Youth Chinese Swordsmanship Camp a Very Successful First

Written by Great River

The last three years have seen a tremendous growth in Chinese swordsmanship. In this short time, the art moved literally from the precipice of extinction to having a worldwide following. One spark for this expansion was a pivotal work, Chinese Swordsmanship – the Yang Family Taiji Jian Tradition by Scott M. Rodell. Rodell is a disciple student of Wang Yennien who also studied taiji jian with T.T. Liang (Zheng Manqing’s senior student). The wide popularity of Chinese Swordsmanship naturally led to the author receiving multiple invitations to present seminars at home and abroad. Teaching seminars on three different continents, Teacher Rodell’s efforts helped carry the art of Chinese Swordsmanship from obscurity and near extinction to wide recognition as a powerful and effective sword art. Most recently (July ’06), Rodell began a new phase in his teaching program, instructing children. Along with his 8 1/2 year old son, Feihong, he traveled Down Under to help create a children’s swordsmanship program in Australia.

American Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan Association Vol. 14 #2

One could say that Feihong’s training started in the womb. His mother practiced Yangjia Michuan Taijiquanright up until his birth and still practices. His father told him about the eight basic movements and basic sword cuts while he was still in his mother’s belly. Not surprisingly, Feihong had a sword in his hand before he could walk properly. As he grew, Feihong received instruction from his father in the basic cuts of the Yangjia Michuan Taiji Jian system, as well as two-man drills and free swordplay. Like all boys, Feihong prefers the latter. Teacher Rodell also taught him the use of the Chinese two-handed saber (miaodao) and saber and shield work to broaden his understanding of swordsmanship. At the age of seven, Feihong began sport foil fencing at a local academy, as his father felt he needed to play kids his own age and not just adults. So when the opportunity to help his father lead a seminar arose, Feihong was ready.

Linda Heenan, one of Rodell’s students, organized the Children’s Sword Camp. She also organizes the Australian Branch of Great River Taoist Center. GRTC’s Children’s Program started a club after school with a small core group of boys and girls. Mrs. Heenan’s experience as a grade school teacher provided her with the knowledge and experience needed for teaching the children. Her training in Yangjia Michuan Taiji Jian under Rodell gave her the material she needed for a curriculum. But she had other problems to work out, such as creating safe equipment for the children to use for their training. With the help of classmates from as far away as Estonia, she was able to find the right fencing masks and other safety equipment. However, no padded jian appropriate for children are commercially available, so Mrs. Heenan created them herself.

One evening she and her classmate, Tashi James, got together to solve the problem of a safe, children’s jian. Hilts were created using a practice jian as a template. The design was cut from thick leather with glued inserts between the two halves to build up a pommel. Lengths of dowel, padded with closed cell camping mat foam glued around them, were used to form the blade. Electrical tape provided stability for the padding. This padded blade was covered with a sock that was taped in place. This cloth covering was essential for allowing the swords to slide against each other as true steel swords would. The leather hilts were glued and riveted around the protruding dowel end, which acted as a tang. The hilts were finally fixed into position and made strong and slip-proof by means of split pins. The final stage was to wrap the hilts with cloth and then electrical tape. This covered the split pins and gave the familiar oval shape to the grip. Even though the swords were small and padded, they needed to have a good balance and the right feel in the hand. A correct grip is important for wrist flexibility and accurate cuts. Where children are concerned, small, easily damaged wrists need to be considered.

After deflecting, Feihong Rodell, on left, steps forward to delver a thrust.

Mrs. Heenan strongly believes that training children is one little thing she can do to strengthen the future of the lineage from which she has gained so much. She feels it is a way of giving back some of the countless hours her teacher has spent on her training. Those who attended the club sessions prior to the camp were taught correct grip, stances and most of the basic cuts. They did precision work, played games that emphasized correct movements, and engaged in free swordplay as often as they could persuade Mrs. Heenan they were ready for it.

It had been no easy task to persuade parents that swordsmanship was a worthwhile pursuit for their children. Sports such as soccer have a firm hold on the thinking of Australian families. Most had to choose one or the other, and the attraction of activities friends were already involved in was too much for some. Yet the rewards of young students joining the program balanced out the disappointments and the club grew. Linda enjoyed many special moments, like when an 11-year-old girl announced that she planned to be the first child to learn the Yangjia Michuan Taiji Jian form. As far as she knows, Mrs. Heenan is the only Australian to practice all eight sections of the jian form, and it will be interesting to see if her child student can become the second.

On the first day of the children’s sword camp, Rodell and his son assistant, Feihong, found themselves faced with a room full of enthusiastic young Australians. The Rodells began with the program they worked out at home in America. “We’ll teach by me and my dad demonstrating,” Feihong explained.

Young students practice a voiding drill to learn how to yield.

