Reflections On Formlessness

GM Sam Chin & students demonstrate the 21 Form

Stories of Awareness From “The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber”

By Inst. Jeffrey Wong, Edited by Prof. Nancy Watterson

The Heaven Leaning Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber

In a famous Chinese martial arts novel titled The Heaven Leaning Sword and Dragon Slaying Saber,  (倚天屠龍記 published by Jin Yong in the early 1960s as the final part of the Condor Trilogy), there was a story about how Zhang San-Feng, the fictionalized creator of Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), transmitted his “grand ultimate fighting” style to his grand-student, Zhang Wuji.

sunrise at WudangThe story goes as follows: Wudang Temple was under siege by a gang in possession of the sharpest sword on earth called the Heaven-Leaning Sword. 

Zhang, Sanfeng was still recovering from a previous injury, but was challenged to a duel by a sword expert from the gang. 

Sanfeng’s grand-student Zhang, Wuji volunteered to take on the sword master in place of his injured grandmaster.  The only “weapon” Wuji had was a wooden ceremonial sword in the temple. 

Before the battle, the gang allowed Wuji one hour to learn the newly created Tai Chi sword methods from his grandmaster in front of everyone, because they did not believe anyone would be capable of learning all the techniques from a sword form in such a short time anyway.

Forget The Technique

Instr. Luther Burrell demonstrates a movement from the 21 formUsing the wooden sword, Zhang Sanfeng demonstrated a 54-movement sword form, while Wuji purposely only observed the principles of the form, but did not try to memorize the movements. 

After the demo, Sanfeng asked Wuji whether he had memorized them.  Wuji answered, “I forgot almost half of it.”  Sanfeng replied, “Good, think about it a bit more.” 

After a while, Sanfeng asked again, “What about now?”  Wuji replied again, “Already forgot more than three quarters of it!”

Sanfeng smiled and said, “Good, I’ll repeat once more.”  

He then demonstrated the form again, but this time, none of the movements were the same as the last time he had shown them.  After Sanfeng finished his second demonstration, he asked Wuji again, “Child, how do you feel now?”  Wuji answered, “I still remember three techniques.” 

We should not be just copying or applying the instructions and basic movements rigidly, but changing with timing and spacing appropriate to that to tweet

Sanfeng nodded and sat down, while Wuji paced around the great hall of the temple a little longer, then happily told the grandmaster that he had completely forgotten the entire form. 

Sanfeng was overjoyed, “Not bad, not bad! You are ready now!”

Armed with only the ceremonial wooden sword given by his grandmaster, Zhang Wuji proceeded to defeat the gang’s sword master who was wielding the sharpest sword in the world, doing so by sticking constantly to the ridge and avoiding the sharp edges of the real sword, and when the sword master was finally exhausted and frustrated, he admitted defeat and the gang retreated from the temple.

Remember The Principle

So what can we learn from this fictional, but fun story?


Not only literally about forgetting the sword form itself, but about understanding the nature and principle of things, and not being fixated on either a set of  techniques or any rigid preconceived formation of ideas.

Such an understanding of formlessness is one of our “Three Mental Factors” in the System of Zhong Xin Dao I Liq Chuan, along with “present”, and “neutral”. 

In the story, Wuji learned not by memorizing preset movements that he was shown, but by using his power of observation to realize the principles behind the sword form.  Our own study of the ZXDILC art requires the same learning process:  observing ourselves and the way things are. 

We do train forms and basic movements, but those are instructions — pointers to the principles. 

Do Not Imitate Or Accumulate

I liq Chuan students in AustriaWe should not be just copying or applying the instructions and basic movements rigidly, but changing with timing and spacing appropriate to that moment. 

Only the principles themselves should be constant, then countless movements and applications will emerge — much as Zhang Sanfeng demonstrated 108 different impromptu movements to showcase the sword form to his grand-student, intentionally for them to be forgotten within the hour.

Of course, Grandmaster Sam Chin would not want you to forget his teachings of the 15 Basics, 21-Form, Butterfly Form, and Nine-Point Fists, but it is guaranteed that he would be happier to see that a student can retain the unchanging principles of Zhong Xin Dao I Liq Chuan, even when his movement sets are done differently than what was demonstrated.

The principles should remain the constant center within the infinite changes.

Another interesting part of the story is that the strategy for stickiness—adhering to the ridge of the sword to avoid the sharp ends—is quite similar to our control of the Point of Contact in our level 7-8 top and bottom hand training! 

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