release. Fang sōng thus means something like “let go of all excess tension”.

Towards the end of his life, Mr Moy started telling his students, in English, to let go, a translation of fang sōng which avoids the ambiguity of the word relax. I like to think of it as: relax and let go.

Repulsing the monkey

攆 猴 Repulse monkey is one of the repeated moves in the Tai Ji set. Why do we repulse the monkey? The simplest explanation is that to calm the mind, we must repulse or expel () the chattering monkey mind.

This makes sense, but perhaps there’s more to it than this. As ever, the question to ask is: What would a Chinese person understand by the name of this move?

Monkey was a cheeky Chinese demi-god. He got up to all kinds of mischief, but the exploit that the Chinese best remember is revealed by the name of a movement in the Lok Hup set: Monkey picks fruit. According to the legend, Monkey stole the Peaches of Immortality from the garden of Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, and gorged on them. He is now an Immortal – the goal of Taoist practice – but he has taken a short cut. This is cheating, and Buddha Shakyamuni imprisons him under Five Elements Mountain for 500 years. This episode is widely depicted in Chinese art, both in paintings and sculpture.

In Repulse Monkey we try to stop Monkey from stealing the peach. Imagine a nice juicy peach in the upturned palm of your hand. As Monkey reaches for it, you withdraw it, and the rear hand delivers a palm strike, thrusting him away.

You think this image a bit fanciful? The movement just before Repulse Monkey is Fist Under Elbow. This was once explained to us as: Reach out, grab an apple, and slice it in half. Now, apples are to the West what peaches are to the East. The Chinese Peaches of Immortality should remind us of the Golden Apples of the Garden of the Hesperides in Greek mythology which also conferred immortality. One of the 12 Labours of Hercules was to steal some apples from this garden, which was guarded by a dragon. The parallels don’t stop there: the Peaches of Immortality were in the garden of the Queen Mother of the West, whilst the Hesperides were also in the far west, and situated near a mountain – the mythical Mount Atlas. The Garden of Xiwangmu is situated near a mythical Taoist mountain, Mount Kunlun. Both gardens are attended by young maidens: the Garden of Hesperides is named for the nymphs who tend them, whilst Xiwangmu’s garden is tended by her seven daughters. The Garden of Hesperides is the original paradise (the word means ‘enclosed garden’) – the Garden of Eden.

Hercules’s 11th Labour: Attic black-figured amphora c. 540BC. Panckoucke Collection, Boulogne-sur-mer. Photo © Egisto Sani

In Repulse Monkey, then, we thrust away our desire to achieve results without working for them.

If one may not steal one of the Peaches of Immortality, how can one get one? Xiwangmu would occasionally give them to deserving mortals. In other words, they cannot be taken, but only given. In the West, this is what we call grace.

Monkey holds a Peach of Immortality

A final inspiration for our practice comes from the monkey itself. The character yuan today refers to any kind of monkey but formerly it was used just for gibbons. Gibbons swing through the forest canopy on their long arms, which are beautifully extended in long, relaxed arcs, rather than locked straight, with the elbows pointing down. “Drop elbows” was the correction Mr Moy gave more than any other.

A Hainan gibbon in the Bawangling National Nature Reserve in South China’s Hainan Province.

The Weaving Maiden

In the previous post we tried to explain why the Fair Lady of “Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles” is actually called a jade maiden. Now we turn to the movement itself. Its name implies a woman sitting at a loom, but images of the weaving maiden more often show her spinning thread. In the image at left the jade maiden is depicted as a flying spirit. Why is that? And what is she spinning?

The Weaving Maiden 織女 (zhi-nu) is a character from Chinese mythology, the youngest of the seven daughters of 玉皇 the Emperor of Heaven (literally ‘The Jade Emperor’ – that word again) and 西王母 Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. Her particular task was to weave clouds.

The sisters would come down to earth to play and here a cowherd fell in love with her. She returned his love, and they were married and had two children. When the girl’s parents found out about this they were furious. The girl was returned to heaven and a river – the Milky Way – was placed in the sky to separate them. In China the Weaving Maiden is associated with the star Vega and the cowherd with the star Altair. The Milky Way, known in China as the Silver River or Heavenly River, does indeed run between these two stars. You can learn the Chinese names of these stars, and of the stars representing their children, on the blog Jade Turtle Records.

But the story is not over! The magpies built a bridge between earth and heaven so that the two lovers could meet. Moved by this sight, the parents permitted the lovers to meet on this bridge once a year. This meeting is celebrated each year on the 7th day of the 7th month at a festival called the Night of Sevens (Qi Xi) or Double Seven Festival. (In 2022 it fell in August). This is the turning point of the year, the time when summer turns to autumn; traditionally, it was the time when girls would begin sewing clothes for the winter.

The reunion of the Weaving Maiden and the Cowherd on the bridge of magpies. Artwork in Summer Palace in Beijing.

So now we know who the girl was, but why does she crop up in the name of a Tai Chi movement? Perhaps this story of a heavenly girl and an earthly boy has some kind of allegorical significance for the Taoists?

Well, as it turns out, both the weaving maiden and the cowherd are depicted in the Neijing Tu or Diagram of The Internals (see the image at right), which was discovered in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. Taoists were concerned with internal alchemy – the process of internal transformation – and the diagram attempts to depict this process. The text around the Weaving Maiden refers specifically to the kidneys and the spleen. This doesn’t mean that Fair Lady Weaves Shuttles is designed to benefit the kidneys and spleen: the weaving motion is more to do with the visiting of the four corners. But the Taoists use the relationship between the Weaving Maiden (yin) and the Cowherd (yang) as an allegory of the circulation of energy between the kidneys (the Weaving Maiden) and the heart (the Cowherd) which lies at the root of Taoist Internal Alchemy. That’s a topic for another time.

The first 17 moves

The first 17 moves make a natural first block because the end of the 17th move is a natural place to return to the opening position.

1Opening of Tai Ji太 極 起 式
2Left grasp bird’s tail左 攬 雀 尾
3Grasp bird’s tail攬 雀 尾
4Whip to one side (“Single whip”)單 鞭
5Step up, raise hands提 手 上 勢
6White crane cools wings白 鶴 涼 翅
7Brush knee (left)摟 膝 (左)
8Strum the pei-pa手 揮 琵 琶
9Brush knee, twist step (left)摟 膝 坳 步 (左)
10Brush knee, twist step (right)摟 膝 坳 步 (右)
11Brush knee (left)摟 膝 (左)
12Strum the pei-pa手 揮 琵 琶
13Brush knee, twist step (right)摟 膝 坳 步 (右)
14Chop with fist撇 身 捶
15Step up, deflect, parry, punch進 步 搬 攔 捶
16Appear to close entrance如 封 似 閉
17Cross hands十 字 手

Download a pdf of the first 17 moves