Teaching children historical swordsmanship is quite different from teaching adults. Kids obviously aren’t going to focus long enough to learn forms or even do the taiji basic exercises to stretch out. Instead of more traditional taijiquan basic exercises, the Rodells led the group in stretching exercises common to many gym classes. Once stretched out, they moved right into simple callisthenic-like sit-ups and push-ups. Teacher Rodell was concerned to find that many children had a fair deal of trouble with 20 sit-ups and so was happy they decided to include calisthenics in the swordsmanship program. “Obesity is a real problem amongst children today,” said Rodell, “none of our kids were seriously overweight and we want to keep it that way.”

In order to keep things simple and to produce real results, the program focused on three basic cuts from the Yangjia Michuan Taiji Jian system. Teacher Rodell chose the ci (thrust), pi (split) and liao (upward slice) cuts. He chose these three for two reasons. The first reason is they are cuts that are quite effective in many situations and facing a variety of weapons. The second is they are fairly easy to learn while developing important skills that will take students further. They are also cuts common to most systems of Chinese jian swordsmanship.

In many ways, the format of the instruction was parallel to that of the adult Chinese swordsmanship seminars Rodell regularly leads. The major difference between the children’s training and that of adults is the length of time spent on each segment of the training. Also, one just has to use games when teaching children. They are very competitive, so one has to find ways to use this creatively, in a healthy fashion.

In order to keep things simple and to produce real results, the program focused on three basic cuts from the Yangjia Michuan Taiji Jian system. Teacher Rodell chose the ci (thrust), pi (split) and liao (upward slice) cuts. He chose these three for two reasons. The first reason is they are cuts that are quite effective in many situations and facing a variety of weapons. The second is they are fairly easy to learn while developing important skills that will take students further. They are also cuts common to most systems of Chinese jian swordsmanship.

In many ways, the format of the instruction was parallel to that of the adult Chinese swordsmanship seminars Rodell regularly leads. The major difference between the children’s training and that of adults is the length of time spent on each segment of the training. Also, one just has to use games when teaching children. They are very competitive, so one has to find ways to use this creatively, in a healthy fashion.

Stepping relays combined the training of necessary movements with enthusiasm and sportsmanship. The children quickly learnt the difference between a half step with a thrust and galloping thoughtlessly up the court. Incorrect stepping was met with calls of “No, go back and start again,” from Rodell. The young students knew the penalty for coming last in such a relay was push-ups, star jumps or sit-ups. Avoiding the amusement of the winners, who mercilessly counted each and every sit-up the last place team performed, was also a large incentive. They loved the relays, despite the penalties, collapsing into giggles with one too many push-ups and cheering when it was the other team’s turn.

Children regularly attending the swordsmanship club enjoy precision games such as the ring toss. Each child attempts to catch 10 rope rings spun into the air by using ci to thrust the sword through the center. A beginner player is considered successful when he or she can catch 8 out of 10 with the stronger hand and 6 out of 10 with the weaker. The aim is to gradually reach 100% accuracy.

The universally best-loved competition during the seminar was a daily tournament. Children were paired in short matches that ended when one side scored three clear points. Many of these matches went down to the last point at two all, generating animated encouragement from the audience. Sometimes Teacher Rodell would pause the action after a point to instruct on better deflections, more useful strikes and good body mechanics, making the exercise useful to the watchers as well as the participants. He found himself most often asking, “How should we move the sword to deflect?” to which the students replied in chorus, “With the waist!” Winners of the beginning rounds were then matched until the competition narrowed to a final pair. Feihong Rodell, despite being one of the youngest, won these competitions repeatedly. This did not put the others off. They knew where his training had come from and saw him as a challenge, eagerly volunteering to play him. In response to requests and prodding from the children, Linda and her teacher, Rodell, faced each other with full-weight wooden swords. Perhaps it is part of the Australian way, but just as the children choose to be matched with Feihong, Linda, with no chance of winning, relished the opportunity of swordplay with her teacher simply for its learning value.

Feihong Rodell on right, deflects & circles his jian forward to score with a zha cut.

Much was achieved during over the Youth Camp. Feihong noted, “The kids learned not to hit the sword,” but to deflect and go for a cut to the body. He also wrote it was interesting because it was summer, but winter there. “It was fun because it was my first time teaching.” “In a few short days, these kids really did learn the basics of jian swordsmanship,” noted Rodell. “They have nothing in the way, so they learn very quickly.”

It is unfortunate that many Chinese martial arts, once carefully preserved in the lives of well-trained disciples, have vanished irretrievably from our world. The art of Chinese swordsmanship in particular has wavered precariously on the brink of extinction. Given the inconsistency of human nature, wisdom dictates more than passing on a tradition to one’s immediate students. A visionary teacher may feel his job is done when the students of his students are teaching the art correctly to their own students; a bridge created from not one, but four generations. These children taking the first steps into our revived tradition of Chinese swordsmanship are a small part today but a huge leap towards the future preservation of Yangjia Michuan Taiji Jian and Chinese swordsmanship

Collectively Written By Great River Students