So I just started studying Wushu (more specifically I think it's Bagua). The teacher seems very qualified and I really like her, she is from China originally, a 6th degree black belt and has studied since she was a child. She also has a bachelors degree in coaching. I told her I wanted to learn Wushu. She asked me if I wanted to learn Tai Chi or empty hand? I said empty hand.

Since then she has only trained me in weapons. We started with the staff, covering basics and performing drills. Now we are onto the whip chain. She told me we are doing the whip chain because it will help you keep your lines straight with the staff. So far I have had a blast learning how to use different weapons and all in all I am improving. However I can’t wait to learn empty hand forms (if that is correct terminology). I can’t carry a staff around with me everywhere I go after all, but I always have my hands.

My question is, is it typical to start students with weapons training first and how does that transfer to empty hand? In any case I trust my teacher. I am curious though as to why you don’t start empty hand first.

  • point one having trained with Chinese masters for some time do not assume because they speak your language that they understand you. Always triple check your Shifu has understood you, this is very important when learning internal skills. The Chinese Wushu association in Beijing runs a duan wei grading system, 6th duan is master level, on the pre 2005/6 badges of grade the word Dan of Wushu was used. Belts are not used. May be the reference to 6th Dan black belt was a way of communicating the idea of grade, most people have not heard of the Duan wei. Jul 10, 2019 at 16:50

4 Answers 4


It sounds like you're learning contemporary wushu kung-fu.

In contemporary and traditional wushu, most teachers will start you off with empty-hand training before moving on to weapons.

Just so we're clear on the terminology, "empty hand" refers to bare handed, without any weapons.

What puzzles me is that you said your teacher gave you a choice between "taiji" and "empty hand". You chose empty hand, but your teacher started you with weapons.

First of all, Taiji is done both with and without weapons. It tends to start you out without weapons and then adds the pole, straight sword, and other weapons later.

So what really happened was that your instructor was giving you a choice between Taiji and Wushu. You chose Wushu.

Both contemporary and traditional wushu are typically taught by first learning the basic stances, then learning basic punching, kicking, and blocking techniques. Then you move on to drills that have you moving while doing those and conditioning your body. Then you move on to memorizing empty handed forms (no weapons).

After that, wushu typically adds weapons. Contemporary wushu adds them fairly quickly compared with traditional wushu. The time varies by instructor, but it's very common to start training in weapons after 2-3 years of doing traditional wushu and after the first 3-6 months of doing contemporary wushu.

The reason why empty hand stuff is trained first in wushu is that it's much easier to learn the basics that way. Then when weapons training is added, that helps you with your strength, balance, and full body coordination. It can magnify problems particularly in your frame and balance that empty handed training didn't reveal.

Some people also find weapons training more intuitive. For example, if you're swinging a sword, you can see the sword and have a goal for that particular movement (for example, to thrust the tip straight forward or to drag the blade edge across horizontally). It's easier to see when you make a mistake. But in empty handed training, the goal of the technique is sometimes not easily understood. So it can be harder to know when you've made a mistake with empty handed training.

What's the right way to learn? Meh. It doesn't matter. Eventually if you keep going and learning stuff, you'll be fine.

You might want to ask your instructor, though, why she started you with weapons instead of empty-hand. It's possible it was a miscommunication to begin with. She might have thought you wanted to avoid empty-hand training and stick with weapons, instead. Ask her.

Hope that helps.


This is HUGE in aikido. Many of the movements with the katana, jo, and tanto are modeled into regular throws and empty hand techniques.

For example, with sword, the lift over the head, step forward, turn around, lower the sword - that's classic shihonage, a kind of technique which throws the opponent via the shoulder. Here's an example.

As there are hundreds of examples, it's impossible to mention them all. But, weapon techniques are everpresent in empty hands, and not just in the hand movements, but the hands, feet, head, back, and even timing.

So an instructor has a decision to make: teach the weapons first so that they can learn the "why" of the empty hands? Or do I teach them the empty hands, unencumbered with a weapon, and then once they understand the empty hands we can insert the weapon?

