Q&A: Two Weapons From Two Periods In Versus = Bad News Bears

I’m working on this story and for plot reasons there’s gonna be a spear vs. Poseidon-style trident one-on-one fight, so I’d like to ask your take on the trident’s viability as a weapon? And how much of a difference would it make between the other person having a hoplite-style setup of shield and spear, or just a two-handed spear like in Chinese wuxia stories? Thank you very much.

Not all weapons of similar category are the same, or those from a similar time period.

The wuxia spear seen in cinema transitions between being a one handed weapon and two handed weapon. The second hand in a two handed weapon is there for guidance and accuracy, but the techniques can be performed one handed.

For reference, the style you’re probably thinking of is more contemporary with the rapier than any ancient setting and some variants are even more modern.

There’s about two thousand years of technological advancement between the Hoplites and the Chinese martial art we’re talking about. The Wuxia of today is going to cover the martial styles that come out of Hong Kong cinema and Chinese film, rather than the ones that existed when the genre began as a form of Chinese storytelling in 300-200 BCE. This is the Warring States period, and foundational to modern Chinese storytelling. However, when looking at the Warring States period in modern Chinese cinema, it’s important to understand the period is depicted as a fantasy setting not unlike 14th Century Arthurian Camelot. Culturally important, not necessarily represented with accuracy. For example: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Emperor and The Assassin and many other films are set during this period. None of whose martial arts are historically accurate. The characters will also usually have superpowers by means of martial training/enlightenment as that’s a convention of the genre. This is the straight up origin of the Martial Arts Gives You Superpowers trope.

A wuxia hero can fly over/run up walls as a genre conceit, just like a Celtic hero can grow tall as a tree, talk to animals, or ride on the shoulders of salmon. (That’d be Sir Cai. Yeah, that Sir Kay.) Same with the Grecian mythological heroes. If we’re running mythology though, most of this post is moot.

The strength of the Grecian spear is the Phalanx formation, and it’s not meant for dueling. The modern version of the Chinese wuxia genre heavily relies on martial arts that didn’t exist or were not used in the historical period. So, having the wuxia spear go toe to toe with a trident from the Bronze Age would be akin to taking a rapier against an FN P90. It won’t end well. You’d end up with the same issue with any hopilite era weapon versus the basic wuxia spear, one is vastly superior in technological advancement and comes from a period where martial training was not only a thing but highly specialized in concept and materials.

The problem here is anachronism stew, and the assumption that all weapons within a single category are the same or equivalent. They’re not. Even when we step back and try to limit our options, those advantages present in one weapon style will heavily outweigh those in another with almost no way to make up the difference.

What I’m saying is that even if you took the anachronistic fighting style seen in 300, (mostly fine for the first part, but when we break from formation and hit dueling the fight choreography transitions into Chinese spear combat) or this fight scene between Hector and Achilles from Troy where the techniques with the spear are predominately and anachronistically Chinese. Even then, the style used by the wuxia staff/spear in Chinese cinema is going to wreck its day. If you see spear combat out of Hollywood cinema these days, the film choreography is taking its ques from Chinese cinema. This includes The Viper versus The Mountain in Game of Thrones. Compare to combat with the European spear.  Here, we have Roland Warzecha discussing dueling with the Medieval spear and a concept called “claiming the center” which is a necessary component to understanding blocks, counters, and striking distance. This concept did not exist for the Hoplites yet, but it will for any duels you see on screen today.

So, for wuxia, we’re talking a warrior trained in a complete and comprehensive martial style, who has been training for at least four to five years. You don’t pick and choose weapons out of Eastern martial arts, you don’t train in the spear and nothing else. Chinese martial arts are rooted in curriculum. Any wuxia style you look at is going to have movements which stem from a base in hand to hand, the staff transitions into spear, and even into the sword. Take a fighter of a Chinese martial style and they’ll have a grounded base in hand to hand, be able to use both the staff and spear, and possibly other weapons as well. These are martial arts where all aspects feed together to create harmony, and where one technique is the extension of another. While this is our modern understanding of how a martial arts curriculum works, this philosophy is unique to East Asia and India (where it originates.) The Greeks and the Europeans would not have viewed martial arts in the same holistic way, especially as Chinese martial arts are heavily reliant on Chinese philosophy like The Tao. (Also Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.)

There are cultures where you can just grab a weapon, get trained on that specific weapon, and run off with it. We still use these distinctions today with certifications such as knife training or sword training versus someone who is trained. Holistic systems are not built for a smash and grab, take one piece and you’ve consigned yourself to taking everything that comes with it. The weapon style isn’t built for the person wielding it to not understand the hand to hand elements. The concept of specialization is very different in Eastern styles than it is with its Western counterparts. The holistic approach is the purpose behind scenes in Chinese cinema like this one from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where the warriors are just working their way around the room switching weapons.

