The Chinese Samurai Sword

By Gene Ching with Gigi Oh

Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November/December 2011The most popular sword in the world today is the samurai sword. This is evident from the countless samurai swords currently available on the market, as well as the fact that almost every sword-related crime nowadays is committed with a samurai sword. When you handle a samurai sword, you know why. The elegant design, arrived through centuries of lethal trial-and-error research, has a universal appeal. A samurai sword just feels right, like something you could really use to lop off a head.

The Chinese martial arts are dominated by two styles of swords, the straight double-edged jian (劍) and the curved single-edged dao (刀). However, Chinese swordsmanship is far from limited to these two weapons. Far from it, the Chinese arsenal contains the most diverse collection of cold arms of any culture in the world, so there are numerous variations on Chinese sword design. The one most commonly compared to the samurai sword is called a miaodao (苗刀). Just as samurai swords were carried by Japanese soldiers in WWII, miaodao were carried by Chinese soldiers during the Sino-Japanese War. Even so, miaodao has been a fairly rare practice in contemporary martial circles. Recently, perhaps due to the popularity of samurai swords coupled with increasing familiarity with the complexities of Chinese martial arts, miaodao practice is beginning to rise again.

Is that vile name to perish on my sword
Asian swords have long suffered from poor translations into English. A samurai sword would be more appropriately called a katana. The katana was commonly used by the samurai (in fact during some periods only samurai were permitted to bear such swords), but it is only called a samurai sword in English. Just to demonstrate the absurdity, a parallel term to "samurai sword" might be wuxia sword. Admittedly, wuxia (warrior knight武俠) isn't in the English vernacular as much as samurai; this example is just to make a point about sword names used in America today.

Not by coincidence, Japanese uses the Chinese character for dao (刀) to mean katana. Unfortunately, dao is commonly translated as "broadsword." This is a bothersome misnomer as the term "broadsword" is typically used for arming (knightly) swords, which are generally straight and double-edged. Unfortunately, language is governed more by popular usage than accuracy, so Americans seem stuck on "broadsword." In contrast, jian (劍) hasn't really been labeled with a common English translation yet. It is sporadically referred to as a "straight sword" (presumably in contrast to the curved dao) or a "tai chi sword" (even though it is used for external kung fu too).

Miaodao is even more muddled, even before translation. The term is confusing in its native Chinese. Miao (苗) is commonly used to refer to a large Southern Chinese ethnic group. When it comes to China, most Americans think of the Han Chinese, which comprises over 1.2 billion of China's 1.3 billion population. However, the People's Republic of China recognizes 55 ethnic minority groups (the 100 million non-Han). The Miao account for nearly 9 million Chinese and represents the fifth largest cultural group in China. A Vietnamese sub-group of the Miao, known as Hmong, is better known in America, as many immigrated here in the wake of the Vietnamese War. Accordingly, some attribute Miaodao to the Miao people. There are some claims of unique Miao martial arts systems, as well as Hmong styles; however, the evidence is sketchy and colloquial. Some photos have been published of contemporary swordsmen clad in traditional Miao attire bearing miaodao. Nevertheless, such photos might well be revisionist, and skepticism about this connection remains.

With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed
Most sword researchers believe that the term miao derives from the weapon's shape, not the minority group. The character for miao can also mean a slender sprout, which describes the shape of the blade. Such is the opinion of Grandmaster Wang Zhihai (王志海), a leading expert on miaodao. Wang is the chairman of the Cangzhou Martial Arts Association (沧州市武术协会)). Cangzhou City, in the Hebei Province of China, is a venerated bastion of traditional martial arts. Records of Cangzhou martial arts trace as far back as the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE), and this tradition is still thriving. In 2010, the 8th Cangzhou International Martial Arts Festival hosted over 50 teams from over 40 countries in a lavish event that included Jackie Chan as an honored VIP. Cangzhou is also home to three legendary forefathers of the martial arts. Wang Ziping (1881-1973王子平) was an influential master (and one of the leaders of the Chinese Wushu Association) famous for answering many challenges from foreigners. Huo Yuanjia (霍元甲1868-1910) was the founder of the Chin Woo Athletic Association (a real-life association that has been dramatized by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen精武體育會). Wu Zhong (吳鍾 1712-1802) is attributed with the creation of both bajiquan (eight extremes fist 八極拳) and piguaquan (hanging chop fist 劈掛拳). Wang Zhihai is recognized as an official piguaquan successor and his miaodao practice is part of the piguaquan curriculum.

