Chinese swords

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Historically, all Chinese swords are classified into two types, jian and dao . Jians are double-edged straight swords while daos are single-edged, and mostly curved from the Song dynasty forward. The jian has been translated at times as a long sword, and the dao a saber or a knife. Bronze jians appeared during the Western Zhou period and switched to wrought iron and steel during the late Warring States period. In modern times, the ceremonial commissioned officer's sword of the Chinese navy has been patterned after the traditional jian since 2008. [1]


Other than specialized weapons like the Divided Dao, Chinese swords are usually 70–110 cm (28–43 in) in length, although longer swords have been found on occasion. [2] Outside of China, Chinese swords were also used in Japan from the third to the sixth century AD, but were replaced with Korean and native Japanese swords by the middle Heian era. [3]

Bronze age: Shang dynasty (c. 1600 BC–c. 1046 BC) to Spring and Autumn period (771–476 BC)

Jian of Yue king Zhezhi Yuyi Sword of Zhezhi Yuyi, the Warring States Period.jpg
Jian of Yue king Zhezhi Yuyi
Sword of Helu of Wu Late Spring & Autumn Bronze Jian (10180019235).jpg
Sword of Helü of Wu
Late Spring and Autumn period spear and sword Late Spring & Autumn Bronze Mao & Jian (10180169846).jpg
Late Spring and Autumn period spear and sword
Close up of sword pattern Late Spring & Autumn Bronze Jian (10180109615).jpg
Close up of sword pattern
Ornate sword hilts from the Spring and Autumn period Deux manches d'epee courte (Musee Cernuschi).jpg
Ornate sword hilts from the Spring and Autumn period

Knives were found in Fu Hao's tomb, dated c. 1200 BC. [4]

Bronze jians appeared during the Western Zhou. The blades were a mere 28 to 46 cm long. These short stabbing weapons were used as a last defense when all other options had failed. [5]

By the late Spring and Autumn period, jians lengthened to about 56 cm. At this point at least some soldiers used the jian rather than the dagger-axe due to its greater flexibility and portability. [5] China started producing steel in the 6th century BC, but it was not until later on that iron and steel implements were produced in useful amounts. [6] By around 500 BC however the sword and shield combination began to be regarded as superior to the spear and dagger-axe. [7]

The early bronze swords are seldom over about 50 cm in length, and are sometimes referred to as "short swords". A rather sudden development, perhaps in the mid-third century B.C., is the bronze "long sword", typically about a metre long. An example, from the First Emperor's mausoleum... Most iron swords are also long, and the development of the long bronze sword is often considered to be related to the development of the long iron sword. [8]

Donald Wagner

Legendary swords

According to the Yuejue shu (Record of Precious Swords), the swordsmith Ou Yezi forged five treasured swords for Gan Jiang and King Zhao of Chu, named, respectively, Zhanlu (湛卢), Juque (巨阙), Shengxie (胜邪), Yuchang (鱼肠) and Chunjun (纯钧). He also made three swords for King Goujian of Yue, named Longyuan (龙渊), Tai’e (泰阿) and Gongbu (工布).

Gan Jiang and Mo Ye

According to the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, Ou Yezi was also the teacher of Gan Jiang, who was married to Mo Ye. King Helü of Wu ordered Gan Jiang and Mo Ye to forge a pair of swords for him in three months. However, the blast furnace failed to melt the metal. Mo Ye suggested that there was insufficient human qi in the furnace so the couple cut their hair and nails and cast them into the furnace, while 300 children helped to blow air into the bellows. In another account, Mo Ye sacrificed herself to increase human qi by throwing herself into the furnace. The desired result was achieved after three years and the resulting two swords were named after the couple. Gan Jiang kept the male sword, Ganjiang, for himself and presented the female sword, Moye, of the pair to the king. The king, already upset that Gan Jiang had failed to supply the swords in three months, but three years, became enraged when he discovered the smith had kept the male sword, and thus had Gan Jiang killed.

