Tai Chi Weapon Forms – Oxymoron Anyone?


You see the sneer growing in the corner of someone’s month when you begin talking about tai chi weapon forms.  “Are you for real?”  the look suggests.

It’s odd, right?  Maybe like talking about Yoga Combat Training.

On one hand there is the idea that tai chi is intended to promote health and longevity.  Then on the other hand, after you are done learning the open hand form, you are invited and encouraged to “kick some butt!” with some weapons.

Alas, yes, Tai Chi has weapon forms.  Many of them.  Thinking about learning ALL the weapon forms or even just a couple can crush someone who is just starting out.  In this essay let’s cover a basic overview of tai chi weapons and answer these questions.

    1. What are the tai chi weapon forms?

    2. Do we have to actually learn the weapon forms to be good at tai chi?

    3. If so, which ones and in what order?

And if you are interested in why you should study weapons at all, check out Why Study Tai Chi Weapons.
Tai Chi Weapon Forms

1. What are the Tai Chi Weapon Forms?

Wait!  Did you think you were going to get a simple answer?!  This is a Chinese martial art we are talking about.  There are considered to be 18 Chinese Martial Arts Weapons which has been referenced in multiple texts:

“…the weapons for warfare have thirty six kinds with the bow as the first weapon. The weapons for martial arts have eighteen kinds with the bow as the first weapon, too.”

Tang Shunzhi (1507-1560), Ming Dynasty General who fought against Japanese pirates
Wu Bian (Treatise on Military Affairs)

 

“The Eighteen Weapons are bow, crossbow, spear, saber, sword, throwing spear, shield, axe, deer-horn knives, halberd, whip, mace, talon, staff, fork, rake, rope and lariat and open hand (bai da). Bai da is the ultimate martial skill as it does not employ any weapons.”

Xie Zhaozhi
Volume Five of his book Wu Za Zu (Five Varied Groups)

While 18 is generally considered to be the number of weapon forms, there is an ever-ensuing debate over which weapons should be included.  Here is a rough overview:

Wuzazu Version

Water Margin Version

Modern List

Ancient style spearAncient style spearAxe
Axe AxeBar mace
Bar maceBar maceBlade
Barehanded Bow Club
BowChain Dagger halberd
Crossbow Club Double-edged sword
Dagger halberdCrossbow Great axe
Double-edged swordDagger axeHook sword
Great axe Dagger halberdLong spear
Pole pick FirearmMace
Rake Great axeMeteor hammer
Rope MacePole pick
Round bar mace or iron whipPole pickRanseur
ShieldRound bar mace or iron whipRound bar mace or iron whip
Single-edged swordShieldSpear
SpearSpearStaff
Spiked Mace Sword Tonfa
Trident TridentTrident

These lists vary based on when in time they were used and what part of the country (or foreign countries) they were fighting in.  It’s interesting but really not worth the debate.  Here is a better question for our purposes:

Tai Chi Weapon Forms

Which tai chi weapon forms are practiced in Chen Village?

  1. 13 Long pole (Shi San Gan)
  2. Double Broadsword (Shuang Dao)
  3. Double Hooks (Shuang Gou)
  4. Double Mace (Shuang Jian)
  5. Double Sword (Shuang Jian)
  6. Pear Blossom Spear – White Ape Staff (Li Hua Qiang – Bai Yuan Gun)
  7. Single Broadsword (Dan Dao)
  8. Single Sword (Dan Jian)
  9. Spring and Autumn Big Broadsword (Chun Qiu Dadao/Guandao)
  10. Two sectioned pole (Saozi Gan)

Now we are getting somewhere.  There are 10 principle tai chi weapons.  More important than arguing which weapons there are or how many, is knowing why they were chosen and how they are grouped.

