Roaring Dragons and Vanishing Rhinos: The Longsword Sword in Ancient China


The rhinoceros-hide armor was of seven folds or links, one over another; the wild-buffalo’s-hide armor was of six folds or links; and the armor, made of two hides together was of five folds or links. The rhinoceros-hide armor would endure 100 years; the wild-buffalo-hide armor 200 years; and the armor of double hide 300 years.

                                                                        The Rites of Zhou

This post offers my review of LK Chen’s reproduction of a Warring States era longsword, similar to the types of weapons used by special troops in the Kingdom of Chu. Yet before we can delve into that topic, we must know something about the fate of China’s rhinoceroses. It is actually impossible to tell the story of these swords, attested in a handful of literary references and archeological finds, without first coming to terms with China’s shifting environmental fortunes.

The only place that one is likely to see a rhino in China today is in the zoo. The last isolated pockets of the Indian, Sumatran and Javanese subspecies all seem to have vanished during the Republic period, yet in truth even these were mostly forgotten stragglers of a once great herd. During the Shang Dynasty rhinos had been common in both the north and south and we know from oracle bone texts that they were frequently hunted. 

 

Western Han wine vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros. Source: Wikimedia.

 

The most sought-after part of the rhino at this point in time does not seem to have been the horns (which were often melted down to make glue), but rather their hides which were a source of exceptionally tough leather. Some of the earliest armor in China was fashioned from sculpted sheets of rhino leather which was then lacquered. This material was both incredibly tough and (relatively) light compared to stone, shell and later bronze armor.  By the Zhou dynasty the use of rhino hide had expanded thanks to the development of laminar armor technology which could allow for better fitting and more flexible types of protection.  Still, the nature of chariot-based warfare ensured that early conflicts remained a relatively elite affair.  This limited the overall environmental impact of the fighting.  

All of that changed as China entered the Warring States period. The scale of warfare escalated, often with catastrophic results for local populations.  As ever greater numbers of common soldiers were pressed into service the demand for armor skyrocketed. Leather laminar armor was a favorite as it could be produced relatively cheaply and in large quantities.  And given the fairly weak crossbows that were used in this period (at least in comparison to the bows that would be developed during the Han dynasty) this sort of armor provided decent protection.  However, rhino hide, which could deflect even the sharpest bronze weapons, continued to be prized for its added strength and durability, despite the fact that by this time the animals had disappeared from the north.  

 

Rhinoceros leather armor, Chu Kingdom.

 

Procuring rhino hides for use in armor even became a matter of state policy.  Earlier in the Spring and Autumn period Guan Zhou had advised the Duke of Qi to begin to institute fines that could be paid through the provision of armor and weapons to strengthen his military:

Ordain that serious cries are to be redeemed with a suit of rhinoceros armor and one halberd, and minor crimes with a plaited leather shield and one halberd.  Misdemeanors are to be punished with a quote of metal, and doubtful cases are to be pardoned.  A case should be delayed for investigation for three days without allowing arguments or judgements; by the time the case is judged the subject will have produced one bundle of arrows.  Good metal should be cast into swords and halberds and tested on dogs and horses, while poorer metal should be cast into agricultural implements and tested on earth. 

When viewed from an environmental perspective it is not a coincidence that the longsword should have been adopted in the State of Chu at a relatively early date, or that it would again become a rarity by the Han dynasty. Between the Warring States and the Han most swords (with the exception of those given to the calvary) were meant to be used with a shield. Shields were a necessity both because archery was a common aspect of the battlefield, and most soldier wore very little armor (or none at all).  Indeed, armor was expensive enough that it was often reserved for more specialized troops or officers.

Double handed swords can be wielded effectively against both polearms (which dominated the period’s infantry formations) and lightly armed individuals with smaller swords and bucklers. Yet the precondition for being able to use the such a weapon is the development of some sort of armor that frees the warrior from the necessity of carrying a shield.  We have already seen how Chu (and regions such as the former kingdoms of Wu and Yue) had an advantage when it came to the production of early steel weapons. Obviously, that made the development of the longsword technologically possible. But it was an entirely different set of natural resources that made such an innovation advisable. Specifically, multiple species of wild rhinoceros could still be found in the warmer and wetter south long after they had gone extinct in China’s northern and central regions. 

