Swords and sabres of the Ming Dynasty


Chinese Swords and Sabres
Drawings of various types of Ming Dynasty swords and sabres. From left to right: Two Jian, a Yao Dao, a Chang Dao, and a Duan Dao. From 'Wu Bei Zhi (《武備志》)'.
Classification of Chinese swords often posed a great challenge to Westerners (and just as confusing to the Chinese themselves) because Chinese swords do not fit readily into existing typologies. The Chinese also lacked an authoritative, systematic typology of sword types such as that of the Oakeshott typology.

This blog post is intended to be an introductory article to the swords and sabres of the Ming Dynasty. Please note that the terms used here are what we call "collector's jargon" (i.e. classification used by sword collectors and antique sellers). They are not historical terms*, and are not meant to be academically authoritative (although most Chinese academics do follow the classification).

Historical terms for one-handed Chinese sabre are Yao Dao (腰刀)Duan Dao (短刀, short sabre), Gun Dao (滾刀, lit. 'Rolling sabre', exact meaning unknown), Shou Dao (手刀, lit 'Hand sabre') and Ma Dao (馬刀, cavalry sabre). All of these terms are generic.

*Note: Notable exceptions are Wo Yao Dao (倭腰刀) and Yan Ling Dao (雁翎刀), which are mentioned in multiple sources, as well as Qi Jia Dao (戚家刀), mentioned in a late Qing period poem.


Yan Ling Dao (雁翎刀, lit. 'Goose quill sabre')
Extant Ming Dynasty Yan Ling Dao
Descended from the Mongol sabre of Yuan Dynasty, Yan Ling Dao is one of the more recognizable Chinese sabre of the Ming Dynasty. The blade of Yan Ling Dao is mostly straight, with a slight curve near the tip. Yan Ling Dao has a knife point or trailing point blade, which resemble a Ling Mao (翎毛), the feather at the tip of a bird's wing (i.e. a pointer feather, or primary remex).

Yan Ling Dao is commonly known as "yanmaodao" in the West (not to say they are wrong, but this does deviate from the definition agreed upon by Chinese collectors. On top of that, Yan Ling Dao is a historical term while Yan Mao Dao isn't).


Yan Mao Dao (雁毛刀, lit. 'Goose feather sabre') 
Extant Qing Dynasty Yan Mao Dao
Extant mid Qing Dynasty Yan Mao Dao. Note the rounder point. 
Yan Mao Dao is a relatively uncommon subtype of Yan Ling Dao. It is identical to Yan Ling Dao in most respect, except for the rounder drop point. Some Yan Mao Dao are modified from Yan Ling Dao with damaged tip.


Qi Jia Dao (戚家刀, lit. 'Sabre of House Qi') 
Ming Chinese Qijiadao
Ming period Qi Jia Dao in good condition. Private collection.
A rather unique sabre that combines a Japanese sword blade with a Chinese style one-handed hilt. The blade could be local manufacture in imitation of the Japanese sword blade or imported directly from Japan. Although commonly attributed to general Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光), he did not actually design the sword (in fact, Qi Jia Dao predated him by many years). Qi Jia Dao is similar to Korean Hwando (환도 or 環刀), as both are one-handed sabres with Japanese-style blades, although Qi Jia Dao tend to be slightly longer.

Other names for this type of sabre are Wo Yao Dao (倭腰刀, lit. 'Japanese waist sabre'), Wo Shi Yao Dao (倭式腰刀, lit. 'Japanese-style waist sabre') and Fang Wo Dao (仿倭刀, lit 'Imitation Japanese sabre'). It should not be confused with Chang Dao (長刀), which is a very large two-handed sword.

For those interested, here is a very good article on this specific kind of sabre: Woyaodao: Chinese saber of Japanese style


Yan Chi Dao (雁翅刀, lit. 'Goose wing sabre') 
Chinese Goose Wing Saber
Extant mid to late Qing Dynasty Yan Chi Dao.
A generic term that is used to describe any Chinese swords or polearms with a very steep clip point. The clip is usually straight or slightly concave, but scalloped, wing-like or serrated clips are also common. Almost all Zhan Ma Dao (斬馬刀) and Po Dao (朴刀) feature a blade of this type, although not all Yan Chi Dao are Zhan Ma Dao or Po Dao.


