In 2017, I entered into an agreement to write a blog for Tai Chi Nederland. Within that agreement, I was given many freedoms. I was free to determine the frequency of the essay posts and free to determine the topics. I was also free to organize the topics as I liked and free to write in whatever style I wished. I ended up choosing a theme system of 13 essays per quarter; with each essay being a contemplation about one particular aspect of the quarter’s theme. Within these freedoms, an agreed upon duty was also put into place. Twice a year there would be a TCN Workshop on a particular topic. The essay series for the two quarters preceding those workshops were to reflect those topics. The workshop topics in 2017 were Iron-Shirt Qi Gong and the Miaodao; and as such, were the topics of the first and third quarter essay series. For the second and fourth quarters the series themes were; The Boxer Rebellion, and Tai Chi Development. The essay I am writing at this moment, “In Defense Of The Knife”, is number 5 of 13 in the first quarter series of 2018: Sharp as Knives. The topic is knives because during the TCN Workshop in March the newest replica weapon of the “Return to the Source” project will be introduced. The workshop will be about using the knife.
When I first heard that the March weapon in 2018 would be a knife, I noticed conflicting reactions arise within myself. The first reaction was one of great enthusiasm. I had been wanting to learn how to handle a knife because of my interest in the folding fan. The fan can be used as a short weapon and can be handled in much the same way as a knife. I rejoiced in the impending opportunity to learn knife skills which I could then incorporate into fan skills. My second reaction was one of severe self-doubt. I had spent my life avoiding knives whenever possible and I never developed any real working-relationship with fighting knives. I sincerely doubted that any inherent martial arts knife insights or skills would suddenly pop up from within me during the knife workshop. I realized that this workshop would, like the others before it, be about facing my doubts, embracing my challenges and accepting that I had a lot to learn. Luckily, I have the wonderful opportunity to prepare my own path, toward the workshop in March, through the process of researching and composing 13 essays on the knife.
As mentioned above, this is my fifth knife-essay, and I am here today to defend the knife. That may sound a bit odd, so, let me explain. In the world of modern Tai Chi communities, weapons seem to need defending. Tai Chi has a few weapon types which have been physically de-militarized; in materials, composition, and use. These surrogate weapons are much lighter than real weapons and they move very differently from actual weapons. The most prevalent Tai Chi practice/demonstration forms have been created for imitation weapons and they are unsuitable for learning martial applications. For the majority of modern practitioners, Tai Chi has long been distanced from the harsh realities of war, violence, and even self-defense. Weapons are practiced for the beauty of their forms and not for their effectiveness in combat. As such, working with theater swords and spears does not feel as emotionally confronting as working with actual weapons. They have been conceptually removed from their original context, or placed in a romanticized imaging of Tai Chi’s past. Working with antique weapons or replica weapons can be a very sobering experience. The romance disappears and respect for the weapon and for the use of the weapon takes its place.
The knife I am here to defend today is a knife which I find incompatible with any notions of romanticization. It was designed and made for self-defense and it has been remarkably successful in fulfilling its purpose for those who have known how to wield it. The history of the knife and its development tells an interesting story; a story which is interwoven with the life of William E. Fairbairn, Shanghai, and the Martial Arts. This is a knife borne out of necessity and experience, to be used in hand-to-hand combat, first in the streets of crime-riddled Shanghai, then on the global stage of WWII. The original Shanghai Knife would become refined and emulated; becoming the world’s acknowledged Commando fighting knife. Along with the knife’s development, the techniques of knife fighting and self-defense would combine eastern martial arts with western; creating a new hybrid system of self-defense. For any meaningful discussion about modern-day martial arts, it is necessary to understand the influence which William Fairbairn has had upon the world community of military and police combat; and the present world of civilian self-defense, as well. His insights and innovations have been integral to the formation of our modern concepts of fighting skills and strategies. Within this discussion, the reader is challenged to consider the actual meaning of the concept, “martial arts”. The story of William Fairbairn, the development of his knife, his contributions to the real hands-on world of martial arts, all stand in stark contrast to how Tai Chi is conceptualized and experienced as a “martial art” in the world today.
