By Brian L. Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo

Brian L. Kennedy has been kind enough to kick off our “2013 Web Symposium on Chinese Martial Studies” with the following guest post.  In this article he revisits some of his previous research on the Dadao or “Big Knife” in the Chinese Republican Army.  I am particularly happy to host this piece here at Kung Fu Tea as it was one of the things that first helped to convince me that the academic study of the Chinese martial arts might be both possible and helpful.

Brian Kennedy himself needs little introduction.  He is the coauthor of two important books Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals (2005) and Jingwu: The School that Transformed Kung Fu (2010).  He attended San Diego State University as an undergraduate and latter earned a J.D. from the University of San Diego Law School.  He has extensive first hand expertise and lived in Taiwan from 1991-2008.  In the gym he currently practices Brazilian Jiujitsu with Prof. Alfredo Barum.  Nor, as the following statement indicates, is he a new comer to the field of martial arts history.  We are very happy to have him as a contributor here at Kung Fu Tea.

“I first grew interested in martial arts history back in the ‘Bruce Lee-Kwai Chang Caine days’.  My parents got me a copy of Robert Smith’s Asian Martial Arts and one of my high school history teachers let me do a semester of independent study on Chinese martial arts history. That independent study project, back in 1975, got me started on a lifelong interest in Chinese martial arts history.  The field of Chinese martial arts history has progressed so much in those 40 years—but, many of the same challenges remain. “
Marco Polo Bridge.  Source: Wikimedia.
Marco Polo Bridge. Source: Wikimedia.

“Over this river there is a very fine stone bridge, so fine indeed, that it has very few equals in the world.”

The Diary of Marco Polo

            It was an interesting vignette; the bridge had been praised by the western explorer Marco Polo in his diary and now several centuries later Chinese soldiers of the Republican Army, with their traditional “big knife” sabers and their modern rifles, stared across the bridge at Japanese forces amassed on the far side. The Japanese forces were a mix of the old and the new too; enlisted soldiers hunched down in mechanized tanks being lead by officers with katana in hand mounted on horses. It was July of 1937 and unbeknownst to the soldiers on both sides of the bridge, they were about to enter the history books.

            The bridge they stood on opposite ends of was the Lugouqiao, 盧溝橋 and the battle they were about to be involved in is known in the west as the “the Marco Polo Bridge Incident”. In China and Taiwan the battle is better known as the7-7 Lugou Bridge Incident (七七盧溝橋事變) because it occurred on the 7th day of the 7th month. Historians (fn.1) view it as the first shooting battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) (fn2).

What makes this battle noteworthy for martial artists is the fact that the battle at Lugouqiao marks the last famous battle fought where traditional Chinese martial arts weapons were used, albeit alongside such modern weapons as the pistol and grenade. The weapon we refer to is the “big knife” sabers, “big knife” being the actual name for that weapon, not just a description of the weapon. The “big knife” type sabers would be used elsewhere in various battles in the northwest and far northeast of China during other parts of the war but the Lugou Bridge battle was the last battle that used the “big knife” sabers, at least the last that made the history books.

                        The battle unfolded over a three day period, July 7th through the 9th. The short version (fn.3) was that the Japanese military claimed that they had been fired on and that one of their soldiers was missing and reputed to be on the Republican Chinese (ROC) side of the bridge. The Japanese commander asked/demanded permission to cross the bridge to search for the missing Japanese soldier. The ROC forces refused and on the early morning of the 8th, the Japanese crossed the bridge. In the early morning of the 9th, covered in part by mist and fog that had settled over the bridge, ROC Regiment Chief, Colonel Ji Xingwen (吉星文) (fn.4 ) led his forces in a commando style raid to clear the Japanese from both ends of the bridge. The ROC soldiers relied on pistols, hand grenades and their “big knife sabers”. The bridge was retaken and the Second Sino-Japanese War had started (fn.5).

Big Knife
The Big Knife was normally carried slung across a soldier’s back. The rig was not designed for any type of fast draw-movie scenes to the contrary. Source: Property of Brian Kennedy.

Big Knife Saber

            The weapon that went into the history books that early morning was known in Chinese by the somewhat prosaic name of “big knife” sabers Dadao (大刀). They are short but broad bladed sabers meant to be used with two hands. The standard specifications, the “mil-spec”, of these “big knife” sabers were 3.5 pounds in weight and 35.5 inches in length but the reality is the size and the weight varied greatly.

