Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Friday, October 31, 2014


My brother had a dog that used to sing along with the chorus:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Zhang Zhuang in Taijiquan

Anyone who has known me or has read this blog for the last 9 years knows that zhan zhuang, the standing stake practice, has had a big impact on me.

Below is an excerpt from a post by Jim Roach at the Classical Tai  Chi Blog. The full post may be read here.

Zhan Zhuang for Taijiquan Practice. The Wuji Positions allows the practitioner to relax the mind, while, adjusting, aligning, and balancing the body to produce correct postures. Zhan Zhuang Training, on the other hand, strengthens the tendons and ligaments, aids in balancing, teaches the muscles to relax, and identifies weaknesses not noticed while practicing the Form. This is important in helping to identify the proper placement of the heel and weighting of the empty foot. 

The Square Form of Classical Taijiquan, brush knee movement is being used to illustrate how Wuji and  Zhan Zhuang can be applied at those stopping points for each position. Applying these training methods in addition to form practice will help the student in developing strength and proper form. Wuji is defined as nothingness, the beginning before intention and movement. Wuji is discussed in many Taijiquan Books written by both practitioners and masters alike. These writers mainly address Wuji in the Preparation Posture and/or the Closing Posture of the Taiji Form. As such, most readers are left to believe Wuji is only accomplished at the beginning and ending of the Taiji Form. However, this is not so. Wuji is practiced during every posture, that is, every posture begins with Wuji, moves into Taiji, and returns to Wuji.
Zhan Zhuang (standing like a stake, standing like a tree) Training is a way to relax both the nervous and muscular systems simultaneously. This is accomplished by combining exertion and relaxation simultaneously. Breathing is done by inhaling and exhaling gently through the nose while keeping the mouth closed and relaxed. The chest, stomach, and hips are in a relaxed state. Zhan Zhuang helps with the identification of the energy flow in the different positions and trains to keep the localized nerve activity dormant (Forum 6); as well as, strengthening the yin side of the posture for strong rooting and building power (Forum 7). There is no set time limit in Zhan Zhuang Training; however, the seasoned practitioner has been known to hold the positions in excess of twenty minutes. Some have claimed to be able to hold the positions for hours. It is important to remember, that as the tension builds in different parts of the body, to tell yourself to relax. (RELAX, RELAX, RELAX) Start with short time frames and increase the holding time slowly.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Recent Works by the Warrior Poet, Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway, the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage Fighting Poet, was nice enough to write this guest post for Cook Ding's Kitchen, describing what he's been up to since he hung up his gloves. Click on the "Warrior Poet" tag for Cameron's other posts for Cook Ding's Kitchen. Enjoy.

Picking Shots
Exclusive to Cook Ding’s Kitchen

It was June 2007 at the Erie County Fairgrounds in Sandusky, Ohio. It was also Ohio Bike Week. A field of grass, revving engines, a blazing white sun bursting through blue skies, beards and beer and cheering and high heels and leather jackets and a steel cage in the middle of it all. This was Ohio; this was ancient Greece. This was the most terrifying moment of my life but, as was always the case, when the steel cage shut and the referee said, “Let’s do this” and disappeared until the end it was... Zen. Life or death. It was a sport but in no way felt like one. Absolute survival. Absolutely serenity. Peace and violence swirled like the skies in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. There were no thoughts; instinct guided action. I hurt and I got hurt. I survived knowing that a bell, a mindfulness bell, would bring me back to the beginning or the end. Whatever they are. I just wanted to be the greatest fighter on the planet.

I lost that fight. Ate a knee that kissed my organs. Pulled guard and felt the back of my head bounce off the mat. Found myself in a heel hook I didn’t know how to escape. Tapped the mat three times to signal defeat. Other fights to fight, I told myself. Whatever that means.

Two months later I’m walking through the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center trying to find how in the hell poetry could be wielded. It had to be wielded. All I knew was wielding. So it had to be wielded for good. What’s the point of imagination? I wondered as I looked at these beautiful little books. Why is it often linked to escaping reality? Shouldn’t it be linked to better understanding reality so that we can beat the shit out of the world’s problems? I haven’t fought since 2007 but it’s all I think about. Who knew poetry is just as much about the scrap.

Poetry book one, Until You Make the Shore, was based on the absurdities I saw in an Arizona juvenile detention center and the US criminal justice system in general. Can poetry solve that? Hell no. But Allen Ginsberg said, “The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That’s what poetry does.” If there’s a tenet I live by or if I have a faith it probably begins somewhere near that. I’m just a simple dude trying to do some social good with whatever skills I have and whatever time I have left to use them. I don’t see a better point in being here.

Book two, Malaria, Poems. The disease ravages nearly a million human beings each year. Us and them are illusions. There is only we. So why in the sweet holy hell is nobody talking about malaria? And why is so much of our “global health” money going toward causes like male pattern baldness? Enter a pissed off version of Ginsberg’s voice.

Book three, Chittagong: Poems & Essays, is primarily about the horrors of the shipbreaking yards I saw in Bangladesh. Again it was all about what do I have and what can I do about the madness before me? Boys are getting crippled and dying from exposure to toxins all to break down the cruise ships we the wealthy love to lounge on. And it’s only crickets? Stage left: Ginsberg’s ghost is now screaming the quote while interspersing F bombs.

I’d like to think that if Ginsberg were my age he’d want to grab a craft brew or two and talk about this shit. Who knows. But I know a lot of others who do and will and want to. I feel the world’s torn—that muddled place where it can swim but its toes don’t touch—between social consciousness waxing and waning, at once breaking through the surface of the mud and blossoming like the lotus and unable to break the surface of the mud and simply suffocating. I just want bloom, sustainable and brilliant bloom.

I don’t know what’s next; but I’m covering up and backing up towards the corner of desperation and my chin is tucked and I’m ready to swing when there’s an opening.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Birthday Post

Today is my birthday. Won't you help me to celebrate?

 Months pass,
days pile up, like one intoxicated dream -
An old man sighs.

- Ryokan

[from 'One Robe, One Bowl', translated by John Stevens]

When I began the new job about a year ago I also began working from home. Sure I had to travel, but when I was home I was completely home and I liked that a lot.

Ironically, I also found that I began to feel a need to get out of the house! I also started to put some weight on from the traveling and noticed that some of my good habits were eroding.

I started kicking around the idea of getting out the house by beginning training in aikido again, and/or perhaps judo.

I found two dojo located fairly nearby. The first one only trained on Saturday afternoons, which is absolutely the worst time for me; plus what they worked on was sort of a mash up of what the teacher put together  of aikido and judo.

The second seemed ideal on paper. Aikido followed by judo (or vice versa, I can't remember), twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Unfortunately they wouldn't return emails or phone calls. It seems that they have closed.

While I was kicking around my options, the Mrs reminded me that a friend of hers has been going to an MMA gym for years, has a great time and is always talking about what a great bunch they are there. I decided to attend the free conditioning class and see what it was about.

I immediately signed up. I thought that I was in decent shape before but found out rapidly that I was mistaken.

The general schedule is a conditioning class Mondays through Thursdays at 7, followed by kick boxing at 8. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they also have Brazilian Jiujitsu from 6 until 8, overlapping the condiitoning class.

I am certainly the oldest guy there. My wife's friend is a year or so younger than I am and her sister is a year or two younger still. There are a handful of guys in their 30's or 40's who show up, but almost everyone is in their 20's including a handful of young women.

The young guys are pretty good to me. They tend to hold back enough to where I'm not getting my block knocked off, but I found that there is a wide range of interpretation of the instructions to "take it easy on the old guy."

In fact, a few weeks into it, I picked up  my first black eye.

I simply can't keep up with the gap between my reaction time and those of they young guys. I also noticed that my knees were chronically sore from the kickboxing too.

One of the assistant instructors suggested that I take up BJJ sooner rather than later, which I was planning on. He said that it would be easier on my body and that a lot of my disadvantages would be somewhat mitigated. In fact, having some patience would probably be to my advantage.

Then I saw this clip.

A 74 year old black belt in Brazilian Jiujitsu.

I don't know if this old bag of bones will stay together long enough to achieve that, but it is certainly a worthy goal. As a rule of thumb, it takes a "regular" young person about 10 years to get to black belt level in BJJ, so maybe it will take me 20. 