WILLIAM E. FAIRBAIRN (1885-1960) joined the British Royal Marines at the young age of 15. During his service as Marine, he became adept in the use of the bayonet. After his discharge from the Marines in 1917, he began his career with the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) in the International colony of Shanghai. “Shanghai during this period was considered by most authorities to be the roughest police beat in the world. The International Settlement was an open “port” city that was rife with every imaginable criminal activity and vice. Tong wars, dope smuggling, murder for hire, political assassination, prostitution, kidnapping, and a host of other underworld endeavors made Shanghai one of the most dangerous places in the world.”- [Carl Cestari]. Fairbairn was active on the ground; meaning, he was an active participant in curbing violence on the streets of Shanghai. “During his tenure of three decades he had been involved with hundreds upon hundreds of violent clashes between Mao Tse Tungs communist “Red” army and Chiang Kai Shek’s “Kumontong” forces. He had seen the invasion of China by the Japanese and the bloody and brutal siege of Shanghai and the surrounding provinces by the Imperial Japanese Army. He had worked closely with the S.M.P. “Special Branch”; an intelligence gathering unit that operated covertly throughout Shanghai. Fairbairn’s unparalleled experience with knife attacks and attacks with blunt instruments, unlikely to be duplicated in this day and age, proved a sound basis for instruction in the use of or defense against edged weapons, batons and clubs. His theories of close-quarter use of the gun represent the first systematic approach to combat pistol-craft ever devised, and remains valid to this very day. The same way may be said for his riot work, his concepts of counter-sniping, and his development of the police role in urban combat.” – Carl Cestari
During Fairbairn’s total career with the SMP, he is estimated to have been in some 600 knife fights with hardened criminals. During one of his early fights he had been beaten badly by the Tong and then left for dead on the street. After his long recovery, Fairbairn sought out personal instruction from Professor Okada: a Japanese Jujutsu expert and bonesetter who was teaching in Shanghai, and had been a former instructor to the Emperor of Japan. Fairbairn also studied Chinese Martial Arts systems under Tsai Ching Tung: who was a former instructor to the retainers of the late Dowager Empress. In 1918, he was accepted to the Kodokan Judo University in Tokyo. There he earned a 3rd degree brown belt in 1919. Later, in 1931, he received a 2nd degree black belt. Both certificates were signed by Jigoro Kano: the founder of Judo. His interest and practice was not limited to these degrees mentioned. It seems that Fairbairn was known to have investigated and practiced many forms of martial arts, including; Chinese Pa-Kua, European Boxing, French Savate, Sikh Indian Westling. He tested his skills during in-depth studies of multiple close-combat systems in the real world; on the street.
From Fairbairn’s reality-based knowledge, came his innovations. One of the most notable innovations was the creation of Shanghai’s Reserve Unit (RU). “This was the first ever Special Weapons & Tactics Unit, and served as the prototype for today’s S.W.A.T. teams. Along with his friend and colleague Eric Anthony Sykes (reserve officer in the S.M.P. Chief of the Riot Squad Sniper unit, and later Major with the British Army assigned as close-combat instructor for the Commandos and Special Operation), and then Lieutenant Samual Yeaton (U.S.M.C.), Fairbairn began work on the prototypes of what would become the most famous combat knife in the world, the F/S fighting knife.” – Carl Cestari
This Reserve Unit was, in fact, Shanghai’s Riot Squad. Fairbairn founded, trained and headed this unit; teaching over 9,000 officers of the Shanghai Police and the 4th Marine Regiment (“Chinese”Marines).
