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Practice forms, which ideally take the fencer through a large set of core techniques, are typically broken up into sections. You see this forward extension of the offhand toward the opponent most typically at the end of sections, but also at the end of many combinations.

This seems to make no sense martially, especially facing a blade. Is it just a flourish?

  • Why does the off-hand extend toward the opponent at the end of many many combinations in Chinese straight sword?
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Let me preface my answer with the fact that I’ve been practicing Chinese swordsmanship for decade and a half now and free swordplay is an integral part of our practice.

To answer your question about the “talisman hand” (as its called in our school), there is no single blanket explanation that would cover all possible uses for the talisman hand positioning.

To be honest, the answer probably depends on the movement and the position itself and can vary from application to application.

In some situations, the talisman hand counterbalances the force of the cut, giving it more power, sometimes one moves talisman hand back, just to keep it safe from being targeted by an opponent.

Given that your question was mostly about positioning the talisman hand pointing forwards towards the opponent, there are a few possibilities.

When the talisman hand fingers brush against the wrist of the sword hand, they may be either checking the distance of the sword hand, making sure you do not over extend your sword hand; or they might be there for nominal wrist support.

In general though, the talisman hand should always be behind your own blade. In few cases it isn’t, it is quite possible it is either a flowery flourish for the sake of showmanship. There are few cases though in our swordsmanship system that extend the talisman hand in front of the blade where this odd positioning has a fairly plausible application.

In one case, the hand is used to push an opponent out of the grappling range and into the sword cutting range.

In another case there is an argument made for using a throwing knife.

A third case is purely for balance in a difficult acrobatic move that is most likely just a good gymnastics and balance training rather than a serious application.

Few forward pointing talisman hand positions I’ve seen in other forms could be construed as offering a bait for the opponent — making them take the “cheap cut” at your off-hand and so getting them moving in ways that can be taken advantage of.

There’s always a chance that one might use the off-hand to bind opponents sword arm in close quarters fight, but those moments are rarely clearly exposed in forms.

In all honesty, all the ways one would use forward pointing talisman fingers I mentioned here were taken from the applications of our Chinese swordsmanship system and would only apply in the context of those applications I was thinking of when describing possible uses for the talisman hand. Without seeing the exact form and relative position of the talisman hand and sword arm and without seeing the full context of this position in the form, no one can really say what is he application of the hand position. It may be different for each stance or it may be there just for the flourish.

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  • Can I ask what styles of Chinese jian? You don't have to reveal school or teacher specifics, but interested in your background and training. "Talisman hands" is consistent with the formal Taoist approach, as I understand it. (My own teacher used "sword fingers". My sword, for instance, come from Li Jing Lin via a student of two prominent students, so I'm heavily influence by Dan Pai wudang, which seems to be more modern. I stated out with "Shaolin" jian before learning internal.)
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 22 at 23:11
  • 1
    For past 20 or so years I’ve been learning a relatively small and less known branch of Yang family Taijiquan style mostly by attending annual seminars with an American born and raised teacher of mine who learned it from Wang Yennien. Between the seminars it’s been mostly practicing the stuff with fellow students. So it’s half self-taught with plenty of somewhat regular intensive tutoring from a teacher. Jun 24 at 9:51
  • 1
    "Famous teachers produce gifted pupils!" :)
    – DukeZhou
    Jul 8 at 23:03
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I think this question is referring to the "sword fingers" seen in most Chinese straight sword forms. Sword fingers are simply the index and middle fingers pointing out while the rest of the fingers are held in. There's no actual sword held by the sword fingers, so they just kind of look weird, like they have no legitimate purpose. Sword fingers are used throughout the form and would seem to be endangering the fingers and hand of the sword practitioner if he is facing an opponent who also has a sword.

Depending on the instructor, you'll hear different explanations for sword fingers. Most will seem pretty bogus. For example, that they're there for balance or for focusing Qi energy. Some say it's for muscle memory. Others say it's to make sure your left and right sides of your body are doing the same thing, because you don't want your brain to "glitch" by accident while having to perform different things with different hands.

Those all sound plausible, but you're probably still thinking they don't quite seem right. That's because the sword fingers actually seem to be doing stuff that contradicts those explanations at times in the forms.

The only answer that seems to make sense for real is this: The sword fingers are showing what you would do if you held the sheath (scabbard) with your left hand. The sheath is typically supposed to be held in ice-pick formation (projecting down instead of up).

Now picture yourself holding that sheath in your empty hand while doing the motion the form you're thinking of. Now it might make sense.

Also, the beginning of most jian forms start with the sword in the left hand before switching it off to the right hand. And the end of most jian forms switch the sword back, from the right hand to the left. These hand changes are to simulate you taking the sword out of its sheath in the beginning and returning the sword to its sheath at the end.

So what is the sheath actually good for? The answer is, you can use it to prevent, block, or deflect attacks to your open areas. You can use it to decoy. You can use it to distract and confuse.