Besides being older, I travel for work and I have other responsibilities that simply doesn't allow me to put the time in that I would have as a young man. It's on the edge of the realm of possibility. You have to be somewhere and you have to be doing something. Why not? I'm game. A realistic shorter term goal is to still be doing this when I'm 60.

I've had a couple of pulled muscles and BJJ is a whole new kind of sore, but it's been six months now and I've stuck with it. I'm still among the least of the grapplers, but I do improve every day and have a blast, which is what it is all about.

One of my regular training partners has developed type 1 diabetes. She's trying to raise money for a Diabetes Alert Dog, which can sense when her chemistry changes and indeed save her life. A type 1 diabetic can slide into a coma while sleeping and simply die. The dog would sense the change and wake her. 

I don't want her to die. Maybe you can help her.

I'm 57 years old and I'm not a runner. I haven't run since I was a teenager and 5 miles was the longest I ever ran back then. I have found that running leaves me with sore ankles and knees. It's uncomfortable for me. I'd rather do just about anything than run.

A few months ago I found out that nearly 800 million people don't have access to to clean drinking water. They drink out of mud holes, out of water holes shared with animals; from wells that are so distant that the women and girls going to fetch the water are subject to assault, abduction and worse.

I live near the Great Lakes and can go out to the middle of Lake Huron and be surrounded by fresh water as far as the eye can see. To lack water is a concept that is kind of hard for me to wrap my head around

As I said, I learned that so many people are living in such desperate conditions and I also found out that a group named Team World Vision is raising money to address this.

For $50 a person can have clean drinking water for life.

By running.

And so I run.

This 57 year old non runner has signed up for the International Half Marathon to take place during the Free Press Marathon on October 19th. I am taking part in a fund raiser organized by Team World Vision. TWV distrbutes personal filter straws, builds filtration systems, digs wells, etc.

I showed up at the informational meeting held after the service at church, expecting to simply lend support to one of my daughters who had been talking about signing up for a marathon. The next thing I knew, I was filling out a form and was one of the first to hand it in.

Every dollar counts. Won't you please donate? You'll change, maybe save someones' life. My goal is to raise $1300.

 Won't you sponsor me?

Between running and BJJ, I think that NOW I'm in pretty decent shape. I guess that I'll find out in a few days.

I've been at the new job a year now. Both the company and I are pretty happy with each other. I've advanced the relationships they already had from first discussions to several development programs which should see production ramping up either later this year or early next. I've found them some some new customers which whom they've had no contact before.

The travel seems to be pretty seasonal. From autumn to spring is the traveling season. As my boss is in Chicago, I expected to go there quite a bit. As it turns out I've gone to San Diego more times than anywhere else. Not a bad place to visit.

There is a local charitable organization named Life Remodeled. They raise money, organize volunteers and go into areas that need a lot of work and get it done. The last several years they have concentrated on the City of Detroit, which needs a lot of work.

This summer they organized 10,000 volunteers over a week's time to renovate my old high school, Cody High in Detroit, and 100 surrounding blocks in the neighborhood.

That was my neigborhood. I grew up there. I know those houses. I played in those yards. My childhood home is within those 100 blocks.

Between conference calls and what not, I wasn't able to get down there to help and I was quite disappointed. However, even without me, by all accounts everything turned out great.

This month, my wife and I will be celebrating our 31st wedding anniversary.

Time flies like an arrow.

My oldest daughter finished a master's degree and is advancing her career. My youngest daughter completed her college degree and is working in her field. Everyone is doing well.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Free Copies of Research of Martial Arts

Jonathan Bluestein is giving away some free copies of Research of Martial Arts at GoodReads.

Click here for your chance to get one!

Introductory History of Xingyiquan

At EJMAS (Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Science), noted MA author Brian Kennedy published an introductory history of Xingyiquan training manuals. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

An Introductory History of Xing-yi Training Manuals

By Brian Kennedy Copyright © EJMAS 2001. All rights reserved.
A note on transliterations: Although this article uses pinyin to transliterate technical terms, personal names are presented using the spelling by which the person is (was) best known in English. Book titles are likewise presented as on their covers.

The senior students looked anxiously around the table at each other. Not only had the Master been murdered but the secret training manual had been stolen. That manual, which had been passed down from master to senior disciple for over 500 years, contained the key ideas that gave the school’s techniques their frightening efficacy. The manual had to be found and the master’s murder avenged, no matter what the cost. "Secret training manuals" are a stock motif in Chinese martial arts movies and novels. Unlike other stock motifs such as magic swords and flying through the air, "secret training manuals" do have a basis in reality and have a long history in some Chinese martial arts systems. Training manuals are books or manuscripts that teach the principles, techniques or forms of a system, and as such are separate from books that discuss the history of martial arts or works of fiction. Xing-yi quan is one art where training manuals have existed for several hundred years, and that history is the focus of this article.

Xing-yi Quan

Xing-yi quan means "form-mind boxing," and is romanized as xing-yi (pinyin), hsing-i (Wade-Giles), and hsing-yi (Yang Jun-ming’s transliteration). Stylistically, it is one of the three internal Chinese martial arts, the other two being bagua (pa kua) and taiji (t’ai chi). Structurally, it is characterized by its seeming simplicity: the system consists of a limited number of forms and techniques that are drilled in series of short forms. However, whatever the system lacks in variety, it makes up for in depth, requiring the student to make a long and intensive study of the basic motions of combat. It is also undeniably practical, having been the system of choice during the late Qing and Republican periods for people such as convoy escorts and bodyguards who made their living fighting.

Xing-yi has two major subdivisions, the Hebei-Shanxi tradition and the Henan tradition. The Hebei-Shanxi schools are much more prominent both in China and in the West. Their core training consist of the 5 element fists and the 12 animals forms. Meanwhile, the Henan schools, although far less prominent, probably represent a more accurate/faithful version of early hsing-i. Their core training consist of 10 Animal forms that are different from the 12 Animal forms of the Hebei-Shanxi lineage.

The Henan branch is also known as Muslim xing-yi. The reason is that the historical founder of xing-yi, Ji Ji Ke, had two major students, who in turn founded the Hebei-Shanxi branch and the Henan branch. The Henan branch founder, Ma Xueli (1714-1790), was Muslim, as were his family and all his students. Since the Henan branch of xing-yi tended to stay within the Islamic community, it subsequently became identified as a Chinese Muslim ("Hui") martial art.

At any rate, the development of modern xing-yi is attributed to Ji Ji Ke, circa 1750, and the subsequent history of its training manuals can be usefully divided into four periods: the legendary period, the hand-copies period, the Republican period, and the modern period.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Spear in Japanese Martial Arts

There was a very good post about the Japanese spear, the Yari over at Ichijoji blog. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

The spear is a weapon that has been used in some form in virtually every corner of the earth, and must be, after the club and the rock, one of the most basic weapons devised by mankind. Japan is no exception, and has a long tradition of the use of various pole arms, including spears, dating to way back before the 'samurai' era. However, as far as samurai are concerned, the spear was not even the principal pole arm until the 15th or 16th century. For some reason, it was the naginata that assumed that role, while the spear languished until the time of the Namboku-cho (1334-1392) when it gradually gained popularity. This popularity increased during the early Sengoku period, until, by the time of the famous warlords of the mid to late 16th century, it had assumed the position of one of the main weapons on the battlefield. This was partially due to logistical considerations, and indeed, the growing size of armies meant that it provided a cheap and easy to use armament for levies and other
irregular troops.

Though individuals became famous for their use of the spear, on the battlefield, their particular forte was in tactical deployment. Walter Dening, in his The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, tells the story of how Hideyoshi got caught up in an argument to see whether long or short spears were superior. Oda Nobunaga's spear instructor favored short spears (short in this case means up to 8ft long) whereas Hideyoshi favored the longer type.

A trial was arranged: both men would train a group of fifty men in the use of their chosen length of spear,and after three days, the two groups would compete against each other. To cut a long story
short, while the spear instructor taught his men the techniques to oppose the longer weapons, Hideyoshi told his men they had the advantage anyway, so they could attack any way they liked, and wined and dined them. He also divided them into three units so they could make forward and flank attacks. On the day of the contest, Hideyoshi's men made mincemeat of his opponents.

