Chinese Swords: 17 Types, History & Buyer Guide
Chinese swords have captivated people all over the world for thousands of years. Legendary blades and their craftsmen appear at the core of countless Chinese folktales. Besides that, there are also numerous archaeological findings that constantly amaze us with real evidence of these Chinese weapons having been used in some of the most epic scenes from history. From the Bronze Age to the present day, swords have played an important role in China’s conflicts, commerce, and culture.
In this article, we will be looking at the different types of Chinese swords and where interested collectors can acquire them.
Jian Vs Dao
Chinese swords fall into two distinct categories: jian and dao. Jians are straight swords with a double edge, while daos are single-edged swords that can be either straight or curved. Both jians and daos come in one-handed and two-handed varieties. While the jian started out as the preferred war sword, Chinese armies eventually transitioned to a much more widespread use of the dao due to the shorter training time required to learn its basic techniques. One popular saying was that the dao could be competently learned within a week, while the jian could take up to a year.
Jian: the “Gentleman of Weapons”
As a sword designed for cutting, thrusting, and stabbing, the jian has traditionally required a high level of swordsmanship, earning it the nickname “Gentleman of Weapons” due to its frequent use by commanders and other high-ranking officials. While it fell out of favor as the go-to battlefield sword for this reason, it still remained a self-defense weapon for aristocrats for centuries, as well as a prestigious accessory for court dress.
The Sword of Goujian, dating back to the Zhou Spring and Autumn Period, is one of the most famous jian, due to its exquisite preservation, beautiful craftsmanship, and ownership by King Goujian, one of the period’s most prominent rulers.
Dao: the “General of Weapons”
By contrast, the dao or Chinese broadsword bears the nickname “General of Weapons” due to its entry-level requirements. Upon entering the Chinese military, you would most likely be given a simple type of dao as your first weapon, due to its ease of mastery. As a single-edged blade designed primarily for slashing and chopping, its fighting styles were usually more limited than those of the jian. As such, most dao were never given the same level of ornate craftsmanship as jian, but were famous instead for the extent of their use throughout the ages, and their ability to get the job done in combat.
Types of Jian Swords
As jians spent much less time historically as the go-to battlefield sword in China, their shapes have varied much less than the shapes and styles of the dao. Their preferred lengths and the weight of their materials have changed over time and they are commonly used in a multitude of different martial arts disciplines. For this reason, the specific names of jians are often related to the martial art they are used for, such as the kunwu jian, xuanmen jian, and perhaps most famously, the taiji jian.
The longquan sword was the first iron sword in Chinese history, forged about 2,600 years ago by master Ou Yezi who settled in the mountains of Longquan, China in the Zhejiang Province. Prior to this, all swords were bronze swords. Collecting minerals from the waters of the nearby river, he enhanced the blade’s strength and resilience. Soon, longquan swords became the basis for other swordsmiths across China. This knowledge soon passed on to Japanese smiths across the archipelago.
Tai chi sword
While the tai chi sword, often known as the “taiji jian”, is one of China’s most widely-known weapons, it is almost exclusively used as a chinese martial arts sword, and was rarely used in battle. Its use in its own martial art style, taiji quan, is thought to have originated during the early Qing dynasty, when two prominent families, the Yang and the Wu, established schools focused on applying jian combat techniques to defense training, upper body conditioning, and meditation.
There were no swords specifically created for the purpose of being a “taiji jian” at this time, so the Yang and Wu schools used the functional iron and steel jians that were available to them initially. However, as taijiquan gained widespread popularity, jians began to be produced that were more lightweight, flexible, and well-suited to the various forms of taijiquan that are practiced to this day.
The origin of the first hook sword is debated by scholars, but most evidence points to the Qing dynasty. Hook swords have a highly complex shape, which makes them difficult to master, and as a result, they were impractical for large-scale use by Chinese armies. Instead, their users have traditionally been civilians, such as Wushu practitioners and their students.
Typically used in pairs, hook swords have double-edged blades with a hook at the tip, much like the shape of a shepherd’s crook. The hilts are sharpened to a point like a dagger and can be used for short-range combat moves. The guards are crescent-shaped and are effective at catching and deflecting an opponent’s weapon. The versatility of twin hook swords makes them ideal for inflicting several types of wounds, and as such, modern demonstrations are usually done by solo performers to prevent accidental injury.
Types of Dao Swords
Numerous variations of daos have been crafted throughout the ages, based on evolving fighting styles, availability of material resources, and changes in forging techniques. Here are just some of their most popular styles, origins, and uses.
The use of the butterfly sword, or hudiedao, a Qing dynasty weapon, was first recorded in 1842 A.D as part of training exercises in southern Chinese port cities. Hudiedao were most often used in identical pairs that fit in the same scabbard. These daos could be drawn at the same time and are thought to have given the user an element of surprise against their opponent. What at first looked like one thick, awkward blade suddenly separated into twin blades. Each sword had an effective D-shaped guard for protecting the hand, and an upturned, hook-shaped quillon that allowed the user to maneuver the sword with great dexterity.
The blade itself is usually two feet long, and can be either thin and wide, or thick and narrow. The thick, narrow version is able to deliver more dangerous powerful cuts and is thought to have been the type often used by militia members.
These hudiedao were also known to have been used as singular blades by the Green Standard Army alongside round shields made from rattan. The thinner, wider types of hudiedao are more favored amongst martial arts practitioners, as they are intended more for disarming an opponent, and are thus safer for sparring. These hudiedao are still in use today, in martial arts branches such as Wing Chun, Hung Gar, and Choi Li Fut.
The dadao, like the butterfly sword, is a fairly contemporary weapon, used most notably during early 20th-century conflicts in the post-imperial Republic of China. Its name literally translates to “big knife” and is thought to have originated as an agricultural tool which was adapted into a weapon out of dire necessity. With a thin wide blade reaching two or three feet and a substantial handle for a solid grip, the dadao was a quick and inexpensive way to arm civilian militias.
During the Sino-Japanese War, and extending even into World War II, the dadao was used frequently against Japanese soldiers armed with katanas which were longer and often assumed to be the superior weapon. However, during the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, a band of only one hundred Chinese troops was able to force over five thousand katana-wielding Japanese troops into a retreat, demonstrating the potential of the dadao in the hands of highly skilled and determined individuals.
Though the name “zhanmadao” can be traced back to the Han dynasty as a special type of ceremonial sword used in executions, its main association is with an anti-cavalry sword used commonly throughout the Song dynasty. These curved, two-handed blades reached lengths of nearly four feet, and were said to be able to cut down both a horse and its rider with a single stroke. Many experts believe the zhanmadao inspired the Japanese zanbato, a popular sword used for similar purposes.
The term “changdao” is sometimes used as a generic word for long two-handed daos. However, the original changdao is thought to have appeared in the Tang dynasty. With three-foot-long blades and four-foot grips, these massive sabers were a preferred weapon for elite infantry units in the Tang army and were highly effective against cavalry. For reasons unknown to scholars, this version of the changdao fell out of favor after the Tang dynasty until a new version emerged in the Ming dynasty.
Legendary general Qi Jiguang, a highly renowned Ming military strategist, studied the Japanese odachi, and modified its blade curve and forging techniques for use among his South China forces against coastal pirates in the mid-16th century A.D. This new changdao turned out to be so effective that the general also employed it against Mongol forces during his campaign to restore the Great Wall years later.
The niuweidao, also known as the “oxtail saber,” is a Qing dynasty sword that was highly popular amongst civilians during the mid-19th century A.D. Firearms had become massively popular at this time in China, and there was less focus on outfitting soldiers with heavy body armor as a result. This created an ideal opportunity for rebels and peasants to use sharp blades that could cut through light armor, cloth, or flesh. The characteristic flared tip of the oxtail dao makes it a particularly effective, brutal cutting weapon that led to the downfall of the Qing during this period of civil unrest.
The niuweidao continued to be used well into the Warlord era of the early 20th century. It later became known as the archetypal “kung fu sword” or “Chinese saber” featured in martial arts movies later on.
