The Two-Handed Sword Reborn

By Gigi Oh and Gene Ching

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine July/August 2012Kung fu abounds with fanciful creation myths. According to legend, our founders were inspired by observing fights between snakes and cranes, by staring at stone walls, even at by watching monkeys from prison cells. Some were urgent innovations - new weapons created in the heat of the battlefield when another weapon failed. Other styles came from rapturous visions - divine entities passed along sacred teachings that would become the foundation of their martial arts. Yet others were fusions, born of a marriage between exponents of different fighting styles. Such mythic beginnings are surely apocryphal and yet there is an underlying parable that has resonated with generations of practitioners, allowing such stories to be passed down. There is such poetry to these myths, poetry that cannot be denied.

Today, most new styles are hybrids instead of poetry, the fallout of globalization and sports. Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do was an amalgam, rooted in his traditional wing chun, developed with western methods like wrestling, boxing and fencing, and including other influences like escrima and jujitsu. The very name Brazilian jiu-jitsu celebrates an international fusion. And recent creations like taekwondo, muay thai and mixed martial arts have emerged from making combat into sport.

Since the Cultural Revolution, there has been a movement in China towards restoration, reconstruction and revitalization. China has a rich history of warfare wherein dynasties have risen and fallen by the sword for centuries. Much of that battlefield experience has been lost. Swordsmanship is rendered obsolete in today's world of guns and grenades. And yet, the art of sword still holds great mystery and romance. To reclaim this "lost" heritage and honor tradition is the goal of many modern martial masters today.

Grandmaster Yu Chenghui (于承惠) has devoted his life to the martial arts. His devotion is expressed through his dogged efforts to revive a medieval sword method in the modern world. Westerners know him from his breakout role in Shaolin Temple (1982). He played the villainous Wang Renze, a drunken master of the two-handed sword in Jet Li's silver screen debut. In real life, Grandmaster Yu embodies an iconic martial arts master. He has won noted championships, been awarded several distinguished titles and starred in dozens of martial arts movies and television shows. That hasn't come easily. Yu has also overcome two devastating traumas to his legs. In both incidents, he was told that it would end his career as a martial artist - one almost ended in amputation - but he ate bitter and prevailed. What's more, Yu is a noted poet, a talented painter and calligrapher, an established philosopher and an expert in traditional Chinese medicine. But most of all, like the patron saint of martial arts, Guan Yu (關羽), Grandmaster Yu has a magnificent beard.

The Sword Should Fly Like a Dragon and Dance Like a Phoenix
At 72, Grandmaster Yu is still strong as an ox and quick as a cat. He is a self-confessed sword fanatic. Yu's fascination with the Chinese two-handed sword (shuangshoujian 双手剑) moved him to dedicate fourteen years of his life to extensively researching it. While there was ample evidence of the historical use of shuangshoujian, Yu could find no extant forms still in practice, so he eventually developed his own. "I kept wondering, 'Did the shuangshoujian ever exist?'" says Yu in Mandarin. "Then I made up my mind to recover shuangshoujian swordplay techniques. I felt that the martial arts were heading in a wrong direction. There was too much acrobatics, dancing and juggling - these insignificant skills - for performance purposes only. Fewer people were attending to the combat applications. I feel that if martial arts continued on this path, eventually the road will lead to an end. So, we must tap the original essence of traditional martial arts. I've spent a very long time, constantly thinking day and night, about the swordplay techniques and movements of the shuangshoujian."

Yu was born and raised in Shandong province where mantis style kung fu originated. When Yu was very young, his father offended a local spy and had to flee to Taiwan. "It was only until I finished the movie Yellow River Fighter (1988) that I met him again." With his father gone, Yu was sent to work on a farm in rural Qingdao. But the martial arts were his calling and he managed to convince the village elders to let him study. His first teachers were Li Shuzan (李书斋) and Hong Junsheng (洪钧生), under whom Yu showed early promise. After only a few years of training, Yu won the All-Around Champion at the Qingdao Youth Martial Arts Competition at age nineteen. For that title, he had to excel in four divisions: long weapon, short weapon, empty-hand and simplified taijiquan. He caught the eye of the chief referee, Ji Yanchang (纪炎昌), who contacted him later with a proposal. Together with another master, Sun Wenbin (孙文斌), and a boxing expert, Ma Wenzhang (马文章), they tailored an experimental training program specifically for Yu. They even selected an elder kung fu brother for Yu's personal sparring partner. At the same time, Yu was invited to join the Shandong professional team. That offer was too enticing, so in 1960 he went and joined, but returned every summer and winter to Qingdao to train more. The extra training paid off. In 1963, Yu's drunken sword earned the 1st Place in the traditional division at the Hua Dong Martial Arts Competition. This was the beginning of Yu's lifelong passion for the sword.

