The Emergence of the Dao

“The Chinese martial arts that we practice today tend to be a recent phenomenon.” This is something that I have said on this blog many times, but what does it actually mean? Our earliest extent documentary sources on these fighting systems date only to the Ming dynasty, which is not really that long ago. Prior to that we have more questions than answers. When we look at the organization and pedagogy of hand combat instruction in classic Ming novels like Water Margin, which most likely reflects Song and Yuan oral traditions, the practices that are described are quite different from what will emerge towards the end of the Qing and the Republic. That is when now popular systems like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut entered the scene.

Still, even if the current social organization of the Chinese martial arts is relatively recent, the basic technologies of hitting someone with a stick, or slicing a person with a knife, must be older.  Chinese language studies of the martial arts are fond of starting off with the formulaic pronouncement that these fighting systems were originally devised in the stone age to help people hunt game or fight off wild animals. That has always struck me as an extreme case of attempting to establish continuity in a story that is actually defined by change. Still, it may be worth asking where the basic military technologies inherited by Ming and Song martial artists ultimately originated. Only then can we understand what has changed, and what has remained the same.

Consider, for instance, the humble dao. While China perfected the steel jian, or double edged straight sword, during the early Han, by end of that same dynasty it was clear that the dao was destined to dominate the military realm. The jian quickly gave way after the Western Han, and (to the best of my knowledge) none were ever issued by the imperial military following the Tang. Of course, “martial arts” proper is the realm of civilian instructors and students. Here too we see the rise of the dao in period artwork and stories, though the now archaic jian has retained some of its former status in this more cultured realm. 

Questions remain as to how we should understand this shift in early Chinese armaments. Sadly, the Han documentary record has very little to say the subject. We have some inventory records from imperial armories that are helpful in a statistical sense.  And I have previously reviewed a Han guide for military officials who were tasked with purchasing swords that seemed to suggest a fair degree of anxiety about the quality of blades that were available on the fringes of the empire. But I have never seen a period discussion explaining the shift from jian to dao which was well under way by the Eastern Han.

A detailed rubbing taken from a stone carving showing a Han warrior with short dao and guo-rang (a type of hooked buckler).

While the documentary record lets us down, the field of archeological proves to be of more help. Compared to other periods of Chinese history, archeologists have recovered vast numbers of Han swords. As these finds are dated, we can begin to lay out some basic timelines. Bronze swords really came into their own during the Warring States period as armies increasingly looked for weapons to arm large formations of infantry soldier.  These early weapons tended to be relatively broad jian, though towards the end of the period increasingly long and sophisticated blades were produced.  

Still, iron working was not unknown during this time.  In fact, the Kingdom of Chu became famous for making steel swords that had a number of tactical advantages compared to the bronze blades of neighboring states.  For instance, properly tempered steel is less likely to take a set and bend in the course of normal use. Nevertheless, many of these early Chu swords continued to follow the basic patterns and designs of earlier bronze swords.

It was during the early Han that steel swords really came into their own as a fully evolved and independent weapon system. However, the dao did not emerge at the same time as steel jian, nor does it seem to have had a large number of full size bronze precursors. Dao were popularized later in this period for reasons that we can only speculate about.  It is easy to note, for instance, that single edged swords can have thicker spines and may be more resilient than the long, rapier like, jian that were favored during the period.  And as the Han expanded their calvary forces to deal with northern Xiongnu horsemen, durability probably became an important consideration for military planners. Dao are generally somewhat cheaper to produce, and their basic use can be trained more quickly. But again, we don’t have period documents that speak directly to these conversations. 

For whatever reason, archeologists and art historians have concluded that by about 100 BCE the dao had become a more common weapon, being seen in several lengths. By the end of the Han it would be the most common sidearm on Chinese battlefields and would remain so until the turn of the 20th century.

Two Han dao. Note the narrow blades, small bronze finger guards and rings welded to the hilt.

Still, this is a dao that bears only a passing resemblance to modern Chinese sabers. Their blades tended to be rather narrow, measuring only an inch (25 mm) wide.  This is not to say that they were insubstantial as they might be 7-9 mm wide at the base of the spine. Clearly these were not the thin slicers favored by civilian martial artist at the end of the Qing. 

