Technically speaking, Taijiquan refers only to weaponless fighting, as indicated by the word quan, or the fist. But Taijiquan does by tradition embrace officially four other distinct disciplines, staff, sabre, sword, and spear. I have seen this nomenclature extended to other weapons, e.g. double swords, axes, even Taiji Fan, but by tradition the aforementioned four are the only true inheritors of Taijiquan’s unique approach. Each weapon has the distinction of addressing one particular element of focus, specifically, the cultivation of ch’i (breath), chin (internal force), and shen (spirit). It should be understood that Taijiquan’s unique emphasis upon softness, while being logically rejected by many other martial arts as naively unrealistic (soft things can’t hurt you), finds no such resistance in the world of weapons. After all, the weapon is hard, even if you are not. Accordingly, there is a much greater correspondence between the Taiji weapons forms and those of Shaolin and other disciplines.
The six foot staff is associated with the cultivation of ch’i. The method used is, as far as I know, unique to Taijiquan, both in terms of development and in the philosophy of its use. It is developed through an initial exercise that emphasizes the actualization of the staff as a literal embodiment of the Taiji principle, making each end of the staff like one pole of the taiji, and the center stabilized as the fulcrum of motion. The body of the user is trained to adapt and follow this disciplined action even as it physically supports and provides the power for its activation. This leads to a two-person exercise in which each player holds one end of the same staff. Essentially, this amounts to tuishou with a physical object intervening.
This prepares the practitioner for a rather unique approach to staff technique. Most staff practice consists of high speed maneuvering of the staff through a variety of complex and progressively elaborate forms, the idea being that you only have an advantage over the opponent if you have the staff and he does not. This impressive and somewhat dizzying display makes it extremely dangerous for the opponent to try to grab your staff. The Taiji philosophy is rather different. By contrast, one trains for this eventuality by practicing just this situation. If the opponent grabs your staff, you have a lot of experience in how to control him with it, utilizing his willing contact. If he lets go, you just hit him with it until he grabs it again. At further levels of development, there are exercises in which both players have staffs, which begin to resemble the practice of other traditions.
Next in the usual order of development is the single edged sabre, or Tao. The element cultivated here is chin, or internal force. This practice probably comes closer to duplicating those of other disciplines than any of the others. Traditionally, the sabre was the weapon of peasants and relatively untrained fighters, the standard equipment of the regular army’s foot soldier. The sabre is simply an extension of the fighter’s arm, chopping and stabbing in a rather easily understood analogy to open hand technique, and relying upon speed and force for its effectiveness. The sabre form has several versions, even the longest of which is over rather quickly (less than a minute), and shows an easily understandable component of violence that resembles an angry pirate hacking up weaker opponents. It includes many abrupt stops, reminiscent of the “broken” techniques of Shaolin and other so-called “hard” martial arts. A sign of skill is the quivering of the blade at these points, demonstrating the practitioner’s chin or internal force.
The double edged straight sword is the most sublime of all of the weapons, and is meant to cultivate and display shen, or spirit. While Taijiquan has a large body of aphorisms that convey its somewhat mysterious technique, Taijijen, or sword fighting, has only one. “Lofty and profound, like the dragon, is Taijijen. If you want to be a swordsman, you must want to cut; if you hack away, as with the Tao (sabre), Chang, San-feng (the legendary founder of Taijiquan) will laugh himself to death.” I put the word cut in italics here to emphasize that it has a specific meaning, and is not simply an evocation of sadism. It is meant to contrast between the relatively crude technique of the sabre (chopping and stabbing) with the greater subtlety of the sword. In this context, to cut means to move the sword laterally across the body of the opponent, what in English would be more akin to the word slice. Cheng, Man-ch’ing once remarked that in sword fighting, if you are not moving forward, you are ineffective, that is, your sword has lost its slicing manifestation.
When mention is made of the “five excellences” that are attributed to the “renaissance man” or supreme scholar of Chinese tradition (poetry, painting, medicine, calligraphy, and sword fighting) it is only this particular sword, and its attendant technique, that is being referenced. While the sabre is merely an extension of forceful technique (albeit internal force), the sword responds to the attack of the opponent by creating its own taiji, an action that the sword fighter merely follows and supports. Accordingly, the sword ideally appears to have its own life and movement, giving rise to the old saying that one must “follow” the sword, and to the image of the “flying sword.” Unlike the Taijiquan form, the speed of execution with the sword is variable and the object’s momentum and response to gravity are utilized. The breath (external) is not disconnected from the movement, but is intimately connected with these variations in speed. This gives the sword form an elegance that is, quite literally, breathtaking. The sword, then, has a symbolic as well as a literal meaning. It is common for scholars to possess and display a fine sword, even if they have no actual skill in its use.
Last but not least is the spear, sometimes called the “king” of weapons. Like the sabre, it is a common weapon of warfare, and is mainly utilized by large groups attacking en mass. In this context, it is relatively easily mastered, and length is the deciding factor. If my spear is longer than yours, and we are part of large masses of troops that confront each other head on, then my spear will stab you before yours can stab me. So a group of spearmen would seem to certainly have the advantage over a group of swordsmen, as they could be killed before even being in range of their weapons’ effectiveness. But in single combat the sword is generally given the edge. However, great skill with the spear can traditionally compensate for this, and duels between sword and spear, when engaged by masters, are the stuff of legend. The basic drills for spear are extremely physically demanding, in keeping with the basic concept of equipping your soldiers with the longest spears possible, whereas more advanced training involves the skills of staff, sabre, and sword to reach their final point of excellence. Accordingly, the spear is said to cultivate all three of the previously mentioned elements, ch’i, chin, and shen.