Sword Dance
a brief survey



"When sorting out timber for a house, that which is straight, free from knots, and good of appearance can be used for front pillars. That which has some knots but is straight and strong can be used for rear pillars.  That which is somewhat weak but has no knots and looks good is variously used for door sills, lintels, doors, and screens."


Likening the Science of Martial Arts to Carpentry,
The Book of Five Rings [trans. Cleary]



What is Sword Dance?  What constitutes a Sword Dance done well?


Early History


We can trace Chinese Sword Dance back as far as the first Han Dynasty through historical and pseudo-historical accounts.  Although early histories are not entirely reliable, we have no reason to doubt the existence of this art form.  There are numerous examples of longswords dating to the periods referenced. 


The first Sword Dancers were soldiers and assassins.  A well-known early account tells of an assassin Xiang Zhuang using a Sword Dance to try to get close to the emperor Liu Bang. His intent was, of course, nefarious.  Xiang was foiled by the loyal general Xiang Bo, who joined the performance and matched the would be assassin’s timing and position to keep him from the emperor.  Peter Lorge notes that Zhuang could not simply push past Bo and still maintain the pretense of being an innocent performer, and thus the assassination was prevented.[i]



Women in Martial Arts


Although Sword Dance may have been largely the domain of male soldiers ­­until later eras, simply because fewer women participated in war, one of the first named martial artists in China is General Fu Hou.  Her tomb from the late 12th century BCE  was excavated in Anyang in 1976.[ii] 


By the Tang Dynasty, the participation of women in Sword Dance is well documented,[iii] and this may have contributed to the rise in popularity of nuxia. [iv]  These tales of female knights errant in the Song and later dynasties have become an indispensable fixture of contemporary wuxia, not least because of Jin Yong’s Lotus[v] in the contemporary era.  It’s hard to find a high budget sci-fi, fantasy or action series that does not contain a strong female hero in the mold of Katniss Everdeen.  Today the best fencer in US history is Mariel Zagunis,[vi] and the “finest living grappler” is Kayla Harrison.[vii]  The skills of these women was hard earned, and their accomplishments great, such that both can be called “peerless”.


Because so many women took up martial arts in the modern era, initially predominantly modern Wushu in China,[viii] where women have always had a role in warfare for millennia, and in the heroic literature for centuries, it may be that Sword Dance is now often considered a primary domain of women.  Yu So Chow,[ix] the daughter of the great teacher Yu Jim Yuen,[x] was famed for her Sword Dances.  She even made a film called “Black Peony” which title may be a play on the Wudang White Peony Temple.[xi]


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Figure 1   Yu So Chow as "Agile Black Peony"


When Bow Sim Mark completed her decade of wudang training with Fu Wing Fay one of the first jobs she took was as a Sword Dancer and choreographer at the Miramar Hotel in Hong Kong.  It was a good way to make money, and scratch her opera itch, while continuing to develop her internal sword technique.[xii]  Unlike teaching, where most of the master’s time goes into the students, performers get to train all day, every day.



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Figure 2 Bow Sim Mark performing Sword Dance at the Miramar Hotel in Hong Kong



Martial Arts & Performance Arts


It’s no surprise then that her daughter was winning medals in international competitions at an early age, and her son became one of the four Kungfu crossover stars with a global reputation.  Her art intersected choreography and exhibition in much the same way as Yuen clan[xiii] and the Lau.[xiv]  Bruce Lee also came from an opera family, and at one time he was the “Cha Cha King” of Hong Kong, an achievement this great fighter was proud of throughout his life.  Is it possible this is a reason he became Ip Man’s most famous student?  The connection goes even deeper in that many Wing Chun schools now trace their lineage to the Red Boat Opera Company[xv]Sammo Hung made a movie about this called Prodigal Son (1981).  So we can’t say there is no connection between martial arts and dance and theater.  In fact, this connection stretches back to antiquity, and perhaps beyond.