Coming from Cangzhou, Wang studied with some of the greatest masters of the era. He began training at age twelve in yanqingquan (燕青拳). Wang was a disciple of yanqingquan master Xiao Yufeng (肖玉峰). Yanqingquan is often called "lost track fist" but the name "Yan Qing" actually refers to a hero from the martial epic Outlaws of the Marsh. When Wang turned twenty-one, he began training piguaquan under Guo Ruixiang (郭瑞祥), the son of Guo Changsheng (郭长生). Pigua is believed to have roots as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). In Qi Jiguang's (戚繼光1528-1588) pivotal work, New Annals of Effective Techniques (ji xiao xin shu 紀效新書), Qi describes pigua hengquan (劈掛橫拳) and the illustrations match techniques still practiced within piguaquan today. Piguaquan arrived in Cangzhou in the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with two distinct lineages: one from Guo Dafa (郭大发) of Nanpi (南皮), the other from Zuo Baihaiba (左宝梅) of Yanshan (盐山). In 1928, the Central Guoshu Institute (Zhongyang Guoshuguan 中央國術館) was founded in Nanjing and became a significant establishment for the formalization and organization of traditional martial arts. Ma Yingtu (马英图) and Guo Changsheng were piguaquan masters from the two Cangzhou lineages. At the institute, they exchanged methods which culminated into an improved system. When Guo returned to Cangzhou in 1937, he propounded this new synthesis, which is what Wang learned under Guo's son. Wang also studied tongbeiquan (through back fist 通背拳) and fanziquan (flipping over fist 翻子拳), both of which often complement piguaquan. In addition, he learned taiji under noted exponents Men Huifeng (门惠丰) and Ma Hong (马虹).

With such notable masters, Wang rose to accumulate extensive accolades. He began competing in 1973 and has garnered dozens of first-place awards in national and international championships. He still competes today. Wang composed the standardized competition routine for piguaquan at the behest of the National Sports Commission and was chief editor for a book titled Piguaquan, published by the People's Publishing House in 1998. Despite his efforts for competition standardization, Wang remains a staunch traditionalist and is critical of the shortcomings of modern wushu. To make his point, he is quick to cite fanziquan, which has become quite popular in modern wushu because of its long, flashy arm movements. After years of training, Wang can manipulate the muscles of his shoulder to form a peculiar egg-sized indentation. It almost appears as if he's dislocated his shoulder, but Wang can move powerfully in and out of the position, which extends his range of motion and, consequentially, his attacking reach. "Fanzi develops long muscle, not big," states Wang in Mandarin. "Modern fanzi skips the traditional conditioning. This is where it fails. It will cause injuries later."

Wang has continued to publish other articles and books, notably Miaodao, published by Swallow Press in 2008. As the practice of miaodao is still relatively uncommon outside of China, most English-speaking practitioners simply use the term miaodao. However, if it is to be translated, Wang personally prefers the term "long saber" over "broadsword."

Why then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword shall open
Wang trains with miaodao of different lengths. Some are outrageously long two-handed weapons, so long that the wielder cannot draw one from his own scabbard. In days of old, miaodao-bearing soldiers would be partnered together so that they could draw each other's swords. Wang also uses miaodao that are equivalent in length to a katana - closer to what might be called a "hand-and-a-half sword" because it could be wielded with one hand or two.

Although the weapon is formally called miaodao today, Wang asserts that it is analogous to weapons of similar designs that bore different names in the past. Long swords with curved blades have been discovered in Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) tombs. They varied from about two feet to just under four feet in length. These ancient Han swords usually had a ring pommel akin to many European medieval long swords. Wang cites the 1974 archeological discovery of Emperor Han-an's (汉安 帝 94-125) long saber at Cangshan in Shandong Province. That sword is identical to the type of miaodao Wang uses today.

The aforementioned Qi Jiguang played a pivotal role in the development of miaodao. In the 1550s, Qi defended the Shandong coastline against the wokuo (倭寇). The wokuo are better known to English-speaking sinophiles as the Japanese pirates; however, it is important to remember that the wokuo were in collusion with local Chinese, so while it is simple to view this as another Chinese versus Japanese conflict, there were countless Chinese who stood amongst the ranks of wokuo. Regardless of ethnicity, the wokuo were armed with katana, and after fighting with them, Qi realized the superiority of the sword. At the time, the Chinese believed Katana techniques were of Chinese origin, but during Qi's time it was believed that those methods were refined by the Japanese to a higher level of lethality. As the story goes, a treatise on Japanese swordsmanship was discovered on the body of a slain wokuo. Qi acquired it, studied it, and improved upon it by re-introducing more Chinese methods. A chapter on xinyou daofa (xinyou sword laws 辛酉刀法) was included in an edition of New Annals of Effective Techniques (the term Xinyou is even more difficult to translate than sword names, as it refers to the esoteric eighth celestial stem and tenth earth branch).

The creation myths for katana and miaodao are somewhat parallel. Wang asserts that ancient swords were jian. The development of curved blades came after jian caught in armor and split. A katana creation myth traces its roots to Japanese ken swords. Ken swords are exactly like jian and use the same character (劍). They are used as ritual swords in Japanese Buddhism. According to legend, a split ken blade was the inspiration for the curved katana design.

During the Ming Dynasty, Cheng Zhongyou (程宗猷 1561-?) wrote Single Dao Law Selections (Dandao faxuan 单刀法选), which elaborated on miaodao methods, increasing their popularity in Hebei Province. During the Qing Dynasty, Xie Jinfen was a miaodao proponent from Cangzhou, who in turn passed this method to Liu Yuchun (刘玉春). Liu became a military miaodao instructor, as well as the teacher of Guo Changsheng. According to Wang, Guo not only incorporated Ma Yingtu's alternate version of piguaquan into miaodao, he infused the 24 twisting step footwork of tongbeiquan into it as well. "Long sword methods are all about footwork," states Wang, and adds with pride, "We practice authentic Nanjing Guoshuguan miaodao."

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them
Wang's miaodao method includes two main forms: yi lu (first road一路) and er lu (second road 二路). The former is the foundation routine, which focuses on agility and large slashing chops. The latter is the form from the Central Guoshu Institute, developed by Guo Changsheng. He describes it as pigua and tongbei, with some spear techniques as well. They also practice two-person sparring where practitioners don protective face helmets and spar with waxwood sticks or shinai (wooden practice swords used in Japanese kendo竹刀). "There was also a miaodao versus spear sparring form, but now that is lost," adds Wang regretfully. Despite sometimes using shinai, Wang feels miaodao tactics diverge from Japanese swordplay considerably. "I don't agree with the Japanese method," he states. "For example, a basic miaodao tactic is to attack with a big sweeping cut followed by a smashing blow with the back of the blade. A strike with the back of the blade is heavy and powerful, especially to the head. A lot of Japanese swordplay is focused on modern kendo, where the focus is on scoring. Competition like that favors quick techniques to make points. Miaodao techniques are more powerful and better for the battlefield."

Wang is enthusiastic about sharing his ancient art. "More are practicing miaodao now. In the past, not many did. Past masters were more conservative and secretive." While still rare on the international market, Wang says that miaodao are still being made at many of the artisan forges in China, such as in Hebei, Baoding and China's most venerated swordmaking region at Dragon Wells (Longquan 龍泉). Wang possesses some gorgeous examples of miaodao in his personal collection, complete with tempered pattern-welded steel blades that are sharp as razors and intricately detailed fittings. He's very passionate about protecting traditional miaodao. "We must strive to keep this ancient art, to preserve it for the sake of its cultural legacy. We can't just toss it aside; otherwise, it would just degrade into competition techniques. It's part of our history and heritage. We cannot lose the techniques of the past."

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine November/December 2011

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2011 .

About Gene Ching with Gigi Oh :
Wang Zhihai currently resides in Cangzhou City, Hebei Province, China. His U.S. liaison is Yu Jiashen (310) 694-4289. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Chester Lin in the development of this article.

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