Rediscovering a Lost Sword Culture
A single puzzle piece is useless on its own. Sometimes it takes one mystery to illuminate another. Such is the case with the following text and sword.
Historians and archeologists agree that China’s first great sword culture arose in the Wu and Yue states of what was then the southernmost reaches of the Chinese cultural sphere during the Warring States period. It later spread into the Chu Kingdom as it conquered its neighbors to the East. For various geographic reasons, metalworking was a less expensive proposition in the south and the people enjoyed a much greater range of bronze products compared to the residents of the northern Zhou confederacy.
The natural result of this comparative advantage was that bronze weapons could be made more cheaply, and in greater number, in the south than the north. These economies of scale allowed weaponsmiths in Yue and Wu to perfect their art to a degree that had never previously been seen. Both period texts and those written in subsequent centuries remember their swords as highly sought after. Nor was this simply a matter of historical romanticism. Archeologists have now recovered enough weapons from various areas and eras of China’s pre-Han history to confirm these reports. Some of the most spectacular bronze swords ever made were commissioned for the Kings of Yue, and now reside in Chinese museums where they are regarded as national treasures.
While the roots of the region’s sword culture were nourished by geographic and economic facts, there also seems to have been an important cultural element. Prof. Olivia Milburn (in The Glory of Yue: An Annotated Translation of the Yuejue Shu) notes that infantry arms enjoyed pride of place in Southern martial culture, whereas archery tended to dominate the military ethos of the Zhou Confederacy which, at the time, was very much dependent on an elite class of charioteers and bowmen. It seems that it was not uncommon for private individuals in the south to own swords, and their use was an important battlefield art as well. Commentators on the region never failed to note the fierce martial nature of these societies.
When framed in this light, it is not surprising that the oldest surviving discussion of Chinese fencing emerges from an account of the Kingdom of Yue and its bitter conflict with its northern neighbor Wu. Nor is it shocking to discover that the legendary martial arts instructor who is presented in this text is not a soldier, or member of the hereditary nobility. Rather, she is a woman and commoner whose main claim to fame is the awe that she inspired in local people.
Of course, the Maiden of Yue (or Yuenü) is really only a footnote in the epic biographical tale of King Goujian of Yue (496–465 BCE). His story (and that of the Yuenü) is recorded in the first century (Eastern Han) Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue. Most students of Chinese martial arts will already be familiar with at least some of his story as the frequently heard aphorism regarding the importance of “eating bitter” is a reference to a period in his life when he plotted revenge against the Kingdom of Wu while publicly playing the role of loyal vassal. If the stories are to be believed, Goujian was an absolute master of psychological warfare who was willing to work for decades to lay the groundwork to bring his plans to fruition. And one of his most important tasks, when seeking to upgrade the fighting mettle of his troops, was to recruit the very best martial arts instructors he could find. Specifically, he asked his advisors to recruit masters skilled in both the sword and crossbow, two weapons that were mass produced within the kingdom’s bronze foundries.
The following translation of his quest is provided by Stephen Selby (2000). Readers should note that this translation is very literal and uses the term staff in the place of sword (as is occasionally seen in later Chinese martial arts texts). However, all scholars who have worked with this document are quite clear that the text itself is discussing fencing with swords.
“The King of Yue asked Fan Li, ‘I have a scheme to get even again. For a naval battle, you rely on ships; for a land battle, you rely on chariots: but the power of our ships and chariots is blunted by the quality of our short and long weapons. You are my strategist; isn’t there some scheme to get us out of this fix?’
Fan Li replied, ‘As I recall, the ancient sage kings never failed to exercise in warfare and the use of weapons; and only then did they form up their battalions, line up their divisions and march off to war. The outcome hung on their martial arts instructors. I hear there is a young woman of Yue who came from the Southern Forests; the people of Yue speak highly of her. I think your Majesty should send her an invitation and you can see for yourself how good she is.’
So the King of Yue sent an emissary with a polite invitation to ask whether the King could get her advice on skill in use of swords and halberds.
The Young Woman of Yue travelled north for her audience with the king. On the way, she met an old fellow who said his name was ‘Old Mr. Yuan.’
He said to the young woman, ‘I hear you fight well with a staff. I’d like to see a demonstration.’
She replied, ‘I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.’
So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo. But the bamboo was rotten at one end. The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up. The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but the girl parried straight back, thrust three times and finally raised her end of the bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan. Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape. Then each went their own way, and she went to meet the King.
The King asked her, ‘of all the methods of fighting with the staff which is the best?’
