The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Virtues of the Wooden Staff

Today we have a guest post by Jonathan Bluestein. Enjoy.
A Weapon for the Ages

The Many Virtues of the Wooden Staff

By Jonathan Bluestein

During my years in the martial arts and the Israeli armed forces (IDF and Police) I have studied the practice and usage of many weapons. Among them were sticks and staves of several different sizes, the Chinese Spear (Qiang), the Chinese Broadsword (Dao), the Chinese Straight Sword (Jian), knuckledusters, the M16 rifle, the FN MAG machinegun, several hand-guns and hand-grenades. It is a good idea to familiarize oneself with weapons during one’s lifetime, especially the melee kind. Whether one needs to own some of them on a regular basis, is up to a one’s personal life-philosophy and the laws of one’s nation. In any case, as I matured in my practice of the martial arts, my understanding of them had led me to the point in which the only weapons I still actively practice with are the staves - specifically of three heights:  The Short Stick (Bàng ), the Shepherd’s Staff (chest-height; Biān Gùn 鞭棍) and the Eyebrow-Height Staff (Qíméi Gùn 齐眉棍). I have found that for me, these weapons served best my development and understanding of the arts, and these are the only weapons I teach nowadays. Due to this reality, I wanted to share my reasons for emphasizing these weapons over others, and by so doing demonstrate their important attributes and the major contribution they can have to the lives and skills of all practitioners.

The Spirit of a Weapon            
When I began the serious study of melee weapons many years ago, my shifu explained to me an important fact which is seldom discussed nowadays. It is that every weapon has it own ‘spirit’, and a manner in which ‘it likes to do things’; almost as if it had a personality. Those of you who are versed in weaponry and have studied under a good teacher, ought to know and understand this.       
Good examples are swords. Place a Chinese Dao in the hands of a person, be him even the most meager and cowardly, and see him suddenly adopt power and courage within seconds, at least to a minor degree, by the sheer virtue of holding that object. The Dao lends its ‘character’ to the person. It is the weapon of the brave, the common soldier. It had been so for millennia, across cultures worldwide. Meant for use on the battlefield nose-to-nose with an opponent, it is not too challenging to wield and its tip-heavy structure draws one forward with momentum, literally leading one forth into danger.
This is in contrast with the Jian, a very different sword. Traditionally used more for dueling and held by higher-ranking officers or court-scholars, the Jian is designed to win the fight not by means of brute force, but through finesse. Called ‘The Gentleman’s Weapon’, its characteristics require the practitioner to develop sensitivity, softness, a capacity for yielding, gentle articulation, and wisdom. Training properly with a Jian is more akin to a sophisticated debate with the goal of convincing, as compared with the Dao’s roar of shouting and overcoming in a heated argument. 

                In the pictures:  Above - my late shigong, master Zhou Jingxuan. His grandfather fought the Japanese during World War II with the Da Dao. He inherited from him the liking of that weapon. Here he is seen demonstrating the Da Dao form taught to soldiers at the time. The fierceness of execution and the emotional involvement are were evident on his face throughout the form, as he was chopping down the imaginary ghosts of Japanese soldiers.   |   Middle – master Zhou teaching my shifu, Nitzan Oren, some Jianfa (straight sword methods) from the Shaolin Jingang Bashi system.   |  Bottom – master Zhou after a long morning of teaching spear methods in Israel.


Thus it is by their constitution, that you cannot fully and wholly wield one weapon like another, which features a different shape. Furthermore, weapons tend to create their own ‘rules’ for body methods and training. Many make the mistake of ‘forcing a weapon upon a style’. Traditionally, the Dao (Broadsword), Jian (Straightsword), Gun (Staff) and Qiang (Spear) are the ‘four fundamental weapons’ of traditional Chinese martial arts. For this reason, many teachers felt it was important for their system to have all four of these weapons in their curriculum, and sometimes several (or many) others as well. Historically it made sense. Up until the 20th century, in China it was a very good idea to become versed and skilled with a multitude of weapons, being that melee combat was still very common, and there was no police force to save you – the villager, or your village, from violent threats. Not to mention, that the government itself was often that threat, alongside bandits, pirates, or simply the neighbouring village. Martial arts were not a ‘choice’ – they were everybody’s ‘life insurance’.

