One of the most notable trends over the last decade has been the rapid appreciation of prices for antique Chinese weapons. There is more variability in markets for antique objects than one might think. Simply being rare was does not make something valuable. Antique Chinese blades in good condition have always been somewhat hard to find. But when I first became interested in them, serious collectors seemed to only be interested in Japanese arms. Their main piece of advice was to avoid Chinese weapons all together.
Needless to say, things are quite different now. As China’s status as a global power has risen the domestic market for its own antiques has exploded, and the competition for those pieces that reside outside the country has likewise increased. I have recently been wondering if changes in the prices of certain types of antique ethnographic objects (including weapons) might not correlate with shifts in China’s soft power position more generally. Might it be possible to construct some sort of measurable “soft power index?”
It’s a question that deserves some study. Though it is also interesting to note that the social status of the traditional Chinese martial arts has been falling at exactly the same time that the price of antiques associated with these practices have skyrocketed. It seems that it is the image of China itself, as either an entitiy to be feared or desired, which is the critical factor here. The performance of TCMA practitioners “in the octagon” seems to be less of an issue. At least in the short run.
I began to think about shifts in the antique market after running across the postcard at the top of this post. In some ways it makes a nice companion piece to our last entry in this series. That also featured traditional Chinese weapons. But in that case the weapons were displayed in a prominent location in their homeland and in a traditional way.
This photograph features what appears to be the collection of a European official or military officer. I suspect that he was an administrator of some sort as his own pith helmet, displayed in the upped right hand corner of the image, is purposively contrasted with the traditional feathered hat of a Qing official on the other side of the display. One is thus forced to conclude that the collection of these weapons represents, at least on a visual level, the spoils of China’s transformation from a traditional Empire to a modern nation in close communication with outside powers.
The most interesting items are all displayed in the central part of the image. Readers will immediately identify two sabers that both appear to be well made but of a civilian rather than military pattern. Along with these we find a single hooked sword and a broad, flat, guard-less blade that resembles some sort of machete. Whether this specimen is actually Chinese in origin is an interesting question.
Beneath the swords we find a collection of ancient Chinese coins, juxtaposed with what appears to be old style black powder rifle cartridges. The lower half of the display keeps with the martial theme, but leaves the Chinese cultural sphere. We now find a collection of arrows that appear to be from Papua New Guinea and which have nothing to do with the Chinese style bow at the very top of the display. These are accompanied by a traditional paddle from the area, as well as a banner of some sort. Unfortunately, this postcard is badly faded and I can’t quite make out the image on the cloth. One wonders if the machete grouped with the swords originated with this part of the collection. The scene is then rounded off with a collection of musical instruments, pipes, a bamboo umbrella and a rustic bench.
Again, one strongly suspects that this collection represents the curios brought home by an official stationed first in China and then in New Guinea in either the late 19th or early 20th century. Such an individual may have been German, British or something else. If a sharper image of this postcard ever surfaces, perhaps the pith helmet (which seems to have some sort of insignia) will yield additional clues.
Still, I would expect that a German collector is probably a good bet. Prior to WWI the Germans held colonies in Shandong (areas that saw a good deal of violence during the Boxer Uprising), and they also colonized much of Papua New Guinea. Thus a bureaucrat’s or military officer’s career trajectory might very well connect these two otherwise distant places. Further, the specimen has an early divided back indicating that it was likely printed in Germany sometime prior to WWI (between 1907 and 1914), when they lost their monopoly on the export of high-quality photographic postcards. Sadly this postcard is not labeled in any way. We don’t even know who actually printed it. But it seems likely that it was printed in the pre-WWI period using an early 20thcentury (or late 19thcentury) image.
