In a post reviewing the portrayal of weaponry in Han Dynasty mortuary art I confessed that I really, really, want to assemble a recreation of the sorts of long, horizontal, weapons racks that you see in some of these panels. While undeniably cool, doing so would be a challenge for even the most diehard Chinese martial arts nerd. To begin with, who has that much wall-space? Sword racks takes up enough room. Yet most of these images focused on large collections of period polearms (typically shown in matched sets) with just a smattering of swords, and the occasional crossbow, for flavor. That alone makes this something of a long term project. LK Chen has done more to create an international market for high quality replicas of Han dynasty weapons than just about anyone one else, and other Chinese smiths are increasingly expanding the their offerings in this once obscure realm. We have even been fortunate to see the release of a couple of exotic polearms in the last few years (including both the iconic Han Sha and the Ji). Still, modern collectors seem to focus most of their attention on the jian and dao, whereas artisans at the time portrayed a martial culture that was much more focused on the spear, javelin, glaive and dagger-axe. All of this was utilized in what appears to have been a mature martial arts subculture.
We know that books on fencing and martial culture were produced and read during the Han dynasty as their titles were preserved in the library catalogs of the Imperial household. Sadly, the books themselves have not survived leaving us to with none of the detailed sources necessary to reconstruct the era’s practice. Perhaps one of the reasons why so many individuals are drawn to Han weaponry is precisely this sense of mystery. Huge numbers of archeological artifacts, and wonderful pieces of art, survive suggesting the existence of a mature and sophisticated martial culture quite different from anything that exists today. Yet we don’t have enough information to reconstruct with any certainty what it would have been like.
There is nothing that motivates the mind like a good mystery. It sparks the imagination and can even lead to a creative, and somewhat disruptive, turn within martial arts communities. Anytime large numbers of people of start constructing alternate ways to imagine China’s glorious past through the practice of new systems of armed combat, sociologically inclined martial arts studies scholars should sit up and take notice. The subject becomes especially important when all of this happening at a moment when globalization is threatened by growing great power conflict. But that more serious subject is a topic for another day. As a practicing martial arts nerd I am just trying to figure out how to create a Han dynasty weapons rack of my own.
One of the most mysterious elements of Han images of arms collections was the ubiquitous appearance of a type of buckler, or small shield, referred to by historical sources as the gou-rang. Swordsmen in many cultures have employed bucklers to provide basic defense in combat. These small shields were typically easily carried and versatile, making them an ideal sidearm for civilians who were generally not expecting trouble when they left the house in the morning, but knew that they might find it anyway.
Where the Chinese gou-rang departs from its more common counterparts is in the inclusion of two long steel prods, both terminating in a blunted hook, that emerge from the top and the bottom of the shield. It was also common for a spike to be placed in the center of the shield itself. This may have been used offensively, though I suspect it played an even larger role in the trapping and manipulation of an opponent’s weapons. The parrying hooks, handle and the spike generally exhibited integral construction. A protective plate was then attached to this underlying structure to protect the hand.
We should state right at the beginning of this discussion that we have no detailed written sources explaining how the gou-rang was deployed or used. And while archeologists have recovered literally tons of Han dynasty jian and dao from the era’s often flooded tombs, these hooked bucklers are much less frequently encountered. As with so much else in the menagerie of Han arms, our knowledge of these weapons is really a set of informed guesses coming from scattered literary references, experimental archeology and a careful reading the era’s much more complete artistic record.
This suggests the first paradox that we need to keep in mind. While the gou-rang is relatively scarce in the archeological record, it is ubiquitous in the period’s artistic representations of martial culture. Almost every funerary image of a weapons collection includes at least one gou-rang in the mix. They are also seen in many battle sequences. Yet they were not left as grave goods with the same frequency as the dao, jian, ji or sha.
The more “action oriented” images on tomb walls are our main source of information of how this weapon might have been used. Unsurprisingly they show the upper and lower hooks being used to bridge or entangle an opponent’s weapon. In many of the most striking images the gou-rang is used to neutralize the ji, a Han dynasty update on the ubiquitous dagger-axe. This has led some people to speculate that the gou-rang was developed specifically to counter this weapon, but I suspect that is reading too much into a limited documentary record.
Period art also contains other clues about the nature and use of these weapons. Individuals employing the gou-rang often used the popular short dao as their primary weapon. Typically the hand holding the shield was held in the front while the weapon hand is held in reserve. Further, it is civilians, rather than soldiers, who typically carry these bucklers. A surviving inventory of an imperial Han arsenal lists over 100,000 shields in its stores, but only a single gou-rang. While we cannot say anything for certain, this suggest that the gou-rang may have been primarily a civilian weapon that evolved to help the martial artists of the era deal with the specific threats that they faced.