Gan Jiang had already predicted the king's reaction, so he left behind a message for Mo Ye and their unborn son telling them where he had hidden the Ganjiang Sword. Several months later, Mo Ye gave birth to Gan Jiang's son, Chi (赤), and years later she told him his father's story. Chi was eager to avenge his father and he sought the Ganjiang Sword. At the same time, the king dreamed of a youth who desired to kill him and placed a bounty on the youth's head. Chi was indignant and, filled with anguish, he started crying on his way to enact his vengeance. An assassin found Chi, who told the assassin his story. The assassin then suggested that Chi surrender his head and sword, and the assassin himself will avenge Ganjiang in Chi's place. He did as told and committed suicide. The assassin was moved and decided to help Chi fulfill his quest.

The assassin severed Chi's head and brought it, along with the Ganjiang sword to the overjoyed king. The king was however uncomfortable with Chi's head staring at him, and the assassin asked the king to have Chi's head boiled, but Chi's head was still staring at the king even after 40 days without any sign of decomposition, thus the assassin told the king that he needed to take a closer look and stare back in order for the head to decompose under the power of the king. The king bent over the cauldron and the assassin seized the opportunity to decapitate him, his head falling into the cauldron alongside Chi's. The assassin then cut off his own head, which also fell into the boiling water. The flesh on the heads was boiled away such that none of the guards could recognize which head belonged to whom. The guards and vassals decided that all three should be honoured as kings due to Chi and the assassin's bravery and loyalty. The three heads were eventually buried together at Yichun County, Runan, Henan, and the grave is called "Tomb of Three Kings". [15] [16]

Warring States period (475–221 BC)

Iron and steel swords of 80 to 100 cm in length appeared during the mid Warring States period in the states of Chu, Han, and Yan. The majority of weapons were still made of bronze but iron and steel weapons were starting to become more common. [6] By the end of the 3rd century BC, the Chinese had learned how to produce quench-hardened steel swords, relegating bronze swords to ceremonial pieces. [17]

The Zhan Guo Ce states that the state of Han made the best weapons, capable of cleaving through the strongest armour, shields, leather boots and helmets. [18]

Wu and Yue swords

During the Warring States period, the Baiyue people were known for their swordsmanship and producing fine swords. According to the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue , King Goujian met a female sword fighter called Nanlin (Yuenü) who demonstrated mastery over the art, and so he commanded his top five commanders to study her technique. Ever since, the technique came to be known as the "Sword of the Lady of Yue". The Yue were also thought to have possessed mystical knives embued with the talismanic power of dragons or other amphibious creatures. [19]

The woman was going to travel north to have audience with King [Goujian of Yue] when she met an old man on the road, and he introduced himself as Lord Yuan. He asked the woman: “I have heard that you are good at swordsmanship, I would like to see this.”!e woman said: “I do not dare to conceal anything from you; my lord, you may put me to the test.” Lord Yuan then selected a stave of linyu bamboo, the top of which was withered. He broke off [the leaves] at the top and threw them to the ground, and the woman picked them up [before they hit the ground]. Lord Yuan then grabbed the bottom end of the bamboo and stabbed at the woman. She responded, and they fought three bouts, and just as the woman lifted the stave to strike him, Lord Yuan flew into the treetops and became a white gibbon (yuan). [20]

The Zhan Guo Ce mentions the high quality of southern swords and their ability to cleave through oxen, horses, bowls, and basins, but would shatter if used on a pillar or rock. Wu and Yue swords were highly valued and those who owned them would hardly ever use them for fear of damage, however in Wu and Yue these swords were commonplace and treated with less reverence. [21] The Yuejue shu (Record of Precious Swords) mentions several named swords: Zhanlu (Black), Haocao (Bravery), Juque (Great Destroyer), Lutan (Dew Platform), Chunjun (Purity), Shengxie (Victor over Evil), Yuchang (Fish-belly), Longyuan (Dragon Gulf), Taie (Great Riverbank), and Gongbu (Artisanal Display). Many of these were made by the Yue swordsmith Ou Yezi. [14]