This is important to understand, not just because the Greeks existed in a period before the modern concept of a trained military existed. You can’t separate a weapon from the time period it belongs in because weapon’s technology is still technology. This is scientific advancement. The closest the Greeks had to a trained military were the Spartans and, in the modern sense, the Spartans were highly inefficient. A Chinese martial artist from the Boxer Rebellion would wreck them in fairly short order. The Warring States saw the emergence of personal defense martial arts for commoners, so martial training wouldn’t necessarily be limited to the nobility.

The second problem is here: the basic misconception about two handed weapons.

Most two handed weapons are actually one handed weapons in that they can be wielded entirely with that singular hand. You use the second hand for finesse and guidance, the the first serves for rotation and power. The vast majority of the techniques can be done entirely with a single hand. Light spears like the kind usually seen on screen in Chinese film, are very light. The trick to understanding their movement is controlling their balance point. So, rolling a staff between your fingers or bouncing it off your shoulders isn’t that impressive. They’re parlor tricks that work off the same concept as a soccer ball, you’re controlling and bouncing the staff off its balance point. The same is true when rolling it between your legs, around your neck, shoulders, and the rest of your body.

Drop/throw the staff forward, kick it at its center with the ball of your foot, bounce it off the incoming fighter’s chest, and catch when it rebounds back. Favorite tactic of wuxia cinema.

When you’re looking at the Chinese spear spinning, they’re actually messing around with the balance point to create momentum in order to change position. A foot swipe with the instep kicks the bottom of the haft up to the power hand and into an action position. This works because the guidance hand is already holding the staff halfway up the haft at or slightly above its balance point. The balance point on a staff is found at the point where you can balance it on a single or two braced fingers.

Control of all weapons is based in balance, not in strength. The power of a spear comes from its momentum, and greater ability to generate it. You halve the thrusting power of a spear by gripping it at it’s center, which is the point behind holding it lower and using two hands. (You also have a greater reach, control, and can use spears with longer shafts.)

With the wushu spear, it is not uncommon for the wielder to switch their grip from the end to three-quarters/midway up the shaft. And to shoot it at their opponents from a couched position. A shoot is when you thrust the spear with your back hand and let go, then catch it with the front hand or the back hand before it escapes your reach. This creates a sudden onslaught of speed and power which can be used to break past an opponent’s guard or allow for a quick transition in grip. There’s a spear technique in wushu where you spin the spear around your neck, lock it horizontal on your shoulders, and shoot it out in a strike or simply strike with it from that position while advancing.

This is what we’re talking about regarding attack vectors, a key part of martial arts is getting yourself on an angle the enemy can’t block and there are lots of ways civilizations all over the globe have developed as a means of achieving this goal.

The third problem is this: Chinese weapons work off a foundational concept called information overload.

This is a strategic battle tactic which involves overloading the eye with as much movement as possible. This is part of why these martial arts work so well on film because the same rules apply. The flags and red tufts on the weapons serve this purpose. The more motion there is then the harder it is for the eye to track and, like a bull, your eye is drawn to bright colors. In the case of the basic wushu spear, the figure eight rotation is not just a flourish but an attack. The tip is sharpened steel is capable of cutting, so you get more motion than as a single thrusting attack. The shaft is lightweight, made from softwoods but durable which aids in its flexibility. This is crucial to understanding strike patterns seen in wuxia films. However, you can get Chinese staves with a full steel shaft, which will wreck any bronze era weapon via contact. The spear techniques will coordinate a chain of attacks together in continuous motion to distract the eye and knock the opponent off balance for when the final attack comes.

A dual technique shifting between striking Low at the feet to High at the head wasn’t really a concept for the Hoplites practiced in their spear combat. The European spear will just go under the shield, a Chinese spear will attack the bare feet. You can’t get the vector while holding the spear half way up the haft, but you can when holding it two handed. The fast forward movement where your opponent is driven back is what the cross-step is designed for.

The cross step: Instead of coming at you forward facing, your opponent’s whole body turns sideways, bends the knees and one foot steps behind the other then in front of the other in shifting rotation as you strike downward at the feet in synchronization with each step. There are variants of this shuffle, but it allows the fighter to move forward at a half-run while they rush their opponent and strike at the same time. (This pattern will allow for shifts into different strikes as the body opens, and a myriad of alternate stances. Footwork is the least understood and most commonly underestimated element for non-martial artists.)

They’ll do this until spear/shield falls over, they hit their foot, or spear/shield manages to get them off that vector which they will then proceed to roll over onto another one because they’ve got the footwork to open up the full 360 around their opponent. Spin steps are for direction changes. The basic martial arts strategy is always to begin by attacking the unguarded parts of the body in order to reach the parts of you that are protected. If someone carries a shield, the first order of business will be to get rid of it.

However, the methods in how this is accomplished changes substantially in sophistication depending on time period. This is why you can never count on two similar weapons from two different periods in history being the same. Combat marches forward. Basically, when pairing weapons for combat, you don’t want to choose weapons from different periods in history because technological advancement will wreck your day. A Hippolite is not going to be prepared for a warrior who can shift from a direct line onto a diagonal, much less one who can rapidly circle behind them via footwork. They won’t have the footwork to keep up.

A Chinese martial art style will not only be more efficient in terms of killing, but also more efficient in terms of conserving energy. They can attack more often, more quickly, and be less tired at the end of it. They practice conservation of movement versus the wide swinging seen in Hollywood which is great for camera work but not efficient. The main focus in terms of dueling with weapon/hand to hand advancement is discovering new vectors on which to attack that cannot be blocked. Those vectors shift from major to minor, from shifts in direction, diagonals, to simple adjustments in strike direction. This begins with counters.

A counter is when you block and then shift into an attack, all modern martial arts have these baked in to their training. This is natural, but it wasn’t for the time. This is what happens when your trident or spear gets blocked the first time on its strike, the other spear adjusts past it and comes forward into a follow up strike.

A martial artist trained in a similar style will make this more difficult because of arm position, hand position, grip, stance, tension, and the expectation of pressure in the lockup between two weapons. Both participants would be trying for the same follow up in their attack. A block isn’t necessarily enough to stop a Steel Era weapon, and certainly not enough for weapon from the 1600s. Knock away and strike. Slide around, protect yourself from the counter, and strike. Claim the center.

If you’ve ever wondered why weapons are primarily held on diagonals for defensive positions, this is why. Circular rotation is better for knocking weapons away or applying pressure, thus making it more difficult for the opposing weapon to hold position. The triangle creates a fulcrum of force with both parties attempting to break, adjust, or ease past it.

We do this in hand to hand too, the front hand works for catching, blocking, or redirecting an incoming strike to create the opening while the second hand (your power hand) strikes. It doesn’t always work that way though, the second hand can become the grab hand and you can use to pull the other person forward into a strike from the first hand. While the vast majority of martial artists from holistic styles have a preference for their power side or power hand, they are ambidextrous. They’ll be more technically proficient with the hand that isn’t their right/left primary because that’s the hand which does the guiding/defense/detail work.

In the Hoplite era, the shield is going to be doing most of the work when it comes to blocking. The combat is not going to present much of a threat to a more modern combat style, as it isn’t designed with later martial art or military tactics in mind. The hoplite shield is reminiscent enough of the metal shields of later eras used by the Chinese, so it would have techniques to get past it baked in. You may be wondering what the shield has to do with a trident, but the point is the shield was the best defense they had.

A trident is not a weapon, unless we’re talking about the version seen in Catching Fire. (Which is not, really, a trident.) Here is a historical breakdown on the different kinds of tridents from fishing to hunting to pitchforks and, finally, weapons. It discusses the Shaolin trident, which is also an axe. The trident has the potential to be a weapon, and the design was later featured in several European polearms like the spetum. However, again, the trident is not a weapon by itself. It’s designed with fishing, hunting, or farming in mind. Like the machete, it’s one of the better options you can turn to in a pinch. If its magical, that might give it a leg up, otherwise it will lag behind weapons that are actually weapons. The best advantage the trident has is using the outside tips to catch and lock up the spear to disarm. However, they’re not designed for that. They’d need to be able to catch the spear tip, lock up the spear, and disarm the spear before the other person recognizes what’s happening.

The main problem with the trident is that it’s a gladiator set up. Gladiators are arena combat in the same way prize fights, pit fighting, UFC bouts, and bare-knuckle boxing function. They’re designed to drag out combat as opposed to ending it quickly. Ironically, and much as I hate the stuntmen queuing in Gladiator, this scene emphasizes the point nicely. Maximus is a Roman General, he fights like a warrior. His intent is to finish the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is counter productive to the goals of the arena. The Roman Arena was a show, it’s entertainment. Functioned in the similar vein to modern prize fights with similar priorities, the fighting was structured to extend the show long as possible. The goal is to be as inefficient as possible.

Hence: the Trident.

