The White Arc and Military Jian of the Han Dynasty

An Invaluable Inventory

In 1993 local residents in Yinwan (Donghai county, Jiangsu Province) made a remarkable discovery. They uncovered a group of relatively well-preserved flooded tombs dating back to the Han dynasty. Only two of these tombs have been excavated (2 and 6), and both yielded important finds. Yinwan Tomb 6, as it has come to be called in the literature, must be counted as among the more important archeological finds in recent decades. This is not because of the luxury of the tomb goods. The individuals interned within were a low-level government clerk and his wife.  Rather, the tomb yielded a rich cache of documents written on both bamboo strips and thin wooden boards that touched on everything from government administration, poetry, divination and even recreational gaming.  Dozens of articles have been published in English about these texts, and the output in Chinese academic journals has been much higher.  

One of the newly discovered texts provided a complete inventory of the Donghai arsenal in the first decade of the Western Han. This is the earliest statistical evidence that we have regarding the armaments and organization of the Chinese military during this transitional period. In that sense the document is priceless. Yet I have never been able to locate an English language scholarly treatment of this text, despite the fact that the actual contents of the inventory have been widely translated and can now even be found on the Han dynasty’s Wikipedia page.

For a group of martial arts scholars, this is a strange and painful oversight. Perhaps it can be best understood as a witness to how important the other texts in this same cache have been. Yet what do we know about the official who collected this inventory, and what does it suggest about the size and composition of the Han military?

Three relics of the Han Dynasty. The jian on the far left is the original model of the White Arc. Source: lkchensword.com

Tomb Number 6 is believed to be final resting place of a low-level government official named Shi Rao and his wife.  According to official records, Shi Rao would have earned a relatively modest salary of 100 bushels of grain a year. Still, Tomb 6 contained two coffins and a separate chest for burial goods, suggests a family with some wealth and status. 

Shi Rao was part of the Bureau of Merit and would have been responsible for compiling reports, carrying out inspections and collecting tax information for the government. While formally a low level official, such officers served as the governor’s confidents and often controlled access to valuable information that other officials needed for career advancement.

As such, it is not a surprise that Shi Rao was buried with a number of grave goods including important jade pieces, bonze and ceramic vessels, talismanic objects and two long steel swords in addition to a large collection of documents. Since the tomb remained flooded, these texts were initially recovered in excellent condition. Unfortunately, several were damaged when a subsequent squabble over payments to be made to local work crews prevented them from being preserved as quickly as was necessary. Nor have I have been able to locate any photos of Shi Rao’s swords in the secondary literature on the tomb. That likely reflects how common such weapons are in period sites, and the fact that the archeology community is much more interested in texts, bronzes and ceramics than blades. Yet it is important to note that a low-level civil official in the Han dynasty might be buried with not one, but two, swords.  

Arsenal Record from Tomb 6. Source: http://www.lygmuseum.cn

Of all of the grave goods in Tomb 6, we are most interest in a text titled “The Arsenal of Yongshi’s 4th year Equipment Account Book.” Composed about 13 BCE, the archeological report suggests that this text, written on a thin wooden board, was interned with Shi Rao in about 10 CE.  The text itself took up both sides of a single board and was a record of the 240 kinds of weapons, armor and vehicles collected in a county level arsenal in an area that had once been part of the Kingdom of Chu. The arsenal was likely to have been well stocked as the region had a history of rebellion in which the arms of opposing forces might have been captured, and additional weapons seem to have been sent from the capital. The total inventory of this single county level facility was enormous.

Martial arts studies and military history, while sometimes overlapping, are not the same field.  As such I have taken the liberty of only including the parts of the translation that deal with small arms. But even this is enough to give readers a sense of the size and depth of the facility that Shi Rao may have visited two decades before his death.