In the quote from above, the name Eric Anthony Sykes is brought into this discussion. Sykes [1883 – 1945], had worked with a security company in Shanghai. This company sold small arms and was run by the British Secret Service. It was during his work in this capacity that he met Fairbairn and they became good friends. Both had an interest in knives and both invested themselves in designing and creating a better combat knife. In 1931, the SMP had an armory; supervised by Colonel Nicholas Solntseff. His staff made custom knives for USMC officers. Second Lt. Samuel Sylvester Yeaton (1907 – 1979), a US Marine, was also involved in the making of these knives. “These gentlemen realized that anybody who expects to be involved in a fight better use all the upper hands possible. Fairbairn said that a man with the knife has the upper hand compared to an unarmed man, even if he is well trained in martial arts.” – Gothia Arms Historical Society. “In close-quarters fighting there is no more deadly weapon than the knife. In choosing a knife there are two important factors to bear in mind: balance and keenness. The hilt should fit easily in your hand, and the blade should not be so heavy that it tends to drag the hilt from your fingers in a loose grip. It is essential that the blade have a sharp stabbing point and good cutting edges, because an artery torn through (as against a clear cut) tends to contract and stop bleeding. If a main artery is clearly severed, the wounded man will quickly lose consciousness and die.” – Fairbairn.
Fairbairn and Sykes knew quite well what they wanted in a knife. They were not looking to design a hunting knife. The F-S knife was designed for use by warriors in conflict and stealth situations; to silence the enemy quickly and efficiently. The Shanghai knife was the knife which came forth from the collaborative efforts of the armory. These knives were made from the bayonets of the armory cache. The use of the end piece of the bayonet determined the basic design: a double edged fighting knife resembling a dagger, with a foil grip which was developed by Fairbairn and Sykes. There were only about two dozen of these Singapore Knives made. Yet, this knife would become the parent of all F-S fighting knives to come. Fairbairn and Sykes both returned to England in 1940 with the intent to develop this knife in service of their country and its allies during WWII. “Churchill’s declaration to “set Europe ablaze” was the war cry of the neophyte covert and Special Forces operations that would strike at the Nazi forces with daring speed, guile, and audacity. Fairbairn was tasked with the responsibility of turning these men into deadly foes at Close-quarters.” – Carl Cestari
The British government brought Fairbairn, Sykes and the Wilkinson Sword Company together to create what is now known as the F-S fighting knife. Basically, they created a new design for one of the oldest weapons known to mankind. The resulting Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife is considered to have been a “new composition” of knife to be used in the theater of war taking place in Europe. “With its acutely tapered, sharply pointed blade, the F-S fighting knife is frequently described as a stiletto, a weapon optimized for thrusting, although the F-S knife is capable of being used to inflict slash cuts upon an opponent when its cutting edges are sharpened according to specification. The Wilkinson Sword Company made the knife with minor pommel and grip design variations.” – Wikipedia. Wilkinson Sword Company had their engineer, Charlie Rose, work with Fairbairn and Sykes to ensure that the knife would meet their needs for knife fighting. The balance of the knife was a key element. Fairbairn and Sykes wanted a knife which could be tossed from hand to hand without the handler needing any visual cues. Capt. Leslie Wood R.E. made a small adjustment to the knife which was enough to succeed in bringing this quality of balance into the knife design. The knife continued to be developed during the term of the war. David W. Decker II, lists the dates of the knife’s development:
1933 – 1939 : Shanghai Daggers
Late 1939 – Early 1940 : X Daggers (Pre-First Pattern Knives)
Nov 1940 – Aug 1941 : First Pattern
Aug 1941 – Oct 1943 : Second Pattern
Oct 1943 – April 1945 : Third Pattern
The First Pattern knives were a compromise between the Shanghai design of Fairbairn-Sykes and the Wilkinson Sword Company blades. They were all hand forged and hand ground; resulting in variations in their specifics. In general, the blade lengths were: Shanghai Knife 14 cm, First Pattern 17 cm, Second and Third Patterns 18 cm. Unfortunately, the Third Pattern knives had changes brought to them through considerations of cost and quick production; changes which did not improve the quality of the knife’s fighting efficiency. However, history records the success of these knives. And their success was not only due to their design. Without the simultaneous transmission of knowledge through training, these knives would not have been so readily adopted by the militaries around the world. This is where the genius of Fairbairn met with hard work and fortune to change the world of martial arts. And now we are at the crucial point where the reader must think a moment about her or his own concept of “martial arts”.