Swords held a special place in the culture of the ancient kingdoms of Wu and Yue. Legends about swords were recorded here far earlier and in much greater detail than any other part of China, and this reflects both the development of sophisticated sword-making technology in this region of China, and the importance of these blades within the culture of the ancient south. Both Wu and Yue were famous among their contemporaries for the quantity and quality of the blades that they produced, but it was not until much later, during the Han dynasty, that legends about them were first collected. These tales became an important part of Chinese mythology, and introduced the characters of legendary swordsmiths such as Gan Jiang 干將 and Mo Ye 莫耶 to new audiences in stories that would be popular for millennia. These tales would serve to keep the fame of Wu and Yue sword-craft alive, many centuries after these kingdoms had vanished, and indeed into a time when swords had been rendered completely obsolete for other than ceremonial purposes by developments in military technology. [22]

Even after Wu and Yue was assimilated into larger Chinese polities, memory of their swords lived on. During the Han dynasty, Liu Pi King of Wu (195-154 BC) had a sword named Wujian to honour the history of metalworking in his kingdom. [23]

Qin dynasty (221–206 BC)

Warring States sword guards Zhan Guo Shou Mian Wen Shi Jian Shi .jpg
Warring States sword guards

Sword dances are first mentioned shortly after the end of the Qin dynasty. [24] Swords up to 110 cm in length began to appear. [25]

Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)

Han dynasty jians. The longest is 146 cm in length. Han swords 146 cm.jpg
Han dynasty jians. The longest is 146 cm in length.
Han dynasty steel and bronze swords Wu Shi Lian Gang Jian Ren Mian Wen Ge Dang Jian .jpg
Han dynasty steel and bronze swords
Han jian and scabbard Han iron sword and scabbard.jpg
Han jian and scabbard
Han jian and scabbard Western Han Jian with Jade Attachments.jpg
Han jian and scabbard

The jian was mentioned as one of the "Five Weapons" during the Han dynasty, the other four being dao, spear, halberd, and staff. Another version of the Five Weapons lists the bow and crossbow as one weapon, the jian and dao as one weapon, in addition to halberd, shield, and armour. [26]

The jian was a popular weapon during the Han era and there emerged a class of swordsmen who made their living through fencing. Sword fencing was also a popular pastime for aristocrats. A 37 chapter manual known as the Way of the Jian is known to have existed, but is no longer extant. South and central China were said to have produced the best swordsmen. [27] Han dynasty swords produced between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD have been found in Japan; a ring-pommel dao with an inscription "thirty-fold refined" and a jian with the inscription "fifty-fold refined". A jian in Nara Prefecture was also found with an inscription saying it was produced in the Zhongping era (184-189 AD) and "hundredfold refined." [28]

There existed a weapon called the "Horse Beheading Jian", so called because it was supposedly able to cut off a horse's head. [29] However, another source says that it was an execution tool used on special occasions rather than a military weapon. [30]

As far as we are aware today, all the ancient Chinese iron swords were of wrought iron or steel: none were cast. It seems clear enough that a competent smith could make a wrought-iron or steel sword of any reasonable length that the customer desired or could pay for. Lengths in the range 70-100 cm seem to be most common, bust swords as long as 1.2 m and even 1.4 m are known... The longer length of an iron sword must have given a warrior an immediate advantage over one with a short bronze sword. [8]

Donald Wagner

Daos with ring pommels also became widespread as a cavalry weapon during the Han era. The dao had the advantage of being single edged, which meant the dull side could be thickened to strengthen the sword, making it less prone to breaking. When paired with a shield, the dao made for a practical replacement for the jian, hence it became the more popular choice as time went on. After the Han, sword dances using the dao rather than the jian are mentioned to have occurred. Archaeological samples range from 86 to 114 cm in length. [31]

An account of Duan Jiong's tactical formation in 167 AD specifies that he arranged "…three ranks of halberds (長鏃 changzu), swordsmen (利刃 liren) and spearmen (長矛 changmao), supported by crossbows (強弩 qiangnu), with light cavalry (輕騎 jingji) on each wing." [32]

Three Kingdoms (184/220–280)

Jin dynasty (266-420) dao Western Jin Iron Sword.jpg
Jin dynasty (266–420) dao

Swords of idiosyncratic sizes are mentioned. One individual named Chen apparently wielded a great sword over two meters in length. [33]

Sun Quan's wife had over a hundred female attendants armed with daos. [34]

By the end of the Three Kingdoms the dao had completely overtaken the jian as the primary close combat weapon. [35] The lighter and less durable double edged jian entered the domain of court dancers, officials, and expert warriors. [36]

Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589)

Sui dynasty swords Chinese swords Sui Dynasty about 600 found near Luoyang.jpg
Sui dynasty swords

In the 6th century, Qimu Huaiwen introduced to Northern Qi the process of 'co-fusion' steelmaking, which used metals of different carbon contents to create steel. Apparently, daos made using this method were capable of penetrating 30 armour lamellae. It's not clear if the armour was of iron or leather.

