Some thoughts on why Chinese never developed complex hilts on their swords

Ming Dynasty jian sword
Extant jian probably dated to Ming period.
"Why Chinese/Japanese/other cultures never developed complex hilt" is a question that seems to be brought up fairly often. In honesty, this question feels quite Eurocentric to me, as it presuppose the development of European-style complex hilt as the natural and superior evolution of sword design, while in reality it was more of an exception rather than the norm. The question should be rephrased "Why no one but the Europeans developed complex hilts", given that most non-European complex hilted swords such as Indian Khanda (खंडा) and Chinese Hu Die Dao (蝴蝶刀, butterfly sword) are influenced/inspired by European designs and not of local development.

In this blog post, I will share some of my thoughts on this issue in Chinese context. Do note that these are all speculations, as the reasons behind the design of a particular weapon can't be proven.


1. Chinese swords were used together with shields
Ming Chinese Swordsmen
Section of the scroll painting 'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)' depicting Ming swordsmen armed with large shields. All but one of them are wielding jian.
Historically, Chinese swords, even jian, were used together with shields. The use of shields largely removed the need of developing complex hilt. Unlike Europeans, Chinese never developed proper plate armour and continued to used bows and arrows even after the large scale adoption of firearms, so their shields did not become obsolete until much, much later.


2. Prevalence of archery, particularly horseback archery.
Ming Dynasty Horse Archer
Section of the Ming period scroll painting 'Shang Lin Tu (《上林圖》)' by famous Ming painter Qiu Ying (仇英), depicting a hunt scene.
While Chinese weren't renowned for their archery (With Mongols and Koreans as neighbours, this is pretty understandable. Note that their relative obscurity should not be mistaken for poor skill or poor bow design), they nevertheless achieved great prowess in archery skills, both on foot and on horseback. In ancient China, "skilled in horse archery" and "able to draw strong bow" were pretty much the standard descriptions of someone with great martial prowess. Bow and arrows also remained in widespread use up until Qing period.

Turkish archer demonstrating one of the methods of shooting a bow with a sabre in hand. This is also one of the advantages of thumb draw ("Mongolian draw") over two or three-finger draw ("Flemish draw" or "Mediterranean draw").

Horse archers, particularly medium cavalry that often had to engage in close combat, were required to be able to switch weapon in quick order. Some horse archers (particularly the Turks) were known to shoot their bows with a sword readied in their right hands. A sword with complex hilt is uncomfortable to wear (especially when worn together with bow bag and quiver), harder to draw quickly and gets in the way of archery movements.


3. Religious root
Chinese Swordsage
Ming period painting of Lu Dong Bing (呂洞賓), one of the five patriarchs of Daoist religion, with a jian hung on his back. Currently kept at Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Beside military men, scholars and militias, Chinese jian was (and still is) heavily associated with Daoist religious tradition. Most surviving Chinese jian systems have Daoist (and Buddhist, to a lesser extent) roots, and symbolic representation of Big Dipper — the Daoist god of death  features heavily on Chinese jian.

Chinese swordsmanship Jian
The two-finger gesture known as Jian Zhi (劍指, lit. 'Sword finger') is a common sight in Chinese swordsmanship but serves no practical purpose. It is actually a modified Daoist hand seal.
Part weapon, part traditional religious implement, Chinese jian was more resistant to change than other weapons, and remained fairly consistent in form.


4. Tip cutting and tip parrying
『劍長三尺,用鋒一寸。』
“The length of a sword is three chi,  but only the edge of the first cun is (regularly) used.”
— Chinese martial arts saying

Generally speaking, a Chinese jian has very little distal and profile tapering comparing to its European counterparts, and has a point of balance farther from its guard. A small guard does not interfere with Dian Jian (點劍, lit. 'Point sword', a true edge tip cut generated by the wrist) and Tiao Jian (挑劍, lit. 'Flick sword', a false edge tip cut generated by the wrist), which are techniques rarely seen in other swordsmanship systems. Chinese jian (and many Eastern swords) can also use its foible to defend and beat parry, as well as cut into an opponent's cut. Whether ancient swordsmen designed their techniques around the weapon, or the weapon evolved over time to accommodate the techniques, is up for debate.

