The Heaviest Weapon of Tai Chi

By By Gene Ching with Tony Wong and Gigi Oh

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Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine July + August 2014It is the heaviest weapon of them all.  According to legend, the original Guandao (關刀) weighed over a hundred pounds.  Today, “old school” Guandao practitioners still wield weapons that are ten pounds or more.  That might not sound like much to the uninitiated, but it’s completely different when swinging it one-handed overhead.  The Guandao is a symbol of Kung Fu machismo, the heaviest hacker, the ultimate expression of yang, named after the Chinese God of War.  So why is it part of Tai Chi?

In the wide world of martial arts, Tai Chi is the most misunderstood.  Most Western martial artists characterize Kung Fu as a “soft style” because of the emphasis on flow.  And Tai Chi is categorized as an internal form of Kung Fu, or neijia (internal family 內家), so it is the softest of the soft.  In America, Tai Chi has made pop-culture headway as a gentle and peaceful moving meditation, promoted as stress relief for office workers, good for post-injury physical rehabilitation and fall prevention for the elderly.  Despite being a shallow appraisal, this healing representation of Tai Chi isn’t a bad thing.  Truth be told, Tai Chi’s restorative potential may well be the greatest application of any martial art in the modern world.  In the modern world, rapacious bandits aren’t as troublesome as poor health.  Too much stagnant sitting has ravaged postures in the computer age.  While the wonders of modern medicine allow us to survive formerly-lethal maladies and live considerably longer lives, lingering scars still remain.  Today’s catchphrase is “wellness” so the restorative reputation of Tai Chi has turned it into the most practiced martial art on the planet.  The sum total population of Tai Chi practitioners is unknown.  There is an incalculable number of grassroots community-center hobbyists practicing in parks, physical-therapy patients in rehab and elderly at senior centers.  Nevertheless, it must never be forgotten that Tai Chi can be a fully-actualized lethal martial art.  Commonly abbreviated to “Tai Chi” in America, the oft-discarded “Chuan” suffix is quite telling.  Tai Chi Chuan literally means “supreme ultimate fist (Taijiquan 太極拳)”; chuan (or quan) signifies it as a martial art.

While chuan literally designates empty-hand fighting arts, almost all Chinese styles also include an arsenal of medieval weapons within their curriculum.  For Tai Chi, the most common is the gentleman’s choice, the elegant and sophisticated double-edged sword (taijijian 太極劍).  The sword is the only weapon that most practitioners of Tai Chi know.  But for the founding school of Tai Chi, Chen family Taijiquan (陳家太極拳), there is a much larger arsenal of cold arms.  Master Chen Youze (陳有则), a leading exponent of Chen Tai Chi, lists ten weapons common to their traditional curriculum: staff, spear, broadsword, sword, long staff, twin broadsword, twin sword, six-segment hard whip, twin melon hammers, and Guandao.  “We also have taijqiu (a medicine-ball-like training tool weighing upwards to 60 pounds 太極球) and taijibang (a short bent stick, less than a foot long, used for training joint locks 太極棒),” adds Chen in Mandarin for good measure.  Master Chen is a staunch traditionalist and promotes the martial side of Tai Chi.  At China’s historic 1st International Research Meeting of Taijiquan in 1992, Master Chen was appointed to oversee a large group performance for part of the ceremonies.  He coached sixty Tai Chi specialists for a mass synchronized demonstration of Guandao.

The General’s Blade
The Guandao takes its moniker from a legendary hero of the martial arts, Lord Guan (Guangong 關公).  Also known as Guanyu (關羽) or Guandi (Emperor Guan 關帝), Lord Guan was a historic figure who died in 220 CE.  His tale took on epic proportions in the 14th century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) by Luo Guanzhong.  Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the Four Great Classic Novels of China (四大名著), as familiar to Chinese people as the legend of King Arthur is to Britons.  The Chinese began worshipping Lord Guan as a patron saint as early as the Sui dynasty (581-681) and he still occupies a special place in many ancestral altars throughout Asia today.  His image is found in most traditional Kung Fu schools, as well as in many restaurants (for protection), in almost every Chinese police station, and – paradoxically – within the secretive altars of the criminal underworld of triads and tongs.  Known for his bravery, loyalty and mastery of warfare, Lord Guan is venerated as a warrior spirit amongst all of these communities and more.

