Chinese swords have fascinated people around the world for thousands of years. Legendary blades and their masters appear in countless Chinese folk tales.
Plus, the plethora of archaeological finds never robs us of real evidence that these Chinese weapons were used in some of history’s most epic scenes.
In this article, we will learn what Chinese Swords are and the history of the swords.
- 1 Jian vs Dao
- 2 Bronze Age: Shang Dynasty (C. 1200 BC–c. 1046 BC) to Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 BC)
- 3 Warring States Period (475–221 BC)
- 4 Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC)
- 5 Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)
- 6 Three Kingdoms (184/220–280)
- 7 Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589)
- 8 Tang Dynasty (618–907)
- 9 Song Dynasty (960–1279)
- 10 Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)
- 11 Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
- 12 Types of Dao Swords
- 13 Types of Jian Swords
- 14 FAQs
- 15 Conclusion
Jian vs Dao
All traditional Chinese swords can be divided into two main types: Jian (劍) and Dao (刀). The Jian is a straight sword, while the Dao is a single-edged and mostly curved sword produced since the Song Dynasty. The term “Jian” was sometimes translated as “long sword” and “tao” as “saber” or “knife”.
Bronze jian appeared in the middle of the third century BC. These swords began to be forged from iron and became around the late Warring States Period. Apart from specialized weapons such as the “Divided dao”, Chinese swords are usually 70–110 cm long, although longer specimens are sometimes found.
Outside China, 3rd to 6th centuries AD Chinese swords were used. In Japan (later, from the middle Heian era), Chinese swords were gradually replaced by local Japanese Nihonto or Korean variants.
Bronze Age: Shang Dynasty (C. 1200 BC–c. 1046 BC) to Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 BC)
One of the first finds are knives found in the tomb of Fu Hao, dated c. 1200 BC. Bronze jian appeared during Western Zhou (the first half of the Zhou Dynasty). The blades were from 28 to 46 cm long. This short stabbing weapon was used as a last resort when all other defensive means were not available.
Qing Dynasty Bronze Jiang by the end of the Spring and Autumn period, the length of the jian increased to 56 cm. At that time, at least some Chinese soldiers, due to greater convenience in battle, used jian rather than daggers. Steel began to be produced in China in the 6th century BC, but iron and steel weapons on a large scale began to be made later. By 500 B.C. the “Sword-shield” combination began to be preferred by warriors more than the “Spear-dagger” or “Spear-axe” combinations.
Warring States Period (475–221 BC)
Swords made of iron and steel, 80 to 100 cm long, appeared in the kingdoms of Chu, Han, and Yan in the mid-Warring States period. Most weapons were still made of bronze, however, iron and steel weapons were already being produced in increasing numbers. By the end of the 3rd century BC, the Chinese had learned to produce hardened steel swords, and from that time on, bronze weapons completely fell into disuse.
The ancient Chinese text Zhan Guo Ce (Strategies of the Warring States) states that the Han kingdom produced the best weapons that could penetrate the strongest armor, shields, leather boots, and helmets.
Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC)
Sword dancing became popular soon after the end of the Qin Dynasty. Around the same time, swords up to 110 cm long appeared.
Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD)
Jian was listed among the “five weapons” in the Han Dynasty, the other four being the dao, spear, halberd, and staff. Another version of the “five weapons” also includes a bow and crossbow (as a weapon), jian and dao (as a weapon), as well as a halberd, shield, and armor.
The jian was a popular weapon during the Han Dynasty when a class of swordsmen who made a living from the art of fencing emerged. Sword fencing was also a popular pastime for aristocrats. It is known that there was a group of noble people, consisting of 37 people, known as the “Way of Jian”. According to the evidence of those times, the best swordsmen were in South and Central China.
There was a sword called “Jian decapitates the horse”, this weapon was so named because it could decapitate a horse. However, another source claims that it was not a military weapon, but an execution tool used on special occasions.
The ring pommel dao became widespread in the Han era, primarily as a weapon for cavalry. The main advantage of the dao was that it was a single-edged weapon, so the back of the blade could be widened and made thicker for strength. This design feature makes the dao a more reliable sword for combat. Combined with the shield, the increasingly popular dao practically replaces the jian. It is mentioned that after the Han Dynasty, sword dancing began to be performed using dao rather than jian. Archaeological specimens range from 86 to 114 cm in length.
Three Kingdoms (184/220–280)
Swords of unique sizes are mentioned at this time. There is evidence that someone named Chen An wielded a sword over two meters long. Sun Quan’s wife had over a hundred women armed with dao under her command. By the end of the Three Kingdoms era, the dao had completely supplanted the jian as the main melee weapon. The lighter and less durable double-edged jian was mainly used by court dancers, officials, and experienced warriors.
Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589)
In the 6th century, craftsmen from the Northern Qi (the dynasty that ruled northern China) provided Kim Hui Wen with a special “fusing” steelmaking process, in which metal with different carbon contents was used to make steel. Based on the evidence, dao made by this method were able to pierce 30 lamellar plates.
Huaiwen made sabers from “Midnight iron”. His method was to anneal powdered iron with layers of soft (iron) billets (presumably thin plates). A few days later, the result was carbon steel. Soft iron was used for the back of the saber.