Although this is probably an apocryphal tale, it does indicate the tactical value of the spear on the battlefield. That is not to deny that a shorter spear offers definite advantages to the individual warrior, but in battles employing formations of troops, longer spears offered a decided advantage. In fact, Nobunaga employed longer than average spears in his formations, and even on an individual level,
some warriors made use of the longer spears. Maeda Toshiie, for example, used one that was reportedly 6m in length.

The differences on such weapons also lead to certain specializations in the way they were used. For the ashigaru, who made up the bulk of the armies in the Sengoku period, spear usage was comparatively limited. Among the most common techniques was a downward strike aimed at knocking the opponent's spear downwards. This was particularly useful in tight formations, and contemporary writing suggests that this was seen as preferable to thrusting.

In fact, despite it's efficiency as a thrusting weapon, on the battlefield even the shorter spears were, as often as not, probably used to knock down an opponent and then despatch him. The triangular sectioned blade of the su yari (straight spear) was particularly effective for this, and this may also explain the popularity of the tanged spear head over the socketed type – the tang running deep inside the shaft gives greater durability as well as weighting the head, making it more effective for sweeping and striking movements.

Practice with long weapons quickly brings an appreciation of the difference in their range and speed compared with the sword. Facing someone with a spear (if they are using it well) allows one to realize the advantage it has – it is said that the spear gives its user a 3x advantage. When you see the speed with which a spear can be extended and retracted, how quickly the blade can shoot out at different targets, you appreciate how difficult it would be to face one in earnest.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Key to Martial Arts Excellence: Showing Up

When I was a young man training in Aikido all of the time, there was an old guy (younger than me now) we called Wyandotte Joe, who was a brown belt.

He had never done anything athletic previously in his life and after a divorce, with his children grown and gone, had decided to take up Aikido.

He was limited in his range of motion (as I am now) and couldn't even sit in seiza (I can't anymore either). The movements didn't come easily to him (boy can I relate to that).

But he showed up every day. He was always there. He was undaunted in always trying to do his best.What an inspiration.

Below is an excerpt from an article I found at The Good Men Project. It was originally published at Six Pack Abs, where the full article may be read.

I sat in my car, looking out at the pouring rain. “Son of a bitch,” I said.

Warm and wet is fine. I’ve run in the rain in Maui and it was awesome. This was not going to be awesome. This was going to be cold and wet. In Canada, rain always sucks.

Stupid weather, messing with my workout plans.

I sat there in Rhonda the Honda, wasted some time on Facebook with my phone, and debated.

I needed to meet a friend downtown to pick up some tickets from him. Downtown traffic sucks.

Downtown parking fees are egregious. Parking 6K away from downtown, for free, then running to meet my friend and thereby avoiding the traffic, then running back, seemed like a great idea. I was dressed to run. I was ready to run.

But, rain. Crud.

I hate Canadian rain. I hated the thought of being cold and wet more than I hated the idea of traffic and parking fees.

Five minutes. I knew I could do five minutes. I also knew that going fast combated freezing. Suck it up, I said to myself. Just go for five minutes. If it’s horrible, turn back.

I ran the 6K in 27 minutes, a good pace, and walked into Starbucks. I was soaking wet and water was dripping from the brim of my hat.

“Holy shit, you ran here?” Dave said. Yeah, I guess I did. I hate forgotten about the miserable conditions within two minutes of hard running, and just did it. Grabbing a coffee the cute barista asked me the same question Dave had, minus the profanity, then, “What are you training for?” she asked.

“Life,” I said. I always wanted to say that. I managed to do it without sounding like a douche. She laughed, at least.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Brilliance of the Chinese Longsword

We have another guest post by Jonathon Bluestein. The topic of this one is the Chinese Longsword. Enjoy.

The Brilliance of the Chinese Longsword

By Jonathan Bluestein

The purpose of this very long article is to familiarize readers with a uniquely Chinese weapon – the Miao Dao. During the 20th century, this sword has been pushed out the spotlight in favour of the much more popular Dao (Broadsword), Da Dao (Huge Broadsword), Guan Dao (a staff with a huge broadsword blade at its end), and the Jian (the Chinese straight, double-edged sword). Historically-speaking however, the Miao Dao was very popular on the Chinese battlefields, and nowadays it is regaining its popularity in various martial arts communities in China, south-east Asia and the West alike. The article shall first discuss the history of the sword, later its structure and utility, and at last its training methods, usage in the martial arts and the characteristics of it in fighting.

In the picture:  the author, shifu Bluestein, wielding a typical modern training miao dao. This is a generic model that was very common in China throughout the early 21st century.

The weapon’s history and name

Two-handed swords of various styles have a history in China which goes back over 2000 years. According to my teacher, late master Zhou Jingxuan, the first Miao Dao date back to about the 5th century. It emerged around the time when round hilt guards first became widespread in Chinese sword design. It was known by many names throughout history. Originally it was mostly commonly referred to as simply ‘Chang Dao’ (長刀; Longsword). Later in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1644 AD, 1644-1911 AD), it was plainly called ‘two-handed sword’. At that time, it was also commonly known as ‘Mao Dao’ (矛刀; Spear-sword). Another name for it over the centuries (beginning in the Song dynasty, 960 – 1279 AD) had been ‘Zhan Ma Dao’ (斩马刀) – Horse Cutting Sword. An appropriate name for a blade which is big, heavy and fearsome enough to cut down horses’ legs and stab them to death. This may sound archaic, but modern Miao Dao forms still feature movements which can be used for such horrendous purposes, and the weapon can be demonstrated to easily cut through the corpses of large animals (this I saw myself on Chinese documentaries, even when the cutting swords were held by only moderately-skilled individuals). The sword was also wielded by cavalrymen, and when used in that fashion it was most often utilized for stabbing (rather than hacking, cutting or slashing). Since all of these names were used interchangeably, sometimes they referred to miao dao, and other times to very similar designs with some modifications.              
The modern name, ‘Miao Dao’ means ‘Sprout Sword’, and refers to the resemblance of a grounded sword (blade in ground and handle facing upwards) to that of some green sprouts. My teacher told me that the reason the sword began to be referred to by this name was confusion in pronunciation, with ‘Miao Dao’ sounding similar to ‘Mao Dao’. This error persisted and the name stuck.

Wielding nodachi swordsIn the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) there had lived a very famous martial artist – General Qi Jiguang (November 12, 1528 – January 5, 1588). Born into a hereditary military family, he came to hold a mythical position in Chinese military history and culture. During his lifetime and career, the Chinese army was busy fighting off Japanese pirates, and it is more than likely that at the time, Miao Dao and Katanas crossed blades on the battlefield. Indeed, in the 14th century painting below, dated before the time of Cheng Chongdou and Qi Jiguang,  we already see Japanese pirates (Wokou 倭寇) wielding what appears to be Katanas (this is also evident in other paintings of these pirates), and it is known that many of them were former Samurai (those who wish to read more about these pirates can do so here:  ). Qi was called forth to command the resistance against these pirates, who were attacking the cities of Zhejiang province (浙江省), which he eventually did quite successfully, partly by utilizing the miao dao as counter-measures to the very long nodachi used by the pirates.

