My unlikely relationship with the jian - sword of civilian defence

I must confess that my relationship with bladed weapons has been through some rocky periods. There have been times where I was highly enamored of them, and times when they have seemed so contrary to my philosophical leanings that they have repulsed me.

Specifically, in relation to the straight-edged Chinese sword called the “jian” I can say it was far from “love at first sight”. What started as an uneasy truce somehow developed into a kind of friendship. It has taken almost a decade for it to blossom into a full-blown infatuation. Let me explain by going back to the beginning:

As a young boy I had (as many young boys do) a fascination with blades of any kind. I was seven when my father bought me my first hunting knife. The memory of this event is probably one of my most treasured.

I was walking with my father through the old part of Belgrade on a cold winter’s morning. It was December 1973, Tito’s regime was in full swing and government borrowing had given the old Yugoslavia a temporary sense of wealth. Still, the creaking edifice of communism conspired to give the (relative) affluence of that country a tacky, government-orchestrated quality. It was “faux Westernism” and even as a child I could tell it suffered badly by comparison. The modern apartment buildings that had mushroomed out of the former swampland in what became known as “New Belgrade” had a uniform, de-humanizing dreariness, imposed on the ancient landscape with all the subtlety of a “Workers Unite!” poster. But at least the shops were stocked and society ran (at least on the surface) in an apparently orderly, if utilitarian and clunky, manner (a bit like a Jugo car!).

But here in the old part of town, time seemed to have stood still. The modern concrete monoliths were out of sight and mind. Breathing in the coal-dust lingering in the morning air we took care to avoid slipping on the icy cobbled footpaths and squinted as sharp light crept in between the stately, if decaying, buildings. I wasn’t sure where we were going or why. My father was a man of few words, often lost in his own mysterious thoughts. I remember it was a Saturday and everything was largely closed, yet he seemed to be making a bee-line for a particular shop in a side-street. There, sheltered between two grimy, skeletal plane trees, was one of those little pre-war businesses that somehow survived communism by keeping a low profile under a fading cursive sign. It sold, sharpened, repaired and serviced knives and other bladed implements. An elderly man was opening up as we arrived. He nodded curtly to my father and ushered us into the stale, smoky warmth.

How my knife might look today
It took all of a couple of minutes and we emerged - me holding in my hands a most-prized new possession: an exquisitely crafted, classical hunting knife, complete with a stag antler handle. I remember it being large, but it was almost certainly on the smallish side - just right for my child-sized hands.

By today’s standards it was not exactly a “politically correct” gift for a young child. For one thing, it was razor sharp. But it was exactly what I wanted - even though the thought of having my own knife had never occurred to me. My father was adept at reading my mind (even though his remained inscrutable to me).

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you see a very different picture. Gone was that wide-eyed young boy, and gone (in fact, stolen - only 2 months after my father bought it for me) was the treasured hunting knife. I was an experienced weapons artist - but one who eschewed anything with a blade.

Yes, I studied Japanese kenjutsu (Japanese sword arts) with my instructor, Bob Davies. But I stuck with my trusty bokken (wooden sword). It would never have occurred to me to buy a full-blown katana (nor even a replica). Ditto with my study of the kama (sickle, from Okinawan kobudo). And it is fair to say that while I studied Filipino knife fighting from arnis/escrima/kali, I did so under sufferance. I found the whole idea of slicing bicep tendons and burying a knife up to its hilt into kidneys disconcerting, to say the least (in fact, I made a conscious effort not to record the details of those particular techniques and drills).

Part of the reason for my distaste for blades had arisen from my work as a prosecutor. Many of the grievous bodily harm and murder cases I helped prosecute involved knife wounds. Australia does not have a gun culture and I can’t recall having anything to do with a single gun-related case. But knife woundings and killings were commonplace; not “dime a dozen” but there were certainly many.

Inevitably in my professional life I would have to survey photographs from the crime scenes showing the injuries sustained through knife attacks. There is something at once surreal and deeply humbling about seeing the human body cut up; the sliced skin wrinkling at the edges, the surprisingly yellow and deep layer of fat underneath and the innards exposed to the world. You see the vulnerability of the human body - and the true extent of our mortality. It is enough to make anyone feel a certain existential angst. I remember watching Braveheart at around that time and wanting to walk out for most of the film (I didn’t). It seemed to me that there was something particularly immediate, confronting and distasteful about cutting someone with a blade, never mind killing them with it, whatever the circumstances.

So while I’d always been a strong proponent of civilian defence, bladed weapons had lost whatever mysterious appeal they had held for me. I respected friends and colleagues who purchased swords and knives. I even admired the workmanship and beauty of these implements. But I didn’t feel any desire to own one myself. They had an element that was to me, quite frankly, off-putting.