How much did our unknown collector pay for these trophies? Luckily we have a wonderful, if often overlooked, source on what was happening in the market for antique Chinese weapons as the nation’s military rushed to modernize. Dr. Edward Bedloe, who was the US Consul in Xiamen from 1890-93, wrote a very interesting article documenting how the bottom fell out of the market for antique Chinese swords and other arms in the last two decades of the 19th century. Of course these were also years when China’s status as a major power were in decline, coming to a head with Japan’s defeat of the larger empire during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).
Some context may be necessary before we can interpret the prices in Bedloe’s article. He notes that Chinese swords could be had for $1 or less, with good condition Qing military sabers selling for about $5. To put this in perspective, a plain double barrel shotgun in the Sears Catalog for 1892 sold for $7, and a Winchester repeating rifle went for $14. Most sportsmen in the US could afford the former firearm, but not the latter. New Winchesters were always something of a luxury. Perhaps those benchmarks will be useful when evaluating the perceived cultural value of a “$10 halberd” or a “$25 suit of armor.” While you could buy a good sword for less than $50 in today’s money, the very best antiques might still cost between $500-$2000.
Arms and Armor of Xiamen, 1892.
Consular Reports on Commerce, Manufacturing, Ect. No. 147. December, 1892. US Congress: Washington DC.
Report by Consul Bedloe, of Amoy.
Few collectors in the United States are aware of the wealth of China in all sorts of oddities and curios. There is an army of connoisseurs among the rich Mongolians, but they display little or no energy is accumulating art treasures. If they see something that strikes their fancy and they are satisfied with the price, they take it without a murmur. If it be 10 cents beyond what they regard as a fair limit, they walk off in high dudgeon. As a consequence, the curio market has few ups and downs. Nevertheless, it does an immense business the year through. The best patrons are naturally wealthy natives. Then come some European collectors and experts. Ship captains and missionaries are also buyers of considerable importance. Last and least are the collectors of the United States.
There is hardly an artistic taste but can be gratified in the Flowery Kingdom. A full description of the art treasures to be seen in its great cities would fill many volumes. A resume may be of interest to both the collector and the reading public.
Arms and Armor.
Of the former there are 1,100 types and 1,200 of the latter. The best workmanship in this line comes from Japan, and some admirable pieces are said to be of Korean origin. The Chinese work is extremely variable in quality and character, also in price, and, strange to say, the oldest and rarest weapons are sold at prices much below the charges for more modern and less curious implements of warfare.
In offensive weapons there is remarkable variety. On the coast its soldiers are armed with the latest rifles, while in the far interior they employ the same arms as were used by the vast hosts of Tamerlane and Zenghis Khan. Taking the empire as a whole, the student or collector can find in use today every weapon that has been employed within its borders since the time of Confucius. In addition to this, the mandarins and high officials arm their retinues with conventional weapons representing different periods in the history of the nation. On account of the changes wrought by time, many of these martial instruments are so incongruous as to be positively funny. This, for example, the Mongolian Tartars did their fighting on horseback, and one of their most formidable arms was a pole to which was attached a hook edged on the inside like a reaper’s sickle. With this they would pull a rider from his steed, wounding or killing him in the action, or would hamstring the horse at a single stroke. This pole hook is no longer used by the few cavalry squadrons of China, but is found carried by footmen in nearly all the retinues of great nobles. It looks formidable, but when used by infantry against infantry would be as serviceable as an Indian club fastened securely to the end of a broomstick.
A glance at a collection of these arms shows that military uniformity was almost unknown to the Chinese generals of the past, and that the armies were up of divers elements, armed usually with such implements used in peaceful pursuits as could be used in war. A common weapon is a trident, tined and barbed exactly as those employed by fishermen in spearing eels. Similar to this is a three-prong hay fork. Of equally bucolic origin is a long pole to whose end is fastened the end of a scythe or sickle. The European mace is suggested by a long handled, light-headed hammer similar to that with which Charles Martel is said to have won his quaint name. It is obvious that these weapons were of harmless origin. The first was the favorite instrument of fishermen and the second, third and fourth of agricultural people.