The ability to block an opponent’s weapon and disrupt their defenses is critical in any sort of dueling culture. Indeed, shields were the predominant tactical challenge that Han swordsmen would have faced. One of the few things that we can say about the period with certainty was that the use of shields by swordsmen was very common. Indeed, this is likely why era’s highly sophisticated blades rarely featured much in the way of hand protection. Complex guards are not as necessary when shields are brought into play. The pronounced hooks on the gou-rang would have been ideal for pulling shields down, creating a pathway for the dao to then do its work. Of course this sort of risky maneuver is exactly the sort of thing that civilian duelists would tend to obsess over while militaries would just train groups of soldiers to work in teams to overcome an obstacle.
In any case, we can now put forward a set of likely deductions. The gou-rang was almost certainly a civilian/dueling weapon that supported someone armed with either a dao or short hand ji. It would likely have been employees against individuals armed with either the standard polearms of the day, or a sword and shield. Finally, these weapons would have been somewhat expensive to produce and likely required extensive training, making them a sort of status symbol. This might be one reason why they are more likely to be found in the art decorating the walls of a tomb than in the actual cache of grave goods.
Several surviving examples can be seen in museums and private collections, but after 2,000 years in the ground these are typically in poor shape. Any organic material that may have been used to wrap or shape the handle is long gone. They also show a fair degree of variability in the shape of the central shield and curvature of the upper and lower prods. These weapons typically had a forward facing spike on the face of the shield. The upper prod tended to be straight and hook only at the end. The lower prod, in contrast, tended to exhibit more of a curve. Yet the depth of this curve seems to vary from example to example. Some are relatively straight, whereas others exhibit dramatic sweeps on both the top and the bottom, making the weapon look like a bow. The exact purpose and tactical usage of these curves remains a bit of a mystery. In general these bucklers are on the heavy side, especially compared to the light and fast swords that dominated the Han.
While the gou-rang is a unique weapon it is not without precedent. Similar weapons are still employed in multiple countries today, suggesting that perhaps we can use ethnographic analogy to divine its function. Students of African martial arts might notice that the combined small shield and spear combination carried by zulu warriors during their stick fights bears more than a passing resemblance to the gou-rang and dao. While lacking a hooking or trapping function the combination of shield and parrying stick is very similar. This same basic set up has continued to be passed down and can still be seen in underground “township” stick fighting contests in South Africa today.
Similar, though not identical, arms can be found on the Indian subcontinent, a region that was known to have had cultural exchange with China. The madu was well documents in the 19th century and continues to be used by Indian martial arts practitioners today. Superficially it resembles the Gou-rang in that a central buckler is combined with an upward and downward set of protruding horns. These function as parrying sticks while the buckler protects the hand. However, while the gou-rang is understood as a fundamentally defensive tool, the sharp horns of the madu are often coated in metal and can be used to stab and slash at an opponent. Even more similar are 19th century variations of this weapon made entirely from steel. In this case a steel buckler is combined with a simple spike that comes to sharp point on the top, while a more familiar looking hooked prod is fitted to the bottom. It is fascinating to think that such similar weapons were still in use almost two millenniums apart. Still ethnographic analogy can only take us so far.
Even if all of its uses remain unclear, we can say with confidence that the gou-rang was an important aspect of the Han dynasties martial arts landscape. As such, we should not be surprised that the revival of interest in Han arms has also sparked efforts to resurrect the gou-rang. The mastery of this weapon would be a critical aspect of the re-invention of Han martial culture.
LK Chen was the first individual that I am aware of to offer a high quality commercial reproduction of the gou-rang to Western martial artists and collectors. Two variants were released at about the same time as the original “LK5” collection of Chu and Han jian, suggesting the centrality of the gou-rang to his larger historical project. These strange bucklers did not, at first, capture the imagination of Western martial artists who were struggling to get their minds wrapped around the reality of Han jian and dao that looked so different from the cheap fantasy pieces that had been coming out of Longquan for years. While fairly inexpensive to make, the unorthodox shape of these bucklers made them very expensive to ship overseas, especially once COVID put an end to cheap air freight. The gou-rang was subsequently dropped from the catalog.
Yet that did not make it any less vital to the larger project of re-inventing Han martial culture. During this period LK Chen started to distribute free plans and instructional videos for Western collectors who wished to make their own gou-rang. A couple of friends and I decided to tackle this project. Or more precisely, we decided to commission Christopher Manuel, who runs a small business called the “Exotic Sword Emporium” to build them for us. To the best of my understanding the Exotic Sword Emporium specializes in the construction of steel training weapons for SCA events, but they accept a wide variety of commissions. When approached with LK Chen’s original plans they turned to their forge in Pakistan (an area if the world that is already familiar with similar bucklers) to produce a couple of prototype sets for us.