Two suits of excavated rhino armor from the Chu Kingdom. Source: LKChenswords.com

 

It was actually the greater access to rhino hides that allowed Chu to deploy the longsword as something more than a novelty or a prestige weapon for the elite. Of course, all of this had a devastating effect of China’s remaining rhinoceros populations. Climate change in the guise of the cooling and drying during this period had already stressed these populations. As the demand for armor increased, the remainder were quickly hunted to extinction becoming yet another casualty of the Warring States period.   

By the Han dynasty the few surviving populations of China’s rhinos were forced into isolated pockets of the deep south.  Most individuals would never see a rhinoceros and the species quickly entered China rich bestiary of mythic creatures. Nor would there be much of a demand for the remaining suits of rhino armor. With the development of much more powerful crossbows during the Han dynasty, leather plates were eventually replaced with metal (often iron or decarbonized steel). Relatively few soldiers could be equipped with enough armor to provide anything like full coverage and militaries again turned to shields and long pole arms as a primary mode of defense.

It is thus interesting to compare the steel longswords of the late Warring States period to their Han counterparts.  In truth, the blades of even ordinary Han jian tended to be quite long. You can see this for yourself if you just put LK Chen’s White Arc (a direct reproduction of a surviving Han jian) next to the Roaring Dragon (his Chu longsword).  The two blades are roughly comparable in length, with the long sword only being an inch or two greater. The actual difference in these swords is to be found in their hilt construction. Whereas the Roaring Dragon is a specialized two-hander, Han jian generally assumed that soldiers would need to wield a blade in one hand and a shield in the other. Even a Han “two handed” sword, something like the Soaring Sky or Flying Phoenix, is still designed to be used primarily with one hand, while a second hand may be called upon at times for extra support or special techniques.  While some longswords have been recovered from the Han, in general an elite warrior in this later period was much more likely favor a slighter shorter blade with a more versatile hilt. 

The term intersectionality is used to describe the ways that complex social and environmental factors interact with each other.  Certain types of technological change gave rise to the development of the longsword in southern China.  Yet by putting greater pressure on fragile populations of wild rhinos, these same technological changes ensured their own obsolesces.  Once again, it is impossible to really understand how ancient weapons were used in a decontextualized sense.  But when we combine what we know about the development of new technologies (stronger crossbows) and environmental change (the over hunting of wild rhinos), it becomes possible to understand why the Kingdom of Chu’s longswords occupied such a fleeting (if glorious) moment in history.

 

 

Roaring Dragon

The description of the Roaring Dragon on LK Chen’s webpage begins by announcing that this sword is “the enhanced version of the Magnificent Chu jian.” While the resemblance between the two swords is obvious on a visual level, in more mechanical respects these are actually profoundly different blades. The family resemblance is most evident in the scabbards and other furniture.

Like the Magnificent Chu, the Roaring Dragon is a composite creation approximating the type of sword that archeologists have discovered, rather than a one-to-one recreation of an existing weapon (such as the White Arc or the Soaring Sky). It signals the shared cultural heritage  with the Magnificent Chu by decorating its scabbard with the same red and black lacquerware pattern (itself a copy of surviving of Chu funerary pieces), and cast chape and belt hook. The sword’s disk pommel also shares the same pattern of concentric rings.

 

 

Still, there are subtle differences. I find the scabbard on the Roaring Dragon to be much more elegant than its shorter companion as the greater length allows the craftsmen to really accentuate the two different profiles seen in the top and bottom halves of pieces from the Warring States period. I have always wondered whether the flattening of the scabbard as it descends was meant to invoke the same sorts of shapes seen on the spokes of war chariots during the period.  More research on the question is needed.

