Dao (sword)

Last updated
Saber with Scabbard and Belt Hook (Qing Yao Dao ) MET DP-834-001.jpg
A Chinese dao and scabbard of the 18th century
Literal meaning(single-edged) sword
weapon with a single-edged blade

Dao (pronunciation: [táu] , English approximation: /d/ dow, Chinese: 刀; pinyin: dāo) are single-edged Chinese swords, primarily used for slashing and chopping. The most common form is also known as the Chinese sabre, although those with wider blades are sometimes referred to as Chinese broadswords. In China, the dao is considered one of the four traditional weapons, along with the gun (stick or staff), qiang (spear), and the jian (double-edged sword), called in this group “The General of Weapons".



In Chinese, the word can be applied to any weapon with a single-edged blade and usually refers to knives. Because of this, the term is sometimes translated as knife or sword-knife. Nonetheless, within Chinese martial arts and in military contexts, the larger "sword" versions of the dao are usually intended.

General characteristics

While dao have varied greatly over the centuries, most single-handed dao of the Ming period and later, and the modern swords that are based on them share a number of characteristics. Dao blades are moderately curved and single-edged, though often with a few inches of the back edge sharpened as well; the moderate curve allows them to be reasonably effective in the thrust. Hilts are sometimes canted, curving in the opposite direction of the blade which improves handling in some forms of cuts and thrusts. Cord is usually wrapped over the wood of the handle. Hilts may also be pierced like those of jian (straight-bladed Chinese sword) for the addition of lanyards, though modern swords for performances will often have tassels or scarves instead. Guards are typically disc-shaped and often cupped. This was to prevent rainwater from getting into the sheath, and to prevent blood from dripping down to the handle, which would make it more difficult to grip. Sometimes guards are thinner pieces of metal with an s-curve, the lower limb of the curve protecting the user's knuckles; very rarely they may have guards like those of the jian.

Other variations to the basic pattern include the large bagua dao and the long handled pudao .

Early history

The earliest dao date from the Shang Dynasty in China's Bronze Age, and are known as zhibeidao (直背刀) – straight backed knives. As the name implies, these were straight-bladed or slightly curved weapons with a single edge. Originally bronze, these weapons were made of iron or steel by the time of the late Warring States period as metallurgical knowledge became sufficiently advanced to control the carbon content. Originally less common as a military weapon than the jian  – the straight, double-edged blade of China – the dao became popular with cavalry during the Han dynasty due to its sturdiness, superiority as a chopping weapon, and relative ease of use – it was generally said that it takes a week to attain competence with a dao/saber, a month to attain competence with a qiang/spear, and a year to attain competence with a jian/straight sword. Soon after dao began to be issued to infantry, beginning the replacement of the jian as a standard-issue weapon. [1] [2] Late Han dynasty dao had round grips and ring-shaped pommels, and ranged between 85 and 114 centimeters in length. These weapons were used alongside rectangular shields. [3]

By the end of the Three Kingdoms period, the single-edged dao had almost completely replaced the jian on the battlefield. [4] The jian henceforth became known as a weapon of self-defense for the scholarly aristocratic class, worn as part of court dress. [5]

Sui, Tang, and Song

Two Sui dynasty zhibeidao with ring-shaped pommels. Chinese swords Sui Dynasty about 600 found near Luoyang.jpg
Two Sui dynasty zhibeidao with ring-shaped pommels.

As in the preceding dynasties, Tang dynasty dao were straight along the entire length of the blade. Single-handed peidao ("belt dao") were the most common sidearm in the Tang dynasty. These were also known as hengdao ("horizontal dao" or "cross dao") in the preceding Sui dynasty. Two-handed changdao ("long dao") or modao were also used in the Tang, with some units specializing in their use. [6]

During the Song Dynasty, one form of infantry dao was the shoudao, a chopping weapon with a clip point. While some illustrations show them as straight, the 11th century Song military encyclopedia Wujing Zongyao depicts them with curved blades – possibly an influence from the steppe tribes of Central Asia, who would conquer parts of China during the Song period. Also dating from the Song are the falchion-like dadao, [7] the long, two-handed zhanmadao , [8] and the long-handled, similarly two-handed buzhandao (步战刀).