Chinese sword crossguard
Section of a Yuan period mural in the Sanqing Hall of Yongle Palace, depicting a religious figure holding a jian with a unusually long crossguard. He is also using the so-called "rapier grip".
As a side note, although extremely rare, Chinese jian with larger crossguard do exist (Chinese had been using swords with knuckle-bow as early as Han Dynasty).

22 comments:

  1. Very interesting thoughts. I think you would be correct in rephrasing the question as "why did Europeans develop complex hilts?" since Europe didn't have complex hilts for a large part of its history. This is actually a very big and complex topic even in HEMA and Matt Easton of scholagladiatoria had given his own thoughts on the topic from a European perspective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0MZb1SBVfw
    My own thoughts are this: I think to a degree, some people have oversold the idea that European swords have better hand protection overall. The actual truth is that certain types of European swords have significantly better hand protection (e.g. rapiers, basket-hilted broadswords, and certain types of sabers) and these types of swords come about at later times when the sword was used as the main weapon of both attack and defense in a civilian context. Because of this, fencing traditions in Europe were encouraged to maximize speed and reach, the lunging thrust, and more forward facing guards which necessitated the evolution of more complex hilts while simultaneously discouraging the use of recessed guards and the slower, but more powerful, full-body cuts. This is in contrast to earlier periods of European history where swords like longswords, arming swords, and messers had crossguards, but the protection given by them wasn't significantly better or worse than swords with disk guards or other simple hilts. Most fencing schools from that time period seem to show guard positions that are held back and away from the opponent like those seen in Asian fencing traditions. Another interesting thing to note is that even in those later periods, there were times when complex hilts and simple hilts both came in and out of fashion across different parts of Europe and different fencing traditions would favor one type of sword style over the other (e.g. the differences between Victorian saber fencing and Georgian saber fencing come to mind).
    TL;DR: I think the reason complex hilts developed in Europe is primarily because of a preference in fencing style that caught on in certain parts of Europe but not in other parts of the world.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @JZBai
    Good day and welcome to my blog!

    I understand that this is a very complex topic, and to date there's no one satisfactory answer (mine included) that can explain everything.

    Matt Easton's scholagladiatoria video is the best one I've seen, but even then I feel there are some missing pieces in his answer.

    On one side of the coin, samurai also wore their swords as part of their day-to-day clothing and probably dueled just as much as the Europeans (both in and out of armour), and they certainly developed different techniques for armoured and unarmoured combat. However, they did not create anything like the rapier.

    On the other side, there are numerous battlefield swords such as the cut-and-thrusts, basket-hilted backswords and many kinds of later sabres/cutlasses that offer very protective hilt.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It also seems like Chinese rarely used gauntlets, I haven't seen any surviving examples or depictions in artwork (statues, paintings, fighting manuals, etc.). Even Japanese warriors firing arrows from horseback can be seen wearing gauntlets.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Andy Lee Chaisiri

    Although many traditions used thumb draw, Japanese archery seem to be the only one that do not utilise thumb ring (they use glove with reinforced thumb stall instead). Which might explain the use of gauntlets.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The explanation is simpler than you think.

    It's due to the different demands in weapon handling and combat outcomes.

    Battlefield combat and duel are completely different environments. In a duelling situation in the WEST, duels are often to first blood, therefore speed and reach, and prevention of any possible injury is very important. Also important was the rise of firearms, where the practice of a killing sword blow was no longer a necessity.

    In a battle, the goal is simply to kill. Combatants are usually protected against gliding strikes, so a well timed and focused penetration strike is needed. You can clearly see the similarity in combat postures in east and western civilizations to achieve this goal.

    So, why didn't Chinese culture ever adopt such duelling culture, is because of the lack of a highly educated warrior class.

    Japanese had an elite warrior class, and that lead to the continuation of a complex duelling culture. I think their lack of western-like hilts is mostly cultural. 1) they favour the cut rather than thrust, and the demand of blade angle during a cut means that the hilt cannot be domed, else it would interfere with the hand technique. 2) a hilt to protect the hand may be seen as cowardly. Note that the Japanese tsuba is very intricate, so they did devote great attention to craftsmanship, just not towards hand protection.

