Tai Chi

Energize Your Tai Chi Training With Sword Sparring

Let’s face it: Nobody carries a sword today. Although it’s become relatively inconsequential when it comes to self-defense, the practice of certain sword routines and techniques from the traditional Chinese martial arts can help you develop skills that are useful in life. Tai chi sword sparring, for example, teaches a range of high-level attributes from sensitivity and “listening” to avoidance and evasion. It also develops your ability to judge distances and use proper footwork, which can help you in empty-hand sparring.

Perhaps best of all, tai chi sword sparring is a fun way to train. As you’ll see once you try it, the aforementioned skills become a lot more approachable when you’re staring at your partner across the blade of a well-padded sword.


As with all types of training, you must take measures so that no strike can injure your partner. My students and I have developed a sparring sword that features a core made of a lightweight material like wood or PVC plastic piping. (PVC can work, but it gets brittle over time, and then it can break. When it breaks, the ends become sharp and can cut through the padding and tape.)

The core shouldn’t have too much mass because it can hurt when you hit your opponent. It’s good to have a little air space between the core and the padding that surrounds it (foam pipe insulation works well) so the core can rattle around inside. That helps absorb some of the energy of a strike.

The core stops about three inches short of the length you would like the sword to be, but the foam continues the full length. Stuff pieces of foam into the hollow part of the foam insulation to fill it in, then fit a foam cap on the end. Securely tape the entire sword, including the padded pommel and hand guards, and make sure no sharp edges are showing.

It’s also important to wear a face mask or goggles to protect your eyes — just in case something unexpected happens. But no matter how good you think your protection is, never thrust the tip of your weapon directly at your partner’s face.


Although tai chi sword sparring is not used in formal competition, some martial artists have experimented with it in open-weapons-sparring divisions. If it ever becomes a regular event in tournaments, the point values assigned to offensive and defensive techniques would probably parallel those used in sword-sparring practice.

Because tai chi focuses on the preservation of energy and, therefore, the preservation of life as a vital form of energy, the highest point value would be for disarming your opponent with a strike to the hand or wrist. Next highest would be for striking any other nonvital part of his body that leads to his disarming. The lowest point value would be for striking a vital area because theoretically that shows a lack of control and a lack of ability to do only what is needed to defuse the conflict.

At each level, more points would be awarded for making the strike while you were simultaneously in contact with and had control of your opponent’s sword. That would mean you were using your ability to “listen to” whatever changes he makes with his sword and body, then flow with and adjust to them. If you’re not in contact with your opponent, you can’t properly sense his changes or counters.


In the beginning, you should start tai chi sword sparring by limiting yourself to a fixed-step position. Your partner should stand like a statue with his sword out while you practice cuts to the forearm, wrist and hand of his sword arm.

Later, you can attack and your partner can just defend from the fixed-step position. Initially, you can use as a target any region from his hips to his shoulders. At a more advanced level, you can expand the target areas even more.

Once you and your partner feel comfortable sparring from the fixed-step position, you can start moving-step practice. But it’s important to take it slowly.


Although tai chi teaches you to do the least amount of damage necessary to get the job done — for example, cut your opponent’s sword hand to stop his sword attack — it’s important to also practice attacking all parts of his body. And he should do the same to you so you can learn how to counter and defend against a variety of attacks, not just those of another tai chi sword practitioner.

While practicing sword sparring, retreating and advancing linearly are fine, but you may have to set limits according to how much space is available. As you advance, however, you’ll probably get better results if you learn to move in a circular fashion and approach your opponent from …

European Martial Arts: Where Combat Sports and Military Training Collide

The Asian martial arts have received a tremendous amount of exposure in the past century and are now almost universally known. Meanwhile, we in the West have neglected many of our own martial arts traditions, which in some cases have fallen into obscurity—much as the Asian systems had at the end of the 19th century. The Japanese martial arts were rescued by Jigoro Kano, Gichin Funakoshi, Morihei Ueshiba and others, who modified the older martial arts techniques and combined them into curricula that would appeal to the public. Likewise, Cheng Man-ching introduced tai chi chuan, a once secret and obscure Chinese style, to America, which led to its spread around the world. Similar success stories pertain to the arts of other Asian nations.