However, during the course of the past few centuries, there were many important changes. Among them, the gradual disappearance of common melee combat from everyday life in China, and the specialization of styles. The first change made the study of many forms of weaponry obsolete for actual battlefield conditions and self-defense. The number of people who have fought for their lives with swords, spears or rope-darts in all of China or America in the year 2018, is in the dozens at most – and that is a generous estimation. The second change is a process which began in China roughly during the 17th century, with the gradual emergence of more sophisticated and coherent martial arts, with a very defined curriculum and a deep philosophical tradition. This process culminated during the 19th and 20th centuries, and resulted in the great multitude of traditional Chinese martial arts we know of today, of which there are arguably hundreds of systems and thousands of sub-styles. So in summary, the two major changes which affected weaponry practice were the decline in the amount of melee combat situations in daily life, and the development of martial arts with a coherent curriculums and philosophies. 

In the picture:  The author (black) with his disciple Noam (white). In the olden days, the study of weaponry was often not a choice, but a necessity.

What did not change however, were the weapons themselves. The shapes, materials and designs of the many traditional melee weapons of China had already been perfected many centuries ago, and nowadays only cosmetic changes are frequently made, or ones relating to the great availability of quality materials for construction. Essentially, through centuries of battlefield testing, the Chinese (and several other ancient cultures) have managed to design weapons which were highly effective in all respects for their intended purposes. The Chinese Dao was so effective in its simple design, that it was still used successfully by a few battalions during World War II against the Japanese army. The dao were effective for that purpose even when mass-produced from inferior steel and wielded by soldiers who were usually inexperienced martial artists. The Japanese Katana, having become a worldwide novelty item in many countries, had on occasion been used rather successfully for self-defense and offence during the 20th and 21st centuries, as well. These weapons work, and for this reason, and due to our liking of their aesthetic designs, they remain unchanged, unlike the martial arts themselves.
Now, herein lies the challenge – the unchanging weapon demands that a martial art be changed to suit its tactics, techniques, shape, weight, material and point of balance. The fact that one’s martial art has a preference for certain types of body mechanics, movements, steps, postures or tactics, does not mean these necessarily suit the function of a weapon and its character. Can you imagine Okinawan Karate with a Qiang? Or Brazilian Jujutsu with a Dao? How about Western Boxing with a Scottish Claymore? These notions are ridiculous, which is why they are not attempted. Nonetheless, there are some schools in which teachers have forcefully embedded ill-fitting weapons into their systems. The end-product looks like a poor hybrid, clumsy and improper.

In the picture:  The author (black) with his disciple Noam (white). A weapon needs to match the structure and method of the art in question.

The Advantages of Wooden Weapons 
The stave and the short stick have the virtue of being more flexible in that respect. Their body mechanics, movements, steps, postures and tactics more readily intermingle with the logic and methods of a large variety of martial arts. For the short stick, its length and weight are the main factors, as they make it easier to be used as a direct extension of one’s arm, thus more easily complementary to countless empty-handed techniques. For the staves, up to the length of ‘eyebrow-height’, their overall shape is an advantage. They can be held with the palms pronated, supinated, or a combination thereof. The palms can grip at any position (even at the butt of a staff), and at any distance across the length of the weapon. This means that the variable positions of the palms and arms can in turn be adjusted to move similarly to many empty-handed techniques, also using similar body-mechanics specific to one’s martial art. Because the grips are so diverse, the hands can easily/comfortably adopt some of the qualities and methods of other weapons, especially swords, though usage will still of course differ to a degree. The Qimei Gun is especially versatile in that manner. It can be used like a staff, a spear and even a Miao Dao or Nodachi. Grabbed at the borders of its middle section (the middle third), its butt and point can be used in close proximity to the opponent like short sticks. Its shorter counterpart, the chest-height staff can also double for Longsword techniques, methods and tactics. Their smaller sibling, the short stick, can borrow some ideas, concepts and movements from the Jian. This versatility of said wooden weapons, as well is the liveliness of the grip on such tools, makes their practice very enjoyable and flowing, as there are fewer limitations on what can be done and achieved. Even mishaps and errors in movement and execution can quickly be turned into opportunities for novel locomotion.