The formal name of Lord Guan’s weapon was the Green Dragon Crescent Blade (qinglong yanyue dao 青龍偃月刀), as it would have been rather impetuous for him to name it after himself.  It is a cavalry lance meant for use from horseback, which accounts for its massive size.  According to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Lord Guan’s blade weighed 82 jin (an ancient Chinese unit of measurement 斤), which converts to about 106 pounds.  The legends of Lord Guan using the Guandao on foot instead of from horseback symbolized his prowess and power.  However, some historians note that there is scant evidence to prove that a weapon akin to the Guandao even existed during Lord Guan’s time.  The first documentation of such a weapon doesn’t occur until the 11th century.  Nevertheless, the Chen Tai Chi Guandao remains faithful to the legend.  “It is a horseback weapon,” states Master Chen.  “This is why there are so many spins in the form.”

The formal name of the Chen Tai Chi Guandao is Chen family Taiji Spring-Autumn Crescent Dao (陳氏太極春秋偃月刀), and it honors Lord Guan within its movements.  Traditional forms have poetic lyrics to describe the sequences called quanpu (拳谱 fist musical score).  Master Chen describes the sequence translated as “Forward the wine and pick up the robe with a martial flower (武花遞酒挑袍).”  He claims the movements were inspired by a story of Lord Guan, when the legend’s villain, Cao Cao, offered him wine.  It would have been poor etiquette to refuse, but Lord Guan didn’t want to dismount and expose vulnerability.  So he presented his Guandao blade as a serving tray.  Cao Cao had to place his wine cup on the blade, but tried to make him dismount again by presenting Lord Guan with a ceremonial robe.  Lord Guan turned his blade so the hook was able to receive the gift.  In the form, the movement “Forward the wine” brandishes the blade horizontally like a tray, echoing Lord Guan receiving Cao Cao’s wine cup offering.  The move that follows flips the blade over, symbolic of Lord Guan showing he emptied his cup.  Then, another blade flip is made for “pick up the robe” so the Guandao hook points upwards as if to hang a garment.  The phrase “martial flower (wuhua 武花)” refers to those mounted spins.  “There are movements in the Chen form that are like stroking a beard because Lord Guan had a magnificent beard,” adds Master Chen.  “Lord Guan doesn’t open his eyes all the way because that’s only when he is going to kill.”

The Guandao eludes being compromised by modern Wushu because of its weight.  The closest polearm used in Wushu is the Pudao (literally “attack blade” 撲刀), but that flappy slappy blade is no match for a real Guandao.  The overall weight of a Pudao is less than a traditional Guandao pommel spike.  A Pudao weighs less than three pounds, hardly a third of a traditional Guandao.  What’s more, the slappy quality of Pudao has added a new vocabulary of movements for a Chinese polearm, moves that are solely designed to amplify the blade-cracking sounds so signature to modern Wushu, moves that have no combat or literate applications.  Nevertheless, modern Wushu is looking to add Pudao as a new division for the sport in the near future.

Lord Guan’s Head
The connection between Chen Tai Chi and Lord Guan is more than just spiritual.  It’s geographical.  Chen Village, where Chen Tai Chi originates, isn’t far from the final resting place of Lord Guan, or at least part of him.  Lord Guan’s head is buried at Guanlin Temple (关林寺) in Luoyang.  According to legend, after Lord Guan died, Cao Cao chided his decapitated head.  Suddenly, Lord Guan’s eyes opened and his magnificent beard bristled, almost scaring Cao Cao to death.  Despite being an enemy, Cao Cao held Lord Guan in the highest respect so he had a body carved from fragrant sandalwood entombed under the head.  The burial mound is still at Guanlin Temple, along with a huge replica Guandao set outside one of the temple rooms.  That Guandao is made of solid iron and tourists are invited to try to lift it and pose for photos.

Master Chen is a native of Xulu Village, another farming community in Wenxian County about ten miles from Chen Village.  Born in 1959, he endured the Cultural Revolution, training there from childhood.  “It was very harsh,” remembers Chen.  “No one had a full stomach.  My father started teaching me when I was one year old.  It wasn’t official training.  It was more like playing.  But he used to joke about it and tell me that if I didn’t practice, I wouldn’t get any milk.”  Here in the West, Tai Chi is usually considered to be too sophisticated for kids’ classes, especially the explosive power emission of Chen Taijiquan known as fajin (發勁).  Master Chen disagrees.  He believes fajin training happens in three stages, the first beginning at childhood.  That stage strengthens bones.  The second stage is in adulthood and strengthens tendons.  The third stage is for the elders to connect the energy and strengthen marrow.  “It’s no problem for kids to learn fajin.  Kids can face challenges and hard training.  They often pick harder paths.  Kids are very soft but they can use hard energy.   This strengthens bones.  Get the kids to jump higher and move faster.  This opens up a lot of channels and looks very external.  You won’t train the same thing when you get old.”

