Myths about Chinese swordsmanship

Myths about Chinese swordsmanship

Picture of chinese jian with dual rows of huawen [flowery figured] Damascus steel with lamelae of twists running obliquely toward the point on either side of the median ridge.
Chinese jian with dual rows of huawen
Damascus steel with lamelae of twists running obliquely toward the point on
either side of the median ridge.

Preface

There are many widely-held misconceptions about Chinese swords. I have
selected five of the most commonly repeated. I will attempt to dispel them.

Most of the stories have been passed down from generation-to-generation
by the Chinese themselves. These stories are based on “fairy-tales”.
Indeed, frequently these stories are repeated by people who have never handled
an antique sword and who know nothing about Chinese swords, or about metallurgy
or about the art of the swordsmith.

Misconception 1:
The Chinese carried “Belt Swords” which they wore around their waists

Tales of whip-like ‘belt’ swords are nonsense and show an ignorance of
metallurgy and battlefield combat. Whatever “belt swords” may have
existed (and the collecting and museum community have yet to see a single
authentic one) would have only been useful as an assassin’s weapon used to
slash an unsuspecting victim. There is no way to combine the three important
sword qualities in a flimsy, whip-like blade. An overly flexible sword would
lack the structural integrity to thrust or cut with accuracy and control or to
effectively deflect a blow from even a stick, never mind a larger weapon like
a spear, halberd, glaive, or fauchard. Only a fool of a swordsman would want
to meet an irate farmer swinging a chunk of 2X4 with a thin, flimsy jian.

Misconception 2:
There is a special taiji jian designed specifically for this art

Today jian are commonly referred to as “taiji swords”
in martial arts equipment catalogs and by the general public. This implies
there is a jian tailored especially for the art of taiji jian.
Aside from the fact that what makes a good sword tends to apply universally
to everyone, the principles discussed above allow for only slight variations
in possible serviceable variations.
Historically in China, there were just never enough taiji jian
practitioners to form a market to which sword smiths could cater.
Before Yang Luchan brought taijiquan to Guangping and then
Beijing in the mid-nineteenth century, it was limited to just one
small place, the Chen Family Village (Chenjiagou).

Taijiquan practitioners required swords with the same characteristics
as any other fencing system. They were (are) also constrained in the same
way any other martial art was, by the laws of metallurgy. Nineteenth century
taiji jian swordsmen adopted existing sword types, rather than
inventing new ones.

Picture of chinese suishu peidao [Imperial Attendants Saber] of giangang [inserted steel] with the vein [inserted edge] distinguished from the gu [body] of the blade by way of a serrated delineation.
Chinese suishu peidao of
giangang with the vein distinguished
from the gu of the blade by way of a serrated
delineation.

Misconception 3:
Every Chinese would have owned his own sword

The only steady market for sword smiths consisted of the aristocracy, the
elite ‘gentry’ and the military. Nobility, ‘gentry,’ and all grades of the
civil and military hierarchy are estimated to have made up no more than 2 or
3 of the total population.* These men needed arms to protect
themselves and their estates, and as part of their official regalia. During
the Qing dynasty, all officials had to supply all their own regalia including
personal armaments.

The ranks of the enlisted men in the military were largely equipped by artisans
in the government run arsenals.

Today we focus on the “art” of swordplay and development of
the individual.
Swords are viewed as tools aiding us in this process of personal refinement
and as works of art, which indeed they are.

However, in imperial China they were looked upon by society at large as we
look at assault weapons today. Those training with swords were either in the
military or were expected to need their weapon to protect their lives, family
and property.

Swords were also a luxury item few could afford. The majority of the
population, about 90, were farmers and artisans. Most of these barely had
enough income to buy a second set of clothes. Those who were successful had
other priorities, such as buying more land or mules, or expanding their
businesses. Most people then could afford a fine sword about as much as
today’s small shop keeper or blue-collar worker could afford a new Rolls Royce.
Any sword a family might have come to own was passed down as a valuable
heirloom. In addition, there were legal and social restrictions.
Throughout practically all China’s imperial history, there were laws and
customs regulating what each social class could wear, carry, display, or
use in public. These covered not only weapons, but other items as well,
from clothing to carriages, to the design and color of the gateway to one’s
house. Everyone was expected to “keep his place” and it would have
been folly for a person to invest a great sum of money on a sword that he was
not entitled to carry.

A Chinese broad peidao with four row twist core configuration [huawen-gang] with marked differential hardening at the edge.
A Chinese broad peidao with four row twist core configuration
[huawen-gang] with marked differential hardening at the edge.