Many more advantages of sticks and staves include:

-          Being without an edge enables these weapons to lean against most parts of one’s own body without harm. This can be utilized in many ways. A common method in traditional Chinese martial arts is to lean a staff or a spear against the waist in order to deliver the torso’s kinetic power directly into the weapon when performing a technique; the Dan Tian can be used to help the staff or spear draw complex circles when the weapon is leaned against it; the forearm can lean against the staff or stick to add more contact points, providing more stability and pressure; one can roll on the ground with a stick or staff without fear of injury; etc.                 

-          They can hit the ground without damage, and in so doing allow one to ‘miss’ when striking towards the ground without harsh consequence to the structure of the weapon.       

-          When pressed against the ground with their tip, they become a ‘third leg’, which can be used combatively or for assistance in movement in daily life.     

-          When pressed against on opponent’s joint or bone, they often enhance joint-locking techniques.

-          Their movement arsenal is vast. They can pull, push, lift, press, poke, smack, chop, redirect, divert, intercept, absorb, circle, spiral, block, tap, be moved behind the back, swirl from the middle and sides, be rolled on the ground and be thrown in several ways. One could play with them high or low, jump in the air and even swim with them.

-          They can be used as both lethal and non-lethal weapons.

-          Their wooden frames absorb much of the shock of impact, which not only makes for an effective measure in combat, but also protects the brain from concussions. This requires specific types of wood though.

-          Swords are far easier to injure and kill with, no doubt. But a sword cannot easily break a well-made thick staff (or spear). The opposite does hold true – a staff can more easily chip or even break a sword, even when the latter is well-made.

-          Sticks and staves are legal to carry nearly everywhere and are not commonly challenged or questioned by law enforcement agencies on a daily basis. Neither do they draw too much unnecessary attention from people in general or require a special license.

-          They are more comfortable to carry around physically than swords, spears and many other types of medium and large weapons.

-          They are cheaper, and can often more easily be purchased of a good quality than swords, axes or spears. They are also made from a wide variety of materials (many types of wood).

-          They are far easier to maintain than swords. They do not require weekly oiling and cleaning, neither sharpening or avoidance of water. Many good ones will last the practitioner’s lifetime with the sole treatment of human sweat. Others will call for an application of oil every few years, or once when new.

-          Sticks are staves make good walkabout companions for assisted strolling, climbing, crossing of small streams, building of temporary shelters, stretching, protection from wild animals, reaching high fruit in trees, carrying of bindles and supplies, and much more.

For these many reasons and others, the staff has been the primary weapon of choice for study in many ancient cultures and traditions. In Okinawan martial arts, the staff is the subject which is featured in the greatest number of kata, and for a good reason. It is often said in China and Japan, that mastery of the staff is the most important for understanding melee weaponry.            

All of that being considered, this does not mean that other weapons should not be studied. As a matter of fact, an honest exploration of a larger variety of weapons is key for any traditional martial artist to comprehend better his traditions, as well as the uses and counter-uses of sticks and staves. For it is important to remember, that often a technique used with a stick or stave was meant to deal with attacks from different weapons, and to make sense of it, those other weapons need to be researched as well. Specialization, such as that which I have chosen, should come after one has experienced many possibilities to a sufficient degree.

 In the picture:  The author (black) with his disciple Noam (white). A staff can also subdue when necessary, without causing harm (technique above can be either a press or a strike). Not all violent altercations call for injurious resolutions. In Japan for example, many policemen are equipped with non-lethal melee weapons, like the baton, the chest-height staff (Jo) and the fork-spear (Sasumata), which are used to control, subdue and arrest when necessary. Such weapons were once very common in Western counties as well (the baton being popular in Britain), before firearms became widespread among the general public and more readily used by criminals.  

A Better-Fitting Strength-Training Tool              
At the turn of the 21st century, one of the trends popularized by the fitness industry was known as ‘core training’. Following three decades during which bodybuilding-style weight-training became increasingly commonplace in gyms in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, people were looking for the ‘next big thing’. The industry made a business decision of marketing the opposite of bodybuilding, by emphasizing the training of the body as a whole unit and pushing the concept of ‘core muscles’ instead of bodybuilding-style training, which often (but not always) separates muscle groups with area-specific exercises and programs. As means of marketing and selling this “new” concept of training (which in fact existed since the dawn of time and has been used in practically all sports), the industry invented all sorts of tools and programs requiring extra financial outlay. Various vibrating and shaking weights and platforms, special ‘unbalancing’ gadgets and “unique” approaches to training were offered to naïve and eager customers. Little did most people realize, that martial arts, and especially their melee weapons, already provided a much better holistic answer for what most ‘core-training’ claimed to offer.

