Reality Check Series-
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.
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.
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.
Photos above: Patterns in Chinese blades.
and of course there is also this: China was much like Europe in that it was a region of warring states, conquest, and re-conquest for centuries. To think that there was/is a sword culture, legitimate fencing styles, and advanced metallurgy and sword making in Europe and not China is just idiotic and probably racist.