Initially, in 1557, Qi trained 3000 volunteers to fight the pirates. The fighting went badly for them in the following year, and Qi reasoned that one of the chief reasons was that the majority of these soldiers were urban dwellers, who did not possess strong physical foundation for fighting. Henceforth, Qi decided to only train farm boys for the job. He further honed his strategies by inventing the ‘Mandarin Duck Formation’. This squad was composed of basic units of twelve men each, consisting of two rattan shield & sword men, one leader (carrying a flag), two with bamboo lances, and four with long lances, two fork (trident) men, and a cook, who also acted as a logistics man. They were to advance in that order, or in two five man columns dividing the weapons equally, but with the strict ruling that all acted to protect the leader from being wounded. Had the leader lost his life, during a battle that ended in defeat, any survivor in his unit was to be executed. Thus each man was drilled in the spirit of win or die. At the same time the weapons were specifically designed to fight the Pirates whose long bows were deadly and whose sharp swords could sever any Chinese hand weapon. In Qi’s tactics the shield was to take care of the arrows, and the bamboo lance, with its bushy branches intact, could slow down the onslaught and entangle the swordsman making it possible for the other lancers to dispatch him. The lengthened blades of the swords also accommodated for the long Japanese reach. The image above, illustrating the Mandarin Duck Formation, was taken from General Qi’s book military tactics which he wrote following the successful anti-pirate campaigns, in 1560 (age 32). The book was called ‘Quanjing Jieyao Pian’ – A New Treatise on Disciplined Service. Free English translations of this book are available online.   
General Qi Jiguang also famously issued Miao Dao swords to many of his soldiers when fighting the Mongols. Qi was only 22 years old (1550) when the Mongols breached through the walls of Beijing, and he helped defend the city. In the aftermath, he and others proposed taking the fight with the Mongols to the northern borders, to prevent such an event from recurring. The Mongol front was far from that Qi Jiguang had with the Japan, which serves to demonstrate the sword had proven much versatility in usage under different conditions and upon various terrains. 
Qi served protecting the Great Northern Wall from Mongol threats in the years 1568-1583. He repaired the Wall, built more observation towers (to serve as his early warning net), organized training centers, and concentrated on drilling cavalry and wagon troops. He thought that the Mongols, like the pirates, were strongest in their element: in their case, on horseback on hard ground. His defense strategy emphasized attacking the Mongols once they had either penetrated, or been allowed to penetrate, the Great Wall. Miao Dao were were issued to four types of squads:  Combat Wagon squads who used their wagons as cover, Baggage Supply Wagon squads, regular infantry squad which was similar to the Mandatin Duck Formation, and a Cavalry squad. Each of these had men wielding miao dao, which were at the time called ‘Chang Dao’ (Longsword). Usuaully, they were carried by bowmen and musketeers, to be used after the ammunition was exhausted.
Later in his life, Qi Jiguang wrote another book, about the Miao Dao, titled ‘Xīn Yǒu Dāo Fǎ’ (辛酉刀法). The words ‘Xīn Yǒu’ refer to the year the book was released in during the Ming dynasty (58th year of a 60 year cycle), and ‘Dāo Fǎ’ means ‘Sword Methods’. Together – ‘The Sword Methods of the 58th Year’.

The weapons of General Qi Jiguang’s soldiers and their opponents also tell us much about how skilled these men were. It is written and recorded in both Japanese and Chinese histories that during that era, the Samurai, Japanese Pirates and General Qi’s soldiers commonly used swords that reached the upwards of 200cm in length. A true battlefield miao dao at the length of 135cm, such a sword I own myself, weighs roughly 2.5kg. This means a miao dao or nodachi as long as 200cm should weigh over 3.5kg. Let it make this very clear – such a weapon is unwieldy for normal individuals in our time, even most well-trained martial artists. To be able to effectively fight with a sword so massive and effectively control it for many minutes, perhaps hours on end in combat, means that the Asian warriors of the period were exceptionally fit and strong. Each must have been an equivalent in ability to a superior, world-class athlete of our time.  

In the pictures:  Left - A samurai of that era, with a huge nodachi, which I estimate to be about 2 meters long. Note that the mass and lever of this massive weapon are further added to by the armor this warrior had to carry!
Right – Manchurian soldiers from the 1640s (a generation after Qi Jiguang’s death), carrying Miao Dao. Based on the ratio of weapon-to-body seen in this painting, I estimate the length of the swords to be 135-155cm – about the same as modern miao dao.                 

Much time had passed since the days of Qi Jiguang, and the Miao Dao was nearly forgotten. Its place was taken by the classic broader, shorter and more curved design of the Dao. Cold weapons were in any case undergoing a long process of being permanently replaced by firearms. Despite this, various miao dao traditions persisted, scattered across China.

A little later, but at around the same period (of Qi Jiguang) had lived another famous martial artist by the name of Cheng Chongdou (程冲斗 ; Also known as Cheng Zongyou 程宗猷). He was born around 1561 in Anhui province. He is said to have been called by a representative of the Chinese emperor to teach army troops in Tianjin when he was 62 years of age. Skilled with many weapons, he wrote a famous book about the usage of Miao Dao, titled ‘Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn’ (单刀法选) – ‘Selected (most important) Techniques of the Single Sword’. In the book are also notably featured other weapons, such as a crossbow (being carried by the soldiers as he wields the Miao Dao) and a short dagger (which is depicted  as been carried passively or thrown at an opponent). The image to the left is from his book.

In the picture:  An image from Cheng Chongdou’s book, Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn. The book features a lot of illustrations of soldiers carrying crossbows, together or without a Miao Dao. As seen here, the crossbow (like the musket) took a whole-body effort and quite a lot of time to load, and could not have been used together with the Miao Dao. At the time, a popular tactic would have been to utilize projectile weaponry from a safe position or shelter, and resort to an all-out charge at the enemy once ammunition ran out. It is interesting that in this book, the soldiers are often both archers and infantrymen, while in European Medieval armies there would have been a greater distinction between the two fighting classes. It seems that the crossbow, being easier to shoot with than the bow, allowed for more verasatility in its uses among the soldiers.        

In the beginning of the 20th century, master Guo Chengsheng (1866-1967) combined his extensive knowledge of Pigua Zhang (a Chinese martial art) with that he had of the Miao Dao, and created a second variation for the Miao Dao form (known as ‘Er Lu’ – Second Road), with the aid of his friend, master Ma Yingtu. Both the first (original) and second form are mostly closely associated with the techniques shown in Cheng Chongdou’s book, Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn. Here is a video of my teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan, performing the Er Lu Miao Dao form:

As of now, I am aware of at least four distinct miao dao traditions still extant in China:

1. Master Han Yiling of Hebei province created a comprehensive martial arts style which he named ‘Cloud Demon’, and taught in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The curriculum included the practice of miao dao, which Han possibly learned in Tianjin from his Tongbei teacher, Deng Hongzao.

2. A lineage passed down within the Hui Muslim community of Xin Yi Liu He’s miao dao. In the 20th century it was passed down by Liu Fengming and his disciple Song Guobin, and notable masters of it who were likely still living in the early 2000s were Ma Zhiqiang (马志强) and Liang Hong Xuan (from Bengbu, Anhui province). There appear to be at least two long forms in this lineage. Routine one has 58 postures, and routine two has 64 postures. The tradition is called Wansheng Miao Dao after the Wansheng Security Firm. The Wansheng company, which provided armed escort services, adopted this sword somewhere between the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty and made it a specialty weapon of theirs. The miao dao were originally up to five chi, or 166cm long (blade 126cm and handle 39cm), with the weight of 2.5kg. This tradition now have a fixed length of 150cm (handle 20c, blade 130cm) and weigh 1.25kg. Unique, the practitioner will also perform with a set of three throwing knives attached to waist, which would be tossed in the middle of a form (the knives resemble the Japanese Kunai). This method was also featured in the Qi Jiguang’s book, Xīn Yǒu Dāo Fǎ.

3. The Guo Changsheng lineage, to which I belong:   Cheng Chongdou, Qi Jiguang and others in ancient times >>>>>>>>>>>>>>  Mr. Yang (18th century) >>> Xie Jinfen (18-19th centuries) >>> Liu Yuchun (19th century; instructor at the Nanking Central Martial Arts Academy. Was a master of Pigua, Tongbei and Miao Dao) >>> Guo Chengsheng (1866-1967) >>>  Guo Fengming >>> Pang Zhiqi & Wang Lianhe (20th century) >>> Zhou Jingxuan (in the video above) >>> Wielding a miao daoJonathan Bluestein.   |   Though Guo Changsheng’s teachings of the Miao Dao had been of traditional battlefield techniques, over time his forms spread across China, with the majority of people practicing them in altered versions, adhering to the mindset and framework of modern sports Wushu. Thus, it came to be that as in the past, relatively few people still practice the Miao Dao as originally intended. In our lineage, the length of the Miao Dao changes according to the person’s height, and the weight according to personal preference and ability. The handle should be the length that is measured between the end of one’s elbow and the end of one’s one’s outstretched pinky finger, on the same arm.

In the picture:  Guo Changsheng’s son, Guo Ruixiang (born 1932), himself a famous master. Note the closeness of the blade to the thigh as it passes in a circular fashion near it – a trademark of Miao Dao movements.       
The Guo family still manufactures and sells their own Miao Dao:

4. There might exist in Korea a fourth school, or several schools, of miao dao. A sword the size of the miao dao with an odachi-like design, called ‘Ssang Su Do’ (Double-Handed Saber), is featured in a few Korean traditions. It has been suggested that when the Chinese Ming Dynasty troops lent their assistance to Korea against the Japanese invasion, General Qi Jiguang's sword methods were taught to the Koreans. These were later adapted and included in the comprehensive Korean martial arts manual, ‘Muye Dobo Tongji’, under the Ssang Su Do chapter.

