For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?
The Swordsman (剑客) by Jia Dao
It could be argued that in macro-historical terms the Chinese martial arts are as much an identity, or a disposition, as they are a set of combative techniques. Technique evolves and changes over time. Weapons, and entire systems of military technology, come and go. Archery and charioteering were once the hallmark of a sound military education. Today that is clearly not the case.
Still, “like always recognizes like,” and modern martial artists can identify those figures with which they empathize in China’s classic works. While technologies and cultures of violence have changed, certain early stories became literary touchstones that many generations of practitioners returned to as they searched for proper models of behavior and a means to explain themselves to others. Every generation reads these texts through their own lens and finds something new and exciting within them. Without expecting to find anything like strict continuity, we cannot discount the value of these stories in providing a sense of cultural continuity for successive generations of martial artists.
Without a doubt the most important of the early cultural models is the Youxia, often translated in English as “knight-errants.” The fact that so little research has been carried out on these figures provides elegant testimony to the fact that Martial Arts Studies, as a research field, might yet contribute much to disciplines such as Chinese history. Perhaps the most widely cited authority on the topic remains James J. Y. Liu who published his various contributions during the 1960s.
The most important early source on the Youxia is Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, completed during the middle years of the Han dynasty. Among the biographies of the various important figures of his time, we find an entire section documenting the Youxia. When one considers Sima Qian’s theory of history, that it was the scholar’s job to record the past so that what was admirable might be remembered, and what was bad condemned, their inclusion (and not so subtle endorsement) becomes quite interesting. Sima Qian himself was well versed in the Confucian classics and took the Spring and Autumn Annals as his guide for what proper history should be. Yet within his work he records with approval the behavior of some very non-Confucian characters.
One probably need look no further than the basic outlines of Sima Qian’s own life to understand why he admired those who stood up for what was right in the face of political authority and social disapproval. Or as he put it:
To save people from distress and relieve people from want: is this not benevolence? Not to belie another’s trust and not to break one’s promises: is this not righteousness? That is why I wrote the “Biographies of knights errant….
Although the actions of the knights errant were not in accordance with the rules of propriety, they always meant what they said, always accomplished what they set out to do, and always fulfilled their promises. They rushed to the aid of people in distress without giving a thought to their own safety. And when they had saved someone from disaster at the risk of their own lives, they did not boast of their ability and were shy to hear their virtue praised. Indeed, there is much to be said for them.”
Sima Qian regretted that he was unable to record the stories of the early Youxia of the Warring States Period as little specific information about them remained. Most of his accounts were drawn from the early Han or the previous Qin dynasties. In reviewing this material Liu hypothesizes, probably correctly, that knight errantry represented a subculture, or mode of behavior, rather than a definite social group. This behavior could be found among both peasants and princes, but the accounts that Sima Qian provide seem to focus on either the lowest ranks of the nobility or townsmen. For the most part his Youxia are differentiated from professional soldiers or bandits, though at times in their life they might take up either banner for a season. Many were literate and some were even remembered as skilled musicians.
Fiercely independent, these figures cultivated a code of chivalry or personal honor that was not always intuitively obvious to those around them and might at times require some explanation. Like the Confucians and Mohists they believed in a universal ethic (often articulated as an abstract sense of “justice”) that was higher than the laws of the state. However, unlike the former this also superseded one’s responsibility to familial obligations, whereas they had no sympathy with the Mohists puritanical approach to music or strict social organization. A number of Yuxia are said to have been followers of Daoism, but that seems to have been a personal preference rather than a shared community identity.
This is not to say that the Youxia existed only as lone wandering vigilantes. If they had it is doubtful that they would have become an important enough force in Chinese society to be included in Sima Qian’s work, or to earn the near universal condemnations of the Legalist, Confucian and Mohist writers of their time. Rather, these individuals organized themselves into patronage networks. Sima Qian tells us of princes who publicly cultivated the ideals of the Youxia and thus accumulated networks of thousands of knights and retainers. Occasionally these networks even impacted matters of state. More common were well off gentlemen who might gather dozens of such individuals. One Han period account begins by casually noting that every quarter of the capital had its own powerful Youxia figure.
