China’s Duanbing Movement
Ma Lianzhen

I. Duanbing’s  短兵 Origin in Ancient Jijian 擊劍

Pictures courtesy of Maximilian Piers Holland

Jian (劍 double-edged sword) was one of the most important weapons in ancient China and enjoyed a golden age of over a thousand years from the Western Zhou Dynasty to the end of the Han period. During this period, jian was venerated, served to symbolize a person’s social position and dignity, and, possessing a ritualistic attribute comparable to jade, was instrumental in “honing a gentleman’s morality”.

After the eclipse of the Han Dynasty, jian’s military function gradually declined and its position in the arena of warfare was replaced by dao 刀 (single-edged sword). Thenceforth, even though jian continued to exist and to be beloved by some military officers, it was no longer the principal weapon for soldiers. Instead, its developmental space transferred from the military to a domain beyond it, which eventually came to depend on the patronage of private martial artists, and even became the plaything for men of letters. However, the former glory of jian culture is undiminished, as jian continues to command veneration and respect, and its image continues to serve as the symbol for China’s ancient martial culture.

What does jian culture encompass? And where do we draw its boundaries? This is indeed a complex and thought provoking question. In the pre-Han period, there were a number of terms reserved for various uses of jian, such as “shuojian” (說劍 discussion of sword), “jijian” (擊劍 fencing), “wujian” (舞劍 sword dance), “xiangjian” (相劍 sword appreciation), and “lunjian” (論劍 sword discourse), which refer to specific, well defined activities, fully reflecting the richness of jian culture in ancient China. In my opinion, however, irrespective of the enormous spectrum of jian culture, it must still center around "jijian”, for fencing practice is fundamental to improving swordsmanship skills and raising the level of swordplay, and offers a significant avenue to nurture and hone moral character. What was referred to as “jijian” in ancient China is in fact a competitive, agonistic sport in jian use, or a form of friendly fencing contest. For thousands of years, it was a highly respected and popular sport, one of the longest living competitive events in China’s sports history, and a vital component in China’s classical martial arts system.

It is not difficult to imagine that the earliest form of jijian must have been a cruel sport, as corroborated by records in ancient texts, not dissimilar to gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. However, any sport that seriously maims and puts human lives at risk is unlikely to enjoy popularity for long, and even in imperfect feudal regimes such sports were often deemed too harmful to be legally sanctioned. Therefore, long ago our forefathers began to search for a safer method of fencing –– representing the “sportization” of fencing in ancient China –– culminating in jijian, which remained popular over an immense temporal span. Not many historical materials that deal with jijian have been preserved, but enough survive to permit a glimpse into its ancient form.

In the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, there are records of swordsmen vying their skills with “canes” (杖 zhang). In the famous fable about Yuenu and Yuangong’s fencing match, where the two contested their skills with bamboo canes, we are given a faithful portraiture of everyday fencing practice in ancient China. In this way, “cane” became a by-word for sword in ancient discourse. Likewise, the fencing match between Cao Pei, Emperor Wen of the Wei Kingdom, and General Deng Zhan, in the Three Kingdoms period, which made use of surrogate canes, is among the best known and most talked about historical anecdotes. After the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the use of bamboo and wooden canes in military training and fencing contests abounds in historical records, and Yan Yuan’s and Li Mutian’s fencing method, which had been referred to by Mao Zedong, also made use of “a bamboo cane as a replacement for dao”. In sum, in order to minimize bodily injury and increase its value as a sport, and as a result of strict laws against the wearing of arms, which prohibited civilians from carrying or engaging in matches with real weapons, not only was the use of bamboo and wooden canes required for fencing activities in the private domain, they were also used for military training, as clearly recorded in Qi Jiguang’s Truthful Records of Military Training (練兵實紀 Lianbin Shiji).

Jijian is a heritage of China’s sports culture that best conveys its humanist spirit. Indeed, in both the Orient and the West, through diverse forms and guises, the sport of fencing is seen to represent the quintessential qualities of traditional sports, symbolizing courage, dignity, and moral integrity. For this reason, people from both sides of the world have devoted efforts to transform ancient fencing into modern sports.

The attempt in the West has met with great success. The threefold structure of modern fencing, comprised of foil, espée, and saber, is among the earliest events to be included in the Olympic Games. Today, it is practised throughout the world and has a large following. For over half a century, through the channel of the former Soviet Union, fencing gradually developed and expanded in China, with a steady rise in the level of skills, and in time gave rise to some outstanding athletes such as Luan Jujie.

Japan has also successfully transformed its indigenous style of fencing into a modern sport. As is widely known, kendo is a cultural heritage much treasured by the Japanese people. Today, it is a popular sport with a well organized schooling system and has been designated a “national art” (國技 guoji) in Japan. Kendo is looked upon as an important tool for nurturing the national spirit, and many kendo dojos have been established in primary and secondary schools throughout Japan, where it is taught as a mandatory course. In addition, kendo instructors are frequently highly respected figures in academic institutions, on account of their moral strength and personal integrity. Today, kendo has developed into a global sport with many international organizations and competitions.