Yuan, Ming and Qing

Swords and polearms as depicted in the Wubei Zhi, including dao. Song Dai Dao Ba Se Yu Ming Dai Dao Qi .png
Swords and polearms as depicted in the Wubei Zhi, including dao.

With the Mongol invasion of China in the early 13th century and the formation of the Yuan dynasty, the curved steppe saber became a greater influence on Chinese sword designs. Sabers had been used by Turkic, Tungusic, and other steppe peoples of Central Asia since at least the 8th century CE, and it was a favored weapon among the Mongol aristocracy. Its effectiveness for mounted warfare and popularity among soldiers across the entirety of the Mongol empire had lasting effects. [9]

Zhanyinbao, an Imperial bodyguard, wearing a sheathed dao. Notice the lanyard through the handle. (1760) Portrait of the Imperial Bodyguard Zhanyinbao.jpg
Zhanyinbao, an Imperial bodyguard, wearing a sheathed dao. Notice the lanyard through the handle. (1760)

In China, Mongol influence lasted long after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty at the hands of the Ming, continuing through both the Ming and the Qing dynasties (the latter itself founded by an Inner Asian people, the Manchu), furthering the popularity of the dao and spawning a variety of new blades. Blades with greater curvature became popular, and these new styles are collectively referred to as peidao. During the mid-Ming these new sabers would completely replace the jian as a military-issue weapon. [10] The four main types of peidao are: [11] [12]


The yanmaodao or "goose-quill saber" is largely straight like the earlier zhibeidao, 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. [13]


The liuyedao or "willow leaf saber" is the most common form of Chinese saber. It first appeared during the Ming dynasty, and features a moderate curve along the length of the blade. This weapon became the standard sidearm for both cavalry and infantry, replacing the yanmaodao, and is the sort of saber originally used by many schools of Chinese martial arts. [14]


The piandao or "slashing saber" is a deeply curved dao meant for slashing and draw-cutting. This weapon bears a strong resemblance to the shamshir and scimitar. A fairly uncommon weapon, it was generally used by skirmishers in conjunction with a shield. [15]


The niuweidao or "oxtail saber" is a heavy bladed weapon with a characteristic flaring tip. It is the archetypal "Chinese broadsword" of kung fu movies today. It is first recorded in the early 19th century (the latter half of the Qing dynasty) and only as a civilian weapon: there is no record of it being issued to troops, and it does not appear in any listing of official weaponry. Its appearance in movies and modern literature is thus often anachronistic. [16] [17]

Besides these four major types of dao, the duandao or "short dao" was also used, this being a compact weapon generally in the shape of a liuyedao. [18] The dadao saw continued use, and during the Ming dynasty the large two-handed changdao and zhanmadao were used both against the cavalry of the northern steppes and the wokou (pirates) of the southeast coast; these latter weapons (sometimes under different names) would continue to see limited use during the Qing period. [19] Also during the Qing there appear weapons such as the nandao , regional variants in name or shape of some of the above dao, and more obscure variants such as the "nine ringed broadsword", these last likely invented for street demonstrations and theatrical performances rather than for use as weapons. The word dao is also used in the names of several polearms that feature a single-edged blade, such as the pudao and guandao .

The Chinese spear and dao (liuyedao and yanmaodao) were commonly issued to infantry due to the expense of and relatively greater amount of training required for the effective use of Chinese straight sword, or jian . Dao can often be seen depicted in period artwork worn by officers and infantry.

During the Yuan dynasty and after, some aesthetic features of Persian, Indian, and Turkish swords would appear on dao. These could include intricate carvings on the blade and "rolling pearls": small metal balls that would roll along fuller-like grooves in the blade. [20]

Recent history

Chinese soldiers from a "Big Sword Unit" during the Japanese invasion of Jehol Province, China, 1933 Chinese soldiers from a "Big Sword Unit" during the Japanese invasion of Jehol Province, China, 1933.jpg
Chinese soldiers from a "Big Sword Unit" during the Japanese invasion of Jehol Province, China, 1933

The dadao was used by some Chinese militia units against Japanese invaders in the Second Sino-Japanese War, occasioning "The Sword March". The miaodao , a descendant of the changdao , also saw use. These were used during planned ambushes on Japanese troops because the Chinese military and patriotic resistance groups often had a shortage of firearms. [ citation needed ]

