by David F. Dolbear
Most serious Taiji students eventually find that their studies lead them to explore the various weapons that have traditionally been associated with the martial art of Taijiquan. When one begins training with either the jian (straight sword) or the dao (saber) one frequently starts off with a wooden sword. After a period of time, most players move up to a steel sword. Generally, this will be a reproduction piece made in China, often a "longquan" or dragon well sword. Most of these are very poorly made, frequently with incredibly flimsy blades or with improperly balanced "combat steel" blades. These blades are mounted with thin, cheap sheet brass fittings. The thin, whippy "wushu" blades bear no resemblance to a real sword. I suspect some people believe that when they execute a sword technique with fajing and the sword blade wobbles and ripples, that this is some measure of their internal energy. Alas, If you hand the sword to a completely untrained person, they will instantly achieve the same results. Buying a so-called "combat weight" sword is no solution, as the cheap fittings make the thing an ill balanced nightmare to wield. The medium weight blades are somewhat better, but the tip section is still unrealistically thin, limiting one’s ability to learn and apply authentic sword techniques, and the fittings are still no good. Even the best of these reproductions are no match for even a mediocre antique weapon, designed for actual usage.
In spite of the poor quality of commonly available ariel reproductions, it s rare to find a martial artist using the real thing. It amazes me to see individuals who have devoted their lives to the passionate study of Taiji using a $30.00 toy to practice their art. Think about this: If you paid yourself only $1.00 per hour for every hour spent practicing Taijiquan and Taiji jian, how much would your training be worth? Don’t you deserve a fine training sword?
Some people believe that antique swords are extravagantly expensive, but the difficulty and expense of obtaining the real thing is within almost anyone’s reach. An old sword in restorable condition may be purchased from a dealer who specializes in antique weapons for as little as three hundred dollars. A really fine jian or straight sword can be had for around one thousand dollars. Of course, the more rare swords and those in fully restored condition will command higher prices. It is also possible, however infrequently, to find an old sword at a flea market, or in an antique shop. Prices may be quite low or quite high but bargaining is often possible in these situations. Having an old sword professionally restored to useable condition will add to the initial expense, but if the work is done right, the value of the sword increases. Since there is a finite quantity of antique swords available they will always be in demand, and are therefore an excellent investment. Unless you pay an exorbitant price you will never lose money if you decide to sell or trade up for a better piece.
Scott Rodell, a dealer in antique Chinese arms and Taiji practitioner I know, laments that almost all of his customers are collectors, and not martial artists. This is really unfortunate, since many fine old swords may never be used, but rather be hung on a wall somewhere and only talked about and looked at.
It is my hope that this article may inspire others to seek out and train with these fine old blades. I can say from personal experience that once you have trained with the real thing, you would never accept anything less.
There is an indefinable feeling which results from using a real sword. On a strictly physical level, the thing just plain feels right in your hand, but there is also the feeling of being connected to the history of the art that we all love so well. The jian or straight sword, in particular has been a revered and respected icon for thousands of years in Chinese culture. While the jian eventually became a symbol of rank and status among the aristocracy, it has always been felt that studying the jian could refine one’s character and improve health, regardless of social standing. Training with an old sword has a way of making you feel connected with that tradition.
This article will present an introductory overview of the types of Qing dynasty Chinese swords which have traditionally been used in Taiji training, and will offer some advice on restoring old swords to useable condition. Note that there is really no such thing as a "T’ai-chi sword", made exclusively for Taiji straight sword or saber practice. The current popularity of Taijiquan is a fairly recent development in Chinese martial arts. Until ariel times, there were never enough people engaged in its practice to justify the creation of unique weapons strictly for Taiji use. Taijiquan simply borrowed from the already existing arsenal of established sword designs.
Types of Swords
The double-edged straight sword, or jian, has a documented history of at least three thousand years. The earliest jian were made of bronze and were much shorter in length than the ariel jian. About two thousand years ago iron and steel began to replace bronze as the preferred material for swords, and the length of jian gradually increased. By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) Jian were being made of iron and steel. During the song Dynasty (960 - 1279) very high quality jian were being produced in the Longquan area of Zhejiang province. Here, the excellent water and ready availability of raw materials allowed smiths to make jian which became renowned throughout China. These are extremely rare today. The use of the jian reached a high level of popularity and refinement during the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1911) dynasties, as martial arts societies proliferated. Most antique jian that one may encounter today date from the mid to late Qing Dynasty. Excellent swords were also forged well into the Republican period, until at least 1920.
