No modern civilization enjoys a longer and richer history than China. Yet accessing it can be a challenge for scholars. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the study of martial arts. The oldest existing Chinese hand combat manuals date only to the second half of the Ming dynasty. While literary stories such as the “Maiden of Yue” suggest that ancient China had a complex fencing culture, we don’t actually have any detailed descriptions of these practices prior to the Late Imperial/Early Modern period. By the time that the first existing sword, pole and boxing manuscripts are printed in China, firearms have already proved to be the decisive element on the battlefield. The sorts of martial arts that we know and practice are a distinctly modern phenomenon.
This is one of the great challenges facing students of Chinese martial studies. If we take actual embodied practices as our research subject, almost no documentary evidence exists prior to the Ming dynasty. This does not mean that older Chinese practitioners never wrote books on these subjects. Catalogues of book titles from the Han imperial collections have survived giving us some hints as to what was being produced and read. Peter Lorge has discussed this material in his chapter in the Martial Arts Studies Reader (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). These lists of titles indicate that works on fencing existed during the Han dynasty, yet nothing has survived from this period.
I bring up the Han dynasty in particular as Ma Mingda, noted Chinese martial arts historian, has identified it as an early golden age of Chinese sword culture. We do know from surviving literary texts that precious swords were appreciated and collected in this period. There are even texts to help one avoid fakes. Further, the archeological record has left us with more jian from the Han dynasty than any other period in Chinese history. The dao was also popularized and underwent its own important transformations during the middle years of the Western Han. Further, existing art, tomb goods and archeological finds suggest that various types of swords had a unique cultural currency during this period.
Still, we should not assume that the jian or dao of the Han dynasty are exactly like those that we are more familiar with from later periods (such as the Ming and Qing). Han jian tend to be rather long and slim by modern standard with proportionally shorter handles. These blades were often dressed with smaller handguards and round disc pommels unique to the period. LK Chen, a swordmaker and student of the Han jian from Guangzhou, has recently reproduced a number of these blades. One strongly suspects that such elegant narrow blades would have excelled in thrusting.
These were not the only differences with modern weapons. Existing art suggests that on the battlefield the jian or dao was often paired with large shields. In personal duels exotic looking hooked bucklers seem to have been used. Archeologists have even discovered examples of Han jian that had complex hilts and knuckle guards, something that only seems to reappear on swords in Southern China during the 19th century. The lack of period documents is a problem precisely because it seems that the Han had a vibrant and interesting fencing culture.
Still, archeology is a fickle mistress. What the sands of time bury can sometimes be restored. While doing background reading for an interview with LK Chen, I ran across an article on the discovery, description and translation of an important Han period text on sword culture which I had never encountered in the English language martial art studies literature.
In 2016 Charles Sanft published a paper in the 39th volume of Early China titled “Evaluating Swords: Introduction and Translations of a How-to Gide from the Han-Xin Period” (231-253). As those without access to a university library will not be able to download this article, I thought it might be useful to summarized and reviewed some of his finding here.
Sanft provides a translation of a Han era text on evaluating the quality of swords through visual inspection of the blade. Given the lack of existing martial texts from the era, this document provides an important glimpse into the past. Yet it is also tantalizing as it is very different from most existing types of literature. This document was not intended for an elite audience of scholars and administrators. It is not a work on sword collecting or connoisseurship. Rather, the intended readership of this text was likely low-ranking military officials or soldiers who were actually attempting to choose weapons that they or their units would have to use. While not a martial arts text, it offers a valuable glimpse into the relationship between fighters and their swords.
Dating and identifying the text are the first major hurdles facing Sanft. He notes that this text (recorded on six well preserved wood strips) was discovered by Chinese archeologists working in the Juyan region on the border of Gansu and Inner Mongolia between 1972 and 1976. Some initial excavations were made in this area by Folke Bergman in the 1920s and 1930s and the entire region has become famous for the many ancient documents, recorded on bound scrolls of wood slats, that have been recovered. Such texts were once buried all over China, but organic material like this only survives under very precise environmental conditions.
The cords that held the various texts together disintegrated long before this cache was unearthed. After determining which lines of text belonged together archeologists then had to reconstruct the proper order of all of these documents. Luckily in our case the strips were well preserved and easy to read. Sadly, they contained no title or date. The text begins rather abruptly with the instruction that “One who wishes to know whether a sword is good and old should stand and draw it.” As such, the document will be referred to as “Evaluating Swords.”
Sanft notes that while our text is undated, other items located in the same excavation pit bore dates of between 9 BCE and 21 CE. Our text must have been copied at some point prior to that. Of course, there is a difference between when a given document was copied and the underlying text actually composed.
