Clack-clack-clackety the clash of timber!

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Whenever I really want to teach someone how to use a sword, I start with Western classical fencing. There is a simple reason for this: wooden training implements (wasters, boken, etc) do not convey the actual feeling of steel against steel. If the student spends too much time using a wooden training sword, he will develop bad habits and adopt erroneous principles and never, ever – ever – truly understand how to engage a real blade against a real blade. I state this definitively as I have seen too many cases where it is true. So do yourself a favor and pick up a fencing epee or saber.
 
Steel reacts in a certain way against steel. It slides and tears and cracks and chips, and bends and scours and springs and nicks, and glides and sparks and coils and splits, and then goes on to slice and spit. Systems of Fencing were designed from antiquity onwards with the specific nature of steel in mind, and neglecting the innate behavior of metal in your training is like boasting about sexual virility while being a virgin – it’s a bit sad and juvenile in the end, don’t you think?
 
Over the decades I have seen that many oriental schools of swordsmanship disregard the clash of arms, under the premise that your own blade will not engage the opponent’s arms or sword, but that you will be able to position your body to avoid his own cut, and proceed directly to your own cut or stab. That is wishful thinking, and means that you understand neither the sword nor combat at all. Remember the phrase: “the clash of arms?” There is a reason for its wording. In fact, the “clash of arms” is why the entire science of fencing came into being millennia ago.
 
Wake up, kinder! No living being is going to sit idly by and willingly die so that you can go about hacking, slashing, bashing and clacking. You are living in a dream world and your teachers are feeding both their ego and yours at the expense of your personal ignorance.  Living organisms will react, counter, sacrifice their edge or the weapon itself, do anything they can (including offering you sexual favors) in order to prevent a razor’s edge from being drawn through their organs.  You can squeal and squeak and rage and screech all you want – it won’t help. They ain’t gonna let a blade get through their guard to slice and dice their very-beloved flesh if they can help it. This is why fencing came into being in the first place, and we know it’s been around since the Bronze Age. Take a look at Mycenaean blades: they are very clearly rapiers. Guess how they were used? Make an effort at an answer now.
 
When I actually want to teach someone how to use a sword, then, I start with classical Western fencing. Despite what you have been told, it is not that hard to come by – there are still places in Europe with extant and documented 400 year old lineages, older than most Japanese koryu by far. I have been a student of two of those European lineages for a brief time, but the point of the matter is, the masters of those schools really didn’t show me anything different from the fencing I studied as an average everyday student in an average American city in the early 80s (with two or three caveats to that statement), and both agreed I was an extremely gifted and competent classical fencer. Any fencing coach over sixty years old today that has been through the right type of schooling can teach you what you need to know – there is no need to go to the high dollar “classical” fencing schools that have taken over the Internet. What you need to know is simple: four quarters, eight parries, and the feel of steel against steel. You need to know parry and riposte, tempo and atempo. So do learn to fence if you want to claim that you can use a sword. Because if you use a sword against another man wielding a melee weapon, you will encounter either steel or shield for your troubles, or at  best wind up wrapped in a grappling match. You will not be able to avoid his strike and cut cleanly unless your name is Clark Kent or Barry Allen. Clean cuts that are not set up via engagement and fencing simply do not exist in actual combat.
 
Bluster, bluster, choke and bubble! Who the hell do you think you are, Dervenis? Have you killed anyone with a sword? Nope. Has the teacher you, dear reader, are currently training with? Um, no, right? Very few people alive today have, and good thing too. Personally, I base my opinion on the thousands of warriors who have killed people with swords, and left their legacy in writing and in the archaeological record.  The European historical and archaeological record is the most comprehensive in the world today, and it is there for everyone and anyone to look at it. These warriors have left their views written in stone, written on animal skin, written on paper, written in blood. Take a look at what they’re trying to tell us; you are the reason that they left their teachings there in the first place.
 
When I am satisfied that a student can fence, I teach him how to use a two-handed European sword based on a swordsmanship compendium that is derived from the common ground between the German Medieval School of the Sword (as we understand it today) and select medieval Japanese sword schools I happen to agree with. The derivation of this Common Ground is my own effort and you can take it or leave it as you wish. But an important precondition for understanding the use of the two-hander (which I indeed teach using a wooden sword) is to be able to understand and practice classical western fencing. If you do not understand the latter, then in my opinion you have no chance of understanding the use of a two-handed sword either.
 
From this point on, one progresses to more close-quarter-combat-oriented applications which, given that they involve grappling with an armored opponent, have little to do with sword technique and everything to do with murder. Some schools try to proceed directly to this final stage; I have to laugh at that. Toddlers must mature a few decades before they can become ultra-marathoners. Today, people don’t want to hear this, but it is very sadly true. Accordingly, students have to learn how to use a sword before they can learn how to use the sword – there is no way around this. Conceit of the opposite variety is why lineages of swordsmanship either disappear entirely or become equally irrelevant though they may appear to prosper.
 
But the reality of the situation is simple: the future has already happened and the present is found in the past. One simply needs to learn how to see the threads; few things in life are beyond this. Swordsmanship, most certainly, is not.

4 Comments

4 Responses

  1. Zach Keatts  •  September 16, 2009 @11:40 am

    Kostas,

    I was reading your blog about swordsmanship and tried to leave a comment, but realized I could not. I thought I would send you an email instead to express my joy in reading such a well put article on swordsmanship. I especially like that you took into account both Eastern and Western methods in your analysis. So many times you run into material where someone blindly preaches what they were told, but never proved out through practical experience.

    Your blog led me to your website and I was gratified to read you have been learning Chen Taiji from master Chen Xiaowang. I have been practicing Chen Taiji as well for the last eight years. I learned Xinjia from a friend in University whose teacher learned from Chen Zhaokui. I am currently learning from Chen Huixian, who is Chen Zhenglei’s niece (and I believe she helped Chen Xiaowang teach while she lived in Chen Jiaoga). I am hoping to read some of your thoughts and experiences with Chen Taiji from your blog. I know you just started the blog, but it looks like you have a lot of general experience to share about Martial Arts.

    I look forward to future discussions.

    Zach

  2. Kostas Dervenis  •  September 16, 2009 @11:51 am

    Thanks Zach. I no longer practice taichi due to time constraints, but several of my students still train rigorously. I consider Master Chen Xiaowang both a friend and one of the foremost teachers in the world today. Whenever I have the opportunity to sneak in a lesson with him, I feel privileged.

  3. Mario Panagiotopoulos  •  September 18, 2009 @1:01 am

    Kosta,

    I’m glad a student of yours directed me to your blog. Your article is well written and quite interesting. I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t really realize or care that they’re training in laboratory conditions. I suppose it all comes down to never losing sight of the point to whatever it is you’re doing – if you’ve lost the meaning what’s the point of doing anything at all? Good luck with your blog – I look forward to your future articles.

    -Mario.

  4. Ioannis Sampalis  •  September 22, 2009 @12:21 am

    Kosta,

    I’m glad you decided to update the pammachon site and start this blog. I wish you all the best.

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