            They are characterized by having some sort of ring pommel and having tips that curve to a sharp point. They could be used to stab as well as slice or slash along the single sharpened edge. They were normally carried slung across the soldiers’ backs. The name “big knife” and the propaganda put out by the Republican era government would lead one to think they were awe inspiring blades (fn.6), works of art along the lines of the exquisitely crafted Japanese katana. And modern reproductions of these big knife sabers often reinforce that image by being handsome, thick bladed weapons made of the finest material (fn. 7).

            The reality is far different. Most of the examples we have seen that were actually used in the Sino-Japanese War can best be described as “complete junk”. This naturally follows from the fact they were normally made from scrap iron that had been stolen or salvaged from somewhere, melted down or simply ground and cold hammered into form. The construction of these military big knife sabers was usually done “on the move” by whatever blacksmith was available, with whatever tools and raw materials were available. A favored raw material was leaf springs from trucks or cars or railroad rails that had been pulled up.

            The end products were often quite short, quite thin, quite crude. But that is largely in keeping with how almost all Republican era military supplies and equipment were; handmade, crude, too short, too thin, junk (fn.8).

Men, metal and mettle

            The reputation of the Big Knife Saber Units reflects an interesting truism about marital arts. The reality is, the Japanese military units did “fear” the Big Knife Units of the Chinese Republican Army but not because of the weapon itself. What cast fear into the souls of the Japanese was the mettle of the men using the “big knife” sabers. The pieces of scrape metal that made up the “big knife” sabers were nothing special, nor were the size (as mentioned, usually light and thin) or design (a basic chopping machete design) anything terrifying. But rather it was the morale of the men using the “big knives” that made the difference. We mention this at length because the credit belongs to the men, the soldiers, not to some unique character of the “big knives” although the myth of the “big knife” sabers usually attributes the magic to the weapon. This highlights the truism that military effectiveness is often more a matter of having well motivated men, than having the some magical weapon.

Yin Yu Zhan’s “Slashing Saber Practice”

            There were two Republican era martial arts training manuals that were specifically written for the use of double handed sabers. One was written by Yin Yu Zhan, the other by Huang Bo Nien. Turning first to Yin Yu Zhan (尹玉璋) who lived from 1890 to 1950; he authored two books: “A Brief Book of Baguazhang” (八卦掌簡編) and more relevantly for this article, “Slashing Saber Practice”(砍刀術練習法). What we have been calling “the big knife” he refers to as the “slashing saber”. They are the same weapon.

            Yin Yu Zhan was born the son of Yin Fu, one of China’s most famous Bagua masters. Such a birth may be viewed either as a great blessing or a heavy burden. In the case of Yin Yu Zhan—Yin Fu’s fourth son—it lead to a lifetime of involvement with Bagua.

            Because of his father’s high position, Yin Yu Zhang was brought into the Qing imperial court at a very young age. His father Yin Fu was connected with the imperial bodyguards, both by virtue of being their instructor and having been appointed during the Boxer Rebellion to personally escort the Empress Dowager and the imperial heir Guang Xu when they were forced to flee Beijing’s Forbidden City. His position in the royal court made him a wealthy man. It also allowed him to bring his children into the Forbidden City as what might be called adjuncts of the imperial family.

After Yin Yu Zhang had been brought into the Forbidden City he began his martial arts education by learning “secret court martial arts” from Chua Yu Xie. What exactly this consisted of is unknown. Later, Yin started learning his father’s Yin style Bagua. As an adult, he made a living teaching martial arts, including acting as an instructor at the Guoshu Academy in Tsingdao City.

Yin Yu Zhang’s second book, “Slashing Saber Practice,” was published in June 1933 by the Guoshu Academy of Tsingdao City. Yin posed for the photographs. The book features two training routines, each with 20 movements.

The book is interesting from a historical standpoint in that Yin discusses at length the actual military use of the slashing saber. He writes, “The slashing saber was called ‘the big saber of infantry battle’ in the Qing Dynasty. It has been long and widely practiced in the military. In the recent Chinese and Japanese war [presumably referring to the First Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895] our military used these techniques and this weapon to inflict damage on the enemy. ‘Big saber team units’ became well known. Slashing saber is easy to do and easy to learn. It is clear and practical, without ‘flowery embellishments.’ It emphasizes slashing and chopping.”

