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International Swordplay Festival 2007

By Mattias Nyrell, Sweden, mattias@nyrell.se
Originally published at: http://nyrell.se/swordplay_festival_2007/

The first week in June I traveled to Estonia to participate in the International Swordplay Festival 2007 - Chinese tradition, organized by Scott M. Rodell and his students.

My background is in Wudang / Practical Tai Chi Chuan (PTCC) which is a different branch of the TCC family tree than the other participants of the festival. Below follows a recount of the festival as seen from my perspective.

The festival was held at the Pühajärve Spa Hotel in Värumaa, Estonia. It was a very nice place and perfect for this kind of event. Great food, good beer, and it was very nice to have an own room to store all ones stuff and be able to get a good nights sleep without having to listen to other people snoring.

More than 40 people participated in the event, travelling there from Estonia, Russia, Finland, Holland, US, Australia and Sweden. The Estonian organizers took good care of us, and among other things arranged the bus trip from Tallin to Pühajärve and back.

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Lots of weapon types!

This was the second swordplay festival, and the first festival in 2002 focused mainly on the jian. The idea with this festival was to widen the scope to let the participants learn about different weapons and how they work together and against each other.

The way we did this was mainly by learning the basic use of the different weapon types, and not so much by investigating the weapon forms for techniques designed for use against different weapon types.

If we are not familiar with different types of weapons even an more experienced swordsman might fail to deal with a less experienced opponent that uses unfamiliar weapon techniques. So the idea of this years festival was to try to avoid this by giving a short introduction to some different weapon types:

Schedule & organization

There was slightly more than 40 participants of the festival and we were all divided into four different groups. Every day started with Albert Affimovs spear class which everyone attended together. Then there were three more classes during the day which people attended in their respective groups. If someone wanted to focus more on one of the classes it was no problem to do so. And finally in the evenings there was an extra class for the Dao form.

Long Spear / Pike - Albert Affimov

Albert stated clearly that he didn't wish to teach a form or specific techniques, but instead focused on the use of staff, short spear and long spear as a tool for developing ones Gong Fu.

The main focus was on the use of a long spear (+3 m) similar to the European pike, but we also tried some exercises more suitable for a shorter spear or a staff.

As the long spear was a battlefield weapon we also experimented with some simple battlefield formations and moving around as a group.

As I understand it we learned all the techniques that make up the Yang style spear form that Scott M. Rodell teaches, but we did not put the pieces together.

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Jian - Scott M. Rodell

As almost everyone except me was familiar with the kind of swordsmanship practiced at the festival, the classes was not really a step by step guide for beginners, but rather a collection of topics that Scott M. Rodell had picked out for the participants.

The general structure of the classes was a little bit of warmup excercises, lots of theory about the subject at hand, various drills and always a little bit of freeplay at the end.

The names of the basic cuts of the sword were used to discuss different aspects of the swordplay all the time. This is good thing as the students quickly get used to this terminology, and it is a very useful tool when discussing different techniques or drills. For me it was a little bit confusing in the beginning as large parts of this terminology is different from the one we use in the PTCC lineage - more on this later.

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Miao Dao - Seth Davis

I only participated in two of the Miao Dao classes, because I wanted to focus on the jian classes and also because I all ready have a little bit of experience with 1.5 handed swords.

The Miao Dao is a specific variant of the generic term Shuang Shou Dao (Two handed sabre). The Miao Dao is somewhat similar to the Japanese katana, and as an inexpensive wooden substitute a regular boken works fine.

The added power and range of the two handed weapon makes it much easier to beat away one handed swords to create an opening, and it also makes it a little easier to face a spear.

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Shield and Sabre - Henrich Kivirand

img_5644_croped.pngAs a modern substitute for the Teng Pai (rattan shield) we worked with round shields made from the same kind of plastic that is used for riot shields. Wielding a shield and a sword is a quite different experience from wielding a sword only. First of all it offers a lot of protection and it is not that easy to find an opening to attack. Secondly it limits the number of techniques that are reasonable to do with the weapon, and thirdly some of the guards that seemed of limited use without a shield suddenly becomes much more useful.

