What is it?
The first question seems straight forward. This sword was purchased at auction a few years ago. It is a short saber, often called a duandao by martial artists. Its blade is just under 18 inches (46 cm) long, and its tang (broken at the end where the peened pommel was removed) is about 5 and 1/2 inches (14 cm). The blade itself is a hair over one and half inches in width (close to 4 cm). The sword tapers notably along the spine from the base (4 mm) to the tip (1mm). The tip has been lightened with a false edge.
The sword itself is in poor condition. The blade, with double fullers, is structurally in good shape, though it needs a careful cleaning. Some of the original file marks are still present from its final shaping leading me to suspect that the sword never enjoyed a detailed polish.
The handle is totally missing, leaving us to speculate as to the nature of its original furniture. Some hints can be derived from the existing scabbard. It is covered in ray skin (still in decent shape), and appears to have shrunk over the years (which is not uncommon in scabbards of this age.) Both the fixtures from the throat and tip are missing. However, the hangers are in place and show a floral pattern. One suspects that this would have been repeated on the missing hilt.
Blades of this length were common in the late 19th century. It seems that as the security situation degenerated, and firearms became the primary arm, there was still a demand for short side arms. Of course, stout hatchet tipped sabers had been used in conjunction with heavy rattan shields for quite a long time. One of my favorite pictures from the Boxer Uprising period shows a unit armed with shields and seemingly quite similar sabers. This same pairing of weapons was also seen in southern China, and I have occasionally wondered if the late-Qing explosion of the Hudiedao in Guangdong was a regional expression of this growing interest in Duandao. But that is a topic for another day.
Things get complicated when we more closely examine of the details of the scabbard. Swords with identical fittings, in very similar ray skin scabbards, show up from time to time on the antique market. This example (sold by Peter Dekker), while more nicely finished than my blade, probably gives us a very good idea of how it originally looked.
As Dekker points out, martial artists were not the only one’s interested in portable weapons. He notes that tourists visiting China in the closing years of the 19th century may have been looking for souvenirs to take home. And a 25-inch sword would fit very nicely in a steamer trunk. Such blades needed to be visually impressive, but they did not require proper heat treatment or functional blades.
This last point raises some interesting questions. I am not sure that it always follows that the blades of “tourist weapons” from this period were of inferior quality. One of my other areas of collecting is the Nepalese Kukri. While the market has been flooded by lots of bad tourist blades in the post-1960s period, many of the knives made for foreign consumers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are absolute marvels. It seems that quite a few of the gentlemen frequenting bazaars in India and China during the late 19th century were soldiers (or had served in the military in the past) and tended to be fairly good judges of steel.
There is a lot about the commercial production of these weapons in 19th century China that I am still trying to figure out. Nevertheless, I just came across a fascinating account which mentioned that as the Boxers started to stream into Beijing in the Spring of 1900, shops throughout the city put up signs advertising that they had swords for sale. Unsurprisingly, residents of the Foreign Legation took this is as a bad sign. Yet it does suggest that however these weapons were being produced, the supply could be increased on short notice.
I have no idea whether my example would show lamination if polished. But in looking carefully at the edge there are suggestions that a previous owner attempted to test the sword’s cutting ability. Gladly it survived the owner’s curiosity better than the subsequent years of neglect.
Where did it come from?
I will admit to not caring very much about this question when I first purchased this piece. As a martial artist, I am interested in China’s shorter sabers and thought that this piece might make a good study blade or a possible restoration project at some point in the future. And the price was right.
Things got more complicated when the saber showed up. There is one final detail of note about the scabbard. It bore a scalloped paper label with the following (severely faded, nearly illegible) inscription.
“Chinaman Sword Pekin, China N.H. Hall USMC”
Captain Newt Hall was a Marine who took part in the defense of the Foreign Legation in Beijing during the Boxer Uprising. He saw heavy fighting and was later awarded the Marine Corps Brevet Medal for “distinguished conduct in the face of the enemy.” This would normally be enough to make any arms collector extremely suspicious as unscrupulous dealers are only too happy to increase the value of a common item by attaching it to the memory of a military hero.
Nevertheless, if one were to attribute a random sword to a survivor of the Boxer siege, Captain Hall might not be at the top of the list. People are swayed by the romance of a weapon that has seen action (or at least been captured there in). While Hall’s men saw a good deal of action, he had an uncanny habit of remembering there was someplace else he needed to be just when the fighting broke out.
This pattern was noted by other residents of the ligation. No less a figure than Sir Claude MacDonald, the British minister to Beijing, wanted to see Captain Hall court-martialed for cowardice. After the siege, Hall requested a Naval Court of Inquiry to clear his name. His subsequent commendation demonstrates that his reputation was restored.