Of the five types described here there are no fewer varieties. The poles are bamboo or solid wood. They are plain, carved, or decorated with mother of pearl, metal or cord. The heads are copper, brass, iron, pewter, or steel. Sometimes they are silvered, sometimes bronzed, lacquered or gilt. Handsome ones are the exception and not the rule. The average retainer of a high official carries an arm whose pole is of the commonest wood stained red and whose head is of the poorest kind of cast iron or impure pewter. Many of these ominous-looking implements of war would not stand a light blow, both head and pole breaking at a very slight shock.
I have never seen any lances. [Recall that he was stationed in Amoy, and not in the north] The deficiency is made up by a surplus of spears and halberds. Of these the designs are varied, running from light and efficient points and edges to grotesque and hideous shapes that would frighten more than they would hurt. At times the workmanship is admirable. A spear captured by the French from the Black Flags in Tonquin is 8 feet long. The shaft is of ironwood, round, polished and varnished and reinforced here and there by wrappings of fine copper wire, and at the upper hand is incrusted the distance of a foot with mother-of-pearl. The end is ferruled with a large copper band, in which is set the spearhead. This is made of fine steel 6 inches in length and triangular in cross section. One face is deeply grooved so as to allow a large amount of poison. These spears are used with great skill by the Chinese. Lee-Yun, a famous bandit, could throw one through a man at 50 yards. In the franco-Tonquin war a powerful Chinese foot soldier drove his weapon entirely through two French infantrymen. It is claimed that the finer and handsomer spears are not of Chinese workmanship, but are made by Japanese, Korean, Anamite, and Malayan ironsmiths. How true this is I am unable to determine. [Note: what he describes in the preceding passage is almost certainly a Japanese Yari (spear) which was sold on the secondary market in southern China before ending up in a battle with the French.]
Of halberds there is great variety, ranging from simple lochaber ax and poleax to the cumbrous and complicated masses of metal that were so common at the close of the age of chivalry. The oddest specimen was one which, instead of an ax blade on one side, had what appeared to be a hammerhead. It would make a serviceable implement for driving picture nails in walls near the ceiling.
In archery the Chinese have long been experts, especially those of Manchooria and Se-Chuen. Their bows are of three types: the long bow, which is over 5 feet in length; the short bow, which is about 4 feet long; and the crossbow. The strings are made of silk, of gut, or of very strong homemade twine wrapped with fine silk in the middle. Bows are graded according to their pull, the standard being 100 catties (about 135 pounds). To determine the pull the bow properly strung is suspended from the middle and weights hung to the middle of the string until the latter is nearly an arrow’s length from the bow. Famous bowmen use bows with heavier pulls, ranging from 150 to 200 pounds, and one distinguished Robin Hood is said to have drawn a 200-catty bow (about 270 pounds). The bows vary greatly in materials, construction, decoration, and finish. They are made of one or several pieces of wood and are frequently inlaid or engraved until they are true works of art.
Worthy of mention are the tiger bows. These are extra large and heavy and are generally fastened to a framework near a path or road frequented by tigers or other large animals. It requires two men to set them, and they are so arranged that the moving of a cord stretched across the road disengages the bowstring and sends the arrow on its way. The force is so great that the shaft frequently comes out of the other side of the tiger, deer, or buffalo. To insure success the arrow is usually double barbed and envenomed. On the mainland, opposite the island of Amoy, these tiger bows are in constant use and annually kill at least 50 of these big beasts.
The weapons named are much cheaper than corresponding ones in the United States and Europe. The cheapest spears and halberds bring about 40 cents and bows 25 cents. From these figures the prices run slowly upward. A handsome poleax is easily had for $1, while weapons of the highest artistic value and finish can be secured for less than $5 each.
A handsome stand of arms, containing poleaxes, spears, halberds, swords and daggers—two each—can be procured for about $25. A stand equally attractive in appearance, but made in imitation materials, can be had for about half that amount.