Physical appearance and design

The sword which bears the greatest similarity to the Miao Dao in design is strangely the Japanese Katana. This must be an uncomfortable piece of truth for the Chinese and Japanese, a large percentage of whom had been seriously resenting each-other (for good reasons) over the last few centuries. General Qi Jiguang even had the miao dao of hi soldiers made like traditional high-quality Japanese katanas – with laminated construction, creating a hard steel edge and more flexible iron spine.          
Some claim that the Miao Dao is the sword that inspired the creation of the Japanese Katana. This sounds reasonable given the fact that Japan had borrowed significant portions of its culture, art, philosophies and even its entire writing system from China. However, Katanas are evidenced to have existed in Japan already countless generations ago – from at least the 14th century (The abovementioned Ming Dynasty in which the Miao Dao became commonplace, was only established in 1364). This puts into question the former claim of native Chinese influence, and it is possible that there had been cross-influences in the development of both swords. Nonetheless, it is still claimed by some that the Miao Dao influenced the creation of the Katanas before that time, perhaps even as early as the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD).
I have also encountered claims that Cheng Chongdou, author of the Miao Dao book Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn I mentioned earlier, was influenced by the Samurai school called Shin Kage Ryu (新陰流; ‘New Shadow School’), and that Qi Jiguang, author of the other Miao Dao book, Xīn Yǒu Dāo Fǎ, based his work upon a Japanese swordsmanship manual he acquired in battle. We cannot tell how much of this is true. In modern times, the body mechanics of traditional Koryu styles are extremely different to Chinese Miao Dao methods. Furthermore, the Katanas had always been shorter than the Miao Dao, and the substantial difference in both length and weight, as well as handle size, etc, makes for a very different wielding experience. Such things would be compared more thoroughly later in the article.            
Another important point to consider is that Shin Kage Ryu was founded in the middle of the 16th century (when Qi Jiguang was already middle-aged and Cheng Chongdou was a child). This means that for this styles to have influenced any of the two, it ought to have become very influential and widespread within less than 30-40 years – so wide spread as to reach the shores of a different continent, wherein it would be used by several people and influence two major military figures in a foreign army. While possible, this is unlikely. To add to this unlikelihood, Qi Jiguang’s book is said to have been written circa (1560) – around the time Shin Kage Ryu was founded, and at most not long afterwards. The comparisons drawn with Shin Kage Ryu seem to have been based on matching supposed similarities between written manuals, which is often a poor way to make such judgments, especially when the persons involved are self-taught on the art of sword wielding.  
I was told, in confidence by a martial arts historian whom I trust, that there is in existence a decent and authentic Japanese drawing of a very (!) notable Japanese samurai, a founder of a known system, wearing Chinese armor of his period. This would be a very clear proof that Samurai warfare was influenced by Chinese methods. Unfortunately, I was sworn to refrain from revealing, in public or private, who is the person in question and what was his style, because this information has been handed out in trust and secrecy. Other records of Chinese influence over Japanese swords arts also exist ( We know for instance that Ogasawara Genshinsai (1574–1644), the 4th inheritor of Shin Kage Ryu, lived for a period in Beijing, China, where he studied Chinese fist and weapons methods and also taught Japanese Bujutusu to the Chinese (this is documented, based on translations from ancient scrolls, in a book called ‘Legacies of the Sword: The Kashima-Shinryū and Samurai Martial Culture’).

In terms of metalworking, it is important to remember that Japan, unlike China, had always been scarce in natural resources, and especially high quality steel. This had forced Japanese swordsmiths to become more innovative in their art, and also significantly prolonged the time it took them to produce blades. These facts made the Katana a very prized weapon – the weapon of professional warriors (Samurai) and the aristocracy. Blades like the Miao Dao, on the other hand, could have been more readily made in China, and their commonality made them less valuable – financially, culturally, artistically and otherwise.           
The entire cultural perception of these weapons varies significantly. This would soon be illustrated when comparing their innate structural attributes and physical form, but can already be witnessed by a keen eye in the pictures presented so far in the article. For instance - above in the first image in this article, we see a soldier throwing the sword in the air and catching it (a technique still found in the Wansheng tradition). This type of action is unheard of in Japanese Koryu arts as they are practiced today. Not to mention the fact that Miao Dao forms utilize classic stances from Chinese gong fu – Ma Bu, Gong Bu, Hou Bu, etc – which are not identical to those used in Japanese arts. With regard to the significance of the sword to its owner – the Japanese Samurai often considered the words to be ‘his soul’, and would bow to it before practice. That type of near-religious practice is not something a Chinese warrior would do. At least, it is not something the Chinese have kept in practice into modern times.

In the pictures:  Above - an image from Cheng Chongdou’s book, Dān Dāo Fǎ Xuǎn. Below – two 20th century practitioners of Ninjutsu, of the Bujinkan school, help each other draw their Nodachi.

Historical documents teach us that Miao Dao were always fairly long – so long at times, that some varieties could not have been unsheathed single-handedly with ease when the scabbard is attached to the body, and to speed the process bearers would be aided in this action by their partner before or during combat. We see this in the picture above (though ironically, the swords featured in the image are in fact easily sheathable by a single person). At a greater length this would make sense, as the swords would be too long to be carried at the waist, and would have to be positioned on one’s back. At that position, having a friend to do the drawing for your saves a lot of time. This was also common practice with Japanese Odachi. Another solution for quick drawing had been to grab the handle and throw the sword directly upwards into the air, catching it as soon as it fully exists the scabbard and lowers to the ground. This method is recorded in the practice of the Wansheng tradition.      
Though Miao Dao lengths can vary greatly, one constant has been that they are always notably longer than most Japanese Katanas, and therefore not suitable for quick drawing and with a tendency for clumsiness at indoor fighting. Unlike the Chinese straight sword (Jian), these swords were not originally intended for dueling – they were first and foremost instruments war. This is important to remember for another reason. The Miao Dao’s greatest enemies on the battlefield were not other Miao Dao, but spears and staffs (AKA cut-off spears), because they had a significantly longer reach. The Miao Dao has the edge to cut through these weapons (and even harder objects), but that requires timing, skill and very specific angles. I shall go more into these things as the article progresses.

The length of the Miao Dao used in my lineage varies proportionally to the height and measurements of the practitioner. The handle should be anywhere between the length of one’s forearm and fist put together, and the distance between one’s elbow and the edge of the pinky finger. That is pretty long compared with a Katana’s handle, and has several purposes. First and most important, to make it easier to switch hand positions. Second, so a wider grip could be used – making for a more effective lever, and allowing for arms and shoulders to open more in movement (this is important for utilizing the structural mechanics of wielding a Miao Dao in the Pigua style). Interestingly, because the length of the handle reflects that of a person’s forearm and palm, and the grip slides along and changes all the time, training with the Miao Dao also coincidentally aids in learning to work with an opponent’s arm when empty-handed, teaching a certain type of sensitivity in this regard.              
The height of the blade reflects utility of action. A characteristic Miao Dao technique which we use involves an upwards slashing with the sword, following the drawing of a large circle. To increase effectiveness and partially hide the sword from the opponent’s field of vision, the sword’s circle is drawn as close to one’s body as possible, passing very near to one’s legs (the unskilled can actually cut themselves). Given that the blade is in this sort of action almost perpendicular to the ground in the moment before the upward slashing maneuver, it ought to be short enough to avoid hitting the ground, yet long enough to maximize potential reach. For a person of modest height such as myself, at 170cm (5’7) tall this makes the length of Miao Dao most appropriate for me about 135cm (4’4). Another member of your gongfu family, Etai, is about 196cm (6’4) tall, and his Miao Dao is proportionally longer.  Still, at the more common length of about 135cm (4’4), the Miao Dao is fairly close to the upper-end of longer Medieval Broadswords (~130cm) and is comparable with the length of traditional Claymores (120-140cm), while being smaller than most Greatswords (130-180cm). Interestingly, the miao dao and these European swords I just mentioned rose to prominence at about the same time frame in history, during the 15th century. Note that unlike their mistakenly stereotyped image, the ‘Chinese’ are not necessarily a short people at all (and respectively, their swords are not necessarily small!). Up north in Tianjin city where my teacher resides, many males exceed the height of 182cm (6’), and northwards to Tianjin people can be even bigger.                
The length of the Miao Dao, though suggested as limiting at times in close quarters within walls, has of course the advantage of reach, and the latter is not limited to offense. With a shorter sword, when another weapon is aimed at one’s lower extremities, one is often forced to crouched in order to parry, or jump to avoid being hit or cut (as common in Katori Shinto Ryu). The Miao Dao is long enough to defend these parts without resorting to such methods, and the body can be used for other purposes instead (though forward leaping, as opposed to jumping in place, does exist in the practice of this sword).  