The word “martial” relates to fighting and/or war. Whether that takes place within a military, police, criminal or self-defense context is not specific to the term. Fairbairn took his own knowledge, experience and insight of martial arts and taught what he knew to groups of people in different circumstances. It did not matter who the assailant was. What mattered was knowing human nature, knowing how people react to violent situations, and knowing how to train for an advantageous response. The system which emerged was Fairbairn’s DEFENDU. This system was about “martial arts” and was geared toward survival. It included bare handed combat, as well as the use of small weapons; with innovative pistol shooting techniques and F-S fighting knife skills. “Fairbairn emphasized the necessity of forgetting any idea of gentlemanly conduct of fighting a fair fight.” – [Wikipedia].
DEFENDU was a martial art and not a sport. He called this fighting, “Gutter Fighting”. But, it was not the unintelligent, rage-driven, undisciplined fighting which the term might bring to mind. It was a simplified system of concepts and movements. The system gave an understanding of basic situations and provided an easy to train solution. Students of this system were set to work repeating these movements over and over and over again with their training partners. The idea was that the mind and body would recognize the situation and respond with the appropriate action. It is easy to imagine the confidence instilled in the troops who were fully trained in this method. Confidence, in itself, is a great advantage in hand-to-hand combat. The situational responses taught would come to be engrained as common-sense applications; becoming an integrated part of their personal fighting skills. “DEFENDU was a complete method of armed and unarmed Close-quarters Combat. The foundation of the Defendu method was rooted in the harsh and brutal realities of real world violence… To put it simply, Fairbairn’s methods worked… [his system] made it possible for a person of average strength and skills to meet and win against a highly trained opponent in the martial arts.” – Carl Cestari.
To exploit this system to win the war for Britain and her allies, Fairbairn brought former Shanghai Police to serve as instructors to elite forces and covert intelligent units. These agents also had long histories of real-experience in violent situations and in implementing Fairbairn’s martial arts system. The troops were quickly trained in unarmed combat, small arms, and “silent killing” by Fairbairn, Sykes, and the experienced Shanghai team. Domestically, they trained: Commando units, Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/M16), Special Operations Executive (SOE), Royal Marines, “Paras”, British Home Guard. Abroad, Fairbairn trained Camp X [aka Special Training School No. 103] in Canada and in the US the secret training camp “Area B” in Maryland. “Fairbairn’s contributions to the field of close combat are numerous. Virtually every allied military force adopted his methods.” – Carl Cestari
Fairbairn’s first book, “Defendu”, originally printed in 1926, is a classic martial arts book. By that, I do not mean that he presents a form to be learned and performed for competitions, nor a list of philosophical principles to be infused into the practice of the art, while transcendentally raising the consciousness of the practitioner to elevated states of moral conditioning. By “classical martial arts texts” I mean texts which explain how to fight; how to survive in violent situations. The knowledge being passed down is knowledge of effectiveness rather than of esthetics. Traditional Chinese Martial Arts also have “classic” martial arts books. The military textbooks of Ming Dynasty general, Qi Jiguang, definitely meet the criteria of “classic”. They are functional and are geared toward the application of martial arts in violent situations. Once again, I find myself back at the point of contemplation of the meaning of the term “martial arts” and its interpretation within the realm of Tai Chi.
Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese martial art; or so I have read. Its history is grounded in the same “martial arts” concept as that of Fairbairn. Somewhere along the line of changing times in China the concept of “martial arts” has become less clear than it once had been. Martial arts is, historically, a relatively recent term which is meant to refer to systems of fighting; training practical skills for solutions to situations of violence. This concept of martial arts is far older than the use of the name which it has been given. There was certainly a time when there was no confusion about martial arts being martial. At the moment, the concept is anything but clear. The term “martial arts” seems to me to mean different things to different people; and also different things to the same people from moment to moment. Tai Chi practitioners are excellent examples of both. There is a large group of people who do not know that Tai Chi is a martial art. There is a smaller group who consider Tai Chi as having been a martial art in the distant past. And, there is a still smaller group who consider Tai Chi as a martial art of the past as well as of the present. Of these three groups, it is this third which I challenge to take the time to consider their own concept of martial arts and to (re)consider the role Tai Chi takes within that category.