The knights errant are typically remembered for taking justice into their own hands, often in an attempt to help a friend who had become a victim of misfortune, or the common people. For instance, Liu provides us with the following short account from the late Han which features many of the typical themes found in these stories:
Chic Yun was a native of Ju-nan prefecture (in modern Honan). He had a friend called Tung Tzu-chang whose father had been murdered by another man from the same district. Unable to avenge his father’s death, Tung became sick and was about to die. On his death bed, Chih came to see him. Tung looked at Chih and sobbed, no longer able to speak. Chih Yun said, “I know you are not sad because you are fated to end your days but because you have not brought about revenge. When you are alive, I share your grief but cannot personally carry out revenge on your behalf; when you are gone, I will personally kill your enemy and grieve no more.” Tung could but look at him. Thereupon Chih left, took some friends with him, ambushed the enemy, and killed him. He brought back the enemy’s head and showed it to Tung, who on seeing it breathed his last. Chih Yun then went to the district magistrate and gave himself up. The magistrate, who knew and admired him, would not send him to jail, but he insisted on going, until the magistrate threatened suicide. Later, Chich Yun became an important official at court.”
The dramatic nature of the previous story notwithstanding, the Youxia were also remembered for acting as diplomats, quietly resolving disputes, and even ending cycles of familial revenge that went against the demands of a more universal ethic. In that sense they were peacekeepers rather than simple vigilantes. What is common in all of these stories is that the Youxia acted benevolently when it was not required, often going far beyond what would have been considered the normal call of duty. While individualistic in origin, their actions were not always violent.
Liu speculates that the Youxia first emerged as an identifiable group during the Warring States period as political chaos dislocated the military retainers and lower levels of the aristocracy of defeated states. As these individuals blended back into society, they brought not only their military skills but also a core of personal ethics. Throughout the tumultuous years that followed such individuals may have been able to find patronage or employment as they traveled from one country to the next, as did other types of military and civil officials during the same period. During the Han dynasty these individuals would have faced a more hostile environment. The inter-state chaos that created a degree of tolerance, and even demand, for their services was gone. Both the Legalists and Confucian scholars who dominated court life found the existence of large networks of influential and well-armed men of dubious loyalty to be an intolerable threat. From the middle of the Han dynasty onward the state systematically suppressed and executed Youxia. Again, these events were recorded in Sima Qian’s history so that future generations could ponder the virtues of these individuals and their betrayal by government officials.
To say that Sima Qian’s own relationship with the court was complicated would be a profound understatement. It would draw us too far afield to explore his biography here, but perhaps we will conclude this discussion by noting that in many ways the oppressed and disgraced historian got the last laugh. By going to heroic lengths to write China’s first universal history he not only established a reputation that has lasted for millennium, but he also changed the way that the subject of history was approached and written for most of that time.
He also frustrated the sincere desire of the Confucian, Mohists and Legalists who all wished that the Youxia would be erased from history and their legacy forgotten. The stories that Sima Qian recorded would prove to be the source material that inspired many subsequent generations of knight-errantry up through the Tang dynasty. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, these same biographies would help to shape the emerging discourse around new types of martial arts communities that were then beginning to take shape.
Ma Mingda once noted that modern scholars should think of the novel Water Margin as the Old Testament of the modern Chinese martial arts. While difficult to understand and obscure in places, one cannot underestimate the cultural influence that it had on the popular imagination. I fully agree with his assessment on the proviso that we take Sima Qian’s account of the Youxia, along with their devotion to universal notions of justice and brotherhood, as our Genesis. It is impossible to come to terms with the values of figures such as Shi Jin if we do not understand in whose shadow they stand.