Martial dance is part of many traditions including the Māori people, whose warriors reputation for ferocity may be unmatched.  Capoeira is a martial art routinely practiced to live music as a form of martial dance, integrating acrobatics, like contemporary competition wushu.  The martial intent had to be hidden because the art was practiced by oppressed peoples.  War dances are a staple of many traditional cultures from Ukraine to the Zulu, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, Scotland and the Philippines.[xvi]  Aspects of dance appear in prizefighting, and we’ve seen a few Capoeira techniques showing up in mixed martial arts matches in recent years. The most famous example of dance in combat may be the “Ali shuffle”.[xvii]  Even Bruce Lee adopted this technique to demoralize opponents with his blindingly fast footwork.  Ali himself called his own footwork a dance.  Watching his skip steps in the ring, it’s hard to disagree.  So it’s no wonder Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard are considered the two greatest boxers of all time—their footwork and balance was next-level; significantly better than everyone else.[xviii]


Fencing, like boxing, is a rhythm sport.[xix]  It all comes down to timing and distance. 



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Figure 3 Bow Sim Mark fencing with her daughter Chris Yen



Modern Sword Dance


With modern Sword Dance, at one end of the spectrum you see dancing with a sword in hand.  The dancers are typically classically trained, and in many cases very good.  They may even execute sword techniques better than most martial artists, because straightsword is a finesse weapon, requiring grace and precision and excellent posture.  In my experience, professional dancers tend to train harder than most martial artists, but it’s still not martial art.


At the other end of the spectrum you have martial artists who play music while exhibiting routines.  This became popular in recent decades, promoted by famous practitioners like Bow Sim Mark and others for martial forms beyond straightsword, and today you see it across styles.  But most martial artists are merely using the music as a backdrop, and not matching the form to the music in the manner of choreography.  Therefore, it is not true martial dance.


Sword Dance at a high level requires matching the movement to the music—to the timing, the tempo changes, and the feeling of the song.  It requires control and adjustment of distance because performances take place in a bounded space.  Most importantly, every movement and each technique in the set of techniques that comprise a movement must have martial application.[xx] 


I’ll say it again because it’s so important: “Every movement in a true Sword Dance must have martial application”, otherwise you “break the art.”


Ideally, one should be able to apply those techniques.  For this reason, true Sword Dance is one of the most difficult art forms to do well. It has the same rigorous requirements as other fine arts, but a broader scope.  There are simply more dimensions.


Is it good for anything other than performance?  Arguably, it is.  Floyd Mayweather is considered the greatest technical boxer of all time, and when you look at his victories, it becomes immediately apparent that his ability to “mess with his opponents’ timing” is a key to his success.  He’s simply a better “dancer” like Ali and the Sugar Rays—all of these boxers have greater control of timing and distance.



Controlling the Tempo


“Controlling the tempo” is just as important in fencing—it’s one of the main ways you set an opponent up—introduce a lull and then strike with lightning speed.  Alternately, up the tempo to get the opponent flustered, tense and twitchy, then parry with authority when they overcommit and riposte cleanly and calmly.  Feints to get the opponent accustomed to a pattern, in order to break the pattern and strike a half beat before or after.  These are just a few of the most basic examples.


An accomplished Sword Dancer who practices the real art is simply going to be better equipped to contend with straightsword, which unlike sturdy single-edged blades are not durable.  Straightsword depends on finesse as opposed to brute force, and this is especially true in unarmored combat where one has nothing to protect oneself but the sword.[xxi] 



Controlling the Space


If you’ve ever pushed hands with a true master, you’ll note that one of the basic things they do is “control the space”, often in subtle ways. This guarantees them superior leverage and is a key reason younger, stronger players cannot contend.[xxii]  Even lesser masters, if savvy, will employ this technique. 


Dance, better than any other art form, teaches you to control the space because you work to hit the same spots on the practice floor every with repetition, and maintain, close or increase distance with other performers.  In performance this is even more crucial, where hitting the mark corresponds with lighting.  In film productions, where the budgets can be hundreds of millions of dollars, missing a mark can cost thousands or tens of thousands.  