Then in 2005 I made my first trip to train with my teacher, Chen Yun Ching. I was told we would be studying the taiji jian during part of the course. Happily my brother-in-law had two practice jians (both made of unsharpened metal) which I loaded into an empty guitar case, and off I went. In 2009 I purchased a collapsible practice jian which went with me to Taiwan (and which I’ve used ever since).

It is fair to say that until this year, the thought of buying my own real sword never entered my mind. After all, I had studied the jian with some degree of resistance. It was almost out of obligation to Master Chen that I had persevered: I’d promised to learn and preserve the Chen Pan Ling system and accordingly I was going to do it, swords and all.

In particular I remember studying the Chung Yang form in 2009 (a form that is said to be the “mother of all jian sword forms”) and thinking alternately that:
  • it was, in some respects, like a very complicated dance (it was the last item of an exhausting 8 day training visit, and trying to commit the sequence to memory felt, at the time, overwhelming); and
  • when it wasn’t like a dance, it was, well, nasty.
But I persevered. I got used to the idea that studying the sword would be part and parcel of my martial background. Just as I had studied the bokken, I would purchase and use a wooden jian - one that couldn’t be used to slice people open.

Then, just this year, things started to change. In preparation for my visit to Wu-Lin, I decided to revise the Chung Yang form. Nagging at the back of my mind was the feeling that, as the “least favourite” item of my study, it had been wrongfully neglected. Indeed, I had felt embarrassed when called upon to demonstrate this form in previous visits to Master Chen, hoping my uncertainty and lack of practice was at least to some extent disguised by the fact that I was demonstrating it as part of a group (I doubt that it was!).

So out came the collapsible sword. After a shaky start, I was surprised by how much of the detail came back - and how quickly. Soon I was teaching my own students. The more I practised, the more confident I became.

And then an amazing thing happened: I started to see the beauty of the jian. I’m not talking about the physical beauty of the weapon itself; it’s symmetry and elegant simplicity. Nor am I talking the lithe, flowing movement associated with jian forms. Rather I abruptly became aware how, when used with the appropriate skill, the jian seems to become part of the body - a mere extension of the hand.

I became aware how the traditional forms explored this feature while simultaneously mapping and addressing attacks on every plane/dimension. And it did so with a profound grace and economy that I’d never fully appreciated.

So the beauty of the jian has nothing to do with a “dance”. Yes, this beauty does relate to form; but, more importantly it also relates to function. In short, the jian is the meeting point of style and substance. The movements might appear to be “dance-like” at times, but this arises from efficiency and “whole body” utilization of the weapon.

The jian, I had finally realized, was an almost perfect fusion of:
  • my beloved jo (4' staff) - with its flowing, graceful, sophisticated dynamics; and
  • the Filipino arnis/escrima/kali baston - with its intricate wrist flicks, fast conversions and simple, brutal efficacy.
“But,” I hear you ask, “it still has a blade! What about your philosophical aversion to cutting people?” Am I not being hypocritical - like a vegetarian guiltily sneaking a bite of a barbecued sausage?

The answer to these questions is two-fold:

First, there is no denying that any bladed weapon, when used against a person, is going to cause some rather horrifying injuries. But, to some extent, all fighting is like that - ugly. The sword just happens to be the “king” of all melee weapons. Understanding the power of this weapon does not undermine its beauty. Rather its power defines its beauty as well as its ugliness. They are two sides to the same coin.

In much the same way, we humans all have to come to grips with our potential “darkness”. We can try to ignore it, but it won’t go away. In order to learn to manage conflict, we must truly understand it. And to do that, we must embrace our own violent nature and accept it for what it is.

In this respect, I’m arguing something much the same as I argued in my essay “Yin and yang: vulnerability, worry and the martial arts”. Just as in order to find security you must, paradoxically, embrace your own vulnerability, in order to find peace you must embrace the full extent of your own violent potential. And violence doesn’t get more personal, immediate and elemental than fighting with a blade.

In short, making an art form out of the worst, most ghastly, means of fighting can be a means of ensuring peace in your own life.

By contrast, ignoring your violent potential is not going to make it go away. And we all have that potential, even if it only ever manifests with cutting words (pun intended). Saying “I am not a violent person” is either misguided or a pretence. We are all, by nature, violent. Understanding how and why we are violent brings one step closer to understanding (and preventing) violence in others - whether this is through predicting their actions or minimizing our own involvement in a cycle of escalation.

I always find it profound to think that martial arts like taiji (which involve some of the most brutal applications I’ve seen) are used as a means of achieving inner peace and health. There is both a philosophical and poetic beauty in the “paradox of the martial arts”.

