Small Weapons, Smart Weapons

Yī cùn xiǎo, yī cùn qiǎo.

Yī cùn xiǎo, yī cùn qiǎo.

The smaller [the weapon], the smarter it is.

This saying could be seen as a departure from the previous ones that have been considered here.  Instead of talking about the body, rooting, moving, standing, the use of limbs, etc., the translation I’m proposing mentions weapons. How does that fit into Shen Fa – the study of body methods?

There are many reasons why weapons are integral to a study of traditional Chinese shen fa approaches, and I plan to explore more of these in future posts. But I can briefly offer two perspectives as to why studies of Chinese martial body methods are incomplete without looking at weapons.

The first is that when human beings are doing things that matter, such as building shelter, cooking food, or fighting for their lives and property, we make use of tools.  Tools of violence are weapons. So let’s posit (at least for the sake of this discussion) that martial arts grew out of the historical need to protect, and that called for weapons use.  Empty hand methods would merely be backups in an environment in which weapons were generally employed.  Using a tool habituates the body to the movement requirements of using that tool effectively.  So classical Chinese martial artists were primarily weapons users, who moved as weapons users, and this style of movement lends itself to how the empty hand movements are done.

Sometimes we hear the reverse – that one studies an empty hand art, and then uses weapons as merely extensions of the hands.  But this does not take into account the different ways that the design of different weapons requires one to move.  For example, one does not use a saw in the same way as one uses a hammer, or a chef’s knife!  So treating all tools of violence (weapons) as equally the extensions of one’s empty hand movements is naive. From this perspective, without an understanding of how certain weapons are handled, we are missing a key ingredient of how the developers of our empty hand arts trained to move. Therefore, if we really want to be Chinese martial artists, even if we don’t expect to go into battle with sword and spear, we should train our bodies to move properly with at least some of these weapons (sometimes dependent on boxing style).

The second reason that discussion of – and hard practice with – weapons is of foundational importance to the study of Chinese martial body development is that it is simply excellent equipment training. I mean this in terms of exercise equipment like kettlebells, Indian clubs, stone locks, free weights, etc. Various styles of Chinese martial arts have developed exercises with weapons that are not meant to train someone in a fighting application, but to develop a quality of movement or body structure (this is also the same in may empty hand routines, that mix training body principles with actual combat moves, sometimes causing a lot of confusion with regard to usage). Long pole shaking, using over-sized or overly weighted swords, or simply extended or complex movements with potentially dangerous weapons are all examples of training methods that aid in the development of body skills for the execution of martial techniques, whether one is holding a weapon or not.

Now with that introduction, let’s look at the saying which appears at the top of this post:

The smaller [the weapon], the smarter it is.

Although it does not literally appear in the Chinese, I’ve inserted “the weapon” into this phrase, because it is generally understood in context for this phrase. Basically this saying argues that a small weapon with less reach and mass has to be “smart” in order to accomplish its mission. It will also necessarily be “smarter” than a larger weapon, which might have more force.  To continue with the tool metaphor, a sledgehammer generates a huge amount of force that a finishing hammer cannot.  However, a sledgehammer is “dumb” when you’re tapping in delicate decorative moulding to finish off a custom cabinet installation.  A wolf’s tooth club or halberd would thus be “dumb” compared to a dagger or jian, which would be better suited to pinpoint attacks.  Or a smallsword would be “smarter” than a battleaxe – though both can be lethal!  Finesse in the usage of the tool is proportional to the amount of force required to move the tool.

Here’s the “kicker” – the same basic rule applies to empty hand technique!  Think about it.  Kicking with the whole flat of your foot has a different impact (and often more of a push) than a kick with just the heel.  Or think about the application of a roundhouse kick that connects with the shin in comparison to a “sword fingers” attack.  The former can knock someone down through sheer force, can break bones, and can easily knock someone out when applied to the head (they don’t have to be standing).  The sword fingers cannot be employed effectively against someone’s skull, not matter how hard you condition your fingers.  But the sword fingers can be aimed effectively at the eyes, throat or other precise, soft points on the body.  This takes a lot more control – finesse – than a roundhouse to the torso.

When we train our bodies, when we train and employ techniques, when we choose what weapon to deploy (weather integral or supplementary to our bodies), we should be mindful of the amount of “intelligence” that weapon requires.

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