Chinese Sword Hilt: Parts, Characteristics, and Use
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The Chinese sword hilt varies in quality, craftsmanship, and decoration, from plain and utilitarian to ornate. Its various parts have their names in imperial dictionaries and books on arms manufacture. However, different regions, provinces, towns, and workshops used varying terms to refer to them.
Let’s explore the different parts of a Chinese sword hilt, its characteristics, and terminologies used by collectors.
Characteristics of Chinese Sword Hilt
A sword hilt comprises of a pommel, grip or handle, sword guard, and other components. However, the names of the various parts of the hilt may vary depending on the sword type. Also, Chinese sword hilts differ considerably in the design and ornamentation of their fittings.
Here are the unique characteristics of a Chinese sword hilt:
Metal and Construction
Many Chinese sword hilts had well-made fittings, usually of thick brass, iron, and occasionally silver. Iron hilt mountings were decorated with pierced openwork design, chiseling, gilding, and gemstones. In the early 19th century, many ivory-carved hilts were produced in the workshops of Guangzhou, one of the notable ivory carving centers of the time.
A pommel is a metal fitting at the top of the hilt. It often serves as a counterweight to the sword blade and prevents the sword from slipping out of hand. The pommel of the Chinese straight sword is called jiàn shou, and the pommel in a saber is called dāobǎ dǐngshù (刀把頂束). However, the shape and design of the pommel dramatically vary.
Grip or Handle
The handle is part of the hilt that is gripped by the hand. Some Chinese sword grips were one-handed, while others could accommodate two or three fingers of the other hand for additional leverage. The handle of a jian is commonly referred to as jianba (剑把), while the grip of a saber is called dāobǎ (刀把).
Straight sword jian often had a carved handle, usually of ivory, horn, or wood. Chinese sabers occasionally had a handle made of water buffalo horn. Until the late 18th century, Chinese sabers typically had straight grips. Later on, downward-curving grips became widespread.
The tang is the unsharpened portion of the blade covered by the wooden grip. The Chinese sword tang was usually peened over at the pommel and rarely marked. The term used for a sword tang is sǔn (榫), meaning tenon (a projecting piece of wood made for insertion into a mortise in another piece). On the other hand, the saber tang is called dīngdāo gēntiě (釘刀根鐵).
Often, the handle is covered with leather to provide a non-slip surface. Sometimes, the wooden grip is wrapped with a silk cord wrapping (sikou), which provides a comfortable way of holding the sword. It often features a loop or crossings, making it functional and aesthetically pleasing. In some braided designs, each cord crosses another cord inside the loop.
These grip wraps were common on sabers and occasionally on jian during the late Qing dynasty. However, some Chinese sabers used by rebels had plain, wooden grips without wrapping. Some Japanese-inspired Chinese grips were wrapped with leather in Japanese fashion.
Wrist Strap or Lanyard
A Chinese saber sometimes features a wrist strap to secure the weapon to the wrist. It is called yāodāo xìzi (腰刀繫子), meaning saber lanyard. It was typically made of silk, tied together in a ball knot, or with string. These lanyards were common in imperial guards and Qing bannerman sabers.
Tassels were more common on the straight sword jian than plain wrist straps. The tassel, also called jian sui (劍繐), hangs from the hilt to enhance its appearance. Some long tassels were designed to attack the opponent’s eyes, while others allowed throwing the sword and pulling it back. They were common in the scholar’s sword and dancing sword.
A ferrule is a metal fitting between the grip and the sword guard. It keeps the wooden grip from splitting while ensuring a good fit against the handguard. The ferrule of a saber is called dāobǎ shù (刀把束), meaning handle binder. The alternative term bǎ gū (靶箍) is also used and literally means handle loop.
The sword guard protects the user’s hand from the opponent’s sword. The Chinese sword guard is called hūshǒu (護手), meaning handguard. The jian sword guard is called jiàn gé, while the saber guard is called dāo hūshǒu (刀護手). The jian often has backward-swept guards, such as the ace-of-spade style and carved zoomorphic designs.
On the other hand, the saber guard was often disc-shaped and called hùshǒu pán (護手盤). Some Chinese sabers, especially butterfly swords, had D-shaped guards, while others had S-shaped guards. Some Chinese sword guards were inspired by the Japanese design, featuring hitsu-ana openings frequently found on Japanese sword guards.
Design and Craftsmanship
Chinese sword hilts widely vary in their decorative details. Some motifs were inspired by ancient Chinese bronze vessels such as dragons and phoenixes, while others feature Buddhist elements such as swastikas and lotuses. Collectors prize openwork filigree in brass or iron. Some ornaments, including cabochon stones of coral, turquoise, lapis lazuli, and pearls were restricted for princely ranks.
Many sword hilts of jian were elaborately carved, often with designs of flowers, fruits, or scenes in a classical Chinese garden landscape. Some also feature Western art and cross-cultural influences designed for the export trade. The so-called Taoist jian had hilts featuring the taiji symbol, Eight Trigrams pommels, and typical zoomorphic sword guards with a taotie face.
The Fangshi and Yuanshi Style Fittings
In the Qing military, officials wore Chinese sabers called peidao with recognizable hilts and fittings. The name peidao translates as waist knife because it was worn suspended from the belt. Peidao fittings have two basic styles: the angular or squared style fāngshì and the round style yuánshì.
Some modern-day collectors also refer to the fāngshì as fāngzhuāng (方裝) and yuánshì as yuánzhuāng (圓裝), which means round or square dress, respectively.
As an angular style, the fāngshì (方式) had a rectangular cross-section to its hilt and scabbard. Most handles were straight, but others were curved. It also had a rectangular ferrule and pommel, and its scabbard’s chape had a flattened end.
The fangshi style was never seen in Ming artwork and only became widespread in the early to mid-Qing. It was likely popularized by the Manchus, who established the Qing dynasty in the 17th century.
As a rounded style, the yuánshì (圓式) had an oval cross-section on its hilt and scabbard. Most handles were curved, though some were straight. It had a rounded ferrule and globular or horse-hoof pommel, and its chape was also rounded. It appeared in the mid-18th century among the Manchu elites, carried by the emperor, imperial princes, and elite soldiers.
In the late 18th century, there were transitional styles between the earlier fāngshì and the later yuánshì. Some had hilts and scabbards with rounded cross-sections, which are characteristic of yuánshì, yet feature angular metal fittings derived from the earlier fāngshì.