With martial dance, which is exhibited in a variety of settings, often informal, you also have to adjust the steps and distance to adapt to different spaces you may be performing in.  Sometimes, in the Chinese art, the audience can be very close. You need to adapt to the space to avoid cutting them!  We’ve had performances with children in the audience sitting one foot away from flashing swords!


It was only by controlling the space and matching the tempo that Xiang Bo could forestall Xiang Zhuang indefinitely and preserve the emperor.  It was only by coming close to the partner with the sword that the fight depicted in Fig. 4 could be convincing.  



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Figure 4 Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), Choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping




One school of thought maintains that we should preserve the forms, as is, never making changes over subsequent generations, even as the martial environment changes around us.  We might call this “the Orthodoxy”.  In contrast, the idea of “embracing the heterodoxy” means we should be open to different ways of doing things, and continually seeking to improve and refine the arts.[xxiii]  However, changes to martial forms cannot be undertaken lightly[xxiv]—this is a domain that requires what we sometimes call “a true master”, a person who occupies a place at the pinnacle of the art and can thereby push it forward.  Yu Chenghui[xxv] was such a master and revived the wudang longsword, which had been lost for generations.  Yuen Woo-ping is another such master who advanced the art of fight choreography in both Asia and the West.[xxvi]  Li Jinglin and Li Tianji were true masters who advanced the sword art in their generations. [xxvii]  Bow Sim Mark is another such master who routinely choreographed new performance routines and martial forms, and like her teacher Tianji, and his teacher Jinglin, advanced the sword art in her generation.[xxviii]  She was equal to her teachers[xxix] in internal technique, as a student who had “mastered everything they could teach”, but she mastered it while still young, and thus had the potential to surpass.  By the time she went to study with Tianji at the Beijing Institute for physical culture, she had a couple decades of hardcore, daily Fu style waist training, and significantly greater flexibility, so could simply do more.[xxx] 


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Figure 5 Bow Sim Mark in side split

Figure 6 Bow Sim Mark demonstrating Advanced Sword at 40 (circa 1978)


She had the shoulders of her teachers and their teachers to stand on.  As she once explained, her sword art was the product of three generations of improvement.[xxxi]


The art of choreography trains the practitioner to think creatively.  Being able to fight creatively provides a significant advantage—hitting an opponent with something they’ve never encountered before and are thus unequipped to deal with.  This is a quality we see in greats from Muhammad Ali to Bruce Lee to recent MMA phenom McGregor. [xxxii]  True masters must be creative so they can push the art forward with new methods of movement, applications, and expressions of technique.  This holds true for any art form.[xxxiii]


To remain vital and relevant, the arts must be advanced in every generation.



Wushu Theater


The best fight choreography is narrative, in that it contains its own story arc within the series of movements that comprise an extended fight sequence.[xxxiv]  This is also what Bow Sim Mark meant by “Wushu Theater”: telling a story entirely through martial movement.


Wushu Theater is often conflated with traditional Chinese opera, and thereby dismissed, but it is distinct from Opera in that all movements and techniques must have real martial application.  Opera, by contrast, is so stylized that the movements lose most of its martial value.  Still great training, as evidenced by the Seven Little Fortunes, but not quite the real thing.  The main critique of the Shaw Era, and perhaps the pre-SPL era in Chinese Kungfu films in general, is that the movement was so stylized it was “Opera”. 


But this Opera influenced choreography, of which Yuen Woo-Ping may be the greatest exemplar notable early for his groundbreaking leg grappling sequences, wowed generations, created the international fan base, and paved the way for the newer, more realistic action that was possible with the post-Matrix camera tech.[xxxv]  Smaller, lighter cam finally allowed brash young action directors to “get inside the choreography”.


Nevertheless, the development and preservation of choreography in Chinese Opera and Sword Dance provided the foundation for complex action choreography integrating narrative arcs.  Where William Hobbs[xxxvi] was an outlier in Western Cinema, in Hong Kong Cinema, such choreographers were not uncommon, and there are many greats.


