It is clear that weapons training is enjoying a renaissance within the modern martial arts community. Recently some of this attention has come to focus on the blades of the Second World War. It is interesting to speculate on why these weapons were surging in popularity in the Asian theater at exactly the time that one would have expected them to disappear. Yet whether it is the Nepalese kukri, the Japanese katana or the Chinese dadao, both collectors and practicing martial artists are increasingly drawn to these vintage bladed weapons.
Students of the Chinese martial arts have a particularly fascinating object of study in the Dadao and its adoption by certain troops during the 1930s and 1940s. We have already addressed the dadao in a number of places. You can find an overview of these swords here and Brian Kennedy has been kind enough to share some of his own research on their role in the Republic of China military.
It is important to remember that in most historic images from the 1930s and 1940s Chinese soldiers do not carry swords. Indeed the vast majority of troops within China’s regular army were armed with the same basic weapons used by everyone else during WWII. These were Mauser-type bolt action rifles, automatic handguns and grenades. But when swords do appear it tends to be the broad gleaming dadao that dominates both the photographic record of the period, as well as our collective imagination.
I have already shared and discussed a photograph from my own collection showing Chinese soldiers or auxiliary troops holding their newly issued dadao. Still, there are some problems with this type of image of the past. I think that such pictures tend to suggest that the bladed weapons carried by soldiers were all standardized, recently made, pieces.
This was not actually the case. Chinese military and militia units occasionally employed a broad range of weapons. I suspect that at times they simply issued whatever they could get their hands on. As such it is not all that unusual to come across images of small auxiliary units carrying a wide variety of bladed weapons. Occasionally spears were even issued to second line guards and militias.
Japanese Sword Confiscation in China during WWII
The following set of photographs helps to illustrate the actual variety of weapons that were used by various groups in Chinese society during the 1930s. Recently a group of photos were auctioned on ebay. These were original photographs taken from an album collected by a Japanese soldier during the occupation of China and subsequently transported to Japan.
Such “foreign language” resources can be a real boon to students of Chinese martial studies. It does not appear that martial artists or their weapons were ever a really popular subject for most photographers in China. Even worse, the pictures that did exist were often destroyed (sometimes intentionally) during WWII, the Chinese Civil War and the later Cultural Revolution.
Fortunately a number of foreign observers were interested in the martial arts (or Chinese military technology) and moved copies of these images to their home countries. Of course it was not uncommon to find Japanese soldiers who had studied the martial arts themselves and were curious about China’s hand combat traditions. As such interesting material occasionally appears in Japanese language collections.
Unfortunately we do not know much about the original circumstances in which these images were taken, and little information was available after the auction. Japanese artillery pieces are a prominent feature of a number of these photographs, so it seems possible that the photographer was assigned to one of these units. None of these photographs show people in heavy clothing, so it possible that these pictures came from the south. Alternatively they may simply have been taken in the summer months.
Two images in particular are of special interest to us. Apparently the photographers unit captured a fair amount of Chinese military equipment. The first photo shows a stockyard where various types of confiscated weapons and gear are being sorted. When looking over the yard it quickly becomes apparent that the vast majority of the material captured was actually pretty modern. We see large piles of rifles, helmets and other equipment that would have been standard for the period.
The second image is a more detailed study of one specific section of the stockyard. It shows a number of different swords laid out and roughly sorted by type. In totally only a few dozen swords have been confiscated, but it is fascinating to note the variety of blades that are present.
Most interesting to us is a set of four “niuweidao” or ox-tailed sabers placed prominently in the front of the frame. These swords have long handles (probably about 30 cm) which terminate in peened pommels. Each blade has an identical handle wrap (which shows use), scabbard and a heavy iron hand-guard. The uniform appearance of these swords suggests that they may have been issued to a “Big Saber” unit of some sort, but I don’t think I have ever seen historical images of soldiers carrying this exact sword in the field before.
Moving to the left we next encounter a lone guan doa. One wonders if this weapon actually came from a martial artists or local temple. Next are half a dozen or so modern military swords of the sort that the KMT issued to its soldiers and officers.
Following this things get more interested for students of martial arts history. There is another small pile of ox-tailed sabers of exactly the sort that civilian martial artists and marketplace performers preferred during this period. Two of these blades have scabbards, but the rest do not (which was more typical for this class of weapon).
As we continue further to the left side of the picture we see a small group (probably 2-3 examples) of long elegant jians. These swords had been favored by “gentlemen” during the imperial period but were not typically thought of as military weapons. Nevertheless, they remained popular with civilian martial artists.
It is difficult to make out exactly what is going on in the last pile of swords. A number of blades can be seen in profile, but it is hard to say too much about them. Easier to identify are the scabbards of additional ox-tailed sabers.
Of course the most revealing thing about this image is what we do not see. There is a not a single identifiable example of a 1930s style ring-tailed dadao in the entire collection. In fact, all of the weapons (with the exception of the western-style military sabers) were types that were favored by Chinese civilian martial artists.
It is certainly possible that the long handled daos were issued to a paramilitary group. Their matching furniture suggests as much. But most of the rest of the weapons could just as easily have come from a marketplace martial arts demonstration or a boxing school. It is actually important to remember that we don’t really know where these weapons were confiscated from, just where they ended up.
Alternatively, it is possible that this picture was taken early in the war before the production of dadao’s had reached its peak. If that was the case than it is a valuable remainder that Chinese troops and auxiliary units employed a wide variety of bladed weapons when performing their missions. Often these weapons were identical to those favored by civilian martial arts masters. Such individuals were often recruited to teach hand-to-hand combat skills to second-line troops in the 1930s and 1940s, so perhaps the appearance of their favored weapons should not be a surprise.
For more images of vintage Chinese weapons see: Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.