Like many other martial artists, I have over the years experimented in all sorts of ways in an attempt to ‘enhance’ the strength-training aspects of my practice. Having had a background as a weight-training coach, initially I was sold on the idea that weights can make a significant contribution to martial arts training. Through the years I came to the conclusion that this was in fact incorrect. There are diminishing returns to weight training when combined with martial arts training. Although crude strength is no doubt gained, as well as some physical layers of bodily protection, typical weight-training regimes are in the long term, in my opinion, mostly detrimental to the professional martial artist. They diminish from one’s technical capacity and hinder one’s advancement of skill in a traditional martial art, especially in the internal martial arts which I practice and teach. The reasons and specifics are too broad to be discussed in this article. For lay-practitioners who consider martial arts as a hobby, this may not make such a big difference, and such people may find that the balance does tip in favour of weight training for their goals. I can tell you that for me, it took several years of absence from weight training to fully recover the liveliness of movement and energy required for major progress in the internal arts.

Having had a difficult time letting go of weights completely, I did continue a lot of specific bodyweight training, with an emphasis on what many term ‘primal pattern movements’. The latter, I do find useful for my martial arts and without detrimental effects on quality of movement or technique.           
Alongside bodyweight training, for some years I looked at the possible advantages offered by the wielding of extra-large weapons. The two I worked with the most were the 3.5 meter long spear of mine, weighing about 4kg, and a special Miao Dao (Nodachi-like sword) I have, which is 138cm long weighing 9kg. These weapons, although having different weights, due to their length are experienced as having a similar resistance when maneuvered, with the sword being a bit more challenging. Playing with these weapons for years was great fun, but eventually I let them go.   
The first reason for giving up on such training was that these great weights did not able me to articulate adequately the body-mechanics of my martial arts. The movements, even when smooth, were too crude still. The second reason is that the wielding intervals were short, with long rests in-between. I could only wave these around with intensity for a few short minutes before requiring a lengthy break. There was good justification that medieval weapons in Europe, China and Japan alike were commonly in the weight range of 800-1500 grams, and no more. A third reason was that I finally came to the conclusion, that even for strength training, the weight did not matter as much as the usage.

In the picture:  My ‘monster sword’. It is a very nice piece of training equipment, but in all honesty,  there are more effective methods to train. 

No one can argue, that a 5kg weight is heavier than a 1kg weight. However, is the goal of a martial artist to lift greater weights, or to yield better results no matter the weight? When the 1kg weapon is slightly accelerated (especially when tapered), it can be more challenging to wield than the 5kg weapon. This is also true when the smaller weapon is stopped abruptly while moving. Or while hitting another object (be it a weapon, a heavy bag or a tree). More pressure can also be added by a partner’s weapon pressing against yours. There are thus many ways to make a smaller weapon as effective for strength training as a bigger one, for the purpose of bettering one’s martial art (as opposed to simply lifting heavier weights).            
This is similar to the difference between powerlifters and bodybuilders. The powerlifter strives to lift more weight, period. Technique and aesthetics, while of some importance, are secondary to the goal. For the bodybuilder, the goal of lifting greater weights is important, but secondary to creating a better-looking and aesthetic physique. It is therefore common to see bodybuilders work with relatively small weights or lighter resistance, to achieve their aim. A bodybuilder for example, even at the peak of his career, may sometimes still perform bodyweight pullups, with no additional resistance. He will use specialized technique, accuracy in execution and his mind-muscle connection to make and yield more out of those bodyweight pullups than is possible for a normal person. His muscles will react differently and positively despite the lower load, and due to better technique and focus enabled by working with lighter resistance. The more experienced a person is in his craft, the greater the benefit he can derive from less material. That is a hallmark of expertise.

It is therefore my advice to those among you readers who are newer to weapons training, to invest more time in exploring the practice rather than look for shortcuts for your strength-training needs. Also, make the most out of lighter weapons before adopting heavier ones. Often, a traditional martial art already possesses all that is required for that aspect of one’s physical fitness, either by means of weapons training or otherwise. The originally intended sizes of weapons can deliver a tremendous amount of resistance and make for a fantastic tool, if used wisely and efficiently. Any further technical how- explanations go beyond the scope of this article, as they pertain to one’s specific martial methods, and this cannot be generalized grossly and requires hands-on instruction. Suffice to say, that through this type of training one can develops tendon which are like steel, and power which is unlike that which you would gain from typical weight-training. Neither better nor worse – different, and more fitting for martial usage.

