Over the last year many Chinese martial arts students in the West have become aware of the replica Han dynasty weapons currently being produced by LK Chen in Guangdong. These high-quality pieces are all the more attractive given their relatively modest price.
I first became aware of LK Chen’s work after seeing early reviews of some of his products on popular YouTube channels including the ones run by Swordsage and Skallagrim. After that I stumbled across LK Chen’s webpage and started to watch his own videos. Some of these discussed the research and construction techniques used in the creation of his Han jian and dao. Other videos focused instead on the use of these weapons in either practical cutting or solo-training.
It was really these later videos that caught my attention. There is no doubt that these swords can cut. Yet many of the weapons used during the Han dynasty are unlike their more familiar relations from the Ming and Qing. An examination of jian and dao from museum collections suggests that many of these blades were very long and narrow by the standards of modern Chinese weapons, with proportionally short grips. Repolished or well-preserved specimens might at first appear to have more in common with a rapier than a relatively short modern jian.
Archeological finds and existing artwork suggest that swords were encountered in a wide variety of contexts during the Han dynasty. Individuals (at least the sort likely to be memorialized on tomb walls) are often shown wearing swords as part of their daily routine. Soldier in combat, on the other hand, might carry a dao or a jian in one hand and a large shield in the other.
While the archeological record has left us a rich trove of surviving swords and art, no complete martial arts texts survive from this period. While contemporary library catalogs suggest that a number of texts on fencing were produced, and at least some found their way into imperial collections, we are left to wonder how these elegant weapons were actually used.
Given my prior research on the invention and recreation of martial systems, I became fascinated with efforts to revive the Han jian. Not only were the swords being produced by LK Chen beautiful, but there seemed to be a small group of a martial artists who were using them in an attempt to recreate an ancient fencing system. I wanted to know more about this project. After some initial emails I was able to make contact with LK Chen who graciously agreed to do an interview for the readers of Kung Fu Tea.
And then I made another discovery. He had just shipped a sword to Ithaca NY! After some enquires the customer who bought the piece agreed to let me to take a look at it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it had been purchased by a friend of mine at Cornell who also has a long-standing interest in the Chinese martial arts. He was happy to loan me the sword for a week so that I could take it for a “proper test-drive.”
While I was reluctant to do any practical cutting with a borrowed sword, LK Chen’s Flying Phoenix did become a part of my daily practice of both basic techniques and taolu. While certainly heavier and more solid than the sorts of “wushu weapons” that one often encounters, individuals who are used to practicing with solidly built late imperial and modern swords will probably be impressed by how light and lively this blade feels in the hand.
One would not think that a sword measuring close to 42 inches (106 cm) in length would weigh in at a svelte 810 grams. Given its diamond shaped profile this feat has been accomplished through a combination of distal taper, minimalist fittings, and a blade that comes to a surprisingly narrow tip. All of these features also appear on historic blades from the Han period. Indeed, those pieces are often longer and more elegant than cheap modern reproductions (which often seem to be taking their design cues from earlier bronze swords) might lead one to suspect.
The Flying Phoenix feels shorter than it actually is due to its perfectly placed point of balance. I was actually a bit surprised how well it adapted to my morning form work, and even phrases with more complex moulinets or plum blossoms weren’t that much of a challenge. Mind you, the sword did not “feel” like most modern jian (at least the ones I have used), but it seemed to be able to handle a full range of techniques. The blade itself is beautifully constructed and the metal has a lovely grain structure with no forging issues that I could see. It is both very sharp and fairly flexible, though I didn’t do any “torture testing” as this was a borrowed blade.
The hilt of the Flying Phoenix is one of its most interesting features. My hands are on the larger side and I found its cord wrapped oval profile quite comfortable. Coming in at about eight inches, it is long enough that one might be tempted to call it a two-handed sword. To test this hypothesis, I tried out some Ming-era double handed swords and sabers material. I found the hilt to be a little short for these sorts of applications. But as I previously noted, I have large hands so your results may vary. On cold winter days when I practiced with gloves the hilt itself was comfortable enough. But when I practiced double handed sets without gloves I found that the slightly sharp edges on the cast bronze guard would bite into the webbing of my top hand.
