Regionalism has been all the rage in certain academic circles for at least a decade, though no field demonstrates the potential and challenges of this approach more fully than martial arts studies. The central concept of this paradigm is that most of the historical or cultural objects that scholars are interested in were never actually confined to the territory of a single modern nation state. As scholars such as Benedict Anderson have repeatedly sought to remind us, the very notion of the “nation” is an entirely modern construction which we tend to project backwards in time for ideological and political reasons. The states that most of us are familiar with today tend to be much more recent than one might suspect, and even the truly ancient civilizations (such as China) which still exist have seen their boundaries evolve over time. Historical events can rarely be understood if we confine our studies to the archives of a single nation state. Instead, we must be conscious of the ways that ideas, resources and power have flowed from one group to the next, giving rise to complex patterns of change across entire regions.
When summed up in a single paragraph it all seems so obvious. The real issue is how we put this into practice. While multi-national regionally focused research strategies offer important insights, they can also constitute a steep barrier to entry.
I saw both aspects of this firsthand while watching graduate students present their research at Cornell’s East Asia Program. A deep knowledge of history and linguistics has always been presupposed in this type of research. Students would spend years working on their spoken and classical Chinese, often doing initial research in China before ever being admitted to a PhD program where the “real work” would begin. But increasingly mastery of a single archaic language (or group of languages) was seen as insufficient. Instead, students would be encouraged to combine their mastery of classical Chinese with other subjects such as proto-Tibetan, Sanskrit, Manchu or Japanese. The best research projects were those that drew on archival research in not one language but several.
All of this requires times…which is to say money. Increasingly the best doctoral programs in Asian history are reluctant to admit any student who hasn’t already completed one (or more) master’s degrees at another institution. These are seen as an essential training ground where students can acquire the ever the more complex research skills that are necessary to succeed. However, while one can receive grants or scholarships to support PhD research, these are not generally available at the MA level. Instead, students are asked to pay the full out of pocket expense for a graduate degree in an obscure field which may (or may not) win them a coveted spot in a doctoral program. Not all students are capable of taking on such expense and risk, and this clearly skews who we eventually see entering the disciplines. Martial arts studies generally avoids this issue by framing the issue as one of interdisciplinarity, thus encouraging the collaboration of diverse groups of specialists. Still, as we seek to build up our field, we must always be conscious of our own barriers to entry.
Nor is this the only challenge that regionally focused research programs face. It is not a coincidence that so many products of global exchange have been appropriated and recast as representing an exclusive ethnic or national origin. Going out among the peasants to collect customs and stories that could be reimagined in strictly national terms was the great academic project of linguists, historians and anthropologists during much of the 19th century. Many of the national myths that we current struggle against were created within the academy and some of these stories remain quite useful to political elites. One cannot discuss the origins and development of many martial art without running up against these sorts of stories.
We might even locate the spiritual roots of modern martial arts studies in theoretically informed attempts to push back against these myths. Older hoplologists like Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith seemed content to view their subject in largely national and primordialist terms. For Draeger the Japanese martial arts were worth pursuing precisely because they revealed the ancient and indomitable Japanese essence. Aspects of these systems that did not fit with his vision of the Japanese “national essence” were not emphasized in his work.
As scholars such as Hurst (Armed Martial Arts of Japan) would later point out in their own (more historically informed) research, this is an issue as the relationship between the development of the oldest Japanese martial arts and actual battlefield practices is not necessarily what one might expect. Further, when one does look at actual military training, what quickly becomes apparent is that Japanese practice has long been influenced by a wide variety of regional factors including (but not limited to) its repeated interventions in the disputes between various Korean kingdoms, the attempted invasion of Japan by the Mongols, and extended periods of trade, exchange and conflict along the coasts of southern China. Every one of these incidents had important and visible effects on the development of Japanese martial culture. And yet the image of Japanese martial arts created by reformers and government officials between the late 19thcentury and WWII insisted that everything had developed in pure, hermetically sealed, isolation.