When Master Chen was twenty-three, he trained with a Guandao that weighed over thirty pounds.  He trained with that weapon regularly for half a decade.  He still has it in his school.  His students still use heavy weapons, although a lot less than before.  Beginners start with a lighter Guandao, but most intermediate practitioners practice with weapons that weigh ten to thirty pounds.  “In the old days, this was a livelihood, not a show.  Training was hard.  The Guandao was a weapon, not for health or performances.”

In the early to mid-eighties, China worked to promote Tai Chi.  Government officials tried to develop Chen style, making it a beta test for all Chinese styles.  In 1984, star pupils were put on salary, and the kids who showed talent received $6 a day to train.  “The only way the government would pay you was if you had a good record.  It was the only way out in old China.”  But that program faded over time.  Master Chen remembers when the payments were reduced to $5 and most students had to split that with the rest of their family.

Master Chen is one of five brothers, and now each of them has carried their tradition of Chen Taijiquan into different areas in China.  Chen has a school in Shanghai and travels extensively all over China to teach.  “It’s important to spread the art.”  Chen still works for the government, often under the auspices of the Chinese Wushu Association (中国武术协会).  Through that position, he oversees a lot of private schools.  For any official tournament, he invites the private schools to compete and demonstrate.  He is often one of the organizers, and sets rules for competitions.

However, Master Chen is at odds with many of the new policies for the promulgation of Tai Chi, both in competition and within teaching methods.  “The fixed time limits on Tai Chi Compulsories are not natural.  It’s too mechanical.  The sun doesn’t rise at the same time every day.  Some schools are measuring the exact distance of the student’s elbow to the floor.  That makes no sense to use the same measurement for everyone.  We change the chair if it doesn’t fit us.  The chair doesn’t choose us.”

Put a modern Wushu weapon in Master Chen’s hands and its flimsiness will soon be exposed.  He splits modern Wushu weapons when he emits his fajin.  But he understands the situation as one of the pitfalls of traditional martial arts in the modern age.  “Lighter weapons are all marketing.  People buy lighter weapons so manufacturers make lighter ones.  People simplify the traditional.  I would like to preserve the traditional, but the market has changed.  I feel a little of this commercial impact where I live, but we still try to preserve the traditional.”

And with polearms, especially the heavy Guandao, size matters.  It’s a long weapon, and people who typically practice long weapons are generally bigger.  Master Chen stands well over six feet tall, a towering height for most Mainland Chinese.  “Most people like short weapons.  They are easier to transport.  In my area, it’s okay to carry a Guandao on the street.  Elsewhere, people will look at you funny.”

Tai Chi, the Hard Way
For the vast majority of Western practitioners of Tai Chi, the Guandao will never be part of their practice.   But this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be aware that it exists as part of the tradition, especially at a time when Chen Taijiquan practitioners are booted out of “Tai Chi Only” practice areas at local parks for being too “external.”  “Yin and yang have to be balanced,” says Master Chen.  “Many got the soft ‘yin’ stereotype from Yang style Taijiquan (楊氏太極拳).  The founder of Yang style, Yang Luchan (1799–1872 楊露禪), was more like Chen style originally.  Yang changed because his students were higher position (Yang taught the imperial family) so his students didn’t work that hard.  I adjust training if my students are older too.  It’s not as tough.  Everybody has their own Tai Chi.”

While the Guandao is the heaviest weapon of Tai Chi, Master Chen is quick to remind us that it’s not the longest.  “The 13-posture pole is the longest weapon in Chen Taijiquan.  It now has 19 postures.  That pole is about 17 feet long.  It’s good for practicing fajin.”

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Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine July + August 2014

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About By Gene Ching with Tony Wong and Gigi Oh :
Master Chen Youze can be contacted through the Wenxian Physical Culture Sports Center, Wenxian, Henan Province, China 454850. For more information on Guanlin Temple in Chinese, visit

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