Drawing the sword from the back?

Discussion of Chinese historical swordsmanship from all styles.

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Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by tiamat9989 » Mon Mar 30, 2009 11:13 pm

Drawing the sword is clearly a fairly important aspect of historical sword combat.

My question is, is there any evidence of jian/dao's being drawn from the back? I heard somewhere (forgot the source) that the Chinese had a simple strap mechanism that enabled one to draw a long sword from one's back via a two-way unsheathing where one hand draws the blade and the other pulls the scabbard down. After the sword is drawn, the left hand lets go of the scabbard and the straps automatically (like a rubber band-ish stretchable mechanism; very very simple) pull the scabbard back up to its original position.

Anyone know what I'm talking about? I'm not sure if it's real or not, but conceptually it seems possible.

Carrying and being able to draw a sword from one's back certainly enables better stealth and maneuverability than carrying it at one's side. I'd imagine there'd be plenty of cases where a stealthy assassin/guerrilla fighter would want the use of a long weapon alongside being stealthy...

Thanks!

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Fri Apr 10, 2009 11:17 am

Most of what we know about Chinese Methods of sword drawing come from lineage oral sources, amongst other things, it is said that daoists carried their jian on their backs. This appears to be supported by period art work that typically shows daoists with jian strapped on their backs. See below images of Lu Dongbin-

Image

Image

Unfortunately, such images don't usually offer much insight into the actually strapping or how they were drawn. I've experimented a bit with drawing a sword from the back & found it to be problematic, as one's arm isn't long enough to draw the sword without also pulling down on the scabbard. The problem is that when the scabbard to tied tightly to the back, you can't pull it down very easily.

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Nik » Sat Apr 11, 2009 1:11 pm

Exactly. I would venture a guess that these weapons were either short jian, or worn for ceremonial reasons. The people I learned from always carried the sheath in their hand, to the side or behind the back pointing up. A habit taught to them probably all the way down the lineage from the times those folks would be walking through crowds over the street - to prevent someone drawing their own sword to kill them with it. It's also easier to run with it like that. It's impossible to draw the sword "ninja style" when exceeding the length of your arm.

Oh, and of course, there is carrying the sword on the back on horse, forgot about that.

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Michael » Mon Apr 13, 2009 12:48 am

Again, to offer the Western perspective: There are a great many examples in the West of swords being carried on the back, which has been somewhat misleading. It's often the case that they were carried on the back, but not drawn from the back. Think of it like a backpack. When traveling long distances, a backpack frees your hands and spreads the weight of your baggage evenly. But as soon as you want to open the backpack, you have to take it off.

This may not have been the case in China, but it's worth remembering whenever you see pictures of swords being carried in interesting ways.
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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Peter Dekker » Mon Apr 20, 2009 4:01 am

That makes sense, most daoists were known to travel quite a bit.

I sometimes wear my saber on the waist, Qing style, when I do an archery demonstration or when practicing quick drawing and it is indeed not at all that handy to wear it like this when you're not going to use it. It will be the same with a jian. The straps and hook I use are all historical, but the thing just tends to wobble when moving, especially when running or turning. Wearing it at the back would greatly improve freedom of movement, and would be the preferred way of carrying when walking long distances or having to walk difficult terrain.

When drawn from the waist, the hook allows for quickly being able to get rid of the scabbard, and regain one's mobility. I guess this is why there is no known form that incorporates the scabbard. Battle paintings also frequently show that the cavalry left their scabbards at the camp, they wear the bare blades through a ring on the bow case.

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Michael » Tue Apr 21, 2009 1:24 am

Peter Dekker wrote: When drawn from the waist, the hook allows for quickly being able to get rid of the scabbard, and regain one's mobility. I guess this is why there is no known form that incorporates the scabbard. Battle paintings also frequently show that the cavalry left their scabbards at the camp, they wear the bare blades through a ring on the bow case.
Is that the main purpose of rings along the false edge of a blade? I was under the impression that this wasn't particularly common.
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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Peter Dekker » Tue Apr 21, 2009 3:11 am

Michael wrote:Is that the main purpose of rings along the false edge of a blade? I was under the impression that this wasn't particularly common.
No, the ring is actually attached to the bow-case itself and the blade just goes through it. Note the way the horsemen wear their bare blades in the picture below. Apart from having less stuff bouncing while riding this way of carrying has another advantage: people will think twice before trying to unmount the rider by grabbing his bow-case.

Image

You are right, the rings on the back of sabers weren't all that common in history. They are encountered on rare occasion, and were probably only for show. Martial arts communities held regular "open trainings" in village centers in order to attract new students. Even though their martial arts may have been pretty effective, they still used to incorporate lots of showy elements to attract the attention of people. They were also greatly influenced by regular local opera performances, much like how we enjoy watching the TV and copying things we see from there.

It is sometimes hard to estimate the extent of the impact of opera performances on the local, largely uneducated masses but to give an illustration: Many people even started to worship some of the pseudo historical characters in the plays, which resulted in a cult of "Guan Di". The boxers even had rituals to actually became a favorite opera hero after which one was believed to have gained his strength and invulnerability.