After looking at the project and doing some initial experimentation the forge asked to make some changes to LK Chen’s original design. And given that we had just gotten another group of swordsmiths involved with the recreation of a 2,000 year old (poorly understood) weapon, who were we to say no?
Some of their changes were an attempt to keep the cost per shield at a reasonable level. Others were efforts to create a more effective weapon. First off, the curve in the bottom prod was eliminated to keep production costs down. Still, I cannot help but note that this also brought the overall profile of the weapon more in line with its South Asian cousin, the Madu. One wonders if this simplification wasn’t also based on some sort of subconscious theory as to how the buckler was going to be used.
The width of the top and bottom prods was slightly increased to create a sturdier, more robust, weapon. The handle was reworked so that it could be used more easily with any HEMA type sparring glove on the market today. Taken together two changes had a substantial impact on how the weapon handles, which we will explore bellow. It was also decided that the weapon needed to be tempered (something that was never mentioned in LK Chen’s original plans) and given an oil blackened finish rather than the suggested coating in black paint. Finally, the shield is permanently affixed to the integral handle assembly with heavy rivets.
As we received notification from Pakistan that our project was nearing completion, LK Chen announced that his original gou-rangs were being redesigned and would be released to the public once again. To address the prohibitive cost of shipping these shields around the world (ask me how I know….) these would be mailed in two parts that required assembly once they arrived at their destination. It would be the customer’s responsibility to use the included rivets to attach the laser cut shield to the handle and prod assembly. Alternatively, the two can simply be bolted together by those who might wish to dissemble them again for easy storage or travel.
While LK Chen’s plans had originally called for the use of flat stock in the construction of the upper and lower hooks, his new and improved gou-rang instead used cylindrical cast forged elements making the upper and lower prods almost identical in shape and diameter to examples seen in the archeological record. This also seems to have lowered the weight of the new model by creating a sort of distal taper. While the top prod remains basically straight, the bottom one has been given a dramatic curve. Given that I was already hip deep in the gou-rang project I decided to go ahead and order one of his as well. It was in this way that I ended up with two very different answers to the questions, “what is a gou-rang?”
One is immediately struck my how much LK Chen’s new offering differs from the prototypes produced by the Exotic Sword Emporium even though they both share a common origin in his original public offerings. The most apparent difference is in their length. The pair from Exotic Sword comes in at 95 cm, while Chen’s is notably shorter at 87 CM. I suspect, however, that the actual bar stock that both suppliers started out with was likely about even in length. What we are seeing here is the difference between the more linear and curvaceous design philosophies.
The prods on LK Chen’s guo-rang are circular in shape with a diameter of 13 mm (similar to historical examples), while the prods on those from Exotic Swords follow Chen’s original plan and are cut from flat sheet stock. In this case they decided to increase the specs by making their prods 31 mm wide at the base with a 6 mm cross-section. The width of the prods narrows as you move towards the tip, but they exhibit no distal tapper resulting in a notably heavy weapon. By way of comparison, the guo-rang that I received from LK Chen weighs in at 1574 grams. The examples from Exotic Swords are notably heavier at 1914 grams,
While the shields on the two weapons look identical from a distance, there are actually some subtly differences here as well. LK Chen’s laser cut and hand-shaped shield is 26 cm long by 16.5 cm wide and 2 mm thick. In contrast, Exotic Sword Emporium stretched their shield to 28.6 cm but reduced its width to 15.25 cm. And in keeping with their general design philosophy, they also went with a heavier gauge 4mm plate.
These minor differences in how the shield is constructed reveal a more fundamental difference in design philosophies between these two manufactures. Namely, they seem to imagine the end user of their products very differently. Looking at the original plans Exotic Swords decided that it would be difficult for anyone wearing modern HEMA gloves to actually get their hand inside the opening. Indeed, the handle on LK Chen’s rang fits my hand beautifully, but only if I am bare handed. While the shield causes no rubbing or hot spots, as soon as I put on something as light as a set of Red Dragon sparing gloves, I immediately had trouble actually getting my hand through opening. I think it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to use it with the sorts of clamshell gauntlets that are standard issue in the HEMA community these days.
One suspect that LK Chen didn’t really design his new gou-rang with sparring in mind as the front facing spike is actually very sharp. This could easily punch through a fencing mask and would give lighter fencing jackets a run for their money. It is important that anyone who trains with these gou-rang first address this issue by adding a rubber guard to the end of the spike, or simply reprofiling it with an angle grinder. LK Chen’s weapon is certainly the more elegant of the two, but it fundamentally privileges historical accuracy over practicality in a training environment. When used in sparring LK Chen’s agent in America suggest using something like this to ensure everyone’s safety.