While the woodwork on my test sword’s scabbard was excellent, the lacquer was marred in a few places.  There was small chip near the mouth of the scabbard (which was an excellent fit) and there was some roughness near the chape that I haven’t seen on any of LK Chen’s other swords. The red and yellow phoenix motif was crisp and excellently executed. 

After taking a close look at this sword’s fittings, I decided that the handguard, chape, belt hook and disk pommel are probably cast bronze.  While bronze was used in the initial run of the “LK Chen Five” more recently produced models have switched to cast brass. Apparently they had trouble getting the desired degree of detail and quality control in their bronze casts. While bronze is still used on some fittings (notably the hilt rings of sabers like the Dragon-Sparrow and the Double Dragon) all new jian furniture is being cast in brass. Generally speaking, I like the look of bronze (seen on the first run swords) better, but there is no denying that the newer and more detailed fittings on the Flying Phoenix and Soaring Sky are beautiful. 

 

The original artifact that served as the model for the Roaring Dragon’s hand guard. Source: LKChensword.com

The hilt of the Roaring Dragon before wrapping. Note that the disk pommel is pinned through the tang and wood scales. Source: LKChensword.com

 

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Roaring Dragon is its relatively wide handguard.  Like the Magnificent Chu it proudly displays the taotie animal mask motif.  LK Chen provided the Roading Dragon with a direct copy of a warring states guard that is similar to, but ultimately different from, the one used on the Magnificent Chu.  While I suspect fans of the Western longsword will be more comfortable with the Roaring Dragon because it has something that begins to approximate a European cross-guard, it is clear that this piece is still meant primarily to protect the fingers from sliding up unto the blade rather than leveraging an opponent’s weapon.

More differences are evident when we turn our attention to the blade itself.  Like the Magnificent Chu, the Roaring Dragon features a high layer-count Damascus pattern made of alternating layers of 1065 and T8 tool steel.  A medial ridge is created by engraving both side of the blade with wide double fullers, revealing a beautiful pattern in the metal. The metallurgy in LK Chen’s swords is entirely modern, but the intended effect is to echo the complex weld structures that are seen when jian from the period are polished by private collectors.

Upon handling the Roaring Dragon one will immediate note that the blade is relatively narrow with a subtle, mostly strait taper. It is a full 5 mm narrower at the base than the Magnificent Chu (30 mm vs 35 mm) though both come to about 20 mm just before the tip.  Both swords have the same distal taper (7mm at the base to 3mm at the tip), but when you double the length of a narrower blade, the distribution of mass becomes very different.

My test sword had a total weight of 1074 grams, which is remarkable when you remember that its blade is 100 cm (39.5”) and its total length is an impressive 139.5 cm (mine was slightly longer than advertised).  The fullering in the blade keeps the weight down and the result is a very quick and lively longsword.

The quality of the Roaring Dragon’s blade is excellent.  There are no bends or warps in the blade and the cutting edge is nicely formed.  When examining the flats of the blade under a bright light it is clear what there is a fair amount of waviness but given how difficult it is to make the bottoms of a fuller perfect smooth that is to be expected in a handmade blade. The medial ridge is absolutely straight on both sides of the blade, and its serves to reinforce the tip for extra support in the thrust.

That last point is important as anyone who picks up this blade will immediately notice that it can be somewhat wobbly.  This is typically the case with long, narrow, slender blades.  I suspect that LK Chen could have ameliorated this tendency somewhat if he actually had scaled up the notably wider Magnificent Chu jian.  Of course, that added rigidity would also have resulted in extra weight, and he decided instead to reproduce the range of weights actually observed in archeological specimens.  That meant sticking with a relatively narrow blade that is profiled very differently from a medieval European longsword.

The end result is that the Roaring Dragon is a bit tricky to cut with. While the edge is very good, the blade is very light and it will flex on you if the geometry of the cut is not perfect. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to cut well with this sword, but it can be a bit of a challenge.  Still, given the length of the weapon, the layout of the hilt and the reinforced tip, I found myself wondering whether these sorts of blades might not have favored the thrust and been used almost like a short polearm at times. 