Early dao also shared a few other distinguishing characteristics. Many infantry pieces were rather short, with a blade of about two feet in length. These were either straight or slightly forward swept, curving in the opposite direction of a modern sabre. They seem to be optimized for chopping and stabbing, not unlike Roman swords of the same era.  Because these weapons were typically carried with a shield, they lacked protective handguards. Finally, Han dao typically had a characteristic iron ring welded the end of the pommel. Swords and knives could be hung from such a ring, though we have many stone relief carvings from the Han that suggest that these swords were actually stored horizontally in weapons racks along with jian, spears and halberds.  I personally suspect that rings were a popular decorative motif as they would sit against the base of the hand and firmly anchor the blade during cuts.

A rubbing of the enigmatic The Battle on the Bridge taken from the Wu Family Shrines. Source: Wikimedia

Battle on the Bridge

As we have no surviving Han fencing manuals, individuals interested in the use of these weapons must be guided either by the physical characteristics of the remaining examples (experimental archeology), or images of their use carved in stone relief (art history). The later turns out to offer an unexpectedly rich repository of dynamic pictures highlighting the social importance of the ring dao, both as a symbol of rank and also a weapon on the battlefield. More importantly, they reveal something about the central place of these weapons in the martial culture of the Han dynasty.

One of my favorite representations of dao combat can be found on the so called “Battle on the Bridge” scene in the Wu Family Shrines. Originally erected in the mid second century of the common era, these shrines memorialized a number of family members (most importantly Wu Liang, 78-151 CE) who served as minor court officials and local notables in what is now Jiaxiang county of Shandong province.  The shrines were composed of a number of stone chambers where offerings could be made.  The walls and ceilings were carved in elaborate bas relief that showed various auspicious omens, ritual scenes, figures from literature and the stories of filial sons and daughters.

The ritual complex first attracted the attention of Song scholars for its unique calligraphy. Later, in the Qing dynasty an antiquarian excavated the site and recovered a number of its stone carvings.  After that interest in the Wu Family Shrine has only increased.  This once obscure family monument is now regarded as one of the most important artistic relics in all of Chinese history.  Since the 1940s a huge amount has been written about it, both attempting to reconstruct how all of the surviving pieces fit together, as well as to ascertain what they reveal about the Wu family and the culture of the Eastern Han dynasty.

The central panel from another version of this same scene. Note in this version the female warrior behind the cart lacks the buckler she carries in the Wu family version. The official in the chariot is not also unarmed.

Needless to say, I am neither an archeologist nor an art historian, yet there is one particular carving that is relevant to our current conversation.  Scholars have taken to calling this mysterious relief “The Battle on the Bridge.”  It shows a number of officials in chariots and on horseback attempting to cross a river.  However, they have been set upon by seven figures.  Two of these have stopped the chariot of the most important official in the middle of the bridge.  One figure attacks from the front with a halberd, while another, armed with a ringed dao and a gou-rang (a type of hooked buckler), attempts to assassinate the figure in the rear.  The driver seems to have fallen over the bridge and is defending himself from two more attackers in the river.  Meanwhile three other figures attempt to prevent reinforcements from reaching the center of the bridge. 

One of the first things that will stand out to most students of martial arts studies is how much attention has been lavished on the weapons and action in this panel.  That is important as Han dynasty funerary carvings are generally works of stylized abstraction.  Yet here we can very clearly see a wide range of contemporary weapons being employed in a specific context.  Everything from the bow to the short, handheld, ji can be found somewhere in this panel.  Still, it is the ring headed dao that occupies the exact visual center of the narrative.

Before we can attempt to decipher this scene a few additional details are necessary. By examining the headdresses and clothing, scholars have concluded that the seven attacking figures in these scenes are all women. Thus we have a group of surprisingly well armed civilian females at work. Nor does it appear that Wu Liang was alone in his admiration for this image. An almost identical panel is also found on the west wall of another shrine in the same family complex. Jie Shi, in “Rolling between Burial and Shrine: A Tale of Two Chariot Processions at Chulan Tomb 2 in Eastern Han China,” identifies another example of the same scene, completed in 171 C.E. in Suxian, Anhui province. Even the highly controversial tomb of Cao Cao, possibly unearthed in 2008-2009, contains a very similar scene (though that find only focuses on the lower two thirds of the image). A few other examples exist as well.

Another bas relief of the same scene, this time recovered from possible mausoleum of Cao Cao. Note that while the bottom two thirds of this scene is similar to the Wu family example, the top third seems to be dedicated to an entirely different subject.

Each of the surviving examples of this motif is slightly different.  In some cases the identities of the victimized officials are carved into the relief, in others they are not.  The arrangements of ancillary fighters and weapons varies, as well as the number and position of details such as birds or omen figures.  Still, the major themes of the image are remarkably consistent.  There are always seven female attackers, two of which have surrounded at chariot on the bridge, while two more deal with the driver in the rivers.  Three unidentified men typically stand off to the side of the bridge.  Finally, the official in the central chariot seems to always be defending himself against a woman armed with a ring handled dao.

While archeologists have found countless tombs from the Han dynasty (providing many of the swords we see in museums today) elaborate ritual offering shrines such as these are rare. Historians have speculated that mid ranking families (like the Wu’s) once constructed many similar structures, but that they were later removed during ritual reforms at some point during the Eastern Han. The fact that the “Battle on the Bridge” shows up in so many of the surviving shrine suggests that it must have been a very popular motif during the second century.

Yet how are we to interpret this scene? Jean M. James in “The Iconographic Program of the Wu Family Offering Shrines,” (Artibus Asiae, 1988-1989, Vol. 49 No. 1-2. pp. 39-72) begins by attempting to situate this image within its larger ritual and religious context. None of the scenes in these shrines appear in isolation, and so the meaning of various carvings are probably effected by how they are grouped and arranged. The lintel that is thought to have rested directly over the Battle on the Bridge showed the goddess Xiwangmu and her court. Her cult was very popular during the Eastern Han and funerary imagery often suggests the deceased ascending to her palace on Mt. Kunlun where she distributes the gifts of immortality. This journey required the crossing of a river and James identified the female warriors on the bridge as retainers of Xiwangmu testing the hun soul on its journey.

Other scholars have suggested that the scene should be understood as a now lost morality tale relating the deeds of filial sons or (in this case) daughters. The Wu Family Shrines do display a number of known stories of filial children, and numerous other finds attest that this was a popular design motif during the period. However, none of the surviving stories suggest anything like the battle on the bridge.  Still, the popularity of the scene has led them to conclude that these scene references a now lost tale in which seven daughters take revenge on court officials who were somehow responsible for their father’s death or disgrace (see the discussion in Jie Shi, footnote 72). It is hard to know how to evaluate this interpretation as the literary evidence necessary to either confirm or falsify the theory is, by definition, missing.    

Another possibility, put forward by wide range of scholars in both China and the West, is that such shrine carvings were meant to be multi-vocal, meaning that they could speak to more than one set of meanings at a time. In 1966/67 A. Bulling cataloged a wide variety of bridge crossing motifs in Han funerary art, some militarized, others not. He noted that these were central to the discursive function of these shrines, and yet transcend any individual carving. Perhaps the relevant question is why, of the many tales of filial children that are shown in the Wu family shrines, it would be the scene with seven female warriors fighting on a bridge that would be placed under (and thus narratively in front of) the goddess Xiwangmu, who is also known for her female retainers?

These are fascinating questions, but not ones that are going to be resolved in this blog post.  What is most striking about these images is that they seem to suggest that even in the Han dynasty mysterious female warriors were already a well-entrenched force in popular culture.  Better yet, several of them wielded the dao and guo-rang.

Reviewing LK Chen’s Royal Arsenal

All of this bring us to LK Chen’s reproduction of the Han infantry dao, the Royal Arsenal. I was recently sent one of these to test and review and it has quickly become perhaps my favorite sword.  It is certainly the one that I find myself picking up to examine or use the most often. It is also the least expensive sword in LK Chen’s current collection (retailing for $270 USD), eschewing complex bronze fittings for an aggressively minimalist aesthetic. It turns out there is a lot to be said for elegance.

This is not to say that everything about my review sword was perfect. The brass fingerguard has a pin-hole sized imperfect, and it has come unglued from the wood hand scales underneath the cord wrap. Perhaps I should begin by pointing that that this sword is a direct one-to-one replica of a specific 2,000 year old artifact. Apparently, there was never a mechanical connection between the guards and tangs on the originals Han dao.  Instead the hilt was covered with thin wood scales that were then cord wrapped. A finger guard was dropped down from the front of the sword and fitted over the exposed wood, both protecting the user’s fingers from the blade and functioning as a collar keeping the hilt assembly tight and in place. Historically these were guards were mostly likely attached to the handle scales rather than the tang, which probably explains why so many of them are missing on archeologically recovered swords.  When present they tend to be held in place by the corrosion of the underlying steel itself long after the wood and silk has dissolved. 

A rare Han dao that retains traces of its original hilt construction. Note the cord wraps over thin wood scales.

