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"What are you swatting at with that 30lb bladed polearm?"

shaolin kungfu guan dao weapon trainingThe famous performer and martial artist Jet Li once said: "A gun outdoes years of martial arts training in a split second."

However, many traditional martial arts practiced today still include weapon traditions from eras when modern firearms could scarcely be dreamed of. In kungfu, weapons and their training are particularly diverse. Swords, sabres, staves and spears are just a tip of the iceberg, and many practitioners still preserve arts for the more exotic of weapons, such as hook-swords and sectional metal whips.

So, the question that inevitably pops up might be expressed as such: "How likely is it that one day I'll find myself on a battlefield with a heavy Chinese glaive for defending against a stampeding cavalry?"

Or to put it more simply, why should we still maintain ancient weapon training in present times?

To answer: because one aspect of martial arts training never changes, which is that it's meant for practical benefits. So, let's examine what preserving these "dead" martial weapons can really offer us.

For convenience, I'll divide the benefits of traditional kungfu weapon training to three categories:

  1. Force
  2. Combat efficiency
  3. Personal cultivation

Force is the most obvious one. At its best, traditional weapon training strenghtens the body in ways that are practical, effective and comprehensive. In kungfu, weapon arts typically address as many and as versatile combat situations as possible, and consequently their techniques make excellent use of full body movement. Furthermore, bulkier weapons such as the guan dao (Chinese blade-tipped staff) demand systematic practice to be even used properly - imagine wielding a weightlifting barbell as a fast striking weapon, and you get some idea what genuine guan dao training is really like.


Why should we maintain ancient weapons training in present times?


The force derived from weapons training also greatly benefits bare-handed techniques. However, physical strenght isn't the sole advantage, but correct weapon practice also develops precision, balance and agility, which brings us to the next benefit: combat efficiency. Competence in different weapons hones fundamental fighting skills, such as timing, spacing and good judgment. When fighting with hand-to-hand weapons, every part of the body essentially becomes a target, which further raises the stakes of combat. Also, a useful extra benefit is the skill for using improvised weapons. Nowadays, it's unlikely to end up in a self-defence situation with a sword or a spear conveniently in hand, but how often could something else be available, like a coat, a bag, an umbrella, a chair, or even a stick from the ground? Comprehensive, correct weapons training provides the foundation of using any available tool that might give an advantage in a fight, and traditional kungfu even has dedicated weapon sets for some of the aforementioned everyday objects.

Kungfu weapons training also provides interesting opportunities for personal or spiritual cultivation. For example, the Chinese sword (jian) is relatively small and lightweight for a weapon. It is not used for blocking with hard force, but its techniques are characteristically delicate and flowing. Using a jian effectively requires a great level of skill and control, and its demanding practice is excellent for developing a focused, calm mind. Historically, the kungfu sword has been regarded as the scholar's weapon, whereas the staff is characteristic for a monk.

It bears mentioning that most, if not all, of the aforementioned benefits require concientious and correct practice, where practical combat is strongly emphasized. So, if you happen to have the good fortune to find a teacher of genuine traditional weapons, you should be thankful for the opportunity; you may stand to gain much more than just an interesting glance into the history of fighting arts.