The Sword Form: Flying through Myth and Legend
Each of the Yang Family forms embodies the core principles of Taijiquan, yet each has a different flavor. In practicing the Sword Form, or Taijijian, we are told to show light and flowing movement.
The need for such lightness can be seen in the distinct nature of the names of the postures. Of the 67 named postures, more than 40 of them refer to flying creatures, wind, or sky. While the hand form calls for measured steps and sharp distinctions between empty and full, the Sword Form invites us to fly and flow more with our outward movements. Judging by the names of the sword form postures, we must wield our sword as if following the movements of wasps, swallows, geese, and falling leaves. At other times, we must “Embrace the Moon” or chase it like a shooting star or comet.
In order to enrich our practice, we must engage body, mind and spirit. Giving thought to the images the posture names can help guide our movements in the proper way. Many of the names are easy to understand, but others are not so familiar to those with limited familiarity with Chinese culture. The purpose of this article is to explore some of these images and their possible relevance to our practice.
Early in the Sword Form, we meet two star postures, Da Kui Xing and Xiao Kui Xing. For want of precise equivalents, these can be translated as the Big and Little Dipper. It turns out that “Kui Xing” can be seen as a reference to the four stars that form the bowl of the Big Dipper and particularly to the star at its tip. “Kui Xing” could also be understood literally to mean the “Chief Star.”
This “Chief Star” is associated with the God of Literature, who is often depicted as standing on one leg, waiving a brush over his head with one hand and holding an inkwell before his body with the other.
The reason he stands on one leg is unclear, but it could be because his persona has merged with that of a legendary one-legged mountain monster of old. This monster’s name is spelled with a different character, but has the same pronunciation, “kui.” In this meaning, the sounds of the name “Kui Xing” would evoke the sense of the “the Star of the One-Legged Monster.”
One tale about Kui Xing is as follows. One year, a scholar came in first during the civil service exams that were the road to fame, fortune, and respect for the elite in traditional China’s imperial society. Unfortunately, this scholar was so ugly that the emperor shied away and failed to accord him the customary honors. Humiliated, the scholar tried to drown himself in a river, but was saved by a sea beast that carried him up into the heavens. There, he became the god of the star at the tip of the big dipper and the patron god of literature and scholarship.
The next time you perform these postures, make sure to copy Kui Xing’s pose and show enough spirit to scare off an emperor.
One flying animal that is named again and again among the postures is the dragon, but the Chinese dragon is not quite like the dragons described in European tradition. Dragons in the west are often conceived of as evil dinosaurs with bat-like wings. They breathe fire as they fly around, devastating the countryside. The Chinese Dragon, however, is usually considered an auspicious being. Most types do not have wings, but often fly by virtue of their magic power. This power is sometimes represented by a pearl that the dragon clutches in its claws. Unlike the Dragons sometimes depicted in the west, Chinese dragons have snake-like bodies and use coiling motions familiar to anyone that has witnessed a dragon-dance performed for the Chinese New Year.
After the posture Casting the Fishing Rod or Waiting for the Fish (Deng Yu Shi), there is a posture that has two alternate names. One is Poking the Grass to Seek the Snake, and the other could be translated as Dragon Walk Posture. While the first name seems self explanatory, “dragon walk” might seem to present a puzzle. The answer becomes clear if we remember the zigzagging coiling motion of the dragon dance. Rather than advance head-on against our opponent and violate the principles of Taijiquan, we advance with a sinuous motion, alternately flowing right and left as we parry and thrust with the sword.
Later in the form, we meet some specific dragons of myth and legend. First there is the “Black Dragon [that] Sways its Tail.” Later on, a “Black Dragon Twists Around the Pole/Pillar.”
Chinese Dragons come in the five primary colors of Chinese tradition: black, white, green/blue, yellow, and red. One creation story relates that the water god Gong Gong lost a battle with the fire god Zhu Rong. In disgust at the defeat, Gong Gong smashed one of the mountain pillars that held up heaven, causing the sky to tilt amid devastating floods. Nü Gua (or Nü Wa), the legendary creator of humans, mended the sky by melting the colored stones of the rainbow. She propped it up with the legs of a giant turtle and slew a black dragon that was threatening the land of Qi.
Dragons were strongly associated with water, an important element in agricultural China.
They were also thought to cause rain with their play and battle through the skies. In the creation story, we see the black dragon as a coiling symbol of power, perhaps wrapping around the pillars that hold up heaven. In the two movements of the form that mention the black dragon, we need to show powerful coiling motions.
