The Archeology of Dragons
Today’s story begins with two, seemingly unrelated, artifact finds. In 1930 two Chinese sabers (dao) believed to have been excavated from the Sui dynasty’s (581-618 CE) royal tombs north of Luoyang, were donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Both swords are important pieces, but the one donated by Clarence Mackay drew the attention of the public for its beautifully sculpted ring pommel. Shaped in the form of two sinuous dragons chasing a flaming gem, the piece was cast in bronze before being gilt in gold. This contrasted with the heavy silver fittings that once adorned the swords’ scabbards.
Visitors to the MET can still view this sword today, and if they are interested in Chinese arms they would be well advised to do so. Very few Sui or Tang dao have ever been located during archeological digs in China. One of the ironies of this subject is that the Warring States period and Han dynasty, which are much more ancient than the medieval Sui and Tang, have generated most of the weapons that we find in the archeological record. This does not mean that Sui or Tang blades were rare at the time, or that weapons were unimportant to the development of Chinese culture during this time. On the contrary, both regimes were expansionist in nature and fielded armies of over one million soldiers. But for a variety of reasons having to do with state policies around funerary practices, and the vagaries of archeology, almost no verified and dateable swords survived from this period. As such, Mackay’s dao is of great significance to anyone interested in the evolution of Chinese arms. Its blade, heavily corroded and still encased in the remains of its scabbard, is a mystery. Yet the double dragon motif on the hilt, preserved in ageless bronze and gold, suggests that it was once the quintessential Chinese weapon.
Afterall, what image is more associated with China than a Dragon chasing a gem or pearl?
To answer that question we must temporarily shift our gaze to the far-off United Kingdom. In 2005 a metal detecting enthusiast discovered a medieval coat of arms on an enameled and gilt bronze roundel measuring 49 mm in diameter. Found in a field in Norfolk, the piece likely fell off the halter of a visiting horse at some point during the 14th century. The heraldry on the piece combined the arms of the French kingdom with two encircling dragons, each chasing a pearl. Whereas the Mackay sword shows the two dragons converging on a single gem (variously interpreted as a symbol of wisdom, immortality, vitality, or thunder), the Norfolk dragons diverge, each going in their own direction. Still, we now have the same basic motif emerging on military gear in two locations separated by vast distances of geography, culture and time.
That we should see dragons in both locations is not all that surprising. Both China and Europe have their own distinct traditions about dragons dating back into prehistory. While European dragons are archetypical villains, their Chinese counterparts are generally viewed as an auspicious omen. In ancient Chinese cosmology, dating to at least the time of the Han dynasty, dragons had a definite role in the cosmic bureaucracy. From their homes deep under bodies of water, or in mountain caves, they were believed to bring the rains that made life in an agrarian society possible. Of course, sometimes the rains do not come, and in that case civil officials led ceremonies to placate the dragons. If trouble persisted the local population turned to stories of cultural heroes such as Nezha who used their fantastic martial skills to vanquish dragons. One must treat Chinese dragons with caution as their hands were seen in times of abundance as well as flooding and famine. Given these cultural differences, how do similar artistic motifs begin to appear on weapons and gear located on opposite sides of the world?
The answer to this mystery is not found in the dragons themselves, but rather the heavy silver fittings on the Mackay dao. Readers should note that by the Sui dynasty we no longer see the singular belt holder on the front of the scabbard which dominated Han dyasty weapons. Rather, its double fittings are mounted on the edge of the scabbard and have been designed to allow the blade to hang diagonally from a belt.
Archeologists note that this suspension system evolved among the horse-riding warrior cultures of central Asia. More specifically, this specimen resembles pieces influenced by the Sasanian Empire centered in present day Iran. Readers may recall that during our review of the Dragon-Sparrow Dao we discussed the massive influx of Turkic tribesmen into northern China during the time of the Northern and Southern dynasties. While many of these groups adopted Chinese language and culture within a few generations, the process had a profound effect on the ethnic and cultural makeup of Northern China. This could be seen in many areas, including the dominance of calvary based modes of warfare and the changing design of weapons. Indeed, the Sui and later Tang dynasties would both be founded by northern Turkic/Chinese noble families who were more at home in dealing with the conflicts on the norther steppes than their ancient Han forebearers.
The influence of these central Asian tribes was not only felt in China. Their movements across the vast grasslands of the Eurasian region would eventually impact events in the Roman empire itself. While Romans certainly knew what a dragon was, it is interesting to note that they didn’t seem to be all that popular in the classical folklore of their civilization. Yet shortly after the conflicts with (or inspired by) central Asian tribes began, dragons started to appear on Roman shields, and many of them could be seen chasing some sort of pearl or gem. Sometimes the central boss of the shield itself was understood as the gem in question.
In his article on “the Dragon and Pearl” Helmut Nickle notes that these groups (and the Germanic tribes who initially came in contact with them) seem to have been the first to employ the motif. They created wind-sock battle standards that combined a metal dragon’s head with a fabric body that made use of the gem imagery. These dynamic standards seem to have been quite a hit with anyone who saw them, and their image was carved into Roman victory arches during the period. Shortly thereafter, the dragon and pearl made its way onto the shields of specific units in the Roman military. Manuscript images of these arms were preserved in medieval Europe and seem to have influenced the development of certain motifs in Western heraldry.