True Wushu Theater has even stricter requirements than film choreography, which can be a mix of real and embellished[xxxvii]


This new art form has been widely misunderstood.



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Figure 7 Bow Sim Mark as White Snake, based on the famous Chinese Opera.
The distinction is that every technique she employed in her performance was real.



Application vs. Performance


One of the most effective techniques in Wudang fencing is the “wrist cut”, which comprise the majority of the basic techniques in the modern “Essentials of Wudang” (Wudang Basics) manual that comes from Li Jinglin’s student Huang Yuanxiu.[xxxviii]  The most effective of these involves pressing the blade into the opponent’s tendon and drawing the blade across the limb by turning the waist to cut—it can look quite elegant but would be determinative if applied for real, taking away the use of the opponent’s sword hand and ending combat. 


This is considered “more gentle” than other straightsword applications, which I will not discuss in detail here for fear of shocking the reader. [xxxix]


Suffice it to say that the real application of sword is brutal, ugly, and taking human life is a terrible thing.  When I asked Bow Sim Mark why so many of her traditional wudang Sword Dances were set to sad music, she replied “The sword is heavy”.  This carries a double meaning in the sense of the inertia (weight) the internal practitioner puts into the blade, and the gravity of the martial intent, which both she and the Zen Sword Saint[xl] reduce to “taking human life”.[xli]  Thus we love Sword Dance because it provides a domain for a beautiful & peaceful expression of this exquisite art, which our goal is to preserve.






To apply martial arts well, the movements and techniques must all be second nature, coming out of muscle memory b/c there generally isn’t time to think.  When the movements can be done without thought, it allows the practitioner to consider other dimensions, such as strategy and physical cues from the opponent (foot position, body alignment, breathing, etc.)  The most celebrated boxers have been able to incorporate showmanship, giving a little something extra, to the delight of spectators and fans.  This can arise out of greater natural ability, but it will only be lasting where it arises out of superior technique.  High-level Sword Dance requires the practitioner to perform at that level–not only executing the movements correctly and well, but conveying the meaning of the movements, putting feeling into the sword, matching the music, controlling the space, and commanding the attention of the audience.  Sword Dance is an exquisite art and an exceptional method of training for both boxing and swordplay.



By J. Michael Nuell, January 2023




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Figure 8 Bow Sim Mark in “swallow tail balance" with double swords—
in later years she performed traditional wudang Sword Dance with two longswords,
then switched to longsword and fly-whisk because two weapons of equal weight was not challenging enough!





[i] Lorge, Peter. Chinese Martial Arts from Antiquity to the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press. 2012. pp. 62-63. Excerpting from Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian and Ban Gu, History of the Former Han Dynasty.

[ii] Ibid. p. 13 ff

[iii] Ibid. p. 104, 131The great poet Du Fu lavishly praised Lady Gongson’s Sword Dance. Lorge speculates that her movements must have been consistent with real fencing in that the audience of aristocrats would have had some knowledge of that fencing.

[iv] Altenburger, Roland. The Sword Or the Needle: The Female Knight-errant (xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative. Peter Lang AG. 2009.  Xia” means “knight errant” and “Nuxia” refers specifically to the genre of wuxia involving female knights.

[v] See: Condor Heroes, Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha)

[vi] https://www.usafencing.org/page/show/700900-mariel-zagunis  Mariel is the most decorated athlete in the history of US fencing and the first American to win Olympic gold in the sport, first in 2004 and then in 2008 for individual saber. More recently, Lee Kiefer became the first American fencer to win Olympic gold for foil. https://www.usafencing.org/page/show/707532-lee-kiefer

[vii] Harrison is the first American to win Olympic Gold in Judo, and one of very few athletes in the history of the games to win gold in multiple games, first in 2012 then in 2016.  Currently, she is participating in professional MMA and absolutely dominant with an undefeated record.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kayla_Harrison

