DIFFERENCES – Tai Chi Sword 14


Tai Chi approaches fencing pragmatically. Its function is martial; its purpose is therapeutic and philosophical.

We fence within rather strict principles and without rules, except for the general rule to cause no harm to your partner.


The manner of fencing should be the same as it would be if we were in a duel. It is said in western fencing that, “The best defence is a good offence”. In Tai Chi fencing we hold defence to be the over-riding priority.

One of our core principles is that we aspire to ‘touch’ the opponent as we maintain defensive contact, in other words ‘safely’.

Western fencing has become a sport; the fencers must achieve a certain amount of touches. If one gets five to the opponent’s four he is quite happy to be the winner. If A were in an actual duel and managed to get four light touches (wounds) on B and B only manages one on A, that one touch may have been fatal. It behoved the duellist to approach his adversary with courage mixed with a great measure of prudence. All of the complicated and elegant moves that they practised in the Salle* are abandoned for the most basic, simple and effective moves.

The great Italian fencer Aldo Nadi put it this way: “The duellist’s objective is to injure his adversary as soon as possible without being wounded at all, the fencer’s is to defeat his opponent in no particular hurry, (under international rules a fencer is allowed ten minutes to win a bout with five touches) as long as he scores at least a fraction of a second before he may be touched himself. In a duel the fencer is compelled to execute an ultra careful form which indeed is an unworthy version of the vast science he knows.”

So it is clear that eastern fencing offers a much more varied and elegant forum for the player than western duelling. On the other hand Tai Chi swordsmanship ideally, and under its principles, should be the same in fencing as in duelling.

A duel that is undertaken because of a challenge or an insult is not condoned under the principles of Tai Chi. It should only be done to save lives or if one is attacked. This is exemplified in the opening moves of the Tai Chi Sword form, in which the Sword, held in the left hand, executes five defensive moves while still in its scabbard, before the sword is drawn.


Another rule, (or ‘preferred option’ in Tai Chi), is choice of target. In western fencing the target is designated. With Foil one only gets points for touching on the torso. This is because the Foil is the sport version of the small sword, which is almost exclusively a thrusting weapon. With sabre, the target is from the waist up including arms and head. The sabre is a much lighter version of the duelling sabre, which is mostly slashed and occasionally used as a thrust. With the Epee there is no limitation of target. The Epee evolved from the Rapier through the Epee de Combat, which mostly used the thrust and rarely cut.

Cheng Man Ch’ing told us that it is best to strike the target that is offered and, if one has a choice, to cut to the right hand or forearm first of all, because it is closer and therefore safer, since one stays farther away while touching that target. Secondly if one were in a real duel and killed the opponent, their relatives might seek vengeance. Of course we may never be in a duel, but this goes to illustrate the basic pacifism of Cheng Man Ch’ing’s approach.

 * Salle, ‘the fencing school’.

Author and Images: Ken van Sickle

German version on our sister site!