The Secret of The Talking Sword

When learning the art of the sword, we are often told that we should wield it as an extension of our own body. The sword’s edge and tip should exhibit all the speed, power and grace of the hand that holds it, for instance. That is a fine objective—but what if the hand has no speed, power or grace to start with?

According to one classical perspective, no student should be given sword instruction until they have first qualified themselves to learn, by demonstrating mastery of barehanded technique. In some styles of martial arts, this might require thousands of hours of study.

Narrowing the focus during these initial months, or years of training might seem to benefit everyone involved. It can, and frequently it does. However, in some cases, it will actually hinder the student’s overall progress. The sword itself is an excellent instructor, to those who will heed its lessons.

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a method of expanding conscious awareness into realms that are typically governed by the unconscious mind. The subject of biofeedback training is instrumented with equipment that amplifies, records and displays biometric data, such as body temperature, heart rate, and skin conductivity. Experiments have shown that, if a subject is made aware of small fluctuations in these ostensibly involuntary processes (i.e. with the help of biofeedback equipment), that subject can more easily bring these processes under their conscious control.

Biofeedback machines, such as an electroencephalograph (EEG) or digital thermometer, can be expensive and complex. They can also be simple and cheap. Bicycle training wheels, which allow a rider to tip over slightly without immediately falling down, provide a useful form of biometric feedback. In fact, an intelligent person can press nearly any tool into service as a biofeedback device—including their sword.

The Sword as Biofeedback Device

A sword is a natural amplifier, which consistently and impartially reflects the mistakes of its user. If the swordsman’s grip and cut are incorrect, his sword may wobble, or even ring. When the position of his wrist is wrong by one inch, the tip of the blade may be wrong by one foot. If his body movement is slightly convoluted or imprecise, a good sword helps to make that obvious; with a tassel, even more so.

According to an old Chinese proverb, “A one-inch error at the start becomes a thousand-mile error by the end.” A sword can help prevent small errors from escaping its user’s attention, and thereby train the hand that holds it, and the mind which directs it.


  1. I enjoyed reading this article especially concerning the sword acting as a natural amplifier. Sometimes to move forward we have to de-learn things first, a very difficult and tiresome process.

    Great post!

  2. Classic methods are mentioned, but todays methods are based on form and not classical approaches. Tradition is all but lost for so called traditional martial arts.

    Is it the case that soldiers trained in sword were only taught sword after mastering barehand methods? I think mastery is a tricky term and that in this case sword leads to mastery of barehand methods, but that without sword then training will not culminate properly.

    I think if more people practices sword it would reflect well upon taijiquans status as a martial art.

    But what of Spear
    Yang Luchan was a renown spear-man.
    Why is spear all but lost today?
    I view it to be the same as the sword, an essential part of taijiquan that is all but lost.

    Most taiji-sword enthusiasts cannot even name the basic cuts, let alone demonstrate them. It is sad.

  3. Ah yes, but training heavy weapons too early can also teach you bad habits. And that is in fact the norm.
    Frankly I do believe the hype that barehanded techniques were traditionally ‘mastered’ before weapons were taught.
    Why? Because there are so many masters who realize many years later that they trained weapons too early and it held them back!
    Josh, when you bring soldiers into the argument you complicate things substantially. If you want to complicate things why not bring up bandits? They used swords too.
    Of course, if someone is threatening you (or your homies) with a sword, and you happen to have a sword….you’ll pick up the sword even if you don’t have the training.
    A good sword will do the job with out much training. But that’s not martial arts.

  4. I don’t think wielding a sword without training is safe to the one wielding it.

    Yang Luchan taught sword to soldiers. Complex or not the issue of sword instruction for troops relates to taijiquan.

    But master is a word I think is absurd now. There are ten thousand masters now that is it is only a meaningless term.

    I find that people learn enough bad habits from form based training, they certainly don’t need any help with that from weapons.

  5. I should mention that if you pick up a sword and start swinging you are likely to cut yourself and or break your wrist. It isn’t something you can just grab and use like a gun.

    Since most of sword training is stance training I find that weapons training can be practical without a foundation of open hand training. However all practical skills of taijiquan are found in drills and practices relating to the 13 postures so obviously one cannot disregard open hand training and expect to master weapons.

    Still I find that some people neglect weapons to an extreme and have very poor skill due to this. Many of them being called master by their students.

  6. Just hitting you up and giving you a Marine’s perspective on the idea that one could just “pick up a gun” and use it.

    Really, you could apply this logic in reverse and say that anyone could pick up an edged weapon and use it against an assailant. There is, however, a mentality to consider. A competent swordsman understands far more than just the cut and swing of a sword. He should also understand the basic mechanics of the human body and possess a mindset that is appropriate for someone who calls himself a martial artist. He has to understand balance, know his own body’s limitations, and other basic concepts such as the possibility for disarmament, when it is appropriate to use force, and some basic anatomy. Fundamental martial arts training provides this.

    Marines drill with weapons in formation to get the feel of the rifle in your hands, are taught the warrior mindset, are taught the concept of teamwork, and a plethora of other things before they ever are issued ammunition. The drill teaches them to control the weapon with confidence and discipline. The Marines also have a “grass week” where they dry-fire (no ammunition) weapons at targets so they understand shooting positions and how it might feel when holding these stances for long periods of time. Only after all this are they allowed to qualify on the range with rounds, and only after this qualification are they taught the use of the weapon in combat — squad tactics, CQB, bayonet, operating with a combat load.

    Just so you know, the way of the gun is as much a martial art as any.

  7. Good point, the gun can be martial.

    It is also the favorite weapon of street thugs.
    However in England where guns are rare swords were commonly being used to assault people. Then they banned swords… now they are talking about banning big kitchen knives.

    Still a toddler can point and shoot, sure they would be no good in a firefight, but the basics for a gun are as easy as using a computer mouse. If a toddler tried to use a sword they are likely to cut themselves. If a toddler uses a gun they are a little more dangerous to others than themselves, but still very dangerous to themselves.

    I incorporate a gun into Grasp Sparrows Tail variation and can use the moves to use it to strike or to use it to aim. But I don’t carry a gun or plan on having to need one.

  8. I didn’t consider the spear to be a heavy weapon;) Any the only way someone will cut themselves if they just pick a sword up is if they are careless (and) it is sharp. You would have it coming to have such a lack of respect for a weapon:(

    I’m new to Taiji starting just a few years ago but I picked up a weapon the first week. Empty hand training helps with weapons and weapons training helps with empty hand. I do have to admit that it depends on a person’ s attitude and their instructor.

  9. Dear All.

    Incredible clever article. I am Budoist, Neurotherapist and Psychologist, From the perspective of my scientific and Budo experience, SWORD is absolutely like BIOFEEDBACK tool.
    Every MOVE of IAIDO, KENJUTSU et cet parctitionner is “measured” by SWORD’s activity, THIS IS A REAL BIOFEEDBACK TOOL !
    U are 100% right
    Your sincerely

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