Chinese Sword History

The Art of the Chinese Sword
By Philip Tom

The medieval Chinese dynasties saw great advances in metallurgy. Some, like the ability to produce cast iron, were far ahead of such technology in the Europe. Others, like the mastery of efficient, large-scale steel production, enabled the Tang and Song dynasties to become major military powers in east Asia.

Most collectors of Asian arms are aware that the techniques of forging and tempering developed in China are the basis from which developed the reknowned Japanese swords. These skills arrived in Japan as early as the Sui and Tang dynasty China (AD 589 onward).

The connoisseurship of Japanese sword has thrived over the centuries and has gained an international following in our time. Today Japanese blades are rightly treasured as works of art on their own. Unfortunately, the appreciation of swords produced by the ‘parent’ smiths of China languished even in its native land. This is despite the fact that very fine blades were made in China, and that hand-to-hand combat with edged weapons often proved crucial in winning battles up through the end of the imperial period.

Sadly, even enthusiastic Chinese practitioners of martial arts tend to be ignorant of the history, manufacture, and aesthetic traditions of the weapons they train with daily. Non-Chinese are in no better state. There is difficulty in reconciling the beautiful specimens on display in venues such as the Forbidden City, Muse de l’Arme in Paris, or the Moscow Kremlin with the shoddy “Boxer Rebellion trophies” or touristic bric-a-brac often seen in antique shops or at gun shows.

A major reason for this situation lies in the scarcity of literature on the subject readily accessible to today’s students. This paucity of reference material has not always been the case in China. A survey of technical and artistic treatises reveals a considerable number of works dealing with steel bladed swords, published as early as the 4th cent. AD. (There is an equally impressive body of material dealing with the earlier bronze weapons). However, the publication of such works dwindled sharply after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644.

It is not known for certain why there is a relative scarcity of reference material written on swords during the Qing, the last imperial dynasty, which fell in 1911. A common explanation is that the ruling Manchus, who formed a small percentage of the empire’s population, suppressed all writing on military subjects out of fear of insurgency by the Han Chinese majority.

At the beginning of the Qing dynasty, certain works such as Ming-era military encyclopedias were censored and restricted. However, a survey of Qing technical literature does show that a fair number of new titles were written and published throughout the dynasty. After all, the Qing still had need for the information for the benefit of its armed forces (which were predominately composed of Han Chinese troops). Research also has shown that Qing rulers could be quite pragmatic about the bearing of arms by the general populace: for instance, the Kangxi emperor was known to have vetoed a request by an official to disarm the people of Shandong Province.

What is interesting, however, about the military books published during the Qing is that they invarably deal with firearms, artillery, and explosive weapons. (These texts date primarily from the mid-nineteenth century when the empire was racked by rebellion). Even the classic late Ming encyclopedia, Wubeizhi, gives bladed weapons relatively scant attention. Why would this be so, despite the fact that edged weapons were a mainstay in the empire’s arsenals? It could be that sword technology was by then considered “old hat”, so well known by those whose job it was to master it that it hardly warranted repetition in books devoted to new technology.

It is also interesting to note that although Ming aesthetes had quite a bit to say about swords as an art form. There is however, little evidence to show that this appreciation remained strong during the Qing. A possible explanation could be that the tastes of China’s cultural elite tended to narrow as the centuries passed, becoming ever more preoccupied with arcane details of a few, beloved major art forms such as painting, porcelain, and jade. A parallel can be drawn with the decline of the furniture tradition during the later Qing. Finally, we must also take note of the influence of Confucian values, which tended to denigrate things military in favor of literary interests. During the transition to Manchu rule it may also have been a pragmatic choice for scholars not to show too great an interest in arms.

What makes the study of the Chinese sword tradition a real challenge is that those who are studying it in our time must be explorers and pioneers, not passive consumers. There is much to be done in uncovering and translating the old texts that have survived. Even more exciting is the fresh look that we can get at the achievements of the past, by studying blades that have been carefully polished and restored.

Our research to date shows that the swordsmiths of China, over the last 20 centuries, have crafted blades combining the following attributes:

  1. A hard and durable edge.
  2. A resilient body which absorbs shock without breaking.

In a sword, these goals can be mutually exclusive. Hard steel tends to be brittle; a resilient, springy steel is softer and will not hold an edge as well. Chinese smiths got around this problem by combining hard and soft steels in varying ways. There are three basic methods. One is called baogang, or “wrapped” steel. The hard, high-carbon steel that forms the cutting edge looks, in cross-section, like a “V” which encloses a softer core of mild steel. The core metal is often folded upon itself for more strength, or layered with wrought iron for the same effect. A baogang blade must be made with a fairly thick jacket of hard steel, or else it loses its strength with repeated sharpening and grinding.