Yet history has looked at him with some ambivalence. Popular books, such as David J. Silbey’s The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China (Hill and Wang, 2012) and The Boxer Rebellion, by Dian Preston (Walker, 1999), probably provide a decent snapshot of his personality. They remember him as much for his boorish behavior as his absence under fire. Often noted was the occasion when he left Private Dan Daily to defend the Tartar Wall while it was under heavy fire. Hall supposedly left to find reinforcements, but never returned with any. Daily held the position by himself, fighting on through the night, and was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. If an antique dealer were to attach the name of a war hero to a Chinese weapon, one suspects that Daily would serve their purposes much better than Hall.
Setting thorny issues of provenance aside, let us assume that the label is correct. How would Hall have come across the weapon. This is where stories of taking a weapon from the body of a fallen enemy (probably one of the fanatical Boxers trying to kill Private Daily) typically emerge. Or given that swords like this were finding their way back to the West in steamer trunks even before the Boxer Rebellion, Hall might simply have purchased it in a curio shop of the type that were common in the “Tartar City.”
We will never know for certain. But there is a third possibility that is more likely than either of those. It may be the case that what we are looking at is a relic not of the fighting that engulfed the region, but the large-scale looting by the Western military forces that happened afterward.
This looting was one of the most prominent features of the entire period. Soon after liberating the ligation soldiers from all the allied states turned their attention to systematically stripping the palaces, mansion and common homes of the city of anything of value. The most sought after items were (unsurprisingly) gems, precious metals and furs. Close behind were silks, ceramics and art objects.
In the newspaper accounts of the period the officers of each army criticize their brothers in arms for the rapaciousness of their looting. Americans stood in wonder of the daily “prize auctions” hosted by the British in which the treasures accumulated by common soldiers were auctioned to more wealthy officers, diplomats and missionaries. Yet American soldiers could often be found taking part in these affairs, and were flagrantly disregarding the US Armies own orders against the practice. Everyone feigned horror at Russian and German soldiers kicking down the doors of curio shops. The Japanese officer corps, ever disciplined, distributed specific lists to their soldiers telling them what sorts of cultural artifacts and artistic treasures were most needed by museums and schools back in Japan. As word of this prolonged “carnival of loot” spread, enterprising Chinese merchants from Hong Kong and Shanghai even headed to Beijing to take part in the buying and selling.
While the Japanese and European diplomats assembled collections of immense cultural value, American soldiers were noted to be more interested in weapons and swords. It should be remembered that many of these individuals were campaign hardened veterans who left the battlefields of the Philippines for China’s hot and dusty plains. Hall’s sword seems to fit the overall patterns nicely. One suspects that it was purchased at a roadside stall being run by an enterprising soldier, or possibly at one of the daily auctions run by the British. That is how most officers acquired their loot.
What does it mean?
It may be the case that the broad forces behind this weapons’ murky back story are more interesting than its actual history as an artifact. For instance, if this blade was plucked from a battlefield in 1900, why not just say so? Readers may recall that the Opium Wars (1839-1860) resulted in huge amounts of looted weapons and artifacts being shipped back to Europe where they were prominently displayed in both private and public collections. The display of these material objects seems to have been a major event in the creation of the popular image of China in the West.
Yet, as James L. Hevia (2007) reports in “Looting and Its Discontents: Moral Discourse and the Plunder of Beijing, 1900-1901” (in Bickers and Tiedemann eds. The Boxers, China and the World), there were no major public displays of looted goods in the West following the Boxer conflict as there had been earlier in the 19th century. It is useful to consider why.
First, the public knew about the scale of looting, and it became something of a social controversy. Reporters for major newspapers and magazines ran accounts of auctions, markets, robberies and “punitive expeditions” into the countryside that seemed more interested in seizing property than finding Boxers. In fact, the public hungered for any news about events or the conduct of the War in China.
The Boxer Rebellion emerged as a media spectacle just as interest in the concluding Boer War began to wane. Early film makers created some of the first narrative “action films” to bring the sights of these battles to Western consumers. [Link] Publishers produced young adult fiction about boys who fought the dreaded Boxers to save their families (and earn a place in the imperial machinery). The 1901 “Grand Military Spectacle” in Earl’s Park staged a twice daily theatrical pageant telling the story of these events in which white actors in yellow face put on Chinese costumes and took up swords and spears to recreate for audiences the occult gymnastic practices of these enemies of civilization before staging an abbreviated siege of the Foreign Legation. (see page 42).
Yet the widespread reports of looting seem to have touched a nerve. The practice had its defenders. Looting was often framed in purely punitive terms, as the righteous retribution for the death of foreign missionaries and the destruction of Christian churches. In fact, many missionaries were at the forefront of looting activities, seeing them as a quick way to raise the funds necessary to rebuild their communities.
Nor can one discount the connection between the psychological and the political meaning of these acts. As Hevia notes, if the fighting was a type of violence inflicted on the bodies of combatants, looting was very much seen as violence inflicted on the property of the losers, and by extension the Chinese state at large. Looting carried clearly legible meanings. It was not just economic retribution. It was also seen as the just humiliation of a backwards people who refused to prostate themselves before the superior West.