My grip on the hilt was certainly more natural with one hand and the guard ceased to be an issue. Indeed, one hand is all that is necessary to wield this particular blade, though it really excels in situations when a second hand is occasionally called for (certain Wudang sword sets come to mind). Rather than being based on a specific historic example (as some of LK Chen’s swords are), the Flying Phoenix is very much his own attempt at constructing the “perfect” Han jian. The blade, weight and hilt length all fall within the standard distribution curves of known examples, but Chen was seeking to create a blade that was capable to facilitating a variety of modern training practices while also expressing the essence of its ancient forebearers.
All in all, I have really enjoyed my time with the Flying Phoenix and I am not looking forward to giving it back! While I have not had a chance to examine LK Chen’s complete range of swords, I suspect that those looking for a more “conventional” jian might want to checkout the Magnificent Chu. And if I were to ever order a dedicated two handed jian I would probably go with the Roaring Dragon. Still, after spending a week with this sword it is not hard to understand why LK Chen has chosen it as his personal favorite.
This brings us back our interview. I have lightly edited the questions and responses for both length and clarity. Much of the following conversation focuses on what inspired LK Chen’s interest in Han dynasty swords and how he has attempted to recreate them. There are many ways to read a text like this. As a social scientist I think it offers us a peak into the values and desires that are driving some exciting new trends within the development of China’s weapon-based fighting practices.
Kung Fu Tea (KFT): Before we get to the swords, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
(LK Chen): My name is Chen Li Kai. I am 31 years old, from Guangdong Province and the city of Zengcheng. I graduated from Zengcheng middle school (a notable high school in Guangdong). I then attended Guangzhou University where I majored in Civil Engineering. After graduating in 2012 I participated in a number of on-site construction projects.
My first job, from October 2012 to February 2017, was working with an architectural construction company. From June 2017 to August 2019 I worked for a town-level public works department. Finally, in August of 2019 I transitioned to the fulltime design and manufacture of replica swords. I am also working on the development of sparring gear as well as the reconstruction of ancient martial arts swordsmanship.
(KFT): Is anyone else in your family a martial artist?
(LK Chen): My family is made up of intellectuals, myself included. My father graduated from South China Normal University and majored in mathematics. In his college days he also excelled in gymnastics and martial arts. My parents, however, oppose my current career choice (which I should add is not uncommon when it comes to martial arts in China).
(KFT): How were you first introduced to the martial arts? What styles or systems have you studied?
(LK Chen): My first exposure to martial arts was through history texts, TV shows and films. During the 1980s, martial arts movies from Hong Kong became very popular in China.
I first learned Long Fist, Tiajiquan and Sanda (free fighting). During my student years, I also learned some Wushu sword forms from the Wushu instructors at school. Aside from that I independently studied Wudang, Shaolin and other schools of swordsmanship.
(KFT): What are your thoughts on the current state of the traditional Chinese martial arts?
(LK Chen:) As I have mentioned before, I think that the traditional Chinese martial arts are, in essence, a product of previous weapon and martial bans. In modern China the TCMA have been weakened, codified and transformed into primarily performance activities. The true combat ability of Wushu is far behind Sanda or any other modern combative arts. Like many other cultural activities, TCMA have developed better in the Western world than in China.
(KFT): Why did you decide to explore the military technology (and techniques) of the Han dynasty? Why not focus on the more accessible fighting systems of the Republic, Qing or Ming periods?
(LK Chen): In the beginning I did not focus my martial practice on Han dynasty techniques. Like everyone else, I only had access to TCMA. I started my training through the study of the available Chinese Martial Arts.
At that time, I read all the martial arts books that were available. This included books on well-known empty hand and weapon routines (tulou) as well as volumes on Shaolin Qigong, Shaolin Fist, Taijiquan , Xingyi Quan etc…
Of special interest were the Ming Dynasty military manual and martial arts texts such as
“New Treatise on Military Efficiency” by general Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), “Sword Treatise” (actually a Staff Treatise) by general Yu Dayou (1503-1579), “Secret teachings on long spear” by Cheng Zongyou (1561-1636), “Hand and Arm recordings” by Wú Shū (1611-1695), and “Records of Armaments and Military Provisions” by Mao Yuanyi (1594-1640).
Aside from these sorts of texts and manuals, all of the martial art instructors that I could find taught systems passed down through lineages such as Taijiquan or Wing Chun. Yet my main interest is in Chinese fencing, not empty hand marital arts. My goal is to reconstruct and rediscover real military combative swordsmanship. Wushu sword routines (taolu) are of little value in this regard.
