Vietnamese Swords

Vietnamese Swords

Nineteenth Century Vietnamese Kiem,

Private Collection.

Swords of Vietnam are a beautiful and interesting cross
of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and in later designs, French influences. Vietnamese
smiths employed sophisticated methods of inlaying precious metals and
excellent chased silver for the fittings of their weapons that are unique
to the region. Finer examples of both types of swords are often mounted
with ivory elephant handles. These grips are either made of the tip of
an tusk elephant or of sections of elephant molars.

The kiem is a double edged straight sword that
has no parallel elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Kiem are clearly a direct
descendant of the Chinese straight sword, or Jian, and mirror their
general shape and design very closely. The Vietnamese kiem however
are lighter with thin almost needle-like blades. In some respects the
Vietnamese straight sword is reminiscent of European small swords and
at first glance one might mistakenly assume a European origin for this

The Vietnamese saber, dao, can be found in three
varieties. Each originating from one of the three foreign influences mentioned
above. From the 1400’s to the 1800’s, saber forms followed the political
divisions of the country. Sabers from northern Vietnam (Tonkin) show a
strong Chinese influence. In blade form and design of fittings, they descend
from the Ming type LiuYe Dao – ‘Willow Leaf Saber’. These dao
have a hand or hand and a half grip.

Nineteenth Century Vietnamese Tonkin (upper)
and Cochin sabers,

Private Collection.

Dao of Cochin China are of the two handed variety
called dai dao. These are related to other Southeast Asian saber
such as the Burmese and Thai dha. But they also show a strong Japanese
influence. It is interesting to try and derive from where this Japanese
influence derives.

There has been a Japanese presence in Thailand and coastal
Vietnam beginning in the 15th or 16th century. In Thailand, they served
as mercenaries and it is likely that they fell into piracy as they did
in other areas of Asia. In their roles as soldiers or brigands, Vietnamese
would certainly have come in contact with weapons of Japanese origin.

Detail of Tonkin (upper) and Cochin saber

The Japanese influence on Vietnamese dai dao
appears strongest in the fittings. These Cochin sabers have guards shaped
like the tsuba of Japanese katana. Some are actually copies
of tsuba right down to the holes on either side to allow for the
utility knives present on the side of Japanese sword scabbards (but are
absent on the dai dao). The Cochin dai dao also have a habaki
or collar at the forte as do Japanese swords. Sometimes, oval, serrated
washers like Jappanese seppa are also positioned between guard
and collar.

18th Century Vietnamese

Saber Handle of Carved Ivory,

Private Collection.

While these specific features are drawn from Japanese
sources, the overall design of the Cochin saber is Southeast Asian. Their
blades form closely follow the Chinese Willow Leaf pattern mentioned above.
And the grips on these weapons are also of round cross-section, like those
of Thai and Burmese dha. It should also be noted that the Vietnamese sometimes
utilized foreign blades. One example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s
collection in New York has a Japanese blade. Later kiem and dao
were also made with French blades.

Mitiary Museum

The native forged blades of Vietnam are pattern welded
steel. These blades are forged by a Chinese method known as qiangang
– ‘inserted steel’. This type of blade construction employs an inserted
hardened steel cutting edge backed by a soft steel core. These two components
are sandwiched in layered damascus steel. Some examples of parade swords
have blades of copper or brass. It is an open question as to why a sword
would be made with a non-functional blade. I can only suggest at this
time that they were made for use in close proximity to the Annam emperor
to prevent their use in an assassination attempt. By the later 1890’s,
one French traveler noted that the quality of blades had declined.

In the early nineteenth century another foreign influence
affected Vietnamese dao – France. After the French bankrolled the
establishment of the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, lion-head pommels began appearing.
These sabers are essentially European in design, with ‘D’ shaded knucklebows.
This French pattern is overlaid and decorated in the local Vietnamese
fashion, usually with embossed silver fittings on the scabbard and hilt
and mother of pearl inlay in lacquer or rose wood scabbards. Other examples
have plain tortoise shell covered scabbards. This style of saber has a
scabbard chape with an usually sharp upward accelerating curve terminating
in a sharp end. This is quite different from sabers of European design
which tend to have chapes with rounded ends. This pointed chape is most
likely a hold-over from Ming Chinese influences.

Vietnam, lying like a dragon along the coast between
the Chinese Empire and seafaring nations of Asia and Europe, has been
a melting pot of cultures for over millenium. The centuries of development
and varying cultural influences combine with excellent local craftsmanship
to produce unique swords of great beauty. Today these overlooked treasures
waiting to be discovered by collectors and students of antique arms.

Tomb guardians at a Vietnamese Emperor’s
Tomb armed with Kiem, Dao and Daido respectively.

Copyright Scott M. Rodell, 1999

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