[viii] It is not unlikely that contemporary Wushu, which could focus on grace and speed, as exemplified by the Northern Shaolin form, women had a domain not based in raw size and strength where they could exceed anyone with enough hard work.  Unarmored combat with swords and internal arts in general are two such domains, where technique, strategy, balance, timing and footwork are pre-eminent. The distinction of external boxing is that greater size and strength are generally determinative.  Wing Chun is said to have been developed by a Shaolin Nun to counter this advantage.  Modern attempts to downplay the importance of the origin myth are immaterial as a  characteristics of the art in general is the neutralization of size/strength advantage. The point of the myth is that it can be wielded effectively by a “woman against a man”, which connotes a likely smaller/weaker participant prevailing against the bigger/stronger, empty hand or with weapons. There is a reason double dagger is predominantly taught to girls.

[ix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yu_So-chow

[x] The teacher of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and many others. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yu_Jim-yuen , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sammo_Hung , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Chan , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuen_Biao

[xi] The Buddhist White Peony Temple in Inner Mongolia is distinct from the Taoist sites in the Wudang Mountains in Hubei province.  五當 vs. 武当.  It’s unclear to what degree women may have been excluded, especially in the neo-Confucian Imperial sponsored temples, but chauvinism in the martial arts is undeniable, and persists even to this day.  A straightsword in an unarmored context is one of the best equalizers in martial history.  A woman can be just as quick and fierce as a man, and it doesn’t take much strength to wield a light blade such as a poignard or flexible jian.  Fans of modern fantasy may recall that Arya Stark’s blade is called “needle”, re: The Sword or the Needle.

[xii] Anecdotally, as a teacher of jian, I’ve found women and girls to have more natural aptitude for this weapon.  There are many reasons for this, which I may treat in a future article.

[xiii] Yuen Woo-ping, choreographer of the Matrix is the most famous of the family.  His father Yuen Siu-tien was a kung fu movie performer who famously played the old Drunken Master in the Jackie Chan film of the same name.  That film was choreographed and directed by Woo-ping, who also directed Donnie Yen’s first film, Drunken Tai Chi. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuen_Woo-ping , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuen_Siu-tien

[xiv] The famous (and feared) kungfu movie director Lau Kar Leung is the son of Lau Cham, who was the disciple of Lam Sai-Wing who was the disciple of the historical Wong Fei-hung. Gordon Liu’s hung gar comes directly from that legendary master because he got it from the Lau. Part of the reason Wong Fei-hung became such a towering legend is because the students of his students, and their students, made films about him.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wong_Fei-hung , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lam_Sai-wing , Lau Cham,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lau_Kar-leung , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Liu

[xv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Boat_Opera_Company

[xvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_dance

[xvii] The Ali shuffle: https://youtu.be/gvFix9gioDU

[xviii] Both Ali and Leonard say the actual greatest was Sugar Ray Robinson, and credit him as their true teacher, but much less footage Robinson exists, so his greatness is often lost to modern fans of the sport.

[xix] In the Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art manual it is noted that fencing is like boxing.  https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/wudang-sword/   [See: “One: Stating the Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art”.]

[xx] These qualities are present in extant war dances of “primitive” cultures, by which we mean advanced pre-industrial cultures.  Surviving Polynesian War dances are an exemplar.  The feeling is expressed not only in the body language but in the face which is trained to be a terrifying mask.  This is a basic example of psychological warfare, such that we can see that theater cannot be separated from even warfare.  Anyone who has made a serious study of military strategy knows this to be the case.  #HungerGames

[xxi] For this reason, the extant Wudang sword arts have a principle of “preserving the sword”, which extends even further to “edge preservation”.  Real wudang fencing never goes force against force, but counters force with circular motion, utilizing the same core principle as Tai Chi.  The main point of failure in swords is the tang, and this and the surrounding components of metal swords will degrade over time with use.  Swords are distinct from knives in having “action”, which can be understood as the ability to multiply force using the balance and weight of the blade. Unlike single-edged swords which can used softer, more durable metal for the back, which does not need to hold an edge, the blades of normal straightswords are weaker than sabers. No straightsword should be thought of as durable, even the stiff swords over 2lbs. This is the cost of the versatility that makes it them the king of cold weapons.