After graduating from university, I first came into contact with authentic Han jian. Real military weapons always leave a distinct intuitive impression on those who came into contact with them. An authentic Han jian is narrow, long, sharp at the edge and tip, and possesses the swift and fierce offensive characteristics typical of military weapons. When wielding a Han jian, one can fully unleash the power of the “strike” and “stab” techniques as mentioned in classical swordsmanship text. When compared to late imperial Ming and Qing swords, the Han jian is superior in its offensive abilities due to its shape and construction methods.
I felt that these swords could reveal something about the martial spirit of people during the mighty Han dynasty. Early Han emperors employed the Huang-Lao schools of thoughts as their ruling philosophy; facilitating rapid recovery of the country from years of war and destruction. Eventually, Han troops gained fame as “One Han could withstand five Wu (invaders).” [Excerpt from the biography of Han general Chan Tong.]
In historical texts and on stone murals, we can see the huge popularity of swordsmanship in the Han dynasty. Civilians collected and possessed large numbers of weapons. Crossbows (which one might think of as the machine gun of that day) could be owned by a private person. It was even fashionable to have one’s weapons proudly displayed on special weapon racks at home.
From the standpoint of martial culture, almost none of the later dynasties could match the Han. This is especially evident in Ming, Qing and modern military campaigns where commanders simply relied on “human wave” attacks, using body counts to overwhelm opponents on the battlefield. During the Han dynasty troops were strong and generals capable, the whole population could fight.
For 400 years, the Han remained a strong empire that never lost a battle. This is why I truly believe that Han dynasty martial arts can best represent China on the world stage.
(KFT): Given that we don’t have any existing written works on fencing from the Han dynasty, what sorts of archeological resources have you turned to when attempting to reconstruct these practices?
(LK Chen): It is true that the 38 Sword Treatises that were mentioned in the chapter, “Catalog of Arts and Literature” in the Book of Han, were lost forever. But since the Han dynasty was the peak of fencing, there are still plenty of other references and resources that we can draw upon. These include:
(1) Insights from other historical texts
For example, when we examine mentions of fencing in the Book of Han and the History of the Grand Historian, the most common verbs are “Striking” and “Stabbing.” For instance, the sword critic Lu Goujian said the following about Jing Ke’s failed attempt to assassinate the Qin emperor, “Alas, it was a shame that he did not pay enough attention to the fencing skill of ‘Stabbing.’”
The similarly ancient text “Spring and Autumn of Wu and Yue” recorded the saying of the female sword master, the Maiden of Yue. Her conceptual discussion is very similar to the theory of the old fencing master Yu-Yang, as mentioned in the Ming Dynasty text “Hand and Arm recordings.”
The concepts shared between these two sources, millennia apart, include: Yin and Yang, Gates and Doors, Empty and Substantial. Both stress the importance of quick footwork. For this we can see that fencing in the Han dynasty did not emphasis complicated moves but was a much more psychological and strategic game.
(2) Insights from Han era stone murals
Large numbers Han dynasty of stone murals have been found, and many include depiction of military campaigns, fencing and other types of weapon combat. The basic moves of weapons such as Jian, Dao, Ji, Spear and Gou-Rong were all recorded on these murals.
(3) Archeological insights from the shape and construction of the weapons themselves
In general, Han jian are very long, with most blades measuring over 90cm (35”) in length. Furthermore, these are typically single-handed swords. Wielded by itself, the jian was very agile. During duels the sword was usually used together with a Gou-Rang, which probably served to restrict the overall range of motion but also made possible other techniques. Take our logo as an example, it contains an image from a Han mural. The Gou-Rang in the left-hand wards off a Ji attack followed by a thrust with the jian held in the right. It is a very typical move.
(4) Insights derived from “ethnographic analogy,” or working backwards from later martial arts manuals and military texts
While we noted that there is a huge gap between Han era martial arts and the later dynasties, the fundamental principles of hand-to-hand combat must remain the same. Therefore, as long as a combat situation is analogous, the moves should be similar.
For example, when we mention the sword technique of “Strike,” how is that described in traditional martial art texts? To “strike” is to hit your opponent using the upper/false edge (right-handed person extending the arm forward holding a sword, palm facing left, cut with the upper edge). Many modern students seem not to be aware of the fact that a jian has 2 sharp edges and a tip. All three can be uses to attack your opponent.