Volkerkunde by F.Ratzel.Printed in Germany,1890. This 19th century illustration shows a number of interesting Japanese and Chinese arms including hudiedao. Bedloe indicates that this sort of a collection could have been bought in Xiamen in 1892 for less than $50 USD.
An American resident in Amoy was requested to execute a commission for a distinguished divine of the United States, a gentleman who, though a man of peace, has the finest, if not one of the best, collections of swords and other deadly weapons in the world. This led to the examination of several hundred rare and curious weapons sent him for inspection and approval. No two were alike of the lot selected, and not one that did not display rare skill on the part of the Chinese sword smith.
The handsomest of all is a general’s saber about 4 ½ feet long, slightly Japanese in style, with an edge like a razor and a point that would extort admiration from an Italian bandit. Unlike our own, the thickest part of the blade is the center. This gives great weight to the weapon, joined with an appearance of great lightness. The scabbard is made of hard, tough wood, lacquered to represent black iron incrusted with mother-of-pearl. The hilt is of black iron molded in form of a full-blown rose, the petals of which have been drilled with small holes and these filled with bright brass bars.
The most curious of the lot is the so-called warrior’s two-bladed sword, from Ho-Nan. It is only about 2 feet long, and in the scabbard looks very like the sword bayonet from our own army. The Scabbard is plain, but very neat, and covered with white shagreen (or shark skin) and trimmed with brass mountings. When you draw it the blade divides into two, each a facsimile of the other, double edged and spear pointed. The twin blades have a remarkable decoration made by drilling seven holes about an inch and a half in diameter and put in a zigzag line from hilt to point. These are filled with pure copper, which is ground down to form a smooth surface flush with the steel and polished to a mirror-like brightness. These seven stars, as they are called, are found in nearly all martial weapons of Ho-Nan and are relics of the old astrological faith that still prevails in many parts of China. Its hold is so strong that if the copper falls out of one of the sword hole it is accepted as a sure precursor of death, and the luckless wielder of the blade usually commits suicide to escape further trouble.
The short stabbing daggers, which find favor chiefly with pirates and revolutionists, form a strong contrast to with the weapons described. They are generally so ugly that they would be ludicrous were it not for the purposes to which they are applied. I have one which looks like a queerly made ace of spades fastened into a wire-bound handle. To increase the artistic effect of the weapon, the armorer has hollowed out a shallow, spoon-shaped concave on either side of the blade and filled it with blood-red lacquer, the effect of which, when suddenly drawn from a black sheath, is very startling. Spades are not the only suit in the pack that is popular in the Mongolian mind. I have another weapon whose blade is a perfect ace of Diamonds. All four sides are ground down to an almost concave edge, and the blade is made hideous by Chinese red lacquer work made to represent drops of blood and gouts of gore.
Still another dagger is about the clumsiest affair of the kind I ever handled. The blade is foot long, about 3 inches wide, and half an inch thick. With its heavy brass hilt and gigantic guard it weighs over three pounds. If set with a long handle it can be used as an ax [Note: he may be describing a single “hudiedao shaped” short-sword with a brass hand guard. These are often carried and used with a rattan shield.] It is used chiefly by the Black Flags and other celestial outlaws, who, in addition to using it in the ordinary manner, throw it with fatal precision. The ex-resident of Tonquin told me that during the late war he had known instances in which knives were thrown with such force that they would go through a man’s body and show 2 inches of bloody steel beyond his back. The handles of many of the instruments of death are finished with what we call pistol grips.
The most dreadful looking weapon of all is the executioner’s sword, used by the late headsman of Amoy. It is of Manchoorian type, being long, almost straight, very heavy, and keenly edged. It is used with one hand, and is shaped and wound so as to give the executioner a powerful hold upon his weapon. Upon the blade near the hilt are Chinese characters recording the tragic events in which it has taken active part. My interpreter told me that it records no less than one hundred and ninety-three human lives which it has taken out of this world. This record enhances its value. A new sword of the same kind could be bought for $10 or $12, but for this sword, with its ghastly history, the thrifty broker wanted $200 cash. He evidently thought that, although it came high, I must have it and accordingly raised the price. He was a very heart broken creature when I declined it with thanks.
A word of caution as to these Oriental swords and daggers: Very many of them are poisoned, so that a mere scratch will cause death. The venom is produced by steeping the blade in decayed human blood, and is one of the deadliest known to physiological science.
From now on for the next five years will be the golden opportunity for the collector to secure the finest specimens of swords. The market has never before contained and never will again such an assortment as regards either beauty, economy, historic value, variety, or workmanship. The reasons are simple enough. The opening of China and Japan to the outside world and the introduction of firearms was a fatal blow to the sword smiths’ industry. Before that event the makers of swords formed the wealthiest and most powerful guild in the East. The medieval rivalry between Milan, Toledo, and Damascus was insignificant alongside of that of the great armorers of the Orient. Competition caused experiments in metallurgy, alloying, forging, and tempering that produced results of high value and disclosed mechanical secrets to the workers in steel that are unknown to the best cutlers in Europe and America today. They produce blades with perceptible tints in violet, blue, green, red, silver and gold. Saladin’s sword that would cut a veil or a cushion and Richard Coeur de Lion’s, which would sever a steel mace, could have been duplicated in a hundred shops in the days of the Shogunate and the eighteenth-century mandarins.
Upon the sword, art ran mad. The smiths learned to arrange the fibers of the metal so as to form geometrical patterns, the figures of flowers, fruits, and leaves, and even the Chinese characters composing quotations from the great poets and philosophers. Their skills in this field bordered on the marvelous. You can obtain superb weapons even now which in the brightest sun seem made from metal mirrors. Put them in the sunlight so as to cast a reflection on a dark surface, and in the illumination you will see in faint lines every pattern I describe. The effect is the same as that produced by the magic mirrors of Japan, but how its done no one knows.
The appearance of this flood of weapons upon the market is due to an additional cause. Under the ancient regime every noble, high and low, in Japan was attended by two-sworded men at arms, just as the robber barons of the middle ages were accompanied by steel clad swash-bucklers. In 1860 there were, it is estimated, at least 400,000 “two-sworders” in Japan. The revolution of 1868 changed all this in a twinkling. Sword-wearing, except by the police and soldiery, who had ordinary European weapons, was made a crime. The two-sworder lost his occupation, and his tools of trade locked up as mementos of the golden past. But twenty years have come and gone since then, the Mikadate is an established fact, and all hopes and desires of a return to the old feudal system have become mere echoes. A new generation has arisen which cares for money and not for the “hero’s weapon,” and the old one, which loved the blade for its past, is rapidly dying out. The consequences is that young Japan, with admirable thrift, is putting the weapons of his sires and grandsires in the curio shops to exchange them for yen and sen, the dollars and cents of their mint.
In China the mandarin has sold his grandsire’s blade and carries an umbrella instead. So many have taken this course that the market is more than glutted. Two-thirds of these weapons have tasted blood. All are interesting, a majority are very handsome, while a few hundred are simply superb works of art. The prices at times are so low as to be laughable; $3, $2, $1.50, $1 and even 75 or 50 cents will procure a weapon such as a Broadway and Strand dealers have frequently sold for $50 and upwards. The low prices have put many noble weapons to ignominious uses. Here and there in rich farming land the Orient goes beyond the Biblical prediction and turns the sword into a plowshare, a reaping hook, a pruning knife, a carver, a poker, and even a skewer. One day I saw two fishes being roasted on a blade that may have swung in the great wars between China and Japan.
There is no more handsome ornament to a drawing-room or library than a trophy of arms, and of these the most attractive is a set of eastern swords, with their exquisitely carved hilts, their noble blades, and their fantastic yet ever beautiful scabbards.
