The Kwan Dao

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General Kwan's Living Legacy

General Kwan Gong - horse trader, General in the Emperor's Army, and the subject of folklore from the flickering campfires of small villages to the glittering gold of the Emperor's Palace - is part of the Chinese legacy that surpasses any stories told about him.

by Glenn Wilson

One of the most influential men in both ancient and modern Asian society, General Kwan, remains highly visible in modern-day Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China, in an abundance of statues and paintings. Government buildings, police stations, and post offices prominently display his image, for he embodies the virtues and beliefs that made him a living legend, representing the strength that man could attain. Any traditional Shaolin kung-fu school maintains a picture or statue of General Kwan, for his kindness and strength made him a virtuous man who established the examples of warrior spirit and honorable life. With his formidable strength and renowned wisdom, he not only led the Emperor's armies, but also waged a constant battle against corruption and evil. The General was a kind and merciful warrior who would never slay a defenseless opponent.

Loyalty and honesty

General Kwan led the Emperor's army during the latter part of the Han dynasty. Kwan was well-respected for his loyalty and honesty, so much so that the Emperor enlisted his aid in purging the palace of corruption. Dishonesty and deceit within the structure of the cabinet, the army, and the temple were rampant, but General Kwan purged these impurities and kept the administration free from dishonesty and treason. General Kwan became firmly established as one of China's most highly regarded and respected leaders.

General Kwan's arch-rival was another prominent military figure, General Show Shou. They would frequently capture one another on the field of battle, but out of honor and respect, neither would kill the other. This led to repeated occurrences of capture and escape between the two men. Finally, the Emperor gave an order to General Kwan that either General Kwan behead General Show Shou upon his capture, or face execution by beheading. However, Kwan could not rescind his commitment of not killing a defenseless captive. When General Kwan did again capture General Show Shou, he could not kill him. Show Shou eventually escaped, but the orders for General Kwan's beheading were never passed down.

The Kwan Dao

During the latter part of the Han dynasty, battle was conducted from horseback as much as on foot. Kwan was a large, powerful, strong man and set about to design a weapon that incorporated his attributes into full combat effectiveness against the horse or foot soldier. This weapon could only be used by him, and would make him even more superior on the battlefield. His brothers, who were local merchants, supplied him with the merchandise he required to build his weapon. General Kwan made a giant saber and firmly attached it to a long mass of metal and wood - thus, his saber and lance were incorporated into one mighty weapon.

General Kwan's new weapon became very popular, although its use was restricted, by respect for the General, to only royalty and those serving with General Kwan. The weapon became known as "Kwan's Knife" or "Kwan's Saber" - the Kwan dao.

So powerful are the slashing and whipping motions of this lance/saber that "Kwan's Knife" is an extremely difficult weapon to block. When General Kwan swung his Kwan dao with all of his strength and power, even if his opponent could avoid the oncoming weapon (such an opponent would have to be very agile and quick just to get out of the way), the wind generated by the General's strike would known down the opponent. The awesome power emanating from such a massive man with such an impressive weapon brought many opponents to capture and defeat.

The ideal of "yee"

General Kwan served many years in the Emperor's army, and always maintained the utmost respect for the virtues of his beliefs and development of what the Chinese call "yee", which espouses the belief in the utmost loyalty to, honor of, and pride in yourself and other human beings. "Yee" incorporated a belief in the reciprocity of action and intent: good generated good, trust was rewarded with trust, and saving a life led to your own life being saved.

Even today, this ideal of "Yee" is firmly entrenched in the Chinese culture. Thus, although he was feared as a strong and powerful General, he also was respected for his kindness, sincerity, and honesty. These attributes truly embody the warrior spirit - be able to defend yourself, have the power and strength to do so, but also maintain honor and pride. These teachings and beliefs can be found in traditional Shaolin schools.

This blending of might and integrity is why the shaolin schools, throughout time, own such respect and honor to General Kwan. All schools of direct lineage display and maintain a picture or sculpture of General Kwan with respect for his beliefs. Even the Shaolin salute embodies this ideal - the fist showing strength and warrior spirit, the open hand showing the sign of peace. Shaolin warriors are peaceful persons first, maintaining the warrior to be effective in the art of self-defense, maintaining honor, and comforting loved ones. This is what General Kwan believed in, and tried to instill to the many people with whom he taught and served.

The weapon itself

Since General Kwan's death in the latter part of the Han dynasty, the Kwan has undergone very little alteration in appearance, but has experienced quite far-reaching changes regarding its weight. It is generally believed that the General's own Kwan dao weighed as much as 100-to-200 pounds. The present-day Kwan dao, however, weights 10-to-40 pounds, and is used largely for shows and demonstrations. As an instrument of training, the Kwan dao is used to develop muscle and tendon strength, aid technique development, enhance endurance, and contribute to overall body development.

There are several parts to the weapon itself. It has at one end a large-crescent - the outside curved portion of which is used for slicing and chopping. A point at the end of the blade is employed in stabbing and thrusting movements. The backside hook of the blade is used for catching, trapping, and butting. In fact, an opponent's weapon can be captured by this hooked portion of the blade, and with a snapping wrist action the Kwan dao practitioner can disarm his opponent or use his own waist motion to whip in movement, which requires limber joints and the ability to execute quick, accurate and highly varied footwork. This demands good balance and flexibility.

To train with the Kwan dao is to train fully in flexibility and strength, developing good, stretched muscles and tendons.  The joints are well-lubricated by the type of movement demanded by Kwan dao training. Endurance, breath control, and overall health will also show a marked improvement. The Kwan dao is a heavy weapon, and after several movements, it begins to feel heavier and heavier. This is why the Kwan dao is used primarily to build strength.

Block and disarm

General Kwan stressed in his teachings that the warrior should kill only when he has to, and slay only when absolutely necessary. Therefore, the Kwan dao is an excellent defensive weapon since it can be used to block the entire body.  The weapon's physical structure helps it efficiently block and disarm. By creating a vertical "figure-eight" whipping motion where the Kwan dao spins, the skilled practitioner can create a "solid wall" of blocking with the power and momentum supplied by the weapon.

Working of forms involving the Kwan dao incorporates continuous fluid slicing, chopping and whipping motions. These constant fluid motions are also useful in developing strength. Through time, forms have been altered and several now favor the use of a movement striking to the ground. However, it is important to note that General Kwan would never have struck downward toward an opponent on the ground (modern-day forms have evolved throughout the passage of time, along with the Kwan dao itself, and some forms now require this type of move). The forms are used to develop strength and power of both weapon and body.  Strong, stretched, powerful muscles are shaped, agility and dexterity enhanced, limberness increased, and endurance, breathing, and health augmented by practicing these highly demanding forms.

The Kwan dao is highly respected in traditional shaolin and other kung-fu styles and schools that have evolved from the Shaolin monasteries. Traditionally, sifu (instructors) and si-hings (senior students) would be the only people within the Shaolin school allowed to demonstrate or work the Kwan dao in public. Other students might be permitted to practice with the Kwan dao within the school to experience the benefits working with the Kwan dao entails.

Throughout its history, the Kwan dao has become established as a highly honored and respected weapon. Even today, both the weapon and its creator, the honorable General Kwan, deserve the respect and reverence paid to them.

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