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One reason the Asian fighting methods have flourished is they’ve changed with the times. Many were “modernized”—in other words, they were altered from methods of pure combat to means of self-improvement and spirituality, based mainly on Buddhism but also influenced by Taoism and Shintoism. Witness aikido, which borrowed extensively from the Shinto sect of Omoto-kyo, and iaido (sword drawing) and kyudo (archery), which use physical action as a form of Zen meditation. In China, Taoist styles of kung fu such as tai chi and pa kua have become physical illustrations of philosophical principles. And in Korea, the arts have been molded to reflect the Korean ideals of patriotism and sportsmanship.

The above-mentioned founders wrote scores of books describing their martial arts techniques, as well as their ideas for self-improvement and spirituality. That no doubt helped spread the message of the Asian martial arts to the masses. But what of the Western martial arts, the ones that originated in the countries from which most Americans come? Do they have as much to offer the modern practitioner? It is the opinion of many that they do.

Combat Sports vs. Martial Arts

Boxing, wrestling, fencing, archery and javelin throwing are the best-known forms of Western martial-like play, and although they’re somewhat limited by safety rules, they’re still extremely effective in their own way. They are sports that haven’t developed as methods of self-improvement and spirituality to the extent the modern martial arts have, but they do teach sportsmanlike behavior and build character. This idea of sport goes back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that a beautiful body was as important as a sharp mind.

Sportsmanship is concerned with fairness in competition and grace in defeat. Character involves putting forth one’s best and abstaining from immediate gratification for the sake of later rewards. This Protestant-like value develops self-discipline and the ability to suppress one’s appetites, as well as the capacity to function as part of a team for the greater good, rather than pursuing personal glory and ambition. It also promotes self-sufficiency and the ability to think on one’s feet. Submitting to authority in the form of coaches and referees serves as a model for social conduct. Unfortunately, those qualities are seldom seen these days in professional and college sports.

Boxing and wrestling are at least as well-known as karate and judo, and they can hold their own against any Asian striking and grappling style. They can easily be made more combative and dangerous by incorporating martial arts techniques that are considered fouls in their sports. The two sports were used for combat in the past, but the dangerous techniques were removed for the safety of the players. The fouls can be practiced as prearranged drills in much the same manner as kata from Japanese martial arts. Known as “dirty fighting,” they’re what thugs and ruffians used before the introduction of the martial arts in the mid-20th century. Bruce Lee held an extremely high opinion of the Western martial sports and drew heavily on boxing and fencing while developing jeet kune do.


Boxing as practiced by the ancient Greeks involved minimal science. It consisted mainly of swinging- and looping-type blows and little defense other than the ability to “tough it out.” The Romans added a leather hand wrap or glove called a cestus, sometimes with metal studs to inflict more damage as their tastes grew bloodier. As boxing evolved in England, it was influenced by fencing, which added more accurate and powerful linear thrusts rather than swings, and more effective parries rather than simple blocking. The shuffling footwork of boxing is nearly identical to that of fencing, as is the use of strategy to allow one to strike a target rather than just lash out at it. It’s interesting to note that in Japan, swordsmanship also influenced aikido.

The sport of bare-knuckle fighting used many methods that are no longer allowed: the “chopper,” or hammerfist strike; a technique that …

Tai Chi Training for Middle-Aged Martial Artists Who Refuse to Quit

On our walk down the martial path, we will find that we cannot rely on our martial arts training as we did when we were younger. That head-high kick gets harder and harder to deliver effectively. The power in that once-awesome reverse punch seems to slip, regardless of how much time we invest in practice. Such decreases in physical agility, whether because of injuries or the aging process, will eventually force us to adjust our workout routines. How do we, as lifelong martial artists, deal with this?

When faced with diminishing speed, power and strength, many people cease training altogether. Others seek out alternative methods. Note that use of the word “alternative” confers no hint of settling for second best even though many people enter this phase in their journey with exactly that feeling. The fact is, these alternatives often prove superior to the way we did things before. That’s because the methods we followed in our early days were, relatively speaking, simpler and easier to assimilate—which is precisely why they are taught first.

Lacking the depth of experience that comes only with time, beginners are capable of digesting only small amounts of all that the martial arts have to offer. Still, even at that early level, we enjoy what we learn, develop skill in it and perfect that skill to the best of our ability. However, because everyone else in our peer group is practicing and playing with basically the same tools, there is little incentive to try anything else. Enter injury and aging. Although viewed as rusty, jagged edges of the same double-edged sword, they are really our allies, not our enemies.

I hate those nagging injuries as much as the next person because they keep me from reaching higher levels of physical skill. I feel the same way about aging, and I still fight it tooth and nail, but I am—at least at this point in my training—beginning to taste and appreciate lemonade.

What do I mean? Well, there’s an old saying that goes something like this: “When you’re stuck with lemons, you can either put on a sour face, or you can make lemonade.” Here, then, are our lemons:

  • If you train seriously, injuries are inescapable
  • If you breathe, then so is aging

Since no one likes a sourpuss, you might as well try to make lemonade from your lemons. The following is an old Chinese recipe.

Traditional Taoist Martial Arts

Although there are hundreds of Chinese martial arts, all of them grew from two traditions: Buddhist (or Shaolin) and Taoist. Of the two, the Shaolin family tree has more distinguishable branches. Divided many times over—into northern/southern, grappling/ striking and so on—the Shaolin arts have numerous recognizable names, including praying mantis, white crane, hung gar and wing chun. The Taoist arts, on the other hand, number only three: hsing-i, pa kua chang chang and tai chi chuan.

Many Taoist martial artists hold that the best course to study self-defense is to begin with hsing-i, intern in pa kua chang changand graduate with an advanced degree in tai chi. Not everyone subscribes to this style-switching progression, believing that each one includes all the necessary elements. But even among those who delve into only one of them, there often exists a similar, albeit less obvious, progression within that art.

The late Jou Tsung Hwa, a renowned tai chi master, believed that his art could be divided into at least three phases. He claimed that the three major tai chi systems—Chen, Yang and Wu—are actually best taught in a progression because they build on and complement one another. As he saw it, the Chen style (the oldest known tai chi system and one that bears marked similarities to hsing-i) should be learned first, since it is half yang and half yin, half hard and half soft. It should be followed with the Yang style (the most popular form and the one that most folks recognize as tai chi), which is 75-percent soft. Finally, one should take up the Wu style, which is considered the most internal of the three with its small, subtle movements.

The progression from hsing-i to pa kua chang to tai chi runs counter to common Western experience in which tai chi by itself is often pursued strictly for its health benefits rather than its martial potential. Unfortunately, this leads to some erroneous conclusions about the effectiveness of tai chi as a means of self-defense.

That aside, there remains something notable about this Taoist progression: It closely parallels and complements us as we grow, age and mature in our practice of the arts.

Tai Chi Chuan Style Overview

The most linear of the three, hsing-i frequently has us advancing in a straight line, turning and advancing again. Strength is opposed mainly by strength, …

Tai-Chi Master Review | Vintage Jet Li Films

There are few types of action films that I enjoy more than the historical epic. Drunken Master II, Gladiator and 300—all are sweeping, emotional roller coasters packed with flawed heroes, grandiose visuals and beautiful violence. Sadly, many critics love to complain about historical movies, saying they’re wildly inaccurate and only distort the past.