The Soaring Sky
The existing historical accounts (with a few exceptions) do not spend a lot of time talking about the specific weapons that the Youxia of the Qin and early Han carried, but if they were lucky they might have owned a sword similar to LK Chen’s Soaring Sky. This offering is a direct replica of a well preserved eight sided jian dating from the early years of the Han dynasty. The classic Han jian, in contrast, has a flattened diamond profile where each of the sword’s sides acts as a primary edge bevel. This construction can be seen on both the White Arc and the Flying Phoenix and it explains the surprising cutting prowess of these weapons. The true genius of the Han jian lay in its ability to combine both prodigious cutting and thrusting capabilities in a single weapon.
The Soaring Sky looks back to earlier trends in weapon design. Eight sided blades, often with shallow double fullers forming a medial ridge, were commonly seen on the shorter bronze weapons of the late Warring States period. This configuration allowed a smith to create a weapon with a fairly broad profile that was still light enough to wield and fairly stiff. This same basic profile was adopted on certain early steel weapons made in the Kingdoms of Yue and Chu, such as the Magnificent Chu jian, which I have previously discussed.
While this complex geometry was less necessary on steel swords, it continued to be seen through the Qin and early years of the Han dynasty. Given their additional complexity such blades would have been more expensive to produce and the examples that have been found are typically in the graves of the nobility or well off. Still, these weapons are different from their predecessors in the kingdom of Chu. They have the same length (typically 90-110 cm) that was seen on other Han jian, as well as a relatively narrow blade and pronounced tip. The double fullers of the Magnificent Chu have been replaces with two flats that spread out to meet the primary edge bevel. The end result is a thicker and sturdy spine compared to the compressed diamond cross-section of later swords. Whereas they are optimized for cutting ability, the Soaring Sky values durability and stiffness.
This is not to suggest that it is a heavy sword. The review sample that I was sent weighs only 797 grams (as opposed to its advertised weight of 823 grams). It was also slightly longer than its official length at 112 cm (versus 110 cm) with most of that difference coming in the form of a slightly longer blade. The width of the blade at the base was just under 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 15 mm at the tip. In terms of distal taper my blade was a bit thinner than some others being 7 mm at the base and 3.1 mm at the tip with the official averages at 7.4mm and 4 mm respectively. The distal taper moved only about 1 mm in the first third of the blade but decreased more rapidly after that. This resulted in a point of balance about 7 inches (17.8 cm) away from the top of the guard.
The overall build quality of the weapon is excellent. Aesthetically the Soaring Sky makes a single cohesive thematic statement. Your eye is immediately drawn to the gold and green lacquer work in the shape of a Han cloud motif that graces the center of the scabbard. This surrounds a checked orange pattern that supports a belt loop decorated with a harvest grain pattern. Both it, and the painted geometric pattern under it, are taken from various period artifacts. Sadly, the scabbard for the original blade that the Soaring Sky is modeled after did not survive. The scabbard’s chape repeats these geometric themes, while the disk pommel once again shows a cloud motif that was very popular on Han jian. The overall symbolic effect is to suggest a field of grain waving in the wind.
All of the lacquer work was well executed, as was the cast brass sword fittings. The pommel is highly detailed, and the handguard has been polished so that it has no sharp edges. The hilt itself is constructed from rhomboid wooden scales that are pinned in place (as is the pommel), coved in ray skin and wrapped in a simple white cord. I used this sword for about 40 minutes a day for better part of two weeks and had no problem with the wrap. If anything, it seemed to become tighter and grippier as I began to break it in. I suppose all wrapped grips will have to be replaced eventually, but I don’t anticipate any problems, even with heavy use. I should also note that while I really like the black cord wrap on the Flying Phoenix, from a purely practical standpoint the white wrap on the Soaring Sky provides better purchase on the weapon.