Other examples, such as the Ming dynasty martial arts text titled the “Sword treaties,” talked about the using footwork to “position at the right beat” vs the much earlier Maiden of Yue description of footwork as “move forward and backward, flanking sideways, follow and encounter.” The “Hand and Arm recording” talked about how to use a shorter weapon to subdue a pole arm. All of this contrasts with Three Kingdoms period autobiography of Cao Pei in which he discusses his ability to use a sword to deceptively attack longer pole arms.
(KFT): I understand that you have been working on a book attempting to reconstruct martial arts techniques from the Han dynasty? Could you describe that project and some of your initial findings?
(LK Chen): I started the book project in 2013 and the first draft was finished in 2015. At that point I set the project aside. The book is a systematic summary of my fencing experience during my student years, my practice since graduation, plus the insights I gained while sparring with practice partners. Due to a variety of reasons I chose not to continue the project after the first draft. However, the theoretical system was completed, and I can apply and express that theory when I encounter any opponent. My workload at the construction company was not that bad, so at that point I had plenty of time to work on research.
Since I started to work full time as a sword designer, I must focus on offering products that fill needs in the market. As such, the next step is to perfect specialized sparring equipment including Chinese style protective gear and practice swords. I think that my book served a purpose in that it helped me to record the theory and thoughts behind my personal fencing system. But any real insights should be validated during actual sparring and applications.
(KFT): How have martial artists and other individuals in China responded to your project? Is there much interest in the Han jian?
(LK Chen): In China, people tend to accept only those things that can be seen and are not too interested in new or unfamiliar practices. The most crucial point to understand is that the concepts and belief system of contemporary Chinese martial arts are very different from whatever existed during the Han dynasty. But on an even more basic level, people today seem to be against most martial activities. The government seeks to regulate and control them, they are often opposed by families, and it has gotten to the point that even sending a real sword through a courier service is forbidden.
Given these conditions, the circle of individuals interested in the revival of ancient martial skills is very small. We all know each other. Of course, real martial arts enthusiasts will come and find me, but there are only a few such people. Occasionally, someone will come from afar to my place for some exchanges, and then stay to learn the sword system.
Nevertheless, a system of knowledge cannot flourish without the benefits that come from establishing a robust community. In the current environment, it is very difficult to promote a revival of Han fencing arts in China. Incidentally, a few years back, a Chinese-American instructor named Mr. Yu Ting Kwok served as the chairman of the local martial arts association. He taught martial arts in America and developed his own system based on Wing Chun. He seems to have rather approved of my attempts to revive a system of Han dynasty swordsmanship.
(KFT): A wide variety of Han dynasty jian have been found by archeologists. As such it may not be possible to talk about a “typical Han jian.” Could you instead describe some of the more common sorts of categories of swords that have been found? Historically speaking, who would have used these swords?
The number of unearthed swords is really huge, but I think that our “White Arc” represents the “most typical” Han jian. Regarding the different grades of swords, I have done some research on that subject. It is true that Han jian of lengths over 1 meter have been unearthed in the tombs of commoners.
Han jian seem to have been graded on a number of factors. These included: the degree of forging of the steel, the skill shown in polishing the blade, and the material used in the fittings. Jade fittings were used for the highest-grade jian whereas regular swords had cast bronze or even wood fittings.
By the Western Han period the ring pommel dao had already replaced swords as the main short weapon used in military battles. Of the many Han jian unearthed after that date, I speculate that most were used primarily for personal adornment as part of formal attire, personal protection, and fighting in duels or competitions.
(KFT): Your research has been conducted on swords found in both museums and private collections. Are you ever concerned with the provenance of artifacts that you are shown? How big a problem is the creation of fake antique swords for collectors or scholars in China today?
(LK Chen): One of the members of my design team is a graduate student at the Industrial University of Nanjing. He is also one of the people who provides us with detailed measurements and specifications of original artifacts. Beyond this he is also a collector of original Han dynasty weapons and has developed the archeological know-how to date them.
Specimens in museum collection are without a doubt authentic. If an exhibited item is a replica, the museum will clearly say so. And it is rather easy to distinguish true antiques from the replicas. Museum collections in China all come from archeology digs and the whole process is tightly regulated by the government.
Still, when we talk about the antique market, it is true that there is a lot of chaos in China. For the expensive, highly sought-after bronze weapons, it is unavoidable that there are fake replicas on the market. However, iron and steel weapons are less sought after by antique collectors. Their prices are relatively cheap. As a result, there is just less of an incentive to make fake iron and steel weapons.