Bows
Crossbow: 537,707 (imperial owned: 11,181)
Bows: 77,521

Subtotal: 615,228

Arrows and Bolts
Crossbow bolts: 11,458,424 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Imperial owned arrows: 1,199,316 (imperial owned: 511)

Subtotal: 12,657,740

Armor
Jia Armor: 142,701 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Iron thigh clothing: 255, 1 pair of unique ones
Kai armor: 63,324
Iron Thigh Armor: 10,563
Sets of Iron lamellar armor: 587,299 
Leather armor is 14 jin [7.5 lbs]

Helmets
Helmets: 98,226
Horse armor: 5,330

Shields 
Shields: 102,551 (and one “rang,” which was probably a Gou-rang)

Polearms
Bronze dagger-aw: 632 (imperial owned: 563)
Spear: 52,555 (imperial owned: 2377) 
Imperial owned sheng: 943
Pi sword-staff: 451,222 (imperial owned: 1421)
Halberd (Ji): 6,634
Yofang (halberd/polearm of unknown make): 78,393

Subtotal: 614,546

Blades
Sword: 99,905 (imperial owned: 4)
Daggers: 24,804 
Sawing Sabre: 30,098
Sabre (Dao): 156,135
Great Sabre (Dao): 127 (232)

Subtotal: 311,069

Axes
Iron axe: 1132 (136)

This list provides us with as many questions as answers.  For instance, when we note that the arsenal had 614,546 polearms, one might very wonder whether it was actually attempting to supply the entire Han army? 

If we want to understand the actual force that this inventory was intended to serve, I suspect that we should instead ask about some of the more limited categories. During the Western Han helmets and shields were among the most commonly issued pieces of equipment for troops, and in both cases, we see that the arsenal stocked about 100,000 pieces of equipment. That is far short of what would be necessary to arm a million-man force, and it is more in line with what one might expect to see in a county level arsenal.  Likewise, by the Western Han the military’s transition away from the jian towards the dao was well under way. It is thus significant that we find 156,135 dao in the inventory.  These would have been weapons similar to the LK Chen infantry and calvary dao.

Even more interesting, however, was the fact that nearly 100,000 Jian were still held within the arsenal’s stores. Some of these weapons may have been inherited from previous conflicts and uprisings in the area. Yet I suspect that this figure is close enough to the total number of helmets and shields that it reflects a degree of planning rather than happenstance. In any case, the jian remained a military weapon in the early decades for the Western Han, typically used either with a shield or from horseback.  Thus, Shi Rao’s report provides us with a fascinating look into a pivotal moment of technological change when the jian and dao still overlapped.

Reviewing the White Arc

What would these military jian have looked like and how would they have been used?  For that matter, what about the two swords in Shi Rao’s coffin?  The site report includes only a basic drawing of the excavated tomb and describes the swords as being “long.” What does that mean in practical terms?

To answer these questions, we turn to LK Chen’s reproduction of a standard Han jian, the White Arc. This blade is a one-to-one reproduction of a period artifact that is currently in LK Chen’s private collection. It was selected precisely because it was typical of the sorts of jian that were forged during first half of the Han dynasty.  In general, these swords have fairly long blades (90-110 cm) with relatively sort handles (15-20 cm) that are finished either in a disk pommel (like the Soaring Sky) or, more commonly, with a simple cap of bonze or brass. Their oval hilts were made of wood scales wrapped in cord.  While organic material such as wood and fiber are far less likely to survive, enough artifacts have been preserved in oxygen starved submerged tombs that we now have a fairly decent sense as to how these hilts were contoured and wrapped.

The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).

This brings us back to the White Arc. Of LK Chen’s three Han jian, it is the most representative of a typical sword from the period, as carried by either soldiers or civilians. Whereas the Flying Phoenix is a composite creation, and the Soaring Sky is an exact replica a relatively early and elite type of jian, the White Arc captures the essence of the period’s arsenal swords. Unlike the Soaring Sky or earlier pieces from the Waring States period, it features a simple four sided diamond cross-section that has been optimized for cutting. And unlikely its longer, “hand-a-half” cousins, its narrow blade could only be wielded with a single hand as the other was expected to be occupied with either a hooked buckler (mostly used for civilian fencing) or a larger infantry shield. In evaluating this sword, we must remember that it was only one half of the intended weapon system.

Two Han Dynasty scabbards (recovered from submerged tombs) decorated in the same manner as the White Arc. Source: LKchenswords.com.

