The Art of Chinese Sword Making and the History of Its Blades
What’s in this article?
The Chinese have a long and illustrious tradition of swordmaking. A mastery of heat treatment, metallurgy, and other technical aspects are also necessary for success in this art. Chinese swords have a long and distinguished history that spans several dynasties and millennia, and they are renowned for their beauty, symmetry, and sharpness.
Something not well known today, is that the Chinese style of sword-making influenced the very popular Japanese samurai swords like the Katana. In this article, we will briefly go over this procedure, the types of swords created, and the history of swordsmithing in China.
Chinese Sword Types
The Chinese sword types that emerged from their sword-making methods are generally put into two groups.
- Jian Swords – straight, double-edged, sharp blade tip
- Dao Swords – straight, the majority are curved, single-edged, sharp blade tip
Because of the steps used in creating the Chinese swords, they can effectively be used for hacking, slashing, stabbing, and thrusting, either on foot or in mounted combat. The Jian types came first, but because of the requirements of swordsmithing knowledge and the economy, as well as the time spent training to use them, the Dao curved swords became more common.
When comparing Chinese and European swords, the reason there isn’t much variety in Chinese swords isn’t because of the lack of sword-making skills, but the need for certain types of bladed weapons. In China, the hacking Dao types were sufficient enough.
Steps to Chinese Sword Making
The process of forging a Chinese sword is intricate and calls for a high level of expertise. To better understand how making Chinese swords has worked throughout history, we will briefly present its steps.
- Forging – Creating the blade is the first stage in constructing a Chinese sword. A metal block is heated just enough and pounded into shape using a heavy hammer and an anvil. After the metal is heated and cooled multiple times and the blade is folded, its durability and flexibility are strengthened. The sparks seen when hitting the blade are impurities or air gaps.
- Tempering – The blade is tempered after forging to further increase its strength and hardness. A high temperature is applied to the blade, which is then quickly cooled in water or oil. This method produces a sharp cutting edge without compromising the blade’s adaptability and flexibility.
- Quenching – After being tempered, the blade gets its final quenching in oil or water to further increase its durability.
- Polishing – After the quenching process, the blade is polished to eliminate any further imperfections or impurities and to bring out its natural surface. This method is time-consuming and demands a high level of expertise and perseverance.
- Handle Crafting – Crafting the sword’s handle is just as critical and needs careful attention to detail. Bone, wood, and ivory are some materials used to make the hilt, which is then carefully fitted to the blade. Silk or leather is commonly used to adorn the handle, making it more comfortable to hold and strengthening the user’s grip.
- Decoration – Chinese swords often include elaborate patterns and decorations that pay homage to the country’s rich history and cultural traditions. Various Chinese mythological and influential symbols, including dragons, clouds, and flowers, can be included in these patterns, and the Chinese sword tassel is usually added too.
History of Chinese Sword Making
Swordsmithing in China is an ancient art form that requires a high level of skill and precision. Swords manufactured in China have always played an important role in Asian history and culture, primarily in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand, because of their long tradition of excellence in aesthetics, balance, and edge retention.
As in many different cultures throughout the world, the first types of swords in China were made of bronze, which limited their use in combat and warfare. With the introduction of steel evolving from iron swords, the real type of Chinese sword that would emerge was very effective in combat.
It is believed that the first sword to change the course of battle, bringing great victory, is the iron Longquan sword. It is a legendary weapon that is still given today as an international and diplomatic gift to outside countries. The creator of this bladed weapon, Ou Yezi, set the course for Chinese swords still being crafted today.
Shang Dynasty 1600 – 1045 BC
The Shang Dynasty, the ancient and partly mythologized China, saw the production of the first bronze swords making that era the first with any historical trace of the Chinese recorded sword made in the land. These blades came from the previous Chinese dagger and were extended, but they still weren’t very effective in combat.
Zhou Dynasty 1046 – 256 BC
During the Zhou Dynasty, the transition from bronze to iron and then to steel swords would be in full swing. However, it was during the Autumn Period that the swords were at their peak. Still, there are findings of swords prior that could have primarily been used as ceremonial tools.
Autumn Period 770 – 481 BC
It was during the Autumn period that the stamp of Chinese sword-making began. Bronze and copper would still be used but with much higher tin content for sharper edges and more flexible spines that could be effective in battle.
However, the earliest iron and steel Jians to appear would completely replace the previous swords. Forging, folding, and every other step of Chinese sword making would advance tremendously, and this knowledge was passed to others through The Artificers Record, the earliest Chinese sword about books.
Warring States 481 – 221 BC
Technological advancements would be made in the field of sword-making to outdo their enemies during the chaotic Warring States. Jians will become larger and stronger, reaching up to 47 inches(1.2 meters), and using swords would also change the tides of some battles.
Qin Dynasty 221 – 207 BC
Swords kept evolving and becoming much sturdier and stronger, as seen during the next Qin Dynasty, which started the history of Imperial China. There were some swords found in this era, such as those in the tomb of the Terracotta Army, with handles large enough to make them usable as two-handed weapons.
Han Dynasty 202 BC – 220 AD
The Han Dynasty is the period of history in China that made swords what they are – highly effective weapons and instruments of war. During this time, Chinese sword-making reached its peak, making Han Dynasty swords some of the best of the time.
The prototype of forging and folding is simply explained as lamination or higher. Carbon steel sandwich plates and differential heat treatment were implemented on the iron, making some of the best steel swords in China. This evolution would bring the single-edged Dao with ring pommels into creation, which needed fewer materials, time, and experience to use.
Six Dynasties 220 – 618 AD
Chinese high-quality swords continued, with the biggest introduction being the use of clay for differential heat treatment, which was highly utilized in almost all East Asian sword-making. Damascus Wootz steel from India also became popular in China throughout the Sui Dynasty.
Tang Dynasty 618 – 903 AD
The steady progress peaked during the Golden Age of Chinese sword-making in the Tang Dynasty. One of the best defining swords of the era was the single-edged Tang Dao, which was used as a hacking and slashing weapon against armed infantry and cavalry.
The ring pommels would change with the differential heat treatment with clay, as well as ridged cross sections of the blade by repeated forging of the sword’s impurities. This greatly enhanced the quality of steel. The Tang Dynasty sword became the envy of all, and those mass imported throughout Korea and Japan.
Song Dynasty 960 – 1270 AD
Due to the rise of mounted attacks from the north, bigger swords would be needed. Thicker and larger anti-cavalry and armor swords effective at slashing and chopping would soon appear.
Yuan Dynasty 1279 – 1368 AD
The grandfather of all the popular Chinese curved swords today, or the Turko-Mongol slightly curved saber, like the Yanmaodao, and the later the Liuyeidao and the Nuwiedao, became the new sword-making fashion in the Yuan Dynasty. These swords were easy to use in cavalry and grew in popularity, causing their usage to spread quickly through soldiers and civilians.
Ming Dynasty 1368 – 1644 AD
The twisted core of Damascus steel spread across the manufacturing of Chinese swords, with the clay differential treatment left behind. There was significant use of large swords in this era following the fashion of Japanese Naginata and their swords.
Because of the Wokou Japanese pirates along the coast, General Qi Jiguang introduced large curved swords. He focused on higher quality over quantity, which was very effective in battle formations against the Mongols in the north.
Qing Dynasty 1644 – 1911 AD
Although still effective, Chinese sword-making was greatly reduced during this era, primarily with the introduction of firepower and long-range destruction weapons. Because most swords during this period weren’t made to be used against armor, they had broader blade tips that were curved.
During the late Qing Dynasty, civilians relied more on swords for self-defense than firearms, primarily because firearms were hard to come by, so Chinese sword-making continued.
Post Qing Dynasty 1911 AD
The single-handed broadsword became the standard of Chinese sword-making even though high-quality swordsmithing skills or the quality of the blades were not important. After the aggression of war in the region, Chinese sword-making slowly regained its high quality and became a way to value its past, culture, and history.