Some apologies are in order. My professional writing and research has taken me away from the blog for longer than I intended. In the last month I finished an one article draft, wrote two conference papers and went on a research trip. Things have actually been pretty productive, just not around here. At the time of this release, I am in Los Angeles where I will be giving a keynote at the 2019 Martial Arts Studies meeting at Chapman University. Following that I will be headed to another conference in Israel where I will be discussing “Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies.” But by mid June, I should be back in my office and things will have settled.
At that point lots of new material will be coming your way including two new conference papers and my reports on both events. But there are also a number of book reviews and other, more theoretical, discussions in the works. In the mean time, I am simply relieved to say that I have made all of my deadlines.
So, to celebrate, I thought that I would pull together a new post for Kung Fu Tea. I have always been fascinated with the material culture of various hand combat systems and have felt that Martial Arts Studies would have much to gain from a more detailed analysis of these artifacts. Of course empirical richness is always its own reward. No elaborate justifications are necessary. Consider, for instance, how much we learned about life in post-war Hong Kong just by asking some simple questions about Ip Man’s wooden dummy.
Yet if one were looking for such a justification, consider the following question. While developing his approach to Hoplology (a study of human combative behavior that is, in some respects, a precursor to modern Martial Arts Studies) Donn F. Draeger made much of the distinction between the “real” martial arts, developed and practiced by military professionals, and the more “plebeian” practices of civilian populations. In the later case, we find a variety of recreational wrestling and boxing styles, in addition to daily tools repurposed for defensive aims. But Draeger saw all of this as vastly different from the serious business of training professional warriors in organized groups to kill (or accomplish other complex objectives) using specialized tools.
At first cut such a distinction makes sense. It certainly made sense to Draeger, who was a former Marine. He and a generation of vets who had seen action in the Pacific seemed to hold few illusions that the sorts of physical contests seen in Judo were in any way comparable to “real” fighting. And this approach makes sense from the overall perspective of Japanese social history. It even dovetails quite nicely with the creation mythologies of Karate and various koryu fencing schools. One can certainly problematize these divisions (and later authors such as Hurst and Bennet have done just that), but Japan’s closed class system placed samurai martial artists in a very different position their their peasant or merchant cousins. Of course all of this really began to break down towards the end of the Tokugawa period, and things even looked somewhat different earlier in the medieval period.
Yet beyond these quibbles with the Japanese case, I have often wondered whether this sort of framework has much utility when applied to other types of cultures. Even China would seem to be a hard case. Certain units, such as the hereditary Manchu Banners and even elements of the Green Standard Army, seem to fit Draeger’s mold in the Late Imperial period. Yet a variety of authors (Wakeman, Esherick, Perry and Kuhn, just to name a few) have all noted that in actual fact the boundaries between China’s military and its civil population were actually quite porous, particularly during periods of social disorder during the later Ming and Qing. Of course those also happen to be the same periods when the Chinese martial arts sprang into being.
It was not uncommon during these periods for the authorities to decide that it was impossible to call on formal military assets during a crisis. In some cases (during the Ming piracy crisis) these units were already stretched thin, or they had simply melted into the countryside over generations of neglect. In others cases (the various battles fought in Guangdong during the 1830s-1850s) the Governor and local officials judged these units to be too weak and too poorly disciplined. Indeed, the Chinese military proved to be just as destructive to the local peasant populations as the invading British army or roving pirate forces. For a variety of reasons these units were deployed with care.
It was thus common to see local gentry led militia troops being raised and deployed to either “stiffen” these units or replace them all together. Very often these militias were made up of local civilian martial arts practitioners and instructors from peasant backgrounds. That doesn’t mean that all of them were unfamiliar with the wold of violence. Such individuals were also the “bare sticks” that fueled violent feuds between Southern China’s notoriously ill tempered (and highly armed) clans. Others may have had a hand in the security industry, salt smuggling, or petty banditry. Raising a militia not only strengthened one’s own forces, it also deprived local bandits and pirates (always seeking to capitalize on chaos) of potential recruits.
Then again, if one of these trouble causers could raise himself to the level of an independent warlord, the Chinese government was not adverse to simply cutting a deal where military rank was bestowed on a former bandit in exchange for his allegiance and assistance in an ongoing military campaign. While in theory a strict division between professional soldiers and the civilians classes existed, the final years of both the Ming and Qing saw generations where the line between militia member, bandit, soldier and martial artists were often blurred. Skills, training regimes and weapons seemed to permeate this social barrier as increasing numbers of civil martial arts instructors were hired as military trainers.
So what do China’s weapons, as historical artifacts, suggest about all of this? In some cases we see a very clear division between civil and military martial practices reflected in the period’s weaponry. The Ox-tailed saber became quite popular with civilian martial artist and security guards, but never appeared in the catalogs of the Green Standard Army. And the spears favored by individual civilian martial artists tended to be much shorter than those employed by formal military units trained to advance and fight in ranks.
In other cases the results are more mixed. The military examination system meant that a large proportion of China’s civil martial artists spent a great deal of time studying core military skills such as archery and horsemanship. Indeed, preparing others for a career in the military was a primary economic function of many martial arts instructors. Nor can we overlook the fact that many of Southern China’s martial arts societies spent quite a bit of time teaching two weapons to their student, the long pole or spear (3-5 meters in length) and the hudiedao (butterfly swords). Of course, these were also the most commonly issued weapons provided to members of gentry led militias during the turbulent 19th century.
The mystique that follows butterfly swords today is quite remarkable. Just think of all the Wing Chun schools that have adopted these swords as part of their logo. In the current era their introduction is often reserved for those who have achieved the highest levels of a system. Yet during the 19th century they were a fairly utilitarian implement, commonly issued to ships crews and security guards in the same way that the cutlass was being deployed in Western European navies. I suspect that they were issued in this way precisely because they were understood as easier to use than longer military style sabers or muskets.
But was hudiedao a “military weapon”? Or to put the question slightly differently, were they a purpose built killing implement, suggesting an origin in exclusively martial activity? Or were they instead an adaptation of a civilian tool? Are they better understood as a sort of machete or butchering knife, the sort of thing that civilians would already be familiar with?
Looking at the broad flat blades that are currently popular with martial artists, its not hard to imagine butterfly swords as falling into the later category. In the movies they are often used interchangeably with other utilitarian implements, such as watermelon knives, meat cleavers or hatchets. This generalist vision is very much in line with Draeger’s “plebeian” civilian arts. Given Confucian culture’s general mistrust of military values and culture (as well as its valorization of the gentleman), such media portrayals are likely not an accident.
Yet when one begins to examine actual antique weapons from the 1830s-1860s (a period of frequent conflict), a very different picture emerges. Typically in this era we find much longer swords with a thick spine, triangular cross section and thin pointed blades. These tended to be much longer (often 60 cm or more) than their current counterparts, and many fell into the same weight range as regulation military sabers (800-900 grams). It would be very difficult to imagine any potential use for such a weapon outside of military contexts. Such a blade would be useless on a farm, and anyone wielding it on a battlefield would probably need the support of individuals armed with longer pole arms and range weapons.
The complicating factor, however, is that its not entirely clear how we moved from the sorts of blades that were most common in the mid 19th century, to those that began to appear at the start of the 20th. In truth, there was never one set pattern that all hudiedao that a given time period adhered to. While much less common, there is some evidence of relatively wide and short blades in the mid 19th century, and some “stabbers” continued to be produced through the Republic period.
Nor does this exhaust the variety of possible blade types. As I have illustrated elsewhere, we also see hudiedao fitted with the coffin shaped blades that there popular on southern Chinese fighting knives, examples that are reminiscent of miniature ox-tailed dao, and even swords that reflect a South East Asian influence.
Returning to the hoplology paradigm, is this variety evidence of a discernible split between purely military, and later civilian, weapons? Or does it instead problematize the strict division between the military and civil martial arts, at least in 19th century Guangdong and Fujian province?
Peter Dekker, who runs “Mandarin Mansion,” has been generous enough to post detailed measurements and discussions of many of the traditional Chinese weapons that he has sold, including some fine sets of hudiedao. Two of these, in particular, caught my attention. While Peter was not attempted to weigh in on the afore mentioned hoplology debate, his description of these blades seems to speak to these issues. Consider the following set of knives.
The first thing that modern Kung Fu students might notice about these swords is their pronounced points and thick, triangular, spines (optimized for the thrust). The next thing (particularly if you are ever fortunate enough to handle a set of swords like these) is their weight. Dekker provides the following measurements.
Overall length (right): 63 cm
Overall length (left): 63 cm
Blade length (right): 50 cm
Blade length (left): 50 cm
Blade thickness (right): 14 mm (forte), 10 mm (middle), 5.5 mm (near tip)
Blade thickness (left): 15 mm (forte), 10.5 mm (middle), 5 mm (near tip)
Blade width (right): 36 mm (forte), 26.5 mm (middle), 14.5 mm (at tip)
Blade width (left): 36 mm (forte), 26 mm (middle), 14.5 mm (at tip)
Weight without scabbard (right): 850 grams
Weight without scabbard (left): 846 grams
P.o.b.: 10.5 cm from guard (right)
P.o.b.: 10 cm from guard (left)
He dates these particular swords to the mid 19th century (1850s-1860s), which seems very probable to me. Studio photos taken in Southern China during that period (or shortly there after) show blades of similar length and profile. Noting that such a thrusting weapon would be deadly in a fight, and that the Imperial government tended to come down hard on civilian martial artists who injured one another in either their work or challenge matches, he went on to note:
My understanding is that the heavy, narrow type is capable of delivering heavy cuts and deep thrusts, making it a lot more lethal, As such, it was more likely to have been used by local militia and the military who were allowed to kill in some circumstance. The wider, thinner version now popular under martial artists is much more suited for disabling the opponent while trying to avoid killing him. I think this explains their continued popularity into modern times.
Luckily Dekker’s catalog is deep enough to show some variation in the shape and function of period hudiedao. The next set of blades, while still long by current standards, has a wider blade more optimized for cutting rather than simply thrusting.
Overall length (right): 57.8 cm
Overall length (left): 57.8 cm
Blade length (right): 45.2 cm
Blade length (left): 45.3 cm
Blade thickness (right): 7.5 mm (forte), 5.5 mm (middle), 4 mm (near tip)
Blade thickness (left): 7.5 mm (forte), 5.5 mm (middle), 4 mm (near tip)
Blade width (right): 62 mm (forte), 44 mm (middle), 29 mm (at tip)
Blade width (left): 63 mm (forte), 44.5 mm (middle), 29 mm (at tip)
Weight without scabbard (right): 1053 grams
Weight without scabbard (left): 1064 grams
P.o.b.: 7 cm from guard (right)
P.o.b.: 6.8 cm from guard (left)
The dating of these blades is less precise than the first set, but Dekker suggests that they probably originate sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Again, I see no reason to doubt that assessment. One might be tempted to view these as part of linear evolution in which blades became shorter and wider, but in truth it seems that both of these blades types were circulating in fair numbers at roughly the same points in time.
Hypothesizing that the functionality of the blade (cutting vs. thrusting) might suggest something about social structure, Dekker notes:
Their blades come in several varieties. The wide bladed variety is the archetypical form known from southern Chinese martial arts, but surprisingly it is the narrow variety that is more common among antiques. My understanding is that the heavy, narrow type is capable of delivering heavy cuts and deep thrusts, making it a lot more lethal, As such, it was more likely to have been used by local militia and the military who were allowed to kill in some circumstance. The wider, thinner version now popular under martial artists is much more suited for disabling the opponent while trying to avoid killing him. I think this explains their continued popularity into modern times.