She answered, ‘I was born in the depths of the forest and I grew up in the wilds where no other people ever ventured. So there was no “method” for me and I followed no course of instruction, for I never ventured into the feudal fiefs. Secretly I yearned for a true method of fighting and I practiced endlessly. I never learned it from anyone: I just realized one day that I could do it.’
‘And what method do you practice now?’ asked the King.
‘The method involves great mystery and depth. The method involves “front doors” and “back doors” as well as hard and soft aspects. Opening the “front door” and closing the “back door” closes off the soft aspect and brings the hard aspect to the fore.
‘Whenever you have hand-to-hand combat, you need to have nerves of steel on the inside, but be totally calm in the outside. I must look like a demure young lady and fight like a startled tiger. My profile changes with the action of my body, and both follow my subconscious.
Overshadow your adversary like the sun; but scuttle like a flushed hare. Become a whirl of silhouettes and shadows; shimmer like a mirage. Inhale, exhausting, moving in, moving back out, keeping yourself out of reach, using your strategy to block the adversary, vertical, horizontal, resisting, following, straight, devious, and all without sound. With a method like this one man can match a hundred; a hundred men can match ten thousand. If Your Majesty wants to try me out, you can have a demonstration right away.’
The King of Yue was overjoyed and immediately gave her the title ‘Daughter of Yue.’ Then he ordered the divisional commanders and crack troops to practice the new method so that they could pass on their skills to the troops. From then on, the method was known as ‘The Daughter of Yue’s Swordsmanship.’”
What results is the oldest surviving exposition on fencing, or any type of hand combat, in Chinese. The text is so important that those of us who are not historical linguists or professional sinologists will probably want to consult multiple translations. While Selby has rendered everything in English, bringing a certain level of clarity to the text, it should be noted that it explicitly references philosophical constructs such as ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ which other translators leave intact.
This account is not without its fantastic elements. It begins with a mysterious encounter with a white ape who is also a martial arts exponent, foreshadowing the importance of primates in the symbolism of late imperial martial culture. References to magical occurrences can be found throughout the Annals of Wu and Yue and the entire work is presented as an example of the ‘small talk’ literary style. It was precisely these fantastic elements that led later authors to mine the sword legends of both this work and the earlier Yue Jue Shu for martial arts fiction. While it may be impossible to know exactly how all of these terms were understood at the time, subsequent generations would keep coming back to this specific language when creating their own theories of hand combat, making this a sacred text within Chinese martial culture.
What can we say about the description of fencing presented here? It is difficult to know with certainty as this may have been intended as a poetic gloss on a topic that the audience was presumed to be familiar with. Nevertheless, I think we can come to some basic conclusions. Yuenü’s techniques favor deception, reaction and not relying on strength or aggression. At the same time, it is important to control the timing of the match, not allowing it to be set by others. Finally, this is a fencing system that presumably has divine origins (it arises naturally from an isolated culture hero) that can be used for dueling and private contests (such as the conflict with the White Ape) but is also suitable for the battlefield. Lastly, it was a type of martial art that emerged from outside of the military sphere. Stanley Henning, in his treatment of the story, notes that concepts associated with both the external and internal arts are present in this text, suggesting a fundamental unity in Chinese martial culture that was later fractured by the ideological creation of the “external” and “internal” styles in the aftermath of the Ming-Qing cataclysm.
Yet is this really a description of bronze age fencing, or is it something else entirely? It is possible that the very psychological and deceptive approach to the jian outlined here was actually intended as a reflection of Goujian’s personality and actions. After all, he (not the Maiden of Yue) is the actual subject of the last section of the Annals of Wu and Yue. And it is hard not to notice that the terminology that is used to describe her system mirrors that of the great strategic works of the period.
Alternatively, rather than describing the fencing of the fifth century BCE, perhaps this is actually a description of the ways in which individuals understood swords during the Eastern Han Dynasty, when this work was actually composed. We do not know what textual traditions the Annal’s authors may have been drawing from. Indeed, we cannot know whether the anonymous female fencer of Yue every existed. Olivia Miburn has noted that at least some of the sword legends in the Yuejue Shu likely date to the late Waring States, after Chu’s conquest of Yue and Wu. But she finds that by the Han the surviving material is quickly knitted together into new, somewhat unique narratives.
Whatever the case, this larger pathway of cultural transmission is critical to understanding the development of early Chinese sword culture. The existing Yue royal swords (and other weapons) were recovered by archeologist from Chu royal tombs where these precious artifacts later become highly prized grave goods. Beyond that, the Chu seem to have adopted much of the culture of sword manufacture, use and appreciation from the areas that they eventually conquered. Later Han gentlemen, in turn, greatly admired the Chu and collected their art and stories. It was in this way that a distinctive regional culture, one that gave rise to figures such as the Maiden of Yue, was eventually integrated into the classical Chinese world. From there it would have a shaping impact on the development countless martial systems over the next two millennia.
Still, Chu weapons were also admired for their own innovations. In a period when Bronze swords were becoming longer and more refined, Chu began to invest resources into iron production and the creation of steel swords. Prized blades of meteoric iron (often set in bronze hilts) had been known for centuries, but such rare materials never had much effect on the development of Chinese martial culture. The Chu, however, began the mass production of steel swords at the same time that other kingdoms were still fielding bronze weapons. These continued the region’s reputation for excellence in weapon manufacture and also became prized items in other parts of China.
While often longer than the earlier Yue and Wu bronze swords, in certain respects Chu’s steel blades can be thought of as direct descendants of these designs. Archeologists have recovered a number of these from flooded tombs and discovered that early examples maintained the eight-sided cross section that had previously been used in an attempt to create a wider, yet stiff, bronze blade. Likewise, these later steel swords did not always taper evenly from hilt to tip. Many of them showed a distinct shoulder where the rate of taper increased dramatically in the last third of the blade. This rather complex blade geometry was an attempt to give earlier bronze swords the support and mass they needed to cut while also creating a tip geometry that could penetrate easily. It too lived on in certain steel swords. Chu’s jian (and the Han jian that followed), would also continue the custom of equipping the hilt with a flat disk pommel, pinned through the tang, typically made of either jade or bronze. The Chu steel jian are critical as they stand at the junction of the more ancient bronze sword cultures of the Yue and Wu, and the vibrant military and civil fencing traditions that would emerge during the Han.
LK Chen’s Magnificent Chu
One can only learn so much about these artifacts, and the world that gave rise to them, by examining their photographs and measurements in museum catalogs. How did the early steel swords of Chu actually play? What would it feel like to express the theories of Yuenü with a type of blade closer to that which her culture actually produced, rather than a modern wushu jian?
This is the great contribution of LK Chen’s project. While figures like the Maiden of Yue continue to be much discussed, and historians are well aware of the Han debt to Chu culture, practicing martial artists had been left with only aspirations. If this period is of interest, one would be well advised to check out LK Chen’s ‘Magnificent Chu.’ I have now had the opportunity to examine a number of his swords, both ones I have purchased, borrowed from friends, and have been sent to review (such as the example below). As such, I can say with confidence that this is perhaps the most beautifully detailed and lovingly produced sword in his collection. It is also surprisingly historically accurate in many details of its design and construction.
I should begin by noting that this particular sword is not a direct, one to one, reproduction of a specific artifact. Rather, the excavations of the Chu royal tombs yielded a relatively large number of steel swords (and even a few priceless artifacts from the earlier Yue and Wu kingdoms). Obviously, these varied in terms of size, weight and design. Looking at these specimens LK Chen attempted to recreate what would have been a typical knightly blade towards the longer end of the spectrum observed in the archeological record. Most of this sword’s other design elements were then borrowed from a variety of period artifacts.
When examining the Magnificent Chu the first thing that one notes is the scabbard. The bronze belt fitting and chape are both inspired by period artifacts. The scabbards unique shape (with its diamond cross-section at the mouth which becomes an oval in the final third) is also typical of swords of this period, as is its black lacquered finish. The central section of the scabbard is painted in an abstract red and yellow phoenix motif which was adopted directly from surviving Chu lacquerware.
The heavy use of abstract zoomorphic images seen on this sword is typical of Chu art. Note, for instance, the bronze handguard which is a slightly adapted copy of a period artefact. It features a classic Taotie motif where an animal’s eyes, nose, upper jaw and feet are visible on the front, and its legs and body (in highly stylized form) can be seen on the back. The spot on the Taotie that would often feature horns of some type (or sometimes ears) has been replaced with the character ‘Shi,’ or gentleman warrior (士), in the complex ‘bird and worm’ script that was often seen on bronze artefacts and weapons discovered in the Chu kingdom. This handguard is particularly interesting as it combines two motifs seen on Chu swords. Many jian from the Warring States (including the bronze masterpieces of the Yue and Wu) featured Taotie designs on their fittings. Other guards contained stylized script that was often illuminated with shards of jade or other precious stones. LK Chen’s handguard manages to pay homage to both design traditions.
It is important to consider the meaning and placement of the Taotie figure when attempting to unravel the martial culture of the Chu kingdom. Sarah Allen in “The Taotie Motif on Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes” (the opening chapter in The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture) reminds us that these images, first popularized during the Shang, were in no way crude, primitive or disorganized. They intentionally turned away from naturalistic depictions to convey a sense of awe and dread of the supernatural forces that existed just beyond our realm. These could see, perceive and interact with us (hence the centrality of eyes in any Taotie), and yet we could never clearly perceive them or grasp their nature. They tended to be present at times of ritual sacrificial transformation when something (whether a grave good or a shaman) changed form. Other scholars have noted that Chu’s material culture had unexpected resonances with the more ancient Shang who held the Taotie in great esteem. Thus the presence of these abstract faces overseeing the process of violent transformation that swords always portend fits perfectly with what we know about Chu culture.
The blade of LK Chen’s Magnificent Chu is reminiscent of its antecedents. It features the complex folded patterns typical of existing Chu kingdom steel swords, and has a strong medial ridge formed by deep fullers on both the right and left sides of the blade. The resulting eight-sided cross section is more similar to the Bronze sword culture of the Yue and Wu than the coming Han which mostly adopted a simple diamond cross-section. Once again, the taper of the blade is not consistent, but accelerates in the last third yielding a weapon clearly optimized for stabbing. At the same time, this taper helps to reduce the overall weight of the blade and brings the point of balance slightly towards the hilt.
While a light sword in absolute terms (mine weighs in at 782 grams) the sword has a fair amount of blade presence. Given the small size of the hand guard, almost all of the weapon’s weight is in the blade, which pushed the point of balance out to 15.9 cm (or 6 ¼ inches). Given its unique distribution of mass, the sword plays quite differently than a Qing or Republic era jian. While the blade is 80 cm (or 31 ½ inches), I never felt that the sword was “too long,” or that I had trouble keeping track of the tip.
You can certainly play more modern jian taolu with this sword, as well as using it for practical cutting exercises. By pushing the point of balance out, certain types of sword flowers take a bit more effort, but the sword stirs and winds effortlessly. Despite its light weight, it really does feel like a cutter.
The overall construction of my review sample was excellent, especially when one considers the price point. The only immediate fault that I could locate anywhere on the sword was a single small run in the lacquerer on the scabbard. The bronze fittings are all beautifully cast and the Taotie hand guard is an absolute delight. Nothing felt overly sharp, but all of the lines and images were crisp.
The blade itself is exceptional. Both cutting edges are 100% straight with no twisting. The cutting edges are symmetrically ground and finely executed. Most of the blade’s surface area is covered in fullers, which show beautiful patterning in the high layer count 1065 and T8 tool steel Damascus. My example seems to have spent more time in the acid etch than some of the other swords by LK Chen, yielding a particularly pronounced pattern.
When holding the flat of the sword up to a light, you can see some minor rippling in the fullers on both sides of the blade. This is to be expected on a handmade piece, and fullers are always more difficult to keep perfectly smooth than flat ground areas. Speaking of which, the polish is very nice. It is smooth throughout and the medial ridge is straight on both sides of the blade with the exception of a slight wobble where the rate of taper changes as you transition into the last third of the blade. Thinking about it now, I am sure that the complexity of this design was a challenge not just to forge, but to polish.
Lastly, we come to the hilt. It is comfortable and fills the hand nicely, but is shaped very differently from the lozenge profiles seen on Late Imperial and modern jian. It features a fairly wide oval cross section at the top which allows for easy indexing. This narrows into a waist two thirds of the way down before flaring back out in a circular shape that meets the disk pommel. The hilt’s wooden scales are mechanically pinned by the hand guard and again through the bronze pommel’s descending tabs, which fit on either side of the tang. This is all covered in a black cord wrap that has stayed tight as I have used the sword over the last few weeks. While the metallurgy in this piece is clearly modern, its design, construction and overall build quality are enough to transport one back to the glory days of the Chu kingdom.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (9): Woman Ding Number Seven: Founder of the Fujian Yongchun Boxing Tradition
August 14, 2020 at 6:19 am
Man. You are prolific. Emphasis on “pro.”
I haven’t trained wing Chun for 2 years, but I still read your posts. Usually not all the way. Which is to say… wow. You crank out interesting, relevant posts that take a LONG time to research, plan, write, edit, tweak and post. And I sometimes can’t even finish them before getting distracted to something else.
My background is anthropology. So… am I reading your posts because of interest in Chinese MA culture? Or the academic culture. 🙂
Incidentally, I am learning Mandarin Chinese. It’s a little disappointing watching the old Bruce Lee movies… But it is extremely interesting. The characters are rabbit holes that distract me from my studies to no end.
Retired to Portugal…
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