The dragon and pearl motif seen on the Mackay Sui dao is thus significant in several respects. Dating to about 600 CE, it is the earliest attested appearance of this popular image in all of Chinese art or archeology. The double dragon would go on to be widely seen during the Tang dynasty. Second, its appearance reminds us of the fundamental changes that occurred within Chinese society and culture during the previous three centuries of invasion and migration. There are good reasons why the swords of the Sui-Tang no longer resemble of those of the Han.
Finally, the Mackay dao illustrates the importance of the cultural and economic links that bound the entire Eurasian area together, from Rome on one side, to the Chinese empire on the other. Armies moved both people and ideas across the northern steppes at the same time that large quantities of trade traveled along the more southern Silk Road. Granted, all of the economic exchange occurred through an endless stream of intermediaries. No Roman ambassadors ever made their way to Luoyang, nor did any Chinese merchants leave accounts of Mediterranean markets. Yet the arms, to say nothing of the military history, of this period can only be understood when examined in regional, rather than national, terms.
LK Chen’s Double Dragon
Given the historic importance of the Mackay Sui dao, it is not surprising that LK Chen decided to add a beautifully executed reproduction of this sword to his lineup. Anyone who has followed his work knowns that these swords tend to fall into one of two categories. Several of the pieces, such as the White Arc (Han jian) or the Royal Arsenal (Han dao) represent weapons that would have been issued to common soldiers. They tend to be simple pieces that could be economically produced in great numbers. Others sword, including the Magnificent Chu or Roaring Dragon (both late Warring States jian) instead recreate the more highly decorated sword that may have been owned by elite individuals. Given that the original model for this sword came from the Sui dynasty tombs near Luoyang, we should not be surprised to discover that its reproductions fall into the later category. This is a beautiful sword which, while totally functional, makes a wonderful display pieces.
Of course, there are difference between the artifact and its reproduction. While the original has large scabbard fittings made from solid silver, LK Chen has employed brass to keep costs at a reasonable level. Because the blade of the original is badly corroded and obscured by the remains of the scabbard, he has been forced to make his best guesses as to what its tip and edge geometry was likely to haven been. Still, LK Chen has produced a remarkably faithful replica, even reproducing some of the quirkier aspects of the original sword.
Perhaps the most obvious of these is the stud and ring for a tassel or lanyard on the right side of hilt, mounted where the rear rivet holds the handle scales in place. If you have larger hands this placement is an issue as it will rub up against the bottom of the palm. For this reason, it was decided to create two versions of this sword. The first of these would be true to the original dimensions, while the second would extend the length of the handle by an additional 5.5 cm, giving plenty of room for a comfortable single-handed grip. The cheaper and more immediate solution would simply have been to offer a configuration of the sword without the offending stud, but LK Chen opted to preserve this signature features of the original blade. I was generously sent both version of this dao and as such I am in a good position to compare the two configurations.
The first thing anyone examining he Double Dragon will notice is the high quality of the raw materials that were used in its construction. The woodwork on both of my test swords is literally flawless. The handles are carved out of ebony, while the scabbards are beautiful pieces of rosewood. One example has a relatively straight grain, while the other shows more figure, but both are very nice. The brass fittings on the scabbard are substantial and solid with edges that are square and crisp but not sharp. These are exact reproductions of the fittings seen on the original except for their material. The small cloud shaped cross-guard and double dragon pommel ring are both precision cast bronze. The bronze and brass on LK Chen’s reproduction are reminiscent of the contrasting gold and silver tones that would have been apparent on the original when it was new. While I have always admired the design work and craftsmanship of the fittings on LK Chen’s swords, these are the most complex and impressive to date, especially for a sword in the $400 price range.
The blades of both swords are nearly flawless. Both are straight with no warps or twists on either the cutting edge or the spine. Looking up their wide flats, there are a few slight waves in one blade, as one would expect with a handmade sword. The other one is as smooth as glass for the lower two thirds and only shows some slight hammer marks in the last third of the blade. Again, this is remarkable for a sword in this segment of the market. Both swords feature LK Chen’s preferred blend of pattern welded 1065 high carbon steel and T8 tool steel. There are no flaws in the forging of either sword and the pattern is quite attractive (though different) on both blades. Both blades have received a relatively light etch which is tasteful and not overly dramatic. They both have a smooth glossy polish, however one blade does have a set of small marks (about ten parallel lines 1 mm in length) that look as though they may have been left by an errant belt grinder.
It should also be noted that the geometry of both blade is more complex than one might at first guess. While the Double Dragon appears to have a flat spine (and hence a relatively straight cutting edge) when viewed from a distance, closer inspection shows that the spine is actually ever so slightly curved. In comparison, if one sets the Dragon-Sparrow spine down on a flat surface, you can see that the back of that sword is relatively straight. However, both of my Double Dragons showed a very subtly curve with the center of each blade sitting about two millimeters above the table. If it was only a single sword one might dismiss this as a random artifact of hand forging. Yet I suspect that this is actually an intended design feature as both blades share the same profile.
This slight curve to spine in important given how the cutting surface of the blade is profiled and ground. The actual bevel of the cutting edge is relatively narrow compared to what one might be used to seeing on a katana. By pulling the flats down it is possible to create a heavier and stronger blade, which would have been important in a century when massively armored calvary dominated the battlefield. At the same time, the width of the blade narrows dramatically as one moves toward the tip. When combined with the movement of the spine, the effect is to create a cutting edge with a subtle curve on what at first appears to be a straight sword.
While the visual effect is understated, I felt that this did have an impact on the sword’s cutting ability. I should note that most of the hands-on testing that I do for these swords involves taolu and general training and I am content to let other reviewers handle destructive testing or heavy cutting. But I do cut with my swords on occasion. I don’t discuss it very much as the sorts of things that I do are designed to test my skill as a cutter rather than the strength and durability of the blades as physical objects. Still, I believed that I could feel a difference in performance between this blade and others that were straighter.
Then again, it is always a challenge to know how much of this comes down to the characteristics of an individual weapon. Each blade will be unique when we discuss handmade swords and I thought that readers might be interested in a more detailed look at my two review swords. If nothing else, this may help to provide a sense of what standard variations in the manufacturing process are like.
The main difference between these dao was the length of the hilt. The more historic example has a handle length of 14.5 cm (5.7”) verses the 20 cm (7.9”) on the updated model. But this was not the only source of variation. The blade mounted on the longer hilt was bigger and beefier than its brother in some subtle but ultimately important ways. It was about 3 mm longer and .5 mm wider at both the base of the spine and the tip (7mm/3mm vs. 6.5mm/2.5mm). It was also a full millimeter wider at the base than the one mounted on the more historic grip (23 mm vs. 22 mm).
While both swords exhibited roughly the same degree of distal taper, how they got there differed. The example with the longer handle exhibited a smooth and constant rate of narrowing of the spine as the blade moved from base to tip. The more historic sword, however, had a relatively slow distal taper along the first third of the blade. This accelerated in the second third, and then again as you moved towards the tip.
The end result is that these blades, both of which are very good in their own right, have noticeably different handling characteristics. Unsurprisingly the sword with the longer handle, beefier blade and even taper weighs in at 1030 grams, whereas its more svelte historic sibling registers only 971 grams. The advertised weight of these blades is about 960 grams, just for the sake of comparison.
The point of balance also varies. It is at 11.4 cm (4.5 inches) for the example with the longer hilt vs 12.7 cm (5 inches) for the traditional configuration. While the longer sword does feel subjectively heavier (despite having a marginally closer point of balance), it is by no means unpleasant. By shifting more of the blade’s mass towards the hilt I found that it actually had better tip control as the natural point of rotation was very close to the end of the blade. The shorter and more historic sword, on the other hand, really wants to rotate around a point a few inches back from the tip, thus handling more like a traditional Chinese dao in that respect.
There were enough differences between the long and short hilted version of this sword that one might want to make their selection carefully. I have fairly large hands and found that while the lanyard stud on the shorter hilt did rub my hands, it was not terrible. I suspect that for many individuals who wear small or medium sized gloves, this sword would probably present no challenges at all. Alternatively, if you have larger hands, or you are looking for a long straight “hand and a half” dao that can be used for training or cutting, the updated version will doubtless work better for you. However, it is not going to give you the same handing experience as the more historic hilt configuration as the addition of weight behind the weapon hand effects the way that any sword will play.
Speaking of double handed techniques, I used the Double Dragon dao for much of my personal training during the last week in an attempt to get a better sense of how these swords handled and wanted to move. While the blades are a bit longer than what many modern Chinese martial artists may be used to working with, I had no trouble with either 20thcentury Wudang jian or Shaolin dao material. Given the length of the hilt on the updated version I also decided to use it for some set that required two hands. The blade played well with this material. However, on the second day of practice I noticed that the brass lanyard ring had come off as I switched from a one handed to two handed grip.
Granted, it is never going to feel great practicing one of these sets with a brass stud against your left fingers, and I am not sure how many people would want to purchase this sword for use with double handed techniques as the blade is somewhat narrow for those applications. Still, I felt like it was an important thing to get a sense of. The blade itself moves well. However, the metal ring that hold the tassel is relatively soft and can easily come off with repeated manipulation. In part this is because it has been pressed into place rather than going all the way through the pin. As a result, I would not count on it as an anchoring point for a functional lanyard if you were to decide to use this dao for heavy duty cutting or equestrian training.
In conclusion, the Double Dragon is a beautiful reproduction of a historically important sword. As one of the more luxurious offerings in LK Chen’s current lineup, it is sure to please both martial artists and collectors alike. It can also grant students of military history a glimpse into China’s rapidly evolving martial culture on the cusp of the glorious Tang dynasty. I am sure that this unique blade will not just find a place in the arsenal of many martial artists, but will become a part of daily training routines around the globe. In this, at least, the martial spirit of the Sui dynasty lives on.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Mulan, the Hidden Hilt Dao and the Dragon Sparrow: LK Chen Explores the Northern Dynasties