A Japanese private holding a captured Dadao sometime between 1931 and 1936.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A Japanese private holding a captured Dadao sometime between 1931 and 1936. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


No topic within the study of the modern martial arts is more burdened with nationalist myths and legends than military fencing. By the middle of the 20th century blades were supposed to have become obsolete on the battlefield. Yet the Second World War (WWII) saw a resurgence of interest in the sword and knife.

The Japanese Imperial Military came to be defined by its symbolic and practical use of the katana. The Chinese state issued a variety of swords to its regular troops and many paramilitary auxiliary units. These were so evocative of the terrible conflict in the region that they became regular features in western magazines, news accounts and even children’s bubblegum cards. The British insisted on issuing large, combat worthy kukris to their Nepalese and even Indian troops. Meanwhile western armies, while no longer carrying swords, continued to place a lot of emphasis of bayonet training and the development of various styles of combat knives.

Given that much of this activity took place in Asia, it is no surprise that students of martial studies are continually rediscovering the details of this process. In thinking about these trends it might not be possible to find a single explanation for all aspects of the various these cases. Certainly many of these military officers were very practical people, and they often perceived some sort of need that only a blade could answer.

The kukri is a general purpose camp tool and weapon that has long been essential to the Nepalese infantry.  Likewise the dadao could be cheaply mass produced. It was probably a cost effective away of arming Chinese militia groups who were more often than not expected to hold rear areas or harass the Japanese. And if the bloody memory of WWI had taught these officers anything, it was that close quarters combat remained a possibility on the modern (often urban) battlefield.

Still, it is impossible to ignore the role of nationalist myth-making when looking at the symbolic form that was imposed upon these tools. The Katana was deeply linked to Japan’s feudal past. It was the “soul of the Samurai.” There are few jobs that a kukri does that a hatchet cannot do just as well and more cheaply. Likewise the modern Chinese dadao bears an uncanny resemblance to the blades of mythic heroes illustrated in popular texts about the Ming dynasty, as well as the various “Big Sword Societies” that stood up to western imperialists and the corrupt Qing in the 19th century.


The Katana and the Dadao in Manchuria

Symbols communicate, but their message is always multi-vocal and complex. It can be difficult to predict all of the ways in which they reverberate off of and harmonize with each other. I suspect that it is unavoidable that weapons will take on symbolic meaning to the individuals who wield them. Given that this will happen in even the most utilitarian circumstances, perhaps it is wise for military planners to attempt to shape this process.

Originally the audience for each of these symbolic messages was internal. By giving newly commissioned officers in the 1920s and 1930s a katana the Japanese general staff was really trying to make an argument to them (and the nation at large) about the type of loyalty to the army and the emperor that was expected. This argument drew very heavily on essentialist or “primordialist” beliefs about national identity.

Unfortunately for the Imperial Army, while the sword may have been the soul of the Samurai, simply being Japanese did not automatically make one a swordsman. Despite their love for this iconic weapon, the modern Japanese army actually suffered multiple setbacks on this front as they attempted to modernize and westernize small arms training.

Soldiers armed with newly purchased western sabers (which they had not been sufficiently trained to use) found themselves at a distinct disadvantage when facing traditional martial artist in the Satsuma Rebellion. And while they ultimately acquitted themselves quite will in the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese soldiers once again found themselves outmatched when facing sword wielding Cossack Calvary in close quarters combat.

Increasing nationalist sentiments in the 1920s ultimately insured the wide-scale reissuing of the katana within the Imperial military. Yet by this point very few soldiers actually had any experience with these weapons. Training programs had to be instituted to provide soldiers with a rudimentary familiarity with the sword that supposedly defined their national soul. Of course of the most important of these was the Toyama Ryu school established in 1925 by Nakamura Taisaburo.

This school provided soldier with the basic information that they needed to draw and cut with their weapons under modern conditions. Unfortunately by Nakamura’s own admission the original curriculum did not prove to be entirely effective.

An American trading card from the 1938 "Horrors of War" series.  This image was labeled "Chinese 'Big Sword' Corps Resist the Japanese." Authors personal collection.
An American trading card from the 1938 “Horrors of War” series. This image was labeled “Chinese ‘Big Sword’ Corps Resist the Japanese.” Authors personal collection.

The Japanese deployment of the katana also communicated all sorts of symbolic messages to those that they came in contact with. Chinese intellectuals and military leaders were very much aware of their attempts to cultivate Budo as part of their overall program of increasing nationalism and militarization among the Japanese population. In fact, there is some evidence that member of the KMT run Central Guoshu Institute wished to employ China’s own martial heritage in a somewhat similar manner.

Still, the use of the katana creates some unexpected resonances when viewed within a Chinese cultural context. If one were to simply look at material factors, the Japanese military would seem to have had all of the advantages. Yes it was numerically smaller, but it was more modern, better equipped and had tighter lines of command and control. It was also well led, less internally divided and more professional.

Yet the katana is an unavoidably medieval symbol. It evokes a variety of feelings. One the one hand there is the awe that many traditional Chinese martial artists and gentry ranked sword collectors felt for these weapons from roughly the 16th century onward. But on the other, it also suggests the “wokou” or Japanese pirates who were ultimately defeated by General Yu Dayou, Qi Jiguang and the Shaolin monks in the 1500s. This was perhaps one of the proudest moments in China’s late imperial history and it proved to be a turning point in the development of the civilian martial arts.

This weapon also suggests memories of Japan’s costly invasion of Korea which ultimately ended in defeat and retrenchment. Far from being demoralizing, the very presence of the katana was a suggestion that the Japanese could once again be defeated through Chinese ingenuity, endurance and intestinal fortitude.