Chinese jian sheaths were not very strong. They didn't have to be. If they could prevent the full force of a sword slash from getting through, that could mean the difference between life and death. A skilled martial artist may also be able to feel the hit to his sheath and adjust his body as he angled the sheath to deflect the attack.

Hope that helps.

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  • It's a good notion in terms of the scabbard, but, in the fencer would definitely discard that to free up the off-hand. Heavy scabbards could be used as parrying weapons and club—Musashi swore by two swords, but Chinese fencers who prefer this carry double swords. Full extension of the sword fingers does seem to correlate with better posture, likely because it completes the body's frame. (An easy tell for an undisciplined practitioner can be sloppy sword fingers:)
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 23 at 0:18
  • @DukeZhou And yet, what I said is true. Wielding two long, straight swords just isn't done. Shorter swords and machetes, sure. When you see a posture in a jian form where the two fingers are apparently "supporting" the sword arm by touching the finger tips to the wrist of the sword arm, what do you think is happening? Do you think that's really supporting it? If so, why not support it with the entire hand? See, that doesn't make sense. Literally everywhere in the form makes no sense for those sword fingers except if you're holding a scabbard. Jun 23 at 1:54
  • We have an archeological record, and can see historical examples of double straight sword, which is still taught and practiced. Supporting the wrist with the sword fingers is more optimal than the whole hand because it concentrates the applied force in a more focused area. Holding the scabbard in the attention position with the offhand, where the elbow is used to control it (same as holding the sword in the off-hand reverse "attention" grip) is interesting and challenging, but put the practitioner at a disadvantage, due to the unwieldyness. Terrible for blocks also.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 23 at 14:49
  • @DukeZhou We're talking about Chinese jian sword forms. They do have double sword forms specifically for that. The single jian forms don't work if you have two swords in your hands. You would actually cut your arms off. Haha. It just doesn't work. I encourage you to try it out. Jun 23 at 14:51
  • Even using the off-hand to wipe (counter) an opponent's arm, you're ideally making that counter with the wrist/forearm. Hand grip can be used to control the opponent's arm in place of wrist/forearm contact, but it's suboptimal in pushing hands also because it doesn't leave the fingers free for flicks or countering elbow strikes. Here sword fingers shows higher level of technique. There are many martial uses of sword fingers. You also make an assumption that all sheathes are lightly constructed, with is not supported by archeological evidence.
    – DukeZhou
    Jun 23 at 14:53
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Roland's answer covers some bases, with a few critical omissions:

  • Pushing the body of the opponent away after a definitive stroke, to clear the space

Fundamentally, you don't want the opponent falling in a way that could tangle up your legs.

You see this mostly clearly when the forms are practiced in the Wudang, as opposed to contemporary external style, because Wudang is typically demonstrated in a less phrenetic manner than contemporary wushu, more consistent with conflict where there is a chance of instantaneous death.

The techniques derive from the use of the system for individual dueling and multi-opponent combat.

If you analyze certain cuts, you will see the push emerges just as the cut finishes. An example is a classic uppercut that ends with the sword fingers extended forward and the blade in a high guard position, sword wrist over head.

You see it most clearly in Wudang because wudang fencing "invites" the opponent's blade, letting it get very close to the body, such that the famous "drawing" cuts, side to side or upward, are applied from inside the guard, at face-to-face range.

It probably continues to exist in the practice because Chinese fencing in an extant system, not reconstructed. (About 4 generations back from the teachers of my generation, there was still some dueling going on.)

  • Striking the opponent from inside the guard

Fist can be used in place of sword fingers to make such a strike, but this overlooks the goal and function—the poke is ideal because all you're looking to do get the opponent to react (wince) slightly to create an opening to insert the sword.

Obviously, you need to be controlling the opponent's blade with your blade before attempting an off-hand strike.

You will notice that in many of these moves, the blade is in a guard position, for instance, drawn back and protecting the thigh. Here, this sword position connotes a successful counter, controlling the opponent's blade by having parried it off-line, and "sticking" to it while making the finger strike.

  • Wiping the blood off the blade

Few practitioners seem to demonstrate this, but I always do—it shows a higher level of skill, and would have had a practical use on the battlefield. Even using gloves, blood on the handle makes it first slick, then stick, neither optimal for fencing, because both conditions inhibit the blade's action.

I mention this last one because the end of the movement leaves the sword fingers extended ahead of the sword's point.

Typically, but not exclusively, sword fingers forward, pointing up connote a push, and sword fingers pointing forward connote a finger strike

Again, finger strikes don't need to be hard, just draw the opponent's attention for an instant.

"Wiping the blood" typically ends with the sword fingers pointed inward, in the position used to draw them along the flat of the blade, away from the crossguard. (You also see this "inward" orientation at the beginning or end of forms, where a push to the side is generally optimal with the palm out, thumbs down, as practiced in bagua. "Inward" sword fingers also connotes blocking/countering with the off-hand.)

As my teacher used to say "If it doesn't have a martial function, it's not martial art."

Good forms contain no techniques that do not have at least one martial function.

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