32 Chinese Sword Types Unveiled: History, Form, and Function
What’s in this article?
China was home to some of the first examples of bladed-edged weapons dating back to the Bronze Age, giving Chinese swords the most extensive heritage of any Asian sword type. China has produced some of the world’s best weapons, from ceremonial bronze knives to well-designed, high-quality metallurgical steel swords.
While being overshadowed by the almost mythical Samurai Swords, it is important to note that the Japanese based much of the styling and design of blades on the Chinese swords. This article will present all types of Chinese Swords and a bit about their characteristics, uses, and history.
Dao vs Jian Swords
Chinese Swords are generally grouped into two categories. One is the straight and double-edged version of swords known as Jian, and the second is the single-edged swords that could be straight or curved.
Jian: the “Gentleman of Weapons”
The Jian, a double-edged sword used by commanders and other high-ranking officials, is known as the “Gentleman of Weapons” because it has historically been used by those who possess great skill with a blade. Despite its decline in popularity as a military sword, it has been a staple of aristocratic self-defence and a fashionable addition to royal apparel for ages.
It was the first type of sword used in the arsenal of Chinese Weapons. Although it would go out of favor for use in battles, it would play a highly ceremonial and prestigious role throughout the entire existence of China.
Dao: the “General of Weapons”
On the contrary, the Dao, or Chinese broadsword, is known as the “General of Weapons” because of how accessible it is to beginners. If you were to join the Chinese military, you would probably be issued a beginner-level Dao that is easy to learn and inexpensive to maintain. The earliest Dao swords were single-edged versions of the Jian’s refined design. It was possible to use them like the Jian.
With time and the bigger dominance of the cavalry troops coming from north China, the curved Daos became the main weapon of the Chinese, and the Jian would slowly go out of favor.
32 Different Types of Chinese Swords
1. Jian (Bronze) Sword
The first types of Chinese swords were the Jian swords. They were double-edged and straight and tapered toward the blade’s tip resulting in a sharp edge. It is believed that they advanced from the Chinese Dagger. The first ones used in battle were made out of bronze.
The Jian was a very popular sword in the first stages of Chinese History and was produced throughout China in bronze, iron, and steel. It influenced many others and was a highly ceremonial weapon of honor.
The Sword of Goujian is one of today’s most popular and well-preserved Jian bronze swords. It dates back to the Zhou Spring and Autumn Period and was owned by King Goujian, one of the most important rulers of the time.
2. Zhi Bei Dao (直背刀)
One of the earliest types of Dao swords is the Zhi Bei Dao, which dates back to the 15th century as one-handed and single-edged knives. Originally they were made out of bronze, but as the metallurgy advanced and stronger metals emerged, the sword would grow larger and become highly useful in combat.
It was used less than the straight Jian, which was highly effective, but with time the types of swords like the Zhi Bei Dao, or the single-edged swords, would take the place of the Jian. Even after the use of the curved Dao swords, the Zhi Bei Dao is a surviving straight single-edged sword used in modern history.
3. Longquan Sword
The Long quan sword is thought to be the first iron sword in Chinese history. It is believed that it was made about 2,600 years ago by a master named Ou Yezi. He made the blade stronger and more durable, and soon, swords made by Longquan became the standard for swordmakers all over China.
The army of the state of Qin prevailed against the army of the state of Hua in 520 BCE by advancing on foot with swords rather than their customary halberds. This was one of the earliest fights in which the Long Quan sword was utilized significantly in the successful outcome of the conflict.
4. Han Jian
The Han Jian is a double-edged straight sword used during the Han Dynasty. It is often classified as a separate type of sword due to the big advancements made in the field of metallurgy in the era. During this period, the Jian and the Chinese blacksmiths were pioneers in making highly effective swords for combat.
They were one-handed and used throughout the Chinese army’s infantry, but they also played a big role in ceremonies and as a weapon of honor. The Han Jian was significantly lighter, longer, and thinner but, at the same time, much deadlier. This regular type of Jian is very popular today and could be in the range of 27 to 52 inches (70 to 160 cm long).
5. Shuangshou Jian
The longer and two-handed version of the Chinese Jian is the Shuangshou Jian, a sword used with both hands in combat. It is a significantly bigger and heavier version of the regular Jian which has a larger handle and a broader blade that’s longer and tapers to a broader type of blade tip.
It was a sword used primarily in the infantry, being longer and larger. It offered much bigger reach and could take out shielded or highly armored enemies, but it could also be used as a cavalry instrument or weapon. Despite the warfare usage, it was popular in many ceremonies for nobles to show off their large swords.
6. Tai Chi (Jian) Sword
Although the Tai Chi sword is one of China’s most well-known weapons, it has historically been employed nearly exclusively in Chinese martial arts and rarely in actual combat. In the early Qing era, the Yang and the Wu families founded schools that specialized in adapting Jian combat tactics for self-defense, giving rise to the martial art known today as Taiji Quan.
The first Tai Chi swords were basic Jians. However, as Taiji Quan gained popularity, more lightweight and flexible Jians were produced and suited the various forms of Taiji Quan that are practiced in modern times.
7. Tuan Lian Jian
The crude-looking version of a Jian used by the Chinese militia in self-protection or service under a paid contract was called the Tuan Lian Jian. This is a form of Jian, a straight and double-edged sword with a broader blade than the original.
They were manufactured and made only for combat or defensive purposes against thieves, meaning there were rarely any ornaments or inscriptions added to them.
8. Shuang Jian
The shortest type of Jian swords meant to be used dual-wielded, or with one in each hand, are called the Shuang Jian. They are usually the size of a short sword or a dagger but are the same as a regular Jian sword, double-edged and straight.
Although that is the case, they might come as unsharpened as their main use was entertainment, decorative or ceremonial. Today they are an attractive gift and souvenir to buy when visiting China.
9. Hook Sword
Experts disagree on who invented the first hook sword, but the Qing Dynasty is likely where the trend began. Hook swords were impractical for widespread usage by Chinese soldiers due to their intricate design. Instead, non-military people like Wushu masters and their students have historically relied on them.
Hook swords, dual-wielded in pairs, have double-edged blades that hook at the end like a shepherd’s crook. The hilts have been honed to a dagger-like point, making them ideal for close-quarters combat or hooking an enemy’s weapon out of their hands.
10. Butterfly Sword
The Butterfly Sword is one of the most popular Chinese Weapons often seen in today’s modern media and Chinese martial arts. It is a double-wielded short sword that could take many different shapes and sizes but was primarily as long as the wielder’s arm length from wrist to elbow.
It came into use during the Qing Dynasty, and although the first dated text says it is from 1842, it could have been used close to two centuries prior. It was a weapon used in exercises for the militia and as a hidden defensive tool mainly because both could be placed into a single scabbard and go unnoticed. It is highly used in Chinese martial arts, mostly Wing Chun.
11. Han Dao
The Han Dao is a Dao type of sword that was highly effective during the Han Dynasty. Just like the Han Jian, this can be grouped as a separate type of Dao sword because of the high-quality metallurgy at the time. Thanks to the Han Dao, many other Dao swords would emerge and, with time, replace the Jian.
They were easier to train with, master and produce because of the single-edged full tang blade with a ring pommel and lack of a guard. They were deadly both on foot and in mounted combat.
12. Tang Heng Dao
The Tang Heng Dao is the sword that inspired many popular bladed-edged weapons today, like the Japanese Katana. It is a straight, single-edged bladed sword developed and highly used during the Tang Dynasty. It could be crafted and maintained easily and in higher quantity while having almost the same battle advantages as the previous Jian.
It was highly used by Chinese infantry when combined with a shield. However, as the mounted units became more in demand with time, the Tang Heng Dao became very effective in this type of combat.
13. Late Zhibei Dao
The Zhibei Dao, as we have seen earlier in this article, was one of the first single-edged straight Dao swords to be used. Although the Han and Tang Heng Dao became the main straight Dao to be used in warfare, it changed with the more strongly curved Daos due to the demand of calvary.
The type of straight Dao that would survive despite this radical change was the Tibetan Sword and the late Chinese Zhibei Dao. It is a sword used as late as the Qing Dynasty, along with the popular broad saber.
14. YanmaoDao or YanlingDao
The Yanmaodao is a sword similar to the previous Tang Heng Dao, being straight and single-edged. Still, its biggest and strongest characteristic is that it curves very slightly at the blade’s tip. Most likely, this sword is the historical Yanling Dao which means goose quill saber.
The first occurrence of this sword in texts dates back to the 13th century, leading some scholars to believe that it came about as the influence of the Steppe Nomads. The nomads moved into China from the north during the height of the Mongols and their massive expansions.
The Liuyedao sword’s curve is stronger than the previous prototype curved Chinese Swords. They also have a single edge featuring a sharp blade point, making them useful in thrusting. These swords are directly descended from the earlier Turkic-Mongol swords that resemble the Genghis Khan Sword.
They were highly useful and very popular, especially amongst the cavalry troops, because they were light. In line with the name, the Willow Leaf Saber, the blade’s curve was just enough to spread the slashing effect throughout its length.
Piandao swords are some of the rarest Chinese swords. They resemble the Liuyedao in many characteristics and often have a Liuyedao blade. According to those who used them, the difference is in the feeling.
The Piandao is a slicing saber mainly because it might be shorter and the curve goes further away from the center line. Rather than cutting as other Dao swords, the Piandao slices through its target.
It is not to be confused with the same-named Qing Dynasty polearm, which resembles the Japanese Naginata.
17. Peidao or Yaodao
The Peidao is a term often found in Chinese texts but without any visual representation or explanation of the sword type, mainly because the term was used during the Qing Dynasty to indicate any type of Dao used on the waists. The term Yaodao may have been used as well.
They most often have Liyedao blades, which are very slightly curved, but in texts, there are Peidao swords that are also straight.
The Zhanmaodao swords are two-handed, large, single-edged bladed weapons that can reach up to 5-6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters). They were believed to be made this size to aid in the effective executions of victims. It was used as a ceremonial weapon and to defend against mounted units, as the sword excelled in taking down horses in one strike.
Some trace their origins to the Han Dynasty. Still, it most likely came into use as a warfare sword during the Song and Tang Dynasties, when the use of mounted units became the standard, especially with the influence of North China. This long sword might also be the inspiration for the Japanese Zanbato.
Changdao is a generic term used for long and two-handed Daos, especially in the Tang era. The earliest traces of this are during the same mentioned Tang Dynasty, although likely, the large and curved Changdao sword we know is a later invention.
It is a fairly large Dao that was specifically used with two hands by elite troops at the front or the sides of the army to act as a spearhead and take on armored enemies or horse units. It is believed that General Qi Jiguang, a highly renowned strategist and leader during the Ming Era, studied his enemies. Mongols and Japanese Wokou pirates, with their Odachi swords, came up with the idea for the Changdao.
The Chinese martial art sword known as the Nandao is most popular in Wushu. It is a ceremonial and entertainment tool widely used throughout China, featuring fast movements. It can be seen in the modern day but is made of alloy steel or plastic.
It comes from South China, unlike the Beidao, which is basically the same sword with small differences that could be used with two hands. The Beidao, used for training and duels during the 14th century, stems from North China and could have been made of steel.
21. Duan Dao
Some Ming texts and paintings depict soldiers carrying two sets of Dao swords. The secondary weapon hanging off their belts is the shorter Duan Dao. They are single-edged and very slightly downward curved so as not to interfere while being carried on the waist.
Although they might originate from the Ming period, they were most common in Qing China and were often seen in 17th and 18th-century artwork. The handles could be curved but also in a unique pistol handle.
The Dadao is the definition of the Chinese broad or greatsword. It is a large, heavy, single-edged weapon with a recurved blade tip specifically designed for chopping and slashing. It came from modern Chinese history and was used primarily against nonarmored units.
It was a fast and inexpensive way to arm civilians to defend themselves, requiring little to no prior sword knowledge. Its latest use was during and before WWII, in which a war song was written about it.
23. Jiu Huan Dao
The Jiu Huan Dao is one of the most popular broadswords used in China that can be seen in modern media, such as movies, anime, and video games. The Nine Ring Great Broadsword is a large two-handed sword resembling the DaDao, with nine rings across the back of the blade.
This blade is single-edged and has a recurved double-edged blade tip that was used for thrusting, but the primary function of this sword is slashing and cutting because of its heavy weight and curve. Some say that the loose rings store the blade’s swinging energy, which returns when the blade hits the target. Also, these rings are believed to have been used to prevent the blade from sliding off enemy blades as well as a sound to destabilize the enemy.
Dandao is a term that translates to a single saber, meaning that any type of Dao could fall inside this category. The nomenclature came into being mainly because swords were combined with a shield.
It is believed that this term appeared during the Ming Dynasty when the occurrence of Japanese pirates along the east coast started culminating.
A very popular sword that could be seen amongst civilians in the Qing Dynasty up to WWII is the Niuweidao, otherwise known as the Oxtail saber. This is a single-edged curved sword with a broader blade for slashing and a sharp tip for thrusting.
It came into being when significantly less focus was on arming the soldiers with heavy armor. This made it an ideal weapon for combat by the army, civilians, peasants and rebels. It was a brutal cutting weapon, but today is often used as an archetypal sword featured in many Chinese movies with Kung Fu.
The Yanchidao sword is a curved, single-edged bladed weapon with a scalloped blade tip edge. It is primarily used for slashing because the edge looks like the feathers on a bird’s wing tip, giving it its other name, the Goose Wing saber.
These swords started appearing as early as the Song Dynasty and are believed to be a type of Liuyedao with a clipped tip. It has been crafted this way due to the curved sabers’ influence from the steppe nomadic people in the north of China.
The Chinese Japanese Style saber is the Wodao sword. It is a weapon used during the Ming and Qing Dynasties and resembles the Japanese samurai sword with its nearly identical length and curve.
They came into use throughout China because of the many Wokou pirates raiding the eastern coastline and the many Japanese who used them. With time, the almost mythologized status of the Katana rose, and the Wodao inspired the later Chinese Miao Dao sword.
Yutoudao swords are single-edged, downward curved, bladed weapons with a broadening, or a yelman, on the end of their blades. This fashion is designed so its weight can increase the damage upon impact, specifically momentum from mounted units.
Due to its resemblance to one, the other name for this sword is the Fish Head saber. Sometimes decorative eyes could be added to the broadening, which confirms the term’s legitimacy.
29. Gunbei Shuangdao
The Gunbei Shuaungdao are smaller types of Dao swords with a single edge and a stronger curve towards the end of the blade. These Dao swords are meant to be dual-wielded with one in each hand, meaning they must be fairly short, at around 23 inches (60 cm) each.
They can take the shape of any type of Dao sword except those with a broad blade. They usually weren’t used in combat but in ceremonies for entertainment and Chinese traditional sword dances.
30. Miao Dao
The Miao Dao is today the most popular Chinese sword, and not many know that it’s a term for a weapon used in the past. Some believe the earliest traces could be the large ChangeDao, inspired by the Katana swordcraft or possibly even the Wodao, which translates to Japanese sword-style sabre.
The name was changed after the brutal series of Sino-Japanese Wars. The Miaodao is a highly popular sword in Chinese swordsmanship today and is still being created by swordsmiths. It has a tsuba guard, a double-edged blade tip and a large two-handed handle.
Guandaos are heavy and long polearms with a curved sword’s blade attached to a six-foot shaft and a pointed counterweight at the opposite end for better balance and stronger impact on strike. It looks similar to the Japanese Naginata sword/polearm.
Legend has it that Guan Yu, a general during the Han Dynasty, came up with the name. Guan Yu was known for his size, strength, and ability to use a heavy polearm.
Because of its size, weight, and skill required to use it, Guandao were often used in military training drills and exams. While they weren’t always given to lower-ranking infantrymen, they have a history of deadly impact on armor.
32. Khasi Dao
The Khasi Dao is an extremely large sword on the verge of becoming a spear or a polearm. It has a double set of crossguards with a large full tang, two-handed steel handle with a curved single-edged blade that tapers to a sharp point. The blade has a back ridge that is often sharp as well.
The Khasi Dao term comes from the western world to link it to the weapons used by the Khasi people west of China. The original name for this weapon is Waitsum, and its earliest use in China traces back to the Tang Dynasty.
Use of the Chinese Swords
Chinese Swords can be used to slash or thrust. Most are used as one-handed weapons, but some can be used with both hands or dual-wielded. Their light weight allows them to be used with a shield most of the time.
The first swords used in Chinese warfare were straight Jian swords. They didn’t come in many sizes, as the later Dao’s, but they still played a big role in warfare. Around the 5th and 6th centuries, they began replacing the spear in many battles.
With time, however, the straight or curved Dao swords came mainly because of mass production and almost equal effectiveness in battle. They were combined with a shield but, with time, became very effective in mounted warfare. These swords were mostly used for slashing and didn’t require as much training and discipline as the Jian, making them preferable.
Ceremonial & Symbol of Status
In grave findings dating back more than 3000 years ago, one of the most important findings is a sword buried next to a member of nobility.
The swords were often engraved from early on, symbolizing justice, power, and discipline in warfare. The sword that still has this role is the straight Jian which can be seen in some ceremonial acts in China today.
Sword Dance & Martial Arts
One of the most popular uses for Chinese swords today is the sword dance. As it is known, the Jian Wu started in military drills where spears and swords were used in certain movements. With time, the soldier’s training instructions evolved into an acrobatic dance based on relaxation, flexibility, strength or speed.
Another popular way these swords are used today is in an ancient form of martial arts known as Wushu. The most popular Chinese martial arts that use swords in their training rituals are Wing Chun, Hun Ga, Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Xuan Men, Choy Li Fut, Chaquan, Lei Tai, and Kun Wu. It is very important to note that the core of these martial arts is to cease conflicts rather than initiate them.
History of Chinese Swords
Since China’s military tactics and requirements evolved with each dynasty, the country’s arsenal of swords has changed dramatically over the centuries. The availability of new materials and the development of creative forging methods were also essential. The blades that changed the course of history were forged by Chinese swordsmiths as their metallurgical expertise improved through time.
Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BC)
During the Shang Dynasty, China produced some of the earliest known swords that were truly functional in warfare, as opposed to earlier swords that were merely ceremonial. Several bronze Zhibeidao, also known as straight-backed blades, were discovered in the tomb of Fu Hao, a great queen, high priestess, and army general who lived and died around 1200 B.C.
Swords and knives from this era tended to be shorter than steel swords of later eras due to the brittleness of bronze. Regardless of their size, the presence of swords, knives, or sword knives, as they were sometimes called, in the tomb of a ruler often indicated their high status.
Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BC)
Real military use of bronze and iron double-edged swords likely began during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Zhou Dynasty, around 770 B.C. During this time, sword-forging technology flourished. By the end of the Zhou Dynasty, during the Warring States Period (476 – 221 BC), iron and steel Jians appeared alongside their bronze counterparts.
A number of the peasant population were being recruited to fill in the ranks of the state’s armies. This required maneuverability in battles, something the sword could easily accomplish. Slowly but surely, iron swords took over, and whoever could create the most became the winner of all the warring states.
Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC)
In ancient texts, the states with the most iron and steel swords were Qin and Han regions and dynasties. The Qin Dynasty is remembered for its ruthless military campaign that led to China’s unification as an official empire, also giving it its current name. Remnants from the Qin Dynasty found today date back to the Terracotta Army.
Terracotta soldiers constructed a tomb for Qin Shi Huang, where he was buried with battle-ready weapons, most of them being Jians that reached up to 37 inches. The introduction of cavalry horsemen and high-quality swords that could pierce through armor, gave the Qin Dynasty its victory.
Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)
Learning from the past and realizing the need to increase the metal bellows, the Han Dynasty saw an explosion of innovation and quality in steelmaking. During this era, the ring pommels were invented and the higher quantity crafting of the Dao swords, which were still straight but single-edged.
These were also in high demand because fearsome cavalry was widely used by the Han. The Jian was improved upon, but the Dao was not only easier to create but also as effective. Slowly the Jian became an aristocracy and nobility sword because it was harder to master.
Sui and Tang Dynasties (581 – 907 AD)
The remarkable sword manufacturing of the Han dynasty persisted during the three hundred years of political upheaval that followed its downfall. It was during the Tang Dynasty that these pioneer swords would reach their maximum height.
During the Tang era, the Tang Swords were the envy of all and inspired the most popular Asian swords today. They were highly used in territorial conquest but played a much bigger role in ceremonies, martial arts training and sword dances. The sword’s high status is one of the factors why this part of Chinese history is considered a golden age.
Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD)
After 50 years of internal political warfare following the fall of the Tang dynasty in the 10th century, artisans in the Song Dynasty saw the need to make inexpensive standardized swords that could be redistributed, fixed, and replaced easily. Straight, wide, and hefty cutting swords that could be used with two hands evolved as a result.
These came into play due to the use and defense of enemy cavalry, most notably the Mongol influence from North China. Eventually, the type of single-edged, straight broad blade profile fell out of use, and the curved Dao swords were replaced as they were more effective on mounted units.
Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD)
This replacement would be completed during the Yuan Dynasty when the Turko-Mongol saber inspired many versions of the Dao.
Although this dynasty was short-lived, it had one of the biggest and most drastic changes in China’s weapons. After this period, Chinese swords would be curved and became the main sword of war both for the infantry and cavalry units.
Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD)
The influence of curved Mongol sabers held strong for hundreds of years well into the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Dao was the main sword used in battle, combined with the regular long spear or polearm. Daos in this period were becoming larger, and some could be used two-handed. During this period, the Chinese sword would also be used in battling the Japanese.
The straight Chinese Sword, or the Jian, became more sophisticated and linked with the high aristocracy. It was used in duels, such as the European style of fencing, where only martial artists could truly master it.
Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD)
Although high-quality Jians and Daos were made during the early Qing era, the art of Chinese swordmaking began to deteriorate around the middle of the nineteenth century. The Opium Wars, famines, and civil unrest strained the country, and as firearms became more widely used by the military, the necessity for mass-produced swords declined.
Blades that were simple, primitive, and cheap to produce were most frequented among Chinese civilians and militiamen during the late Qing period.
Post Qing Dynasty
After the Qing Dynasty, when China was in chaos due to the wars of the 20th century, even firearms were hard to obtain. But the use of the Dao came back, and the patriotic Chinese song, The Sword March, emerged.