Defence is a major preoccupation for any ruler – from the rulers of way back in antiquity to President Obama today. Times of war see resources being drained toward a wasteful expense, as well as major scientific advancements as people try to find out why things happen, and how to mitigate the injuries caused by bad things.
In the ancient Chinese dynasties, warfare was undoubtedly complex, but the complexities took a different form. While today we bomb strategic locations, in those days swordsmen developed ever-finer instruments and techniques.
Here is a quick run-through of the popular swords and sword-making techniques in the Han, Song, Qing and Ming dynasties.
First, the Hans. The Han dynasty’s rule spanned from 206 BC to 220 AD. The early period of Han rule saw the rise of steel as the material preferred in swords. Both single-edged(dao) and double-edged(jian) swords now began to be made of steel, with bronze swords falling rapidly out of favor.
The process of differential heat-treatment also took birth during Han rule. Sword blanks were now forged and folded, with ring pommels being introduced.
In middle and late Han rule, this differential heat treatment process was developed further, and became the art of “refining”. Swords were now manufactured in layers, with the top, core and bottom being made separately and then welded together. At this point, China began to export swords to Korea and Japan.
Fast-forward across nearly a century, and you reach the Song dynasty in 960 AD. During the reign of Song emperor Shenzong, swordcraft reached new and unprecedented heights. Assessment bureaus were set up to determine the quality of weapons, and a manual on quality control in weapon manufacture was written and circulated.
Ring pommels, discontinued in the middle Tang period, was revived by Shenzong. Also, the Zhanmadao – a horse-chopping sword – was created to help soldiers fight against cavalry. Sword blades were now imported from Damascus and Japan.
Late in the Song period, Japan was invaded by the Mongols. It was during this period that they realized how much continental blades were superior – though stouter and less fine – than their own blades.
The Ming dynasty, ruling from the late fourteenth to the mid seventeenth century, saw China importing Japanese Wodao swords on a mass scale. Smiths came to prefer non-clay methods of heat differential treatment, while the Damascus-native process of making twist-core steel reached China’s wordsmiths.
The Japanese shinogi-zukuri – a ridged cross-section used in single-edged swords – became popular once more, as the Chinese faced repeated attacks from Japanese pirates. The 2-meter long changdao saber, modeled on the Japanese pirate nodachi, also acquired prominence. Overall, the Chinese art of sword-making declined, only to be revived later on in the Qing dynasty.
Under the Qings, handicrafts as well as sword-making received a much-needed boost. The dao and its characteristics were standardized, while a document on “Weapons Workmanship Standards” was also compiled. The niuweidao – the oxtail single-edged sword – also made an appearance, but was used by civilians and not the military.
Today, swords of all these dynasties and more are available, though only as collectors’ items. Each sword has a unique historical motivation behind it; the more you know, the more you want to know more.