Accordingly, logic should tell us that a study of the most violent personal act of all - cutting someone with a blade - is not incompatible with the goal of peace and goodwill, provided the study occurs with the right motivation and in the right context.

The second point I wish to make is rather more of a recent revelation to me, and that is this:

The jian is first and foremost not a weapon of war! Instead, it is regarded as a “gentleman’s” (and “lady’s”!) weapon of civilian defence. It has not been a military weapon in China since just after the end of the Bronze Age. Why?

Put simply, it is light and small - too light and small to be of any use on a battlefield against bigger, heavier weapons.

But there is more to the suitability of the jian for civilian defence than the mere reduction in length and mass. Rather, the jian’s design is also optimized for this purpose. Consider:

Unlike the Chinese dao (single-handed saber) and dadao (two-handed saber) (both used by the Chinese military) or the Japanese equivalent, the katana (also a military weapon), the jian is straight and double-edged. This means it is not optimized for cutting, but for thrusting. Optimization for cutting requires a curve. And a curve often (though not always) 1 leads to single-edged weapons.

This distinction is significant:

The sword is a melee weapon. In other words, it is designed to be used in relatively close quarters. And in the melee range, swords can be put to two main uses (leaving aside hitting with the pommel):
  1. cutting/slashing with the edge; and
  2. thrusting with the point.
It should come as no surprise that on the battlefield, melee range weapons are best employed in terms of the former, ie. cutting/slashing with an edge. Being able to thrust with the point is, at best, an adjunct use. What makes me say this?

First, in order to maximize force from a weapon, you need to ensure it has sufficient length and mass to ensure practicability (while taking care not to increase either length or mass too much so as to compromise your mobility). As I’ve discussed, a jian is too small and light to be used against other battlefield weapons.

Second, once you are dealing with swords of sufficient length and mass for battlefield use, thrusts/stabs will necessarily apply much less force and have far less injury potential than cuts. This is exacerbated if your opponent has any kind of protective gear (never mind armour). If you doubt me, contrast a stab using a katana with a diagonal cut using a katana.

The larger and heavier the weapon, the more the relative importance of cutting increases. By contrast, if you are fighting with small bladed weapons, eg. knives, the balance shifts towards thrusts/stabs: cuts and slashes are really not the mainstay of knife fighting.3 I know this from my own training in the Filipino martial arts and also from my prosecutorial experience. Stabs are the mainstay of knife fighting, as these are what inflict the greatest injury. Knife cuts/slashes are principally used to set up, and as an adjunct.

By contrast, on the battlefield, where you would be wielding a large blade, the balance shifts squarely back to cutting/slashing.

In this context, one can see how the dao/dadao/katana with its curved, single edge became the preferred military sword in China.2, 3 The straight sword wasn’t effective enough. If you wanted to stab or thrust, you would use a longer range straight weapon - ie. the spear. Or you might use arrows (another “straight” weapon). In battle, these longer range weapons (ie. spears and arrows) are straight; melee weapons are curved for cutting.

But this leaves unanswered the following question: why would straight weapons be better for civilian defence? Why not use a curved dao/dadao/katana for civilian defence as well? The answer lies in your primary motivation and goes right back to the heart of this essay:

In battle your primary motivation is to injure. Everything is optimized for that task.

In civilian defence your primary motivation is to not be injured. Everything is optimized for that task.

Accordingly, for soldiers (who are expected to focus on attack and who are individually largely expendable) the use of a sword that yields maximum force and damage in the melee is going to be preferred.

Civilians who want to defend themselves are going to adopt more conservative tactics - tactics aimed at preventing them from being injured rather than causing injury. Yes, the end result might well be the use of deadly force. But that is not the primary motivation. And, as I’ve discussed previously, this change in primary motivation subtly, but significantly affects the dynamics of the fighting.

How is the jian used? As a straight, double-edged sword, it is employed primarily for thrusts/stabs. As noted, these do not apply as much force as cuts and slashes in a weapon as long as a sword. But against another civilian who is unlikely to be wearing any form of armor or other protective gear, how much force do you need? And if your goal is not to get injured, you will want to use conservative counters - ones that leave fewer openings even if it means not dealing a killing blow.

I have previously argued, at length, that it is this philosophy that underlies the straight punches of traditional civilian defence arts like karate and Chinese gong fu. Yes, they don’t impart as much force as a boxer’s punch; but they also don’t leave as many openings. They simply aren’t designed for the a sports arena or military mindset.