Yu Tou Dao (魚頭刀, lit. 'Fish head sabre')
Chinese Yu Tou Dao
Extant late Qing Dynasty Yu Tou Dao.
More properly known as Sha Yu Tou Dao (鯊魚頭刀, lit. 'Shark head sabre'), this is a generic term that can be used describe any Chinese swords or polearms with a long and gradual concave clip point (a.l.a. Bowie knife). Yu Tou Dao of the Ming period almost inevitably have octagonal guard.


Zhi Dao (直刀, backsword) 
Chinese Zhi Bei Dao
Extant Ming Dynasty Zhi Dao that is reminiscent of Tibetan dpa'dam and Bhutanese patag.
Chinese Zhi Dao
Extant Ming Dynasty Zhi Dao that is almost indistinguishable from a double-edged jian.
Also know as Zhi Bei Dao (直背刀, lit. 'Straight-backed sabre'), this is a generic term that can be used to describe any straight single-edged swords. There are many variations of Zhi Dao — some are just straighter-than-normal sabres, while others are almost indistinguishable from double-edged jian.


Jian (劍, double-edged sword) 
Ming Dynasty Jian
Extant mid Ming Dynasty jian. This sword has a blade length of 32 inches and hilt length of 7 inches.
Although single-edged dao became the mainstay weapon of Chinese armies since the Han Dynasty, double-edged jian did not simply disappear from the battlefield. Unlike the long and slender (sometimes even floppy) "Wushu sword" that most people associate with Chinese jian, Ming military swords are short and sturdy, with relatively simple guards and large pommels. The edges of most Ming swords run nearly parallel until tapering to a round or triangular point, making them more suitable for hacking and slashing.



Note: After careful consideration, I omitted the entries for Liu Ye Dao (柳葉刀, lit. 'Willow leaf sabre'), Niu Wei Dao (牛尾刀, lit. 'Oxtail sabre'), Pian Dao (㓲刀) and Shun Dao (順刀), which were developed during the Qing period, thus fall outside the scope of this article. I also omitted the entries of Gui Tou Dao (鬼頭刀, lit. 'Ghost/Demon head sabre'), Yun Tou Dao (雲頭刀, lit. 'Cloud head sabre') and Er Tou Dao (鵝頭刀, lit. 'Goose head sabre') which are extremely uncommon.



UPDATE
Peter Dekker from Mandarin Mansion had wrote an extremely comprehensive article on the typology of Chinese sabre. In my opinion his typology should hereby be used as the standard typology from now on. Link below:

a Chinese saber typology

Note that there's a slight difference between us on the interpretation of Yan Ling Dao and Yan Mao Dao. Mr. Peter's intrepretation reflected the consensus among Western collectors, while my interpretation, borrowed heavily from a well-researched collector's reference book known as 《刀兵相见:近五百年中国战场轻兵器》, reflected the consensus among Chinese collectors.

19 comments:

  1. Is there a particular purpose to rounded tips on swords, or is it just to make use of a damaged blade? Otherwise it seems a bit odd to forgo the thrusting ability?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The drop point can thrust reasonably well too (it resemble the tip of a double-edged sword after all), but it is more of a "general purpose" design.

    http://www.knife-depot.com/knife-information-105.html
    The design consideration of modern survival knife might shed some insight into the design of Yan Mao Dao.

    As for why damaged Yan Ling Dao are modified into Yan Mao Dao, that is because for most Chinese sword, only the edge are made of steel, while rest of the sword iron. When the steel tip of a Yan Ling Dao broke off, it lose its thrusting edge forever - even if it is restored back to Yan Ling Dao shape, the exposed iron part cannot thrust as well as the original steel tip, not to mention it is susceptible to further damage.

    ReplyDelete
  3. What can you tell me of the yuntoudao? I have an interest in it and can find nothing on it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Christopher Godby

    Good day and welcome to my blog.

    Yuntoudao is...superficially similar to an upturned Nepalese Kora sword. Sometimes authentic Kora swords (Qing court sometimes receive these as gifts or tributes) are labelled as Yuntoudao as well.

    ReplyDelete
  5. What do you mean when you said the Jian simply dissapeared from the battlefield? Is there a reason why many stereotypical Qing warriors carry Dao type instead of Jian?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dao was by far a much more common weapon on the battlefield, but Jian was not completely phased out either.

      Delete
    2. But, do you know why? Was it because Jian was associated with the higher class? Maybe, the Dao was easier to use and more straightforward?

      Delete
    3. To be honest, I have no idea. If I have to hazard a guess, I would say cultural preference and/or influence of nomadic cavalry tactics.

      Many cultures over the east side of the globe preferred single-edged slashing swords over double-edged ones, and many of them also employed horse archers and composite bows. These two may or may not go hand in hand together.