When approaching the White Arc the first thing that anyone will notice is the scabbard. While the artifact that LK Chen reproduced no longer has its original furniture (aside from the handguard), the White Arc’s scabbard is a more or less direct copy of several period finds. Its simple diamond profile and red and black color scheme are perhaps the most common features found on scabbards from this period. In keeping with the utilitarian identity of this sword, the belt loop is made from carved wood (as was common at the time) and the chape is cast brass. 

The woodwork on my sample piece is nicely done and the paint is crisp and without runs.  However, my scabbard seems to be a just a hair too big for the sword at the mouth (which is loose) and the chape, where the wood overshoots the brass by about 1 mm. When the sword was being assembled the belt loop fell a bit to one side rather than sitting perfectly straight and here is also some excess glue around the top of the chape that has run up onto the scabbard. However, any early production issues with the epoxy that was being used seems to have been resolved and everything is firm and tight. 

Next we come to the blade itself. Once again, LK Chen has attempted to replicate the look of period pattern welded steel by using a high layer count Damascus combining 1065 and T8. The blade has received a light acid etch revealing an interesting pattern. The forging of this piece is absolutely top quality.  There are no bends or warps in the blade and edges are perfectly straight with the primary bevel leading straight to the cutting edge.  The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is perfectly straight with no distortions, and the tip is symmetrical.  One side of my blade shows very little waviness in the steel and that is mostly towards the tip, as you would expect with a hand made blade.  The other side has more pronounced waves and seems to have received a bit more attention either in straightening the blade or the polishing. The bottom quarter of the blade was left relatively dull, but the rest has been brought to a high degree of sharpness. In bright light you can see a few places where the “mirror polish” is cloudy, but overall the quality of the blade is exceptional, especially given its price point.  

Replicating the guard of the original White Arc. Source: LKChenswords.com

In terms of basic statistics, my sword’s blade (measured from the top of the guard) was 94 cm long (or just over 37 inches).  The total length of the sword was 113 cm (44.5 inches), making is almost exactly average for a late Eastern Han dynasty jian.  The blade’s width at the base was 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 17 mm at the tip.  The distal taper was also relatively even, declining from 7mm at the base to about 3 mm right before the start of the tip.  

Interestingly, my test sword weighed 764 grams, less than the advertised wight of 810 grams. 50 grams may not sound a like a lot in the abstract, but on a sword this light I suspect that it would be notable.  Lastly, in terms of the weapon’s dynamic characteristics, the point of balance was relatively far out at 21 cm from the guard (8 inches). The blade’s upper vibrational node and point of rotation were both located about 22-23 cm back from the tip, giving the blade a well-defined and intuitive “sweet spot.”

Late Warring States or Early Han sword fitting. Note the resemblance of the top set to the fittings used on the Striking Eagle. Source: LKChenswords.com
The raw cast fittings (brass) of the White Arc, along with the wooden belt loop. Source: LKChenswords.com

The White Arc’s hilt is constructed somewhat different from LK Chen’s other Han Jian.  It has a pommel cap rather than a terminal disc.  That is important as a disc pommel isn’t just decorative. It is a structural element allowing the pommel, tang and scales to be held in place with a single shared pin.  However, pommel caps are also common in the archeological record.  These could be quite thick, sometimes with only enough space for the tang of the sword, or more generous, fitting over the hilt’s wooden scales and holding everything together. They were typically glued or set with a friction fit. The subsequent wrapping of the hilt with cord closed the gap between the wooden scales and the elevated edge of the cast bronze or brass cap.  This traditional method of construction has been used on both the White Arc and the much larger Striking Eagle.

The hilt scales of the White Arc are also pinned through the tang just beneath the hand guard and everything has been epoxied. If one carefully examines the bottom of the handguard you can see that it is not straight.  Rather, it is notched on both sides allowing the scales to be custom fit and recessed into the guard itself, further preventing them from rotating. The brass handguard is an exact replica of the original and is extremely comfortable. Indeed, it is probably the most comfortable guard on any of LK Chen’s swords. Finally, the relatively wide oval scales have been wrapped in a grippy white cord made from some sort of natural fiber.

