An Invaluable Inventory
In 1993 local residents in Yinwan (Donghai county, Jiangsu Province) made a remarkable discovery. They uncovered a group of relatively well-preserved flooded tombs dating back to the Han dynasty. Only two of these tombs have been excavated (2 and 6), and both yielded important finds. Yinwan Tomb 6, as it has come to be called in the literature, must be counted as among the more important archeological finds in recent decades. This is not because of the luxury of the tomb goods. The individuals interned within were a low-level government clerk and his wife. Rather, the tomb yielded a rich cache of documents written on both bamboo strips and thin wooden boards that touched on everything from government administration, poetry, divination and even recreational gaming. Dozens of articles have been published in English about these texts, and the output in Chinese academic journals has been much higher.
One of the newly discovered texts provided a complete inventory of the Donghai arsenal in the first decade of the Western Han. This is the earliest statistical evidence that we have regarding the armaments and organization of the Chinese military during this transitional period. In that sense the document is priceless. Yet I have never been able to locate an English language scholarly treatment of this text, despite the fact that the actual contents of the inventory have been widely translated and can now even be found on the Han dynasty’s Wikipedia page.
For a group of martial arts scholars, this is a strange and painful oversight. Perhaps it can be best understood as a witness to how important the other texts in this same cache have been. Yet what do we know about the official who collected this inventory, and what does it suggest about the size and composition of the Han military?
Tomb Number 6 is believed to be final resting place of a low-level government official named Shi Rao and his wife. According to official records, Shi Rao would have earned a relatively modest salary of 100 bushels of grain a year. Still, Tomb 6 contained two coffins and a separate chest for burial goods, suggests a family with some wealth and status.
Shi Rao was part of the Bureau of Merit and would have been responsible for compiling reports, carrying out inspections and collecting tax information for the government. While formally a low level official, such officers served as the governor’s confidents and often controlled access to valuable information that other officials needed for career advancement.
As such, it is not a surprise that Shi Rao was buried with a number of grave goods including important jade pieces, bonze and ceramic vessels, talismanic objects and two long steel swords in addition to a large collection of documents. Since the tomb remained flooded, these texts were initially recovered in excellent condition. Unfortunately, several were damaged when a subsequent squabble over payments to be made to local work crews prevented them from being preserved as quickly as was necessary. Nor have I have been able to locate any photos of Shi Rao’s swords in the secondary literature on the tomb. That likely reflects how common such weapons are in period sites, and the fact that the archeology community is much more interested in texts, bronzes and ceramics than blades. Yet it is important to note that a low-level civil official in the Han dynasty might be buried with not one, but two, swords.
Of all of the grave goods in Tomb 6, we are most interest in a text titled “The Arsenal of Yongshi’s 4th year Equipment Account Book.” Composed about 13 BCE, the archeological report suggests that this text, written on a thin wooden board, was interned with Shi Rao in about 10 CE. The text itself took up both sides of a single board and was a record of the 240 kinds of weapons, armor and vehicles collected in a county level arsenal in an area that had once been part of the Kingdom of Chu. The arsenal was likely to have been well stocked as the region had a history of rebellion in which the arms of opposing forces might have been captured, and additional weapons seem to have been sent from the capital. The total inventory of this single county level facility was enormous.
Martial arts studies and military history, while sometimes overlapping, are not the same field. As such I have taken the liberty of only including the parts of the translation that deal with small arms. But even this is enough to give readers a sense of the size and depth of the facility that Shi Rao may have visited two decades before his death.
Crossbow: 537,707 (imperial owned: 11,181)
Arrows and Bolts
Crossbow bolts: 11,458,424 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Imperial owned arrows: 1,199,316 (imperial owned: 511)
Jia Armor: 142,701 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Iron thigh clothing: 255, 1 pair of unique ones
Kai armor: 63,324
Iron Thigh Armor: 10,563
Sets of Iron lamellar armor: 587,299
Leather armor is 14 jin [7.5 lbs]
Horse armor: 5,330
Shields: 102,551 (and one “rang,” which was probably a Gou-rang)
Bronze dagger-aw: 632 (imperial owned: 563)
Spear: 52,555 (imperial owned: 2377)
Imperial owned sheng: 943
Pi sword-staff: 451,222 (imperial owned: 1421)
Halberd (Ji): 6,634
Yofang (halberd/polearm of unknown make): 78,393
Sword: 99,905 (imperial owned: 4)
Sawing Sabre: 30,098
Sabre (Dao): 156,135
Great Sabre (Dao): 127 (232)
Iron axe: 1132 (136)
This list provides us with as many questions as answers. For instance, when we note that the arsenal had 614,546 polearms, one might very wonder whether it was actually attempting to supply the entire Han army?