So what do you get with a jian? A fairly short blade (27" to 31" long) that is straight and that is double-edged. This allows you to thrust out at a civilian attackers and keep them at bay. It also allows you to stab them if you need to. And it allows you to cut them: just because the jian isn’t optimized for cutting doesn’t mean it can’t be used for this purpose. But remember - your goal isn’t to cut your attacker “to death”. Your goal is to not get hurt. What you do in defence should be whatever is necessary and no more. If you can disable an attacker without killing, that is preferable from a civilian defence perspective. Accordingly many of the cuts of the jian are aimed at disabling the opponent’s limbs, not imparting deadly force.

Last, but not least, there is the important matter of the jian’s suitability for defence:

The jian is traditionally made so that the bottom third is fairly blunt. The middle third is a bit sharper and only the top third is very sharp. What this means is that the lower half of the jian is designed for deflection/parrying/blocking. Indeed, my analysis of traditional jian techniques reveals sophisticated deflections and parries (which double as drawing cuts using the top third) that set up disabling counters comprising thrusts and cuts (often aimed at major tendons). The fact that approximately half the jian is, in a sense, physically dedicated to defence and the other half is dedicated to offence speaks volumes of its intended use as a weapon of civilian defence - not war.

Accordingly the jian is a bladed weapon that accords entirely with my general aversion to bloodshed - precisely because that is not what the jian is all about. It is not about war. It is about peace. It is about self-protection. It is about ensuring your safety while doing only as much harm as is necessary in the circumstances.

So here I am, after all these years, finally satisfied that there is ample reason to study the jian and, on a broader level, happy once again to own a bladed weapon or two (see my next article for a run down on my swords, one of which - my antique - is pictured at the start and end of this essay!).

No amount of horror at the gore of actual sword-fighting militates against this. Jian practice is an exercise in the study of peace - paradoxically by using a weapon that is highly dangerous. And even if you never have to use one in civilian defence (for I think it is unlikely for that circumstance to arise except in a home invasion where you happen to have the sword right next to you), the very nature of studying the most violent personal weapon (aside from the firearm) is an exercise in studying conflict.

After all, most of us don’t train only out of an expectation that we might need to use our skills. We also train for a wider purpose: art, fitness, health - or perhaps just “gong fu” (skill attained through diligent effort). Furthermore I believe we should train to understand our own inherent violence as human beings so as both to manage our own role in conflict and diffuse violence in others.

Have I overcome my uneasiness about swords? Not entirely. Let’s just say that I’ve converted it into a healthy respect - a kind of reverence. Blades are not “evil” - they are just tools. In particular, the jian is very clearly designed as a tool of civilian defence, not war. Accordingly it is “right up my alley”. While I might remain squeamish about the (largely abstract) thought of actually having to use swords in fighting, I don’t have any lingering philosophical or emotional antipathy towards them - especially the jian.

Going right back to my memory of my father’s gift of that first hunting knife in Belgrade all those years ago, I’m reminded of a saying in my native Serbian:

“The fastest swords are never drawn.”

That is the true spirit of the jian.


1. Notable exceptions to the double-edged blades being straight include the Greek hoplite sword, which was leaf-shaped. This design improved the cutting potential of the sword while retaining the double edge. The cutting potential was still not as effective as, say, a katana (which represents the pinnacle in cutting design) but it was nonetheless a good compromise. It should come as no surprise that similar curves exist on double-edged battle axes.

2. And yes, I know that the European broadsword was also a straight, double-edged sword, but its double edge seems to have been, at least in part, a product of fighting the armoured fighting environment of the middle ages. It was optimized for something other than pure cutting and in no way establishes a case for the superiority of double-edged straight swords for cutting.

I'm told by aficionados of the medieval European long/great swords that they are very good cutters and that they are much maligned when compared to the katana (which has its own drawbacks). However saying that the European straight swords are reasonably good cutters is like saying that the jian is a good cutter. They all are. They just aren't optimized for cutting. If they were, they would have a curved blade. Every sword has to make concessions based on the environment in, and purposes for which, it is likely to be used. In the case of the broadsword and jian, some of the cutting ability was sacrificed for other purposes (having two edges for alternative cuts while simultaneously optimizing thrusts). The dao/dadao and katana not optimized for these purposes. As a colleague of mine on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums reminds me, there is no such thing as a "perfect sword".

3. Other straight swords, such as the Roman sword, were very short weapons, used only if a phalanx broke down. As I note above, the shorter the bladed weapon (eg. a knife) the more the balance shifts to using it for thrusting/stabbing and the more the premium shifts to having a straight, double-edged blade. Accordingly the Roman sword was essentially a compromise, “jack of all trades” weapon, comparable to early Chinese double-edged battle swords, developed before sword technology had advanced greatly. In particular it is worth noting that the Roman sword predates by at least 7 centuries the technology of controlled re-heating and rapid cooling of swords during the forging process (which makes the blade much stronger and permits increased length and mass).

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic