Saber Posture Names

sabre, sword, spear, etc

Saber Posture Names

Postby greengk » Thu Sep 20, 2001 2:19 pm

I am interested in learning about the posture names for saber form. I noticed that sword and empty hand form postures are given on the site; but there is no list for saber. Does anyone have list/information about the saber posture names?

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Postby Audi » Sat Sep 22, 2001 4:33 pm

Hi Greg,

Unlike the barehand form and the straight sword form, the saber form does not really have a standard list of postures. Instead, it is described by a poem-like oral formula (kou jue) consisting of thirteen lines/verses, each having seven characters/words. This was used as a mnemonic device to remember the sequence.

In effect, one performs the saber form to a poem whose movement rhythms are only loosely connected to the spoken rhythms. Each verse typically corresponds to several saber techniques or "postures."

For instance the first verse, loosely translated, goes: "Seven stars ride the tiger hand over saber posture(s)." (Qi xing kua hu jiao dao shi.) It roughly corresponds to forming a posture like Step up to Seven Stars and then Step Back to Ride the Tiger from the barehand form and finally grabbing the saber with the right hand while it rests in the left.

I have not yet seen a true English translation of the Saber oral formula, although at a recent seminar there was a sheet that mostly focused on describing the postures, rather than on translating the Chinese. The problem is that one can really attempt to do only one of three things: translate the Chinese "poem," describe the movements, or create a list of the principle postures where none currently exists in Chinese.

The descriptions in the sheet that were handed out would be helpful for someone learning the form, but were often too lengthy to match performance or reference needs. Yang Jun simply stuck to the Chinese. There seem to be so many ways in which the Association can or must focus its energy that there may not yet be a convenient "posture list" for the saber, like the other forms.

As a thought exercise, I have been considering attempting a "translation" that would be as "performable" as the Chinese, but have hesitated because of the work involved and because a few of the terms and allusions are beyond the reach of my dictionaries and experience.

I am sure this is more than you bargained for, but if you or others would be interested, I would suggest attempting a public translation on the Board, line by line, that would have thirteen lines, each including seven rhythmic beats, or perhaps seven words. I do not have the time to put up the whole thing at once, but could proceed a few lines at a time. We could exchange explanations for literary allusions, as well as explore the rich ambiguities in the Chinese. Even those with no knowledge of Chinese or Chinese culture could add what they know from the form, T'ai Chi lore, or from their own aesthetic sense.

Anyone interested?

Take care,

[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 09-23-2001).]

[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 09-23-2001).]
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Postby greengk » Mon Sep 24, 2001 3:42 pm

Hey Audi,

Thanks for the response. I would definitely be interested in a translation. All I've come across are scattered words without the connections that you have suggested in your "loose translation". It doesn't seem like there is much access to English descriptions. I also posted to another list asking about the saber form. Barbara Davis (translator of the Chen Wei-Ming sword treatise) and some others posted; but did not have anything to add as far as posture/movement names.

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Postby Louis Swaim » Mon Sep 24, 2001 5:23 pm


Yes, this would be interesting. I look forward to Audi’s efforts. I seem to recall that Chen Yenlin’s (Chen Gong) book has a different version of the oral formula, containing many of the same lines, sometimes ordered differently. I also think it has more than 13 lines.

Reproducing the rhythm and cadence of the original would be a challenge. The seven-character formula is very common for taijiquan koujue or “ge” (songs, chants). As Audi mentions these had a particular mnemonic intent. For those with young children, you may have noticed that many nursery rhymes follow this seven-beat formula: twinkle twinkle little star. Even William Blake picked up on this:

tiger tiger burning bright,
in the forest of the night.

I believe phone numbers were created in seven digits with this easy recall feature in mind. (That was before area codes and prefixes began to breed in the night.)

I think also that Chen Yanlin’s saber form instructions do name individual postures, but I don’t know how helpful that would be since he sequences the form differently. Another thing to check out is Peter Lim’s website. Somewhere on there he has Li Yiyu’s saber document, which is even more laconic than the koujue—I think it is just thirteen individual characters, each naming a basic technique. This may have been the earliest taiji saber text.

Take care,

[This message has been edited by Louis Swaim (edited 09-24-2001).]
Louis Swaim
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Postby DavidJ » Mon Sep 24, 2001 9:54 pm

Hi Greg, Audi, Louis,

Though I cannot attest to the accuracy of the names, you may find the list(s) here interesting.

This site is from one of Tung Kai Ying's students who teaches in Denmark:


David J

[This message has been edited by DavidJ (edited 09-24-2001).]
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Postby Audi » Wed Sep 26, 2001 11:15 am

Hi all,

Below are my first musings on translating the saber formula. I am at the limit of my competence in several fields here and so welcome any suggestions or help. I have 100% confidence on very little of what I say below, but do not bother qualifying every statement with "probably," "as I recall," etc. Many of the definitions come from my dictionaries and not from my personal memory or experience.

Here is my proposal for the first line:

"Seven stars ride the tiger and pass the saber postures."

The Chinese is: Qi1 Xing1 kua4 hu3 jiao1 dao1 shi4.

"Qi" means "seven." "Xing" means star or stars. "Qi xing" means "seven stars" and presumable refers to the Big Dipper, because the shape of the body and hands forms the bowl of the dipper, and the legs form the handle. "Kua hu" means "bestride/mount the tiger." "Mount" is probably more accurate than "ride," but I chose to stick with the usual English name from the bare-hand form.

What the relationship is between the "seven stars" and "mounting the tiger" is completely ambiguous as far as I can tell. The sense, for instance, could be: "[Form] Seven-Stars, and then Mount the tiger!" I chose a rendering that could be interpreted as "the seven stars are mounting the tiger."

"Jiao" means "hand over," "deliver," or "pass." This word is said when the sword is swung back to join the right palm. The "and" I introduce in the translation could be implied. "Dao" means "knife/knives" or "saber(s)." "Shi" is "posture(s)," "gesture(s)," or "form(s)." I do not believe this word can be used as a verb, however. I choose "postures," but "posture" is also possible.

All in all, I think the precise grammatical relationship between these words is amiguous in English, but even more so in Chinese. For instance, the word "posture(s)" could refer to all three couplets, or just the last one. What the subjects are of the verbs is left to the imagination.

The whole line could be construed as one awkward sentence, or as the names of three separate postures named one after the other. I have tried to chose a rendering that is maximally ambiguous, although this is difficult because of English comma usage.

For the second line I propose:

"Shifting clear and flashing open, raising will and spirit."

The Chinese is "teng2 nuo2 shan3 zhan3 yi4 qi4 yang2."

"Teng" is "gallop," "prance," "soar," "rise," "make room," or "transfer." In the form, it corresponds physically to stepping forward with the left leg and pushing the joined hands forward. "Nuo" is "shift" or "move." In the form, it corresponds to standing on one leg and separating the arms. "Tengnuo" as a compound apparently means "make room."

"Shan" means "[lightening] flash," "dodge," or "get out of the way." In the form, it corresponds to bringing the sword back in to meet the left hand. "Zhan" is "open up," "spread out," "exhibit," etc. This word is chanted as one steps down with the right leg, parries, steps forward and thrusts.

"Yi" is "will," "mind," "intent," "mind-intent," etc. "Qi" is "breath," "air," "energy," or "vital principle." "Yiqi" as a compound means "spirit," and "yiqi yang" together means something like "in high spirits." These words are chanted during the two times the sword blade is pushed forward at a 45% angle with the back of the saber horizontally facing the body.

Again, what exactly does the "raising" is not clear in the Chinese, so I have tried to give an ambiguous rendering by judicious use of commas, gerund/participle forms, and the possibly implied word "and." In other words, one could interpret the line as meaning that three separate actions are performed in succession, or that the first two actions produce the third.

So far, I am proposing:

"Seven stars ride the tiger and pass the saber postures.
"Shifting clear and flashing open, raising will and spirit."

More to come when time allows.

Take care,
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Postby Louis Swaim » Fri Sep 28, 2001 7:32 am

Greetings Audi,

Very nice! I’ve gathered some findings on “seven stars” which I’ll just relay impressionistically. I don’t claim any kind of penetrating understand of the historical importance of qixing, but you can just consider these to be leads in an ongoing investigation.

Seven Stars (qixing) most often refers, as you wrote, to the big dipper (beidou). It is one of the 28 lunar “mansions.” Its cosmological significance (and association with tigers) goes well back in time, as evidenced by some wording in a numerological passage in the early Han compendium, the Huainanzi. A line states that “seven governs the stars.” This is followed by a line stating “The stars govern the tiger.” John Majors explains this in his translation, _Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi_:

“Seven is the number of the stars in a twofold sense: there are seven stars in the Dipper, and also seven ‘stars’ (properly, asterisms) that move through the sky, those being the sun, the moon, and the five naked-eye planets. . . . It is not obvious why the stars should govern the tiger, though one might note that the tiger was one of the familiars of a celestial deity much admired in the Han: Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West.” (Majors, p. 178)

The qixing name is rather pervasive in Chinese culture, again pointing to an honored place in traditional cosmology. Among the things the Hanyu Da Cidian lists: a qixingguan, “a cap worn by daoists” carrying a seven star design on top; a qixingtan, “an alter used by daoists to honor the seven stars of the big dipper”; a qixingdeng, and kind of ceremonial oil lamp; and a qixingche, a euphemism for a lingche, i.e., a hearse (!). There is also a Qixing Yan, a famous cave/grotto in Guilin (I’ve been there!). Finally, there is the qixingjian, glossed as “gu bao jian”—an ancient double edged sword having a seven star design. Sound familiar? Does anyone know if there is a story or tradition with which the seven star sword is associated? The Ci Hai dictionary list a qixingzhuang, a kind of post that martial artists used for training jin in their legs.

My _Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian_ (Dictionary of Essential Taijiquan terminology) has an entry for qixing: “A technical term in taijiquan. It refers to the seven key areas of the human body: head, shoulders, elbows, hands, kua, knees, and feet.” I’ve seen other theories as to the body referents of the seven stars. In Jane Shorre’s book, _How to Grasp the Bird’s Tail_, she says that the crossing forearms in the taijiquan posture so named “seem to form the character qi. . . . We can think of this as a sort of salute to the seven stars of the Northern Dipper, considered in China to be the sacred, polar center of cosmic order. It is called the Heavenly Gates, and it represent the place of origin and return, the unmoved mover, and the still point of the turning heavens. To reach the seven stars is to be in unity, rhythm and harmony with the movement of the universe.” (p. 103) She mentions that the Dipper played a key part in the early daoist moving meditation known as Pacing the Network of Heaven.

An even earlier version of this, the Pace of Yu, was described in the Han dynasty book, Baopuzi. Catherine Despeux’s essay, “Gymnastics: The Ancient Tradition,” identifies the Pace of Yu as a sort of proto-Daoyin exercise upon which many later ritual exercises and dances were based. She writes, “The dances are . . . conceived of as a means of resolving the congestion and stagnation of vital energy, to ensure its healthy circulation within human beings, as much as they are used to help the flow of the rives on the earth. The loosening of the limbs and proper guidance of the qi is one of the essential functions of daoyin. One may remember in this context the Pace of Yu, used in a large number of Taoist rituals, which, according to the original myth, was first used to ‘regulate the waters’ and thereby establish a well-functioning spatio-temproal model of the world.” (p. 238, in Livia Kohn, ed., _Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques_)

Going back to my to my opening reference to the Huainanzi line, “The stars govern the tiger,” I’m intrigued by the conjunction of the “seven stars” motif and the “astride tiger” or “riding the tiger” motif in both the taijiquan and taijidao forms. To me it evokes the collecting and gathering of the seven stars of one’s body in either the overpowering of a tiger, or an appropriation/assimilation of the tiger’s strength and majesty.

By the way, here is a link to an interesting site. I recommend exploring the various page links, including the reproductions from the famous marial artist/general for the 1600s, Qi Jiguang’s saber manual. The illustrations are striking!

Take care,
Louis Swaim
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Postby Louis Swaim » Sat Sep 29, 2001 10:31 pm

Greetings Audi,

Here are some more provisional findings—these on the terms tengnuo and shanzhan appearing in the second line of the “Taijidao Jue.” My translations of dictionary entries here are kind of on-the-fly, but I hope that they will add some perspective. These terms seem to be parts of the taiji corpus that have not been presented in any translations that I’m aware of, so they are terms in search of conventions. The meaning of these terms range from fairly mundane to extremely subtle (i.e., Hao Yueru’s statements below). You’re charting new territory.

The Hanyu Da Cidian has an entry for tengnuo:

tengnuo: 1. Nuoyong [which means to divert (funds), to misappropriate, or embezzle; diaohuan: [to exchange, change or swap]. 2. Refers to fleeing and dodging, evasive movements in the boxing arts.

The Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian (Dictionary of Essential Taijiquan terminology) has the following entry:

tengnuo: A training essential in taijiquan. It refers to posture/configuration and shape (shi4 yu xing2) in taijiquan body method training. Hao Yueru [1877–1935] said: “When there is the intention for a move, but before the move itself, and in advance of the posture/form (shi)—this is called tengnuo.

In the same dictionary, there is an entry for “shanjin,” explaining that it is one of the jinfa (energy methods) of taijiquan. I first encountered the term shan in Yang Chengfu’s Da Lu section in his book Taijiquan Ti Yong Quan Shu, and as quoted in Fu Zhongwen’s Da Lu section of his book. Here it carried the meaning of a “lightning strike.” Also in the Jingxuan Taijiquan Cidian, there is an entry for “shanzhan.” Here, the second half of the compound is zhan4 (war, fight), but the 4–character phrase with the zhan3 (open, spread, unfold) is mentioned:

shanzhan4: A training essential in taijiquan. It is often used together with “tengnuo,” or called “shanzhan3 tengnuo.” The meaning is similar. It refers to the lively martial body methods of taijiquan. Hao Yueru said: “Torso, hands, waist, and legs mutually accord and follow (xiangshun xiangsui), forming a coherent whole (yiqihecheng). In issuing outwardly, the jin is like releasing an arrow, swift as a thunderbolt, invincible. This is called shanzhan.

I’ll note that I came across a variant of the four-character formulation in the form instructions for Jade Maiden Threads Shuttle in Wu Gongzao’s early book on Wu style taijiquan. The form instructions in this book are in elegant seven- or five-character per-line verse. For Jade Maiden, the verse is eight lines of seven. The second line is “shan zhuan teng nuo qian hou ying.” The zhuan3 here is “turn,” and the “qian hou ying” I would render “responding both forward and back.” I’m reluctant to venture a full rendering without giving it considerable time.

Other contexts and usages involving “shan” are comparatively accessible. The terms shandianzhan and shanjizhan, for example, are equivalent to “blitzkrieg,” but I can’t ascertain whether or not the Chinese term preceded the German one. The meaning of “to dodge” seems fairly core to the word. The first citation under shan in the Ci Hai is “duobi,” which means to hide, to avoid, to dodge. Some of the many entries for shan in the Hanyu Da Cidian include, 1. “to steal a glance from within a doorway” [the graph is of course “ren” a person inside of “men” a door]. 2. “huyin huxian” [“suddenly hidden, suddenly appearing” a phrase, by the way, that occurs in the Taijiquan Treatise!], “turan xianxian”—to suddenly appear. 3. to dodge, to yield, give way.

Well, this is just scratching the surface. The issue with “shan” is whether to capture the entailments of “dodging, avoiding,” or those of an instantaneous action, a flash in the brief instance of opportunity that appears as though glimpsed through a partially opened door.

Take care,
Louis Swaim
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Postby Audi » Sun Sep 30, 2001 4:11 pm

Hi Louis, Greg, David, and all,

David, thanks for the link to the Danish site. I am surprised by the apparent existence of two saber forms, also handed down by Yang Cheng Fu, both of which seem to have substantially different terminology from what the Yangs are teaching. Does anyone have information about this or about what sequence Fu Zhong Wen taught?

Louis, thanks for the fascinating information. It provides interesting imagery and glimpse of additional depths in T'ai Chi was unware of.

I had not known that tengnuo and shanzhan were T'ai Chi terms of art, and was unaware that shanzhan was a compound word. To further complicate matters, my recollection is that at least the first three of these four syllables were pronounced quite separately with pauses after each, so that the impression was that each corresponded to a specific movement.

I chose to render "teng" as "shifting," because my impression during the performance was of shifting the weight and posture forward, and perhaps crowding the opponent out of the way. I rendered "nuo" (which, by the way, I heard one Hebei native at the seminar pronounce with a variant vowel, perhaps as "ne") as "clear" to try to capture the sense of making room of the compound as a whole and leaving the sense of "shifting" to the first word.

Your transmission of the T'ai Chi meaning of visualizing a movement before performing it is an interesting one, but I have no ideas about how to convey this. Perhaps the core meaning is something like clearing out mental space to prepare for further action.

I was aware of the meaning "lightening strike" for "shan" from Jou Tsung Hua's Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan, but could not for the life of me relate it to the corresponding physical movements of the saber. In his book, he uses "shan" to describe the extended finger strike to the throat that is the last movement in the Da Lü sequence. I presume this is the same as Fu Zheng Wen's usage.

I rendered "shan" as "flash" with the image of bringing the saber in to the center of the body to flash the blade before the opponent. With the addition of the following "zhan," I suppose the meaning is subtly altered or refined to capture the sense of flashing evasively before the opponent during the following parry and then exploding with fajin as a thunderbolt with the final extending thrust.

Perhaps the idea of "flash" can also stand for the idea of evasion. In any case, I am plum out of ideas as to how to capture the enormity of these subtleties in English. Perhaps "shifting clear, flash and open" or "shifting clear and flashing out" would be better? Any help from the English-fluent, lurker community would be welcome.

Some additional information I can add to the first line of the formula is that I have read in a book of Chinese sayings that the tiger was a symbol of the Chinese god of war.

Also, in a Chen book I have (Chen Style Taijiquan, compiled and written by Feng Zhiqiang and Feng Dabiao with illustrations of Feng Zhiqiang and Zhang Chundong), the seven stars are said to correspond to the right and left fists, elbows, shoulders, and the head.

With these new pieces of the puzzle, the first line might be understood as saying something like: “The postures whereby one uses T’ai Chi to mobilize seven major joints of the body to harness the power of the god of war and ready the saber for use.” Based on this thinking, I propose amending the translation of the first line to: “The Seven stars Ride the tiger to Switch the saber postures.”

The capitalization has no analog in the Chinese, of course, but I think it might convey some of the probably intentional ambiguity, here hinting at a mere listing of three postures that are not grammatically related (i.e., Seven Stars, Ride the Tiger, and Hand the Saber Over).

I have another addition to the second line, based on a discussion on another thread. During the phrase raising will and spirit (yi qi yang), the saber is twice pushed forward with arm angles where one could imagine a “raising” feeling. Perhaps the first push corresponds to “raising the will/mind intent,” which then “leads the qi” during the second push. Sound plausible?

The third line of the oral formula is:

“Zuo3 gu4 you4 pan4 liang3 fen1 zhang1.”

“Zuo” is left. “Gu” is to “look out for,” “attend to,” etc. “Zuo gu” is “look left” and is one of the “Five Directions” which, with the “Eight Gates,” make up the thirteen fundamental “postures” or “series of gestures” of T’ai Chi. “Look left” corresponds to the element/phase wood.

“You” is “right,” and “pan” is “gaze,” “hope for,” or “expect.” “You pan” is “Gaze Right” and is another of the “Five Directions.” It corresponds to the element/phase “metal.”

“Liang” is two; “fen” is “part(s)”; and “zhang” is “stretch,” “spread,” “extend.” “Liang fen zhang” is probably: “The two parts spread out.”

As a translation of this third line I would propose:

“Look left, Gaze right, the Two parts extend.”

The fourth line is:

“Bai2 he4 liang4 chi4 wu3 xing2 zhang3.”

“Bai he” is “white crane.” “Liang” is “dry in the air,” and “chi” is wing(s). “Liang chi” is probably: “spreads its wings out to dry.” I believe this phrase corresponds to the vertical counterclockwise circle of the saber followed by lifting it up rightward above the head.

“Wu xing” means the “five elements/phases” (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). “Zhang” means “palm(s).” “Wu xing zhang” means: “five element/phase palm.” I presume the reference is to something like the five fingers encompassing the power of the universe. Any other ideas?

As a translation of the fourth line I would propose:

“The White crane airs its wings and Five element palm.”

The fifth line is:

“Feng1 juan3/4 he2 hua1 ye4 li3 cang2.”

“Feng” is “wind,” and “juan” is “turn (around)” or “rotate.” If memory serves, this word was pronounced in the third tone. “He hua” is “lotus flower(s),” and “ye li” is “in/among the leaf/leaves.” “Cang” is “conceal” or “hide.” If memory again serves, the phrase “the wind turns the lotus flowers” corresponds to rotating the saber like a weather vane over the head to point it at the back rear corner. The word “cang” is said, I believe, as one stands on the right leg and stabs diagonally rearward.

As a translation of the fifth line I would propose:

“The Wind turns the lotus flower and Hides it in the leaves.”

The sixth line is:

“Yü4 nü3 chuan1 suo1 ba1 fang1 shi4.”

“Yü nü chuan suo” is the phrase usually translated as “Fair lady works the Shuttles.” I think it is said along with the initial approach to the first corner that ends in circling the saber around the head and delivering a downward saber chop. “Yü” could also be translated as “jade.” Nü” is really “woman,” rather than “lady.” According to Mathews’ Chinese English Dictionary, “yü nü” can be an honorific way of saying “your daughter.”

“Chuan” means to “thread” or “insert” something through something else, like ones limbs through sleeves or pant legs. “Suo” is “shuttles(s),” which is the object that is “thrown” between the vertical (warp?) threads in a loom to pull the weaving (weft?) thread through.

“Ba fang” is “(the) eight directions,” and I presume it is a reference to the four cardinal compass points plus the four points in between, meaning “on all sides.” “Shi” is “posture(s)” or “gesture(s),” as in the first line.

There are many movements corresponding to this brief line. As I recall, Yang Zhen Duo would call out some of them either as supplementary instruction, or to cover the silence. One might have been “kua4 bu4” (stride over/step across) to correspond to the pivoting turns before the saber slashes. He might also have occasionally said “ci4” (stabbing thrust) to correspond to the eye-level thrusts, but I am less certain of this memory and cannot find my CD of Yang Zhen Duo calling out the postures to confirm this.

(By the way, I am remiss in not having previously mentioned that the at the seminar I attended, there were CD’s of Yang Zhen Duo calling out in Chinese performances of the Empty Hand Form, the 49-Movement Form, and I believe the Saber form. Presumably, these are still available for purchase through the Association.)

For the sixth line, I would propose:

“Fair lady works the shuttles to the eight sides posture.”

The seventh line is:

“San1 xing1 kai1 he2 zi4 zhu3 zhang1.”

“San xing” is “(the) three stars.” Mathews’ Chinese Dictionary indicates that this phrase refers to happiness, emolument (compensation from office), and long life. I confess to having no clue as to what this reference is doing in the form.

“Kai he” is “open (and) close.” Physically, it corresponds to spreading the arms open, front and back, and then joining the left palm with the butt of the saber in front of the body. Opening and closing are, of course, fundamental teachings in T’ai Chi, though seemingly stressed most in Wu/Hao Style.

“Zi zhu” means “with oneself as master,” “sovereignty,” “independence,” “at one’s own initiative,” or “self determination.” “Zhang” is “stretch,” “spread,” “extend,” as above. “Zi zhu zhang” seems to mean something like “spreading out independently.” It corresponds to the first jump in the form, where one ends by slashing downward with the saber and pushing/striking forward with the left palm.

For the seventh line, I would propose:

“The three stars open and close to extend by their own will.”

So far, for the first seven lines, I am proposing:

“The Seven stars Ride the tiger to Switch the saber postures.
Shifting 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.
Fair lady works the shuttles to the eight sides postures.
The three stars open and close to extend by their own will.”

We are half way through the oral formula, and I will continue when time allows. Again, any comments, questions, or contributions, whether literary, historical, esthetic, or martial, would be more than welcome.

Happy practice,

[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 09-30-2001).]
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Postby Audi » Sun Oct 07, 2001 10:56 pm

Hi all,

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.

Take care,
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Postby greengk » Mon Oct 08, 2001 2:26 pm

Audi and Louis,

Thanks for your efforts. Having little knowledge of Chinese myself, I'm afraid I can't add a great deal of my own insight. But I can offer fan mail and some other people's research.

Audi, the proposed translations and connecting of lines to movements resonates well with me. I feel lucky to be the receiver of your efforts. Louis, I read your translation of Fu Zhongwen's book about a year ago and enjoyed it immensely.

Recently in my research I stumbled across some of Scott Rodell's posts on Sword Forum International. He has been studying and teaching Yang style TC for +20 yrs. He is also a dealer of antique Asian swords and has a strong interest in their history. I have struggled to find much on the history of jians, gims, or daos and have found a bit more from his posts. Below is a link to a nice summary post. He is the one that runs Seven Stars Trading that was mentioned above and his school is the Great River T'ai Chi school in DC.
(I think you need to register to be able to access the forum. So you might need to do that before you can read the article.)

Thanks again,
Greg K.
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Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

Postby Audi » Fri Oct 12, 2001 4:51 am

Hi Greg, Louis, and everyone else,

Greg, thanks for the hyperlink. I have not finished exploring the site, but it definitely has some interesting material so far. I begin to wonder which specific kind of saber is the one sold by the Association and what if any history that type of saber has.

Here is the last installment on the oral formula for the traditional Yang Style saber form.

First, I have decided to make fairly extensive changes to clean up the meter of the formula and to reflect some changes of heart. As I understand it, the purpose of the formula is mnemonic, and therefore the English version of the form should probably be as metrically strict as the Chinese.

I have tried to keep seven stressed beats to each line with each beat separated by an unstressed one. Each line thus begins and ends with a strong beat, allowing one to initiate and end each corresponding movement with clear definition. I have failed in two places where I could not find acceptable solutions. If you can detect them and can figure out improvements, by all means do so.

The word “tengnuo” at the beginning of the second line is still giving me fits. I am not sure what the specific T’ai Chi meaning of this word is, and my best attempts to render it all either seem to have metrical problems or do not match the movements, since “teng,” “nuo,” and “shan” are each said to three deliberate movements, with pauses after each.

One additional tidbit I can add about the three stars is that It was suggested to me by a Chinese acquaintance that the stars corresponded to "fu2" ("good fortune"), "lu4" ("salary," perhaps with the implication of a just reward for public service?), and "shou4" ("long life").

Here is the conclusion of my proposed translation:

The Chinese of line eleven is:

“Xia4 shi4 san1 he2 zi4 you2 zhao1.”

“Xia” is “down” or “to lower”; however, I seem to recall that Yang Zhen Duo pronounced this word in the second tone, which is something none of my dictionaries can account for. “Shi” is “posture” or “gesture.” “Xia Shi” is the name of the posture most people call “Snake Creeps Down” or “Squatting Single Whip.” Unfortunately, the saber movement has not the slightest resemblance to this posture that I can detect.

In the saber form, one starts from a bow stance angled to the right corner, with the right foot forward. The left hand has been pushed outwards, and the right holds the saber at the right hip with the tip angled upward. One then shifts all the weight to the left leg, bringing the right foot close to the left. Simultaneously, the saber is brought horizontally across and in front of the stomach. The left palm is held at the left side, and the back of the blade is brought in to contact it near the tip.

The only sense I can make of this is that the blade of the saber may be executing a downward pressing technique, but this seems an unlikely explanation. Perhaps the form has been altered.

“San he” probably means “triple,” and probably evokes the fact that three steps are taken at this point. “Ziyou” means “freedom,” and “zhao” means “beckon” and “enlist,” among other things.

For line eleven, I propose the translation:

“Lower posture, Thrice combining, freedom calls to roll.”

The Chinese of line twelve is:

“Zuo3 you4 fen1 shui3 long2 men2 tiao4.”

“Zuo you” is “left [and] right.” “Fen shui” is “part [the] waters.” “Zuo you fen shui” is probably “parting the waters on the left and right.” This is clearly a reference to the “figure eight” circles one makes with the saber, ending with an uppercut to the right front. “Long men” is “dragon gate” or, metaphorically, the “gateway to success.” In the straight sword form, I seem to recall that the “Fish Jumping the Dragon Gate was a reference to a watergate. “Tiao” is “jump.”

Altogether, this line means something like: “Part the waters on the right and left, and then leap your way to success. For poetic reasons, I propose to translate line twelve as:

“Leftward, rightward cleaving streams, the Dragon gate to crest.

The Chinese of line thirteen is:

“Bian4 He2 xie2 shi2 feng4 huan2 chao2.”

My understanding is that “Bian He” is a proper name, but I have been unable to learn any story behind this personage. The characters carry no combined meaning I can discern, but the core meaning of the first one is "hurried," and the core meaning of the second is "harmony."

"Bian He" is pronounced like “Ben Hur,” except with the “y” sound of “yen” inserted after the “B” (like the Spanish word “bien”) and without the “r” consonant sound many English speakers have at the end of “Hur.” For metrical reasons and to signal to English speakers that this is a proper name, I propose translating this as “Old Bian He.”

“Xie” is “carry along” and “shi” is “rock” or “stone.” My understanding is that “xie shi” refers to taking up one’s tools after a day of work. This seems a likely reference to concluding the form, and more specifically to placing the saber back in the crook of the left arm.

“Feng” is “phoenix.” In some ancient culture (whether China, Greece, or Mesopotamia I cannot recall) the Phoenix was a bird, the only one of its kind, that was born from a fire, lived its life, and then flew back into the flame at the end of its life to be reborn. One of my books states that the phoenix was a Chinese symbol of perfection. “Huan chao” is “returns to [its] nest.” “Feng huan chao” would seem to be a reference to bringing the saber form to a perfect close.

I have struggled mightily with this last line. I know little or nothing about Chinese poetics, but the Chinese text seems to have a partially repeating tone pattern (4222422) that seems deliberate, while ending in a rhyme. To complement this, I have proposed a line with some slight alliteration and a rhyme; however, I have failed to find a solution that is simultaneously metrically pure without stretching the meaning further than I wanted.

For the final line, I propose:

Old Bian-He retrieves his stone, and Phoenix returns to nest.

For the entire oral formula I now propose the following:

“Taiji Saber Formula

“Seven stars to Mount the tiger, Wielding saber forms.
Spring-and-clear to Daze-and-strike with Will and spirit raised.
Looking leftward, Gazing right, the Two components spread.
White crane displays its wings to Palm the five-fold states.
Breezes turn the lotus bloom to Hide it in the leaves.
Treasured maidens work their shuttles facing eightfold ways.
Triple stars open, close, Extending to their will.
Double legs arising come and Strike the tiger pose.
Drape the body, hang aslant, and Kick like doting ducks.
With the current, push the boat, the Whip can be a pole.
Lower posture, Thrice combining, freedom calls to roll.
Leftward, rightward cleaving streams, the Dragon gate to crest.
Old Bian-He retrieves his stone and Phoenix returns to

I hope all this is helpful or at least interesting. I claim no ultimate expertise in these matters, but figure that with the right cautions, something can be better than nothing. Again, comments and corrections are welcome.

Happy practicing,

[This message has been edited by Audi (edited 10-12-2001).]
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Postby Charla Quinn » Sat Oct 13, 2001 6:34 am

Hi Audi,
Thanks for the beautiful translation of the sabre form. I like to read it aloud as its wonderfully poetic!
Charla Quinn
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Postby Louis Swaim » Sat Oct 13, 2001 9:16 pm

Greetings Audi,

You’ve done a truly admirable job translating the saber formula. I especially like the way you’ve captured the seven-beat meter. I have a number of findings to compile, and will post as I get the chance—nothing that would affect your translation, but only some background musings about the imagery.

First, though, I’d like to source the allusion to “Old Bian He.” Bian He was a figure in the Spring and Autumn period (c. 722–481 B.C. in the Eastern Zhou). He supposedly appears in a number of stories, but this one by Han Feizi (born c. 280 B.C.) is quite poignant:

MR. HO [He Shi]

“Once a man of Ch’u named Mr. Ho, having found a piece of jade matrix in the Ch’u Mountains, took it to court and presented it to King Li. King Li instructed the jeweler to examine it, and the jeweler reported, ‘It is only a stone.’ The king, supposing that Ho was trying to deceive him, ordered that his left foot be cut off in punishment. In time King Li passed away and King Wu came to the throne, and Ho once more took his matrix and presented it to King Wu. King Wu ordered his jeweler to examine it, and again the jeweler reported, ‘It is only a stone.’ The king, supposing that Ho was trying to deceive him as well, ordered that his right foot be cut off. Ho, clasping the matrix to his breast, went to the foot of the Ch’u Mountains, where he wept for three days and nights, and when all his tears were cried out, he wept blood in their place. The king, hearing of this, sent someone to question him. ‘Many people in the world have had their feet amputated—why do you weep so piteously over it.’ the man asked. He replied, ‘I do not grieve because my feet have been cut off. I grieve because a precious jewel is dubbed a mere stone, and a man of integrity is called a deceiver. This is why I weep.’ The king then ordered the jeweler to cut and polish the matrix, and when he had done so a precious jewel emerged. Accordingly it was named ‘The Jade of Mr. Ho.’ ”
—Burton Watson, trans., _Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu_, Columbia Univ. Press, 1963, p. 80)

So, there is the source of the allusion. Maybe you can help me figure out what it’s doing in the saber formula. My first inclination is that it carries a sort of “diamond in the rough” metaphorical entailment—that one’s accomplishment can have precious value, however unobserved it may be. It may also carry a meaning of martial virtue, the inevitability of personal sacrifice (in the form of bitter training) to attain this treasure. Among Han Feizi’s comments on the story, he states: “Though Ho presented a matrix whose true beauty was not yet apparent, he certainly did no harm to the ruler thereby; and yet he had to have both feet cut off before the real nature of his treasure was finally recognized. This is how hard it is to get a treasure acknowledged.” (Ibid., p. 81)

That’s it for now.

Louis Swaim
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Postby JerryKarin » Tue Oct 16, 2001 4:03 am

There is a very common saying in the Chinese classics: Ho shi zhi bi, bu dai shi er mei, or variations on that "The Jade Circlet of Mr. Ho was beautiful without any ornamentation." This is used to make the point that true beauty does not require ornamentation.
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