If we want to understand the actual force that this inventory was intended to serve, I suspect that we should instead ask about some of the more limited categories. During the Western Han helmets and shields were among the most commonly issued pieces of equipment for troops, and in both cases, we see that the arsenal stocked about 100,000 pieces of equipment. That is far short of what would be necessary to arm a million-man force, and it is more in line with what one might expect to see in a county level arsenal. Likewise, by the Western Han the military’s transition away from the jian towards the dao was well under way. It is thus significant that we find 156,135 dao in the inventory. These would have been weapons similar to the LK Chen infantry and calvary dao.
Even more interesting, however, was the fact that nearly 100,000 Jian were still held within the arsenal’s stores. Some of these weapons may have been inherited from previous conflicts and uprisings in the area. Yet I suspect that this figure is close enough to the total number of helmets and shields that it reflects a degree of planning rather than happenstance. In any case, the jian remained a military weapon in the early decades for the Western Han, typically used either with a shield or from horseback. Thus, Shi Rao’s report provides us with a fascinating look into a pivotal moment of technological change when the jian and dao still overlapped.
Reviewing the White Arc
What would these military jian have looked like and how would they have been used? For that matter, what about the two swords in Shi Rao’s coffin? The site report includes only a basic drawing of the excavated tomb and describes the swords as being “long.” What does that mean in practical terms?
To answer these questions, we turn to LK Chen’s reproduction of a standard Han jian, the White Arc. This blade is a one-to-one reproduction of a period artifact that is currently in LK Chen’s private collection. It was selected precisely because it was typical of the sorts of jian that were forged during first half of the Han dynasty. In general, these swords have fairly long blades (90-110 cm) with relatively sort handles (15-20 cm) that are finished either in a disk pommel (like the Soaring Sky) or, more commonly, with a simple cap of bonze or brass. Their oval hilts were made of wood scales wrapped in cord. While organic material such as wood and fiber are far less likely to survive, enough artifacts have been preserved in oxygen starved submerged tombs that we now have a fairly decent sense as to how these hilts were contoured and wrapped.
This brings us back to the White Arc. Of LK Chen’s three Han jian, it is the most representative of a typical sword from the period, as carried by either soldiers or civilians. Whereas the Flying Phoenix is a composite creation, and the Soaring Sky is an exact replica a relatively early and elite type of jian, the White Arc captures the essence of the period’s arsenal swords. Unlike the Soaring Sky or earlier pieces from the Waring States period, it features a simple four sided diamond cross-section that has been optimized for cutting. And unlikely its longer, “hand-a-half” cousins, its narrow blade could only be wielded with a single hand as the other was expected to be occupied with either a hooked buckler (mostly used for civilian fencing) or a larger infantry shield. In evaluating this sword, we must remember that it was only one half of the intended weapon system.
When approaching the White Arc the first thing that anyone will notice is the scabbard. While the artifact that LK Chen reproduced no longer has its original furniture (aside from the handguard), the White Arc’s scabbard is a more or less direct copy of several period finds. Its simple diamond profile and red and black color scheme are perhaps the most common features found on scabbards from this period. In keeping with the utilitarian identity of this sword, the belt loop is made from carved wood (as was common at the time) and the chape is cast brass.
The woodwork on my sample piece is nicely done and the paint is crisp and without runs. However, my scabbard seems to be a just a hair too big for the sword at the mouth (which is loose) and the chape, where the wood overshoots the brass by about 1 mm. When the sword was being assembled the belt loop fell a bit to one side rather than sitting perfectly straight and here is also some excess glue around the top of the chape that has run up onto the scabbard. However, any early production issues with the epoxy that was being used seems to have been resolved and everything is firm and tight.
Next we come to the blade itself. Once again, LK Chen has attempted to replicate the look of period pattern welded steel by using a high layer count Damascus combining 1065 and T8. The blade has received a light acid etch revealing an interesting pattern. The forging of this piece is absolutely top quality. There are no bends or warps in the blade and edges are perfectly straight with the primary bevel leading straight to the cutting edge. The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is perfectly straight with no distortions, and the tip is symmetrical. One side of my blade shows very little waviness in the steel and that is mostly towards the tip, as you would expect with a hand made blade. The other side has more pronounced waves and seems to have received a bit more attention either in straightening the blade or the polishing. The bottom quarter of the blade was left relatively dull, but the rest has been brought to a high degree of sharpness. In bright light you can see a few places where the “mirror polish” is cloudy, but overall the quality of the blade is exceptional, especially given its price point.
In terms of basic statistics, my sword’s blade (measured from the top of the guard) was 94 cm long (or just over 37 inches). The total length of the sword was 113 cm (44.5 inches), making is almost exactly average for a late Eastern Han dynasty jian. The blade’s width at the base was 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 17 mm at the tip. The distal taper was also relatively even, declining from 7mm at the base to about 3 mm right before the start of the tip.
Interestingly, my test sword weighed 764 grams, less than the advertised wight of 810 grams. 50 grams may not sound a like a lot in the abstract, but on a sword this light I suspect that it would be notable. Lastly, in terms of the weapon’s dynamic characteristics, the point of balance was relatively far out at 21 cm from the guard (8 inches). The blade’s upper vibrational node and point of rotation were both located about 22-23 cm back from the tip, giving the blade a well-defined and intuitive “sweet spot.”
