Chinese swords

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A painting of Ou Yezi forging swords in a temple in Longquan City dedicated to Ou Yezi.

Swords have a long history in China. Bronze swords have been traced back to the bronze daggers of the Shang dynasty. Bronze long swords suddenly appeared during the mid-third century BC. Later swords were made of iron or steel. These metals were wrought, never cast. Swords commonly reached a length of 70–100 cm, although longer swords have been found.[1] Chinese iron swords were used in Japan from the third to sixth century AD, but were replaced with Korean and native Japanese swords by the middle of the Heian era.[2]

The Chinese classify all swords into two types, jian (劍) and dao (刀). Jians are dual-edged while daos are single-edged.

Technical development[edit]

Chinese swords from the Warring States period to the Song dynasty


Late Spring and Autumn period to early Warring States period (501–350 BC)[edit]

  • Unlaminated bronze jians are well developed at this time. Appearance of the earliest laminated bronze jians where they utilize bronze with higher tin content for the cutting edges and bronze with lower tin content for the spine. It results in a sword with harder cutting edges and a more flexible spine to absorb shock.
  • Extensive use of copper sulphides as anti-corrosion coatings on the bronze jian.
  • Earliest iron and steel jians also appear, made by the earliest and most basic forging and folding techniques.
  • World's earliest book on alloys, The Artificers' Record, is written, with an explicit statement on the percentage composition of the metals used in the Chinese bronze jian.

Mid to late Warring States period (350–221 BC)[edit]

  • Steel jians get longer to 1 meter or slightly more, with longer handles for two-handed use (though there are a few jians excavated that range from 1.2 to 1.4 meters).
  • Bronze jians also become longer to about 80 cm (earlier jians before have an average length of 60 cm and below).

Qin dynasty (221–207 BC)[edit]

  • Bronze jians become even longer, reaching over 90 cm in length and the handle is extended to be long enough for two-handed use
  • Use of chromium oxide as an anti-corrosion protective coating on the bronze jian. This process originates way back from 700 BC. This invention was long lost for 2,000 years before modern similar processes were developed in 1937 and the 1950s by the Germans and Americans respectively.
  • The manufacture of steel jians that are 1 meter or longer is continued.

Early to mid Han dynasty (206 BC – 1 AD)[edit]

  • Longer steel jians of length 1.2 meters or more are common.
  • Introduction of bronze daos, followed by steel daos. Steel daos are as long as their steel double-edge counterparts.
  • Differential heat-treatment implemented on steel blades. This was to become a standardized process for the construction of Chinese blades for the next 2,000 years.
  • The prototype process of forging and folding sword blanks to improve the quality of the steel is further developed. This particular process of forging and folding the sword blanks was to be perfected by the mid-Han dynasty (known as the "refinings" process) to become a standardized process for later blades for almost 2,000 years.
  • The introduction of ring pommels on bronze and steel jians and daos.
  • Earliest introduction of the tunkou (metal collar at the forte), made of bronze or copper.[citation needed]

Mid to late Han dynasty (1–220 AD)[edit]

  • Bronze jians and daos, as well as steel jians, are completely replaced by steel daos.
  • Forge-welding/lamination (using higher carbon steel for the cutting edge and lower carbon steels for the core or sandwich plates, depending on the design) introduced, a standardized process for later Chinese blades for almost 2,000 years.
  • Perfection of the forging and folding process resulting in blades being graded as thirty, fifty, and one hundred "refinings". The higher the number, the better the blade's quality. This is the "refinings" process mentioned earlier. It was also most likely transmitted to Korea.
  • Earliest bronze and steel daos exported to Korea and Japan.
  • Use of white rayskin on the weapons' handle-grips introduced on Imperial Regulation blades.[citation needed]

Early Three Kingdoms period to late Sui dynasty (220–618)[edit]

  • Continued use of the highly advanced "refinings" process.
  • Use of clay for differential heat-treatment introduced; when is unknown—it was invented sometime between 200 BC and 500 AD.
  • The development of the ridged cross-section in the dao, probably sometime between 100 AD to 300 AD.
  • Introduction of the Sassanian/Persian style suspension mounts on Chinese daos.
  • Probable introduction of Damascus wootz steel for use in jians from India or the Middle East.

Tang dynasty (618–907)[edit]

  • Swordmaking continues to progress in the Tang dynasty, maintaining the steady progress ever since the Han dynasty.
  • Use of ring pommels discontinued in the mid-Tang dynasty.[citation needed]
  • Earliest use of disc-shaped guards to better protect the hand introduced in the mid-Tang dynasty.
  • Mass importation of quality Chinese blades to Japan in the mid-Tang dynasty.[citation needed]
  • Migration of Chinese and Korean swordsmiths to Japan where they transmitted their skills. Japanese smiths learn from these smiths the processes of[citation needed]:
    • forge-welding/laminated construction
    • ridged cross-sections
    • differential heat-treatment using clay
    • repeated forging and folding of sword blanks to enhance the quality of the steel ("refinings" process)

Song dynasty (960–1279)[edit]

