The sword makes a whistling sound as it cuts through the air. Today I am practicing a form that had been lost for generations until one of my teachers, Sun Ruxuan, resurrected it from old documents. Sun Laoshi, or “Teacher Sun”, is one of the best swordsmen in China; having trained both in Japanese and Chinese sword methods for decades. I have been incredibly fortunate to train with him over the years. The creator of the sword form was Chen Zhongyou.
Chen Zhongyou (1561-1636) was the son of a wealthy merchant who lived in Xiuning county, China. However, he loved the Wu Xia, or martial arts stories, of his day. In these stories, Kung-Fu practitioners, bandits, and rebels traveled about the countryside like the knights errant of medieval Europe. They would suffer harsh conditions in search of adventure or to protect the weak. They called their lifestyle the Jiang Hu or “Rivers and Lakes”. A fellowship apart; they were known to each other but not to the proper society of their day. They conducted themselves according to a code of conduct and were a law unto themselves. Chen Zhongyou longed to be a part of this life.
For most of his young life, Chen Zhongyou showed little interest in his father’s business. One day, however, he came to his father and told him he wanted to go with a shipment to a far destination and learn about the business. Overjoyed, his father let him go. As the caravan entered a mountainous area, Chen Zhongyou leaped off of his wagon and ran to a temple in the distance. There, he presented himself to a monk and begged to be accepted as a student. He was at the Shaolin temple.
Chen Zhongyou was accepted and trained for ten years in the use of the Cudgel or Gun in Chinese. Afterwards, he departed the temple and traveled around the countryside; suffering the hardships and having the kinds of adventures he had eagerly read about in his youth.
Chen eventually came to understood that though he could help others, something more was needed. Villages were largely unprotected and bandits could pillage and leave the people to starve. He could only teach one village at a time. It would never be enough. If only there were a way to reach more villages. Then he thought of a way.
Probably using his family’s resources, he published one of the first martial arts manuals in the history of China, “The Illustrated Manual of Shaolin Cudgel Techniques” in 1616. It was immensely successful. An original manuscript still exists.
Later, Chen met a swordsman, Liu Yun Feng, who had mastered Japanese Sword techniques. As he studied with Liu, he found there were similarities to some Cudgel techniques he learned at Shaolin. Still later in his life, he studied the Shaolin War Spear and here too, he found that there were things common to all his other weapons. For each of these he wrote illustrated manuals that even taught fighting formations so that the villagers could fight like the military against bandits. What is more though, he taught in such a way that if one could use one of his weapons, one could use them all.
Eventually, Chen even learned and taught crossbow. Now the villagers could fight at a distance or close range. As villages learned these methods some became so proficient that the military would recruit them; paying them as professional soldiers. Many years later, Chen Zhongyou returned home to Xiuning to live out his later years teaching his Kung-Fu.
I learned Chen Zhongyou’s techniques from different teachers over the years. Each had inherited or had resurrected part of Chen’s legacy. As I practice, I am happy to believe that Chen Zhongyou would be well-pleased to see his art now practiced by many around the world.
There is a youtube video of Chen Zhongyou’s life.
There is also a resource of Chen Zhongyou’s manuscripts in English. Jack Chen is doing tremendous work to preserve Chinese ancient sword art. Chen Zhongyou’s work on the sword can be found at: