The Tai Chi fan / Taijishan is considered to be a heterodox short weapon of recent provenance in the Tai Chi tradition. Unlike the Japanese Samurai fan, the Chinese fan does not have a military tradition behind it; its primary function was to elegantly generate a cooling air current rather than to signify military leadership. However, it features in Chinese art as far back as the Han Dynasty (200 BCE) as part of formal dress.
When out for an informal night on the town, one might unobtrusively carry a fan to serve as a defence. For a man it might substitute for a sword or dagger. A woman might use it to flirt or, as need be, subdue an unmannerly companion. It survives today as a rare accessory to both male and female costume.
As a performance weapon, the fan has gained in popularity over the past 30 years due to its great aesthetic appeal. The best known Chinese fan form is the Tai Chi / Kung Fu Fan sequence which was designed by Professor Li Dai-Yin for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Various fan forms now exist in the Wudong, Shaolin, Yang and Chen Tai Chi traditions.
The Tai Chi fan forms are considered heterodox since they do not form part of the traditional family curriculums, although several have been added to those of both the Yang and Chen families.
The Flying Rainbow Fan system was designed by Mme Wang Ju-Rong in the 1970’s. In Canada the Grandmaster of the art is her daughter Helen Wu (at right) from whom a number of CMIA members have learned some of the fan sequences. The Flying Rainbow system consists of a number of different single and double-fan forms for one or two performers. The “Flying Rainbow” appellation refers to Mme Wang’s desire to create a beautiful art which would link China and the West. The Tai Chi Flying Rainbow forms are composite in that they harmoniously combine postures and movements from different family traditions. They are also influenced by the Modern / Xin style.
The usual fan employed in the Flying Rainbow system is constructed of a fabric such as silk and has ribs of bamboo or some facsimile material. “Female” fans have a ruffle of material extending beyond the tips of the ribs as seen at left while “male” fans do not. This sex-distinction refers to fan-design, not to the practitioner; females may appropriately wield male fans and vice-versa. The female design has added combative potential in that potentially injurious materials such as needles, razor blades, or glass sequins could be sewn into the ruffle with which one could attack an opponent’s eyes.
Large fans with steel or iron ribs, such as those seen in Western Kung Fu clubs, are ostentatiously not civil implements. The weight of manipulating larger metal fans can cause repetitive strain injury to the practitioner. However, they are now compulsory in wushu tournaments.
An alternative design is the Japanese iron and paper tessen which can have a very elegant quality. These are unopened when employed defensively, as closing them is a two-handed operation. They are essentially unobtrusive weapons which could be carried up one’s sleeve or in one’s sash.
The tessen, by virtue of having inward-curved end vanes and a fan of stiff reinforced paper, is essentially a rigid weapon. Some feudal tessens, despite being fashioned to look like fans, were actually one-piece weapons of iron (see at left).
While the emphasis of the art is upon exercise and aesthetics, there is a practical martial aspect to fan practice. The folded fan can be used to thrust like a sword into an opponent’s throat or solar plexus or chop like a sabre to an exposed wrist.
It can be suddenly opened so as to startle the opponent or to attack the eyes or throat with its vanes. When folded, it also can be used to enhance the leverage applied in qin-na / locking techniques or used to hook the opponent’s ankle or head for a throw.
The movements of the fan range from gently deflective brushing motions to powerful thrusts, chops, and butt-end strikes which can cause severe damage.
Since it is not a sturdy or heavy implement, it is employed in self defence against points of physical vulnerability.
Of all Tai Chi weapons, the fan is probably the most artistically expressive. Its colourful fabrics enhance the flowing movements of Tai Chi, while its explosive openings provide dramatic punctuation. Combining methods drawn from sword, sabre, dagger, and empty-hand, the fan is truly a fighting implement for all seasons!
The two photos immediately above are screen saves from a video of Ogawa-ryu tessen-jutsu. My sincere thanks to those who posted the video publicly and are allowing its re-use. This is best video of fan / tessen fighting principles I have found on-line. It is not a pantomime of combat but a formal illustration of technique. The methods include a large number found in Tai Chi. Another tessenjutsu video from another source is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tus7kIOr5NI&t=17s. The videos of Chinese applications are disappointing.