While China cannot compare with Europe in the beauty, richness, or variety of the defensive armor, it nevertheless can show many ingenious and interesting types.
The original armor of the north (Manchooria and Mongolia) seems to have been leather, and in shape was more like a blouse than a jerkin. In the course of years the skin was doubled, trebled, and quadrupled, and a Chinese lower garment that might be called leather greaves and cuirasses combined was added to the upper one. The Mongolian Nomads learned at an early age that a coat or cuirass made of sheepskin in several thicknesses made a very warm garment and would turn a spear, arrow, or sword. Apparel of this class is in use to-day and may be bought very cheaply in Sha-Toong. Parallel to this alternating leather and wool in the north was that of paper and cotton cloth in the south of China. It seems ridiculous to call such combinations armor, and yet they made an armor superior in many instances to steel. Thirty thicknesses of alternate calico and paper will resist a pistol bullet or one from a rifle at a distance of 100 yards. A spear-man who thrusts his weapon into a man clad in this kind of garment can neither wound his enemy nor extract his weapon, and, if the enemy is an archer or is armed with a long sword, he is likely to lose his life for his mischance. The suit of the famous Yun-Nan bandit consisted of sixty thicknesses of cotton cloth and paper and made him practically invulnerable. These suits are comparatively light, are very durable, and, of course, extremely cheap.
Between these extreme types lie many kinds of plate, scale, and chain armor. Plate mail never reached a high development in the far East. I cannot find that it ever passed beyond the combination of breastplate, backplate, and shoulder pieces. Scale mail, on the other hand, at an early period was carried to a high perfection. The scales were applied to cloth or leather at first as spangles are to gauze and later as tiles or slates are to the boards of a roof. They were composed of iron, pewter, silver, gold, or of various Oriental alloys. In making a suit scales of one kind were usually employed, but combinations were frequent in which metals of contrasting colors were used. A good suit of armor can be bought at prices ranging from $10 to $15.
Of the different pieces of armor the helmet alone deserves attention. The Chinese artists worked along a different channel from his European colleagues and tried to make the headpieces monstrous and terrifying rather than protective. Designs representing the jaws of serpents, griffins, and dragons are very common, but such affairs as the barred visor and vizored helmet which Dore loved to draw are entirely unknown. Morions and skullcaps were also in general use and are to-day. The queerest type of all is the executioner’s helmet. It resembles a high mouse trap or flytrap in wire and painted the conventional vermilion. Centuries ago the wires were flat and so arranged as to defy swords and ax, and, owing to their great height, disconcerted the archers of the opposing army. In the north, where wood is scarce, the helmet is made from woolen cloth, leather and metal; in the west, where there are forests, wood was frequently employed; while in the south, in addition to these materials, cotton cloth and paper were also used. Helmets very in cost according to workmanship and materials, ranging from 50 cents to $50.
Shields and bucklers have been in vogue from time immemorial. The favorite type is a bossed circle from 2 to three 3 feet in diameter similar to those employed by the Highlander. Its composition is leather, metal, or woven split bamboo. Bamboo shields are very strong and durable. They are made of a certain variety of that vegetable, which must have attained a certain size and hardness of the fiber before it was fit for this particular purpose. The bamboo is split into piece an inch in width and 4 feet in length, softened and braided in basketwork over a frame the size of the desired shield. It is dried in the sun and then in a kiln and afterwards polished and varnished. Its great strength and elasticity and lightness rendered it an admirable weapon of defense. A double thickness of bamboo with a metal rim makes a buckler unlike any to be found elsewhere, and costs 50 cents. Unlike at home, the new weapon costs more than the old. Antiquities can be had for a third or a fourth of the cost of new reproductions. Rich men in China prefer cheap imitations to originals, whether new or old, and the curio market scarcely knows armor as an object of virtue.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (33): Two Views of Chinese Fencing (and a Lesson in Dating Postcards)
Leave a Reply