In the pictures:  The author (black), and his student Yuval Kaufman (white). The first picture showcases the cruel technique known as ‘rear sentry takedown’ which was historically and unfortunately used with great success by the Vietcong to kill American soldiers during the Vietnam War. My right leg, which is hidden by my student’s body, is pressing against the rear of his left knee. The second picture showcases the usage of a short stick as means of assisting a throwing of an opponent to the ground.

In the video:  The author. These video segments were taken from a seminar I taught to my students in Israel, on the usage of the short stick. The body methods, tactics and strategies were taken from the three martial arts I practice and teach:  Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Jook Lum Southern Mantis. Even a small and lightweight short stick can become a powerful striking vessel in the right hands.   

An Ancestral Heritage      
Human beings have been using trees and their wood as friends, medicine and vessels for their creativity since before they were anatomically the species they are now. That is, for millions of years. Trees were on our planet even prior to the evolution of flowers. We have evolved to coexist with trees and other plants in the deepest sense possible, and not solely from the perspective of dietary sustenance.           

Consider the human shoulder joint. It is not nearly as stable as the shoulder joints of most other mammals. But that is for a good reason. Our shoulders have evolved the capacity to handle tools, and to a major degree – to be able to throw rocks and hurl spears, which were in turn made from wood. Throwing rocks and hurling spears became central to our hunting skills and to our survival as a race. The sports of soccer, basketball, football, baseball and tennis could not have been invented, without this unique shoulder joint of ours, and it in turn may not have taken on its structure and shape without trees and wood.

Personally, I have had an affinity to wood for as long as I can remember. I do believe wholeheartedly that this is an innate human trait, and that those who cannot sense it simply have not had the pleasure of working with wood and spending enough time among trees. Even more, after many years of training with wooden staves, I began to sense the deep connection I have as a creature with this this type of instrument and material. This once more, requires prolonged exposure. The staff is unlike the sword, the spear, the knife or the firearm. It is not tool made solely for a purpose, but a part of the human soul itself. Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes that trees and their wood are related to our Livers and to our Hun (Ancestral Spirit), and that relationship is not by any means accidental or arbitrary. Those of you who are willing to follow their hearts and connect with your core being, will in those tools find solace and meaning. Seek to make them more than a weapon, and they shall serve to guide you on paths which are not spoken of by people or written in books – roads to your inner self.     


My gratitude to my colleague and friend shifu James Tan for helping make this article come to light! He provided very useful commentary.

 The author of this article, Jonathan Bluestein, can be contacted directly at: . Shifu Bluestein is a practitioner and teacher of Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Jook Lum Southern Mantis. These arts are taught by him at his academy in Israel, and also in seminars abroad. Shifu Bluestein is also a best-selling author on the martial arts. Be sure to check out his popular books:  Research of Martial Arts and The Martial Arts Teacher


Zacky Chan said...

Very interesting post! Makes me want to play with some sticks. It's so interesting how a weapon can affect someone by just holding it alone. And then of course all of the changes that occur after years of training. Just the other day I was thinking about why a lot of the Japanese martial arts that use weapons seem to attract or make for people with such different personalities. Thanks for sharing.

Rick Matz said...

Every now and then I get the urge to pick up a bokken and practice some cuts like in my old Aikido days.

Phil Badone said...

I have an expanding bo staff, once turned quickly lengthens to over 5 feet. It's heavy aluminum with a great rubber grip. The only problem is that occasionally one side might collapse while poking. So, its a nice looking toy.
Then I bought a 4 foot burnt rattan flexible staff, very happy with it, although light, it is primarily for softer targets, or redirection. I like this one.

Jonathan Bluestein said...

Thank you everyone for your comments :-)

I think technique, material, weight, balance, thickness and density all play a part in how a weapon changes us. Sometimes the weapon tells us how to behave no less than we tell it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. What do you think of angular (rather than linear) weight training or lifting an unbalanced load as a means of learning how to maintain a strong foundation when force is applied from different directions?