  • Technical quality of Chinese weapons reaches a new high during the reign of Emperor Shenzong, a continuation from the Tang dynasty. Multiple weapons quality assessment bureaus are set up. A manual on weapons manufacture and quality control, Weapons' Laws and Methods is compiled and distributed to the relevant government bodies.
  • Under Emperor Shenzong, the horse-chopping backsword, or "zhanmadao", a heavy two-handed sword used by anti-cavalry infantry is introduced in the year 1072. (If Song dimensions are exactly the same as the Tang, this backsword should be slightly in excess of 1.2 meters.) This weapon is stout and massive to chop through heavy armour and continued to be in use in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
  • Use of ring pommels reintroduced.[citation needed]
  • The importation of top quality, expensive, and luxurious Japanese blades and Damascus wootz blades to China as collectors' items, works of art.[citation needed]
  • Towards the end of the Song dynasty and after, the Mongols invade Japan twice. Continental blades (i.e. Chinese, Korean and other makes) are perceived by the Japanese as stouter, compared to their own native blades, prompting them to forge blades with thicker backs and bigger points.

Yuan dynasty (1279–1368)[edit]

  • The use of the Turko-Mongol saber is introduced into China, where it became the ancestor of the willow leaf and goosequill dao (liuyedao and yanmaodao) of the Ming and Qing dynasties, used by civilians and military men alike.
  • Use of rayskin to act as protective and decorative scabbard wrapping introduced.

Ming dynasty (1368–1644)[edit]

  • In the early Ming dynasty, the process of making twist-core Damascus steel is transmitted to the Chinese sword-making world, most likely from Indonesia and the Southern Philippines (by Philip Tom's hypothesis).
  • Use of clay in differential heat-treatment is not as common as in the Tang dynasty, smiths seem to prefer the non-clay method.
  • Mass importation of Japanese swords (wodao) to China in the early Ming dynasty.
  • Revival in the use of the ridged cross-section in Chinese dao, spurred by exposure to Japanese swords used by the pirates. General Qi Jiguang introduces the changdao for use in the Ming imperial army, a saber 2 meters long overall that is modeled after the nodachi used by the Japanese pirates.
  • By the mid to late Ming dynasty, technical quality of Chinese dao made for northern border soldiers has been compromised by inferior workmanship, resulting in these dao being of poor quality. Qi Jiguang specifies higher standards to improve quality.

Qing dynasty (1644–1911)[edit]

  • New achievements and progress in sword-making (and various types of handicraft such as works in wood, glass, metal, jade, porcelain etc.) achieved during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, a great improvement compared to the decline in the mid-Ming dynasty.
  • Under the Qianlong Emperor, a most comprehensive document titled Illustrated Regulations for the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Qing Dynasty was compiled, and it records and standardizes various characteristics of the dao worn by the various ranks of civil and military officials, amongst other things.
  • A comprehensive document titled "Weapons Workmanship Standards" is compiled (probably around the same time as the above document) and stipulates the manufacture and quality control of Chinese dao, polearms, etc.
  • Occasional use of the ridged cross-section seen on Qing dynasty daos.
  • Appearance of the oxtail dao (niuweidao) in the late Qing dynasty, where it was used exclusively by civilians and not by the Qing military.

Recent history (post-1911)[edit]

Sword types[edit]

Image Name Era Description
Butterfly Swords.png Butterfly sword (蝴蝶双刀; 蝴蝶雙刀; húdié shuāng dāo; "Butterfly Pair (or) Double Sword") are 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 dāo (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 (长刀; 長刀; "long knife") was 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.
Chinese saber.jpg Dao (; dāo; tao1; "knife") is a category of single-edge Chinese swords primarily used for slashing and chopping (sabres), often called a broadsword in English translation because some varieties have wide blades. In China, the dao is known as one of the four major weapons, along with the gun (staff), qiang (spear), and the jian (sword), and referred to as the "General of All Weapons". Dao is actually a generic word used to denote any member of a family of single-edged, broad-bladed cutting or slicing tools, but in common, everyday usage means knife. The weapon, also known as dan dao (single knife) when just one is used, is thereby thought to be an adaptation of the kitchen knives common to Chinese cuisine. Dao also appears in the names of such polearms as the pudao and guan dao, indicating the knifelike nature of their blades.
Dadao 3D.jpg Dadao The dadao (大刀) (lit. Big Knife), one of the varieties of dao or Chinese saber, is also 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.
Iron sword Qin dynasty. The "iron sword", is a type of dao sword made entirely from iron and thrown at the enemy from a safe distance, so the thrower would not be harmed in the process. Iron Swords were first made in the Qin dynasty.
Jian (sword).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;[4] 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).

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 The Miaodao (苗刀) is 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
Liu Ye Dao (Willow leaf saber).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 (倭刀, literally "sword/knife of the wo people") is 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 Ming—Qing dynasties The 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.jpg Zhanmadao Song dynasty (斩马刀; 斬馬刀; zhǎn mǎ dāo; "chopping horse saber") was a single 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[edit]


  1. ^ Wagner, Donald B. (1993). Iron and Steel in Ancient China. New York, New York: E. J. Brill. pp. 191–199. ISBN 90-04-06234-3. 
  2. ^ Sugawara, Tetsutaka; Lujian Xing (1996). Aikido and Chinese Martial Arts: Its Fundamental Relations Vol. 1. Japan Publications Trading. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0-87040-934-4. 
  3. ^ The Art of the Chinese Sword
  4. ^ Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 41.

External links[edit]