What if I told you that every reason why you want to do tai chi can be perfected by learning the tai chi straight sword form? We’re talking about moving gracefully but with strength, having great balance, low stances with erect posture, and flexibility. We are also talking about moving the whole body in a connected fashion and a way to project the energy you are building inside, out into the world immediately around you.
The tai chi straight sword is a light weight, narrow-bladed, double edge sword that has been used for hundreds of years. It is the most popular Chinese martial arts weapon because it is fun, beautiful, trains us to extend energy further out from the body, and is a way to perfect posture and balance.
There are so many benefits to learning the tai chi straight sword form that is should be a part of every practitioners curriculum once they have the open-hand form memorized. If you are a beginner, I want to cover some of the form basics. But then I want to dive into techniques learned through seminars and lessons that have improved my form over the years and keep my students improving. And do yourself a favor and read through to the end because I included three straight sword YouTube examples that are really motivating.
Tai Chi Straight Swords are Different Than Other Swords
The straight sword is called Jian (剑) in Chinese and is part of every external and internal martial arts tradition. Sword styles vary widely throughout the world and even within the Chinese martial arts there is a big variety of the types of swords you can find. The tai chi straight sword has some very specific elements and these are crucial to know about because it will affect your training and how you are able to develop balance, internal, and external strength.
- A good tai chi sword is not heavy. It weighs 4-8 lbs depending on length.
- Straight swords have a balance point about 1-2 inches above the guard.
- The blade has a double edge that gets thinner towards the tip but is not actually sharp.
- A good tai chi sword is flexible and quivers when used with force.
- The guard is flat on the sides allowing the thumb and index finger to hold it when thrusting.
- The pommel traditionally has two woven tassels which give you feedback that your motions are correct because the tassels travel out behand the handle rather than getting wrapped around the wrists.
- The handle is traditionally woven cord.
It is important to find a sword that is right for doing tai chi and is good quality but that doesn’t mean it needs to be expensive. We wrote an article on our favorite swords if you are looking for one.
Learning the Straight Sword Movements
All the conventional movements you would expect to do when using a sword apply to the tai chi sword but the intention throughout the form is completely different. The straight form movements include:
- Blocking: typically in defense of an oncoming sword or weapon. The sword is held parallel with a body part like circling behind to protect the back or paralleling a leg while stepping.
- Cutting: hacking down with the intention on the middle section of the blade
- Parrying: swiveling the sword to counter an attack
- Slicing: moving the blade parallel to the ground with then intention of cutting through a knee joint, elbow joint, side, or side of the neck.
- Stabbing: jumping or thrusting forward with the tip.
- Punching: using the hand guard or pummel to strike out.
Sword movements in tai chi are done with very light, fluid motion which involves the whole body. With the attacks, the issuing of power comes right at the end. technique retains its personal defense value because it trains one’s perceptions and reactions, allowing for quick and correct response to any situation. What is additionally unique to the tai chi sword is that the sword is intended to be an out example of the movements and intentions within the body. It requires intense concentration and a continual focus on projecting the body’s energy out into the tip of the sword or into the “enemy” that an attack would be aimed at.
8 Tips to Improve Your Tai Chi Straight Sword
My experience with the sword form is that it has incredible health benefits when done properly and also directly translates into improving your open-hand form. The slow, low postures create a heat in in the body that is shocking considering the lack of vigorous movement. Chen Youze (pictured above) explained that tai chi has all of the benefits of more aggressive exercise if you are being challenged by your posture, depth, and openness of posture. However it has the added benefit of 1) reducing the risk of torn muscles and 2) not stressing the heart.
With the sword form you achieve flexibility, pliability, balance, strength, and power. These are many of the same goals as exercise regimes. Note that the physical stamina required to perform the sword form differs by style. It can also be altered by a teacher due to physical ability, experience, and age of the student. Chen straight sword is incredibly low and slow whereas Sun and Yang are often performed in higher postures.
Position of the Legs
The straight sword form can build incredible leg strength when done properly. This is one of the slowest tai chi forms which means you stay in lower stances for longer. It is uncomfortable at first but then begins to build strong muscles and joints. This form also teaches a concept called Hsu-Shih or Substantial-Insubstantial. It is the idea that one leg is always full and one leg is always empty. If not, the body is transitioning between the two by shifting weight. The one exception is if your weight is even in both feet while they are shoulder-width apart such as in Dragon Sticks out Tongue.