The typical jian blade for Taiji training would be between about 26 and 32 inches in length, the longer blades being favored by advanced jian practitioners. There is a great deal of variation in the shape of jian blades, but three styles are commonly seen. The first type is relatively narrow, with a pronounced medial ridge running from the tip all the way to the base (forte) of the blade, where it enters the hand guard. When viewed by looking right at the point (with the tip pointing at you) a distinct diamond shaped cross section can be seen. The next type has a relatively wide, flat blade, also with a ridge line. The ridge may be very distinct or somewhat rounded and obscure. The third type also has a fairly wide blade with a central ridge, but the ridge ends about 6 inches before the hand guard. This flattened area at the base of the blade between where the ridge ends and the hand guard is called a ricasso. The ricasso is a later feature, appearing from the late Qing Dynasty onward, and reflects European influence. (Photo 1) On most swords with a full- length medial ridge, the blade is very sharp for its entire length. Some jian blades have a fuller (sometimes called a "blood groove") running the length of the blade Along the medial ridge. The fuller serves to lighten the blade somewhat. The fuller actually strengthens the blade, in the same way that a steel "I" beam is stronger than a solid piece of steel. A few jian were made with hollow ground edges.
The handle, together with its various parts or fittings, is called the hilt. Jian hilt fittings consist of the hand guard, a wide ring or ferrule between the hand guard and the actual handle or grip, another ferrule, and the end piece or pommel. (Photos 2,3) Jian fittings are generally of brass or bronze, and less frequently of German silver. The parts may be sand cast as whole pieces, or both the hand guard and pommel may be cast in two pieces and brazed together. The pieces may also be fashioned of sheet material of various gauges, brazed together. The hand guard and pommel are often decoratively carved with various traditional motifs. The handle or grip is made of wood that is generally covered with sting ray skin. This material is usually applied to combat swords as it provides an excellent non- slip surface. The ray skin is sometimes stained green. Grips may also be of plain or carved wood or horn, and may be short for one- handed use, or longer for techniques and styles that frequently employ a two handed grip.
The tang of the jian blade passes through the grip and the pommel, where it is secured by peening over the end. In late 19th and early 20th century examples, the end of the tang may be threaded, with a nut securing the blade to the grip.
The scabbard in which the jian is stored when not actually being used is made of wood, and is usually covered in sting ray skin, which was then lacquered or stained and then ground down to a smooth finish. Aside from being decorative, the ray skin covering makes the scabbard very strong while adding little weight. The scabbard fittings consist of a throat piece where the sword enters the scabbard, two or three suspension bands for attaching the scabbard to the belt and a tip cover, or chape. Fittings would typically be made of brass or bronze and less commonly of German silver, to match the hilt fittings.
The single edged, curved bladed dao, or saber, dates from around the 13th -14th centuries.
The curved blade was introduced to China as a result of the Mongol invasions, and its popularity is shown by the fact that it had eclipsed the straight bladed jian as the dominant military side arm from the 15th century onward.
The "willow leaf" (liu ye) dao (Photo 4) is an old blade pattern which displays considerable variety in shape and dimensions. Generally averaging about 26 -30 inches in length, its blade curves gently throughout its entire length. The blade may remain almost the same width for its whole length, or it may gradually taper towards the point. It often had a sharpened back edge, indicating a higher degree of sophistication in its technical usage. A military issue weapon, its blade shape, size, types of fittings and ornamentation were regulated by documented imperial specifications. Each blade size was intended for a specific military application. For example, a relatively short dao might be used by vanguard troops scaling walls on climbing ladders, where a long, difficult to draw sword would be awkward to put into use. The willow leaf saber was almost completely eclipsed by the "oxtail" blade pattern made for civilian use by the mid 19th century.
The "goose quill" (yan mao) dao (Photo 5) has a blade that is nearly straight for its entire length except for the tip, which curves slightly upward. Like the willow leaf blade pattern the top 6 inches or so of the back edge would be sharpened. The design of the goose quill saber was intended to combine the best virtues of the straight, double-edged jian and the willow leaf dao. This blade pattern allows for more sophisticated techniques, and consequently the training required to wield it skillfully is generally of a more advanced level. The goose quill saber was a military issue weapon and its size, shape and construction were governed by military specifications. Due to the higher degree of skill required for its use, the goose quill saber gradually fell into disfavor .It rarely was made after the 18th century.
A far less commonly seen type of saber is known as the slicing saber (pian dao), which had a very strongly curved blade of uniform width. Never as widely used as either the willow leaf or goose quill pattern, it is rare to find examples today.