In the picture:  A samurai with an Odachi. Note the bronze (perhaps gold) decorations on his scabbard – these resemble Chinese designs more than Japanese art of that sort.

Interestingly, the length of the Japanese Odachi (大太刀; Greatsword; also ‘O Katana’) tends to be the same as that of Miao Dao (sometimes much longer), though the former has never been nearly as popular as the Katana. In the Heihan period (9th-12th century Japan), the Odachi were rather common, similar in length to the Miao Dao, and was likewise carried on one’s back (rather than at the waist like Katana), and often unsheafed by two people. The handle though always maintained reminiscence to the Katana, with a tight grip. Despite the similarities in older samples, in many examples today we see that the Odachi’s blade is shorter and often more curved, and its handle longer, than those of the Miao Dao, which would call for significant changes in the way these two weapons are wielded. Both weapons were nonetheless used by cavalry. I speculate that the change in the Odachi’s design, as compared with the Miao Dao, may have been in order to save precious steel, and ease the forging process (which is challenging for extremely long swords using traditional Japanese methods). By lengthening the handle and shortening the blade, the swords still maintained its superior reach while on horseback. Also, a cavalryman has to change the reach of his weapon, but is often limited since when the horse is stationary, he cannot advance or retreat much. A longer handle, such as that of the Odachi, is useful for adjusting one’s fighting range in these conditions. The infantryman would benefit more from the Miao Dao’s design, which gives more blade at the expense of an extended hilt.

Odachi practice is very rare, but still survives among some Koryu schools in Japan. The Kôden Enshin ryu Ken-Pô school, for instance, still has people practicing with this weapon. Their Odachi is much larger than a standard Miao Dao, and its wielding appears vastly different. The length itself justify the different usage, more so than the weight, since it prevents the wielder from passing the blade close to the floor. While Miao Dao could potentially be used indoors at times, despite their clumsiness in such an environment, the Enshin ryu shinken are simply too long.               
Another koryu school, Shin Muso Hayashizaki ryu, interestingly preserved a tradition of Battou-jutsu (Iai-jutsu) using Odachi of similar size to modern miao dao. This tradition is quite different to Chinese miao dao usage and features very intricate close-range fighting tactics with this long weapon. Some Shin Kage ryu practitioners also still preserve odachi fighting methods (reminding that this is the school that is claimed by some to have been related to mutual Sino-Japanese longsword evolution). An additional school that kept similar traditions is Kage ryu (unrelated to the predecessor of Shin Kage ryu).    
All that being said, there are Odachi which feature almost identical design to the Miao Dao. By the beginning to middle 17th century though, the Japanese governments forbade the production of blades above a certain length. From that century onwards the Odachi almost became extinct, and endured mostly as a religious artifact in various shrines as a symbolic prayer to gods for gods of war. Most of the original blades were either lost in time, purposely destroyed, or cut to length to fit the new laws.

In the pictures:  Top – Japanese Odachi (from – a wonderful weapons shop). Bottom – Miao Dao.

In the picture:  A classic old Chang Dao (‘longsword’). Examine the most notable differences:  Existence of a large round pommel-ring. Different guard design. Handle cylindrical rather than elliptical. Blade becomes thicker towards the end. The top (unsharpened) part of the blade is thinner than in the Miao Dao.

For the Miao Dao, a greater length also equals a greater weight, and the historical weight of the battlefield miao dao had been 2.5kg (without the scabbard; as recorded in the tradition of the Wansheng Security Company). Modern miao dao tend to weigh around 1-1.5kg, which is more manageable for training. Personally, I own a regular miao dao of a 2.5kg weight, and a strength-training special custom-made piece which weighs 9kg.   
It would be a mistake to simply compare the weight of two swords as it appears plainly on scales, though. It tells one nothing of their balance and handling. Most battlefield weapons, even the huge Chinese great spears, do not feel too ‘heavy’ when held in place or in one’s hands for a few moments. The weight of a weapon becomes significant only after one has trained with it for a while in a given session, and especially following its swinging with the true intent of causing harm.   
A weight difference of mere 500 grams (17oz) can make for a huge difference when having to swing a weapon for a while with full force (because of the lever and momentum). This any Western Boxer knows well, as even heavy training gloves rarely weigh more than 470 grams (16oz). Katanas do not tend to exceed 900 grams (2.1lbs, 34Oz), while the Miao Dao can easily top 1400 grams (3.1lbs, 49Oz). There is therefore usually more than a 500 gram (17Oz) difference in weight between the two (comparison is for swords without the scabbard). The Japanese Odachi though can weigh as much as a Miao Dao and more.          
What the Miao Dao earns in powerful momentum with its weight, it loses in agility to the swift katana. It takes much greater skill and strength to wield the Miao Dao as quickly and accurately as its Japanese counterpart. Knowing this, the Miao Dao is understandably less evasive and more confrontational, as due to its length and weight, it is more challenging for its wielder to bounce the blade around the opponent’s attacks. The latter option exists, but is favoured to a lesser degree.
Unlike its length, the general shape of Miao Dao tends to remain constant. The curve is slight, similar to classical katanas. One does not see overly-curved Miao Dao. Some Chang Dao variations exist which are completely straight. It would have been interesting to see a more curved Miao Dao, as such a novelty may come to combine the strategies of both this weapon and the Chinese Dao.

One interesting design choice for the Miao Dao is the handle material, which is most commonly mildly-smooth wood. This differs greatly from the traditional emphasis in the design of katana handles, which stress a firm grip, with anti-sliding folds & crevices and usage of materials like leather, woven rope and dried stingray skin.         
Here too we are hinted to the differing functionality of these swords. The Katana, which at its later development was mostly thought of as a dueling weapon, is meant to end a fight with one or two blows, requiring a firm grip for a single decisive action. The Miao Dao, a battlefield weapon, assumes that if you remain alive, you would be fighting for quite some time, and would be changing your grip a lot throughout. It is also possible that in China, given that the greater part of the country does not border the ocean (more common in Japan), something like a stingray was not in the thoughts of many sword designers. But in any case, this is more of a functional choice.      

Apart from the length of combat, the Chinese two-handed weapons in general tend to normally show more favour than their Japanese counterparts for a sliding of hands across the gripping surface (a preference also maintained with staffs and spears of all sizes). Our Miao Dao in particular, which is heavily influenced by staff techniques (and vice-versa), is fond of this mechanism. Too rugged a grip is therefore considered a limiting factor, and wood is a more forgiving material in this respect. Anyone who shall get a hold of a traditional, well-made Katana will feel that it is almost impossible to slide the grip like one could do with a staff, which is exactly what the makers of this sword intended. Perhaps, the grip may solve the riddle as to whether there had truly been a Japanese influence on Chinese methods. Wherein ancient Miao Dao techniques and body methods similar to what is being used today, it would have been impossible for it to have a grip like that of the Katana. The opposite is also true – if the grip was identical to that of modern Katanas, then the ancient Miao Dao could not have been used in the same fashion as it is utilized in modern times.

In the picture:  Classic Katana hilt designs. All three show a favouring of a firm grip over maneuverability of the palm across the hilt. Notice the beautiful carvings intertwined with the rope. These are never found on traditional Miao Dao, even though the Chinese are no strangers to the art of miniature carving, and such wondrous items are still extremely popular in Chinese markets today.

The blunt upper section of the blade (‘Mune’ in Japanese) is often thicker than in Katanas, and sometimes rounded. This is no arbitrary choice. This part of the sword is commonly used to strike down an enemy, parry his weapon or even break it. When using the Miao Dao in this fashion, it can resemble a medium staff in its mechanics. Unlike with European swords, a pommel at the butt of the handle is uncommon nowadays (attribute shared with Katanas), but may have been more common in the past. Metal rings are sometimes present instead, but are actually detrimental to the appropriate execution of some techniques as they make the gripping of the tip of the hilt more cumbersome.