Translating to mean “Japanese style saber”, the wodao is typically long and slender, about 120 centimeters in length. Heavy with a sharp blade and curved back, this sword from the Ming and Qing dynasty is similar to the Tang sword in form. The Chinese wodao was made based on the Japanese swords used by the wokou pirates who often looted the Chinese coast. The Chinese martial art of wielding the wodao is thought to be a combination of Chinese and Japanese techniques. It later inspired the miao dao.
Along with many varieties of swords, Chinese polearms have also held a special place in the nation’s military history since ancient times. Chinese polearm techniques have even influenced popular chinese martial arts such as Xing Yi Quan and Baji Quan which are still heavily practiced today. These contain several unarmed moves that mimic the motions of spear wielding.
Chinese Spear (Qianq)
The Chinese Spear was traditionally referred to as the “King of Weapons”. It dates back as early as the Shang Dynasty and its popularity on the battlefield endured for millenia. Qiang were widely used due to the ease of their craftsmanship: the shaft of the weapon could be made from inexpensive, lightweight wood, like bamboo, white wax wood, or rattan. These types of wood were easy to find in early China, and easier to replace than metal, making them ideal for distribution across vast numbers of troops. The blade was usually leaf-shaped, measuring between 7 and 14 inches long and made from bronze or iron.
The lightness of the chinese spear made it highly maneuverable as its length could be easily adjusted based on the stature and preferred fighting style of the user. Furthermore, they could be used by both infantry and cavalry. During the Ming dynasty, the military classified qiang into three main categories based on their lengths: long spears (over 14 feet), short spears (between 9 and 14 feet), and spiked staffs (less than 9 feet).
Horsehair tassels or xue dang were often attached to the shaft as an added benefit, particularly amongst higher-ranking soldiers. More than mere decor, their thick fibers could be used to distract enemies and to absorb blood and other fluids to prevent them from accumulating on the shaft and interfering with the user’s grip.
According to legend, the guandao was invented by Guan Yu, a general of the Han dynasty who was renowned for his large physical stature, strength, and use of a huge, heavy polearm that terrified enemies. However, the first officially confirmed appearance of the guandao was in the Wujing Zongyao, a Chinese military encyclopedia compiled in the mid-11th century A.D. during the Song dynasty. Guandao are long, weighty polearms consisting of a heavy, curved blade attached to a six-foot shaft, with a pointed counterweight at the opposite end for balance and additional offense.
Due to its weight, size, and the skill required to use it, guandao were commonly used in military training exercises and exams as a method of selecting capable officers. They were not regularly distributed amongst lower-ranking infantry. Some tests supposedly employed guandaos that weighed as much as 72 kilograms. Guandao that are used in modern-day martial arts are considerably lighter, usually no more than 10 kilograms, which enables the user to more easily demonstrate the dexterous slashing and spinning moves involved in using the weapon.
Historical Origins of Chinese Swords
Each dynasty ushered in new styles of weapons in China as new combat techniques and needs emerged. Access to new material resources and innovative new forging techniques were also crucial. As the metallurgic prowess of Chinese swordsmiths evolved, so did the blades that shaped history.
Some of the earliest known Chinese swords originated during the Shang dynasty, which lasted from roughly 1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C. Several bronze zhibeidao, or “straight-backed knives,” have been found in the tomb of Fu Hao, a powerful queen, high priestess, and war general who 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. It was feared that too much length would cause a bronze knife to break more easily. Regardless of their size, however, the presence of swords, knives, or “sword-knives,” as they were sometimes called, in the tomb of a leader often indicated the person’s great military prowess during their lifetime.
Bronze jians, or double-edged swords, are believed to have made their military debut during the Spring and Autumn Period of the Zhou dynasty, roughly around 771 B.C. At the time, chariots were a major implement of Zhou military forces, and most weapons were thus designed to be used from atop a chariot: either ranged like the crossbow or having a very long reach like the halberd.
However, it became clear over time that infantry forces were more maneuverable and easier to recruit from peasant populations.Therefore, a transition was made to outfit individual foot soldiers with strong effective weapons like swords. Sword forging technology was booming during this period and by the time of the Warring States Period near the close of the Zhou dynasty, iron and steel jians began to appear frequently alongside their bronze counterparts.