This probably isn’t how most people today would design a sword hilt, and I am sure some will find it annoying. Still, it makes sense when you consider that these dao were literally mass-produced items during the Han dynasty.  If a handle ever needed to be rewrapped or replaced it would have been an easy operation, as is regluing a guard that has come loose in our current era. I suspect that as the wood scales on my test sword contracted (moving from a humid near tropical environment to a cool dry North American one) they simply pulled away from the guard. I will give the wood a bit more time to adjust and simply re-glue the guard once everything has reached its new equilibrium.

The original Han dao that the Royal Arsenal Replicates. Source: LK Chen

The blade of the Royal Arsenal is, in a word, brilliant. Mine was fairly close to the advertised specs being exactly 24” (61 cm) in length and weighting in at 496 grams (as opposed to the advertised 480).  The blade itself if fairly narrow tapering from 25 mm at the hilt to 19 right before the start of the tip.  It also shows good distal tapper with the spine ranging from 7mm at the base to just over 3mm at the top.

The blade itself is a complex weld of 1065 high carbon steel and T8 tool steel.  Obviously, the use of modern metallurgy is the main area where LK Chen’s swords depart from their ancient predecessors. However, the resulting patterns look similar to the few Han pieces that have been polished by museums and private collectors.  

The blade is beautifully forged and ground. It has very wide fullers (or perhaps a hollow grind) that runs from the base to the tip.  When viewed in profile this creates a t-shaped spine which flares out again just before the start of the edge bevels. This makes for and elegant and quick sword that moves at the speed of thought. Despite its light weight, the thick spine ensures stability in the cuts and it is capable of delivering solid thrusts.

The blade shows no forging flaws and has a more pronounced contrast between the two steels than either the Flying Phoenix or the Dragon Sparrow which I previously reviewed.  I really like how the tip has been formed and the way it showcases the Damascus.  The edge bevels are 100% straight and symmetrical.  Some small rippling or hammer marks can be seen on the inside of the fullers, but these are not bad and are in line with what you expect to see on a handmade sword.

Bronze utility knives like these may have inspired the shape of early Han Dao. Source: LK Chen

While very light (under 500 grams) the sword still has some blade presence.  This in due to its unique, forwards swept geometry. It seems that the first steel dao drew their inspiration from forward bent bronze utility knives that had a ring on their handle so that they could be hung on a string from the belt.  When owned by scholars these knives were used to scratch out incorrect characters on the bamboo strips that were used for recording documents.  Apparently that same basic blade geometry was preserved in early steel dao giving the otherwise light weapons a bit of forward momentum in the cut.  The blade itself has a nicely ground edge and is fairly sharp.  It will certainly handle backyard bottle cutting, and it is more than sharp enough to cause me to be cautious when using it in taolu. But I understand that dedicated cutting fans may want to adjust things to their own taste.

The hilt is fairly narrow, as is the original artefact that it is based on. I have found that a conventional sabre or hammer grip isn’t very comfortable.  However, if I place by thumb on the back of the hilt (in the Italian style) everything falls into place quite nicely. This grip also lines the blade tip for a thrust, making me wonder whether the early infantry dao was seen primarily as a cutting or a thrusting weapon? While complex cut and thrust fencing with this dao is certainly possible (especially when it is paired with a guo-rang) one wonders if it was not primarily seen as a stabber by the military when issued with larger shields. Once again, actually holding a faithful reproduction of one of these weapons raises many questions.

The ebony scabbard is beautiful.  There are no visible seams, nor can I see any imperfections in the lacquer. The brass belt attachment on my example was held in place by black cords, which seems to be an upgrade from the example shown on the webpage.  The mouth of the scabbard is fit with a trapezoid collar that holds the blade firmly in place. The scabbard’s one piece brass chap is a copy of archeologically found examples from the same time period as the blade.

Bronze furniture which served as the model for the scabbard fittings on the Royal Arsenal.

This dao is different from some of the other, more sumptuous, offerings I have reviewed by LK Chen. It is meant to be a plain and utilitarian weapon, easily manufactured, representing the hundreds of thousands of dao issued to the imperial military. It lacks the detailed bronze castings or decorative lacquer seen on other weapons intended for wealthy patrons.  Still, there is a lot to be said for simple elegance. In this case LK Chen has designed a sword which offers nothing to distract the viewer (or martial artist) from the beautifully forged and polished blade. If anyone were to ask me to recommend just one Han dynasty weapon from LK Chen’s collection, I think I would probably send them to check out the Royal Arsenal. It will feel different from any modern dao that you may be familiar with, but in showing us where it all began, it opens an fascinating window onto the past.


If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Mulan, the Hidden Hilt Dao and the Dragon Sparrow.