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The Art of the Chinese Sabre

Swordsmanship: About Me

A Brief Introduction

Good Gongfu in China is becoming rarer and rarer.. Swordsmanship skills have all but died out. Master Zou Jianhua (邹建华) has always believed that proficiency in weapons use was historically more important than unarmed fighting and remains relevant to this day. “If I handed the MMA champion of the world a sword and he wasn’t versed in its use I would carve him up easily”, he maintains. With that thought in mind he hunted down as many masters that possessed this ancient knowledge as he could during his lengthy journey across China.

His main mentor, Grandmaster Li Chenghong (李承鸿), was like a surgeon with the Jian, the Chinese double-edged sword. He taught Zou Shifu using a hard, yet flexible type of reed that was often used to make feather dusters. They had no safety equipment, so they trained in winter, wearing a thick winter coat, gloves and a wool hat. Injuries were common. He was also taught how to use various other single-handed Chinese sabres, the two-handed Baguadao and the spear.

After Grandmaster Li passed away, Zou Shifu continued to learn other weapons such as the Miaodao, a long two-handed sabre, and the Biangun, a short

waxwood staff that is thirteen fists long. The latter was taught to him by a village

in Shaanxi province that had inherited the skill from a long line of caravan bodyguards. He brought three goats with him as a tuition fee. The dagger

(hidden in the unarmed system) was not neglected either, nor bayonets, which

he familiarised himself with during his tenure as an army combatives instructor.

Though unique in their own ways, all of these weapons share many similarities and, indeed, many of the techniques overlap. Zou Shifu firmly believes that it is important that one trains to transcend styles or specific weapon types. Training unarmed skills should improve armed fighting and vice versa. Still, over years of testing his skills against many a fighter, he has drawn some conclusions that lead to the development of Shanzhaidao (山寨刀) – an art that combines the skills of all of these disparate weapons into one easy-to-learn sabre system to be taught alongside Shanzhaiquan, the unarmed combat system.

The sabre has some advantages over the double-edged straight sword, such as being more durable, easier to cut with and less difficult to forge. One can also press down on the back of the blade, which is blunt and wider than that of the Jian to add power or control the opponent’s sword. Combat with the Dao isn't refined posturing and pointing, a scholarly pursuit, but a brutal affair of

quick slashes, cleaving cuts and the occasional well-timed thrust.

The techniques are also more easily transferable to other weapons such as baseball bats, umbrellas and walking canes due to the point of balance being further up the blade and because the power comes from the waist, which results in larger, but more powerful motions. Most of the techniques can be used either one-handed or two-handed and knowing how and when to change between them is one of the most important tactics of the system.

The type of sabre that is most able to utilise all of Shanzhaidao's many

techniques and strategies is the Dadao (大刀), which was still wielded on the battlefield as recently as World War II. Not a weapon of grace or elegance,

the savage cleaving cuts that it dealt struck fear into the hearts of the invading Japanese. To properly wield such a top-heavy blade the body must be re-trained to move as a whole. A Dadao towards the lighter end of the spectrum, that can still be comfortably swung with one hand for a short duration, is preferable, as this allows for greater versatility. The uniquely Chinese design also allowed the user to grip the widest portion of the blade during close encounters.

Zou Shifu learned his swordsmanship from some of the last masters that still knew how to apply it in fencing. Many details and nuances can only be learned through experience and fencing a lot is critical to mastering the art, just as sparring is for unarmed combat.  When Maarten first asked to learn sword fighting his Master told him that this training had been painful and dangerous and that he wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, so several years passed by

before the subject was again broached..

Maarten had already left Guilin for over a year and was living in Manchuria, all the way on the Russian border in Heilongjiang province, when his Master called him back to learn his sabre art. They now had the equipment to safely fence and it didn’t take much convincing before Maarten was back at it again. This ended up being the most brutal training yet and they fought every single day until Maarten graduated, which was a grueling right of passage where he fenced most of his fellow disciples one after the other for hours on end, simulating the fatigue of fighting on a battlefield, and finally emerged victorious, marking the end

of this challenging, but rewarding period of his life.

At a time when most weapons arts have turned into fancy games of tag or

martial dances, Shanzhaidao offers something unique; a complete system of authentic swordsmanship designed to teach you how to fight. The fact that it can easily be applied to other weapons, edged or not, ensures that it will remain relevant for many years to come. Due to the increased rarity of this knowledge, Maarten has decided to focus his energy on promoting and spreading the art of the Chinese Sabre, thus preserving it for future generations!

Swordsmanship: About

热炉功 – rèlúgōng

Warm-Up and



This group of simple, unarmed exercises is designed to warm up and loosen the body before training and to improve one's rooting, power, speed, flexibility etc. Many of the exercises are directly applicable to unarmed combat and frequent practise builds a strong foundation upon which any form of combat can be built..