One of the most well-known remnants of the Qin dynasty is the Terracotta Army buried near Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. The Qin dynasty is remembered for its ruthless military campaigns that led to China’s unification as an official empire around 221 B.C. Qin Shi Huang made sure of this by ordering his clay army to be outfitted with thousands of real battle-ready weapons. Vast numbers of these were stolen or destroyed over time, but among the surviving weapons were numerous bronze jians that are still sharp in spite of their age. These range from 32 to 37 inches in length and are very similarly styled, an apt representation of the new empire’s efforts to standardize their military.
The Han dynasty saw a huge boom in iron and steelmaking. The steel huan shou dao or “ring pommel dao” was invented during the Western Han dynasty (between 206 B.C. and 8 A.D.), and it became a fearsome cavalry weapon on the battlefield. Heavy and effective for both slashing at and blocking enemies, these dao were generally one meter long with the blunt edge as thick as one centimeter. Though jian were less commonly used in war at this point, they did see frequent use amongst aristocrats who practiced the art of fencing.
Sui and Tang Dynasties
Three hundred years of political chaos separated the end of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Sui dynasty, but the impressive sword making of the Han dynasty endured. During the ensuing Tang dynasty, the characteristic dao pommel ring faded from use and improvements were made to hand guards.
Four main categories of worn weapons appeared: Yi (ritual or ceremonial sidearm swords), Heng (horizontal hanging swords), defensive “blocking” swords, and Mo Dao. Unfortunately, little is known about the exact nature of these four weapon types because few survive to this day. According to Tang dynasty law, swords were prohibited from being buried with their owners as “grave goods,” an act that greatly hindered the preservation of most pieces.
Having emerged from a 50-year period of internal political strife after the fall of the Tang dynasty in the 10th century A.D., craftsmen in the Song dynasty saw the need to create inexpensive standardized swords that could be distributed, repaired, and replaced easily. This led to the simply-named Song dao, a great sword with a wide blade and a blunt square tip.
The zhanmadao, an anti-cavalry saber of a similar style, was also used during this period. Both were effective against heavily armored opponents, making them essential for infantry soldiers. Thick and heavy jians with substantial cross guards were an occasional sight on Song battlefields as well.
The Yuan dynasty, while somewhat short-lived, is chiefly remembered for its establishment by one of history’s most well-known Mongol leaders, Kublai Khan. The successful Mongol invasion of China in the early 13th century A.D. brought countless new cultural influences with it. Within the realm of swords, this meant a transition towards blades with greater curvature as the curved steppe saber, also known as the Turko-Mongol saber, had been a staple weapon of the Mongol empire for centuries and was favored by both mounted cavalry and the aristocracy.
The influence of curved Mongol sabers endured for hundreds of years well throughout the Ming dynasty and even the Qing dynasty. Two popular Chinese variations on the curved saber that emerged during the Ming were the liuyedao and the yanmaodao. Both were elegant long blades that specialized in effective slashes and cuts. The jian experienced a moderate resurgence in battlefield use also, but still failed to match the ever-evolving dao in popularity.
While expertly-crafted jians and daos continued to be produced throughout much of the Qing dynasty, the mid-19th century saw a significant decline in China’s swordsmithing. Internal turmoil, famines, and the Opium Wars had all put a significant strain on the country and the military’s increased use of firearms led to less need for the mass-produced sabers of previous eras. Civilian swords such as the dadao and butterfly swords were the prevalent Chinese blades of the late Qing period as they were simple and inexpensive to craft.
With a better understanding of Chinese swords, if you are interested in acquiring one, there are several factors to take into consideration. These include the type of blade or look you are going for, the material, how it is forged, budget, and more. Naturally, authentic Chinese swords are rarer and thus, more expensive. Meanwhile, replicas are more accessible and affordable. However, the price range and quality of replicas vary as well as some of the steel blades are hand forged from high carbon steel, folded steel, or can even feature a Damascus steel blade.