Generally speaking, the Chinese seem to have not considered their Miao Dao as fine works of art. Most of them are plain and boring in appearance – nothing like the colorful and alluring Japanese Katanas. The Hada (grain of the blade) is most often absent. The Tsuba (hand guard) is dull and uniform, and has no holes in it or carvings on it. At most it may match in colour the butt of the sheath and that of the handle. The sheath itself is tied with a simple rope and bears little decoration, if any. Here is not an artistic sculpting in wood and steel or the carbonized soul of the warrior. Here is found a metal instrument for the sole purpose of killing.

From the standpoint of medieval European swordsmanship, the Chinese and Japanese hand guards may seem too small or even poorly designed. But it is their size and circular shape which allows them to support well the top section of the upper gripping palm, and serve as pivoting point to lean against when maneuvering the blade. A cross-shaped guard like that of a Claymore, Greatsword or Broadsword may be more efficient in stopping an incoming blade, but offers less of a pivoting lean, and can possibly interfere with some Miao Dao techniques that require tight angular shifting of the hands and blade. It is therefore a matter of give and take – some functionality is always lost for another useful trait.   


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Methods of training

The Miao Dao is primarily practiced either with solo movements and combinations or with a long form. Usually, one would learn the solo drills first, then the form, and after a period of training the form diligently will also carefully practice applications with fellow students. Sparring is exceedingly dangerous to attempt, even with wooden swords. A weapon whose original purpose was to cut through horses with heavy and powerful strikes is not akin in its movements to a Kendo Shinai, which seeks to score points and is constantly probing around like a housefly looking for sugar. I am not familiar with fixed partner drills with the Miao Dao, although with wooden version is it easy to adapt the common staff and spear ‘push-hands-like’ drills to be used with this weapon.

Like other Pigua movement forms (Tau Lu), the Miao Dao form is geared towards the 1 and a half minute mark, when practiced at full speed; emphasizing solid anaerobic endurance and a very rapid pace. The form as demonstrated by master Zhou earlier in the article lasted some 65 seconds, rather than 90, since he purposely omitted a few movements along the way, and had performed it faster than most people can.                 
The length of this form is characteristic of Chinese martial arts, but not so of Japanese (including Samurai) arts. Its intensity reflects the needs and calling of warfare, while the shorter kata practiced in Japanese Koryu styles mirror the reality of life and death duels with swords, engaged by professionals, in which the victor is usually decided more quickly. These are of course generalizations, and there are many exceptions. However, we still see that the originators and inheritors of the arts had differing fighting concepts in mind.
Though traditionally the way to practice the Miao Dao form is at either ‘walking speed’ or as one would fight in combat (90~ seconds per repetition), I personally believe that the practitioner can greatly benefit from very slow and intentional practice. Because of my background in Xing Yi Quan, I take care to practice almost everything I know at a rate which would put the common turtle to sleep. A long form such as that used with the Miao Dao can easily be stretched to over 4 minutes. Experience has taught me that this is the best method for gaining a deeper understanding and true control of whichever movement in the martial arts one chooses to practice.

The Japanese schools have traditionally been keen on cutting practices for the testing of blades. Once, the Samurai would volunteer to cut the heads and limbs of criminals (dead or alive), or simply find a good opportunity to kill someone. Later, it became more common (to this day) that Japanese schools would test their blades against rolled-up tatami mats or bamboo – both said to mimic well the feeling and difficulty of cutting through human flesh and bone. The cutting in itself is a science in the Japanese schools, which is taught to perfection, and concerns many minute details of execution and post-cutting examination. I am not aware of similarly organized ‘testing protocols’ in the Chinese arts (or with the Miao Dao for that matter), though the Chinese would also occasionally test blades by cutting through bamboo like the Japanese (tatami mats are uncommon in China). I was informed, however, that shifu Scott M. Rodell have written a book on the subject, titled ‘A Practical Guide to Test Cutting for Historical Swordsmanship’, and perhaps he has researched the matter more thoroughly.

Characteristics of practice and application
Generally speaking, the Miao Dao is a distinctly Chinese weapon. The stances used in training and fighting are classical stances from traditional Chinese martial arts, with no exceptions. The basic frontal-cutting stance is neither Gong Bu (Bow Stance) or Ma Bu (Horse Stance), but a stance in which the most of the weight is on the rear leg. Several variations could be used. I favour Xing Yi’s San Ti stance (70% of weigh on rear leg, rear foot at 30-45 degrees, front foot pointing straight ahead). Other use Baji Quan’s 60-40 stance, with both feet on the same line and pointing at 45 degrees. When charging at full speed, the stance is often shifted into Hou Bu (Monkey Stance), with most of the weight on the front leg, and about 10% of it on the rear foot, which is either at the back or should-width apart from the other.        
Why are these stances important? Because when charging with the Miao Dao, the front foot would move first, the legs would cross very close to each other, and the stepping would be springy and agile. To allow for this mechanism, which is identical to ‘Chicken Stepping’ in Xing Yi Quan (not to confuse with the same name in XinYi LiuHe Quan), the rear leg should be ‘charged’ with weight, and the front leg ‘empty’ enough to advance comfortably from a stationary position. Then when no longer stationary, it Is easier throwing the weight from leg to leg, using Hou Bu. In other words – charging instantly with the Miao Dao is difficult to do when one has a 50-50 weight distribution between the legs (Ma Bu) or when most of the weight is on the front leg and one is using a long frontal stance (Gong Bu). The same advantage is used for withdrawal of one’s leading foot and evasion when another weapon has targeted one’s front leg.       
Nonetheless, from said positions, it is also common to lean the weight forward momentarily in order to increase one’s reach with the sword and be able to stab or cut a retreating or evading opponent. This would be seen later down the article in the description of the movement ‘Dian’.         
Ma Bu is also used, but primarily when the blade is transitioning and slashing from side to side with very specific techniques. I have seen practitioners on internet videos standing in ‘ma bu’ with their toes pointing sideways. That is a Karate ‘Sumo Stance’, or ‘Shiko Dachi’. A correct Ma Bu has both feet parallel. In the case of the Miao Dao, the width of this stance reflects more the needs of the moment – it is less important, in the context of the form itself, how low the stance is (though a lower Ma Bu in training is always favourable in terms of developing good skills).

In the picture:  My teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan, in a ‘ready’ stance. He is slightly leaning forward as this is a part of a demonstration for a particular technique which immediately followed.

I once read an article in which a person stated, when comparing Japanese Katana and Western Rapier fencing: “A long lunge (with a rapier) can strike a lethal hit from well outside the effective distance of a man with a long cutting sword”. This is not the case with the Miao Dao, which not only contains in its arsenal the affective combination of the Gong Bu stance and thrusting, also has the advantage of a very long handle to aid these mechanics and drive the blade well into its target. Then again, without solid prior foundations in empty-handed stance work, it would be difficult to hold a low and stable ‘lunge’ position with a weapon as heavy as this.

The Miao Dao’s blade is more flexible than it seems. It takes well to vibration, and those skilled in issuing power from a short range (cun fa jin) can use this skill to an extent with the Miao Dao. This is useful when the Miao Dao clashes and is pressed against another weapon for more than a second. Then after gaining an advantage through sensitivity, a sudden issuing of explosive power, to which is added a small circular movement, would send the opponent’s weapon flying far enough to allow an opening for stabbing, cutting or slashing. The blade can also effectively parry sideways with explosive power issued into it, and those trained with the Chinese large spear would feel at home with such a technique.

