Chinese Jian Swords: History, Construction, and Use
Jian, the double-edged sword, is the most common weapon in traditional Chinese martial arts. Historically, it served as a weapon for warfare and a symbol of moral values. Today, any double-edged Chinese sword is called a jian, but there are specific types you may need to be familiar with if you are into sword collecting.
Let’s know more about the history of the jian sword, its significance to Chinese culture, its unique characteristics, and its use in martial arts.
Types of Jian Sword
The defining feature of the Chinese jian sword is that it has a straight, double-edged blade. Whether it is a long sword or a short sword, it is called a jian. Here are some of the collector’s jargon you need to know:
Duan Jian (Short Sword)
As the name suggests, the duan jian is a short jian sword, usually with an exotic appearance. Some featured longevity symbols and stylized creatures such as bats, monsters, salamanders, and dragons. Their overall length can be around 50 centimeters, with their blades less than 40 centimeters long, which can usually fit in the steamer trunks.
Chang Jian (Long Sword)
The chang jian refers to a long sword, with an overall length of more than 100 centimeters and a blade around 80 centimeters long. Most of them functioned as training swords for martial arts and had unsharpened steel blades. Still, there are rare examples of battle-ready chang jian with folded steel and differentially hardened blades.
Shuang Jian (Double Jian)
The shuang jian is a set of two jian swords that fit in a single sheath or scabbard. Most of them are short swords, usually with elaborate hilt designs. They became popular in the 18th century and served as good souvenirs for tourists. However, their quality also varied from well-made weapons to solely decorative pieces.
Tuanlian Jian (Militia Jian)
When the Chinese people organized themselves in a militia called tuanlian, they also used jian swords to defend their villages. These swords had a simple appearance, a thick and heavy blade, and iron mounts. Some of them had an overall length of more than 75 centimeters and blades of around 60 centimeters.
Characteristics of the Jian Sword
Modern-day jian swords are similar to Qing dynasty designs, but their characteristics vary depending on the practitioner.
Chinese swordsmiths used both hard and soft steels to create battle-ready jian swords. Hard steel can be brittle, so it matters to produce a sword with a hard cutting edge that can withstand wear and tear.
Generally, a swordsmith could wrap the hard steel around a softer core of steel, or he could twist both hard and soft layers of steel and then hammer them together. In some cases, he would first create a thin blade of hard steel, then sandwich it between soft steel cups for the length of the blade, resulting in a wide spine or face of the blade.
Regardless of the method, the blade would undergo a differential hardening process to strengthen the cutting edges without making the whole blade brittle. Generally, the blade is quenched or rapidly cooled by pouring water on the cutting edges.
Length of the Sword
The length of jian swords varied according to the stature of the practitioner. To get the ideal blade length, hold it in a reversed holding position or fanwo. Place your arm down along the side of your torso while the jian rests outside your arm, with its tip pointing up. The standard-length jian should be level with the top of the ear.
Historically, Northern Chinese were generally taller than Southerners and used relatively long and narrow blades. Their jian swords were usually 15 centimeters longer than arm length. On the other hand, Southern Chinese used shorter swords, averaging arm length. However, the jian used in taijiquan, the tai chi sword, is generally longer than the Northern swords.
Weight and Balance
There is no standard weight for jian, but the Chinese swordsmiths produced well-balanced blades for battles. The proper weight allows the practitioner to perform several techniques without making extra effort to wield the sword.
Ideally, the center of balance should be no more than 10 centimeters up the blade from the handguard. However, heavier swords are well-suited to techniques that involve thrusting or chopping. Generally, some improve the sword balance by using a heavier pommel or even lengthening the handle.
Parts of the Chinese Jian Sword
Many special terms distinguish the parts of the jian sword. If you’re a sword enthusiast, here are the ones you need to be familiar with:
The jian sword has a high-quality steel blade, usually about 66 to 91 centimeters long. Generally, it has three parts: the front edge, the middle edge, and the jian root.
The front edge or qianren starts from the tip, extending 6 inches downward. Warriors used this portion mainly for attacking since it is razor-sharp.
The middle edge of jian or zhongren is less sharp and thicker. It had varied uses like chopping, cutting, or diverting.
The jian root refers to the 6-inch portion at the bottom of the blade. It was usually unsharpened and served as a defense against an opponent’s blade.