One suspects that it would have been fairly uncommon for two heavily armored longsword wielders to meet on the battlefield. Instead I assume that a sword like this would most likely have been used against relatively poorly armored troops carrying either swords and shields or longer pole weapons. Even a relatively light and narrow blade would have been devastatingly effective against these sorts of “soft” targets. When facing a more heavily armored foe one suspects that the thrust would have become the weapon’s primary attack.

 

The Roaring Dragon’s hilt, 38 cm (15 inches). Source: LKChenswords.com.

 

I found the Roaring Dragon’s hilt to be very comfortable.  After weeks of daily use the cord wrapping is still tight and in perfect condition. The slightly slick feel of the cord was advantageous as I switched back and forth between different types of grips, something that is important with a blade of this length. The oval cross section of the hilt also made edge control intuitive.

The sword itself moves effortlessly through the air, and it is a joy to train with something that is simultaneously so long yet so fast.  My test sword’s point of balance was 13.3 cm (or 5.25 inches) away from the hilt.  Its forward and rear points of rotation were 18 cm and 58 cm from the tip respectively.  Its forward vibrational node was 29.2 cm from the tip.  I didn’t experience much hand-shock when cutting with this sword, but I never subjected it to any destructive testing either.

There is a lot of interest in larger double handed Chinese swords at the moment.  Most of this focuses on the historically better attested traditions of the Ming dynasty.  The Roaring Dragon reminds us that similar technologies can arise and decline at various points in history.  More lightly built than later weapons, these jian were a response to the strategic situation and environmental resources that defined life in the Warring States period.  In that sense they are an important reminder that the martial arts can never be separated from the environment that gave rise to them.  While we typically take this as social truism, this unique sword testified that the traditional fighting arts have also been in conversation with, and a reflection of, the natural environment. It may not be possible to appreciate the rise of the China’s first longswords without also remembering the animals who made these swords practical battlefield weapons.

 

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If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: The Maiden of Yue and the Magnificent Chu

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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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If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Political Extremism, Violence and Martial Arts

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Through a Lens Darkly (66): The Dramatic Aspect of Chinese Martial Arts

Introduction

We must thank Joseph Svinth for this post. He came across the following photo essay during his research and was kind enough to share it with me. It was clear that this needed to be included in the “Through a Lens Darkly” series as we just don’t have that many great images of TCMA practice from seventy years ago. Given my interest in traditional weapons, I was also fascinated by the range of armaments that this piece featured.

Most early and mid 20th century treatments of the Chinese martial arts demonstrate a fascination with weaponry. The reasons for this are varied. Lion dance celebrations, one of the few places where non-Chinese residents in the West might reliably encounter these fighting systems, often included extensive demonstrations of weapon sets. That sent a strong visual message that these fighting systems were fundamentally unlike Judo and Karate, the two best known Asian martial arts in the West during the post-war period. The preference for demonstrations with steel, as opposed to wood or bamboo, would have also set these systems apart from Kendo.

It is hard to deny the romance of the sword. While most period sources used the term “Chinese boxing” as a reference point for readers (the current nomenclature of “martial arts” would not stabilize in English language publications until the 1970s), others underlined the importance of these arms by referring to these fighting systems as “sword dancing” or “Chinese fencing.” Weapons convey a sense of danger, and that can lead in different directions. On the one hand, they inspire a certain amount of respect. The memory of Chinese “Big Sword troops” during the Second World War did enjoy some of this in the West. Yet they also generate an innate fear and sense of revulsion that anyone in the modern world would revel in such primitive and bloody means of violence. This was obviously the dominant response a generation or two prior when the Boxer Uprising was the major cultural signifier of Chinese martial arts in the West.