According to Yu, "The earliest recorded material about shuangshoujian was in a renowned book Geng Yu Sheng Ji (耕余剩技) written by Cheng Chongdou (1561-? 程冲斗). His other name is Cheng Zongyou (程宗猷). There were four sections: Shaolin Staff (少林棍法阐宗), Single Broadsword Methods (单刀法选), Staff Methods (长枪法选) and Bow and Arrow Mind Laws (蹶张心法). In the beginning of the Republic of China (est. 1911), a copy of this publication changed the title to The Martial Arts Four Books (国术四书). It describes shuangshoujian as 'Long saber sword used by two hands, lost at late Tang dynasty. Spread to Korea, Japan, and other places. During the Ming Dynasty, someone brought back a sword manual, but no one knows how to use it.' Therefore, shuangshoujian must have existed in the Tang Dynasty.

"I recently heard a story of a Tang military troop, sixty or seventy thousand soldiers strong, riding on the horses, which fought against an army of Persian soldiers in the South. They were outnumbered six to one. The Tang troop soldiers were using the long saber swords, which were also called horse swords (ma jian 马剑). The Persian forces could not see anything when they were far away, but when the Tang troops got closer and drew their swords, the sun shined on the blades and the bright silver light frightened the Persians. But eventually, the Tang soldiers were all killed." The method was lost.

Lightning Strikes, Thunder Claps, Heaven Splits
Without much more to go on, Yu struggled with recapturing the essence of shuangshoujian . Then, miraculously, inspiration came to him in a flash - a flash of lightning. "It was a summer night in 1975. I had a groundbreaking vision of shuangshoujian . First, I had to forge a distinctive action style for shuangshoujian. Only after that was set would it be able to qualify for acceptance as a traditional competition form." After he came home from a movie with his wife, there was a tremendous thunderstorm. The dramatic weather inspired a creative burst from the Grandmaster. "I was wearing gym pants, a sleeveless top, and moving from this room to that room. There were mirrors in both rooms." Yu worked all night long on creating the action style for shuangshoujian. After the storm subsided, Yu captured his ideas in a classical Chinese poem that he titled, "Realizing Swordsmanship (悟剑篇)." It was a pivotal moment in his life's work.

Since then, Grandmaster Yu has championed shuangshoujian in the contemporary martial world of mainland China. In 1979, Yu wrote Shuangshoujian 20 Methods (双手剑二十法 - 歌诀) and Shuangshoujian Routine (双手剑单练套路行功歌). Both were written in the style of classical Chinese rhymed poetry. When they were casting for Shaolin Temple, two leading figures in the martial arts, Wu Bin (吴彬) and He Weiqi (何伟琦), recommended that Yu try out for a part. "I thought that they were only looking for pointers, nothing more, and would not actually shoot something good. So I did not put too much thought into it. But I went for other reasons. At the same time, the National Games were being held in the Southwest and all the referees were staying together. A competitor tried to enroll shuangshoujian in the competition but was rejected by the committee because the Chief Referee said that no such thing existed. I wanted to perform in front of these referees to show them. Let them decide if there is such thing! So I went. The Director and Assistant Director were in the bleachers. I was dressed in a student uniform with tight leggings and leather shoes, and brought a large bright spotlight. I brought a Japanese coach's sword, waxed and polished. Wow. It was very bright! Under the spotlight, it shined even more. After I finished the form, the directors followed me out." That was how Yu won the part in mainland China's most pivotal martial arts film to date.

In 1979, Yu became the coach of the Ningxia Professional Wushu team. "I taught them the shuangshoujian and its two-person sparring sets (duilian 对练)." Using this method in only one year, the Ningxia professional team improved significantly, receiving high scores in the national competitions. During the National Games in Shijiazhuang, the Ningxia team propounded shuangshoujian across the competition floors. Grandmaster Cai Yunlong (蔡云龙) personally added shuangshoujian as a traditional form after seeing it. The Ningxia team also competed with shuangshoujian versus shuangshoujian and shuangshoujian versus drunken sword. "It's a pity that there was no video recorded," laments Yu. "They made mistakes during competition. Touching the ground with their hand cost a one point deduction. But they were still in the top ten."

In 1995, Yu published Shuangshoujian Theory: Characteristics and Drill Essentials (双手剑特点与演练要诀歌 - 剑论). This too was written in the style of classical Chinese rhymed poetry. Yu is credited with composing over a hundred classical poem and calligraphic works.