[xxii] When I pushed with Xia Bohua, then a senior citizen, he would just laugh as I essentially unbalanced myself.  He didn’t have to take it seriously because I was not his student so he had no “skin in the game”.  Pushing with Sifu was not as entertaining since there, any relative lack of skill did not bring delight.  In both cases I was unimaginably lucky to even be in the room.

[xxiii] This is a hallmark of Bow Sim Mark’s son, Donnie Yen, who, after a decade of rigorous, grueling basic training in traditional Shaolin “went his own way”.  He was qualified to do that, and the result is that his martial art is distinct—no one else looks quite like him.  There is a story told of the time he was sent to train with Beijing team alongside Jet Li, after having gotten in trouble for fighting.  The coaches are said to have used him to needle the elite team members into working even harder with some form of “He’s not even competing and refuses to do he movements in the right way, so why is he stronger and faster than you?”*  Like his mother, he wanted to keep the Chinese arts current and vital, and so integrated techniques and concepts from an array of non-Chinese arts.  He was also famous early on for innovating a new form of the “no shadows kick”.
* It’s hard to know the veracity of the legend or it’s effect, but no one can deny that something spurred on that now legendary class that inspired a generation.

[xxiv] When Wushu was formalized as the national sport of China, they brought together the greatest masters to create the first generation of compulsory forms.  This is where the Advanced Sword form derives from, arguably still the most technically challenging.  (This form comes from before the integration of gymnastics in contemporary wushu, which technical aspects occupy a different domain of pure athletics as opposed to fencing exclusively.)

[xxv] Yu was also a movie star, famed for his drunken sword in Jet Li Shaolin Temple (1982) and his longsword in Yellow River Fighter (1988). One of the last films he made was The Sword Identity (2011), which explores the idea that sword technique derives from rod. This is a notion many take seriously, and famous practitioners from Musashi Miyamoto to Bow Sim Mark to Zhou Xuan Yun hold that a “stick can be a sword”—what matters is technique.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yu_Chenghui

[xxvi] Here it’s a slightly different domain.  Where Yu and Mark are considered true masters for their movement and technique, Yuen’s true mastery is in the field of fight choreography and the corresponding action direction specific to that field.  The famous fight scene in the training hall between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi has a lot of “Hollywood” and also some real fencing. For instance, you’ll notice that when the girl is on the defensive, she has to block and gains no advantage (“right of way”) for a riposte.  But when she is able to make proper circular counters (parries) as in real wudang fencing, it shifts advantage and gives her the opening to counter-attack. Yuen makes a clear distinction between counters executed with the edge for extra traction and stiffness, as against the heavy bronze rod, and the more desirable “edge preserving” wudang counters that use the flat, which has more surface area to control an opponent’s blade.  He also faithfully displays the real wudang principle, explicated by Li Jinglin, of “inviting the opponent in” and “letting their weapon get very close to your body.”  Those who know the art recognize that Yuen has a deep understanding of wudang fencing, even where the requirements of the genre (cinematic) call for much embellishment. Yuen’s approach to fight choreography has influenced and advanced all modern action cinema, just as Yu and Bow Sim Mark influenced and advanced contemporary wudang.

[xxvii] These two Li, not related by blood, were considered by most to be the best sword practitioners in their respective generations.  Jinglin had many students and disciples, but none as influential as Tianji.  Like Bow Sim Mark, their fame and reputation didn’t come from being official lineage holders or gatekeepers or inheritors—it came from their skill and their skill alone.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Jinglin  youtube: Li Tianji, Wuhan, 1984, Two-person Wudang Sword (age 70)

[xxviii] Her snake hsingyi appears to be a creation adapting movements from Dragon Palm and Shaolin snake. These are no-nonsense techniques I’ve routinely validated in sparring—no one can counter it because they’ve never encountered it.  She actually called it “baby snake” because the movements are so simple, and had the children perform it.  It is a bagua/hsingyi fusion form in the tradition of the much praised Fu style bagua/taichi fusion form called liangyi.  Most men will reject this form because snake is considered feminine, but traditional snake was one of the secrets that gave Bow Sim Mark’s sword that extra sinuosity others didn’t have.  Where the best bagua players correctly use the root of the spine to generate motion and force, Bow Sim Mark could use the whole spine.

