Song Dynasty Soldier with Dao

Shi Jin and Chinese Martial Arts

It is axiomatic among martial arts studies scholars to assert that the fighting systems that people practice today are not the ancient creations that so many modern students, in both the East and the West, yearn for.  This is not to say that the duelists, soldiers and performers of the Han dynasty may not have had their own distinctive martial arts.  Rather, when attempting to understand why some practice or organization functions the way it does today, it is simple intellectual honesty to explain everything that we can through proximate causes before we go looking for ancient connections. When considered in this way it becomes clear that almost everything that is interesting and distinctive about an art like Wing Chun (or Choy Li Fut or Karate or Kendo) can be explained by thinking about events and personalities in the 19th and 20th century.  It thus makes sense to say that these practices are the products of the late 19th and early to mid 20thcenturies.

Things become more complicated, however, when we move beyond individual techniques or styles and begin to consider more fundamental concepts. For instance, when did our notion of “martial arts” as a distinct discursive entity first arise?  Paul Bowman has argued at length, and with success, that while individual practices were well known in the West (jujutsu, judo, boxing, Filipino knife fighting), the notion that they belonged to a set collectively known as “martial arts,” and thus were to some degree interchangeable, didn’t really emerge until the 1970s.

So far as we confine our interests to North America and Europe, that all seems true enough.  Yet a similar notion had existed in China for some time.  These skills were diverse and varied. They sometimes took on the role of distinct “styles” in the modern sense of the term, but more typically they were treated as discrete fighting techniques. The mastery of these skills was not simply a qualification of employment, though they could function in this way.  Rather they set a person apart, making them part of a chosen community, a community that could only be entered through voluntary bodily practices and the acceptance of certain norms.

Granted, such communities were typically socially marginal in nature, yet they provided young men with both the support and social scripts necessary to seek mobility within Chinese society through the cultivation of a heroic persona.  While not the same as the martial arts societies that would emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this older social complex provided the raw material that would give rise to successive iterations of Chinese martial culture, including the one that we now enjoy today.  It is thus critical to come to terms with its origins.

Increasingly it seems that these lay in the Song, rather than the Ming, dynasty.  The Ming tends to be the focus of most historical studies as it is the earliest period in Chinese history from which a rich record of martial arts manuals and fightbooks survive.  And a great many important innovations did happen in the late Ming setting the stage for the practices that we enjoy today.  Again, I do not wish to fall into the obvious trap of defining the past in terms of modern categories and then being astounded to discover only continuity across the ages.  But to understand the emergence of Ming martial culture we have to first be aware of two seismic shifts that occurred within Chinese society during the Song.

The first of these was the growth of a network of anti-bandit militias throughout the countryside which received a degree of government acknowledgement and support. As any student of history knows, the Song dynasty faced a number of security challenges and would eventually collapse in the face of northern incursions. While never as militarily weak or lacking in will as later Chinese writers would sometimes claim, the Song was nevertheless stretched dangerously thin and these conditions were ripe for the rise of banditry.  To cope with this, it became common for villages to form “archery societies” which to promoted military training and self-defense. Eventually these efforts proved impressive enough to gain the support of military trainers who began to bring their military training directly into the countryside.

While the Song dynasty did not leave us with the same sort of technical record as the Ming, it did give rise to some of the greatest literary works in Chinese history.  Specifically, the Ming novel Water Margin began its life as a cycle of stories told during the Song dynasty.  In light of the foregoing, it is interesting to consider the fact that he first of the fated 108 heroes that we meet in this work is Shi Jin, or Nine Dragons.  The son of a country squire, he does not learn his skills in a martial arts school nor does he study a famous fighting style.  Those institutions do not yet exist at the time of Water Margin.  Rather, his father has hired several live-in teachers concluding with a military drill instructor fleeing the capital after a dispute with a superior officer.  Shi Jin’s village is located at the base of a mountain that becomes home to a group of bandits.  Initially he first opposes them by raising a local militia using weapons and armor stockpiled by his father. Later joins them as a means of self-preservation. 

A well preserved Song Dynasty dao with rim pommel.

Examples of Song Dao blade types and a period peach shaped hand guard. Source:

The thin and ever shifting line behind village militia leader and local bandit chief has been something that always bothered Chinese administrators and intrigued later historians.  The tale of Shi Jin lays out a common pattern that would be seen again and again in the lives of subsequent martial artists during the Late Imperial and even the Republic periods.  Yet the growth of banditry and the militarization of local defense forces is only one half of the Song’s story.  We must also consider who consumed stories about Shi Jin, and how they paid for them. One cannot have a market without supply and demand.