To counter the difficulties of getting through the opponents defenses Henrich introduced us to the concept of "nineing". This is basically the idea of attacking along the diagonals to try to force the opponent to open his defenses. It is called nineing because if you attack the opponent's high left followed by low right your sword will make a nine in the air.

The shield was a military weapon and it was not only used to protect the wielder, but also to form shield lines used in different battlefield formations to protect soldiers with other types of weapons. We did some experimenting with shield lines protecting a line of pike men, which was certainly an interesting experience.

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Dao form

In the evenings Scott M. Rodell taught one of the sabre forms that he teaches. This was actually a bonus class apart from the other festival schedule, but as the Estonian students had wished for an introduction to the Dao form this class had been added too.

The form taught was not the more common Yang-style Dao form, but the one that can be found in what seems to be the oldest book about Yang-style weapon forms "Taijiquan Dao Jian Gan Sanshou He Bian" (1932) by Chen Gong. The form is very simple and I must say I kind of liked it. At a first glance it is very different from the Dao form I practice (Xuan Xuan Dao) and it contain much fewer techniques, but many of the basic elements of the techniques are the same or very similar. Looking at the applications there are even more more similarities.

Comparing with PTCC terminology

I think it is interesting to compare the basic cuts of the Yang style TCC with the terminology we use in PTCC.

In PTCC we have eight basic techniques for each of the three weapons we practice (sabre, sword and spear). In the Yang Michuan tradition there are eight basic cuts for the jian, and in the public yang style thare are 13 basic cuts for the Jian. Then there is also a number of basic cuts for the Dao.

Comparing the basic cuts for jian and dao used in Yang style and the basic techniques from PTCC it seems that a few are the same, but most of them have different names and describes different concepts, while some have the same name but does not necessarily describe the same concept.

My first impression is also that the basic techniques we have in PTCC are a bit more technique / concept oriented, they are not only about different ways to cut with the sword. This was most noticable with the basic cuts / techniques for the dao. The basic cuts of the Yang style seemed to deal more with different ways of cutting, while the basic techniques from PTCC deal more with other things such as supporting the blade with the free hand (tuō), diverting downwards (chén) and so on.

The Yang family basic cuts for the jian include diǎn (to dot) and (to pierce), where diǎn is a very quick short range thrust, and is a more powerful piercing thrust. In the basic techniques of PTCC we don't make this particular distinction, but looking at the names of the form techniques it seems to me that we can find it there. Compare "Dot red between the eyebrows" / "méi zhòng diǎn chì" with "Pierce the heart" / "fēn xīn cì" for example.

Please remember that the above analysis is only a first impression based on what I was able to pick up during this week. I'm not familiar with the basic cuts of the yang family except for what I learnt during the festival.

The final battle

The last day of the festival we had a special program.

We started with free play jian matches for everyone who wished to participate. These matches were done with scorers and judges and they tended to be tougher than the softer free play we did at the jian classes the rest of the week. Myself I managed to get my head chopped off when I slipped on the wet grass... :-) Still, it was a very good experience and I would have liked to participate in more matches!

The next event in the program was "The final battle". This was a reenactment fight mixing shield & sabre, long spear and Miao Dao using safe weapons that were very light (made in bamboo) and padded. We were split into two teams of about 20 people each, and went of to discuss some tactics. When we were ready we got organized into lines and started to fight.

For those of you that have never tried any reenactment I can only recommend it. It is not something I would like to focus my training on, but it is definitely a good experience. It was really fun and it certainly gave me some new insights.

The last event was test cutting. We used sharp jians to cut plastic bottles filled with water. I had never tried this before but I together with the jian freeplay I would rate this as the most valuable experience of the entire festival. I will surely take any chance I get to do some more test cutting, and I am really looking forward to buying a real sword so that I can start doing it on a more regular basis.

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Summary

So, to sum everything up I must say that I had a great time, learned a lot and got really inspired. The organizers did a wonderful job with this event, and I wish to thank them, Scott M. Rodell, all the other teachers and all the participants for making this a such a great event.

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References

Practical Tai Chi Chuan International, http://www.taichichuan.co.uk/

Great River Taoist Center, http://grtc.org/
GRTC's webforum, http://forum.grtc.org/