To Succeed, First Break Free from Customs
There is a lot of variation in archeological examples of shuangshoujian . The contemporary practice is limited by what modern swordmakers were creating. "When I was in Ningxia, we are using the regular sword for practicing shuangshoujian , only the blade was longer. But the handle length is the same. In Shaolin Temple, it was a movie prop. The filmmakers wanted to make a more dramatic impression on the audience, so the handle was made into a shoehorn shape. A canted handle may be used for dao (one-edged curved blade 刀) but would surely be an unreasonable design for a jian (double-edged straight blade 剑). The sword I used in Yellow River Fighter was different too. In general, the blade length for shuangshoujian should not be too long. The proper blade length is chest high when standing the weapon on the ground. If the length exceeds this, it will not be easy to use.

"In fact, the blade length is not important. In Sunzi, I played Sun Wu's teacher, Sima Rangju. He is the Chief Military Commander. For the shuangshoujian I used there, the blade was not long, but it was very heavy and wide. So it is not up to the blade length. It is your technique. If the sword is short and cannot reach out far, you need to add body movement to increase your sword reach. Shuangshoujian is training in the use of two hands, nothing more. If you don't have the correct jing (strength or power 劲), certainly you are not flexible. A lot of taijiquan practitioners cannot use shuangshoujian . That's because their jing is not smooth yet. They do not know how to correctly use jing. It's not the problem with taijiquan. It's the problem with the training."

For Yu, understanding jing is the key to longevity in the martial arts. He offers this advice to older practitioners: "First, you should relax and do the slower exercises. Look for your inner jing and repair the jing pathways. Your jing pathway is like a highway; only when the highway is in good repair can you drive a car at high speed. Do more stretching to help repair the jing pathways and gain more flexibility. For example, if I had a long whip and flicked it at one end, this jing would be able to reach to the tip of the other end. If I flicked it after tying a few wood sticks or pieces of wire on the whip, it would be difficult for the jing to pass through all these barriers and reach to the other end. This is because the structure has problems. If your flexibility is poor, your jing will get stuck on the place where there is blockage. You won't be able to do some large movements. So we first need to open in various parts of the jing pathway, and best to keep your flexibility to old age. Just like practicing yoga, you must keep maintaining your flexibility!"

The Heart and Mind Is also Clear and Pure
Grandmaster Yu's latest film, The Sword Identity, is a cinematic conundrum. It has been well received at both the Toronto and Venice international film festivals. There are long swordsmen, but Yu's character is not one of them. He wields a double spear. And despite having a martial arts writer at the helm, a plot about martial arts dominance and Yu in the cast, there isn't a lot of martial arts. In fact, there is a running joke in the film about how a dancing girl defeats a succession of martial arts masters with a simple technique. Yu believes this is a significant film, not only because it is his first "art" film, but for its chiding comments on the posturing in martial arts. Despite being such an influence on modern competition, he remains very critical of the current state of Chinese martial arts. "The governing body's only emphasis is on the provisions and rules. Athletes are too busy on keeping up with these petty restrictions. No time is left for practicing! Wushu is becoming a collection of insignificant skills. If martial arts continued on the same path, it will have no future.

"Therefore, I am an outsider. I deliberately maintain some distance from martial arts circles. I also maintain some distance with the entertainment industry. It's because I do not want to do this, to do that. I just want to take martial arts as a road to a lifelong practice. As long as you have the ability, you will be able to continue. The future should be bright." Many people view martial arts from the martial aspect alone. They only ask "Will it work in combat?" And while Grandmaster Yu agrees that martial effectiveness is paramount, he asks a lot more of the discipline. He takes the artistic perspective. "When a person becomes mature, he must ponder over the meaning of life. You can't be an artist if you do not study this subject. Therefore, becoming an artist is not just because you are working in the arts. An artist is a state of being. It is the pursuit of one's life. Can you say Sun Zi was not an artist? He is the best war strategist, but he is against war and desired peace. Ultimately, he was concerned with everything. His soul was elevated. In fact, martial arts practice can be an insightful glimpse into the wonders of Dao. You may not be able to see, but you can feel it!"

  Discuss this article online
Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine July/August 2012


Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2012 .


About Gigi Oh and Gene Ching :
For more on Grandmaster Yu Chenghui, read Yu Chenghui and THE SWORD IDENTITY, exclusively on KungFuMagazine.com.

Buy this issue now, or subscribe digitally on Zineo

Find us on facebook

Print Friendly VersionPrint Friendly Version of This Article