I highlight the case of Japan here not because it is unique. Discussions of the Chinese, Korean and Indonesian martial arts show many of the same tendencies. Rather, Japan’s geographic status as an island and long periods of isolation make it a challenging case study for the regional approach. If the concept can be shown to yield fruit here, it will likely be of use everywhere. And this seems to be pretty clearly the case. Still, the nationally focused world view that most of us carry, as well as continued efforts to construct notions such as “intangible cultural heritage” in politicized terms, means that these ideas are unlikely to filter down to the level of the practicing martial artist.
If only there was some artifact that one could hold in their own hands which perfectly illustrated the reality of deep regional exchange on the development of martial culture…
The Tang Dao
Thanks to LK Chen I suspect that quite a few Western martial artists probably acquired just such an object over the holiday season. While he established his reputation by recreating painstaking replicas of a wide variety of Warring States and Han era jian and dao, LK Chen has recently expanded his offering to better represent the medieval and late imperial periods of Chinese history. None of these other eras has received as much attention as the Tang dynasty. In fact, LK Chen currently offers his customer three reproductions explicitly labeled “Tang Dao”, though in reality at least five of the swords in his current catalog represent weapons that one would have commonly encountered during this period.
This is an interesting development and one that reflects the long-standing interest in “Tang Dao” among global martial arts enthusiasts. Even this label reveals something fundamental about the transnational flow of martial culture. It should go without saying that no one used the term “Tang Dao” during the actual Tang dynasty. This is obviously a label that would only be significant from an outsider’s perspective.
Actual Tang subjects seem to have classified their sidearms as either Yi (ritual/ceremonial), Heng (horizontally hanging), “Blocking” and Mo dao. Yi sabers are typically portrayed in period arts as long and terminating in ornate bronze rings, similar to the Double Dragon dao of the short-lived Sui dynasty. The heng dao (referring to the way the scabbard hangs from the belt) is much more commonly see in period art and corresponds to LK Chen’s “Heng” and “Palatial” offerings. Both the “blocking” and mo dao are discussed in the surviving literature, though they are never portrayed in period art nor have any examples survived in the archeological record. As such, they remain a mystery to be addressed in another post.
As with so much else in the martial arts, the modern label “Tang Dao,” and common notions as to what one is/was, emerged as something of a marketing gimmick. After commercial sword making was reestablished in Longquan, the local factories quickly became dominant players in the mass production of Japanese-style katana and wakizashi. Once their skills and trade networks were established, these same companies also began to export a distinct type of “Tang Dao” which was marketed as the direct ancestor of the venerable Katana.
This move reflected the fact that some Tang era blades really had been preserved in Japan, and the export of weapons from China to Japan may have had some impact on the development of early Japanese sword design or manufacture. Yet this was also a nationalist move, effectively claiming a Chinese origin for Japan’s most treasured martial artifact while ignoring several unresolved questions about the actual relationship between ancient Chinese and Japanese swords. On a commercial level, it also fed into Western desires to find ever deeper origins for modern martial practice. While individuals in the Tang dynasty certainly used swords, the current notion of the “Tang Dao” as a unitary type of idealized proto-Katana is mostly a modern construction.
Tang dynasty law prohibited the burial of swords as grave goods, and as such we have very few surviving blades from this period. The handful of pieces in good condition that do exist were preserved in Korea and Japan, distributed along the ancient silk roads. A few other examples have recently been recovered by archeologists in China. And we are fortunate that a number of sets of sword fittings have been well preserved. Still, most of the domestic Chinese evidence for Tang sword use comes from period artwork (paintings and sculpture) and a handful of literary references.