Swordsmanship: About

Categories of Techniques

技巧分类 – jìqiǎo fēnlèi

These are the bread and butter of Shanzhaidao and together encompass all of the possible techniques and strategies of the system, which can then be combined with each other to decisively end the battle whilst avoiding injury to oneself.

​基本攻击动作     -  jīběn gōngjī dòngzuò       -  Basic Offensive Movements

防守动作             -  fángshǒu dòngzuò            -  Defensive Movements

复合攻击动作     -  fùhé gōngjī dòngzuò        -  Composite Offensive Movements

​​握刀法                 -  wòdāofǎ                              -  Grips

格斗式                 -  gédòu shì                            -  Guards

接刀攻击动作     -  jiēdāo gōngjī dòngzuò      -  Binding Offensive Movements

步法                      bù​fǎ                                      -  Footwork

骗法                     -  piàn​fǎ                                   -  Deception

Swordsmanship: About

8 Follow-step Sabre Methods

跟步八刀 – gēnbù bādāo

These methods all utilise the most basic footwork and are trained as a line drill

(à la Xingyiquan) to start developing the foundation of swordsmanship skills.

Some are more advanced, but learning them early on maximises training time.

             -                       -  Left and right-handed thrusts.

​点             -  diǎn                -  High and low thrusts where handle goes up and tip goes down.

斩/崩        -  zhǎn/bēng     -  Small downward and upward cuts to hand/forearm with blade tip.

击滑斩     -  jīhuázhǎn      -  Beat, then slide down opponent’s blade to cut hand with tip.

            -                     -  Block and deflect.

             -                      -  Block and beat.

            -  quān               -  Encircle opponent’s blade.

             -  jiǎo                  -  Entangle opponent’s blade.

Swordsmanship: About

4 Sabre-Wielding

Stepping Methods

持刀四步 – chídāo  sìbù

These drills are trained with the back foot planted and

the front foot stepping in various ways to train footwork,

whilst performing basic offensive and defensive techniques.

弓步架     -  gōngbù jià     -  Deep lunge whilst blocking and deflecting upwards.

提步刺     -  tíbù cì             -  Lift back leg whilst leaning forwards and thrusting.

抬步拦     -  táibù lán        -  Block/deflect low whilst raising front leg to evade.

跪步     -  guìbù sǎo       -  Kneel and deliver sweeping cut to leg.

Swordsmanship: About

8 Passing-step Sabre Methods

跨步八刀 – kuàbù bādāo

These two-handed power combinations are reliable and intuitive, yet adaptable and deceptive. They all utilise large, passing steps and require committing to the attack, letting the momentum of the moving blade do most of the work for you.

上半 – First Half

按捅     -  àntǒng        -  Knock sabre down to deliver low thrust whilst grasping blade.

抡劈     -  lūnpī           -  Large, vertically spinning splitting cuts.

挑劈     -  tiǎopī           -  Knock sabre aside to deliver large splitting cut on the other side.

裹劈     -  guǒpī           -  Wrap blade around head, then deliver large splitting cut on the other side.

下半 – Second Half

收捅     -  shōutǒng     -  Feign attack and deliver low thrust.

抡撩     -  lūnliāo         -  Large, vertically spinning rising cuts.

斜挥     -  xiéhuī          -  Large,  back-and-forth, drawing cuts, rising, then splitting.

横云     -  héngyún      -  Beat, then use opponent’s power to deliver large cut on the other side.

Swordsmanship: About


"No matter how good one's Gongfu is..

they will always fear a kitchen knife!"

Swordsmanship: Quote

4 Sabre-Wielding

Zhànzhuāng Methods

持刀四桩 – chídāo  sìzhuāng

These drills help develop a strong base, or root. Holding a sabre whilst doing so also helps to increase one's upper body strength.
Zhànzhuāng, which could be translated as standing like a post,
is an important training method in many Chinese martial arts.

预备式     -  yùbèi shì           -  Ready Stance

朝天式     -  cháotiān shì     -  High Guard Stance

举刀式     -  jǔdāo shì           -  Raising Stance

​架刀式     -  jiàdāo shì          -  Warding Stance

Swordsmanship: About

8 Circle-Step Sabre Methods

圈步八刀 – quānbù bādāo

These advanced methods are all performed whilst using Baguazhang footwork to move around a target and attack from an angle. They help develop a strong and flexible waist and improve wrist-strength and flexibility and, of course, footwork.

         -                  -  Block and deflect.

         -  zhā              -  Thrusts from outward angle to centre.

         -  tuī                -  Push and deflect whilst grasping blade.

         -  jiǎn              -  Small horizontal cuts to the hand/forearm with tip.

抡劈     -  lūnpī           -  Large, vertically spinning, splitting cuts.

抡撩     -  lūnliāo        -  Large, vertically spinning, rising cuts.