    Another supporting evidence is that, when China had an elite warrior culture pre-Qin dynasty, duelling was very common. However there was no firearms back then, so there was a need for power strikes to dominate. In fact I argue that the Qing dynasty triangular sword guard (where the triangle ridge slopes towards the hand) was a sign that the Chinese sword had became progressively more ceremonial and more focused on hand protection, due to the availability of firearms since the Ming. It was just a lot of slower due to Chinese social factors.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Sinkpoint
    Thanks for your answer, as you point out many factors that I missed. OTOH, in the western context, they developed complex hilt for both dueling swords (rapier and the likes) and battlefield swords (basket-hilt), as well as slashing-based swords (swiss sabre, basket-hilted sabre, later cutlass etc).

    I do agree with you that Japanese did not develop complex hilt was mostly for mostly cultural reasons. Maybe their swords being mostly two-hander had something to do with it as well.

    While Chinese had no elite warrior class, "gang fights" between villages as well as martial arts dojos challenging each others (踢館) seem to be rather common. They also seem to gladly incorporate European-style hilt design once they were exposed to it (i.e. butterfly knifes)

    ReplyDelete
  7. @春秋戰國

    Consider that the weapons you listed (basket-hilt..etc) developed in an age where heavy armour was rendered obsolete by firearms. Weapons always develop in tandem with the protection they were up against.

    For Chinese "gang fights", note they were farmers. Metal weapons were expensive to manufacture and develop. You need an educated populace with disposable income to start innovations. The Chinese gentry class were educated and rich, but abhorred innovations. The farmers were hardy and resourceful, but had no resources or education. Local gangs and militias were hardly an elite warrior class.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Sinkpoint

    Which again seem rather odd, because Chinese armours did not feature much hand/finger protection to begin with. If armour was a factor, it should give them even more incentive to develop more protective hilt. Besides, both butterfly knives and tiger hooks, two weapons that feature more protective hilt than typical Chinese swords, were developed by the lower class/militia.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi again! Sorry to revive a long dead discussion, but about a month ago, a very good point was brought up by another HEMA practitioner for why it would make sense for complex hilts to not be developed on Chinese swords: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ehfp6fPjwpA
    The short of it: there is a sacrifice to cutting capacity that occurs when you put most of a sword's weight near the base of the blade. If you want your sword to cut better and not sacrifice good hand protection, you then need to move the point of balance back towards the tip of the sword by making the blade heavier. That however, will increase the overall weight of the sword making the whole weapon really sluggish in the hand. In other words, there is somewhat of a three-way trade-off between hand protection, cutting capacity, and overall weight that all swords need to balance between in order to be effective weapons.

    For Chinese and Japanese swordsmanship, it makes a lot of sense that they would choose minimalist hand guards on their swords since quick cutting techniques are common in those styles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. @JZBai
      It's okay to comment on older post, this isn't a forum after all.

      I've watch the Youtube video. His points actually do make a lot of sense.Thanks for sharing it with me!

      Delete
  10. Hi again!
    I had a question that tangentially relates to the topic of the lack of complex hilts on Chinese (and other) swords that I wanted to ask you: what were the weapon carrying laws in dynastic China like? I was trying to look around for sources on this topic but failed to find any easily accessible ones.
    Reason I ask is because in Europe it seems that originally there were rather strict weapon laws for carrying swords within city limits but these were relaxed or even flat out ignored during the 16th and 17th century when rapier dueling in cities among civilians became common. Maybe the hand protection in European swords was a result of untrained civilians wanting an "easy" sword to wield that gave them better protection in contrast to earlier periods when members of elite military classes didn't need it and probably didn't engage in duels willy-nilly with other members of their class for fear of tarnishing reputation. It might also explain why the Chinese weapons that do have good hand protection (e.g. butterfly knives and tiger hooks) tended to be used by commoners. Thanks in advance and keep up the good work on this blog! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From what little I know, Yuan period enforce (or try to enforce) the strictest ban on bladed weapon, to the point that even kitchen knives were banned.

      Song Dynasty was perhaps only closely behind Yuan. There were Song records mentioning ban on machete, bow & arrows.

      For other Dynasties, personal weapon rule was rather relaxed.

      Delete
  11. Hello,

    any reference to the last statements?

    Cutting with the tip: in lots of videos they made it clear in order to cut the jackets through you need to cut with the tip of the sword.

    Thickness of blade: after checking sites like mandarinmansion.com i have not seen any big difference.

    Parry with the weak: it is possible, but why? It provides no mechanical advantage.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good day Zsolt and welcome to my blog.

      1) Supposedly, what you mean by "cutting with the tip" is somewhat different from Dian Jian, Although both involve...well, cutting with the tip.