In his preface, Yin discusses the battlefield effectiveness of the slashing saber at length. He includes discussions of both ancient and modern battles where sabers were involved. Yin also makes a point of the deadliness of double-handed sabers at close range, as opposed to single-handed swords. He quotes a maxim, “long-range stabbing with sword, closer range slashing with saber.” He gives the standard specifications of a slashing saber at 3.5 pounds in weight, 35.5 inches in length.

As mentioned, his book has two short training routines. The training routines include a variety of simple but effective double handed sword techniques. The descriptions include a photo, discussion of how to perform the move and the application of the move against an enemy. The descriptions include a wide range of verbs describing different sword actions. The variety of verbs reflects the fact that Yin’s book was the product of a lifetime spent in martial arts and reflect a nuanced approach to the use of the saber. Admittedly “nuanced approach” and “quick and simple military training” are two concepts that are at odds with each other. Nonetheless Yin’s book does use a variety of technical terms for saber actions. By way of example in the second routine, movement six is described thus:

Dotting () Saber

Practice: Turn the body to the right rear, make your two legs into sitting cross leg and at the same time move the saber from the front to the right rear to “dot” forcefully and the edge of the saber is facing outward. Keep your eyes on the tip of the saber.

            Application: Suppose the enemy chops at the top of my head from behind, I should squat/lower my body and at the same time forcefully dot the saber at the enemy’s wrist.

What is referred to as “dotting” is actually a kind of quick jab with the tip of the saber, basically trying to get the opponent to drop their sword or get their hands cut off.

            By way of a second example, and these two examples are typical of how Yin’s book is laid out, there is nothing special about the two moves we mention. Again in the second routine:

Movement Four

Chopping () Saber posture

Practice : Move the right leg to the left one step forward, it becomes a horse riding stance, at the same time forcefully chopping the saber from back to the front.


Application : Suppose the enemy uses a spear or lance to stab at my left side. I should move my right leg to the left one step forward. The left foot will move back half a step while the waist moves and at the same time chop the saber at the enemy’s waist.

It is not clear exactly what the source is for Yin’s big knife techniques. His family’s system, Yin style bagua, is well known for its use of a very large, long bladed saber and it is quite possible he simply picked techniques from that and modified and simplified them for military use. Alternatively he may have known techniques from some other system of double handed swordsmanship. There are a number of Chinese martial arts systems, dating back to the Ming dynasty, that use a thin bladed double handed saber. Yin may have known various training routines from that and modified them for the broader blade of the “big knife saber”.

One of the Big Knives from the ROC Museum Display.  Source: Property of Brian Kennedy.
One of the Big Knives from the ROC Museum Display. Source: Property of Brian Kennedy.

Huang Bo Nien’s “Xingyi Fist and Weapons Instruction”

            The second major Republican era training manual to cover the use of double handed saber was Huang Bo Nien”s (黃柏年) (1880-1954) book “Xingyi Fist and Weapons Instruction”.

            Born in 1880 in Hubei, Huang Bo Nien started to learn Shaolin boxing as a child because his health was so frail. In 1896, he became a student of Li Cun Yi, from whom he learned the two internal arts of Xingyi and Bagua. Huang began teaching alongside his longtime master in 1912 at the Zhong Hua Martial Arts Association. He was hired as the supervisor of the educational section of the Advocating Martial Arts and Improving Morality Association in 1928. It was here that he wrote “Xingyi Fist and Weapons Instruction.” the Nanjing Central Guoshu Academy hired him in 1931 to teach the system of Xingyi, saber and bayonet training that he had outlined in his book to Republican soldiers. Following that post, he became a martial arts teacher at the Zhong Ching Military Academy in 1937. He retired from government service the following year.

“Xingyi Fist and Weapons Instruction” was the first Xingyi book written specifically for use by the military. Published in 1928, the book featured Jiang Rong Qiao posing for the photos. The two men worked together at the Advocating Martial Arts and Improving Morality Association. The government underwrote publication of this volume as part of its program to support martial arts, both within the military as well as among the general populace.