A jian blade has seven parts:
1. Edge (jianren)
The jian blade has a double edge, both sides identical. They are the sharpest and thinnest part of the blade. The upper edge is called shangren, and the lower edge is called xiaren. Regardless of the sword’s orientation, the shangren is on the same side of the thumb, while the xiaren is on the finger side of the hand holding the sword.
2. Tip of the Blade
Battle-ready jian swords had a sharpened tip, unlike the jian swords used in dance performances and decoration. The term jian jian’er refers specifically to the tip, while jianfeng includes the top two inches of the blade and the tip.
3. Face of the Blade
Sometimes called jian mian, it is the face of the blade.
4. Ridge or Spine (jianji)
The jianji or jianbei is the convex part of the blade, though it will flatten out toward the tip.
5. Blood Groove or Fuller
The fuller runs most of the length of the blade, making it lighter without compromising its structural integrity. It is also called a blood groove due to the old belief that stabbing creates a suction effect on the blade, making the sword more difficult to withdraw.
Some jian swords during the Qing dynasty featured a ricasso, which is the unsharpened part of the blade before the sword guard. It is likely a European influence and was typically used on heavier Chinese swords to allow a place to grip with the second hand if needed.
The tang is the unsharpened part of the blade covered by the hilt. Battle-ready swords have full tang blades, in which the tang extends beyond the handle through the pommel. The tang generally has the same width as the blade. However, most jian swords had relatively wide blades and narrow tang compared to straight swords of other cultures.
Also called jianjing or jianbing, the jianba is the handle of the jian sword. It is usually made of hardwood, wrapped in animal skin, and fastened to the tang. Other handles might also be plain or carved in varying lengths. Generally, jian hilt fittings are usually bronze or brass fittings and rarely German silver.
They are often engraved, studded with gems like jade, or feature gilt silver decorations. The hilt fittings consist of the handguard called hushou, which prevents an opponent’s sword from reaching the hand. It also features a pommel that serves as a counterweight to the steel blade and prevents the sword from sliding.
There are two kinds of tassel: the duansui, which is half the length of jian, and the changsui, which is as long as the sword’s body. Originally made of strong rope, the tassel connected the jian to the practitioner’s wrist, so he could throw the weapon and then pull it back.
The wen jian, the straight sword used for dance performances, featured a tassel to improve its aesthetic look. Also called the scholar’s sword, scholars carried it to present an elegant appearance. Also, the decorative jian swords, often hung on a wall, usually include a tassel.
However, the wu jian, or martial arts sword, rarely had a tassel. It remains a debate whether the warriors used jian with tassels or not as it changes the balance, making the weapon more challenging to handle. Still, some speculate that the tassel allowed the warrior to throw the jian like a spear or use it as a form of distraction.
Chinese swords usually had wooden scabbards, but metal scabbards doubled as a blocking weapon. Historically, the sheath of the jian included luxurious ornamentations to display the rank and wealth of the owner. Some designs featured dyed shagreen, stained stingray skin, or even colored lacquer. The sheath usually had bronze or brass fittings. Generally, a good sheath had a key that would eject the jian automatically.
History of the Chinese Jian Sword
The most popular types of Chinese swords are the double-edged, straight jian and the single-edged, slightly curved dao. In the West, the dao sword is sometimes called the Chinese saber. The jian sword differed from one dynasty to another. As metallurgy improved, the jian gradually evolved from a short copper weapon to a long steel blade.
Early jian swords had double-edged, straight blades but were made of copper. Many believe that they originated from the time of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, who started to rule in 2697 BCE. However, copper is a relatively soft metal, so these swords could not hold an edge and would break easily.
In Zhou Dynasty
From 1046 to 256 BCE, bronze-made jian swords became popular. During the Spring and Autumn period from 770 to 476 BCE, China entered a time of turbulence, so the swordmaking of jian swords was highly developed. People carried them to show their high status, and the fighting principles of jian, still used today, were widely studied and practiced.
During the period, it had become known that when bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, consisted of higher amounts of tin, it became harder but also more brittle. Hence, the sword’s blade length had to be shorter, about 40 centimeters. On the other hand, lower amounts of tin could allow longer jian swords, but they can be too soft to be sharpened.
In the Warring States period, from 475 to 221 BCE, many vassals competed for supremacy and used stronger, sharper swords. The metallurgy and metal-working techniques improved, which allowed the production of long jian swords with sharp edges. During this time, the amount of tin in the center of the blade is lower, giving tensile strength to the body, and higher at the edges, allowing sharpness.
