Tai chi (Taijiquan), Swords, and Old Men 2

Tai chi (Taijiquan), Swords, and Old Men

If you read only one rambling blog post with no discernible point behind it today, you might want to pick a different blog post.  But, since you’re already here, you might as well keep reading…

Last week I decided it was time to refresh my Tai Chi (Taiji, Taijiquan, however you’d like to refer to it 🙂 ) knowledge, since it’s been a while.  I’ve never managed to learn a complete set of forms. So, I set out to find – and learn – one of the complete sets.  The source material I had learned years ago disappeared, so I began searching online to find it again.

Quick primer for those who don’t know, and care just enough to wonder:  Tai Chi comes in various flavors.  Like, quite a few flavors.  Some of the stuff dates back to 16th century, and some of it is actually extremely modern.  Some of it is based on the ideal use in combat, some of it for exercise and flexibility, and some of it is vaguely metaphysical in nature by concentrating on the idea of chi (qi) manipulation.  There’s traditional styles, simplified traditional styles, and Americanized styles ;-).  And, then there’s a further modifier, what’s being used:  hands?  Sword?  Broadsword?  Or, heck, maybe just use a cane?  (Yes, there’s a specialized form just for use with a cane.)

Each of these a forms.  Each form broke down into Movements.  Each movement has a name such as “The Heavenly Horse Gallops Across the Sky” or “Split with Empty Step” – and, if you’re performing them, the names make a bit of sense.  Each of those movements are broke down further into steps – sometimes as few as two, sometimes as many as ten steps.  It all depends.

Everything about the movements matter.  Speed, muscle tension, breathing, everything.  It’s actually quite complicated.  Heck, that whole “mindfulness” thing?  Go ahead and throw that in.  Even if you manage the limbs properly, you may not be breathing properly, and keeping your mind clear.  There’s reasons I haven’t made it all the way through a form yet:  I know that the movements I’ve learned aren’t done right.  I’ll get it eventually.

Now, I’m gonna rewind a bit:  20+ years ago, I was in China, working on a feed mill for about 4 1/2 months.  Great experience, and along the way I was given the opportunity to learn swords.  In the area of China I was in, it was common to see people outside in the evening, doing martial arts of one form or another – Kung Fu (Gongfu), or some form of swords.  Being a fan and student of martial arts (though, I intentionally hold no belts), I wanted to learn – and the mill found me a little old man to teach me (seriously, this guy was old enough that folks helped him up the stairs.  Then, he’d pull out his sword, and he wasn’t frail…)  It was a pretty amazing experience.  As a gift when I left, they gave me a sword.  I continued to practice when I could, but eventually I fell out of the habit.

Chinese Jain (sword) I'll eventually use for taijiquan
My sword from China, a Jian – a straight, double edged sword. You can’t see it, but there are inscriptions on both sides of the blade up close to the hilt. I also own fairly low-quality Dadao (Chinese Broadsword), though I only know the first couple of steps of a movement with it. I do also own a european style sword, and in theory, I know how to use it… if I had a shield, and if it were made of rutan. I learned “sword and board” in the SCA at one point in my life. Yes, I like sharp edged or pointy things, and know which end to point at the enemy.  I can even use a swishy-pokie thing (IE, fencing) when drug out there by a drunk marine.

OK, back to last week…  while looking for that particular Tai Chi form, I ran across a set of sword forms, and holy smokes!  Right there, in print, was the form I had learned.  See, the little old man?  He didn’t speak English, he just nodded, pointed, and grunted a lot.  After the couple of times that he trained with me, there was no interpreter.  I had never learned names for any of this, or what I was learning.  I just made do with knowledge, and I did it enough times over and over that it’s still somewhat retained in my muscle memory, despite not being used in… I don’t know how long (I did practice for a while when I came home – but, I lost my house, and the cops said I couldn’t practice it in the park.)

For the last four mornings, I’ve started the morning out with a pot of coffee and a form of Tai Chi (I very much prefer Tai Chi to coffee).  Except I’m not using my sword at the moment, except at the very end.  Instead, I use a weight bar to go through the movements, slowly, so that I study them carefully, being mindful of everything in the process.  The ceiling is just high enough I can use the sword, but the jian is just long enough I could screw up and hit my computer (it’s a studio apartment).

Sounds pretty exciting, slinging a sword (or a weight), right?  Well, in four days of refresher practice I’ve gotten to the end of the first movement, and even that is pretty rough.  There are 32 movements, and previously I knew them all (even if I didn’t understand how poorly I understood them.  Part of them really are stored in muscle memory, but they’re “wrong”, as I didn’t understand the full process).  If I practice daily, I might make it to the end – in rough form – in about 3 months.  I think.  Could take longer than that.  I learned the basis for all this 20+ years ago, over the course of about a month, back when I was impatient.  The idea of reaching “rough form” in 3 months would have killed me.  Now?  Meh.  Slow and steady is fine.

In the title I mentioned “old men”, but I wasn’t alluding to the old guy who taught me, but instead an overall concept.  I said previously that Tai Chi comes in different flavors  Those flavors cross over quite a bit between the three major concepts (health, combat, or metaphysical), and use interchangeable parts.  Learning what I did is a combination of health and combat – the same moves learned for one apply to the other.  In theory, I’d be reasonably good at single-sword combat.  I dunno, I’ve never tried.   The only place I found to fight with swords – unless you want to pay considerably, or go to jail – is the SCA, and there you start with sword and shield (“sword & board”).  After you certify with that, you might move on to two stick (as in using two swords – I learned the term florentine for it, though that would be very wrong – that’s just saying an italian style of fencing that happens to include, among other things, two sword.)  So I never tested single sword in the SCA.  And, being a modern era, sword fights are extremely rare.  (Though, this is Wichita, Kansas. It’s not impossible to end up stabbed with a sword or spear.)

Nope, the old man point was that I learned it as a fascination with fighting arts, but now that I’m in my mid 40’s, I’m rethinking that, and going down the health road with it.  Either way, it’s still a healthy thing to learn and do.  Supposedly, it helps reduce injury, improve concentration & focus, improve flexibility, etc.  Which would be why a large portion of the people I saw in China doing it were older (than I am now) men & women.  My workouts tend to stop due to injury these days, so anything that helps me reduce that would be a good thing.  Maybe this starts a long term habit for me.  This also, in the sort term, gives me a “fallback workout” for if I injure my shoulder, back, or knee again.  This whole “start and stop” thing when it comes to workouts is getting old.

I would also like to break down and learn the other Forms, such as empty handed and chinese broadsword.  I’ll get there, eventually, there’s plenty of time. 😉

(FYI:  this whole post ends up tying into other stuff I’ve been writing about but not publishing lately, including cultural appropriation, family, groups such as the SCA, etc.  I suppose those will eventually make this post a little less pointless.  Maybe. 😉 It’s also the first time I’ve hit the “publish” button in quite a while.)

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