      Delete
    4. Jian was being "phased out" ever since the invention of Ring-Pommel sabre/backsword in West Han dynasty. From than on double-edge Jians were not common battlefield weapons.

      Ring-Pommel Sabre was invented during the war with the nomadic Xiongnu, so we can hypothesise that it was a better cavalry weapon. At the same time, it can be argued that it is easier to make and maintain due to having only one edge and the blade geometry allows different types of weight distribution and blade shapes for specific purpose.

      I also like to think this type of backsword is better at dealing with lamellar armour since it puts more weight on the back to produce a heavier blunt force tremor.

      Delete
    5. If we take into account that ancient sword making could only place steel on the edge due to technological limitations, then backsword is definitely more economical.

      Delete
    6. Duly noted and considered. Thanks for the input!

      Delete
  6. I happened to notice not a lot of these sabers have Tunkou 吞口 or "Blade Collar". Could the earlier Mongol Sabers have had an influence on that as well? I haven't seen any of them with Tunkou either. Yet almost every Liuyedao I see has one (especially ones from the Qing Dynasty). I don't get it. Or maybe the Tunkou was just a decorative trend item and I'm just overestimating its importance.

    Also as a side note, maybe the term Gun Dao 滾刀 is referring to 滾珠刀 Gun Zhu Dao (lit. rolling pearl saber) with the small steel or brass "pearl" that rolls around inside of the blade fullers/grooves. Just a thought.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't recall seeing Tunkou on Mongol sabres (then again, I know very little about Mongol sabre), but Tunkou was present on Chinese swords as early as Five Dynasties period (and possibly even earlier. I just did a quick Google, not researching in detail). Some say it is useful to let the sword fits more tightly with its scabbards, while others say it is purely decorative.

      滾刀 and 滾珠刀's connection is plausible, although we need further evidences. Ming texts also mention Japanese and polearm version of 滾刀, is installing rolling pearls on polearm a common practice?

      Delete
  7. I have a question. I have been doing a little research and have been looking at General Yu Dayou's (俞大猷) treatise Jianjing (剑经) In the text Yu Dayou uses a staff to illustrate the concepts of using a sword, however, I want to know what kind of sword the general himself most often used. I have looked around on Baidu and there is a reference to a long sword of Jingchu (荆楚长剑). I am unfamiliar with what exactly a Ming dynasty long sword should be like. Is it a two handed jian? about how long would the sword be? If you had any information on this it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yu Dayou's Swrod Manual actually teaches the core principles of armed combat, and can be adapted to every close combat weapon out there. It is said that the teaching of Jingchu longsword is also included inside Sword Manual (certainly isn't far fetched, as Jingchu was repeatedly mentioned in the manual), although as of now no one actually tried to reconstruct a complete system based on Sword Manual. Yu Dayou himself probably used quarterstaff, spear, and bow.

      Sorry I don't have any new info on Ming period two-handed Jian.

      Delete
    2. The name of Yu's Sword Manual (劍經) is such a mystery. The weirdest thing is that the word "sword" as in the actual sword isn't mentioned once within the manual; the word "quarterstaff" (棍) is used instead every time.

      My guess is that the "Long Sword of Chu" (荊楚長劍), is just simply the name of his quarterstaff school, and we shouldn't read too much into that. Of course, we can't know for sure.

      As to the question of double-handed sword, Wubeizhi's (武備誌) author suggested that there was none, neither double-handed nor single-handed, at least not in official military use other than ceremonial. He did attach Korean Jian(劍) techniques to his treatise, but from what we can see, it was not a proper double-handed sword.

      There was, however, double-handed long sabre, a la Miao dao, a la Japanese long sword.

      Delete
    3. There's some research articles that I've read that argue that Jian Jing does indeed contains many elements of swordsmanship, as it contains many techniques that is not normally found in quarterstaff martial arts.

      Delete
    4. Many thanks if you could link the articles. But facts remain that Yu was talking directly and primarily about quarterstaff, not any bladed weapon, while it could be true that he did incorporate other techniques into his quarterstaff.

      Delete
    5. The article is named 《劍經研究》, written by 張銀行, specifically page 4~5 of the pdf file. It is available freely online here:

      http://www.cisszgty.com:85/v2/article.do?op=download&id=1688

      The author points out that MOST techniques in Jian Jing are thrusts, point-cuts/quick thrusts (點) and slices, which are characteristics of edged weapons.

      Delete

StatCounter