The "oxtail" (niu wei) dao (Photo 6) is what comes to mind when most martial artists use the terms dao or the misnomer "broad sword". This blade pattern has a pronounced curve, with a marked widening towards the forward part of the blade and then tapering towards the point. It is a chopping weapon, as opposed to the finer cutting willow leaf and goose quill dao. It tends to be rather large in size, with the blade averaging about 30 - 34 inches in length. It is normally heavier than the three other types, the weight designed to enhance the application of powerful chopping techniques. The size and weight also made the oxtail saber durable for battlefield use. The oxtail saber was a civilian issue weapon, requiring less training to use effectively than the earlier blade patterns. As the imperial armies of the mid Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911) declined as an effective fighting force, the earlier willow leaf and goose quill dao were almost completely replaced by the oxtail saber.
Most dao blades have one or more fullers ("blood grooves") cut into the blade. These serve to strengthen and lighten the blade.
Dao hilt fittings (Photo 7) consist of a hand guard, a ferrule and a pommel on the end of the grip. In the case of military issue weapons the shape and material of the fittings would be specified for each type of saber by military regulations. Combat fittings were usually made of iron or forged steel, as these were the most durable materials. Heavy bronze or brass fittings might also be used on a sword intended for combat. German silver is another, less commonly used material. Parade weapons generally had lighter blades and fancier, less ruggedly crafted fittings.
Swords were frequently damaged in combat; consequently many old weapons had fittings replaced. This might be done several times throughout the working life of a quality blade. It is not uncommon to find swords that have been remounted in Japanese or even European style fittings. Conversely, European and Japanese blades were occasionally refitted with Chinese fittings. Sometimes the fittings are not a matched set, having been assembled from more than one sword. In some cases the fittings may have originally been mounted on a completely different type of weapon. A friend of mine owns a goose quill saber with very interesting iron fittings that were probably originally mounted on a mace.
The grip, or handle, was made of wood. Weapons intended for combat use had their grips wrapped with silk, in colors that were also specified by military regulation. The wooden grip might be covered with leather or sting ray skin prior to applying the silk wrap. Some dao had plain wooden grips, and some had braided leather or ray skin wraps.
The tang portion of a saber blade usually passes through the grip and the pommel and is fixed by peening over the end of the tang.
Dao scabbards were made of wood, covered with lacquer. Sometimes the scabbard was covered with leather or a fine mesh of wire, which was then lacquered over. Few of these have survived to the present intact. Scabbard fittings consisted of a throat piece, two suspension bands for carrying the scabbard and a protective tip, called a chape. Usually, the scabbard fittings originally matched the sword fittings. Generally, the higher the level of ornamentation, the higher was the rank and status of its owner.
Not unlike the goal of Taijiquan, the challenge in constructing a sword blade intended for combat use involves combining hardness with flexibility. If the whole blade is made of steel that is hard enough to take and hold a sharp edge, it will be so brittle that it will break under stress. On the other hand, if the steel is soft enough to be flexible, it will not take a satisfactory edge. The ancient smiths of China devised ingenious ways to solve this dilemma. The most common method for constructing a quality blade was called qiangang construction and involved sandwiching a wedge of hardened steel at the edge between two layers of softer pattern welded steel. The softer steel made up the body of the sword, providing malleability and the potential to straighten a blade damaged in combat, while the inserted hardened edge material could be honed to razor sharpness. The body of the sword was often made by alternating layers of iron and steel to acquire strength and flexibility. A skilled sword smith would combine many layers of material which when polished shows a beautiful pattern of swirls and waves. This is known as lamellar, "watered" or Damascus steel. A jian blade, having two sharpened edges, would obviously require greater skill to fashion than a single edged saber. Some dao blades such as the "goose quill" (yan mao) blade had the inserted hardened steel continue over the tip of the sword and along the top edge for several inches, so that the upper edge of the point could be sharpened as well.
Restoring an old sword
Due to tumultuous events throughout China’s history, many artifacts including ancient weapons have been damaged or destroyed. Most old swords that one is likely to encounter will need at least some restorative work to be fit for use. A reasonably handy person may be able to do all or part of the work, and there are specialists who will do the work as well.
The blade is probably going to need major attention to look respectable, as it will usually be rusted and pitted at the very least. Superficial rusting is caused by exposure to moisture, while deep black colored pits result from blood corroding the steel. Blood can continue to corrode the blade even after it is wiped off, as it actually gets into the granular structure of the steel and eats it away.
