Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Sword(breaker) in the Age of the Gun

Weapons are the tools of warriors.

Much like a carpenter has his hammer, or a plumber has his wrench, the warrior has his weapons. His mission is war. He needs every advantage he can get. Outside of video games, shlocky movies and bad fiction, you never go into battle without a weapon if you can help it.

Wuxia and xianxia fiction are about warriors. Naturally, warriors must have weapons. Characters must have distinct weapons to distinguish them from others. In Saga of the Swordbreaker, the weapon of choice is, quite unsurprisingly, a swordbreaker.

But what is a swordbreaker?

It is an extremely obscure Chinese weapon, and for good reason. It is a highly specialized implement of battle. Though shaped like a sword, it is not a sword. It doesn’t have sharp edges. It cannot cut.

Which is not to say it cannot kill. The point is usually sharpened and reinforced. Moreover, a swordbreaker is heavy for a hand weapon, weighing in at three to four times the weight of a straight sword. Combining the properties of an impact and a pointed weapon, the swordbreaker is a smash and stab weapon. You can find an example of a swordbreaker here.

With huge, brutal blows, the swordbreaker would shatter weapons and break bones through armor. On the battlefield, elite troops used them to blow open a hole in enemy formations. In times of peace, internal security troops used them to subdue armed offenders without (necessarily) killing them. But should lethal force be warranted, the sharp point can be thrust into a vital organ.

The swordbreaker combines the raw power of the mace with the liveliness of the straight sword. It is a unique weapon, one that stands out from the seas of swords and spears and other, more fanciful, weapons employed in wuxia/xianxia fiction. It also ties neatly into the main character and the themes of the series.

Li Ming is an idealistic young man, tempered by battle. Disgusted with political intrigue and corporate shenanigans, he enters the rivers and lakes as a biaohang, an armed escort. He carries with him his family heirloom: a swordbreaker that dates to the previous era.

Li Ming is a protector, not a killer. He is called to protect life, not to end it. Though there may be times when lethal force is required, he commits violence only in pursuit of his primary mission, not for its own sake. The swordbreaker gives him the option of defeating an enemy without killing him. And when heavily-armored foes show up, he has more tactical options than someone armed only with an edged weapon.

Why is this important?

Violence is the final arbiter of human affairs. It is the ultimate way of telling someone to stop what he is doing—or to get what you want.

It does not mean there are no consequences.

The rivers and lakes is a dog-eat-dog world. Martial cultivators constantly jockey with each other for power, wealth and status. Offend someone and you risk triggering a blood feud, either with him or his survivors. The more people you kill, the more you have to kill, and the more people will want to kill you. This produces a vicious cycle that ends only in tragedy.

If you have to kill at all, it has to be for the right reasons. This minimizes the blowback against you. Not just socially; psychologically as well. Ending a life inflicts a significant psychic cost. You have to be able to live with what you’ve done. If you feel what you did isn’t justified, it will haunt you for the rest of your days.

Li Ming’s swordbreaker grants him the option of mercy. He doesn’t have to kill someone to stop him from harming someone. By sparing his defeated foes, he reduces the possibility of igniting a vendetta. If he has to kill at all, it is a conscious choice, dictated by the needs of the moment. This helps to preserve his psychological well-being throughout the course of the series.

There is just one slight problem: Saga of the Swordbreaker is set in an age of guns.

In this futuristic-fantastic setting, warriors kill at a distance. They fight with guns, cannons, artillery, air strikes, magic. Most of the time, they barely even see the targets. They just fire at movement, shapes, shadows and colors. The few times they engage in melee combat, it is because they are ambushed at very close quarters—or the magic in the air has rendered their weapons useless. In such a setting, there may be a use for short swords or bayonets, but a swordbreaker is arguably an anachronism.

Why carry a swordbreaker?

This leads us to the final purpose of cold weapons: cultivation.

Chinese martial arts treats the weapon as an extension of the body. Practitioners usually train in empty hands first, then train with weapons. In so doing, they dive deeper into the body mechanics of the art, learn how to adapt their empty hand skills to weapons, and apply weapon movements to empty hands.

Chinese gongfu is (in)famous for dazzling choreographed forms. When practicing a weapons form, the martial artist develops balance, timing, precision, strength, flexibility, and other such attributes. In addition, the movements energize the body, circulating blood, lymph, and most importantly, qi. Through exercise, through weapons training, body, mind and qi grow stronger.

Some martial arts are derived from weapons; to have a complete understanding of the art, you must train in weapons too. The big movements needed for weapons work allows the practitioners to identify and isolate the kinetic chains, then replicate them at the smaller scale. Xingyiquan and bajiquan are based on the spear, and the body mechanics of spearplay translate to empty hand techniques.

A swordbreaker is heavy. Using it effectively requires strong muscles, excellent body control, a keen sense of balance and proprioception, and clarity of mind. These same attributes benefit the practitioner in all other aspects of life.

Cultivation is not an isolated exercise. It is in all things: walking, talking, thinking, moving, even breathing. Or, in this case, training with a swordbreaker.

Saga of the Swordbreaker is a meditation on martial arts, on violence, on cultivation itself. To see the swordbreaker in action, back the series on IndieGoGo now!

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