Most Chinese martial arts schools still train extensively with the dao, seeing it as a powerful conditioning tool and a versatile weapon, with self-defense techniques transferable to similarly sized objects more commonly found in the modern world, such as canes, baseball or cricket bats, for example. There are also schools that teach double sword shuangdao , forms and fencing, one dao for each hand. [ citation needed ]

One measure of the proper length of the sword should be from the hilt in your hand and the tip of the blade at the brow and in some schools, the height of shoulder. Alternatively, the length of the sword should be from the middle of the throat along the length of the outstretched arm. There are also significantly larger versions of dao used for training in some Baguazhang and Taijiquan schools. [ citation needed ]


The nandao or "southern broadsword" is a modern innovation used for contemporary wushu practice.

In Contemporary Wushu

Daoshu refers to the competitive event in modern wushu taolu where athletes utilize a dao in a routine. It was one of the four main weapon events implemented at the 1st World Wushu Championships due to its popularity. [21] The dao itself, consists of a flimsy blade that makes noise when stabbing or cutting techniques are used. Over time, the blade has become more flimsy to create more noise, the sword has become lighter to allow for faster techniques, and the flag of the broadsword has become smaller to become less of a distraction. The IWUF has also created three different standardized routines for competition as well as an elementary routine. The first compulsory routine was created and recorded by Zhao Changjun in 1989.

Daoshu routines in international competition require certain sword techniques including:

Only the Chán Tóu and Guǒ Nǎo techniques have deduction content (code 62) where the back of the blade has to be kept close to the body. Daoshu routines have been judged with the degree of difficulty criteria at the World Wushu Championships since 2005.

A dao as seen in modern wushu. Wushu dao.jpg
A dao as seen in modern wushu.

See also

Related Research Articles

A sword is a bladed melee weapon intended for cutting or thrusting that is longer than a knife or dagger, consisting of a long blade attached to a hilt. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographic region under consideration. The blade can be straight or curved. Thrusting swords have a pointed tip on the blade, and tend to be straighter; slashing swords have a sharpened cutting edge on one or both sides of the blade, and are more likely to be curved. Many swords are designed for both thrusting and slashing.

This is a list of types of swords.

<i>Jian</i> Chinese double-edged sword

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 BCE, during the Spring and Autumn period; one of the earliest specimens being the Sword of Goujian. Historical one-handed versions have blades varying from 45 to 80 centimeters in length. The weight of an average sword of 70-centimetre (28-inch) blade-length would be in a range of approximately 700 to 900 grams. There are also larger two-handed versions used for training by many styles of Chinese martial arts.

Classification of swords

The English language terminology used in the classification of swords is imprecise and has varied widely over time. There is no historical dictionary for the universal names, classification or terminology of swords; A sword was simply a double edged knife.

<i>Zhanmadao</i> Type of Infantry anti-cavalry saber

The zhanmadao was a single-bladed anti-cavalry Chinese sword. It originated during the Han Dynasty and was especially common in Song China (960–1279).

<i>Guandao</i> Type of pole weapon

A guandao is a type of Chinese pole weapon that is used in some forms of Chinese martial arts. In Chinese, it is properly called a yanyuedao, the name under which it always appears in texts from the Song to Qing dynasties such as the Wujing Zongyao and Huangchao Liqi Tushi. It is comparable to the Japanese naginata and the European fauchard or glaive and consists of a heavy blade with a spike at the back and sometimes also a notch at the spike's upper base that can catch an opponent's weapon. In addition there are often irregular serrations that lead the back edge of the blade to the spike. The blade is mounted atop a 1.5 m to 1.8 m (5–6 foot) long wooden or metal pole with a pointed metal counter weight used to balance the heavy blade and for striking on the opposite end.


The miaodao (苗刀) is a Chinese two-handed dao or saber of the Republican Era, with a narrow blade, long hilt, and an overall length of 1.2 metres (47 in) or more. The name means "sprout saber", presumably referring to a likeness between the weapon and a newly sprouted plant. An early reference, in Jin Yiming’s Single Defense-Saber, makes a connection between the miaodao and the Qing-era wodao, as well as mentioning both single and two-handed versions of the ‘’miaodao’’, suggesting that the name originally described the shape only, without any connotations of size. 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.