In Tai Chi Chuan, we work toward developing skills for close-combat fighting. We take pieces of the hand form and we experiment with martial applications during our partner-work. Because of the nature of the Tai Chi martial system, sensitivity training is essential; just as training in body mechanics and the use of Fa-Jin are essential for using Tai Chi effectively in a violent situation. We also practice with weapons. We practice with weapons to increase our overall Tai Chi skills. But, we also practice the hand-form and hand-combat to increase our specific ability to handle weapons efficiently. At least… this is what we tell ourselves and others. In reality, how many of us truly expect to meet aggression with our Tai Chi skills out on the streets of our daily lives? We train with straight swords, sabers, spears, and staves. When we train with these weapons, how martial are we? And, which concept of martial do we use when answering these questions for ourselves? Are we doing a sword dance? Or do we have a sense of having a weapon in our hands and that our practice is of slicing, dicing and doing bodily harm? Are we conscious of protecting our own vulnerable bodies as we move through our forms? Are we comfortable knowing that our practice is martial? Or do we mentally distance ourselves from the reality of the weapon, its history and its inherent purposes?
I ask the reader these things because I have asked myself these things. From my first Tai Chi class, Hans has always made it quite clear to the participants that Tai Chi is a martial art and that martial arts are martial. This is not to say that the classes are violent and aggressively charged with everyone shouting, “Kill-Kill-Kill”. What I am saying is that in all of the classes there is always a (re)coupling of the exercises back to the martial reality of Tai Chi. We are reminded that whether we practice with a heavy metal sword or a wooden sparring sword; it is a weapon, and as such, requires respect and discipline from the practitioner. When practicing applications with a partner; the same respect and discipline is necessary; to acknowledge the martial in the exercise in order to prevent damage to oneself and to the partner. We are constantly being brought back from any fantasies we might have concerning our Super Hero alter-egos; brought back to the sober reality of what it is we are trying to learn.
Being willing to work and learn from a reality-based platform also requires an honest re-thinking about ourselves; our values, our biases, and our expectations. We need to know for ourselves what place weapons and violence occupy in our value systems. We need to know why we feel comfortable working with one weapon and uncomfortable working with another. We need to know what expectations we have of coming face to face with a violent situation. We need to know our own tendencies, our own patterns for dealing with threats in our lives. As I have mentioned before, it is quite acceptable in Tai Chi to work with straight swords, sabers, spears and staves. We are told that these were “traditional” weapons, and this puts us somewhat at ease. Being “traditional” creates an intellectual distance between the weapon’s intended use in days of old and the actual present-day weapon we experience in our hands. But, when we are told that the knife is also a “traditional” weapon, it is somewhat more difficult to create that same intellectual distance for ourselves. In our everyday lives outside of the Tai Chi training hall, how often do we encounter straight swords, sabers, spears and staves? How great is our expectation of ever having to use one of those weapons or of having to defend ourselves from any of them? The knife is as “traditional” as the other weapons mentioned. The difference is that it is also very much a part of our shared modern realities. There is a far greater chance of coming face to face with a knife threat in our lives than with any of the other Tai Chi weapons. That is what makes us so uncomfortable; it comes too close to our fears. This is important for us to recognize about ourselves. It is also important to realize that from a pure practical point of view, self-defense skills must include knowing how to handle a knife. By knowing how to handle the weapon, you also know how to defend against it.
In defense of the knife, I would strongly urge people to set aside their natural fears and ask themselves, “What can I learn from the knife?” I have certainly been asking myself this question ever since I began this essay series: Sharp as Knives. To be able to write these essays, I have had to open myself up to learning about knives. And, the first thing I discovered was that I am actually enjoying the process. Knives are interesting. There is a whole world of knives which I knew nothing about and the whole world has been creating, developing, and using knives since the dawn of time. Within that world,of knives, martial arts are soundly rooted. Knives and martial arts go hand in hand and that will probably continue far into the centuries to come. It is a reality from which I need not distance myself. Tai Chi is not about distancing the self from the reality of the world. It is about learning through the act of experiencing the world.