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 …