[xxix] She was formally a disciple of Fu Wing Fay and his great friend from childhood, Li Tianji, but began her Shaolin training in youth under Deng Kam To, and learned sword from Fong Nam Yue, a woman who lived as a man and had a formidable reputation.

[xxx] She also had to work even harder because she was a woman in a male domain.  See: “Ode to a Pomegranate Flower” by Wang Anshi.  This Song Dynasty poem forms the basis for the modern Chinese idiom of women in the workplace and other male dominated fields, and gives the name to the swordplay ideal of the “single drop of red”, which will be explicated in a future essay.  For now, suffice it to say that there is a deep cultural connection of women and jian in China, from Tang and Song dynasties onward.


Notes on Figures 5 & 6: Her flexibility allowed her to do an instant “level change” into a front split and thrust her blade up into the guts of a charging opponent, one of her signature performance movements. Only women can go fully down in the front split—men can’t get the same perfect root because we don’t have the right hips.


The leaning thrust in Fig.6 on the left Is followed by a wave counter, slice, then drawback counter that leaves the fencer ready for a forward jumping thrust. Because she could lean back so far, she could get an extra foot of range compared to other internal sword masters.  (The wushu competitors have similar flexibility, but these are young athletes and not high-level internal masters.  Mark is the only true internal master I know of who maintained that level flexibility, not only though middle age, when most masters stop training, but into her 70’s!) 


The leaning thrust in Fig. 6 on the right is set up by a cross-step chop that can be used to bind the opponent’s sword, press upward during body turnover, then a backhand ankle cut, nearly impossible to parry. The fencer never turns their back on the opponent and maintains blade-on-blade contact throughout the body turnover.  Thus there are applications beyond the simple surface-level backbend thrust, as with many movements in Wudang.



These movements come from “Advanced Sword”, the first compulsory wudang sword form in the then new sport of Wushu. It contains sequences from the best of the best, including Wang Zi-Ping (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Zi-Ping) and Li Tianji.  It was the most technically difficult sword form to date, and may still be in that the trend since has been toward simplification, replaced competitive Wushu largely with increasingly technically difficult gymnastic elements, more suitable for Olympic competition.  Bow Sim Mark published a manual on the form in 1980 featuring two-person work with the young Donnie Yen.  It’s a squarely modern fencing form with sophisticated point-fighting.  Traditional forms from earlier eras typically have only basic point work and are more heavily oriented on cuts.   


Notice also that Figure 6 is not high-speed photography—Master Mark had to hold those positions.  She explained that to be able master techniques in internal art, the practitioner had to be able to execute them slowly as well as quickly, and hold every position in the movement, especially the balance positions, for an indefinite period. As a famous contemporary Taoist Wudang master put it: “Bow Sim Mark is strong!”


[xxxi]  Li Jinglin Li Tianji Mark Bo-Sim 

[xxxii] Although a problematic figure, no one can deny this Irish Pugilist’s mastery of showmanship. When McGregor turns his back on Diaz in the ring, again and again and again, it has meaning.  He’s expressing scorn and disrespect—you should never turn your back on an opponent, but he’s doing it not just via the action, but with body language that explicates the meaning of the action.  There is an element of pantomime (showmanship) in McGregor’s movement.  In the science of theater we might call this “gesture”.  He is conveying information to his audience and opponent.  And Wesley Snipes, a celebrated actor is very well regarded in Karate circles because he trained hard, anyone could look at his body and see he could take punishment and hit hard.  His movement was disciplined, strong and rooted.  Like all real masters of any level, his movement was clear.  And he brought that extra something that even most martial artists don’t have.