A more common form of blade forging is qiangang, or “inserted”steel. The high-carbon edge forms a core with is sandwiched between “cheeks” of mild steel. The cheeks are often made of alternating layers of iron and steel, which produce a pattern on the surface when the blade is polished. A skilled smith can manipulate the layers to produce patterns of great beauty, in addition to providing structural strength to the sword.

The last major type of forging is known in the West as “twistcore”. This type is formed of parallel bars of twisted layers of hard and soft steel, all welded into a single unit under heat and hammer. When ground and polished, the surface resembles rows of feathery, star-shaped, or swirling elements.

The other area in which Chinese smiths showed considerable ingenuity was hardening the blade by heating and quenching in liquid. This technique is almost universal, wherever blades are manufactured. China was one of the few places in which techniques were devised to differentially heat-treat the edge, as opposed to the entire blade. This practice increased the strength and cutting ability of the blade. It was developed to the highest level by the Japanese, who originally utilized the skills of immigrant smiths from China and Korea.

The beauty of the Chinese swordsmith’s craft is an art form just beginning to be rediscovered in China and elsewhere. We live in a time when new discoveries are made day to day. As we begin to see the beautiful patterns that raise from the marriage of form and function to create a sword blade of superior quality steel, we are only begining our study of the Chinese armor’s craft. There many other areas of study waiting to be explored, from decorative motif and their symbolism to the blade aesthetics that are subtly married to function.

Copyright Seven Stars Trading Co. 1998

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SWORD (jian), probably 18th century
Blade length 28 1/2″ in.

The finely-forged blade of dual-row huawen (flowery-figured) damascus steel, the lamellae of the twists running obliquely towards the point on either side of the median ridge. The fittings of chased and pierced brass, fire-gilt, and set with carved jade plaques. The scabbard surfaced with dyed shagreen. An example which is important not only for its workmanship and embellishment, but also for the use of a hilt styled after a peidao, or saber. Saber-hilted jian are depicted on Ming Dynasty imperial tomb guardian figures, and a few sumptuous examples of such swords, probably made at the imperial workshops in the Forbidden City, are extant from the first half of the Qing.

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CEREMONIAL SABER OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (Huangchao Baolidao) Qianlong reign, ca. 1760-95 (mounts later)
Blade length 30 5/8 in.

The pattern-welded blade of qiangang (inserted edge-layer) construction, the dorsal side sculpted to represent an extended dragon, with serrated spine and a modelled, openwork head at the base of the backedge, and with a chiselled panel at the forte containing the Imperial five-clawed dragon chasing the sacred jewel amid foliage. The carved detail accentuated with encrusted gold leaf, except for the “scales” of the dragon’s back, which are composed of hundreds of inlaid gold plugs. In replaced iron mounts of a later period and lesser workmanship, embellished with swastika fretwork in gold encrustation.

The Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-95) was among the last of China’s imperial rulers to take an active interest in warfare and the hunt. A connoisseur of swords, he commissioned the Imperial workshops at Beijing to make dozens of sumptuous and unique pieces. An illustrated inventory of Court ceremonial regalia and official uniform regulations, the Huangchao liqi tushi of 1759, lists a pallasch or zhibeidao with identical dragon decor along its dorsal ridge. This saber, with its curved blade, does not appear in the inventory, so we can surmise that it was made after 1759. There are also a number of short pallasches with this dragon motif which are still preserved in various museums in the People’s Republis of China. Only one other example of this form of saber blade is known. It appears to retain its original mountings, which are of elaborately pierced iron, studded with gemstones, and gilt.

The five-clawed dragon was exclusively reserved for the Emperor and his Immediate family. The swastika is one of the auspicious symbols of Buddhism.

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Chinese suishu peidao ( Imperial Attendants Saber ) of qiangang (inserted steel) with the vein (inserted edge) distinguisted from the gu (body) of the blade by way of a serrrated delineation.

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A chinese broad peidao with joui row twist core configuration (huaweu-gaug) with marked differentual hardening at the edge

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A Chinese jian with dual rows of huawen (flowery figured) Damascus steel with lamdelae of twists running obliquely towards the point on either side of the median ridge.