After Nü Gua mended the heavens, she set four creatures to guard the four directions. In the east, she put the Green Dragon (sometimes translated as the Blue, Azure, Cerulean Dragon) that we also meet in the postures Green Dragon Gets Out of the Water and Green Dragon Show its Claws. According to some, the Green Dragon King would sleep in the sea during the winter and then shoot up on a column of water into the eastern sky to mark the beginning of spring. As we perform Green Dragon Gets Out of the Water, we can visualize this annual emergence, as the sword blade leaps form low to high like a submarine-launched missile.
In the traditional Chinese belief system called Fengshui (Wind and Water), sometimes called Geomancy, there is a special concern for one’s relationship to the environment. Wind was seen as scattering Qi, and water was seen as concentrating it. Proper balance and appropriate positioning were seen as having great importance.
In the beliefs of Fengshui, the Green Dragon is seen as the guardian of the left and as a symbol of Yang energy and pointed heights. Again, one can see the connections as we thrust the sword from low to high and from right to left during the form.
Dragons were seen as the ancestors of the Chinese race and eventually as the particular symbol of the emperor and his majesty. To match this, the empress also acquired her own symbol, the legendary phoenix.
The Chinese phoenix was seen as one of the embodiments of Yin and Yang together. The Chinese name for it, “fenghuang” is sometimes understood as an amalgam of a male and a female bird: the “feng” and the “huang.” Together with the dragon, the phoenix can also be seen as a symbol of marital harmony and happiness, the perfect union of Yin and Yang. Along with four other mythical beings, its appearance was seen as an indication of peace and prosperity under wise rulers. Confucius was said to lament the decay in his times, when he bemoaned the fact that the phoenix was seen no more.
The phoenix of Greek legend seems to share different origins from the Chinese phoenix, but they do share certain attributes in common. Both were often connected with fire and the south. Only one Greek phoenix lived at any point in time. Although it lived forever, it had to renew itself from time to time by plunging into a nest of flame and emerging rejuvenated. The Chinese phoenix was also thought of as a solitary bird. With their dual nature, one phoenix never appeared with another.
The phoenix was seen as the chief of birds, perfect in its beauty and song. Its voice controlled the five tones, and its feathers displayed the five colors. In the sword form, the phoenix is mentioned in four postures: Phoenix Lifts its Head, Phoenix Open its Right Wing, Phoenix Open its Left Wing, and Phoenix Opens Both Wings. We thus have to show off all our wonderful “feathers,” sometimes lifting our “head” high, sometimes showing off one “wing,” and sometimes showing off both.
While the perfection of the phoenix may be hard to match in our practice, we can surely strive to emulate its variety and elegance.
One surprising addition to this pantheon of sky creatures is the White Tiger that Sways or Swishes its Tail. When Nü Gua propped up the heavens and set the Green Dragon to guard the East, she set the White Tiger to guard the West. In traditional Chinese astronomy, the White Tiger is the name given to the western sky and can be thought of as a mega-constellation. In contrast, the Green Dragon, discussed above, names the stars in the eastern sky. The White Tiger is associated with autumn and the element metal, whereas the Green Dragon is associated with spring and the element wood.
Since the White Tiger can refer to stars, we must make sure not to imitate the movements of a sleepy tiger swishing its tail on a lazy afternoon. Instead, when we swing the sword out to the right, turn our head, and thrust out the sword fingers of the left hand, we should remember that we are acting as guardians of the western heavens, helping ensure that Gong Gong cannot return and knock the sky off its pillars.
In Fengshui, the White Tiger is seen as the guardian of the right, matching the Green Dragon as the guardian of the left. The White Tiger represents Yin energy and complements the Yang energy of the Green Dragon. Again, we can see the connections in the form movement, where the sword performs a low circle to guard the right of the body.
There is one “flying” animal in the form that seems to have some clear historical basis. This is mentioned in the posture whose Chinese name can be interpreted as the Heavenly Steed (or Horse) that Flies Over the Waterfall. It is the posture that precedes Lifting the Curtain.
In the second century BCE, the nomadic Huns were a continual threat to the Han Dynasty of China. Several centuries later, the Huns under Attila were also able to ransack wide areas of the Roman Empire. As a wide-ranging, nomadic people, the Huns were skilled in mobile warfare on horseback. The Chinese, as a sedentary agricultural people, had trouble matching their skills. They lacked adequate breeds of horses to form good cavalry. After diplomatic and military forays into the west near the same mountain ranges where the monster Gong Gong was said to have knocked the heavens off their support, word was brought back of a breed of “Blood Sweating Horses” or “Heavenly Horses” that were faster and stronger than the horses available in China. With the aid of these horses, China was able to build up its defenses and survive the attacks of the Huns.
From the Han Dynasty cavalry, the image of the swift and powerful Heavenly Steeds moved into poetry, becoming a popular reference in Tang Dynasty poems.