Huaiwen made sabres [dao 刀] of 'overnight iron' [su tie 宿鐵]. His method was to anneal [shao 燒] powdered cast iron [sheng tie jing 生鐵精] with layers of soft [iron] blanks [ding 鋌, presumably thin plates]. After several days the result is steel [gang 剛]. Soft iron was used for the spine of the sabre, He washed it in the urine of the Five Sacrificial Animals and quench-hardened it in the fat of the Five Sacrificial Animals: [Such a sabre] could penetrate thirty armour lamellae [zha 札]. The 'overnight soft blanks' [Su rou ting 宿柔鋌] cast today [in the Sui period?] by the metallurgists of Xiangguo 襄國 represent a vestige of [Qiwu Huaiwen's] technique. The sabres which they make are still extremely sharp, but they cannot penetrate thirty lamellae. [37]

Tang dynasty (618–907)

Dao with ring pommel, length: 71cm, Tang dynasty SZ Fu Tian Futian Shen Zhen Bo Wu Guan Shenzhen Museum Tang Zhao The Brilliant and Great Tang Dynasty January 2019 SSG 06 metal tool.jpg
Dao with ring pommel, length: 71cm, Tang dynasty

The dao was separated into four categories during the Tang dynasty. These were the Ceremonial Dao, Defense Dao, Cross Dao, and Divided Dao. The Ceremonial Dao was a court item usually decorated with gold and silver. It was also known as the "Imperial Sword". The Defense Dao does not have any specifications but its name is self-explanatory. The Cross Dao was a waist weapon worn on the belt, hence its older name, the Belt Dao. It was often carried as a sidearm by crossbowmen. [38] The Divided Dao, also called a Long Dao (long saber), was a cross between a polearm and a saber. It consisted of a 91 cm blade fixed to a long 120 cm handle ending in an iron butt point, although exceptionally large weapons reaching 3 meters in length and weighing 10.2 kg have been mentioned. [39] Divided daos were wielded by elite Tang vanguard forces and used to spearhead attacks. [29]

In one army, there are 12,500 officers and men. Ten thousand men in eight sections bearing Belt Daos; Two thousand five hundred men in two sections with Divided Daos. [29]

Taibai Yinjing

Song dynasty (960–1279)

Jin dynasty (1115-1234) iron jian Jin Iron Sword 1.jpg
Jin dynasty (1115-1234) iron jian

Some warriors and bandits duel wielded daos to break deadlocks in confined terrain during the late Song dynasty. [40]

According to the Xu Zizhi Tongjian Changbian, written in 1183, the "Horse Beheading Dao" (zhanmadao) was a two handed saber with a 93.6 cm blade, 31.2 cm hilt, and ring pommel. [41]

Yuan dynasty (1279–1368)

Chinese style jian from the Mongol Empire era Weapons (1496872487).jpg
Chinese style jian from the Mongol Empire era

Under the Yuan dynasty, the jian experienced a resurgence and was used more often. [42]

Ming dynasty (1368–1644)

Jurchen swords 2014 East Tomb (Fuling, Tomb of Manchu Chief Nurhachi) 94.jpg
Jurchen swords
Qing dynasty jian with jade hilt Sword with Scabbard MET DP119022.jpg
Qing dynasty jian with jade hilt

The dao continued to fill the role of the basic close combat weapon. [43] The jian fell out of favor again in the Ming era but saw limited use by a small number of arms specialists. It was otherwise known for its qualities as a marker of scholarly refinement. [42]

The "Horse Beheading Dao" was described in Ming sources as a 96 cm blade attached to a 128 cm shaft, essentially a glaive. It's speculated that the Swede Frederick Coyett was talking about this weapon when he described Zheng Chenggong's troops wielding "with both hands a formidable battle-sword fixed to a stick half the length of a man". [44]