In Qin Dynasty
Before the Qin dynasty emerged as a major power in China, it was the state of Qin, one of the many feudal states during the turbulent period. Qin armies used iron jian swords in defeating various states, so many people believed that their success was due to the iron sword. Soon, people revered the sword as a symbol of moral values, such as honesty and honor. They even used the jian in dance and dramatic performances.
From 221 to 207 BCE, the Qin dynasty saw the perfection of bronze jian swords, as they became longer, narrower, and thinner. Jian swords of more than 100 centimeters in length were discovered in this period.
In Han Dynasty
From 206 BCE to 220 CE, swordsmiths began making jian swords from steel, often with longer and narrower blades and featured jade carvings on the handle. The uses and significance of the straight sword in Chinese society also changed.
The type of jian indicated the rank and abilities of each government officer and played a role in official ceremonies and sacrificial religious rites. The Chinese even viewed the sword as a talisman that could protect them and exorcise evil spirits. By the end of the period, the Chinese cavalry preferred the dao sword over the jian as a weapon since its slightly curved blade made it efficient against foot soldiers and other cavalries.
In Tang Dynasty
From 618 to 907 CE, the steel jian sword developed into the shape that we know today. A famous jian form also inspired works of art and poetry. The Chinese believed that the practice of the sword would give them honor and integrity.
In Song Dynasty
From 960 to 1276, swordsmiths created Long Quan jian, also called Dragon Spring jian. The Chinese believed that these dragon swords could slice through ten large nails at a time. The Song dynasty ended with the Mongols conquering Chinese territory and founding the Yuan dynasty. This mixing of cultures influenced the sword styles.
In Ming and Qing Dynasties
The Chinese conquered the Mongolian ruler and established the Ming dynasty. However, the Manchurians also invaded and formed the Qing dynasty. During these periods, swordsmiths used steel and other alloys to make swords, and Chinese martial arts developed to their highest level. Several martial arts groups used jian swords, similar to the ones used today.
Names of Jian Swords
The Chinese often gave their swords some names commonly indicating their owner, origin, or use. For example:
Long Quan jian – Name for a sword produced in Longquan County in Zhejiang Province.
Kun Wu jian – A jian derived its name from the mountain where the ore used in making the sword originated.
Han jian – A jian sword flourished in the Han dynasty from 206 BCE to 220 CE.
Mo Xie or Gan Jiang jian – A jian sword named after its swordsmith.
Taiji jian or tai chi sword – A straight, double-edged sword used in taijiquan or tai chi martial arts.
The Chinese Jian vs. Japanese Swords
Both Chinese and Japanese swords are treated with respect and are symbolic of their respective cultures. Here are some of the characteristics that make them unique on their own:
Type of Steel
Chinese swordsmiths used high-quality steel to create their swords. Depending on its use, modern-day jian can be of carbon steel, high manganese steel, damascus steel, or spring steel. However, stainless steel swords are solely for decoration. On the other hand, Japanese swordsmiths created samurai swords from specific high carbon steel called tamahagane.
The Chinese jian swords were originally differentially hardened, usually using water to quench the cutting edges. On the contrary, the Japanese swords are clay tempered, in which the blade is insulated with clay, creating natural hamon or temperline patterns.
The length of the Chinese jian varies depending on the stature of the practitioner. By contrast, Japanese swords are classified based on their blade length. The blade length itself sets the katana, a long sword, apart from the wakizashi, the short sword.
Blade Shape and Function
The Chinese jian is a straight sword with a double edge, and the blade has a specific function in different parts. Warriors used the sharp tips to attack, the middle of the blade for cutting or sliding, and the bottom for blocking. On the contrary, Japanese swords have a single-edged, curved blade. The samurai used the katana sword for slashing rather than thrusting.
Use in Battle and Martial Arts
The Chinese jian sword is one of the most important weapons for Chinese martial arts, along with the qiang or spear. When used in taijiquan or tai chi training, it is called a tai chi sword, designed for light movements. Practitioners also use it in wushu or kung fu. It is not surprising that the samurai swords are also the weapons of choice for Japanese martial arts like iaido.
Also, the jian sword guards are more functional rather than decorative. Whether it faces forward or backward toward the hilt, the Chinese warriors used the sword guard to lock the opponent’s weapon. The Japanese sword guard called tsuba is also functional for protecting the hand and is highly decorative.
The jian sword is one of the weapons that have been used and revered from the beginning of Chinese history to modern times. Chinese martial arts have their roots in traditional fighting techniques, and the jian sword remains significant in wushu and tai chi training.