(KFT): I notice that your swords are often lighter and longer than what many people might imagine the Han jian to be. How did you determine the proper weight of your blades? Would these sorts of swords have been used against armored targets?
Since I have access to many authentic specimens, some of them fairly well preserved, we can see that most of the antiques follow a common form factor and do not deviate too far from it. Through the statistical sampling of many antiques, it is possible to discover the range of historically acceptable weights.
There was not a high probability that the Han jian would be use directly against armor as these swords could break. That is why the during following dynasties, such as the Jin and the Northern and Southern Song, we see that that the Jian became shorter and thicker, for the purpose of breaking through armor.
(KFT): Can you tell me a little bit about the Flying Phoenix? Was this sword based on a specific historical example, or did you have other goals in its design?
Flying Phoenix is a classic, the premier sword of the LK Five. It is my first design. There is no doubt that there are original Han dynasty blades with profiles very similar to the Flying Phoenix. In fact, the Flying Phoenix and White Arc both have typical Han period blade profiles. In some case, when we designed our swords, we took averages from surviving specimens rather than trying to make 1:1 replicas of specific artifacts.
For example, I might measure five authentic Han swords with blade length of 85 cm, another 6 specimens with a blade length of 87 cm, and find that all these swords had weights that ranged from 1.2 – 1.3 “斤Jin” (600 – 650 grams) to (1斤jin = 500 grams). In that case my design might be a sword with blade length of 86 cm and a weight of 1.25 “Jin” (625 gram). Such a sword would be well within the range of realistic possibilities and abides by true Han period design parameters.
I believe that the Flying Phoenix is one sword that can best unleash the power of both striking and thrusting techniques. Other than reach, its speed, degrees of freedom and agility are all better than the White Arc’s.
In terms of fittings, the Flying Phoenix hand guard resembles a bird’s wing spreading in flight, a classic Han design motif that makes the Flying Phoenix look both agile and sharp. The pommel is also based on the most common round type. The other 2 fittings on the scabbard, the tip of the scabbard and the belt loop, are modeled after jade fittings and carved wood, which fits the style of the Han dynasty. The swirling cloud, hand-painted, motif on the scabbard enhances the overall cultural consistency of the product. I even made myself a customized scabbard, which is a 100% accurate replica of true Han dynasty design.
(KFT): Which of your jian comes the closest to approximating a “typical” Han military jian?
(LK Chen): Well, as I mentioned above, by the Western Han dynasty, the main military weapon had switched to Han dao. For the three single hand swords in my LK 5 collection, each one represents a classic of its time, however, they might not have been widely used in military combat. While delving deeper into whether these types of jian saw use on the battlefield, my team member (the graduate student) and I went through the archeological reports of the Chang An Royal Armory and various other Han dynasty records written on bamboo strips.
It was recorded that there were tens of thousands of jian in the armory at that time. However, we cannot be 100% certain, that the “jian” mentioned in these official records were actually the same as those later unearthed by archeologists in the tombs of commoners. But in some famous institutions, such as the Shuzhou Museum, they have extensive collections of “typical” Han jian and we can see that these weapons have very similar blade profiles to our swords.
If these museum pieces really do reassemble the early Han dynasty military jian, then we can probably say that both the Flying Phoenix and the White Arc are true representations of period military swords.
(KFT): Which of your swords is currently your favorite for personal practice or cutting?
(LK Chen): For single handed swords, the best for personal training by far is the Flying Phoenix.
The best representation of a “common Han jian” is the White Arc. But for those who like ornamental, beautiful swords, I think that they would like the Magnificent Chu Jian.
For double handed swords, Striking Eagle is the most powerful. Nevertheless, it is challenging to wield. I think the Roaring Dragon has the edge as it is easier to use as well as more colorful and ornate.
Regardless of which sword you choose, these Han dynasty swords need to be use with the appropriate corresponding techniques. This means more of a focus on striking and stabbing than chopping and slashing. Having said that, the cutting power of these swords is still potent. In this regard, the Flying Phoenix and the White Arc are great cutting swords.
(KFT): Thank you so much for dropping by to chat with us about your swords and efforts to revive the Han jian. Anyone interested in learning more about LK Chen’s swords (or finding links to his many YouTube videos) should check out his webpage here.
If you enjoyed this interview you might also want to read the following discussion which tackles the afore mentioned “Maiden of Yue,” one of he first texts to discuss Chinese fencing.