The hilt is widest at the top and and narrows slightly as it moves towards the pommel cap.  I am not entirely sure whether this reflects the way the scales were carved, or its its artifact of the way that they were wrapped. In any case, the hilt feels secure and firm when thrusting but has a tendency to feel as though its pulling away from the user when executing broad cuts. This small detail may be a hint as to how some Han jian were originally intended to be used. The cord itself is comfortable and showed no signs of loosening or wear even after several weeks of daily with this blade.

Details of the White Arc hilt construction. Source: LKChenswords.com

I found the handling characteristics of the White Arc to be notably different from not only modern Jian, but also LK Chen’s Soaring Sky and Flying Phoenix. This is not to say that the sword was unpleasant to use.  It is very light and responsive. When training both basic movements and cutting I always had an intuitive sense of where the tip was, and because of the hilt construction the blade was easy to index. In those respects this is an easy sword to use and it really puts to rest the notion that narrow blades are only good for thrusting.

That said, I did feel a bit more hand shock in the White Arc than some of LK Chen’s other jian. I suspect this is because the sword’s lower vibration node was actually somewhere in the blade’s forte rather than the upper hilt (which would have provided a natural dampening effect). This is probably an unavoidable mathematical result of the very short hilt compared to long overall length of the blade and the lack of a robust pommel adding weight to the end of tang.  Given that the White Arc is a one-to-one recreation of a very standard period blade, there is not much that one can do about this. Still, it is interesting to note the way that Chinese hilt designs subsequently evolved, generally becoming longer and heavier, in the coming centuries. One wonders whether that correlates to a corresponding shift from thrusting to cutting? This is also evident if you compare the construction and proportion of Han dao hilts, which could be quite diminutive, to later sabers from the Sui/Tang or Song dynasties.

As one would expect, this is a blade that excels in the thrust. It wants to thrust and make tight parries. In improvised training those are always the movements that come the quickest and easiest. I would say that all of the standard guards and cuts from modern jian systems are possible with the White Arc, but they aren’t all equally comfortable or quick due to the swords length. I found the recovery from broad cuts to be a bit slow because of the long point of balance. For instance, if the sword was too far extended, I felt that my back tip cuts wouldn’t have generated enough force to actually be effective. While this blade is light and quick, it clearly was not designed with the wheels and sword flowers of the Qing and Republic era jian systems. Weapons are, by their very nature, inflexible and we must adapt ourselves to the possibilities that they allow. In that sense the White Arc is an invitation to explore new aspects of Chinese swordsmanship. It will be less rewarding to resist nature and use it exactly as you might a more modern cutting jian. Instead the blade must be understood as an invitation for experimentation.

Han dynasty Sword and Gou-Rang. Source: LKChensword.com
Two modern reproductions of Han jian with Gou-Rang. Source: LKChenswords.com

This brings us to the elephant in the room.  While I have quite enjoyed training with the White Arc, I don’t feel like I have fully plumbed its depths. Aside from some pieces of art, we don’t have any detailed texts describing how these blades were used. Further, this was a sword that was almost certainly designed to be used with either a shield or a Gou-Rang. That is one thing that we do see very clearly in most surviving period art. 

To really grasp what this blade is capable of I need to take another look at it in that specific context.  I am still working on securing a couple of Gou-Rang for experimentation, and at some point I need to dust off my neglected woodworking skills and make an infantry shield.  Clearly that is the next step in studying the White Arc, and probably a precondition for really understanding how any Han jian was intended to be used.

The White Arc is a remarkable artifact. It reminds us of a time when county level arsenals might have had 100,000 similar blades in their inventories, ready to equip an army on a moments notice.  And their presence in so many civilian tombs, including that of Shi Rao, speaks to the importance of both swords and fencing in Han culture.  Recreating the White Arc bring us one step closer to understanding this lost chapter in the development of the China’s ancient martial arts. 

Knight Errantry and the Soaring Sky

The Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com.

For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?