In contrast, the gou-rang from Exotic Sword Emporium seems like it was purpose built as a training tool from the ground up. The forward facing spike is blunted and rounded for safety. All of the edges of the shield have been carefully beveled so that there is nothing sharp. And the weapon is overbuilt to such a degree that I doubt it will show any damage after years of heavy training.
Turning the gou-rang over it becomes apparent that Exotic Swords lengthened the shield precisely because they increased the handle length to 15 cm, and increased its minimum depth to 2.25 inches. In the middle it actually has 3 inches of clearance between handle and the front of the shield. While this feels oversized in bare hands, it means that their gou-rang can handle pretty much any hand protection used in HEMA today. Indeed, their baseline assumption is that no martial artist in their right mind would pick this buckler up until all of your safety gear is in place. Their piece is not aimed at the collector market, nor is it for someone looking for the greatest degree of historical accuracy. They know exactly who their target audience is and what sorts of safety gear they are going to be using.
There are also substantial differences in how these two guo-rang handle and how I find myself predisposed to use them. We have already seen that LK Chen’s buckler is lighter, but more important is the fact that its handle is only 17 mm wide as opposed to the 31 mm barstock used by Exotic Swords. This means that if you grab LK Chens’s offering and make a fist the shield naturally wants to sit parallel to your fingers. This buckler wants to directly face the opponent and this naturally puts the prods in a more vertical orientation. This seems to be how most people naturally assume a gou-rang should be held.
The offering from exotic swords, however, cannot really be held this way for any length of time. The width of the handle makes it uncomfortable and the weight of the piece makes fine movements with the wrist and forearm exhausting. That doesn’t mean the piece is difficult to use however. But it requires a different grip. The wide handle must be placed across the palm of the hand meaning the shield naturally runs parallel to the back of the hand rather than the fingers. This with this grip it is natural to lock your wrist in place and control the movements of the gou-rang from the shoulder and with rotations of the forearms. In short LK Chen’s gou-rang presents itself as a larger, fairly complex buckler. The Exotic Sword Emporium prototypes feel like light, skeletonized, shield.
Which is preferable? I have to admit a certain preference for the Exotic Sword set-up. As someone with a background in Wing Chun covering the center-line by moving the shoulder makes a huge amount of sense to me. I have spent years thinking about the geometry of defensive diagonal lines that run right to left, front to back and top to bottom. When combined with the possibilities for bridging and hooking that the guo-rang offers, everything just feels very natural to me. Its more than that actually. It feels like coming home. This may simply be an artifact of my own prior training, but I don’t have a difficult time keeping track of where the top and bottom hooks are when I move the weapon in this way. Everything just goes into auto-pilot and the natural arcs of the shoulder ensures that I never hit myself with the prods.
LK Chen’s weapon is lighter and more elegant. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I find it harder to use. In some sense the vertically orientated alignment of the prods should be easier to manipulate. But I find myself relying on my wrists and elbows to move the gou-range and that seems biomechanically weaker when receiving a blow. It also opens up too many planes of movement and rotation. This might not seem like a bad thing, but in practice it means you are more likely to hit yourself in the face (or the legs) with your own weapon because you lose track of where they are space. I am sure that I will get better over time and these are only my initial impressions. But anyone doing serious training or sparring with gou-rangs needs to be wearing fencing helmets and proper protective gear, not only to protect you from an opponents blows, but also accidental contact with your own weapon. While a lot of fun, in a training environment the gou-rang is utterly unforgiving.
I think I will close this review with a few words of unsolicited feedback to both manufactures. LK Chen’s weapon is light and elegant, yet straddles the divide between a training tool on the one hand and a historical artifact on the other. Certain elements of its construction, such as the sharpened forward spike, make that sort of dual mission difficult to sustain. Further, I love the blued finished that Exotic Swords Emporium used on their prototypes and would highly recommend that over the black paint.
I was really surprised by how much I liked the heavier and more linear gou-rang from Exotic Sword Emporium. And the fit and finish on their piece was great for the price. I really appreciated the fact that it was designed with a clear mission in mind. Still, this is just overbuilt for what it is. I would like to see the weight of this piece reduced by a few hundred grams and the traditional curvature put back into the bottom bow. I think trapping pole weapons would also be easier if the hooks on the top and bottom of their shield were a bit wider and more open. Lastly, while I personally was able to adapt to their handle construction I don’t know if other users will be as lucky. Real thought needs to go into whether the gou-rang is best imagined as a large and complex buckler, or a small, minimalist shield. That all comes down to the geometry of how the handle is constructed. For me that remains the biggest mystery that these wonderful prototypes have yet to resolve.