To completely restore an antique blade, the sword will have to be disassembled. The peened over tang can be ground off carefully with a mini-grinder and the blade carefully separated from the grip and fittings.
The blade should be made as straight as possible by working out any bends or kinks. In some cases the tang of the blade will have lost length due to corrosion or because the sword has been disassembled and assembled many times to be polished or to have new fittings installed. The best solution for an overly short tang is to have an extension welded onto the tang, to restore the tang to its approximate original length. Keep in mind that some collectors turn up their noses at any alterations to an antique sword, but if you are going to use the sword for training, it makes sense to me to make these kinds of repairs. A professional with experience in restoring old blades best performs this type of work. The fee charged for this type of repair is quite reasonable, in the range of $20.00 - $30.00. The task then is to polish the blade, while removing as little material as possible. One can attend a seminar to learn how to polish a sword blade, or the work may be done by a specialist for $200.00 - $300.00 or more, depending on the condition of the blade. Deep pitting is removed by using emery cloth of about 100 grit and light oil (I use WD-40). Progressively finer grits of abrasive cloth are used always with oil to lubricate and float away the corrosion. All "sanding" of the blade is done in one direction along the length of the blade, never in circles or up and down. The abrasive paper may be wrapped around a small block of hardwood to ensure a perfectly flat surface. The use of a wood block is essential in maintaining the distinct line of the medial ridge on a double- edged jian blade. For this purpose I use a jeweler’s anvil, which is a piece of steel about 3"x3"x 1" thick, wrapped with the abrasive paper. Cleaning out the "blood groves", or fullers, may be done with rat tail files or by wrapping paper of varying grit around a wood dowel of the appropriate diameter and working out pits and corrosion. In some cases a blade will have been polished so many times that the fullers become shallow and nearly disappear. The fullers will then have to be re-cut to something near their original depth. Determining how much to polish takes some experience and practice. There is a trade off between having a perfectly polished blade, or retaining as much of the original material as possible. If a blade is polished too enthusiastically or too often, or if a particularly corroded area is made too thin, the blade is said to become "tired". The stiffness, weight and lively feel will be lost. Some blades have etched panels, with characters or even decorative pictures on them. Other blades may have chiseled dragons or characters as decorative features. Care must be taken to preserve these features intact. Absolutely never try to grind a blade on a wheel; you will ruin it. It is best to keep all power equipment away from the blade, and to do all restoration work by hand. Progressing from 220 grit to 400, 600, 1000, 1500 and up to about 2000 grit abrasive cloths will put a fine finish on the blade. A final cleaning with alcohol will remove the deepest layers of dirt. At this point one can burnish the blade with very fine steel wool to a mirror finish. If the blade is of the aforementioned lamellar, or Damascus construction, one may choose to etch the finish with an acid solution to accentuate the layered pattern of the folded steel. Acid etching will also accentuate the appearance of the hardened edge steel, or of a heat- treated edge. A professional can do this for a reasonable fee. The blade should then be oiled to prevent rusting. Oil of clove is traditionally used. Note that regular machine oils may damage the wood on the inside of the scabbard.
Fittings on the handle and scabbard may be extensively corroded or rusted. Often one or more of these components may be missing altogether. A skilled metal worker may make parts like these. All active rust should be removed from iron fittings, but the characteristic reddish brown patina is best left intact. I also prefer to retain the old patina of deeply tarnished brass or bronze, but you could of course polish and buff these materials to a brilliant finish.
An old wooden handle should be replaced, carefully copying the original. Alder wood makes a good grip as it is strong, easy to work and light enough to not alter the balance of a good piece. I have also used Spanish cedar and butternut. A professional will charge about $50.00 to craft a new handle. A jian grip should have ray skin applied. A ray skin covered grip gives an excellent surface to hold, regardless of how much the hand may perspire. In using the jian, one should be continuously changing the fingers used to hold the sword, rarely if ever holding the grip tightly with all four fingers and the thumb. The rough surface of the ray skin allows this high degree of flexibility and control regardless of how heavy the sword might be. Ray skin is a perfectly incorrigible material to work with however, and unless you are willing to learn how to handle it, I suggest you have it professionally done. Ray skin may be purchased from specialist dealers, or the work may be done professionally for about $50.00 plus the cost of the material. I’ve done about half dozen ray skin grips, and I don’t look forward to the next one. A saber grip may be of plain wood, or you can have it wrapped with braided silk or leather.
