The Martial Value of Foil Fencing

As a sport based upon the use of weapons, western fencing is artificial in varying degrees.  And of the three weapons commonly used in western fencing – foil, epee and sabre – foil is the most ersatz.

Foil is the lightest sword, and only the button on the tip can score.  The only target that counts is the torso.  Hits on arms, hands, head and legs do not count, unlike epee. (For some more information on fencing and its weapons, see http://www.unbf.ca/clubs/fencing/whatis.html.)

If your opponent straightens his arm before you and directs his foil at you, even if you should beat him to a touch, he will score against you.  You must first parry the weapon borne by a straightened arm, before you can take offensive action, and this is called the “right-of-way”.  I’m sure serious duellists would always respect this notion.

How then can there be any martial arts value in foil fencing?  Consider the following:

1.  Knowing the measure: the distance between the two fencers.  With practice, the sense of this distance becomes extremely refined.  Even as a 55-year-old recreational fencer (although with many years experience), I can avoid hits by younger fencers by staying consistently a half-inch out of reach.  In fact I become often somewhat lazy with my parries, since I am constantly gauging and adjusting this distance.

This distance between is much the same as the concept of ma-ai in aikido, which I am also lucky enough to practice.

In Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training, C.M. Shifflett describes it this way:

“Literally, ma-ai is harmonious-distance, the natural or proper space maintained between bodies.  Ma-ai is your first line of defense, the most important technique in your toolbox.  It is space and time, rhythm and flow.”  For an interesting discussion of ma-ai in aikido, see http://www.aikiweb.com/techniques/skoss1.html.

This sense of the measure between also seems to generalize, even to empty-handed situations… it is not necessarily dependent on two people holding foils or other extensions.

2. Timing.  I am reminded of the concept of Shr Jung, right timing, in tai-chi, especially that of Cheng Man-ch’ing.  Fencing, especially foil due to the lightness of the weapon and its ability to move at lightning speed, depends on right timing.  It is a sublime moment when in a series of parries and ripostes, attacks and counterattacks the point of the foil deftly avoids the opponent’s strategems to land on target in perfect timing, without thought.

Sometimes, in the heat of battle, time seems to slows down (for a brief period!) and one’s blade maneuvers the labyrinth of parry and disengage to score almost without effort.  This is timing, rather than speed, and it is charming when it happens (too rarely).  I think it is greatly facilitated by knowledge of the opponent: it requires single-minded study from the first moments of a bout.  It also requires relaxation.

Again, I think this is a martial habit that generalizes beyond fencing.

3. Physical conditioning.  Fencing can be extemely strenuous.  It demands constant movement and bursts of unrestrained physical energy.  It can be gruelling.  It can demand effort even when you’re completely tuckered out.

So rests my case.

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