As nice as the fittings are, the Soaring Sky’s blade is certainly its main attraction. Mine was beautifully constructed and had no obvious flaws. LK Chen once again used his signature mixture of 1065 and T8 tool steel. Lightly etched the eight-sided profile of the blade allowed the Damascus to show a variety of fold and grain patterns. Both of the cutting edges were perfectly straight with no warps or twists. The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is fairly low but straight. When examining the flats under a bright light, the first half of the blade is perfectly smooth and there is only enough of a wave in the top third (where the smith formed the taper towards the tip) to remind you that this is, indeed, a hand-made sword. The edge came sharp enough that I certainly don’t want to spend much time with my fingers anywhere near it, but your milage may vary.
Most of my use of this sword involved training basic movements and taolu with some additional light cutting. During that time I came to really appreciate its versatility. I found that it was agile enough to do pretty much any modern jian set, but at 20 cm the hilt was just long enough for some material from double handed forms as well. Even though the sword is light and very fast, some modern jian students may be put off by a point of balance that is 7 inches from the hilt. And while that forward weight gives us the blade presence to do the sorts of serious cutting that a long sword should be able to handle, the hilt is a bit too short to be considered a dedicated two-handed weapon. Still, blade design is all about tradeoffs, and it is remarkable how close both the Flying Phoenix and the Soaring Sky come to so many sweet spots.
Given the similarities between these two swords, how might consumers choose between them? Both are remarkable weapons and I find their handling more similar than different. Still, there are differences. Most obvious is the fact that the blade profile for the Flying Phoenix has been optimized for cutting, whereas the reinforced spine on the Soaring Sky prioritizes strength and a bit of stiffness. If you do a lot of cutting on typical targets (water bottles, bamboo, rolled mats or newspaper) the Flying Phoenix may have an edge. If you prefer a stiffer blade with a reinforced tip, the Soaring Sky might give you the experience you are looking for.
As someone who does more traditional martial arts training than cutting, here are a few other factors to consider. The first of the these is that the point of balance on my Soaring Sky makes it feel a bit heavier than my Flying Phoenix during taolu. Its hilt, while comfortable, is narrower. If you have large hands, you might find the Flying Phoenix to be a better fit. I also prefer the way the hilt on the Flying Phoenix swells to meet the pommel as this is a more comfortable arrangement when you do find yourself placing a second hand on the grip.
Nevertheless, the sheer toughness of the Soaring Sky should not be underestimated. On my second day of testing this sword I accidentally planted its (slightly longer than expected) tip into my driveway. The sound of the strike was sickening, and it left a gash in the recently resealed asphalt. But after cleaning the debris from the blade I discover that the cutting edge of the tip was not only undamaged, but that it was still sharp.
Clearly this speaks to the quality of the heat treatment, but it was also instructive in another respect. While I could hear what was going on, I realized in retrospect that I never felt the expected vibration or kickback in the hilt as I attempted to cleave my driveway. After doing a bit of experimentation I determined that the nodes of vibration on this particular sword are about 23 cm (9 inches) back from the tip and right beneath the guard, where one’s right hand would rest. To put it is slightly different terms, the Soaring Sky has a “sweet spot” for cutting about where you would expect it to be and a hilt that is not going to transmit the recoil of a blow up your arm. While I am as big a fan of Peter Johnsson’s work as anyone else, I generally try not to delve into this sort of minutia in my reviews as I can just imagine my reader’s eyes glazing over. But in this case, I think that it is important to point out that not only does the Soaring Sky feel stiffer than other Han jian in LK Chen’s lineup, it has the mechanics in place to back up its promises.
No other quality could be more important when selecting a sword for the Youxia of old. The defining characteristic of their code of honor was that they delivered on their promises. As Liu reminds us, being a knight errant was more about one’s personal conduct than profession or membership in a specific class. Most of these individuals were not professional soldiers, and I suspect that modern readers might even see some of them as primarily diplomats rather than martial artists. Still, these were men who never shied away from direct action when the situation demanded it, and the Soaring Sky is equally capable of answering that call.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Political Extremism, Violence and Martial Arts
July 9, 2021 at 6:45 pm
I just purchased a Soaring Sky and the manufacturer sent this article over. This was an incredible read. Thank you!