I don't think there's a right or wrong way here. Each of my instructors has a different philosophy, so, IMHO, it doesn't matter - as long as the understanding and the instruction will eventually come.

I do agree that some people learn faster with weapon in hand, while others practice without even knowing there's an underlying weapons movement. No instructor can satisfy both, but what is commonly done is to offer weapons instruction as an adjunct class, and those who want to learn weapons can go to those classes. If resources (time and instruction) allow, this is probably the best way to reach more students.


First your actual question:

is it typical to start students with weapons training first and how does that transfer to empty hand?

For wushu and Chinese martial arts, I would say no, it is not typical to start with weapons. Generally, basics like stances, punching drills, and kicking drills are taught first. Then there is basic barehand/empty hand forms training, then weapons training. If you are training frequently, weapons training may start after a few months. While unusual, I would not say starting with weapons is wrong.

Other observations about your question:

  1. Chinese martial arts historically do not use black belt rankings. The black belt rank system is a Japanese influence from judo, which has spread to other systems including karate and tae kwon do. A "6th degree black belt" designation in wushu, taiji (tai chi), or bagua is a generally meaningless title. Furthermore, it's also quite possible to have fantastic wushu but terrible taiji or bagua; skill in one does not equate to skill in the other.
  2. The Chinese government outlawed the practice of traditional martial arts during the Cultural Revolution before reviving them as wushu, which can be studied as a major in Chinese universities. The core of wushu as I have seen it is usually long fist (changquan) and southern fist (nanquan) forms. My understanding (2nd hand only) is that bagua is studied like an elective course in wushu. I have studied bagua in a traditional school, and the opinion of bagua from wushu sources is very low. Modern wushu tends towards "flowery fists" with lots of jumping and spinning, which is basically opposed to the economy of movement in bagua or taiji.
  3. Bagua is distinct from taiji. Although Sun Lu Tang advocated the idea that bagua, xingyi and taiji are highly related systems, and practitioners often train across systems, these systems look quite different. Circle walking is a universal bagua training element that is not present in taiji.
  4. Taiji or empty hand is a false choice. I have always seen taiji training start with empty hand training before progressing to weapons like straight sword or staff.

I would wager that you are studying wushu, not bagua.

  • Okay, so one thing I am gathering from your post is that there is a difference between Wushu and Bagua and Tai Chi. I thought Wushu was simply Chinese martial arts, and in effect any martial arts style originating from China would be Wushu. It seems that Wushu is it's own style though, am I correct? Perhaps this has to do with your second point, where the Chinese govt. put traditional styles under the terms Wushu? My instructors English is hard to understand sometimes so it may be why I'm slightly confused.
    – junfanbl
    May 9, 2019 at 12:56
  • @junfanbl The short version is that both of your statements are basically true: "there is a difference between Wushu and Bagua and Tai Chi... any martial arts style originating from China would be Wushu." In terms of sets: Bagua and taiji are included in wushu, but wushu has elements that are not included in bagua or taiji. But also the bagua and taiji in wushu are not the same as bagua and taiji outside wushu. For a longer explanation, you should ask a new question.
    – mattm
    May 9, 2019 at 15:20

I can't speak to Wu Shu, but Arnis/Escrima starts off with weapons (batons, knives, and swords) from the beginning because you should expect to encounter armed opponents, an unarmed person will generally lose to an armed person, and this will teach you to deal with armed attackers.

Arnis students start their instruction by learning to fight with weapons, and only advance to empty-hand training once the stick and knife techniques have been sufficiently mastered. This is in contrast to most other well-known Asian martial arts but it is justified by the principle that bare-handed moves are acquired naturally through the same exercises as the weapon techniques, making muscle memory an important aspect of the teaching. It is also based on the obvious fact that an armed person who is trained has the advantage over a trained unarmed person, and serves to condition students to fight against armed assailants. Most systems of Arnis apply a single set of techniques for the stick, knife, and empty hands, a concept sometimes referred to as motion grouping. Since the weapon is seen as simply an extension of the body, the same angles and footwork are used either with or without a weapon. The reason for this is probably historical, because tribal warriors went into battle armed and only resorted to bare-handed fighting after losing their weapons.


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