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Michael » Tue Apr 21, 2009 3:28 am

Peter Dekker wrote: It is sometimes hard to estimate the extent of the impact of opera performances on the local, largely uneducated masses but to give an illustration: Many people even started to worship some of the pseudo historical characters in the plays, which resulted in a cult of "Guan Di". The boxers even had rituals to actually became a favorite opera hero after which one was believed to have gained his strength and invulnerability.
I suppose when you equate this to the heroes who were immortalized by Homer and Shakespeare, it's not so unusual in Western cultures for warriors to wish to be immortalized in this way.
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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Nik » Tue Apr 21, 2009 12:47 pm

Are you sure it's a ring, and not a flat buckle ? I have the suspicion that a round ring would not keep the saber tight enough, so it would flop around during riding, also in directions not really wanted from the owner.

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Peter Dekker » Tue Apr 21, 2009 1:56 pm

It is an oval ring, and not a small one. It fits the sword fairly loosely but apparently that was no problem. Its oval shape probably helped to keep the blade aligned in one direction, as you suggest.

A picture of Imperial guardsman Yisamu wearing his bow-holster:
Image

A close-up of the ring on this holster:
Image

An actual example, this one belonged to the Qianlong emperor and is now on display in the Palace Museum, Beijing:
Image

The cords one frequently sees attached to the ring probably served to lift the ring and to insert the saber in it, to avoid cutting the fingers when doing so.

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Chinese Sword Drawing

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Fri Jan 01, 2010 5:02 pm

Over the years, questions have arisen concerning Chinese method of sword drawing. To date all we can really say is that lineage sources, passed on orally, state that such techniques were part of Chinese swordsmanship. We can also infer techniques from specific movements in various form. Unfortunately, as yet, no primary Chinese source as surfaced describing or even mentioning these techniques. Teachers I've discussed this topic with suggested that this is because fast drawing gave one an edge & teachers didn't want to give away an secrets to potential adversaries. Below is a 18th c. painting the might shed some light on this topic.... then again, one would expect if he is performing a fast draw, that his left hand would at least by gripping the scabbard firmly.

Image

Bandi ( 班 弟 ban di )

The above image is from: http://www.battle-of-qurman.com.cn/

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Re: Chinese Sword Drawing

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Sun Aug 01, 2010 6:55 pm

Scott M. Rodell wrote:... Below is a 18th c. painting the might shed some light on this topic.... then again, one would expect if he is performing a fast draw, that his left hand would at least by gripping the scabbard firmly...
Image

Zha Ershen (扎 尔 善)

The above image is from: http://www.battle-of-qurman.com.cn/

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Chinese/Manchu Sword Drawing?

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Sun Aug 01, 2010 6:58 pm

Are these the first movement of a fast draw? Note how the left hand is pulling the scabbard forward...

Image

Wen Bu / Ombo ( 温 布 )

Image

San Ge ( 三 格 )

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Peter Dekker » Mon Aug 02, 2010 5:09 pm

These paintings have puzzled me for a while. If it were one it could be dismissed as a weird pose but there are too many men depicted in this position for it to be meaningless. What I don't get is that they draw the hilt in the opposite direction they are looking at, and once it is out they are also in the wrong posture with the left foot forward instead of the right. That would call for a rather large movement to get the saber out and deploy it and it doesn't seem to make much sense. I am convinced there is something to it, but what?

The only thing I can come up with is that maybe they draw it like this because most of the movement will be out of sight for an attacker coming from the right side of the pictures. Perhaps the draw employs a quick turn of the body where the right foot ends up forward.

Bandi on the other hand, looks as if he's moving to the left of the picture and is well-aligned for an upward sweep that way. It makes sense, but the movement is easier when the scabbard chape points down.

Another theory: They're putting their saber back. Their pose is much like mine when I put the saber back after cutting, right before I move it back with the hilt pointing backwards. It may be symbolic, saying: "It is done" because after the paintings depict war-heroes of successful campaigns. Still, some look rather fierce and do look as if they're up to something. Perhaps that's just looking vigilant.

If only we could take a peek back in time and see one of these guys at work. They must have had some fancy sword work up their sleeve.

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Re: Drawing the sword from the back?

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Tue Aug 03, 2010 9:03 am

Peter Dekker wrote:... If it were one it could be dismissed as a weird pose but there are too many men depicted in this position for it to be meaningless. What I don't get is that they draw the hilt in the opposite direction they are looking at, and once it is out they are also in the wrong posture with the left foot forward instead of the right...

... maybe they draw.. like this because most of the movement will be out of sight for an attacker coming from the right side of the pictures. Perhaps the draw employs a quick turn of the body where the right foot ends up forward.

Bandi... looks as if he's moving to the left of the picture and is well-aligned for an upward sweep that way. It makes sense...

Another theory: They're putting their saber back... It may be symbolic, saying: "It is done...
Very good points Peter, especially the first. The theory that they could be putting the dao away is also an interesting one...

If this is a moment in a quick draw, I would suggest that the position of the hand & sword suggest they are going for an upward sweeping liao cut. Such a cut, when aimed to sweep up under an attacking right arm up to shoulder level can stymie most attacks & create an opening for a second follow up cut or evasion counter-cut. The problem with this theory is most are looking to their left & moving to their right.

Another possibility is that the fist movement is to draw back, stepping away with the right leg, voiding an attack while drawing the dao low in front of the body & then turning to counter-cutting with an overhead & downward pi cut.

It sure would be a lot easier to figure this out if they gave us five images in sequence! I take this as one more example of something that was probably such common knowledge in their time but is lost to us today...

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