Thus Chinese martial artists, and journalists wishing to write sympathetic stories about these systems, spent a lot of time explaining this deadly menagerie. These explanations typically broke down into one of two categories. Advocates of “scientific training” noted the ways in which weapons practice built strength and coordination. More culturally minded practitioners discussed them as a heritage project. During the 1930s it had been popular to promote spear and sword training within China as a means to defend the nation, but by the end of WWII that idea had fallen out of favor.

It is thus interesting to note that the journalist who wrote this piece went in a slightly different direction. He humanized his subject by exploring the many connections between the traditional Chinese martial arts and theatrical performance. Researchers like Daniel Mroz, Charles Holcombe and Scott Phillips have all made the same point in our current literature. Martial arts training was often a core aspect of one’s apprenticeship in any traditional opera company. Likewise, practicing martial artists might use their skills to engage in amateur performances, which we often forget was pretty much everyone’s favorite pastime in the Late Imperial period. Before TV, and in a largely illiterate society, people had to make their own fun. Various types of performance were one way that people at all levels of society did that.

This is not to say that the martial arts weren’t also practiced by soldiers, criminal enforcers and security guards.  They certainly were. But despite the protests of modernists attempting to save (or really create) a “pure” version of martial arts in the 1910s-1930s, fighting systems free from the taint of traditional village folk culture, there has always been a lot of cross-over between these realms. This remains one of the main reasons why there is still so much confusion about the goals of much traditional practice today.

The 1951 Pix magazine photo essay goes in another direction, celebrating the links between martial practice and stage performance. The gentleman interviewed (Lao Hu) makes a living teaching opera students and gives a bit of detail on how different roles are performed. I think that this makes sense as there was more popular interest in Chinese theater in the mid twentieth century than there is today.

While reviewing English language propaganda magazines produced by the PRC in the 1950s, I was surprised to discover that almost every issue had not one, but often two, features that would explore some aspect of traditional Chinese performance. In comparison, the martial arts would get a couple of articles a year. This seemed to be an attempt to tap into the same (somewhat elite) cultural enthusiasm that led Maya Deren to feature abstract operatic/martial performance in her groundbreaking 1949 avant guard film “Meditations on Violence”, or Sophia Delza to study theater while living in China at the same time. Her work as an early promoter of Taijiquan in the United States was really something of a side effect of her initial interest in actor and dance training. (However, it should be noted that Delza explicitly rejected the notion that Taijiquan derived from operatic performance, seeing it as an independent form of artistic expression with its own internal logic.)

The notion that Kung Fu could somehow resolve the Judo vs. Karate debates of the early 1960s, tipping the scales in favor of the supremacy of striking arts, really put the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts on a different track. This was somewhat ironic as wrestling was hugely popular in traditional China, probably more so in many places than “boxing.” Still, the emergence of Bruce Lee as a media superstar, and the publication of early books by authors like R. W. Smith, crystalized a different and much more combative image of what the Chinese martial arts should be. That is largely the framework that continues to shape the public imagination of these systems today.  Still, it is interesting to be reminded of the somewhat different discussions that emerged in the 1950s.

Chinese Fencing

PIX, December 29, 1951, 40-41.

Chinese Fencing

Fencing in the Western world is the art of offense and defense with a weapon. In China it is more a specialized form of harmony between mind and body and is generally linked with dancing and acting. European fencers use foils, epees, sabres. Orientals are trained with a great variety of weapons—from hinged sticks to sharpened steel rings with fearsome barbs.

Actors learn swordplay to enact duels, suicides or war dances in traditional plays.  All movements are strictly stylized. Numerous schools teach fencing.

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Sadly, I have not been able to identify “Lao Hu.” Without having the actual characters, I am not even sure if this is really his name. Perhaps “Lao” is being used here in an honorific sense, and sometimes Fu was transcribed as Hu. If anyone has a lead on the identity of the martial artist in these photos (most likely a Bagua instructor in Beijing in the early 1950s) please feel free to drop a hint in the comments below!

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If you enjoyed this photo essay you might also want to read: The Sword Shops of Beijing’s Bow and Arrow Street

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