The Swordsman (剑客) by Jia Dao

It could be argued that in macro-historical terms the Chinese martial arts are as much an identity, or a disposition, as they are a set of combative techniques. Technique evolves and changes over time. Weapons, and entire systems of military technology, come and go. Archery and charioteering were once the hallmark of a sound military education. Today that is clearly not the case.

Still, “like always recognizes like,” and modern martial artists can identify those figures with which they empathize in China’s classic works. While technologies and cultures of violence have changed, certain early stories became literary touchstones that many generations of practitioners returned to as they searched for proper models of behavior and a means to explain themselves to others. Every generation reads these texts through their own lens and finds something new and exciting within them. Without expecting to find anything like strict continuity, we cannot discount the value of these stories in providing a sense of cultural continuity for successive generations of martial artists.

Without a doubt the most important of the early cultural models is the Youxia, often translated in English as “knight-errants.” The fact that so little research has been carried out on these figures provides elegant testimony to the fact that Martial Arts Studies, as a research field, might yet contribute much to disciplines such as Chinese history.  Perhaps the most widely cited authority on the topic remains James J. Y. Liu who published his various contributions during the 1960s.

The original Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com

The most important early source on the Youxia is Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, completed during the middle years of the Han dynasty. Among the biographies of the various important figures of his time, we find an entire section documenting the Youxia. When one considers Sima Qian’s theory of history, that it was the scholar’s job to record the past so that what was admirable might be remembered, and what was bad condemned, their inclusion (and not so subtle endorsement) becomes quite interesting.  Sima Qian himself was well versed in the Confucian classics and took the Spring and Autumn Annals as his guide for what proper history should be. Yet within his work he records with approval the behavior of some very non-Confucian characters.

One probably need look no further than the basic outlines of Sima Qian’s own life to understand why he admired those who stood up for what was right in the face of political authority and social disapproval. Or as he put it:

To save people from distress and relieve people from want: is this not benevolence? Not to belie another’s trust and not to break one’s promises: is this not righteousness? That is why I wrote the “Biographies of knights errant….

Although the actions of the knights errant were not in accordance with the rules of propriety, they always meant what they said, always accomplished what they set out to do, and always fulfilled their promises.  They rushed to the aid of people in distress without giving a thought to their own safety. And when they had saved someone from disaster at the risk of their own lives, they did not boast of their ability and were shy to hear their virtue praised. Indeed, there is much to be said for them.”

Sima Qian regretted that he was unable to record the stories of the early Youxia of the Warring States Period as little specific information about them remained. Most of his accounts were drawn from the early Han or the previous Qin dynasties. In reviewing this material Liu hypothesizes, probably correctly, that knight errantry represented a subculture, or mode of behavior, rather than a definite social group. This behavior could be found among both peasants and princes, but the accounts that Sima Qian provide seem to focus on either the lowest ranks of the nobility or townsmen. For the most part his Youxia are differentiated from professional soldiers or bandits, though at times in their life they might take up either banner for a season. Many were literate and some were even remembered as skilled musicians.

Fiercely independent, these figures cultivated a code of chivalry or personal honor that was not always intuitively obvious to those around them and might at times require some explanation.  Like the Confucians and Mohists they believed in a universal ethic (often articulated as an abstract sense of “justice”) that was higher than the laws of the state. However, unlike the former this also superseded one’s responsibility to familial obligations, whereas they had no sympathy with the Mohists puritanical approach to music or strict social organization. A number of Yuxia are said to have been followers of Daoism, but that seems to have been a personal preference rather than a shared community identity.

An eight sided Han jian, still in its partially preserved scabbard. Note that it is decorated in the same style as LK Chen’s White Arc. Source: LKChenswords.com

This is not to say that the Youxia existed only as lone wandering vigilantes. If they had it is doubtful that they would have become an important enough force in Chinese society to be included in Sima Qian’s work, or to earn the near universal condemnations of the Legalist, Confucian and Mohist writers of their time. Rather, these individuals organized themselves into patronage networks. Sima Qian tells us of princes who publicly cultivated the ideals of the Youxia and thus accumulated networks of thousands of knights and retainers.  Occasionally these networks even impacted matters of state. More common were well off gentlemen who might gather dozens of such individuals. One Han period account begins by casually noting that every quarter of the capital had its own powerful Youxia figure.