The White Arc’s hilt is constructed somewhat different from LK Chen’s other Han Jian. It has a pommel cap rather than a terminal disc. That is important as a disc pommel isn’t just decorative. It is a structural element allowing the pommel, tang and scales to be held in place with a single shared pin. However, pommel caps are also common in the archeological record. These could be quite thick, sometimes with only enough space for the tang of the sword, or more generous, fitting over the hilt’s wooden scales and holding everything together. They were typically glued or set with a friction fit. The subsequent wrapping of the hilt with cord closed the gap between the wooden scales and the elevated edge of the cast bronze or brass cap. This traditional method of construction has been used on both the White Arc and the much larger Striking Eagle.
The hilt scales of the White Arc are also pinned through the tang just beneath the hand guard and everything has been epoxied. If one carefully examines the bottom of the handguard you can see that it is not straight. Rather, it is notched on both sides allowing the scales to be custom fit and recessed into the guard itself, further preventing them from rotating. The brass handguard is an exact replica of the original and is extremely comfortable. Indeed, it is probably the most comfortable guard on any of LK Chen’s swords. Finally, the relatively wide oval scales have been wrapped in a grippy white cord made from some sort of natural fiber.
The hilt is widest at the top and and narrows slightly as it moves towards the pommel cap. I am not entirely sure whether this reflects the way the scales were carved, or its its artifact of the way that they were wrapped. In any case, the hilt feels secure and firm when thrusting but has a tendency to feel as though its pulling away from the user when executing broad cuts. This small detail may be a hint as to how some Han jian were originally intended to be used. The cord itself is comfortable and showed no signs of loosening or wear even after several weeks of daily with this blade.
I found the handling characteristics of the White Arc to be notably different from not only modern Jian, but also LK Chen’s Soaring Sky and Flying Phoenix. This is not to say that the sword was unpleasant to use. It is very light and responsive. When training both basic movements and cutting I always had an intuitive sense of where the tip was, and because of the hilt construction the blade was easy to index. In those respects this is an easy sword to use and it really puts to rest the notion that narrow blades are only good for thrusting.
That said, I did feel a bit more hand shock in the White Arc than some of LK Chen’s other jian. I suspect this is because the sword’s lower vibration node was actually somewhere in the blade’s forte rather than the upper hilt (which would have provided a natural dampening effect). This is probably an unavoidable mathematical result of the very short hilt compared to long overall length of the blade and the lack of a robust pommel adding weight to the end of tang. Given that the White Arc is a one-to-one recreation of a very standard period blade, there is not much that one can do about this. Still, it is interesting to note the way that Chinese hilt designs subsequently evolved, generally becoming longer and heavier, in the coming centuries. One wonders whether that correlates to a corresponding shift from thrusting to cutting? This is also evident if you compare the construction and proportion of Han dao hilts, which could be quite diminutive, to later sabers from the Sui/Tang or Song dynasties.
As one would expect, this is a blade that excels in the thrust. It wants to thrust and make tight parries. In improvised training those are always the movements that come the quickest and easiest. I would say that all of the standard guards and cuts from modern jian systems are possible with the White Arc, but they aren’t all equally comfortable or quick due to the swords length. I found the recovery from broad cuts to be a bit slow because of the long point of balance. For instance, if the sword was too far extended, I felt that my back tip cuts wouldn’t have generated enough force to actually be effective. While this blade is light and quick, it clearly was not designed with the wheels and sword flowers of the Qing and Republic era jian systems. Weapons are, by their very nature, inflexible and we must adapt ourselves to the possibilities that they allow. In that sense the White Arc is an invitation to explore new aspects of Chinese swordsmanship. It will be less rewarding to resist nature and use it exactly as you might a more modern cutting jian. Instead the blade must be understood as an invitation for experimentation.
This brings us to the elephant in the room. While I have quite enjoyed training with the White Arc, I don’t feel like I have fully plumbed its depths. Aside from some pieces of art, we don’t have any detailed texts describing how these blades were used. Further, this was a sword that was almost certainly designed to be used with either a shield or a Gou-Rang. That is one thing that we do see very clearly in most surviving period art.
To really grasp what this blade is capable of I need to take another look at it in that specific context. I am still working on securing a couple of Gou-Rang for experimentation, and at some point I need to dust off my neglected woodworking skills and make an infantry shield. Clearly that is the next step in studying the White Arc, and probably a precondition for really understanding how any Han jian was intended to be used.
The White Arc is a remarkable artifact. It reminds us of a time when county level arsenals might have had 100,000 similar blades in their inventories, ready to equip an army on a moments notice. And their presence in so many civilian tombs, including that of Shi Rao, speaks to the importance of both swords and fencing in Han culture. Recreating the White Arc bring us one step closer to understanding this lost chapter in the development of the China’s ancient martial arts.