All of this requires a degree of unpacking. To begin with, I think its an open question as to whether cutting weapons are really less deadly in a confrontation than thrusting ones. The cut vs. thrust debate has a long history in the annals of swordsmanship and various militaries have found ways to make both weapons work on the battlefield. One might just as well wonder if the pointed blades were optimized for fighting individuals who might have armor (as was seen in the White Lotus Rebellion), where as the slicing blades were optimized for dealing forcefully with unarmored pirates or bandits in the tropical south.
This hints at another possible interpretation. The gentry backed militias in the area (using both private and public funds) produced and stockpiled large numbers of hudiedao during the 19th century. Yet unlike what might be seen in the case of the imperial military, there doesn’t seem to have been much standardization as to what that gear looked like. While later martial artists may have decided that they favored one type of sword over another for functional reasons (leading to an accelerating evolution once we hit the 20th century), the variety in blade types that we see earlier in the 19th century may simply reflect the fact that these weapons were being produced by many small shops to the idiosyncratic specifications of specific militia organizations.
A sample of only two swords is far too small a group to support any generalization of this magnitude. And three swords is hardly better. Still, it may be worthwhile considering another set of blades. This is my own set of swords, whose handles were featured on the cover my book (with Jon Nielson) The Creation of Wing Chun (SUNY 2015).
Images of these blades appear at both the top of this post and below. A reader of the blog recently asked me for some detailed measurements of these swords, and it occurred to me that I had never discussed them in much detail. So, after taking some measurements, I tried to recreate the series of pictures that Peter Dekker included with each of his hudiedao over at Mandarin Mansion to facilitate a set detailed comparison.
But lets begin with some numbers:
I would tentatively suggest that this set of swords also be dated to the 1850s or 1860s, much like the first pair that we examined. Once you take a closer, look there are many similarities. The gross measurements of the weapons (length, blade length and weight) are almost identical. Even the styles of the hilts are very similar with both having brass guards of similar weight and the identical lotus and bat motif. The fact that all of this should be so similar does make one wonder whether there may have been standard weights and lengths that militia weapons were ordered in.
Equally important are the differences. How the individual weapon-smith decided to get to these weight and length measurements is the more interesting question. My swords, while still hefty, do not feature the same thick spines that Dekker observed on this first set. The blade exhibits a nice distal tapper and a pronounced false edge that help to keep the handling characteristics manageable. While not as wide as the second example, these blades are clearly better suited to slicing than the first set. The smith who produced these blades seems to have answered the “cut vs. thrust” debate by asking “why not both?”
If we were to imagine the first set of blades introduced in this post as “pure stabbers,” and the second set as optimized slicers, then my own blades would seem to be transitional pieces, capable of handling both tasks without giving too much up. But what does all of this suggest about the nature of mid 19th century hudiedao and the martial artists (whether from military or civilian backgrounds) that trained to use them?
Again, we need to be careful about generalizing from a sample set of three swords. If we had a reliable database with the measurements of hundreds of antiques we might be able to discern a group of weapons that were clearly military in origin, and others that were adapted civilian blade types. As it is, the noise to signal ration in the surviving sample of antiques that I have encountered is too high to make such generalizations. Yet the existence of “transitional” swords, such as my own, which in every other way resemble blades that we typically associate with military service, makes me wonder whether drawing a strict differentiation between martial and civil swords is always necessary or wise, particularly within a cultural area as confused as Southern China’s 19th century militias.
This returns us to our central point. I will leave it to those better versed in the details of Japanese history to judge how useful Draeger’s distinctions between civilian and “real battlefield” martial arts actually is. Yet in other times and places, such as Southern China in the 19th century, such a distinction only seems to impose rigid categories on a situation that is worthy of our study precisely because it was so fluid. If butterfly swords were capable of transitioning from one realm to another (as well as small unit tactics, archery and musket skills, etc…) perhaps we also need theories that can embrace the messiness inherent in the sorts of historical inflection points that so often gave rise of the martial arts we now study.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Story of Ip Man’s Wooden Dummy.