Misconception 4:
Every Chinese sword was custom made for its owner

It is commonly stated by martial artists that swords were usually made to
order. This does not seem to be generally true, although there were always
exceptions. Even a quick survey of antique jian or dao shows
that they only vary a couple of inches in length. Although blade decoration
and fittings do come in different styles, they tend to fall within a certain
number of distinct variations, of which many examples were made over several
generations.
Given the Han people’s great variety of shapes, weights and heights between
North, South, East and West China, we should expect a greater variation among
the swords if they had been made to order.

Misconception 5:
Chinese Swords are historically of poor quality

This notion has arisen from the prevalence of low quality new swords made
for martial arts training. It is commonly believed that these iterations are
a reflection of historical reality.

The steel of Chinese swords all share common characteristics that fall
into a fairly narrow range of possible hardness and resilience. These
functional elements are no mystery and are what any good sword smith can
recognize and control. A sword must have three qualities in order to be
effective in combat. The weapon must have sufficient mass and proper balance
in order to deliver a powerful blow; the edge must be sufficiently hard to
take and hold an edge that will perform effectively (i.e., cut through
clothing, possibly armor, flesh and bone); and, the body of the blade must
be resilient enough to withstand the stress of cutting and deflecting.
Chinese smiths answered these requirements by constructing swords that
are composites of various types of steel.

Aside from having practiced jian for more than a decade and a half,
I have collected and studied swords since high school. As a dealer in antique
swords and an active researcher in the field of Chinese arms and armor, I have
handled over 2000 Chinese swords ranging in age from the early Ming dynasty
(late 1300s) to the early Republic (1920s).
The majority of the Chinese swords that my colleagues and I have encountered
are of extremely fine lamellar steel. That is, they are pattern-welded of
alternating layers of hard and softer steel. They also have a hardened edge.
To put this edge in perspective for the layman, a hardened edge means that
this steel can cut into iron or regular steel. I have seen an unsharpened
jian used to shave ribbons of steel off a heavy security grate. This
particular jian was forged circa 1900, and was left undamaged by this
demonstration. I also have iron rods (Chinese striking weapons) in my
collection that have deep cuts in them from a sword.

There are a number of ways this hardened edge is incorporated into the
blades of Chinese swords. One of the most frequently encountered in single
edge dao (sabers) is qiangang – literally “inserted
steel”. This edge is a separate piece of steel that is inserted into a
folded-over “jacket” of layered pattern welded steel. The edge plate
is of steel with a higher carbon content. When the blade is forged and ground,
it protrudes and forms the cutting portion of the blade. The somewhat softer
“jacket” serves as a support medium and “shock absorber.”

Jian, being double-edged, are usually made of sanmei or
three-plate construction (as are also some dao). In this case, the
piece of hardened steel that is used to form the edge runs all the way
through the body of the sword, appearing on both edges. This core is
sandwiched between walls of somewhat softer layered steel which serves as
a support medium for the harder and more brittle central core.

A method of heat treating used to produce blades with hard edges and
softer, more resilient backs or centers was the differential hardening of
a blade edge by using refractory clay mixtures. This technique (popularly
known as clay tempering), made famous by Japanese sword smiths, originated
in China in the early Tang dynasty (seventh century AD). This method was
adapted by the Japanese during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD).*
This differential hardening method involves using the refractory clay to
insulate the back of the blade (thus changing the rate at which the steel
cools), while exposing the edge during the quenching and hardening process.
The radical temperature change at the edge produces a thorough crystallization
of the carbon in the steel to make a hard edge while keeping the rest of
the blade from becoming brittle. When done properly, this method produces
a very hard cutting edge backed by a softer blade body, which retains the
resilience to absorb shock. Though some Chinese sword smiths continued to
use this refractory clay method well into the nineteenth century, it generally
fell out of use by the Song dynasty (960-1280 AD). Henceforth, other methods
of hardening were adopted, possibly due to Central Asian and Middle Eastern
influences during the Yuan dynasty.

The nature of steel is that it cannot be made to both extremes of hardness
and flexibility. Its a matter of trade offs. Constructing a jian out
of different types of steel meets the requirements of hardness and resilience.
The blades of jian, like those of dao, must be carefully heat
treated. However, even those with the most “springy” temper cannot
be bent in a complete circle, or very far beyond a gentle arc. Chinese swords,
as discussed above, are laminates composed of hundreds of layers of steel.
The nature of any laminate, like plywood for example, is that it can flex
under stress and return to its original shape. The hardened high carbon steel
that composes the edge is brittle and does not want to flex. In fact, this
edge would break or shatter if bent too far or hit very hard. This is why the
entire sword is not made of this type of hardened steel. Its edge has to be
protected by “cheeks” of more flexible steel of somewhat lower
carbon content. The whole sword cannot likewise be made of the more flexible
“milder” steel with lower carbon content. Though more shock
resistant than hardened steel, lower carbon steel will not take and hold
an edge well enough to be serviceable in cutting.

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