Archive for July 22nd, 2009


Tiger and mountain

In Chinese there’s a popular expression “a tiger who find himself out on flat open plains can be bullied by dogs” (虎落平阳被犬欺).

Tiger is a solitary animal, whereas dogs are pack animals. The tiger has strong bones and powerful muscles, excellent for bringing down large prey. But because of the large size, it lacks endurance. So its tactic is to rely on camouflage and cover, and use sudden ambush to quickly bring down the prey. For these reasons their ideal habitat are deep mountains. Dogs by comparison, are much smaller, less explosive, but has far better endurance. It can chase down prey over long distances, especially with teamwork. Therefore it does well on flat, open areas. So this phrase means when you leave your ideal operating environment, you can fall prey even to lesser opponents.


No weapon is perfect, ideal for all situations. Depending on the situation, we have to have the right combination of weapons and tactics. A related expression is “letting tiger go back into the mountain” (放虎归山). It means letting a dangerous opponent retreat to its native element.



In Chinese, a single-edged blade is called dao – knife (刀), no matter how big or small. So da dao means big dao. A double-edged sword that is straight is called jian (劍).

During the Japanese invasion, the Chinese troops, even the Republican forces, were decades behind the Japanese in armament. For that reason, it was estimated that a unit of Japanese force has somewhere between 4 to 10 times the fighting capability of its Chinese counterparts. However, it was discovered during the battle that the da dao was a very useful close-in fighting weapon, superior to the fixed bayonet (as evident after 29th Army‘s famous victories).

A postcard made by a WWII Japanese NGO showing their dreaded opponent The Big Sword Unit of 29th Army guarding the Tianjin Railroad Station during retreat of Nationalist Army.

Throughout the war the civilians have been donating for the war effort. At the time China had a very primitive industrial base (we couldn’t even manufacture matches in bulk – the old name for matches are called yang huo – foreign fire, because they were all imported), we couldn’t manufacture any modern weapons in bulk. That would require high degree of manufacturing infrastructure, as well as all the sophistication implied, like standardization (interchangeable parts), which required high degree of precision and uniformity.

By comparison, the da dao is an very primitive weapon in design and construction. Just about any neighborhood blacksmith can make it. If it’s off by an inch or two, so what? And for the material, even if it’s not the best steel, it’s no big deal. It’s bulk usually guarantees it will have the required sturdiness. This is why there are so many variants of these swords. So donating money to have da dao’s made was very popular, even in the cities.

Many Tonbei Quan masters were involved in training the troops.  My teacher talked to some of them during the 70’s and 80’s.  According to those masters, the techniques they devised and taught to the general troops where no more than 10.  In fact most of the time only one technique was used – a powerful upward sweep to knock (磕) the incoming bayonette away, and at the top, reverse course for a powerful cut (砍) downward toward the neck.

So effective were these simple weapons and techniques, the Japanese military actually devised a neck protector – a folding metal collar that is attached to the helmet. But it proved to be too weak for practical usage.

Since the da dao weighed 4-5 pounds, when swung, it has more than enough momentum to knock away a thrusting rifle bayonet.  In Chinese martial art we say “a 1 once weight when swung generate a 10 pound force”.  Historians note that in European history, most single-handed weapons, like the axe, weighed only 3-5 pounds.

The number and type of techniques taught in this case conforms to what we know about martial art techniques for the battlefield in general: when it comes to the average soldiers, only those that are simple to teach, simple to learn, and simple to use are suitable.

da dao with mauser
An iconic image of the era: units that specialized in close quarter combat usually paired da dao with Mauser C96 pistol.

This and other historical information about dao in Chinese martial art are discussed in more detail in Zhang Yun‘s new book The Complete Taiji Dao: The Art of the Chinese Saber.



Time and place for training

Traditionally people say you should train at the same time of the day, in the same place, every day.

I’m sure you had this experience, one day during practice you had some new insight. Then you didn’t practice for a while, and later, after you resumed your practice, several sessions into it you had the same insight again. And you think: I can’t believe I lost that. If you practiced everyday, you would’ve be reminded of that immediately next day, and you build upon that… Replicating the training environment also conditions you get into that really deep, focused state faster. It’s really one of the best things you can do to optimize your training.

In term of training space, it should be an area that is well lit, has good air qualities, flat, free of obstructions, and secluded.  Doing Taiji Quan en mass in the park is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Professional or serious practitioners generally do it out of public eye.  For one thing some things are secret.  But the other major reason is you don’t want any distractions.  The traditionally form of Chinese residence is the si he yuan (四合院), literally “courtyard enclosed on four sides”.

Even up to my teacher’s generation, who trained in the 70’s and 80’s in Beijing, people trained mostly in their private courtyards. But location of practice does make a difference. For example you will have a very different feeling practicing Taiji or Bagua here than in your small private yard:

Lu Mountain 庐山

July 2009
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