What the naysayers fail to remember is that films “loosely based on a true story” aim to be fun distractions, not documentaries. If you want a history lesson, pick up a textbook or buy a time machine.

That said, Tai-Chi Master has little concern for maintaining any sort of historical integrity regarding its title character, Zhang San Feng, founder of tai chi chuan. But like I said, it’s all about the entertainment value. And Jet Li provides plenty of that as the star of the movie, which has been given a pristine North American DVD re-release thanks to Dragon Dynasty.

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Jet Li plays the eponymous character who learns chuan fa at the storied Shaolin Temple. There, he befriends a fellow child monk, Tian Bao, whose aggression, arrogance and disobedience get them both booted before they reach adulthood.

Soon, their paths split, with the conniving Tian joining the corrupt imperial army and the pious Zhang teaming up with a secret society of rebels, including Siu Lin (played by Michelle Yeoh). Eventually, Zhang and Tian reunite—but as enemies on the battlefield.

The betrayal of his Shaolin brother sends Zhang into a drunken downward spiral that’s topped with a bit of psychosis. Combining his Shaolin upbringing with Taoist principles, Zhang breaks out of his mental funk when he starts tossing a ball, slapping some water and twirling some leaves. Reaching a sort of martial arts nirvana, Zhang takes on his archrival with renewed vigor and a revolutionary fighting style he dubs tai chi.

So is this the true account of how Zhang invented tai chi chuan? Hardly.

But screenwriter Ip Kwong Kim and director Yuen Woo-ping take some creative license because—as is the case with many Chinese folk heroes—it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Zhang. Who he was and when he lived aren’t clear and probably won’t ever be, although I’m willing to bet that he didn’t create tai chi by playing with toys or foliage.

As silly as its script sounds, Tai-Chi Master—called Twin Warriors in the West—is a fun if lightweight wuxia movie. It’s a small step above the 1990s glut of “ponytail” actioners that Hong Kong churned out. Much of the credit for that goes to Yuen Woo-ping, who, along with his brother Yuen Cheung Yan and Ku Huen Chiu, did the fight choreography.

Together with Jet Li, the four of them craft what’s become known as Yuen Woo-ping’s trademark “wire fu” screen-fighting style: hyper-athletic wushu combined with nimble gymnastics and a whole lot of wire work.

In one of the movie’s best set pieces, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and some rebels square off against 100 soldiers in a smorgasbord of action. The freedom fighters wield poles, broadswords, a three-sectional staff and even a cudgel to beat back the troops’ spears in a whirling display of chaotic violence.

Yuen Woo-ping gives each fighter a distinctive style depending on his or her weapon, and he adds plenty of wire flash for good measure. Unfortunately, his penchant for over-the-top action undoes some of the brilliance of his combat choreography.

Witness exhibit A: In one sequence, Jet Li uses only head butts to take out a squad of imperial troops. Pretty innovative, right? Yep, until the scene devolves into Family Guy territory when Jet Li leaps 10 feet into the air, drops headfirst like a bomb onto the belly of a fallen soldier—only to rebound up and onto another prone soldier like a human pogo stick.

Cartoony combat aside, Yuen Woo-ping is a genius at filming fight scenes tailored to the star. In Tai-Chi Master, he uses wide angles to capture Jet Li’s speed and agility while opting for the occasional slow-motion angle to show off Yeoh’s gracefulness and flexibility.

It’s no wonder Rush Hour director Brett Ratner calls Yuen Woo-ping “the greatest martial arts director of all time” in Meditations on the Master, a bonus featurette in which Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell explain why Yuen Woo-ping is a filmmaking demigod.

The DVD has other noteworthy extras, including an informative 20-minute interview with co-star Chin Siu Ho, who reveals his own kung fu training as a youngster and tells how he broke into the industry. And The Birthplace of Tai Chi is a 15-minute documentary about the Chen family village, where the …