Likewise the dadao itself was a weapon that was developed and popularized for domestic reasons. While not a regular sword in the Qing army (which had employed a few other types of chopping weapons) by the late 19th and early 20th century a number of civilian martial artists in northern China had taken a distinct liking to these sorts of blades. Later they were issued to law enforcement, militia and railroad guards. Certain warlord armies even adopted them in mass in the 1920s. By the 1930s a handful of regular units within the Chinese army were armed these sword. As tensions with the Japanese mounted, “Big Sword Training” classes became common in most of China’s larger cities.

It might be useful to stop and consider why in the run-up to the Japanese invasion in 1937 training civilians to use an arcane, and in many cases unwieldy, two handed sword would be a popular idea. After all, WWII was a conflict in which most deaths were caused by artillery shelling and bombs?

I suspect that at least some of the enthusiasm for the dadao stemmed from the success of small resistance groups in Manchuria after the Japanese invasion of the area in 1931. While the Japanese effected a more or less bloodless takeover of the local government their advances were resisted by a number of groups within Chinese society including large-scale bandit parties (who had always been disturbingly common in the area), the militant Red Spear Society (who I hope to examine in a future post), and a number of local “Big Sword Societies” who had been created with the express purpose of dealing with the area’s banditry problem.

These groups surprised the Japanese with their resistance and resilience. Unsurprisingly the bandits turned out to be some of the best fighters. Unfortunately they were also unreliable allies as they did not see a foreign occupation as any reason to give up their piratical ways. Still, they tended to be well armed and versed in hit and run tactics.

Modern students of martial studies will probably be most interested by the Big Sword and Red Spear societies. In some ways these groups were reminiscent of the Big Sword societies that were seen in Shandong province just prior to the Boxer Uprising in 1900. They relied on a combination of traditional martial training and spirit magic designed to insure their invulnerability. Some groups were organized communally while others were led by heterodox religious leaders. While the arms and tactics of all of these groups were eclectic (including everything from rifles, to 19th century cannons to improvised bombs), as their names suggest, dadaos and spears were seen in abundance.

Insurrections do not necessarily have to be victorious to be effective. While these small groups did not succeed in driving the Japanese out of Manchuria, they did effectively tie up tens of thousands of troops for years at a time in a perpetual pacification campaign. This led to a certain level of violence against local residents which contributed to the radicalization of the next generation of guerilla recruits.

It is also interesting to note that the hand-to-hand combat tactics of some of these groups gave the Japanese military pause. Nakamura Taizaburo, one of the fathers of modern Japanese military swordsmanship, served in the area after its 1931 takeover and saw actual sword combat. His assessment of the effectiveness of the Toyama Ryu’s methods was harsh. He concluded that to the extent that most Japanese soldiers had any familiarity with the sword it was through either kendo or the 1925 training program. The results of the engagements that he saw convinced him that neither was a satisfactory basis for effective swordsmanship. His Katana wielding countrymen were effectively outmatched. This then led to a reform of the Toyama Ryu curriculum in 1939 and the creation of a more brutal but effective training program.


Images of the Dadao and Katana in Occupied China

Both of the photos for today’s post come from my own collection. Each is an original snapshot taken of a specific individual to be saved in an album or sent back home. Unfortunately neither image is labeled. Even sadder, both of these images were separated from the original albums by wholesalers before being sold to individual antique stores in Japan. This is an unfortunate but common practice that deprives scholars of much needed contextual clues.

The first image shows a Japanese private standing before a heavy stone arch. In his hands he holds a large Chinese Dadao, probably captured from one of the various groups that we discussed above. The style of his uniform suggests that this picture was taken sometime between 1931 and 1936. Given that he is wearing his cold weather gear it seems likely that he is in northern China. There is decent chance that this individual was involved with the post-1931 occupation of Manchuria which we have been discussing.

The Dadao that he holds is also interesting. The blade looks heavy and healthy, though it appears to have substantial discoloration or rust. This reminds us that most dadao were issued and carried without scabbards, so these blades were continually exposed to the elements. The handle of this sword is wrapped in a simple heavy cord, and the S-shaped hand guard is still in perfect shape. I have noticed that this style guard, more than the other common variants, tends to get damaged and detached from surviving examples. I suspect that this is because they were made out of a comparatively soft and easily worked metal.

It is also interesting to consider how the sword is being held with its point resting on the ground. As a collector this makes me want to scream. Dadaos were generally manufactured with a sharp leading point. Nevertheless, the tips on many surviving examples are often rounded. Often this is the result of the weapons being repeatedly sharpened in a careless way. That can certainly change the profile of a blade in a number of ways. Of course resting the tip of the sword on the ground is also a great way to chip or deform it. Nor is there anything unique about this aspect of the image. I have a couple of photos of Chinese soldiers doing exactly the same the thing.

I like this image as it situates the Dadao at a critical time and place in Chinese history. This photograph conveys in a single image the impact that Chinese swords were having on the Japanese imagination during the 1930s. Yet at the same time, the widespread deployment of these weapons and their adoption as an ersatz national symbol seems to have been at least in a part a response to images like the one below.

The Japanese and Chinese rediscovery of the sword during WWII is a fascinating phenomenon. Even more interesting to me is that neither nation was content to employ these weapons only for their symbolic value. They managed to find their way into the conflict in surprising, and often grizzly, ways. Yet on a certain level it is impossible to understand the evolution of either tradition in isolation. Indeed the evolution of these two traditions is a good example of how symbols within the martial arts echo and harmonize in unpredictable ways.


An image of a Japanese soldier holding a Gunto in China during WWII.  This image was in the photo album along with the record of confiscated weapons below.  Source: Author's personal collection.
An image of a Japanese soldier holding a Gunto in China during WWII. Source: Author’s personal collection.


If you liked this post you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.