The knights errant are typically remembered for taking justice into their own hands, often in an attempt to help a friend who had become a victim of misfortune, or the common people.  For instance, Liu provides us with the following short account from the late Han which features many of the typical themes found in these stories:

Chic Yun was a native of Ju-nan prefecture (in modern Honan). He had a friend called Tung Tzu-chang whose father had been murdered by another man from the same district. Unable to avenge his father’s death, Tung became sick and was about to die. On his death bed, Chih came to see him. Tung looked at Chih and sobbed, no longer able to speak.  Chih Yun said, “I know you are not sad because you are fated to end your days but because you have not brought about revenge. When you are alive, I share your grief but cannot personally carry out revenge on your behalf; when you are gone, I will personally kill your enemy and grieve no more.” Tung could but look at him.  Thereupon Chih left, took some friends with him, ambushed the enemy, and killed him. He brought back the enemy’s head and showed it to Tung, who on seeing it breathed his last. Chih Yun then went to the district magistrate and gave himself up.  The magistrate, who knew and admired him, would not send him to jail, but he insisted on going, until the magistrate threatened suicide.  Later, Chich Yun became an important official at court.”

The dramatic nature of the previous story notwithstanding, the Youxia were also remembered for acting as diplomats, quietly resolving disputes, and even ending cycles of familial revenge that went against the demands of a more universal ethic. In that sense they were peacekeepers rather than simple vigilantes. What is common in all of these stories is that the Youxia acted benevolently when it was not required, often going far beyond what would have been considered the normal call of duty. While individualistic in origin, their actions were not always violent.

Liu speculates that the Youxia first emerged as an identifiable group during the Warring States period as political chaos dislocated the military retainers and lower levels of the aristocracy of defeated states.  As these individuals blended back into society, they brought not only their military skills but also a core of personal ethics. Throughout the tumultuous years that followed such individuals may have been able to find patronage or employment as they traveled from one country to the next, as did other types of military and civil officials during the same period.  During the Han dynasty these individuals would have faced a more hostile environment. The inter-state chaos that created a degree of tolerance, and even demand, for their services was gone. Both the Legalists and Confucian scholars who dominated court life found the existence of large networks of influential and well-armed men of dubious loyalty to be an intolerable threat. From the middle of the Han dynasty onward the state systematically suppressed and executed Youxia. Again, these events were recorded in Sima Qian’s history so that future generations could ponder the virtues of these individuals and their betrayal by government officials.

A selection of antique bronze pommels dating from the Han dynasty. Note that each of these shows the same cloud pattern used on the Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com

To say that Sima Qian’s own relationship with the court was complicated would be a profound understatement. It would draw us too far afield to explore his biography here, but perhaps we will conclude this discussion by noting that in many ways the oppressed and disgraced historian got the last laugh. By going to heroic lengths to write China’s first universal history he not only established a reputation that has lasted for millennium, but he also changed the way that the subject of history was approached and written for most of that time.

He also frustrated the sincere desire of the Confucian, Mohists and Legalists who all wished that the Youxia would be erased from history and their legacy forgotten. The stories that Sima Qian recorded would prove to be the source material that inspired many subsequent generations of knight-errantry up through the Tang dynasty. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, these same biographies would help to shape the emerging discourse around new types of martial arts communities that were then beginning to take shape.

Ma Mingda once noted that modern scholars should think of the novel Water Margin as the Old Testament of the modern Chinese martial arts.  While difficult to understand and obscure in places, one cannot underestimate the cultural influence that it had on the popular imagination.  I fully agree with his assessment on the proviso that we take Sima Qian’s account of the Youxia, along with their devotion to universal notions of justice and brotherhood, as our Genesis. It is impossible to come to terms with the values of figures such as Shi Jin if we do not understand in whose shadow they stand.

