This taiji sword interview with my teacher, Scott Rodell and two other martial arts teachers, Dr Yang Jwing-Ming (shown above) and Zhang Yun was conducted by Jonathan Rollins for the June 2008 issue of Inside Kung-Fu magazine.
INSIDE KUNG-FU: If learning the sword is so important to a practitioner’s development, what is the best way to practice?
SCOTT M. RODELL: As far as personally learning taiji sword, one should really be studying swordsmanship. Most people today are not truly doing sword. Many people know forms, but they do the forms poorly. The reason for this is that they don't understand how to use the sword at all. Honestly, how can one say they are practicing their sword form mindfully or correctly if they do not understand how the movements are used? For example, there is a difference between using the flat of the blade rather than the edge. The vast majority of contemporary practitioners don't understand what part of the blade they are really using nor how or why. Or they've never cut anything with the sword.Nowadays, most practitioners likewise believe they understand the sword because they have practiced forms; this is a big misconception. thinking you understand the sword form from practice alone is like thinking you are an expert archer because you practiced drawing a bow without an arrowed nocked, but never having loosed an arrow at a target. Sure, you could draw it well, fluidly and gracefully but there is no chance you could hit a target, especially while under pressure. Likewise it is just as foolish to think you understand any sword form without ever having joined in the two-man drills or free swordplay, especially if you haven't practiced test-cutting with your sword.
No matter how skilled a practitioner is with his hands, he will not understand swordsmanship without having practiced cutting. The use of your hands to hit and a blade to deflect and cut are that different.
YANG JWING MING: My suggestion to any beginner is to find a qualified teacher and establish a correct habit. Take time to master the basic drills first even before learning sequence. Be always humble and learn from those who know.
ZHANG YUN: When you're ready to study the sword, the first step is to learn the basic movements like methods for holding the sword, footwork, body movements, basic attack and defense skills, etc. These movements are the foundation for all sword skills. With this training, you make the sword a natural extension of your body. You should feel like you can manipulate it at will, at any moment you could apply different types of force on it so you can change its angle and direction in a quick, agile and easy manner.
SCOTT M. RODELL: In practice, all students of swordsmanship should start with the basic cuts. The yang Family Michuan Taiji Jian system has eight basis cuts; other systems have other cuts.
Whichever school of martial arts you are studying in, you should learn the basic cuts of that school. So you understand these are the basic ingredients or building blocks of the sword form of that system. Usually I like to see students practice basic cuts for six months. Once you know the basic cuts well, then you start learning the solo form, and that will be different. Once you have the basic ingredients built into your body, you'll start looking at variations of those cuts - how to do it from the front, from the back and combinations of cuts. All forms are, in a way, like a textbook.
ZHANG YUN: Form practice is very important for taiji sword training because many of the important feelings you get only from doing continuous movements. The sword is a light, short weapon, with many subtle details. These refined skills are best practiced using the form.Understanding the applications of the form not only helps you understand how to use the sword but very importantly, it can serve as your guide in judging the correctness of your movements. In time correct movements will lead you to the correct feelings.