Think of weapons training as an out-of-the-box experiment to get better overall at tai chi by isolating movements and practicing in a new way

Tai Chi Weapon Forms

2.  Do we have to actually learn tai chi weapon forms to be good at tai chi?

I have met many practitioners with good skills who only do the open-hand form.  So the overall answer is – no- weapons practice is not mandatory.  However, there are huge benefits to learning a tai chi weapons form if you have access to teaching and interest.  You can read this article here to find out more: Tai Chi Weapons – 6 Reasons to study arcane fighting techniques

On the other hand, there are also two good reasons to NOT learn a tai chi weapon form.

1) You don’t have a teacher.  Knowledgeable teachers who both know the open-hand and weapon forms are not that common.  There are many more teachers who only know or teach the open-hand form.  This can be because they don’t have a teacher, space requirements, or they don’t have a large number of the weapons.  Totally fine.  If you are a teacher, you don’t have to teach them. If you don’t have a teacher that teachers the weapon forms, you get a pass.

2) You have low energy. Due to age, illness such as chronic fatigue, or low physical fitness, weapons might not be right for you.  You will be waving around something heavy, will be outside most likely when it gets hot and cold, and the lower postures can be difficult.  That being said, weapons quickly give you strength, stamina, and flexibility.  So, if you want to become more physical and mobile, don’t avoid them.

Tai Chi Weapon Forms

3.  If so, which tai chi weapon forms and in what order?

I am going to begin by making the argument that the number of forms you learn depends on your interest and ability to remember.  One thing that I love about Tai Chi is that you can accomplish so much by learning a single long form.  I was part of another tradition for a while where there were 13 forms that we were required to learn.  I spent so much energy memorizing patterns of movements.  When I moved into the brown-belt material which was about 5-7 forms in, I started forgetting some of the first forms.   I could not get to a deep level in that art and felt that it was my fault.  The truth is that I was spending too much time learning when to turn right and left.

It’s good to stress the brain and learn new patterns.  If you are spending more time reviewing and memorizing than you practicing and improving, you may have become a forms junky.  So it is up to you to decide how many forms can you learn this lifetime to improve continually.

I personally know and practice 4 weapon forms.  I will explain my own logic here but largely it is up to you to decide.

The Four Principle Tai Chi Weapons

Tai Chi’s primary weapons are the straight sword, broad sword, spear, and long pole.  They train completely different energies and are long and short, made of metal and wood.  This creates a lot of variety and allows me to train and grow my internal skills and external strength.  The long pole is rigorous but short.  The sword form gives me great depth and lots of strength in my legs and can (butt for non-Americans).  Spear is fast with many (76) moves and keeps me light.  Broadsword makes my movements big and radically improves my balance.

I have no plans of learning another form because I am personally at a level where this amount keeps it fun and when we rotate our class through different forms I am practicing at a deep level, not just trying to remember what I had forgotten.

The bottom line:

Training tai chi weapons is a fun, athletic, out-of-the-box experiment of your memory, internal, and external skills.  It also keeps us not-so-serious because they are so fun.  Have a look around the internet at different weapons if you are interested.  There are some really good providers who are weapons nerds and love to answer questions.  It is very important you know a few things before purchasing though.  I hope to cover these four weapons in future essays:

Tai Chi Sword

Tai Chi Broadsword

Tai Chi Spear

Tai Chi Long Pole

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

4 thoughts on “Tai Chi Weapon Forms – Oxymoron Anyone?

  1. I am not sure what family of tai ji quan you practice but I do Chen style and I have also learned 2 weapons and have found that the weapons forms where not more difficult than the open hand forms…especially the chen style er lu or part 2, sometimes called cannon fists.

    1. I completely agree. I would even go as far as to say that learning the movements of some of the weapons forms might actually happen more quickly because the forms are shorter. The purpose of the article was actually to motivate people to study the weapons forms. This, with the caveat that learning more forms than you are capable of remembering might not get you to a place where you are understanding at a deeper level. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I will revisit the text to make sure the writing is more clear.

  2. If anyone has ever studied/earned “real” Tai Chi, or made a cursory study of its’ history, they’d know it was never created to be Hippie Yoga Exercise.

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