斜挥     -  xiéhuī         -  Large,  back-and-forth, drawing cuts, rising, then splitting.
横云     -  héngyún     -  Beat, then use opponent’s power to deliver large cut on the other side.

Swordsmanship: About


“Gongfu is just a horizontal stroke

and a vertical stroke.”

(The horizontal stroke represents

one's defeated opponent and the vertical stroke should represent you!)

Swordsmanship: Quote

Additional Training Methods

其他训练法 – qítā xùnliànfǎ

These solo and partner drills are designed to help practitioners apply the techniques and strategies mentioned above in fencing.

实战训练  -  shízhàn  xùnliàn  -  Two practitioners engage in full-contact fencing.

套招训练  -  tàozhāo xùnliàn  -  Two practitioners drill techniques at half-speed.

指令训练  -  zhǐlìng xùnliàn

One practitioner signals the other to use their footwork to move around the

   training area and attack or defend against an imaginary opponent.

镜像训练  -  jìngxiàng xùnliàn

One practitioner uses their footwork to move around the training area and         attacks or defends against an imaginary opponent whilst another

    practitioner mirrors their exact movements from a distance.

障碍训练  -  zhàngài xùnliàn

Practitioners engage in full-contact fencing with numerious obstacles

   scattered around the training area.

封闭训练  -  fēngbì xùnliàn

Practitioners engage in full-contact fencing whilst being blocked by

   a ring of obstacles and confined to a small space.

伤残训练  -  shāngcán xùnliàn

-  One practitioner is limited by a simulated injury whilst engaging in

    full-contact fencing with another practitioner.

​​防守训练  -  fángshǒu xùnliàn

One practitioner attacks another practitioner, who may only defend or                attack from the bind.

脱刀训练  - tuōdāo xùnliàn

Practitioners engage in full-contact fencing, starting from the bind.

粘刀训练  -  niándāo xùnliàn

Practitioners engage in light fencing, using only attacks from the bind.

混战训练  -  hùnzhàn xùnliàn

-  Three or more practioners engage in full-contact fencing!

血战训练  -  xuèzhàn xùnliàn

-  One practioner must engage in full-contact fencing with multiple attackers!

击吊球训练  -  jī diàoqiú  xùnliàn

Practioners attack a head-sized suspended ball.

击木人训练  -  jī mùrén  xùnliàn

Practioners attack a suspended wooden dummy.

击水平训练  -  shuǐpíng xùnliàn

Practioners attack a water bottle using a real sword.

击草人训练  -  cǎorén xùnliàn

Practioners attack a grass dummy using a real sword.

Swordsmanship: About
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内功 - Nèigōng

Internal Power Training

Shanzhaidao is an internal martial art. What does that even mean? According to Master Zou it means all of the things that he teaches in his house, as opposed to what others teach outside. Jokes aside, having internal power just means that one has trained to use the entire body, rather than just certain muscles. If one were to strike using just the power of their arm, it would be a large, obvious movement. When one uses their entire body to perform the same strike it seems as if they moved a lot less, yet it penetrates far deeper and the damage is much greater. It requires rapidly lowering one's centre-of-gravity and redirecting the rebounding energy through the core, using the waist, and out of the limbs.

This power is not cultivated by standing around trying to be at one with the universe, but is developed through hard work and bucket-loads of sweat. There is nothing even slightly mysterious about it and with the right training, if one is determined enough, results can be achieved in a matter of months, not years. Zou Shifu requires all students to pass character screening and be accepted as disciples before being offered this dangerous knowledge, hence it is called mìchuán (密传), or secretly-transmitted teachings.

Swordsmanship: About

级别 – jíbié

To help organise the curriculum, add some incentive to train hard and maintain social order, students of Shanzhaiquan and Shanzhaidao are divided into ranks. The unarmed and armed ranks are separate, though the two arts are quite complementary and learning one will significantly improve the other in many ways.

士        -  shì     -  Soldier                                    -  As a peasant conscript one can

                                                                                 expect to take a beating whilst

                                                                                  learning the basics.

尉        -  wèi    -  Junior Officer                       -  Attaining this rank means that one

                                                                                 has reached the intermediary level.

校        -  xiào   -  Field Officer                         -  Upon being accepted as a disciple,

                                                                                attaining this rank means that one

                                                                                has reached the advanced level and

                                                                                may now take on students.

将        -  jiàng  -  General                                 -  Attaining this rank means that one

                                                                                has learned all publicly-taught

                                                                                aspects of the system and may now

                                                                                learn the secret training methods

                                                                                and techniques.

帅        -  shuài  -  Commander in Chief        -  Upon defeating one's fellow students

                                                                                and disciples in an in-house

                                                                                tournament, attaining this rank

                                                                                means that one has learned and can

                                                                                use the complete system and is

                                                                                permitted to take on disciples.

Swordsmanship: About
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