Starting from an early date, kendo transmitted and was known in China; by the Ming Dynasty at the latest Japanese swordsmanship skills and manuals had diffused to China, which were greatly valued by Chinese martial artists. Further, towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, during the popular wave to study in Japan, a large number of Chinese students received instruction in kendo, while some Japanese coaches also taught kendo in China, which exerted a significant influence on fencing developments in my country. Indeed, the creation of duanbing in China was to a certain extent inspired and catalyzed by Japan’s kendo.

Pioneers in China’s indigenous sports also endeavored to transform Chinese fencing into a sport, and devoted efforts to merge swordsmanship skills in dao and jian into an integrated competitive form, which eventually gave rise to “duanbing” (short range weapon) under the Republic of China government. Regretfully, duanbing fell into obscurity soon after its appearance, and remained an unfinished project with only a beginning. Today, few know anything about duanbing even within professional martial arts circles, let alone the average enthusiast. Ironically, Chinese martial arts, which have often flaunted their breadth and depth under the motto “bodajinshen” 博大精深, have only two competitive forms –– set-performance and sanshou –– without competitions in either long-range or short-range weapons, which lag far behind Japan, and also other neighboring countries such as Korea…

The creation and disappearance of duanbing is a thought-provoking historical phenomenon that is worthy of serious reflection.

II. Duanbing’s Rules and Regulations

In the sixteenth year of the Republic, Zhang Zhijiang founded the Central National Arts Institute and formally established the “Guoshu Examination” system. As Ma Mingda said on numerous occasions before, “guoshu” 國術 was a project in indigenous sports whose aim was to transform popular martial arts into modern sports, and to complete a competition structure for the martial arts. Endemic corruption within the Republican administration, the poverty and weakness of the nation, insufficient attention from the “party-nation”, and lack of funds to support this type of “non-urgent duty”, meant that the “guoshu” project was besieged by problems and difficulties and never attained the goal set by Mr. Zhang Zhijiang. This project had crystallized the efforts, thoughts, talents, and wisdom of an elite group of contemporary martial artists, and left behind a legacy worthy of our study and emulation. Indeed, it should be said that the “guoshu” project is an invaluable cultural resource for indigenous sports. In this connection, the development of duanbing, which was a constituent part of the system of “guoshu” and martial arts competition at the time, was an attempt by Zhang Zhijiang and a surrounding group of martial artists to design a competitive sport that integrated the techniques and styles of all the short-range weapons.

As stated above, the development of duanbing resulted from the collective effort of a group of “guoshu” masters under Mr. Zhang Zhijiang’s leadership. It was created under specific historical circumstances and suffers from the limitations of its time. Due to dearth of information, we know very little about its background, which awaits deeper and more intense research in the future. The earliest rules for duanbing competition we can find today are the Detailed Principles in Fencing Competition published in the twentieth year of the Republic of China (1931), which is collected in the Regulations for Guoshu Competition (published in April 1935) in the fourth chapter of the book. As certain facts about duanbing competitions in the Republic of China may be gleaned from a perusal of Detailed Principles, which may in addition assist in further understanding the developmental process of the duanbing sport, I think it is necessary to take a closer look at the book.

Regulations for Guoshu Competition was part of the materials the Central Guoshu Institute prepared for the National Games, in the hope guoshu would be included in the event. For this reason, the book was published under the title, the “National Games in the Twentieth Year of the Republic”, which refers to the Fourth National Games held in Hanzhou in 1931. In fact, guoshu did not enter the Fourth National Games but was included for the first time in 1933, and only became a formal event in 1935 at the Sixth National Games. Regulations for Guoshu Competition addresses three events, namely combat (搏擊 boji), wrestling (摔跤 shuaijiao), and fencing (jijian), and besides laying down the general regulations it includes only scanty information concerning the rules for individual events. In the Regulations, what is referred to as boji is the same as sanshou, and jijian may be equated with duanbing.

Detailed Rules specifies that both male and female athletes may compete in duanbing competition, which has five weight divisions. With the exception of the back of the head, ears, abdomen, and groin, any other parts of the body are considered legitimate targets for attack. The body is further divided into “primary” and “secondary” targets, with score on the primary target being awarded a full point, while a half-point is awarded for score on the secondary target. The match has three rounds with each round delimited by three scores, and the first to score two points or more is awarded the round, while the match is decided by the winner of two rounds. There is no time limit for the match. Of the rules that deal with illegitimate strikes, the most important concerns “the application of boji and wrestling methods on the opponent”, whereas the rest forbid attack on certain parts of the body.
The passages above describe the first formal rules and regulations for duanbing competition. In general, such rules tend to be rather crude and are problematic for implementation; at the same time, there are no concrete rules and guideline in respect of competition venue, equipment, protective gear, and etiquette, which indicates that the Detailed Rules were drafted at a time when competition experience was lacking, and that duanbing competition was still in its incipient, experimental stage.

After the twentieth year of the Republic, duanbing competition became more frequent and improvements were made to the rules and regulations, but in this regard we have not found any contemporary information and cannot say for certain what these changes were. The competition rules at the 1953 Tianjin Indigenous-style Games were likely based on the amended rules, but even these cannot be found. Fortunately, Wushu, published in 1961 by People’s Sports Publication and originally written for a bachelor’s course at the Sports Institute, which after numerous amendments continues to be used to the present day, contains a section on duanbing (including the 1983 edition), which includes aspects of technical training and competition rules.

The information on duanbing in the 1961 and 1983 editions remains fairly crude in respect of technical training and leaves many gaps in the rules, but it is a clear improvement on the Detailed Rules published in the twentieth year of the Republic. I am not certain who wrote the duanbing section for the 1961 edition, but Mr. Zhang Wenguang and the late Mr. Wen Jinming, who sat on the editorial board, were both graduates and instructors in the former National Arts Institute and thus familiar with duanbing, and my guess is that they wrote this section. Mr. Ma Xianda was added to the editorial team for the 1983 version. He is an expert in duanbing and I am inclined to question whether some amendments were also made at his instigation. By inference, the “competition methods” outlined in Wushu are probably adopted from the rules introduced in the twentieth year of the Republic and enforced (with amendments) until 1953, and thus represent an exceptionally precious resource for the present movement to revive duanbing competition.

Wushu contains clear specifications for venue and equipment for duanbing competition, which provides important guidance to private efforts to develop this sport. As most people are unfamiliar with duanbing today, I will take this opportunity to introduce the specifications, which I hope will assist my readers to understand more about duanbing.
Equipment: duanbing measures three metres long with a diameter of one inch. In making the equipment, find a bamboo stick with a half-inch diameter, or four pieces of bamboo slips tied together with iron wires, wrap a layer of evenly spread cotton around it, wrap it over again with a piece of cloth to tighten the bundle, then finally fit a soft leather coat over it. The body of duanbing is now ready. Afterwards, stitch together two pieces of thick, hard leather, to fashion a flat, round hand-guard with a three-inch diameter. Cut out a circular hole an inch in diameter, insert the duanbing, and fasten the hand-guard to a position six inches from the end. Thus the duanbing is made. (see figure)
Venue: clearly mark out a white circle measuring sixteen metres in diameter on a flat ground, lawn, or floor, and the space within the circle is the competition space.
Regarding the competition rules, quite a few changes were made to the Detailed Rules. As a case in point, whereas Detailed Rules admit both male and female competitors and has five weight divisions, Wushu specifies that “duanbing competition is suitable only for adult male athletes and has no weight divisions”. In my opinion, this is where Wushu is at fault while making adjustments to the rules. The removal of weight divisions is clearly unreasonable, and to limit participants to men represents a conceptual regression. Other adjustments made in Wushu are more logical, for example, Wushu regulates that there are three two-minute rounds in each match, with a minute of break in between, and the outcome being determined by the score at the end of the match. This makes more sense than the Detailed Rules where the outcome is decided by the winner of two rounds. In sum, however, many flaws still exist in the rules contained in Wushu, which pose considerable difficulties for implementation.

Duanbing competition was halted for nearly half a century, and reviving it today naturally involves many problems and difficulties, not least in respect of equipment, protective gear, as well as the materials for their manufacture, which require an experimental process of trial and error. Nonetheless, the question of equipment does not pose insurmountable problems, for newly available materials means that better and higher quality duanbing equipment may be made in the future given sufficient research and investment. Advances in science have also made available such technologies as electronic scoring aids which were not possible in the past. In my opinion, the most difficult part lies rather in establishing the rules and a proper training program, which are urgent tasks that demand immediate attention. The former requires much experimentation and meticulous research, whereas the latter needs a well-designed curriculum, which is prerequisite for any meaningful training program.

Rules and regulations serve to guide technical developments, which is a common principle in all sports. I believe the success of duanbing’s revival will depend to a large extent on the development of techniques, which in turn is largely circumscribed by the rules and regulations. Therefore, a conference with participants from diverse background should be organized as soon as possible, in order to discuss, research, and finalize the rules. Partially influenced by Prof. Ma Mingda’s personal efforts to promote duanbing in recent years, many regional and national teams have been set up in overseas countries, which are intensifying their training and endeavoring to improve the rules through trial and error. A demonstrative competition is due to be held in the United States of America in the near future which, though small in scale, is already attracting some public attention. Furthermore, duanbing training is also underway in Canada, Japan, and Macau, where the drafting of new rules and regulations is being eagerly discussed.

I sincerely hope that more and more people will participate in duanbing and that it will again become a popular sport in the not-too-distant future.

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