Public opinion at home quickly shifted against these arguments, in both their explicit and implicit formulations. No less a cultural figure than Mark Twain took up his pen to decry looting being carried out by Christian missionaries. The Western intervention in Northern China had never been justified in purely political, economic or imperialist terms. That would have been impossible as the fierce competition between the Western powers would have ensured the almost immediate collapse of cooperation the moment that one country seemed to be gaining an upper hand in the “Great Game.” Indeed, Japan and Russia would come to blows within a few years of these events.
Rather, the conflict had been framed in normative terms. The West was forced to act to avert a massacre and defend both its fundamental values and vision of proper social order. It was the lawless murder of Christian converts and Western missionaries, and then the systematic looting of their property, that started the crisis. Newspaper stories of punitive expeditions into the countryside (which managed to kill many more innocent Chinese civilians than Boxers), and accounts of the “carnival of loot” in Beijing and Tianjin exasperated the public in both the West and Japan.
All of this was interpreted through an overtly racialized lens. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese hand combat practices were seen not so much as a set of skills to be mastered, practices with a history and cultural value, as a racial manifestation of Chinese cruelty, violence and indolence. For much of the 19th century what was emphasized in this mixture was the “indolence” and backwards superstition. I haven’t run across any Western account that viewed Chinese martial artists as particularly dangerous individuals at that time, though some were grudgingly willing to admit that they could be stronger and faster than one might guess.
All that background remained present after 1900, but now the threat of actual danger and violence came to the fore. Yes, these individuals were backwards and superstitious, but they were also fanatics who could kill with exotic weapons. And that was critical. Killing always comes with a level of grudging respect. In standing up to this manifestation of racialized violence the West found yet another justification for its imperialist zeal.
On some level, there was a desire for the danger that the Boxers promised. This was the reason why they were recreated with such painstaking care in the yellow face performances at Earl’s Court or in the various early films romanticizing the action in China. While interested Westerners had known about Chinese martial arts for much of the 19th century, only now did they become interesting. Only now did they appear on the front covers of magazines, or become something that one might want to “possess” (perhaps in the guise of a curio sword). Chinese boxing gained an emotional power during these years as it was reimagined as a totemic messenger of the racialized forces of disorder and violence.
Every text or event carries multiple meanings, and there is often a tension between them. This is where we will find the roots of the public aversion to the looting of 1900. It is also probably why Hall’s sword, and so many others like it, sat languishing in closets rather than having someone pick them up and start asking serious questions about how to use them.
To see western soldiers, supposedly the epitome of discipline and honor, acting out the same “uncivilized” vices that were attributed to the Chinese Boxer, raised serious questions that went well beyond hypocrisy. For the West, empire always carried with it the threat of racial pollution. How does one structure a system where the metropole can exploit the periphery, without the periphery somehow finding a foothold in the metropole?
Had these troops been infected by their time in China? Could “racial degeneration” occur simply through contact with Chinese individuals, or by prolonged exposure to the violence of Chinese society? The various treasures that were hauled back to the West were quietly laundered into the antique and curio market as the public backlash against looting was simply too strong to do otherwise. Yet in that rigidly hierarchic era, questions intensified about those who served at the edges of the empire. (Hevia, 106-107)
How should a looted sword be read? In the year 1901 did it represent the victory of the rational West over the forces of superstition and uncivilized barbarism? Or was there a more sinister undertone. Did it remind one too much of the violence that had been done, of the individual and social damage that could not be undone. Had the West been infected by its contact with China, even though it sought to contain it? Clearly such thoughts would help to inspire the prolific and popular Yellow Peril literature that would mushroom in the coming decades.
Swords such as this one would make frequent appearances in these novels. In Western story-telling the line between a sacred treasure, a stolen treasure and a cursed treasure is often quite thin. That anxiety might be helpful in thinking about the very slow spread of the Chinese martial arts. We often assume that because Westerners did not seek to practice the Chinese martial arts in the early 20th century that they must not have known about them. Or that these practices did not shape China in the public imagination.
This discussion, inspired by a single sword’s rather murky backstory, should remind us that neither of these assertions are necessarily true. The racialized nature of national identity in the 19th and early 20th century might explain why, even after the Chinese martial arts had gained a level of dark glamour previously been denied them, few Caucasians would be interested in such practices. While authors, actors, artists and film producers had discovered that one could make a great deal of money by appropriating the image of these fighting systems and repurposing them for the enjoyment of Western audiences, there was not much to be gained by reimagining them in a more heroic mode.
That task would await a future generation of reformers. They would begin with efforts to deal with the still festering memory of the Boxer debacle, on both the domestic and international stage. Still, if the Boxer had not demonstrated a willingness to stand up to the forces of imperialism, and occasionally give them a run for their money, one wonders whether later Chinese nationalists would even have bothered. While certainly a mixed and contested legacy (see for instance Paul Cohen), the dark glamour that arose through myths of the Boxer’s may have been more valuable to the emergence and eventual popularization of the modern Chinese martial arts than is generally realized. Who wants to study a martial art (or own a sword) that isn’t a little bit dangerous?
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Zhang Sanfeng: Political Ideology, Myth Making and the Great Taijiquan Debate