Ma Mingda has also written on Evaluating Swords. He notes that it clearly refers to steel weapons, rather than bronze, and it differentiates between double edged jian and the saber-like dao. However, almost all references to sword-like weapons specify the jian, with the dao being introduced only at the end of the text. Given that the dao became the dominant military weapon in the middle of the Wester Han, Ma Mingda suggests that this document was likely composed at the start of that era when the Jian still dominated the battlefield. That would suggest a date of roughly 200 BCE.
Sanft notes that there has been a debate in the Chinese language literature as to the nature of this text. When it was first published the team that transcribed it suggested that there was a missing strip between what has been numbered 5 and 6 below. Other scholars, looking at the parallelism of the text, instead suggested that only a summary of already discussed material was omitted. Sanft treats the text as more or less complete, rather than fragmentary.
Likewise, Chinese scholars were uncertain if this was a stand-alone treatise on the evaluation of swords, or if it was an excerpt from a larger now lost work on some other subject. Some scholars have even attempted to link it to the lost works on Han era swordsmanship mentioned in the introduction to this piece. Lacking any external evidence for any of these claims, and noting that the document itself is silent on these questions, Sanft concludes that Evaluating Swords is best treated as a stand alone document.
What does seem to be clear, at least to me, is that the quality of swords available in 200 BCE was a source of anxiety to individuals living in remote military outposts such as that at Juyan. Looking at the relatively slim profiles of the existing weapons, or their depictions in period artwork, one must wonder whether these swords ever failed in battle. The very existence of a document such as this suggests that not only did this happen, but that it was the duty of soldiers, martial artists and military bureaucrats to be able to visually evaluate the quality of steel blades.
The text proceeds in two parts that are then summarized in a conclusion. We are told that swords which are “good and old” possess four characteristics. The first of these is age itself. Ma and Sanft both argue that this is not a matter of sentimentalism. Rather, the thought seems to be that swords are likely to break in battle if poorly forged. An old blade that has survived previous encounters is known to be reliable while a new, untested, blade is not. New swords are not necessarily bad, but they do seem to be regarded as an unnecessary risk.
Next the author turns his attention to the welding and temper of the blade, noting that the high carbon steel edge should end before it reaches the narrow top 1/3 of the sword. This isn’t how we typically make swords today, or something that we would judge to be a virtue in modern blades. But it may also speak to the fear of brittle high carbon blades breaking in combat. A bent tip can be repaired, whereas a shattered blade might be more costly on the battlefield. Readers are also instructed to examine the blade for forging/welding flaws. Lastly, the text discusses acceptable and dangerous grain patterns that might appear in the steel itself.
Anyone who is interested in historical linguistics will probably want to head to a university library to download a copy of Sanft’s original article which addresses questions of grammar, sentence structure and the details of unknown characters. I assume that these technical issues are of less interest to most of Kung Fu Tea’s readers. For them I have included a simple transcript of Sanft’s translation (sans footnotes) below. While not a long or complicated work, Evaluating Swords provides us with a fascinating look at how soldiers and martial artists evaluated their weapons during the Han dynasty. The discovery and translation of a lost works such as this one provides us with a ray of hope that future archeologists may yet discover a Han dynasty fencing manuals to go along with it.
Evaluating Swords (Circa 200 BCE)
• One who wishes to know whether a sword is good and old should stand and draw it. If you look at it and the body has no gouging, it is old equipment. One who, looking at [a sword] wishes to know if it is a good one, should always look to see that in its body there are paired black lines that are unbroken  and that at the tip these seem to disappear. If you look and see that the white and hard ends before reaching the last third, this is a good sword of the realm. If you see also that the body has in it an appearance like millet grains and it is sharp, it is even better.
 • One who wishes to know if a sword is poor and so not to bear it, or that it is new equipment, should go into the sunlight. If, when you look carefully, the white and hard follows up the tip; or there is gouging, or the black and the hard are clearly separated; or there is no patterning, or along the length there is  patterning and it is in the hard; or the clouds and ether (i.e., swirling patterns) follow each other; then these are all swords from poor welders. Sabres and swords are of the same sort. The preceding are four matters of good swords. • The preceding are six matters of bad swords.
 • Patterns on a good sword: “Hanging curtains” and “Bearing paired snakes” are both acceptable. “Holding feathers” and “Jade tablet” are both acceptable. A sword that sings is good. If a strong one could have a bad exterior appearance, what would a weak one be like?
 Bad new equipment with the sword [blade] patterns of “Fighting cocks” or “Writhing snakes,” and those of coarse make, are all unpropi- tious and poor. • The preceding are four matters of poor swords.
If you enjoyed this review and translation you might also want to read: Ji Gong: The Adventures of a Mad Monk in Chinese Martial Arts Fiction