Some were armed with bows and arrows hanging down their backs ; others had nothing save a shield on the left arm and a good sword in the right hand ; while many wielded with both hands a formidable battle-sword fixed to a stick half the length of a man. Everyone was protected over the upper part of the body with a coat of iron scales, fitting below one another like the slates of a roof; the arms and legs being left bare. This afforded complete protection from rifle bullets (mistranslation-should read "small arms") and yet left ample freedom to move, as those coats only reached down to the knees and were very flexible at all the joints. The archers formed Koxinga's best troops, and much depended on them, for even at a distance they contrived to handle their weapons with so great skill that they very nearly eclipsed the riflemen. The shield bearers were used instead of cavalry. Every tenth man of them is a leader, who takes charge of, and presses his men on, to force themselves into the ranks of the enemy. With bent heads and their bodies hidden behind the shields, they try to break through the opposing ranks with such fury and dauntless courage as if each one had still a spare body left at home. They continually press onwards, notwithstanding many are shot down ; not stopping to consider, but ever rushing forward like mad dogs, not even looking round to see whether they are followed by their comrades or not. Those with the sword-sticks—called soapknives by the Hollanders—render the same service as our lancers in preventing all breaking through of the enemy, and in this way establishing perfect order in the ranks ; but when the enemy has been thrown into disorder, the Sword-bearers follow this up with fearful massacre amongst the fugitives. [45]

Frederick Coyett

Qi Jiguang deployed his soldiers in a 12-man 'mandarin duck' formation, which consisted of four pikemen, two men carrying daos with a great and small shield, two 'wolf brush' wielders, a rearguard officer, and a porter. [46]

Ming-Qing sword types

Double Sword with Scabbard MET 36.25.1487a c 001 Apr2017 brightened.jpg Butterfly sword Sometimes called butterfly knives in English. It was originally from southern China, though it has seen use in the north. It is usually wielded in pairs, and has short dao (single-edged blade), with a length is approximately that of the forearm. This allows for easy concealment within the sleeves or inside boots, and for greater manoeuvrability to spin and rotate in close-quarters fighting.
Changdao Ming dynasty A type of anti-cavalry sword used in China during the Ming dynasty. Sometimes called miao dao (a similar but more recent weapon), the blade greatly resembles a Japanese ōdachi in form.
Dadao 3D.jpg DadaoAlso known as the Chinese great sword. Based on agricultural knives, dadao have broad blades generally between two and three feet long, long hilts meant for "hand and a half" or two-handed use, and generally a weight-forward balance.
Hook Swords.jpg Hook sword The hook sword is an exotic Chinese weapon traditionally associated with Northern styles of Chinese martial arts, but now often practised by Southern styles as well.
Sword with Scabbard MET DP119025 brightened 2x3.jpg Jian The jian is a double-edged straight sword used during the last 2,500 years in China. The first Chinese sources that mention the jian date to the 7th century BC during the Spring and Autumn period; [47] one of the earliest specimens being the Sword of Goujian.

Historical one-handed versions have blades varying from 45 to 80 centimeters (17.7 to 31.5 inches) in length. The weight of an average sword of 70-centimeter (28-inch) blade-length would be in a range of approximately 700 to 900 grams (1.5 to 2 pounds). There are also larger two-handed versions used for training by many styles of Chinese martial arts.

In Chinese folklore, it is known as the "Gentleman of Weapons" and is considered one of the four major weapons, along with the gun (staff), qiang (spear), and the dao.