During the early years of the Republican government, a number of prominent martial artists were recruited by various armies to teach their soldiers including Huang Bo Nien. An important part of this training was morale building. The arts that were taught to Republican-era soldiers had to meet two criteria: Be simple and be Chinese. In reference to the last point, the policy of the Nationalist government was that Chinese martial arts should be encouraged as a kind of countermeasure to Japanese martial arts and the principles of Bushido. The Nationalist government’s assumption, correct or not, was that the Chinese public, and by extension the Chinese army, had developed an inferiority complex regarding Japanese martial arts. The Chinese public and the Chinese army had learned to accept the idea that Chinese were the weak men of Asia. Promoting Chinese martial arts was seen as a way to counter that and give the general public and the military a sense of racial pride. Of course, this had to be done within the practical limits of military training, so the first criterion—simplicity—was equally important.

Hwang Bo Nien’s book attempted to meet both criteria. It covers the basics of Xingyi’s Five Element Fists and a version of Linking Fist along with the basic training ideas of Xingyi. In these areas the book follows the format of several other Republican-era Xingyi manuals, but two things set this book apart as being a military Xingyi training manual.

The first is its devotion of entire sections to the use of the bayonet and saber based on Xingyi principles and forms. The bayonet techniques presumably are derived from Xingyi spear techniques. According to legend, Xingyi was founded by General Yue Fei based on his skill with the spear. Xingyi was known for its simple but combat-worthy spear training, which provides a natural carryover to bayonet training.

The book also includes a section on the “dao,” or saber. The five techniques shown are built on the five-formed fist of Xingyi and are executed with both hands gripping the saber. All five involve an initial defensive block or deflection followed up with a strike.

As is de rigueur in modern military CQC manuals, Huang’s book has a chart of vital points on the human body and the anatomical weapons used to strike them.

The book is also different in that it is clearly designed to be used as a military training manual. For example, in discussing the five-element fist, the book breaks each movement down into individual commands that a drill instructor might use to coach a large group of soldiers; e.g. “attention, drilling fist, move.” The same pattern follows for each of the techniques shown in the book.

            Huang’s training manual is a fascinating and outstanding example of a Republican-era military training manual. It discusses in clear, understandable terms a number of basic techniques that could be taught to soldiers in a relatively short period of time. Huang’s book has been translated into english by Dennis Rovere and Chow Hon Huen.

A scene from the ROC movie Heroic Martyrs Remembered for a Thousand Years showing the Chinese Big Knife winning over the Japanese Katana.  Source: Brian Kennedy.
A scene from the ROC movie Heroic Martyrs Remembered for a Thousand Years showing the Chinese Big Knife winning over the Japanese Katana. Source: Brian Kennedy.

Big Knife Saber Units

            The fame of the “big knives” comes largely from their use by the Northwest Armies of the Chinese Republican Army. The Northwest Army included the 29th Battalion, which was a specialized unit that focused on close order combat and the use of the “big sabers”. Although the 29th Battalion is the best known of the “Big Saber Units” there were others both in the Northwest and Northeast Armies.

            The soldiers of the Northwest Army are viewed by Chinese military historians as being the toughest fighters in the Republican Army (fn. 9). For all intents and purposes these soldiers were brigands and outlaws, who happened to have been conscripted into a large “gang” known as the Northwest Army. As a people they were from the hardscrabble north and when not working as brigands or soldiers they eked out a hand to mouth existence in the frozen areas bordering the Great Wall of China. They fully expected their life to be, as Hobbes puts it, “short, nasty and brutish” and they fought accordingly

            The “Big Saber Units” of the Northwest Army were best known for their defense of the Great Wall as well as being involved in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The Defense of the Great Wall (長城抗戰) was a series of battles taking place between January to May of 1933. The Japanese were attempting to move their forces south, past the Great Wall and into China. The Chinese armies were for both symbolic and practical reasons attempting to keep the Japanese “outside the wall”. On the symbolic side the Great Wall had for centuries been viewed by the Chinese as the dividing line between the civilized Han Chinese and the people outside the wall, i.e. uncivilized, non-Chinese peoples (fn.10). On the practical side, it was thought that if the Japanese could get south of the Great Wall that their presence “inside the wall” would place major northern Chinese cities in peril. That belief was confirmed by later events.