      "Dian Jian" involve a lot of wrist power.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWoy-SUx12g
      (Please skip to 1:18-1:21. TBH this is not really a good example due to the corruption of Chinese swordsmanship into basically a dance form, but I hope you see my point)

      Maybe I should rephrase it as "cut better with the tip"?

      2) I should have said that a Chinese Jian has less distal tapering and profile tapering compared to European sword, instead of just "thickness".

      3) It just opens out more options and allows one to defend without risking his fingers (given the lack of complex guard), as well as defend against/intercept opponent's blade without it to come dangerously close to your body.

      4?) It seems that the reverse is also true - you can break your opponent's defending forte using your foible.

      http://imgur.com/bqBJdfp
      (He was demonstrating with a katana though)

      Delete
  12. Hi!!
    It might be a little bit offtopic, but I wanted to ask you if you know if the Ming (or other dynasties) developed a specific sword's type/blade ideal to deal against armor and if they ever developed a way to defeat armor with swords!

    Thank you :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As far as I can tell, they didn't design their sword/sabre to be able to pierce/hack through armour. There are no anti-armour techniques like half-swording either.

      Delete
    2. I think Song Dynasty's double-handed Zhanmadao might be able to deal with armor, though still not as effective as axes or maces. That's probably the reason why Song dynasty deployed battle axes en masse, much like the Anglo-Saxons or the Vikings of the same period.

      Delete
    3. @The Xanian
      As far as I am aware, Song Zhanmadao wasn't designed specifically to overcome armour. It might be able to hack into one after repeated blows, but that's by virtue of being a two-handed chopping sword.

      Delete
  13. Hello yet again!
    I noticed you mentioned at the end that there were Chinese swords with knuckle-bows that were used during the Han dynasty. I was aware that late Qing Dynasty/Early ROC period Chinese swords like the Dadao, Butterfly Swords, and Taiji Dao all had S-shaped guards and occasionally knuckle-bows, but I wasn't aware of any swords before that time frame with that. Do you have any references?
    Also, I was wondering if you knew anything about this image I stumbled across:
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-akaCVFfZv54/VfdonO1TbxI/AAAAAAAAAzA/_BAsPe2I23k/s1600/Yrh.jpg
    Is the guard on the far right carrying a large jian with a crossguard or is that something else?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good day JZBai.
      https://i.pinimg.com/originals/40/31/63/403163173b04367c4931c0737ab798c4.jpg
      Here it is, the Han Dynasty knuckle-guard sword.

      Yes, the guard is carrying a regalia sword. It's hard to tell if that is a crossguard or particularly large disc guard though.

      Delete
    2. Cool! Thanks for the reference. :)
      Regarding the regalia sword image, it's interesting you should mention the possibility of it being a large disc guard since I was actually just perusing the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection and apparently they have a massive number of katana tsuba. I stumbled across a few that are unusually massive approaching the 4 inch and even 4.5 inch diamater range:
      https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/651237
      https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/34798
      https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/33382
      Would you happen to know if Chinese disc guards get that large? Because, after thinking about it a bit, I personally wouldn't be too worried about my hand getting hit in a sword fight if had a sword with disc guards of those diameters (especially with that 4.5 inch monster tsuba :P) and if I didn't intentionally expose my knuckles to the opponent when I'm in a guard (which generally speaking, isn't a good idea since knuckle-exposing guards expose the hand and arm as targets and don't keep the sword's point on the opponent. To my knowledge that seems to be only a particularity to certain later schools of European fencing like basket-hilted sword and some saber styles, both of which use swords that encase the hand and force the use of a fist grip). If so, that opens up the possibility that perhaps the whole cross/complex/Euro-style guard vs. disc guard discussion may actually boil down to a matter of personal taste and the actual reason why the Chinese/Japanese didn't adopt the complex/cross guard as widely is simply because they could get equivalent or similar hand protection to a complex/cross guard by just simply making a larger disc guard. The only benefit I would then see to the cross/complex guard is that you might be able to trap an opponent's blade in a bind at the cross guard if you are lucky and if you are particularly skilled, but techniques like that seem to be more of a "unique move" to particular fencing styles and not something universally adopted.

      Delete
    3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1glMQjhSXs

      Disc guards on Chinese sabres tend to be larger than typical katana guard, I think 4" ~5" guard being quite common/standard size.

      Delete

StatCounter