33 Chinese Sword Types: Design, Form, and Function
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China has been home to some of the first swords that date back to the Bronze Age, giving Chinese swords the most extensive heritage among all Asian sword types. From ceremonial bronze knives to high-quality steel swords, China has produced some of the world’s best weapons.
Although samurai swords are popular, it is important to note that the Japanese based much of the styling and design of their blades on Chinese swords. This article presents the main types of Chinese swords, their history, characteristics, and uses.
Classification of Chinese Swords
Chinese Swords are generally grouped into two categories: the straight, double-edged jian, and the curved, single-edged dao (saber or Chinese broadsword).
Jian: The “Gentleman of Weapons”
The jian, a double-edged sword that has been used for centuries, is one of the four major weapons in Chinese martial arts, along with the dao, staff (gun), and spear (qiang). Used by both warriors and martial artists, it is known as the “Gentleman of Weapons” due to its graceful and refined movements. The jian is a weapon that relies on technique and finesse instead of brute strength, and requires a great deal of skill and training to master,
The first type of swords in the arsenal of Chinese Weapons, jian swords are a symbol of honor, loyalty, and courage. It is known for its speed, precision, and versatility, making it an excellent choice for both offensive and defensive techniques. Although they fell out of favor during the Han Dynasty, they are still often used in ceremonies, rituals, as well as traditional Chinese theater and dance.
Overall, the jian embodies the elegance and sophistication of Chinese martial arts, and it continues to be a beloved weapon to this day.
Dao: the “General of Weapons”
The dao (Chinese broadsword) is known as the “General of Weapons”. Since dao swords were easier to master compared to the jian, the Chinese military gradually adopted this weapon. The earliest and most effective dao swords were created during the Tang Dynasty and resembled the jian’s refined design. It was also possible to use them like the jian.
As military tactics shifted to favor cavalry troops, curved daos and its slashing techniques resulted in the jian going out of favor. Throughout history, dao swords slowly but surely took on many different variations as was needed. Its curved blade allowed fluid movements, circular attacks, and rapid changes in movement.
Since its design was associated with the northern nomadic tribes of China, the adoption of the dao is culturally significant as it reflects the blending of influences across the different regions of China.
Types of Chinese Swords
The many different types of Chinese swords highlight the culture’s rich history that extends over 5000 years and across 11 distinct eras. This has led to a vast array of blade designs, each tailored to a specific purpose. Some, like the straight jian, are ideally suited for fencing and training, while others like the dao are designed to be effective tools on the battlefield.
To improve the versatility of these weapons, be it for combat or martial arts, came the development of hybrid sword types that didn’t quite fit into the dao and jian categories. These unique hybrids could range from sword blades affixed to polearm-like weapons to simple metal rods designed with the specific intent to break opposing swords.
The latest and most modern iteration of Chinese swords is the type associated with the martial art of Wushu. These swords were developed in a time of relative peace, after the echoes of battle cries and war horns had subsided. Instead for lethal combat, these weapons serve a more theatrical purpose – designed to showcase the artists’ skills during martial arts performances and dance routines.
1. 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 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 (Hybrid)
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. Because of their unique design, they make for some of the most popular Wushu swords today.
10. Butterfly Sword (Hybrid)
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, as well as Chinese Wushu.
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. Today the DaDao is often seen in theatrical Wushu displays commonly featuring a traditional Chinese sword tassel.
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 and Wushu.
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.
31. Guandao (Hybrid)
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. Today, they make for some of the most entertaining Wushu instruments thanks to their massive size and legends linked with the legendary Chinese general Guan Yu.
32. Khasi Dao (Hybrid)
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. Thanks to the blade and handle, it can be used effectively as a spear and a two-handed sword which makes it fall into the hybrid category.
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.
33. Sword Breaker (Hybrid)
The Chinese Sword Breaker, known as Fu Tao in Chinese, is a unique hybrid sword originating from China. While it sports the design of a traditional straight Jian, it’s interesting to note that it doesn’t actually have any sharp edges. Instead, it’s comprised of a rigid, heavy metal rod, designed specifically to break the blades of enemy weapons – hence, the name ‘Sword Breaker’.
Occasionally, this sturdy rod might be found in history featuring ribbed sections that run the length of the blade. These ribbed sections are meant to combat not only carbon steel blades but also armor plates. These particular weapons were specialized tools utilized by elite units and necessitated significant training to wield effectively.