Pa-Kua and the Study of Chinese Sabers
“If Pa-Kua is a Chinese in origin, why do we learn the katana?”
This is a common question among people who don’t practice at our school, as well as newer students. The short answer is that we don’t teach the katana, but instead teach a wide variety of Chinese sabers, but the full answer is a little more complex:
In Chinese, the word dao (刀 ) can be applied to any single-edged weapon, but nowadays usually refers to knives. However within Chinese martial arts, as well as military contexts, dao usually references sabers.
One reason for this misunderstanding is that, compared to the attention paid to the katana and samurai in the surviving period records of Japan, Chinese swords and swordspeople received relatively little focus in surviving Chinese sources. Another reason is the media attention given to the katana and samurai after World War II, when Japan began exporting their culture and history to the world. Meanwhile, the Chinese Cultural Revolution had the opposite effect for the renown of Chinese weapons and martial arts, effectively squelching and increasingly restricting the practice of martial arts and traditional Chinese culture. As a result, today it is extremely difficult to find Chinese sabers like the traditional two-handed miaodao, and so many people who wish to practice in Chinese styles opt to use a comparatively easily-obtained katana and adapt their practice as a matter of convenience.
Sabers began to gain ground within the Chiense army as the use of horses on the battlefield became common. One of the first saber models to gain traction during the Shang dynasty (1600 BCE — 1046 BCE) was the zhibeidao (直 背 刀), which had only a slight curvature in the blade and was forged in bronze. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE — 220 CE) sabers gradually began to replace jians (Chinese straight swords) on the battlefield as their curved blades were better adapted to use with calvary. Over time, jians became an increasingly symbolic weapon, and one would be more likely to see one with a senior officer.
(For more on the history of the jian, click here.)
Chinese sabers are usually classified into two categories, one-handed (short) sabers, and two handed (medium and long) sabers.
One Handed Short Sabers
One handed sabers are versatile, and could be used in conjunction with a shield, dual-wielded in pairs, or used in just one hand leaving a hand free. In Pa-Kua, we use short sabers both singularly, and in pairs. Historically, sabers used in pairs were prefixed with shuang which literally means “pair”.
Each saber has their own characters that vary from model to model, and from one dynasty to the next. Historically, even soldiers ended up choosing different styles of blades which best fit their fighting style. As a result, it is very difficult to make any direct comparisons between Chinese and Japanese sabers in terms of their shapes and designs.
Some examples taken from the Mandarin Mansion website, each name corresponds to a number in the image below.
1 — Zhibeidao (straight blade saber)
2 — Yanmaodao (Goose Saber)
3 — Liuyedao (willow leaf saber)
4 — Piandao (slicer saber)
5 — Niuweidao (Saber Oxtail / Machete)
The niuweidao, styled very much like a machete, has a distinguished history over other sabers. It was developed at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1636 CE — 1911 CE) for the use of civilians and within martial arts schools. Although it was probably not used by the military, and despite being a relatively new weapon, the niuweidao became famous for their use in martial arts schools as their styles and techniques were exported to the whole world. As a result, it has gained greater media exposure than some other styles of military sabers.
Two-handed sabers vary greatly, with blades from around sixty centimeters to over one meter long, and were mainly used as infantry and anti-calvary weapons. As with short sabers, there is also a wide variety of medium and long sabers. For example, the zhanmadao and changdao were some of the earliest Chinese sabers developed with blades large enough to cut through an opponent’s horse’s legs.
Today, it is more common to use the term miadao for two-handed sebers, although this term is newer and does not cover the characteristics of all sabers. Another term commonly used for medium sabers is wodao, which literally means “Japanese saber”, as this saber was used to fight off Japanese pirates on the Chinese coast in the 16th century.
The ba gua dao, as the name implies, is the saber designed for pa-kua. This saber is large in every sense: length, width and weight. Because it is so large, the ba gua dao uses circular, continuous movements so momentum isn’t sacrificed. With the ba gua dao’s focus on circles, it was natural that it became pa-kua’s symbolic weapon.
How are These Sabers taught in Pa-Kua?
In edged weapons classes, we begin by studying a two-handed saber, with a 60–70cm blade, more technically called either miaodao or wodao, but which we call the medium saber. We start with this saber as it is effective at giving students the foundational knowledge they will need in order to learn the other weapons.
After the medium saber, we begin the study of short sabers, shuang dao, which will teach the student the technique and coordination needed to wield a pair of weapons. This learning paves the way for the future use of the half-moon sabers, lu jiao dao, a traditional weapon in pa-kua which has very complex movement.
After this, we begin to learn the larger two-handed sabers, such as the miaodao, changdao and ba gua dao, and the specific techniques for use in each of these to effectively handle and take advantage of their size and weight. As the student advances into black belt studies, they will learn even more complex sabers, such as the hooked saber shuang gou.
In addition to the study of sabers, the edged weapons discipline covers other weapons such as the Chinese spear, qiang, and Chinese sword, jian. This discipline gives the student both a technical and theoretical knowledge of bladed weapons in the history of China.