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.
probably 18th century
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.
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.
of composite origin, the mounts possibly late
Ming though more likely early-to-mid Qing,
blade possibly earlier
Blade length 26" in.
The bifullered blade of stout
proportions, of sanmei (three-fold) structure,
with a high-carbon layer between two softer
and more resilient lamellar cheeks (heavily
damaged by corrosion, and loss of temper due
to fire) mounted in gilt bronze fittings with
decoration in relief, with a grip of huanghuali
wood and a wooden scabbard with dragon and
cloud motifs in black lacquer (the chape missing).
The pairing of a damaged
and no longer functional blade to such sumptuous
mounts points to the desire to maintain an
salvaged heirloom sword as a piece of ceremonial
regalia. The Qing aristocracy continued the
Ming custom of having large and ornate jian,
sheathed and encased in brocade, borne by
attendents in processions
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.
CEREMONIAL SABER OF THE IMPERIAL COURT
(Huangchao Baolidao) Qianlong reign,
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.
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
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.
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.
A chinese broad peidao with
joui row twist core configuration (huaweu-gaug)
with marked differentual hardening at the edge.
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.
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
Stars Trading Co. 1998
Posted with permission of Philip Tom, and Scott Rodell
on whose wedbsite the article was originally presented.
About the author:
Philip Tom has more than 25 years' experience in
research and restoration of arms and armor, with
an intimate knowledge of their historical development,
manufacturing technique and aesthetic traditions.
Mr. Tom is the author of "Some Notable Sabers
of the Quing Dynasty in the Metropolitan Museum
of Art", to be published in 2001 in Metropolitan
Museum Journal, Vol. 36. He has addressed the Society
of Ethnographic & Historical Edged Weapons Collectors
of Israel, lecturing on Ming and Quing armes-blanches,
in Tel Aviv in 2000. He has also been an Advisor
on Chinese armament to the National Maritime Museum
in Haifa, Israel, for a special exhibition on piracy.
Mr. Tom was an historical consultant for a documentary
telecast "Oriental Firearms" (part of
the Tales of the Gun series) distributed by the
History Channel in 2000, and was the curator and
conservator for "Sword & Brush: Art from
China's Martial Tradition", an exhibit at the
Great River Taoist Center in Washington DC in the
fall of 1999. Mr. Tom has a Master of Arts degree
in History from the University of Hawaii, Manoa
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