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Practice Methods for Cleaving Saber Techniques
By Yin Yuzhang
(Originally published 1933, Brennan Translations June 2016. 56 pages.)
Review by Christopher Dow
Yin Yuzhang’s Practice Methods for Cleaving Saber Techniques was originally published just prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War, which later morphed into the easternmost extension of World War II. In that latter conflict, the Chinese sided with the Allies and the Japanese with the Axis. The Second Sino-Japanese War stood on the cusp of ancient and modern warfare in East Asia, and by the end of WW II, decisive conflicts came down heavily on the side of modern warfare.
This saber manual, written before that balance shifted, strongly promotes saber-wielding as a viable resource and necessary practice for modern warfare. In his preface, Yin writes, "If we examine the casualty statistics from the European War [WWI], thirty percent were caused by artillery fire, while seventy percent were caused by bladed weapons.” The author might have the best interests of his countrymen and the martial arts at heart, but his history is woefully inadequate, completely leaving out the devastation caused by rifle and machine gun fire, mines, tanks, and poison gas. Only in close-quarter combat were bladed weapons used in Europe in WWI, those being principally bayonets and knives rather than swords or sabers.
And despite the fact that he sees artillery that has some effect, even if it did not exist with significant power power before WWI, he fails to extrapolate the inevitability of highly advanced weapons of war. He ought to have understood that if someone invents a cannon, the next person is going to invent a better, more powerful one. Nor does he seem to understand that the artillery and aircraft of his day, even though relatively primitive at the time, could eventually combined into aircraft that could carry bombs, and that bombs might be developed that are powerful enough to destroy entire cities. In warfare with such bombs, missiles, and even high-rate-of-fire assault rifles, sabers would be useless in swaying the tide of victory.
But Yin was working with what he had in his time and facing an enemy in the Japanese that was fierce, well-armed, energetic, and implacable. And perhaps in those days when firearms were less developed, reliable, and widespread, many battles did come down to hand-to-hand combat where sabers were indispensable.
And, finally, even though the more “primitive” weapons such as sabers, spears, halberds, and others in the the arsenal of Chinese martial arts are not particularly effective by modern standards, we still see people practice them—not just in China but worldwide. There are reasons for this, even apart from cultural preservation. As part of kung fu regimens, weapon practice helps build strength, speed, accuracy, and power. And if correctly used, they also aid the practitioner in learning to extend his or her chi in channels that extend into the weapon and beyond the boundaries of the body.
But form practice and its many benefits aren’t what Yin had in mind with this book, even though he proclaims himself a longtime practitioner of the martial arts. Instead, he wants to instruct the pupil in ways to swiftly slay an enemy who is trying to do the same to you. In this, he is in perfect accord with Jin Enzhong, whose similar Practical Techniques for the Large Saber also was published in 1933. But while Jin reduced his set of techniques to twelve, Yin’s routine is much longer and contains more movements. Jin’s manual also contains far more explicitly anti-Japanese sentiment than does Yin’s, and in a sense, that makes it more interesting for both the martial historian and the casual reader.
Yin’s book opens with a transcript of the will of Sun Yat-Sen’s will, the first part of which proclaims that Sun has given his all to the revolution and his nation, and the second part of which apologizes to his family that he has given so much to his nation that he has nothing left to give them but his example.
Before the prefaces, there comes a bit of importance: a physical description of the cleaving, or large, saber, describing all of its dimensions and weight. I can't say that I've made a complete survey of saber manuals, but I had read a few, and I don't remember this succinct a definition of the the saber and its characteristics anywhere else.
Next is a preface by Shen Honglie, then the director of the Qingdao Martial Arts Institute. Shen begins with a somewhat famous martial arts anecdote about a butcher who used a dull knife and seemingly haphazard technique to cut up carcasses. But the apparent casualness of the butcher’s movements disguised a technique with his blade that was so superior that it was unerringly accurate and effective, even though he never bothered to sharpen his knife. Shen then segues into passages that extol the virtues of kung fu weapons in general and Yin’s abilities and manual more specifically.
The author’s own preface follows, and in this he emphasizes the need for self-defense on a national scale as well as the individual. He goes on to praise the effectiveness of simple but deadly saber techniques. Along the way, he relates several instances from Chinese history, both old and new, that illustrate his points about the importance of the weapon in practical warfare. Finally, he explains that he is writing the manual for the benefit of laymen, to both improve themselves and to aid their nation in its time of then-present need.
The remainder of the manual—about two-thirds of its length—is devoted to the instruction section. Each of the movements is explained and reasonably clear photos illustrate them throughout.