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 ~

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Flying Phoenix Sword

Below is an excerpt from an article from Kung Fu Tea. There have been some sword smiths making excellent replicas of Han dynasty jian swords. There has also been a movement to recreate the fencing of that era. 

KFT takes a look at a specific sword and interviews the sword smith. The full post may be read here.

Over the last year many Chinese martial arts students in the West have become aware of the replica Han dynasty weapons currently being produced by LK Chen in Guangdong.  These high-quality pieces are all the more attractive given their relatively modest price.
I first became aware of LK Chen’s work after seeing early reviews of some of his products on popular YouTube channels including the ones run by Swordsage and Skallagrim. After that I stumbled across LK Chen’s webpage and started to watch his own videos.  Some of these discussed the research and construction techniques used in the creation of his Han jian and dao.  Other videos focused instead on the use of these weapons in either practical cutting or solo-training.
It was really these later videos that caught my attention.  There is no doubt that these swords can cut. Yet many of the weapons used during the Han dynasty are unlike their more familiar relations from the Ming and Qing.  An examination of jian and dao from museum collections suggests that many of these blades were very long and narrow by the standards of modern Chinese weapons, with proportionally short grips.  Repolished or well-preserved specimens might at first appear to have more in common with a rapier than a relatively short modern jian.
Archeological finds and existing artwork suggest that swords were encountered in a wide variety of contexts during the Han dynasty.  Individuals (at least the sort likely to be memorialized on tomb walls) are often shown wearing swords as part of their daily routine.  Soldier in combat, on the other hand, might carry a dao or a jian in one hand and a large shield in the other.
While the archeological record has left us a rich trove of surviving swords and art, no complete martial arts texts survive from this period. While contemporary library catalogs suggest that a number of texts on fencing were produced, and at least some found their way into imperial collections, we are left to wonder how these elegant weapons were actually used.

Given my prior research on the invention and recreation of martial systems, I became fascinated with efforts to revive the Han jian.  Not only were the swords being produced by LK Chen beautiful, but there seemed to be a small group of a martial artists who were using them in an attempt to recreate an ancient fencing system.  I wanted to know more about this project.  After some initial emails I was able to make contact with LK Chen who graciously agreed to do an interview for the readers of Kung Fu Tea.
And then I made another discovery. He had just shipped a sword to Ithaca NY!  After some enquires the customer who bought the piece agreed to let me to take a look at it.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it had been purchased by a friend of mine at Cornell who also has a long-standing interest in the Chinese martial arts. He was happy to loan me the sword for a week so that I could take it for a “proper test-drive.”
While I was reluctant to do any practical cutting with a borrowed sword, LK Chen’s Flying Phoenix did become a part of my daily practice of both basic techniques and taolu.  While certainly heavier and more solid than the sorts of “wushu weapons” that one often encounters, individuals who are used to practicing with solidly built late imperial and modern swords will probably be impressed by how light and lively this blade feels in the hand.
One would not think that a sword measuring close to 42 inches (106 cm) in length would weigh in at a svelte 810 grams. Given its diamond shaped profile this feat has been accomplished through a combination of distal taper, minimalist fittings, and a blade that comes to a surprisingly narrow tip. 

All of these features also appear on historic blades from the Han period.  Indeed, those pieces are often longer and more elegant than cheap modern reproductions (which often seem to be taking their design cues from earlier bronze swords) might lead one to suspect.
The Flying Phoenix feels shorter than it actually is due to its perfectly placed point of balance.  I was actually a bit surprised how well it adapted to my morning form work, and even phrases with more complex moulinets or plum blossoms weren’t that much of a challenge.  Mind you, the sword did not “feel” like most modern jian (at least the ones I have used), but it seemed to be able to handle a full range of techniques.  The blade itself is beautifully constructed and the metal has a lovely grain structure with no forging issues that I could see.  It is both very sharp and fairly flexible, though I didn’t do any “torture testing” as this was a borrowed blade.
The hilt of the Flying Phoenix is one of its most interesting features.  My hands are on the larger side and I found its cord wrapped oval profile quite comfortable.  Coming in at about eight inches, it is long enough that one might be tempted to call it a two-handed sword.  To test this hypothesis, I tried out some Ming-era double handed swords and sabers material. I found the hilt to be a little short for these sorts of applications.  But as I previously noted, I have large hands so your results may vary.  

On cold winter days when I practiced with gloves the hilt itself was comfortable enough.  But when I practiced double handed sets without gloves I found that the slightly sharp edges on the cast bronze guard would bite into the webbing of my top hand.
My grip on the hilt was certainly more natural with one hand and the guard ceased to be an issue.  Indeed, one hand is all that is necessary to wield this particular blade, though it really excels in situations when a second hand is occasionally called for (certain Wudang sword sets come to mind).  

Rather than being based on a specific historic example (as some of LK Chen’s swords are), the Flying Phoenix is very much his own attempt at constructing the “perfect” Han jian.  The blade, weight and hilt length all fall within the standard distribution curves of known examples, but Chen was seeking to create a blade that was capable to facilitating a variety of modern training practices while also expressing the essence of its ancient forebearers.
All in all, I have really enjoyed my time with the Flying Phoenix and I am not looking forward to giving it back!  While I have not had a chance to examine LK Chen’s complete range of swords, I suspect that those looking for a more “conventional” jian might want to checkout the Magnificent Chu.  And if I were to ever order a dedicated two handed jian I would probably go with the Roaring Dragon.  Still, after spending a week with this sword it is not hard to understand why LK Chen has chosen it as his personal favorite.
This brings us back our interview.  I have lightly edited the questions and responses for both length and clarity.  Much of the following conversation focuses on what inspired LK Chen’s interest in Han dynasty swords and how he has attempted to recreate them. There are many ways to read a text like this.  As a social scientist I think it offers us a peak into the values and desires that are driving some exciting new trends within the development of China’s weapon-based fighting practices.

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