Chinese Sword Fighting Techniques:
Beginning With the Basics - Part 1


Chinese Sword Fighting is exciting to watch if it is done well. I'm not saying we can all be as flexible as the star from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". But it all begins somewhere. First sword fighting lessons are usually aimed towards getting the foundation right. Start with discovering your best learning style on the multiple intelligences page.

This page is about basic stance and sword grip for Chinese jian swordsmanship. This is quite different from European styles. One of the main reasons for differences in these techniques is the shape of the sword, especially the guard. I'm going to use the Jian for these lessons. Dao and Miaodao will have pages of their own, later in the Guide. If you are looking for information on other martial arts, please check this great new site: Complete Martial Arts.

And if you are a mixed martial arts follower, you can check out the best equipment for your training at Ultimate MMA.

Sword Grip for a Jian

Sword Grip for a Jian
Jian grips.
Alt Text--Jian hilts
As you can see by the picture, a jian, the Chinese double edged straight sword, has a fairly small and flat sided guard. The handle of the sword has an oval shape made to fit the hollow of the palm, and it tapers to either end. There is only enough room on the grip for one hand so our sword fighting techniques are mostly single handed. I sometimes use it as a hand and a half sword, which is possible because the pommel is small enough to wrap a hand around it if necessary.

The hand not holding the sword forms what we know as the sword talisman. Point your index and second finger straight ahead. Curl the other two fingers towards the palm, but not touching it, and tuck the first joints under your thumb. The two pointing fingers rest in the hollow of your sword hand wrist, at the base of the thumb. This can be used as a brace. The sword talisman has other uses as well, which I'll get to when explaining the basic sword fighting cuts.

How to hold a jian.
Alt Text--show jian grip

Make the grip by wrapping the thumb of your sword hand over the middle two fingers. The index and pinkie fingers are not used as part of the main grip. They help and guide but don't grasp. In this way, the sword handle floats in the hollow of the hand, while being held firmly. It gives the wrist a lot of flexibility. This grip may feel awkward at first. It isn't the natural way you would grasp something in your hand. Do persevere with it until it becomes automatic because it will make you difficult to disarm in a sword fight.

Sword talisman.
Alt Text--sword talisman

In some styles of sword fighting, the index finger is wrapped over the guard. Don't be tempted to try this with a jian. It's all very well to wrap your finger over when there is a basket hilt or finger ring to protect it. If you try that with a jian, there is nothing simpler than for your opposite to snap a quick Pi cut at the unprotected finger. With sharp swords, of course, this would mean a severed finger. When you play with wooden swords, it means a bruise, or possibly a break.

Basic Jian Stance

A group of Students in Estonia practising their basic Jian stance.
Alt Text--show jian sword fighting stance

There are many sword fighting stances possible with a jian. I may talk about some of them on another page. This section is to explain the Basic Stance of the Yangjia MiChuan Jian system. Since it's a taiji sword style, taiji principles apply. In fact, these principles apply to every aspect of the system. Whether you are doing sword fighting lessons, emptyhand, push hands - whatever - the same body mechanics and principles of movement apply.

In most systems, a student doesn't get to swordsmanship until they have practised empty hand skills for years and years. This option wasn't available to me, so I started with sword. Most of the Australians start with sword, both children or adults. At first I was worried that I might mess up the balance of how I was supposed to be learning. But then I realised I could be learning fangsong, fajing, verticality, every part of the body moving together, using the waist, and all the other taiji principles, with a sword in my hand or without one. So I kept training, using whatever opportunities I had.

I'll explain the right handed sword fighting stance on this page. Practise it equally both left and right handed. Just swap the hands and feet around.

  • Feet
    Your left foot will be at back on a 45 degree angle. Your right foot will be in front, facing straight ahead. Most of the weight - about 70% of it, is on the back leg. The front foot is balanced on the ball with the heel slightly raised. This is so you can move it quickly. You can pull it back in a slip. Push off the back leg into a lunge, step sideways, or whatever you want. You could also drop the weight onto the front foot and pass forward. if both feet are equally weighted in the stance, some of these movements take a little longer. This back weighted "MiChuan" stance, has a light and springy feel, as though you could instantly change the weight from one side to the other - think of a cat walking - light and springy. It is also rooted like a tree into the ground, but flexible enough to change the sense of balanced rootedness to the opposite foot, in an instant. There should be some lateral distance between the feet. We call this get-away room. You don't want to take a step back to slip a cut while sword fighting and trip over your own back foot.

  • Legs
    Both legs are bent at the knee. Your hip, knee, and ankle joints will be on the same outer plane, so that nothing is straining and there is looseness in the joints. Try not to block up your body in any way. From the front, the knee of the back leg will not protrude past the toe.

  • Body
    The torso is turned to the same 45 degree angle as the back foot. Tailbone is tucked under to help straighten the spine. Shoulders are loosely rounded and the chest slightly hollowed. The spine is straight without being at all tense. Think of it as divided at the waist with the lower part sinking towards the ground and the upper part light, almost suspended, as though there is a puppet string attached to the crown of your head and held from above.

  • Arms
    Every joint in the arms is relaxed. The arms are not jammed at your sides. Neither are the elbows sticking out. There will be one line from the elbow to the tip of the sword a slightly curved line because the elbow is not locked. Hold your sword out from your body. The pommel points to the "dantian" - A Chinese word for a place inside the lower body below the naval. The tip of the sword points to the eyes of your opposite, and that's where your eyes are focused. The angle of the sword is just across the centre line of your body, forming a barrier the opposite would have to get past to reach you.
  • It is a good idea to stand with your sword using the correct grip and stance, concentrating on keeping your joints and muscles loose and unclenched. Breathe slowly and stand in this basic stance until it becomes pointless because you are stiffening up too much. Ten minutes regularly standing like that will help your sword fighting techniques more than most other things. Half an hour will change you from the inside out, but don't try that straight away. Build up to it.

Next Lessons:
How to master sword attacks with deflections - Part 1: Definitions
Deflection to the upper left - Best self defense: Part 2
Defensive move for the upper tight side: Part 3

Partner Drills:
Four Corners Deflection Drill

Stepping Techniques:
How to Step Part 1 - The Half Step or Advance
How to Step Part 2 - The Passing Step or Full step

Do you have questions or comments about these lessons?

Please use the form on this page to ask questions or make comments about anything you read on this page or its linking pages. Suggest similar techniques if you like, but be sure to add a picture if you do. It will make it easier for other visitors to understand.

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