Here is another installment of my proposed translation of the Saber Formula, beginning first with some additional thoughts about some of the stuff posted earlier in this thread.
First, I neglected to point out the correlation between the thirteen lines of the Saber Formula and the thirteen fundamental barehand T’ai Chi techniques. In addition, I believe there are thirteen fundamental saber techniques. I have read nothing explicit about this, but presume the correspondence must be intentional. The number thirteen is also correlated with the total of the eight (2 to 3rd power) trigrams or divinatory symbols (ba gua or pa kua) underlying the I Ching plus the five directions (front, back, left, right, and center).
By the way, if “Taiji Dao” means “T’ai Chi Saber,” and “Taiji Jian” means “T’ai Chi Sword,” then Taiji Quan, could be rendered as “T’ai Chi Fist(s)” to maintain parallel expressions. For clarity, I will stick, however, to references to the “barehand form.”
I know of no T’ai Chi significance to the number seven that would correlate to the seven characters in each line of the saber formula. Since I go into some depth about linguistic possibilities, I do want to point out, however, that the ideas expressed by the terms “character,” “word,” “syllable,” “stress unit,” and “meaning unit” (morpheme) are often loosely interchanged in discussions about Chinese. They have an unusual overlap in Chinese compared to many other world languages, but do not necessarily mean the same thing. Also, the distinctions in Chinese do not have the same significance as in English. In my proposed translation, I have kept to seven stress units (or beats) per line, rather than seven words or seven syllables. This gives needed flexibility to attempt to capture some of the wealth of nuance in the compact Chinese and probably reflects English poetic conventions better.
It occurs to me that some may be unaware of the role that that the Big Dipper has played in the lore of many northern cultures. To some, the Big Dipper was a plow; to others, of course, a dipper. To the ancient Greeks, it was the body and anatomically incorrect tail of a bear, which, together with other stars resembling the outline of legs and paws, formed the constellation Ursa Major (or Greater Bear) that prowled the northern skies.
In northern latitudes, roughly at the latitudes of Beijing, New York, Madrid, Rome, and further north, the Big Dipper is a very prominent and large cluster of stars (i.e., an asterism) that, unlike many others, does not rise and set, but remains visible all night throughout the year.
The Big Dipper appears to circle the North Pole, which was at the apex of what looked to ancient cultures like a celestial dome with stars imbedded in the surface. I do not know if this has any special significance for T'ai Chi, but note that the Chinese word for "pole" in this context (as in North Pole) is the same as the second word in "T'ai Chi" (or "tai ji" in more current usage) that is popularly translated as “ultimate.” It is also the same as the second word in "wu chi" (or "wu ji"). "T'ai Chi" (or Taiji) might be interpreted as the "great ridgepole" holding up the dome of the universe or the "great pole" from which the polarity of yin and yang originates. "Wu chi" (or “wuji”)(literally “no pole/polarity”) is the opposite, something like "primeval chaos" or "undifferentiated preexistence."
"Riding the tiger" may also have additional associations. From somewhere I recall that "riding a tiger" was viewed in some culture or other as a bold, but foolish act. Although you might control the tiger from its back, perhaps by grabbing the ears, you would be eaten once you dismounted for your hubris. In other words, "he who sows the wind will reap the whirlwind." I cannot say, however, whether this image existed in traditional Chinese culture.
The "jiao" in "jiao dao" that I have translated first as "pass" and then as "switch" has as a core meaning of "hand over." This would be apt, because this phrase corresponds to the movement in the form where the left hand sweeps the saber hilt in front of the body (the hilt and blade are cradled in the left elbow, resting on the arm, with the point to the left) in order to make it contact the right palm for the first time. I have not used “hand over” as a translation, however, because it would make the rhythmic line exceed seven beats.
It has also been pointed out to me that "jiao" has another core meaning, which is to "cross," with extended meanings of “interact” or “exchange.” "Jiao feng" means to "cross (the edges of) swords" and "jiao zhan" means to "engage in battle/war." Accordingly, "jiao dao" might also be interpreted as "cross sabers (with someone)."
To try to capture all these meanings and for esthetic reasons, I propose changing the translation of this phrase to "wield the saber." This may be slightly misleading, however, because I believe Chinese has other words, like "hui1," which may more properly mean to "brandish."
One item of information I can add about “tengnuo,” which I previously translated as “shifting clear,” is that Jou Tsung Hwa used this term in his book (The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan, Way to Rejuvenation) in quoting the torso methods (shen1 fa3) of Wu Yu Xiang and Li Yi Yu, leading lights of the Wu/Hao Style. He translates “tengnuo” as “skipping,” listing it as the seventh torso method and saying:
“Like a cat waiting for a rat, one assumes a state of relaxed intention, as if preparing for action, yet holding back for the right moment. Then with precise timing one “skips” to accomplish one’s goal. This method is characterized by relaxed concentration.”
Perhaps the underlying concept under the various meanings of “teng” and “tengnuo” is “clearance,” resulting in the more specific meanings of “leap,” “prance,” “soar up,” “make room,” “transfer,” “clear out,” etc. (John DeFrancis ABC Chinese English Dictionary also lists it as a suffix indicating quick and repeated activity, as in “fanteng” (“turn something over and over”).
I am not sure what to make of all this, but given what Louis has said earlier in this thread, perhaps the liveliness of a bouncing ball or prancing horse is what is being referenced for T’ai Chi purposes. “Bounding forth” might be one way of hinting at all this. Taking into account the spreading of the arms as “nuo” is intoned, I now propose translating “tengnuo” as “bounding clear.”
Right after “tengnuo,” Jou Tsung Hwa lists “shanzhan” in his book as the eighth Wu/Hao Style Torso Method, using the character for “war” (“zhan4”) for the second syllable of the compound, rather than the character for unfold (“zhan3”) as in the Yang Style Saber Formula. As Louis has mentioned earlier in this thread, these two compounds seem related. Jou Tsung Hwa also translates “shan3zhan4” as “blitzkrieg” (German for “lightning war” and an exact match for the Chinese compound). He describes the method as follows:
“Unity in action characterizes the body, limbs and waist. The mind is kept alert and coherent, prepared at any moment to release energy, or Chin, like an arrow ready to leave the bow. The mind and body are both prepared for action, as swift as a sudden clap of thunder. Just as an eagle swoops down to catch its prey, move with direct intention as if no opponent could block the way.”
All of this seems to fit the physical movement of the Saber Form, since the word “zhan” corresponds to what resembles a circular parry to the right while planting the right foot and as one then steps into a left bow stance, thrusts the left palm to the side (to “nine o’clock”) and thrusts the saber straight forward.
One other tidbit about "shan3" (flash, lightning; evade, dodge) in the second line is that Jou Tsung Hwa used this character for the Chen posture he translated as "Fan through the Back." For the similar Yang Style posture, however, he used the character for “fan,” i.e., shan3. Elsewhere, I have seen this Chen posture translated as “Flash the Back.”
Another possible nuance of “yiqi yang” in the second line might be to “make one’s feelings known,” in addition to “lifting one’s mood.” Altogether the possible range of nuances might be: “Raise your will and spirit (i.e., mood) to flutter like a flag for all to see.”
“Yu nü” is conventially translated as “fair lady” or “jade lady,” but I have been informed since my previous post that this phrase conventionally referred to a refined, upper class virgin girl. “Fair maid” might capture a little of this nuance, although something is always lost when one deviates from conventional translations. By the way, I think I neglected to point out that this phrase could be legitimately translated as plural, i.e., “fair maids/ladies.”
Continuing with the eighth line of the Saber Formula, the Chinese is:
"Er4 qi3 jiao3 lai2 da3 hu3 shi4."
"Er qi jiao" literally means "two rise (or rising) leg(s)." This is the name of a special kick that Yang Jun explained is actually not performed in the Yang Style Saber Form.
“Er qi” is also an element in a Chen and in a Wu/Hao style bare-hands posture, which Jou Tsung Hwa translated as “kick twice.” In the Chen posture, one begins standing on the right leg with the left leg bent and held off the ground. I believe one then leaps up, leading with the left leg in a rising kick and then slapping the right foot with the right palm, as the right leg scissors upward. In the Wu/Hao posture, it appears from Jou Tsung Hwa’s illustrations that one only does a toe kick with the right foot, without a jump. In the Yang Saber Form, one shifts weight to the left leg and then kicks up with the right leg, toes pointed horizontally, and slaps the top of the foot with the right palm (the saber has already been cradled in the left elbow).
“Lai” literally means “come,” but is probably here simply for rhythmic purposes, without any real meaning. “Da hu shi” is “Strike the Tiger Posture” and indicates almost the same movements as in the bare hand form.
For the eighth line, I would propose this translation for rhythmic purposes:
“Two legs rising come and Strike the tiger postures.”
The Chinese for the ninth line is:
“Pi1 shen1 xie2 gua4 yuan1 yang0 jiao3.”
“Pi” is “open,” “unroll,” or “drape.” (One dictionary I have includes the meaning “split, chop” for this particular character; but I wonder about this, even with the comments I make below. Written with a different character, however, “Pi” can definitely mean “split” or “chop.”) “Shen” is “body.” “Pi shen” is probably “open up the body” or “drape the body,” and maybe also “chop the body.” “Xie” is “slanting” or “diagonal,” and “gua4” is “hang,” or possibly “get hung up or caught on something.” I think “pi shen xie gua” is probably “drape the body and hang aslant.”
There is a Chen bare-hand posture listed by Jou Tsung Hwa called “Pi1 shen1 chui2.” He translated it as “Chop opponent with fist,” perhaps because of its correspondence to the Yang Style posture or perhaps because “pi” written with this character truly can mean “chop.” “Pi shen chui” sounds very close to “Pie1 shen1 chui2,” which is the core of the name of the Yang Style Posture “Chop with Fist.” However, the characters of the Chen posture and the body movement correspond better to the Yang Style saber posture that resembles the Turn the Body and Kick with Right Foot that follows the second Strike the Tiger in the bare-hand form. Something is clearly going on here with all this name similarity, but what it is remains unclear to me. Perhaps, it is an attempt to build new posture names on old models.
I have a description of the application of this Chen bare-hand posture; however, I only partially understand it. It has elements of stepping diagonally to the left, “draping” the left arm around the opponent’s right punching arm, and using the weight to make the opponent’s posture lean over in a slanting position. There is a punch or strike to the face with the right fist that might be a back fist, but the description I have de-emphasizes it, showing it only in a ready position that is ambiguous in its intent.
“Yuan Yang” apparently means “gander and goose” (or perhaps the reverse) of the Mandarin Duck species and symbolizes “conjugal fidelity” according to Mathews’. “Jiao” is “foot/feet” or “leg(s),” or, loosely speaking, “kick(s).” “Yuan yang jiao” apparently refers to a specific type of martial arts kick, or probably double kick, that Yang Jun explained is also not performed in the Yang Saber set. In the set, the kick seems to be reduced to a regular heel kick, except that one lightly touches the toes with the right hand fingers as the leg kicks out.
I have been unable to find out anything about the original reference of this kick and would welcome any input. The only other double kicks that come to my mind are double crescent kicks, a front kick followed by a higher side-angled kick, and perhaps a double leg sweep (which I have seen in a Chen form). Only the front kick followed by the side kick would seem remotely like the saber posture. In the absence of information, I would propose translating this kick as “lovebird kick.”
For line nine, I would propose the translation:
“Drape the body, hang it aslant and Lovebird kick.”
Line ten of the Chinese is:
“Shun4 shui3 tui1 zhou1 bian1 zuo4 gao1.”
“Shun shui” means “following the current” (literally, “water”). “Tui zhou” means “pushing the small boat/canoe (with a pole).” “Bian” is “whip(s)” and “zuo gao” is “doing the job of a pole/poles.” I seem to recall that the Yangs pronounced “gao” in the third tone for some reason. I list it in the first tone, since that is what my dictionaries show and because doing so would make figuring out the character easier, for those so inclined. Altogether, these phrases seem to mean: “The whip that is pushing the boat along with the current is acting as a punting pole.”
Physically, this line corresponds to a 270-degree clockwise spin on the right leg with the saber extended out and downward and the left leg extended in the opposite direction. The motion resembles what one would do in a kayak to make a sudden sharp turn, perhaps with the current, using the paddle to hold a place in the water around which the kayak would spin. At the end of the spin, the saber is circled around the head, pointing downward and tracing a protective cylinder around the upper body, in a whip-like motion that ends in a diagonal downward slash from left to right.
For line ten, I propose:
“Push the boat to follow the stream, the whip will serve as a pole.”
Altogether we have so far:
“The Seven stars Ride the tiger to Wield the saber postures.
Bounding clear and Flashing open, Raising will and spirit.
Look left, Gaze right, the Two parts extend.
The White crane airs its wings and Five-element palm.
The Wind turns the lotus flower and Hides it in the leaves.
The fair maid works the shuttles to the eight sides postures.
The Three Stars open and close to Extend by their own will.
Two legs rising come and Strike the tiger postures.
Drape the body, hang aslant and Lovebird kick.
Push the boat to follow the stream, the Whip will serve as a pole.”
The last installment of the formula will come when time permits. Again, I would appreciate comments or input on practice, wording, or explanations.