The Soaring Sky

The existing historical accounts (with a few exceptions) do not spend a lot of time talking about the specific weapons that the Youxia of the Qin and early Han carried, but if they were lucky they might have owned a sword similar to LK Chen’s Soaring Sky. This offering is a direct replica of a well preserved eight sided jian dating from the early years of the Han dynasty. The classic Han jian, in contrast, has a flattened diamond profile where each of the sword’s sides acts as a primary edge bevel. This construction can be seen on both the White Arc and the Flying Phoenix and it explains the surprising cutting prowess of these weapons. The true genius of the Han jian lay in its ability to combine both prodigious cutting and thrusting capabilities in a single weapon.

The Soaring Sky looks back to earlier trends in weapon design.  Eight sided blades, often with shallow double fullers forming a medial ridge, were commonly seen on the shorter bronze weapons of the late Warring States period. This configuration allowed a smith to create a weapon with a fairly broad profile that was still light enough to wield and fairly stiff.  This same basic profile was adopted on certain early steel weapons made in the Kingdoms of Yue and Chu, such as the Magnificent Chu jian, which I have previously discussed.

While this complex geometry was less necessary on steel swords, it continued to be seen through the Qin and early years of the Han dynasty. Given their additional complexity such blades would have been more expensive to produce and the examples that have been found are typically in the graves of the nobility or well off. Still, these weapons are different from their predecessors in the kingdom of Chu.  They have the same length (typically 90-110 cm) that was seen on other Han jian, as well as a relatively narrow blade and pronounced tip. The double fullers of the Magnificent Chu have been replaces with two flats that spread out to meet the primary edge bevel.  The end result is a thicker and sturdy spine compared to the compressed diamond cross-section of later swords.  Whereas they are optimized for cutting ability, the Soaring Sky values durability and stiffness.


This is not to suggest that it is a heavy sword. The review sample that I was sent weighs only 797 grams (as opposed to its advertised weight of 823 grams). It was also slightly longer than its official length at 112 cm (versus 110 cm) with most of that difference coming in the form of a slightly longer blade.  The width of the blade at the base was just under 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 15 mm at the tip.  In terms of distal taper my blade was a bit thinner than some others being 7 mm at the base and 3.1 mm at the tip with the official averages at 7.4mm and 4 mm respectively.  The distal taper moved only about 1 mm in the first third of the blade but decreased more rapidly after that. This resulted in a point of balance about 7 inches (17.8 cm) away from the top of the guard.

An original scabbard decorated with the same geometric pattern seen on the Soaring Sky. Source: LKChenswords.com
A Han dynasty scabbard fitting, used as the model for the Soaring Sky’s belt attachment. Source: LKChensword.com

The overall build quality of the weapon is excellent. Aesthetically the Soaring Sky makes a single cohesive thematic statement.  Your eye is immediately drawn to the gold and green lacquer work in the shape of a Han cloud motif that graces the center of the scabbard. This surrounds a checked orange pattern that supports a belt loop decorated with a harvest grain pattern.  Both it, and the painted geometric pattern under it, are taken from various period artifacts. Sadly, the scabbard for the original blade that the Soaring Sky is modeled after did not survive.  The scabbard’s chape repeats these geometric themes, while the disk pommel once again shows a cloud motif that was very popular on Han jian. The overall symbolic effect is to suggest a field of grain waving in the wind.

All of the lacquer work was well executed, as was the cast brass sword fittings.  The pommel is highly detailed, and the handguard has been polished so that it has no sharp edges. The hilt itself is constructed from rhomboid wooden scales that are pinned in place (as is the pommel), coved in ray skin and wrapped in a simple white cord.  I used this sword for about 40 minutes a day for better part of two weeks and had no problem with the wrap. If anything, it seemed to become tighter and grippier as I began to break it in.  I suppose all wrapped grips will have to be replaced eventually, but I don’t anticipate any problems, even with heavy use.  I should also note that while I really like the black cord wrap on the Flying Phoenix, from a purely practical standpoint the white wrap on the Soaring Sky provides better purchase on the weapon.