The changdao was a two-handed, single-edged Chinese sword. The term changdao has been translated as "long saber," "saber-staff," or "long-handled saber." During the Ming dynasty, changdao was often used as a general term for two handed swords. In recent discussions, the term miaodao is sometimes used to describe similar swords. Tang dynasty sources describe the changdao as being identical to the modao, but the modao may have been a double edged weapon unlike the changdao.

<i>Wushu</i> (sport) A type of Chinese martial arts

Wushu, or Chinese Kungfu, is a hard and soft and complete martial art, as well as a full-contact sport. It has a long history in reference to Chinese martial arts. It was developed in 1949 in an effort to standardize the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts, yet attempts to structure the various decentralized martial arts traditions date back earlier, when the Central Guoshu Institute was established at Nanking in 1928.

Hook sword

The hook sword, twin hooks, fu tao, hu tou gou or shuang gou is a Chinese weapon traditionally associated with northern styles of Chinese martial arts and Wushu weapons routines, but now often practiced by southern styles as well.

Dha (sword) Burmese knife

Dha is the Burmese word for "knife" similar term to daab or darb in Thai language for a single edge sword. The term dha is conventionally used to refer to a wide variety of knives and swords used by many people across Southeast Asia, especially present-day Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Yunnan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Taijijian is a straight two-edged sword used in the training of the Chinese martial art Taijiquan. The straight sword, sometimes with a tassel and sometimes not, is used for upper body conditioning and martial training in traditional Taijiquan schools. The different family schools have various warmups, forms and fencing drills for training with the jian.

The Eighteen Arms is a list of the eighteen main weapons of Chinese martial arts. The origin of the list is unclear and there have been disputes as to what the eighteen weapons actually are. However, all lists contain at least one or more of the following weapons:

Chicken sickles are a number of Chinese bladed weapons similar to the Hook sword and the Okinawan Kama. They can be used as a single or double weapon. It is considered the special weapon of the Xinyi Liuhe style.

The Yanmaodao is a type of dao used as a standard military weapon during the Ming Dynasty and middle Qing Dynasty (1368–1800). The blade is straight until the curve begins around the center of percussion along the last 1/4 or so of the blade approaching the tip. The center of percussion is the point on the blade with the least vibration on hard contact, the spot on the blade that transmits the most power to the target in a hard chop. 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. This type of sword seems to have lost its popularity with military and martial arts practitioners alike by the end of the 18th century.


The liuyedao 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. A descendant of the earlier Mongol saber the liuyedao remained the most popular type of single handed sabre during the Ming Dynasty, replacing the role of the military role of the Jian. Many schools of Chinese martial arts originally trained with this weapon.

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.

Chinese swordsmanship

Chinese swordsmanship encompasses a variety of sword fighting styles native to China. No Chinese system teaches swordsmanship exclusively, but many eclectic schools of Chinese martial arts include instruction for using one or two-handed versions of the single-edged sword (dao) and the double-edged sword (jian).

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.

Turko-Mongol sabers Cavalry Sabre

These swords were used by the Turkic nomads of the Eurasian steppes primarily between the 8th and 14th centuries. One of the earliest recorded sabres of this type was recovered from an Avar grave in Romania dating to the mid 7th century. Although minor variations occur in size and hilt, they are common enough in design across 5 centuries that individual blades are difficult to date when discovered without other context.


  1. Tom 2001 , p. 207
  2. Graff 2002 , p. 41
  3. Lorge 2011, pp. 69–70.
  4. Lorge 2011, p. 78.
  5. Lorge 2011, pp. 83–84.
  6. Lorge 2011, p. 103.
  7. Tom & Rodell 2005 , p. 84
  8. Hanson 2004
  9. Tom 2001 , p. 207
  10. Tom 2001 , pp. 207–209
  11. Tom 2001 , p. 211
  12. Tom & Rodell 2005 , p. 76
  13. Tom & Rodell 2005 , p. 77
  14. Tom & Rodell 2005 , pp. 77–78
  15. Tom & Rodell 2005 , p. 78
  16. Tom 2001 , p. 211
  17. Tom & Rodell 2005 , pp. 78–79
  18. Tom & Rodell 2005 , pp. 80, 84
  19. Tom & Rodell 2005 , p. 85
  20. Tom 2001 , pp. 209, 218
  21. "Results". IWUF. Retrieved 2021-01-09.