Position of the Lower Back
It is hyper-critical that your lower back remain relaxed during the tai chi sword form because this enables you to sink down into lower postures and also lets you balance on one leg. If your lower back is tight, your pelvis is tilted forward. If your pelvis is tilted forward, it locks the lower vertebrae of the spine and you look really shaky when up on one foot. This is really easy to fix though. Push out through your lower back like you are trying to touch it to the wall. This will keep the entire torso relaxed and loose and the top of your pelvis parallel to the floor.
Position of the Upper Body
The body remains upright through almost the entire form. At places where you are bending forward, you are extending from the heal through the top of the head not curving the spine. One of the greatest mistakes made during the form is bending over trying to get lower in a stance. A lower stance is from bending the legs to go deeper, still in an upright posture. The chest is very open during the tai chi straight sword form. Imagine a person or animal that is very proud with the chest high and the shoulders relaxed and back.
Position of the Head
The goal for how you hold your head is to keep your neck loose. You accomplish this by pushing up with the crown of the head while pulling back slightly on the chin. Always stay upright without bending the head forward. Keep the eyes looking forward and rotate the entire spine to turn the head. Breath naturally, typically by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Keep your tongue lightly against the upper palate.
Position of the Joints During the Sword Form
I am going to give one whole-body tip here which is hard to do in isolation. Every one of your joints stays loose and flexible. The best way I heard it described during a seminar with Grand Master Chen Zhenglei is to imagine that each joint is a metal ball in a metal cage. Your job is to not let any of the balls touch the walls of the cages. This is a pretty cool analogy if you think about it because if you try it you will find that in order to do it, you have to feel really light and springy while staying upright.
Walking During the Tai Chi Sword Form
Stepping in the form is always light. You should never fall with your weight on your step. When walking forward, typically the heal lands first. When walking backward, the toe lands first. If you need to change directions, you pull the weight back off the foot, turn the toe, and then transfer the weight back on to the foot. Do not move the toe or heal of a foot with your weight on it.
Moving the Body During the Tai Chi Sword Form
What is unique about this sword form is that the entire body is always moving. When you watch the examples below, you will see that the legs and arms are always moving. You wouldn’t stop your legs and move your arms or take a step with the arms staying in the same place. When done right, it has the feeling of billows blowing or wind in a sail.
Speed During the Tai Chi Sword Form
This form is slow! So slow that a 26-move sword form takes longer than the 76-move spear form. After years of studying the sword I think that it is purposeful and very different from the other weapons forms. We are expected to take our time with this one, paying attention to and perfecting the smallest detail. We are also expected to enjoy this one. Your day is busy enough! When you take these few minutes, really savor them to learn how to enjoy time again during the day and not only when you are on vacation.
After seeing everything that we are taking into consideration when learning the tai chi sword movements it begins to make sense why they say that it takes 10 years or even 10,000 days to perfect the sword form. You don’t need to be in a hurry! It’s a good thing that the sword form is so fun because it is a lifetime pursuit.
Seeing the Tai Chi Straight Sword Form in Action
I could talk about the straight sword all day but what fun would that be? Nothing is more motivating than seeing the tai chi straight sword form performed at the highest level. The Chen tai chi straight sword is one of the oldest forms so I have included that here as well as the Women’s World Cup first place champion and a beautiful example of the double tai chi straight sword. Think about all 8 tips from above as you watch these examples.
Chen Style Tai Chi Straight Sword
Chen style tai chi straight sword is the oldest tai chi sword form and is unique in how it speeds up and slows down, gathers energy but also issues energy, all while maintaining a lightness and perfect posture.
On of the Best Tai Chi Straight Sword Form Examples
This tai chi straight sword form is performed by Suijin Chen from Hong Kong. She took first place for women in the first Taolu World Cup. Check out the sequence of movements from about 2:00-3:15 and the power from 3:30-3:45.
Double Tai Chi Straight Sword Example
The double tai chi straight sword is a bit more rare but is gaining in popularity. I think it would be practiced more if there was more available teaching on it. The benefit to going on to learn the double sword form is that it keeps the chest balanced and open. Most new-comers to the form ignore the hand without the sword in it at times so the sword is moving and the other hand is staying still. With the double tai chi straight sword this gets corrected.