To really understand what was so innovative about this period we must study the rapid urbanization that characterized life during the Song. More specifically, Song cities were very different from their predecessors in prior eras of Chinese history.  Cities during the Tang dynasty might have been very large, but they were always composed of discrete walled quarters, each with a segregated set of functions and gates that were sealed shut at night.  No one was allowed out of their own compounds after curfew. One’s physical movements were just as tightly regulated as commerce in these earlier urban environments.  

All of that changed during the Song.  China’s new leading cities became much more open places where people mixed freely, new types of markets emerged, and the government asserted less control over commerce.  This led to the growth of immense urban pleasure quarters where individuals patronized teahouses, brothels, and took in all sorts of theatrical performances.  Some of the most important entertainment to arise out of these markets was martial in nature.  Sword dancing and wrestling were equally popular with the crowds.  In a sense there is nothing new about this.  We have mentions of sword dances going back to before the Han.  But now, thanks to newly empowered urban markets, one could earn a living and perpetuation these skills without the backing of a wealthy sponsor, temple or government official. A new space had been opened where martial practices could flourish within a transformed civil society.

Sadly, many fewer written sources on martial practice survived from the Song Dynasty than the Ming. Yet the emergence of literary works such as Water Margin, a text that remains so important that Prof. Ma Mingda has termed it “the Old Testament of Chinese martial arts,” signals the importance of this fusion of military skills in the countryside with urban markets looking for entertainment, self-fulfillment and opportunities for middle class connoisseurship.  All of this would be put on hold by the trauma of the Mongol invasion and the Yuan dynasty. Yet these same trends would reemerge during the Ming including the paradoxical mixing of practical and performative material that still characterizes the Chinese martial arts to this day.

LK Chen’s Song Hand Dao with scabbard. Source:

LK Chen’s Song Dao

All of which is to say, if you really want to grasp the roots of Chinese martial culture, you should read Water Margin and think about how the newly emerging ethos of individual fulfillment and connoisseurship that emerged with the growth of Song urban culture interacted with China’s more ancient modes of heroic behavior.  You may also want to take a close look at LK Chen’s Song Hand Dao as it is a type of weapon that Shi Jin would have been very familiar with.  Indeed, LK Chen’s social media posts suggest that we are about to see the release of several weapons from the Ming and Qing periods.  These will no doubt feel much more “modern” to TCMA practitioners than the rapier shaped jian of the Han dynasty, or the elegant straight dao of the Tang which he has previously focused on. In some ways the Song dao lays the groundwork for understanding both the continuities and changes that we see in these swords as China exits its medieval period and enters the Later Imperial era.

One of the advantages that we have in evaluating replicas of Song dynasty weapons is that many more examples have survived in the archeological record that was the case for the Sui or the Tang.  We also have a limited discussion of these weapons in the Wujing Zongyao military encyclopedia. [Link]  While best known among military historians for its early recipes for gunpowder and discussions of naval warfare, it also includes entries on small arms including the various dao used by the military at the time.  Interestingly seven of the eight dao listed are pole arms, which makes sense in a battlefield context.  But the last example is termed the “hand dao” as it can be held in a single hand. 

It was this surviving encyclopedia entry that gave LK Chen’s sword its name. Still, his representative in North America has pointed out that sort of dao actually described and illustrated in surviving reprints of this work seems to be a shorter weapon which typically has a somewhat different pommel, even if it shares the same clip point.  Perhaps a more descriptive name might be that favored by Alex Huangfu in his 2007 Iron and Steel Swords of China. His preferred term for this type of weapon is “Song Ring Pommel Straight Dao” which I am using here as it better captures important features of LK Chen’s hilt construction and blade geometry.

LK Chen’s blade is a one-to-one replica of a Song Dao owned by a collector in Guangzhou. The handle appears to have been lengthened to allow for a two-handed grip, but both existing finds and period art suggests that this was not unusual.  Indeed, it even existed as a pole arm. The blade type itself seems to have been fairly versatile.

Carved Relief showing Song Soldiers With Double Handed Ring Dao.