Unless the scabbard is in really good condition, it is often best to make a new one. Sometimes foreign matter finds its way into an old scabbard, and can scratch a newly polished blade. If you do make a new one, do not use any kind of abrasive paper on what will be the inside of the scabbard. Instead, carve the wood with cutting type tools. In this way there will be no abrasive material in the inside of the scabbard to scratch the blade. There are no patterns available that I know of for making a scabbard from scratch, as each one must be custom made to fit the particular sword. Examining some old scabbards may enable you to make a new one or a specialist familiar with various types of swords and scabbards may do the work. The wooden scabbard may be lacquered (black or rust red were often used), or it may be covered with leather or ray skin.
To sharpen or not?
The polishing process usually will put a sharp edge on the blade, sometimes inadvertently. One must be very careful when polishing to respect the emerging edge. The hard edge steel in these old blades will take an amazing edge as sharp as a razor, and it is easy to cut oneself. You may of course choose to not sharpen the edge. I have swords with sharpened edges and some that are dull. The traditional argument is that a sharp blade trains you to use the sword with respect, but a split second’s carelessness could produce really serious results. Listen to your fears.
Training with Antique Swords
Aside from the subjective feeling of satisfaction that comes from practicing with a fine old piece, there are some rather tangible differences between training with real combat swords and inexpensive ariel reproductions. The major consideration is in the weight difference. Combat swords are by nature rather hefty. Many sword routines currently being done can only be performed with a flimsy, light- weight sword, and so have no combat realism. The later oxtail pattern dao, which were intended as chopping weapons, are especially heavy, but even a fine cutting willow leaf saber is fairly stout.
When the typical Taiji player who has trained with a wooden or lightweight reproduction sword first picks up a real weapon, the initial response is usually something like "this isn’t well balanced", or "this sword is too heavy". This is generally because he or she has only trained with a lightweight piece, and is using that overly light sword as a standard of comparison. In my opinion it seems more reasonable to say that an authentic sword represents the weight and balance by which any reproduction should be measured. Since old swords were made with function foremost in mind, they are generally very well balanced for their intended function, which was combat use. The proper balance of a quality blade mitigates the weight, and combines with substantial heft to make the sword more efficient to handle. It is also true that one’s tolerance for heft increases over time, so much so that one eventually seeks out increasingly heavier pieces to train with. The heavy but well balanced - sword also encourages one to use correct Taiji principles in training. In my experience, the weight eventually becomes irrelevant; the main issue is balance, especially with a jian. I own a very heavy antique jian that is really well balanced. It is not nearly as tiring to train with as a sword that is much lighter but is too "tip heavy". The balance point of a jian should be no more than 10 cm up the blade from the point where the blade enters the hand guard. There are several ways to improve the balance of a jian, including adding weight to the pommel, replacing the pommel with a heavier one, lengthening the handle, or a combination of these methods. The balance of a dao is not as critical as a jian, but if the blade is quite thick at the base (a quarter inch or so) the sword will usually handle quite nicely. If a dao blade is really thin at the base, it often is an indication that the blade has been polished many times. Such a blade will probably have lost its proper heft and good handling characteristics.
It makes sense to match a sword to your physical characteristics. I once owned a really interesting oxtail saber with beautifully carved dragons on the base of the blade. Unfortunately, the thing was just a little too long for my stature, and on some techniques I kept hitting the tip on the ground. Rather than ruin a nice blade, I accepted reality and traded for a shorter saber.
Some styles of taiji sword forms were clearly designed to be performed with specific types of swords. For example, the commonly practiced 13 posture Chen Taiji dao form consists mainly of big, chopping techniques. The oxtail pattern blade is the most logical choice for this form.
The Wu style jian form I practice employs a great many pressing (ya) actions; a fairly heavy jian feels more appropriate for these techniques. Other jian forms, like the Chen Taiji jian routine use the tip of the sword extensively for the techniques of explode (beng), point (dian) and hit (ji). A somewhat lighter jian with a "lively" tip works best here.
The best advice is to handle as many old pieces as you can and try to make an informed decision based on the way you train. It is my hope that more martial artists (especially Taiji players) will seek out and use antique swords. The more good pieces in circulation increase the odds that an individual will locate a sword that is just right for their needs.
Seven Stars Trading Co. (www.sevenstarstrading.com) is the most reliable source for old Chinese swords I have found. Owners Scott Rodell and Mei Lu Chen Rodell offer a selection of antique Chinese and other Asian arms, plus other Asian items of interest. Their prices are fair, and all pieces are represented honestly.