Sword with Scabbard MET 21123 - cropped.jpg Liuyedao The liuye dao, or "willow leaf saber", is a type of dao that was commonly used as a military sidearm for both cavalry and infantry during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This weapon features a moderate curve along the length of the blade. This reduces thrusting ability (though it is still fairly effective at same) while increasing the power of cuts and slashes.
Miaodau2.JPG Miaodao Republican era A Chinese two-handed dao or saber of the Republican era, with a narrow blade of up to 1.2 meters or more and a long hilt. The name means "sprout saber", presumably referring to a likeness between the weapon and a newly sprouted plant. While the miaodao is a recent weapon, the name has come to be applied to a variety of earlier Chinese long sabers, such as the zhanmadao and changdao. Along with the dadao, miaodao were used by some Chinese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Nandao Nandao is a kind of sword that is nowadays used mostly in contemporary wushu exercises and forms. It is the southern variation of the "northern broadsword", or Beidao. Its blade bears some resemblance to the butterfly sword, also a southern Chinese single-bladed weapon; the main difference is the size, and the fact that the butterfly swords are always used in pairs
Saber with Scabbard and Belt Hook (Qing Yao Dao ) MET DP-834-001.jpg Niuweidao Late Qing dynasty A type of Chinese saber (dao) of the late Qing dynasty. It was primarily a civilian weapon, as imperial troops were never issued it.
Piandao Late Ming dynasty A type of Chinese sabre (dao) used during the late Ming dynasty. A deeply curved dao meant for slashing and draw-cutting, it bore a strong resemblance to the shamshir and scimitar. A fairly uncommon weapon, it was generally used by skirmishers in conjunction with a shield.
Wodao Ming dynasty A Chinese sword from the Ming dynasty. Apparently influenced by Japanese sword design, it bears a strong resemblance to a tachi or ōdachi in form: extant examples show a handle approximately 25.5 cm long, with a gently curved blade 80 cm long.
Yanmaodao Late MingQing dynastiesThe yanmao dao, or "goose quill saber", is a type of dao made in large numbers as a standard military weapon from the late Ming dynasty through the end of the Qing dynasty. It is similar to the earlier zhibei dao, is largely straight, with a curve appearing at the center of percussion near the blade's tip. This allows for thrusting attacks and overall handling similar to that of the jian, while still preserving much of the dao's strengths in cutting and slashing.
Zhanmadao Song dynasty A single edged long broad bladed sword with a long handle suitable for two-handed use. Dating to 1072, it was used as an anti-cavalry weapon.
This list is incomplete. There are many more types of both jian and dao

See also

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The military of the Warring States refers primarily to the military apparatuses of the Seven Warring States which fought from around 475 BC to 221 BC when the state of Qin conquered the other six states, forming China's first imperial dynasty, the Qin dynasty.

Military of the Han dynasty Imperial Chinese army

The military of the Han dynasty was the military apparatus of China from 202 BC to 220 AD, with a brief interregnum by the reign of Wang Mang and his Xin dynasty from 9 AD to 23 AD, followed by two years of civil war before the refounding of the Han.

Chinese polearms Overview of pole weapons traditionally used by Chinese armies

The three most common types of Chinese polearms are the ge (戈), qiang (槍), and ji (戟). They are translated into English as dagger-axe, spear, and halberd. Dagger-axes were originally a short slashing weapon with a 0.9 to 1.8 m long shaft, but around the 4th century BC a spearhead was added to the blade, and it became a halberd. The spear is also sometimes called a mao (矛), which is sometimes used to designate polearms with a wavy snake-like spearhead. There was another polearm weapon known as the pi (鈹), translated into English as either sword-staff or long lance, that was used from ancient times until the Han dynasty. It was essentially a short sword attached to a stick. From the Warring States period onward, the length of Chinese polearms varied from around 2.8 m to 5.5 m, however there is no specific designation for a pike in the traditional Chinese lexicon. A very long spear is just called a long spear.

Weapons and armor in Chinese mythology, legend, cultural symbology, and fiction

Legendary weapons, arms, and armor are important motifs in Chinese mythology as well as Chinese legend, cultural symbology, and fiction. Weapons featured in Chinese mythology, legend, cultural symbology, and fiction include Guanyu's pole weapon. This non-factually documented weapon has been known as the Green Dragon Crescent Blade. Other weapons from Chinese mythology, legend, cultural symbology, and fiction include the shield and battleax of the defiant dancer Xingtian, Yi's bow and arrows, given him by Di Jun, and the many weapons and armor of Chiyou, who is associated with the elemental power of metal. Chinese mythology, legend, cultural symbology, and fiction features the use of elemental weapons such as ones evoking the powers of wind and rain to influence battle.


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