The Miao Dao in my lineage has a very close relationship with the eyebrow-level staff (Qi Mei Gun). As the name suggests, the staff is matched to the height of the practitioner’s eyebrows. In Pigua it is better known by the name of its form – Feng Mo Gun – ‘Crazy Demon Staff’. The Miao Dao is nearly as long as this staff, and the height of both is limited just to the extent of preventing them from touching the ground while rotating them next to one’s body, whilst still keeping an effective range.               
The two weapons share so many similarities, that after 2 years of practicing Feng Mo Gun well (and quite a few years of practicing Xing Yi spear prior), I was able to learn and practice ‘decently’ the Miao basics and form within a single week. The mechanics are that similar.         
Both staff and sword carry the ‘whipping’ flavor of Pigua into their movements. These objects may be solid, but the body which wields them is pliable and agile. It is interestingly easier to ‘whip’ with a weapon than with only one’s body, as the added weight at the edge pulls on one’s limbs, forcing the body to be thrown. Therefore, Pigua features a rare scenario in which, at least in my opinion, its weapons practice is easier and less physically demanding than its empty-handed practice. With the latter, one does not have a weight to counter the whip, so all of one’s core muscles have to work extra-hard to control the abundant momentum.         
These common whipping mechanics also mean that the Miao Dao works through the Pigua principle of “a pearl in a jar”. It is said that the power manifestation in Pigua should be like the continuous flowing motion of a pearl spinning in a jar. This is a very interesting concept, which sets Pigua apart from other arts. In Taiji Quan, it can be said that one uses listening power (Ting Jin) in order to sense a weakness in the opponent's structure. In Xing Yi Quan, the practitioner can use subtle circles, vibrations and explosive powers in order to shock the opponent and penetrate his defenses. In Aikido, one attempts to unite with the momentum of his opponent, blend with it, and then lead it. Pigua is much more violent. It is like a tornado. It generates an immense momentum, passes through the opponent, and sweeps everything it touches with big swinging, coiling attacks. The momentum keeps rolling, and this is a theme in all Pigua movements and forms, including the Miao Dao’s. With the sword in hand, the practitioner would use the added weight as a guide for his body, and follow the momentum of the sword into the next movement.       

In the pictures:  Master Ma Juxiang (马俊祥), student of Guo Ruixiang (son of Guo Changsheng), demonstrating the flowing momentum of Pigua in the Miao Dao form.

Sometimes, the Miao Dao would be extended further to slash or stab with just one arm holding it. This helps speed one’s momentum and gain some distance, and reveals an interesting aspect of Miao Dao gongfu – that it can in fact be wielded single-handedly with many of its techniques. The two-handed grip simply provides more power and stability when the sword makes contact.   

In both Feng Mo Gun and Miao Dao, the hands are ‘alive’ – switching positions and places quite a lot and often. The rear of one’s palm is also used for stabilizing the handle, as well as rotating it. Because the Feng Mo Gun is a single piece of wood, the hands commonly slide along much of its length. While using the Miao Dao, the hands usually move along a much smaller cross section. The rotation of the handle often feels like rotating a volleyball in one’s hands. The handle itself is a straight line, but it is constantly drawing circle, as if it had been a bridge between two opposing sides within a ball. These medium-sized rotations lend themselves well to people who have practiced Internal martial arts, who may find this sword’s mechanics easier to comprehend than others.

In Japnese Koryu styles, it is more common than with the Miao Dao to step off the line of attack. This works well for the Miao Dao two when fighting against a slower weapon, such a big spear. Against smaller weapons though, while the Miao Dao can be evasive like the, it prefers a head-on collision with small circles used to divert, rather than going around the blade of the other person. This preference, which involves sticking to the opponent’s weapon, is more characteristic of Chinese martial arts, and shows Pigua’s inclination to ‘roll’ one’s momentum unto another like an overbearing wave. It is enabled by the weapon’s heavier weight and greater length, and also due to its use of sophisticated body mechanics (‘shen fa’) and the Dan Tian. Sticking to the opponent’s weapon, especially the spear, with one’s Miao Dao, is meant to reach the body while keeping the opponent ‘in check’, and preferably cutting his fingers on the way. This is demonstrated nicely in the following three images, featuring my teacher, master Zhou Jingxuan:

Along with sticking, other characteristic techniques are sideways slashing - usually diagonal and not horizontal, and upward or downward cutting, with the weapon passing very close to one’s body and centerline. When coming up from below, this assures the opponent would have a more difficult time assessing the incoming sword’s distance and length, as it seems to be a part of your own body. Whichever technique one may use, the sword does not ‘stop’ at the target or slightly past it, buy continues with its momentum for what may be otherwise considered ‘an overkill’. This requires that the practitioner be able to recycle large-scale momentum shifts – something which Pigua’s empty-handed practice develops.   

Wing Chun’s notion of “the fastest way between two points is a straight line” does not apply to the Miao Dao (and neither to Pigua Zhang for that matter). This weapon excels at cutting and slashing more so than stabbing, and requires angular momentum. All of its techniques involve circles (stabbing included), which are more commonly large, and the weapon is always in a process of drawing a curve of one kind or another.

In the video:  Master Zhou is showing how Pigua ‘Gua’, or ‘Hanging power’, can be used with the Miao Dao to entangle an incoming weapon’s momentum with one’s own.

Fighting methods

It is impossible and uncalled for to specify here all of the actual methods, so I would only be writing of a few of them in order that readers could gain some perspective.

One very common technique is Dian (点). It means ‘to Dot’ – like the action of using a brush to abruptly and gracefully place a dot on a canvas while reaching from afar. It has the feeling of trying to shoot a basketball into a very far hoop, with one’s entire body and intention extending from within towards the target, sending the power through the back. The hands send a wave which travels through the spine in a very noticeable manner (unlike its more refined variation in arts like Southern Mantis, Xing Yi and Bagua). The wave snaps at the tip of the blade like a whip, with the final ‘snap’ provided for by the rear palm, which grabs the end of the handle.     
Below is shown one variation of Dian, with Zhou shifu leaning his weight unto the front leg. Another variation would be to go into an empty stance (most of the weight on the rear leg) while leaning over and above. The latter variation is very reminiscent of empty-handed movements in Pigua and Tongbei.

Another trademark Miao Dao technique is ‘Pi Dao’ (劈刀), or ‘Axing Dao’. It can at times be performed very similarly to how one would execute the same movement with a spear, though the range of motion with the Miao Dao tends to be larger. The technique calls for a forward-downward cutting, like Xing Yi’s Pi Quan. Before the chopping, one may use an upward-backward motion for deflecting and lifting up and away the opponent’s weapon (Tiao  ), which is followed by the forward-downward cutting.               
There are generally at least 4 possible ways to use this. The chopping motion can be with either the blunt or sharp side of the blade. The deflection can be without flipping the blade (which sticks to the opponent’s weapon and keeps it close), or with a fast twisting of the Miao Dao, which tends to bounce the opponent’s weapon away. It is interesting to note in this respect that the Miao Dao can be used to smack someone without killing him.

Characteristically, the miao dao wielder is more offensive than defensive. It is a weapon for the brave. In the past, only the most courageous soldiers would be chosen to charge with it at cavalry, because such a task is so intimidating. The miao dao forms and methods therefore engage the practitioner in a constant charge against imaginary opponents. This is depicted well in the video below, in which master Zhou demonstrates a flowing, constant offensive:

In one online video demonstration I saw a Miao Dao wielder holding the sword with one hand, using the other hand to parry and stick to the opponent’s thrusting spear, and then stabbing with the Miao Dao. Needless to say, that person recreated his knowledge of Miao Dao wielding from books. It makes no sense to try and manipulate a spear with a hand, when you are already holding a weapon which is supposed to be sharp enough to cut through most spears, and is at the least heavy enough to slam it away, or stick to it effectively. An attempt to manipulate a spear with one hand, while the opponent is grasping it with two hands, can easily lead to the opponents sliding the spear into one’s body, or across one’s arm or palm, stabbing or cutting them in the process. The same people who had produced that video where also demonstrating techniques in which one evades the spear with the body, and then advances to strike with the Miao Dao. That in turn is a misunderstanding of Spear mechanics. The spear can be drawn back just as quickly as it was thrust forwards, and one has to keep the Miao Dao ‘checking’ the spear by being nearby to it or sticking (unless one is already very close to the opponent.

The Miao Dao is a sophisticated weapon in terms of the body mechanics and stepping methods utilized with it. Yet it is surprisingly straight forward and simple in its actual application, if its wielder has the skills for using it. Its brutality and decisive nature in action make the finesse and lightness of the Chinese straight sword blush in their relative femininity; its strength and expansive cuts put fear in the hearts of those who stand before it – even when these are merely students of a friendly teacher in a cooperative setting. It provides a very interesting counter-balance to the school of thought in European swordsmanship, and embodies in it much of the cultural and physical traits of Chinese martial arts. Its practice is a blessing, for it hones the senses, improves one’s perception of combat, aids in developing a truly whipping body and limbs, and is overall a delight and much fun to play with. May the chance come upon you, do not miss training with this exceptional instrument of warfare past, which had made a great impact on China’s martial history. 

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