In the sword form, the posture Heavenly Steed Flies over the Waterfall comes right after a movement that could be interpreted as the Meteor Chases the Moon. Thus, after we have the sword blade chop to the right to “chase the moon,” we then must split down to the left with the swiftness, power, and elegance of a “Heavenly Steed” flying down the face of a waterfall.
The Roc or Great Roc is mentioned in the 41st posture, Roc Extends its Wings. The term “roc” will be familiar to those who have read A Thousand and One Nights. In that tale and in Arab lore, the “roc” was a bird large enough to fly off with an elephant in its talons. It may be the origin of the chess piece that is called a “rook”
The Chinese Roc was even bigger than the roc of Arab legend. If ever we needed a reminder to keep our movements large and extended, the mythical size and movements of these rocs can serve us quite well.
Below is an excerpt form a famous passage written by Zhuangzi, an early Daoist who lived in the third and fourth centuries BCE. In this passage, he describes some attributes of the Roc.
“In the northern depths, there is a fish called the Kun It is countless leagues in size. This fish changes into a bird whose name is the Roc. Its back is countless leagues in breadth. When it rouses in flight, its wings are like clouds draping down over the heavens. The sea begins to move, as this bird is about to migrate to the southern depths, the Pool of Heaven.
“Qi Xie recorded strange phenomena, saying: ‘When the Roc migrates to the southern depth, the water is roiled for a 3000 leagues as the Roc spirals up 90000 leagues in a whirlwind, blowing for a six-month Journey. For dust devils, dust motes, or living things blowing their breath against each 0ther, is the azure blue of the sky its 0riginal color? Is it simply its unreachable distance? The Roc’s view looking down is just the same.
“When water is not gathered up deep enough, it cannot bear the weight of a large boat Water from an overturned cup poured into a dimple in the ground can suffice for a mustard seed to float like a boat But if you try to put the cup onto it, it will stick fast, because the water is too shallow, and the “boat” is too large. When wind is not gathered up high enough, it cannot bear the weight of large wings. Therefore, at a height of 90,000 leagues, the wind lies beneath the Roc, and only then can it be banked up to assist. With the blue sky at its back and nothing to bar its way, only then does the Roc seek the south.
A cicada and a young turtledove laughed at the Roc, saying: ‘When we set out to fly, we head for the Elm and Sapanwood Tree. Sometimes we don’t make it all the way and simply fall back to the earth. How can anyone go 90,000 leagues all the way to the south?’ (To go camping in a field, with three meals, you can retrun with your belly as full as always. To go a hundred leagues, you must spend the night grinding your grain for provisions. T0 go a thousand leagues, you must spend three months gathering your provisions. But what do these two worms know?)
There are many ways to interpret this passage. One of its themes is that of transformation: from fish to bird, from north to south, from the depths of the sea to the towering heights of the heaven. In the form, we move from a posture where the sword is relatively low, Swallow Carries Earth in its Beak, to a posture where the sword is held relatively high, Roc Extends its Wings. We spiral up from the ground like a whirlwind to raise the sword tip level with our head.
Another theme 0f the passage is appropriateness. Water can float a muster seed or a large vessel, but the puddle that can float a mustard seed is not enough even for a cup. A long flight for a cicada or a turtledove cannot be compared with the flight of the Roc. In the hand form, deliberate measured steps are appropriate for Diagonal Flying; however, for Roc Extends its Wings, we must show more flow. Paradoxically, the slow movement of Diagonal Flying is outwardly more difficult than the flowing movement of Roc Extends its Wings. The Roc can fly 90,000 leagues to the south, whereas the cicada and dove cannot even make it up into an elm tree.
One last theme of Zhuangzi is universality. What we, as dust motes, see as blue vastness looking up at the sky from below, the Roc also sees as blue vastness looking down from the sky above. All journeys require preparation and provisions. All flight requires effort. The principles of Taijiquan are all same. Sometimes they are more apparent in the dust motes kicked up by the swirling wind of a hot summer’s day. Sometimes they are more apparent in the wings of the Roc spiraling upward to cover the sky. The Ten Essentials apply equally to the hand form and the sword form, even when outward form may differ somewhat.
When we practice the sword form for a few minutes of exercise we can be secure that we can experience the full range of what Taijiquan has to offer, even if we know nothing of Chinese legends, dragons, or Zhuangzi; however, if we do have some knowledge of the posture names and their cultural associations, we can enrich 0ur practice. Instead of seeing ourselves as hacking and slashing our way through the form, we can see ourselves as guardians of the stars, flying through the heavens to protect all creation against chaos. The movements of the sword should be light and flowing, but still have power in their elegance. The principles of Taijiquan are simple, but their application is vast and deep.