Still, this is a relatively short weapon.  Further, the blade’s long straight cutting edge, high bevels and the lack of a functional point (all common features on period archeological finds), suggest that this was primarily a secondary weapon optimized form chopping and slashing.  In the specialized environment of battlefield tactics, one suspects that a point was deemed unnecessary as most soldiers would have carried spears and the dao was primarily seen as a side arm for close defense. Tips take time to make and they are always somewhat delicate, adding to the expense of the weapon. This was a type of sword that was meant to be mass produced, stored in armories, and issued in the tens of thousands. Given the relatively large numbers of them that have survived, that seems to have been the case.

The blade on LK Chan’s Hand Dao is, as always, very well executed.  Rather than the normal damascus pattern seen on his other swords, this blade is made from differentially hardened T10 steel.  I am sure that this modern metallurgy will be welcomed by cutting enthusiasts though differentially hardened blades, while producing an interesting hamon, always need to be treated with some care precisely because their spines have been left a bit softer.

The cutting edge of my example is 65.4 cm, 4 mm longer than its official advertised length. The blade seems to flare ever so slightly as one moves towards the tip and is 3.7 cm at the base, but 3.8 at the tip.  Likewise, it displays some distal taper going from 7 mm at the base to a still robust 4mm at the tip. The end result is a blade that is both wide but also fairly rigid.  Clocking in at 1053 grams it is one of the heavier one-handed swords in LK Chen’s arsenal but this weight (with a point of balance 6.5 inches from the hand guard) is entirely consistent with surviving historic examples.  

The blade itself is well constructed. The spine and cutting edge are perfectly straight.  The blade at first appears to have a “V” shaped edge profile but closer examination reveals that the angle of the edge bevel increases about halfway down the side of the blade yielding a very keen edge that is still supported by a relatively heavy spine. The blade was polished to a nice, but not quite mirror, finish.  The hamon was actually more interesting than I expected, showing some interesting movement in places. Unfortunately, I have been unable to get any photos that really do it justice. A few very shallow hammer strikes were still evident on the flat of the blade confirming that this was indeed a hand-made piece.

The hilt of this sword is wrapped in wood and cord.  It has been shaped to be more rounded behind the spine and to be narrower in the front.  The result is that blade indexes effortlessness in the hand.  The hilt also sports a “peach” guard.  This teardrop shaped hand protector became relatively common in the Song and there are many surviving examples. All of this was paired with a long blade collar painted the same matt black as the hilt and ring. The cord wrapped handle has remained tight and surprisingly comfortable during the period of time in which I have tested the dao.

Compared to some of his other offerings, the Hand Dao’s scabbard is minimalist. It is constructed from a light-colored wood with black cord wrappings that mirror those used on the hilt. Everything on my scabbard has stayed tight and true and there are no issues with its construction.  The final package is a sort of minimalist “Danish Modern meets Kung Fu.” To the best of my knowledge, there are no surviving scabbards from Song ring pommel Dao (which is a bit odd considering how many blades survived), so in this case we are on our own.

Given the weight and the forward balance of this sword it still feels nimbler than one would think in the hand.  I personally believe that it greatly benefits from the slightly longer handle as without it the point of balance would move even further out and the end result would be a blade that is less comfortable and with slower recovery in one handed cutting.  I have always been more of a jian than a dao guy, but I did try it out with a few different dao taolu. Its handling was surprisingly familiar given how different the sword’s construction is from later, more curved, weapons.  Needless to say, it felt great when doing some 20th century dadao drills!

My example emerged from the box very sharp and had no trouble cutting water bottles or pool noodles.  In fact, the somewhat distant point of balance and greater sense of blade presence make this weapon a natural cutter and I look forward to testing it against some different targets later in the summer.  Many of LK Chen’s swords seem “too nice” to do much serious cutting with.  I love my White Arc, for example, but just can’t bring myself to do anything too abusive to it. But with the Song Hand Dao, it seems like a shame not to get out and work on one’s cutting technique.  

In conclusion, LK Chen has once again managed to infuse modern metallurgy into a fascinating historical discussion that is sure to be appreciated by both martial artists and collectors alike.  The Song ring pommel straight dao is an important artifact from a period of immense social change and creativity which would ultimately lay the foundations for the emergence of modern Chinese martial culture.  This was a one of those weapons that defined an era, being carried by soldier, peasant militias and bandits alike. Yet its disappearance in favor of more curved saber designs in the Late Imperial era is also an important clue as to how global exchange and connectivity would continually shape and redefine Chinese martial culture. Having set the stage, it will be fascinating to see what aspects of this story LK Chen chooses to emphasis as he explores the blades of the Ming and Qing.