[xxxiii] The principle holds also in every domain of human endeavor, including mathematics. Every advancement in mathematics is the product of creative insight, and this is why we still remember names such as Euler, a towering figure in his field, even by modern standards.

[xxxiv] The most brilliant example may still be the training hall sequence from Crouching Tiger, which has its own narrative arc, and explicates the martial principle that strategy is preeminent—more important than youth or a better weapon.  This idea is a reflection of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, of Musashi Miyamoto’s Five Rings, and we see it in modern domains such as prizefighting with Ali’s “rope a dope”, which he used to defeat stronger opponents, and in the history of insurgency in the 20th century.

[xxxv] Woo-Ping, of course, also choreographed the Matrix, which again set the martial world on fire.  

[xxxvi] The most celebrated swordfight choreographer in Hollywood history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hobbs_(choreographer)

[xxxvii] A polite way of saying fake.  The requirements for cinema are different however, where suspension of disbelief is facilitated by editing and, more recently, computed generated imagery (CGI).  More importantly, in the cinematic medium, the audience requires spectacle.  Wholly realistic martial films such as The Duellists (1978) may gain immortal reputations, but they are rarely blockbusters.  Cirque du Soleil has dipped their toe into this domain, but there the martial art is secondary to the acrobatics and dance, so not true Wushu Theater.  The same is true of the Shen Yun dance repertoire, which can have a martial flavor because they interpret the Classics such as Outlaws of the Marsh and Journey to the West, and perform a version of the Mulan legend, and can be confused with true Wushu Theater.

[xxxviii] Huang Yuanxiu. Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art. The Commercial Press, LTD, Shanghai, 1931. [trans. Paul Brennan, 2014] Those interested can also check out Brennan’s translation of “The Sancai Sword Manual of Xu Yiqian”, but understand these manuals only scratch the surface. 

[xxxix] Pressing the blade into the flesh is a natural function of wudang straightsword, where all movement comes from the waist.  Because the arc of the waist-driven cut is circular, but the blade is straight, it naturally presses into the opponent’s flesh to cut deeply. 

[xl] Musashi Miyamoto. Historical accounts credit him with prevailing in over 70 duels, each comprising a life or death struggle against an experienced opponent wielding a razor sharp sword.*  Most of Musashi’s duel can be assumed to have been conducted without armor, such that even small mistakes can be instantly fatal.  In Musashi’s case that was the misfortune of every opponent.  A European mythical referent is Cyrano, but we can see how in Japanese and Chinese culture, sword is integrated not just into culture but religion, such that Musashi is regarded as a Zen saint. Parallels in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism are sword wielding Arhats.  Manjushri is sword wielding bringer of mercy (bodhisattva) who vanquishes  illusion (maya) with his sword.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miyamoto_Musashi

*Musashi himself, like Bow Sim Mark, could also do it with a stick. In his most famous duel he cut a tree branch to match the longsword his opponent was using, charged him with the sun at his back, and killed him with a strike to the head. This is one of the ways to identify a master—it doesn’t matter what they’re holding in their hand.

[xli] While it can be common for young men to glorify violence, the application of this art can be thought of in a technical, dispassionate way, similar to how a surgeon approaches their profession.  This has been explicated in literature including Chabon’s Gentlemen of The Road and the Aubrey/Maturin series.  Understanding of physiology would have been a requirement in the age of sword, but even for the Sword Dancer it is necessary to have a basic comprehension, and vital to understanding the meaning of the movements in order to express them truly.  It is possible that coming to understand the martial use and application of the sword can have a sobering effect, over time diminishing any tendency toward fantasy by reinforcing the reality. This was certainly true my own case, beginning as a teen fantasizing about swordfighting, who by way of one of the great teachers, came to learn the real art of swordplay and thereby found peace.  Amituofo!  阿弥陀佛  



Shantih, shantih, shantih.”  शान्ति शान्ति शान्ति


A person dancing in a room

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