Slow and Steady Wins the…Battle

With a slow and steady pace, I bow to my two 太极剑 coaches, 王老师 (instructor Wang) and 郭老师 (instructor Guo), and say, “Lao shi hao.” Having formally greeted them, I begin my exercise sequence: five minutes of neck, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles, and wrists rotated ‘round and ‘round to loosen up, legs kicked high in front to stretch out, and back twisted about to work out knots. Loose joints and stretched calves are all part of the weekly warm-up requirements before each lesson.

Now, I am ready to begin my 太极剑 routine. Sword held straight along my left arm, I step to the left and gradually raise my arms in front of me. Calm, steady, slow, centered are the words repeated by 王老师 as I move through the routine. Lower the sword to my side, bring my right hand up and point at my head, shift weight to my left leg, bring my feet and arms together, then step to the right and swing the sword that direction. Now swing it behind me, drive the pommel forward, slash overhead to point the sword forward again, left arm out to the side, hoist left foot up to right knee…

“Incorrect!” 王老师 suddenly exclaims. I freeze, sword extended in front and still balancing on my right foot. “No, no, no, your left hand’s fingers are pointed at the ceiling, they should be pointing at the tip of your sword,” he explains as he manually adjusts my hand. He adds, “And your left foot’s toes need to be pointing downward. Do it again.” Hardly an obvious set of corrections to make. I finally put down my foot, rest my arm, and prepare to start again, giving special attention to the numerous details like this that 王老师 has pointed out over the weeks. Arms up in front, sword down to my side, point to my head, turn my foot about 45 degrees as I shift weight or else be corrected again, I once again work through each movement. As I successfully complete the trouble spot, I’m met with an enthusiastic “Correct,” and I breathe easy through the next few moves. Swing the sword in a vertical circle with my wrist, make it parallel with my left arm, sweep hand and sword in an arc to the left, lift the sword over my head…

“Stop,” 郭老师, the other instructor, chimes in. I freeze again, this time with a sword overhead. “You didn’t bring your hand up in front of your face first, go ahead and try again,” she advises. Here we go!

Fortunately, my Chinese has been improving throughout the semester, so I begin to understand their explanations as to why such minute details hold such great importance. “Your left foot, with toes pointed down, will be in position for a more balanced transition to the next sword slash,” or, “Bringing your hand past your face protects you from an enemy’s punch.” Ah, so that is what this is all about! In the midst of details, I had not realized that 太极剑 (Taiji Jian, the “Tai Chi” involving swords) was not merely for ceremonies or exercise, but also was originally intended for combat. My instructors proceed to demonstrate how their detailed corrections could block a stab or punch by, as one might guess, trying to stab and punch me as I practice, a method that speeds up my learning process to say the least.

In the final week of class, I finally manage to correctly complete the entire sword routine. I share my instructors’ pride in getting it right. Earlier, the whole thing had seemed just too slow and relaxed for fighting off terrible enemies, but having that new perspective on why the details matter has helped me learn this rather simple yet effective routine. I can’t say I would feel comfortable moving in slow motion in the midst of a medieval attack, but my instructors insist that a slow and steady disposition will win the battle. In a sense, I suppose they are right; a slow and steady approach not only has helped me win the battle of properly completing my 太极剑 routine, but also has helped me face the challenge of learning Mandarin Chinese. While the progress is slow compared to that of many other languages, I consider it a rewarding endeavor. As many in Beijing would say, 慢慢来, which roughly translates to “take your time, it will come.”

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