            Although in the end the Japanese were successful in pushing past the Great Wall and into China, the “Big Saber Units” became famous for their tenacity and furiousness in close quarters combat against the Japanese during the defense of the Great Wall. The fact that many of the battles took place in narrow passes or actually on the ramparts and in the gates of the Great Wall, provided a natural “close quarters” setting for a weapon such as the Big Knife and it can be said that although in the end, the modern heavy weaponry of the Japanese won out, the “big knife” sabers of the Chinese went out in a blaze of glory.



1. Some Chinese historians place the start of the “shooting war” at various earlier points when there had been other skirmishes between the Japanese forces and the Republic of China army. For western historians the start is the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. In any event, for many wars the “first battle” is a historians’ convention as wars often start with a sliding scale of escalation starting from relatively minor incidents, which may or may not involve gunfire, into more serious armed encounters between the future opponents.

2. The Second Sino-Japanese War is basically the part of World War Two fought on Chinese soil.

3. Given the incident’s fame as the opening battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War and given the sometimes intense hatred between the Japanese and Chinese; it will come as no surprise that historians differ on the details of the battle. Even to this day events in the Second Sino-Japanese War are hotly and violently disputed, the “Rape of Nanjing” being the premier example of such debates. The version of the battle that we give is kind of the received Republic of China version. The reality is, it is largely based on a series of articles written by Regiment Chief Ji Xingwen. Some Japanese historians dispute his account of the “brave dash across the bridge in the cold mist and rain” as nonsense and point to various facts to dispute it.

4. Colonel Ji Xingwen (吉星文) survived the war and moved with the Republic of China government to Taiwan. In 1958 he became a two star general and was assigned to the defense of Kinmen Island. His military career and his life came to a soldierly end. On August 23rd 1958 the Chinese Communist began their bombardment of Kinmen Island. The very first shell the Communist fired, about 6:30 in the evening, was a direct hit on the officers mess hall where General Ji and two other two star generals were having dinner. All three were killed instantly. Taiwanese military historians are sure that the direct hit was the result of communist spies who had measured off the exact distances and knew the habitual patterns of the generals. That opening bombardment was the start of 44 days of continuous artillery shelling. The Communist troops fired 474,910 rounds of ammunition into the Kinmen area.

5. In the end, three days later to be precise, the battle for the bridge was lost and by August the Japanese were in Beijing.

6. There was a famous movie, which most Taiwanese have seen, that was made by the Kuomintang government called Heroic Martyrs Remembered for a Thousand Years. The movie is a kind of Chinese “John Wayne” movie that glorified the Big Saber Units in Sino-Japanese war.

7. The example we are thinking of is made by the Cold Steel company and marketed as the “Chinese War Sword”. That modern reproduction faithfully reproduces the model image of a “big knife saber” but its quality (and price!) far exceeds anything that any Republican era soldier ever held in his hands.

8. Corruption and contempt were kind of the bywords for many, not all, but many, military commanders of the various Republican era armies. Corruption in the sense of pocketing the lion’s share of whatever funds were available and contempt in the sense of having an utter disregard for the welfare of their troops. Soldiers were viewed as basically chattels; semi-domesticated work beasts. As mentioned there were exceptions to this and we do not mean to tar with a wide brush; but the norm was corruption and contempt.

9. The second toughest group of fighters, and almost all Chinese military historians of the World War Two era agree on this, were the soldiers from Guangdong, a southern Chinese province. Many of the Guangdong fighters had backgrounds in the southern Shaolin system known as Hung Gar Quan (Hung Family Boxing) and many had been trained by the famous Hung Gar Quan master Lum Sai Wing.

10. Of course the last imperial dynasty, the Qing (the Manchu) had breeched the Great Wall and conquered China and many of the Republican era generals were ethnic Manchus, but nonetheless, the idea held that “beyond the wall people” were “savages” and the Great Wall was important from a symbolic and psychological standpoint.

Photography: The Republic of China Armed Forces Museum Exhibit

The photos which accompany this article were taken at the Republic of China Armed Forces Museum located in Taipei, Taiwan. Several years ago the museum hosted a special exhibit commemorating the courage and resourcefulness shown by the ROC soldiers in the Lugou Bridge Incident. The exhibit included a display of original “big knife sabers”.

If you enjoyed this article you might also want to check out: A Social and Visual History of the Dadao: The Chinese “Military Big-Saber.”