Tai Chi Fan for Self Defence

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. 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5RzZC0aB6I ) which was designed as a performance piece 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 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, see: https://youtu.be/t23IRzJpWbw) 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 combat potential in that potentially injurious materials such as needles, razor blades, or glass sequins or beads can be sewn into the ruffle with which one could attack an opponent’s face and 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, particularly females. Also weight inhibits speed of deployment. However, they are now compulsory in some 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 usually 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 iron end vanes and a fan of stiff reinforced paper, is essentially a rigid weapon. But some feudal tessens, despite being fashioned to look like fans, were actually one-piece weapons of iron or hardwood (see above). Their weight was similar to a Bang.

While the emphasis of the art is upon exercise and aesthetics, there is a practical martial aspect to fan practice. This is because skill with a short weapon is transferable to other things which may be in one's immediate surroundings: rolled up magazines, spatulas, bottles, pens, aprons, figurines...whatever.

It is crucial to understand the nature of the fan as a weapon. It is weak and unsuited to hard blocks of an opponent’s strikes. It however is very fast and can be used to deflect, control, brush away or impede a strike. The fan, if not made of steel, is neither strong nor heavy. It is, however, very fast. Fan fighting relies on agility and on seeking out the weak points in an attacker’s anatomy: the eyes, wrists, throat etc.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.

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 the 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.


This illustration at right shows the fan being used as an implement for concealment. I regret that I do not know the name of the artist. My thanks for this illustration to Geoff Miller.

The first fan form I ever learned was from the Tai Mantis tradition. In it the fan was used like a tessen, and also for concealment when it was opened (only once in the form) – to distract and mask a low kick.

The fan is actually a very practical weapon to learn. As a short weapon it combines the techniques of both sword and sabre. It requires great dexterity and it also imparts skills which are transferable to other short weapons such as the Bang, the horse-tail whip, and the Yawara or Kong-gou.

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