As nice as the fittings are, the Soaring Sky’s blade is certainly its main attraction.  Mine was beautifully constructed and had no obvious flaws.  LK Chen once again used his signature mixture of 1065 and T8 tool steel.  Lightly etched the eight-sided profile of the blade allowed the Damascus to show a variety of fold and grain patterns. Both of the cutting edges were perfectly straight with no warps or twists.  The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is fairly low but straight. When examining the flats under a bright light, the first half of the blade is perfectly smooth and there is only enough of a wave in the top third (where the smith formed the taper towards the tip) to remind you that this is, indeed, a hand-made sword. The edge came sharp enough that I certainly don’t want to spend much time with my fingers anywhere near it, but your milage may vary.

A broken hilt from a Han dynasty jian which still has its original rhomboid scales and cord wrapping. The hilt of the Soaring Sky was modeled on this artifact. Source: LKChenswords.com

Most of my use of this sword involved training basic movements and taolu with some additional light cutting. During that time I came to really appreciate its versatility.  I found that it was agile enough to do pretty much any modern jian set, but at 20 cm the hilt was just long enough for some material from double handed forms as well. Even though the sword is light and very fast, some modern jian students may be put off by a point of balance that is 7 inches from the hilt.  And while that forward weight gives us the blade presence to do the sorts of serious cutting that a long sword should be able to handle, the hilt is a bit too short to be considered a dedicated two-handed weapon. Still, blade design is all about tradeoffs, and it is remarkable how close both the Flying Phoenix and the Soaring Sky come to so many sweet spots.

Given the similarities between these two swords, how might consumers choose between them? Both are remarkable weapons and I find their handling more similar than different.  Still, there are differences. Most obvious is the fact that the blade profile for the Flying Phoenix has been optimized for cutting, whereas the reinforced spine on the Soaring Sky prioritizes strength and a bit of stiffness. If you do a lot of cutting on typical targets (water bottles, bamboo, rolled mats or newspaper) the Flying Phoenix may have an edge. If you prefer a stiffer blade with a reinforced tip, the Soaring Sky might give you the experience you are looking for.

As someone who does more traditional martial arts training than cutting, here are a few other factors to consider. The first of the these is that the point of balance on my Soaring Sky makes it feel a bit heavier than my Flying Phoenix during taolu. Its hilt, while comfortable, is narrower. If you have large hands, you might find the Flying Phoenix to be a better fit. I also prefer the way the hilt on the Flying Phoenix swells to meet the pommel as this is a more comfortable arrangement when you do find yourself placing a second hand on the grip.

Nevertheless, the sheer toughness of the Soaring Sky should not be underestimated.  On my second day of testing this sword I accidentally planted its (slightly longer than expected) tip into my driveway. The sound of the strike was sickening, and it left a gash in the recently resealed asphalt. But after cleaning the debris from the blade I discover that the cutting edge of the tip was not only undamaged, but that it was still sharp.

Clearly this speaks to the quality of the heat treatment, but it was also instructive in another respect. While I could hear what was going on, I realized in retrospect that I never felt the expected vibration or kickback in the hilt as I attempted to cleave my driveway.  After doing a bit of experimentation I determined that the nodes of vibration on this particular sword are about 23 cm (9 inches) back from the tip and right beneath the guard, where one’s right hand would rest. To put it is slightly different terms, the Soaring Sky has a “sweet spot” for cutting about where you would expect it to be and a hilt that is not going to transmit the recoil of a blow up your arm.  While I am as big a fan of Peter Johnsson’s work as anyone else, I generally try not to delve into this sort of minutia in my reviews as I can just imagine my reader’s eyes glazing over. But in this case, I think that it is important to point out that not only does the Soaring Sky feel stiffer than other Han jian in LK Chen’s lineup, it has the mechanics in place to back up its promises.

No other quality could be more important when selecting a sword for the Youxia of old. The defining characteristic of their code of honor was that they delivered on their promises. As Liu reminds us, being a knight errant was more about one’s personal conduct than profession or membership in a specific class. Most of these individuals were not professional soldiers, and I suspect that modern readers might even see some of them as primarily diplomats rather than martial artists. Still, these were men who never shied away from direct action when the situation demanded it, and the Soaring Sky is equally capable of answering that call.

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