What the surviving blades, furniture and paintings do suggest is that that the variety of swords carried during this period were much more diverse than what Longquan’s notion of the “Tang Dao” might suggest. Early in the period it seems that most swords had traditional Chinese style bronze pommel rings and that “hidden hilt” examples were very common. Thus, both the Dragon-Sparrow and Double Dragon, while first seen at earlier points in time, are themselves good representations of the types of swords seen in early Tang art. Over time things changed and later hilts, handguards and mounting systems showed greater Near Eastern influence. Of course, many aspects of Tang culture were defined by its location on the Silk Road. Newer hilts lost their bronze pommel rings while scabbards were slung in the Sasanian style.
Japanese delegates encountered all of these blades and brought them home. A number of later examples (dating from the 8th century) have even been preserved in remarkably good condition in the Shosoin in Nara. Here we see relatively narrow, straight spined, sabers with both angular tip constructions (similar to the later Katana) as well as other examples with a pronounced false edge. These are typically mounted in simple wood scabbards and fitted with small round tsuba (handguards) reminiscent of later Japanese swords. LK Chen’s Frontier Tang dao seems to take its styling cues directly from the group of Tang weapons preserved in Nara.
The issue, however, is that none of the existing Chinese artwork shows swords with similar furniture. Nor do the archeological finds of handguards and hangers (often mounted on wooden blades for burial) match the patterns seen in Japan. While new ideas about swords and weapon design radiated out along the Silk Road, they seem to have hybridized at every stop along their path. It is thus likely that the Nara weapons reflect both Chinese and Japanese ideas about how swords should be mounted and used.
LK Chen’s Heng Dao
All of which bring us to the review of LK Chen’s Heng Dao. This is a reproduction of the type of sword that would have been carried by a common soldier or junior officer. As such, its fittings are rendered in cast iron which has been painted black (a historic technique) even though they are modeled off of a surviving set of silver fittings. The simple ironwood scabbard is sleek and nicely constructed but lacking the ornamentation of many of the more fanciful Longquan “Tang Dao.” The overall visual effect is one of almost “Danish modern” elegance, though the weapon remains a historic recreation.
When ordering a Heng Dao one is faced with some metallurgical choices not seen on LK Chen’s earlier Han era recreations. The blade itself is available in three different grades and priced accordingly. The “Commander Grade” is a san mai construction in which 1065 and T9 Damascus steel is wrapped around a high performance A3 steel core. The entire blade is then edged hardened using the same sort of clay tempering techniques that many readers will be familiar with from traditional Japanese sword making. This yields a straight “hamon” or temper line.
Alternatively, customers may order an “Elite” grade example in which the blade is constructed from T10 tool steel which has also been edge hardened. Finally, a “Warrior” grade option is available with a through-hardened manganese steel blade. While both the Elite and Commander grade scabbards are made from ironwood, the Warrior’s are constructed from wenge, which seems to have a lighter color and courser grain structure. All three offerings have same painted iron fittings.
I suspect that anyone doing heavy cutting would be best served by the least expensive Warrior grade model as through-hardened mono-steel is least likely to take a set when faced with a challenging target or poor technique. Edge hardened pieces, while historically accurate and capable of great performance, are much more likely to bend under the stress of a bad cut as their spines have been left a bit soft so as to prevent breaks or other catastrophic failures on the battlefield. Collectors will no doubt be drawn to the beautiful san mai construction of the Commander grade, whereas the Elite model offers a compromise of traditional tempering techniques and a modern high-performance steel. I personally feel that it represents the best value for the dollar for most consumers.
My review sample was an Elite grade heng dao. With a total length of 95.25 cm (37.5 inches), it features a T10 differentially hardened blade approximately 73.6 cm (29 inches) in length. My dao weighs 877 grams, slightly more than 855 gram advertised weight. The blade shows a relatively even distal taper which moves from 7.5 mm at the base to 3.2 mm at the tip. However, the long false edge nudges the blade’s distribution of mass back towards the hilt.
The blade feels quite dynamic in the hand and is even more nimble than LK Chen’s longer (but thinner) Han Jian. It points and thrusts naturally and can comfortably perform both jian and dao techniques. If pushed I might say that it feels slightly more like a late imperial jian than the relatively wide bladed civilian dao that most modern martial artists will be most familiar with.