Visually stunning, memorable, wicked, and, unless redesigned, utterly useless for anything other than surface injuries. The problem is that due to the three heads, the trident can’t penetrate as deeply as a spear. It gets stuck. It’s designed to, in fact, because you don’t need much penetration for fishing and the barbs hold the fish in place. However, while it won’t go deep, it will cause lots of bleeding and surface injury.

This is why the Romans used it in the arena, most of the damage stays superficial and surface level. This is why they carried the net and the knife, because the knife is what would do the actual killing.  Add in some wonky balance issues in comparison to the spear, and you’ve got a weapon at a disadvantage.

This doesn’t mean the design never saw use. There’s the dangpa which is a 17th century Korean weapon. You’ll notice though, it isn’t exactly a Poseidon-esque trident. It’s more like a fork. The head is much smaller, the tips are bladed rather than barbed, and its going for limited penetration with extra pig-sticking damage on the internals. It won’t go as deep, but its designed to make big holes for lots of bleeding. The dangpa was meant to go after pirates, so you get distance, extra damage, and limited chance of the weapon getting stuck.

Just as a general rule, never pair Bronze Age weaponry against martial styles where going into the air is an effective strategy. The hoplite’s overhanded with the spear, which significantly limits it’s mobility options and power. The spinning with the Chinese spear allows the user to create a defense while transitioning up and down the length of the shaft. They can control how close or how far they are from their target without stopping the movement/momentum of the weapon. The weapon style allows for the wielder to use the weapon close to the tip in short form grip and transition back to the end of the haft in order to swing it one handed. The swing will then transition into another position to make use of the ground they’ve gained. Basically, you’d be looking at something similar to the Donnie Yen/Jet Li fight sequence from Hero. We’re talking about someone moving a metal spear fast enough and hard enough that the metal bends as a result. That’s something some styles take advantage of and build toward, depending on historical period. The basic concept here is why you’d never want to pit these martial systems against anything Bronze Age. What gave the Spartans and the Persian Immortals the advantage in their period was the fact they were training and no one else was, but they were outliers.

We’re talking about a combat system designed for a period where a professional military force is nonexistent. The Grecian city states didn’t have the resources to keep a standing military force, they were ad hoc militia. It worked for the period. It didn’t work against the Romans, who had a standing military force that was much closer to what we’d consider professionally trained soldiers.

This is why versus with weapons sucks. Weapons are a form of technology, they belong to specific time periods and they’re designed for the problems existing within those periods.

A character with a Chinese spear out of wuxia legends would get:

Comes from a period where standing militaries exist. (Huge advantage.) Likely trained from childhood, but even if they’re not it doesn’t matter. Trained in a comprehensive martial system. (It is really hard to overstate how important this concept is.) Can chain multiple attacks together, different attacks, different techniques, with footwork, blocks, and counters.  They’re likely a professional fighter.

A Hoplite gets none of these things, and a Spartan (which is the closest they have to professional soldier) would get wrecked in a duel. The guy wielding the Chinese spear is working off a conceptual understanding of martial arts that doesn’t exist yet for them as a culture and they don’t have the luxury to develop. The heroes of wuxia myth have more in common with the knight-errant than they do with the Grecian heroes.

This is before we get to the fact that the Chinese spear can be either steel or wood. The Chinese had the resources to do it, they could and did make spears entirely out of steel from tip to shaft. There’s a huge technological jump between bronze and iron. One will fall apart on you in battle while the other will make the other humans fall apart. You can’t really make longswords out of bronze (the Celts did and they would collapse during battle) because the metal wasn’t stable enough.

China is one of the great martial powers of its region and era, it is comparable to Europe in terms of militarized technological advancement. You’ll get people who argue they were more advanced, which depending on period is certainly possible if not likely. For comparison, it’s basically like saying, “I want a Roman gladiator to fight a knight.” That could happen, but it wouldn’t end well for the gladiator. Or wanting a samurai to fight a US Marine. It wouldn’t end well for the samurai. It didn’t actually, when they encountered the Black Ships.

You can’t strip the training that comes with a weapon to make them comparable to one from another period in history, especially an older one. Early Era spear versus trident would be a very boring fight. They’d both be overhanded and poke at each other until someone died. The one with shield has the advantage because defense and the spear has greater penetration, so that’d be the winner. Give the guy with a trident a net and we’ve got a gladiator arena. It’d be a slow fight, but it’d be more fair. The net provides options, and allows the opportunity to negate the spear/shield.

It might be entertaining though for story purposes, that was the point of the gladiator arena. Entertainment as opposed to efficiency. The goal of storytelling is to be entertaining. The reason for a trident is spectacle and/or desperation, which is still spectacle.

Or the trident is magic.

That might change the rules.

-Michi

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