My blade’s point of balance sits at about 12 cm from the hilt giving it enough blade presence for solid cutting. Its front pivot point is between 13 and 14 cm back from the tip, and its rear pivot point is around 22 cm forward from the guard. One can keep the tip of the sword on a target while moving through various guards with relative ease. The swords forward vibration node is about 20 cm (eight inched) behind the tip, with the rear node being located just behind the handguard.
As always, the construction of the blade is excellent. The cutting edge is without any warps or twists and all of the grind lines (including those around the false edge) are perfectly straight and symmetric. The sword came sharp enough that one would hesitate to run your fingers across the blade, and it is certainly sharp enough for cutting targets like water bottles. Even the false edge of my blade was sharpened, though not to the same degree as the main cutting surface. When held up to a light the flats of the blade appear to be perfect smooth on one side, and to show only two slight ripples on the other. The polish of the blade was nice and showed no flaws. However, this is not the sort of mirror polish that is meant to bring out the hamon. While visible, the hamon remains a bit faint and I had trouble capturing photos of it for this review.
The woodwork on the scabbard and hilt is excellent. Everything is smooth and blemish free. The fit between the sword and scabbard it tight and secure. The profile of the hilt is relatively svelte and it narrows as it moves away from the guard towards the pommel cap. Some individuals might find it to be slick given the smooth wood and relatively skinny profile. To be entirely honest, I would love to see an option for some sorts of wrapping (perhaps in ray skin, which appears in many period paintings) in the future.
The metal work was tightly fitted to the scabbard and hilt. The edges on the pommel’s but cap were square without being sharp and I never encountered any hotspots with the guard. The flower holding the rear pin in place is a bit sharp around the edges. When using the sword with a single hand (as intended) this is never an issue, but it may be if you find yourself putting a second hand on the hilt for support during heavy cutting. So far, the black paint on my fittings is holding up. I suspect that with time and use wear will appear along the edges and high points. However, the advantage of this sort of a system is that it is easily touched up.
Overall I found the heng dao to be a joy to use. A 74 cm blade weighting only 877 grams is very maneuverable, and I found that I could use it in both jian and dao sets. This is a remarkably versatile weapon which was employed by both infantry and calvary in a wide variety of settings. The false edge makes for devastating thrusts against lightly armored targets (aka, water bottles) and allows trained martial artists to employ a much wider range of techniques than would be possible with a more conventional saber. As the Tang dynasty moved on (and soldier became more heavily armored) it seems that the angular tip (such as that seen on the Palatial Dao) became more common due to their increased strength.
Nevertheless, as a modern martial artist who is unlikely to square off with a heavily armored soldier any time soon, I think that it is hard to beat the lighter and faster tip of the heng dao. All of this suggests why similar blades started to find their way back to Japan.
Rather than a direct one-to-one recreation of an existing artifact, LK Chen’s heng dao is a composite creation which combines the profiles of Tang blades preserved only in Nara with domestic fittings discovered by Chinese archeologists. All of this was joined with a handguard and mounting system originating in the Near East. Yet the plain wood scabbard and hilt on LK Chen’s heng dao still resemble the Japanese examples in Shosoin more than the richly decorated examples in surviving Tang paintings.
LK Chen’s recreation of the Tang dao reflects not just archeological necessity, but the fact that such weapons were always the product of transnational flows of people and ideas. Many different types of swords circulated within the Tang dynasty and these seem to have evolved over time. Further, the origins of at least some of their essential characteristics originated outside of the area that we now call China and went on to impact the development of military technology used throughout the entire region. One would be hard pressed to find a better illustration of the essentially transnational nature of martial culture than these remarkable swords. That, in turn, suggests something about the sorts of research methods that are necessary when we attempt to unravel their mysteries.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Knight Errantry and the Soaring Sky