Huaiwen washed it in the urine of five sacrificial animals and hardened it in the fat of five sacrificial animals. A saber made of such steel could pierce thirty lamellas of armor. The “Night soft blanks” cast today (during the Sui period) by Xiangguo metallurgists represent a relic of the technique (Kimu Hui-wen). The sabers that are made with this technique are still extremely sharp, but they cannot cut through thirty lamellar plates.
Tang Dynasty (618–907)
During the Tang Dynasty, dao was divided into four categories. These were: ceremonial dao, protective dao, cross dao, and separate dao.
- Ceremonial dao was the equipment of the courtiers and was usually decorated with gold and silver. These weapons were also known as “Imperial swords”.
- Protective dao did not have any special specifics, in general, their name itself describes them.
- Cross dao was mostly worn on the belt, hence its old name – “Belt dao”. These swords were often used by crossbowmen as a secondary weapon.
- Separate dao, also called the “Long dao”, was a cross between an ancient sword and a saber. This type of weapon consisted of a 91 cm blade attached to a long 120 cm handle ending in an iron knob.
Exceptionally large specimens with a total length of up to 3 meters and a weight of up to 10 kg were also mentioned. Separate dao was used by the elite vanguard forces of the Tang era for the first attack.
Song Dynasty (960–1279)
Some warriors during the late Song Dynasty used dao to fight effectively in confined spaces. According to “Xu Zizhi Tongjian Changbian”, written in 1183, “Horse butchering dao” (Zhangmadao) is a two-handed saber (or sword) with a 93.6 cm blade, a 31 cm hilt. 2 cm and the holder of the ring.
Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368)
During the Yuan Dynasty, the jian was revived and warriors began to use it frequently again.
Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)
Tao continues to serve as the primary melee weapon. During the Ming Dynasty, the jian again fell out of favor, but this sword was still used by a limited number of specialists. Otherwise, this sword is gaining fame for its quality and acts as a marker of scientific sophistication.
The “Dao of Horse Beheading” was described in Ming Dynasty sources as a 96 cm blade attached to a 128 cm handle. This weapon resembles a sword. The Swede Frederick Coyett is said to have referred to this weapon when describing how Zheng Chenggong’s soldiers wield a formidable battle sword, fixed with both hands to a staff half the height of a man.”
Types of Dao Swords
- Butterfly swords. Butterfly swords (butterfly knives) are weapons originally from southern China, although they were also used in the north. The butterfly swords were a short dao that became popular in the early 19th century. Usually used in pairs and have a short dao (single-edged blade), the length of butterfly swords is approximately equal to the length of the forearm. This makes it easy to hide this weapon in sleeves or boots. In addition, the small size allows for greater agility in spins and greater effectiveness in close-quarters combat. Martial artists usually used a pair of butterfly swords.
- Changdao. Changdao (long knife) was a type of cavalry sword used in China during the Ming Dynasty. Sometimes also called a “Miao dao” (similar but newer weapon), the blade is very similar in shape to the Japanese odachi.
- Dadao. Dadao (“big knife”), one of the varieties of dao or Chinese saber, is also known as the “Chinese big sword”. The design is based on early agricultural knives. Dadao has wide blades, usually 60 – 90 cm long, long handles, designed for use with one or two hands, and, as a rule, the balance in these swords is shifted towards the blade.
- Jian. The jian is a double-edged straight sword that has been used in China for the past 2500 years. The first Chinese sources that mention jian date back to the 7th century BC, during the “Spring and Autumn” period (771 to 476 BC), one of the earliest examples was the Goujian sword.Historic one-handed versions have blades ranging from 45 to 80 centimeters long. The weight of an average sword with a blade length of 70 centimeters will be in the range of approximately 700 to 900 grams. There are also large two-handed versions used for training in many Chinese martial arts styles. In Chinese folklore, the jian is known as the “gentleman’s weapon” and is considered one of the four main weapons, along with the pole (staff), qiang (spear), and dao (saber).
- Liuyedao. Liuyedao, or “willow leaf saber”, is a type of dao. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, this sword was commonly used by infantry and cavalry as an offensive weapon. This weapon has a moderate curve along the entire length of the blade. This worsens the effectiveness of piercing blows but increases the power of chopping and cutting.
- Miao dao (Republican era). Miao dao is a Chinese two-handed dao or saber of the Republican era, with a narrow blade of 1.2 m or more in length and a long hilt. The name means “sprout of the saber”, apparently referring to the resemblance between the weapon and the newly sprouted plant. Although the term “Miao dao” is relatively recent, the name has been applied to many early Chinese long sabers, such as the zhanmadao and changdao. Along with the dadao, the Miao Dao was used by some Chinese troops during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
- Nandao. Nandao is a type of sword currently used mainly in modern wushu exercises and techniques. This is the southern version of the “northern broadsword”, or Beidao. Its blade bears some resemblance to the butterfly sword, also a one-handed weapon in southern China. The main difference is in size, and also in the fact that butterfly swords are always used in pairs.
- Shuangou. The shuangou is an exotic Chinese weapon traditionally associated with northern styles of Chinese martial arts but is now often practiced in southern styles as well.
- Niuweidao (Later Qing Dynasty). A type of Chinese saber (dao) from the late Qing Dynasty. It was primarily a civilian weapon since imperial troops were never equipped with such swords.
- Piandao. A type of Chinese saber (dao) was used during the late Ming Dynasty. A deeply curved dao designed for cutting and slashing, various examples resembled shamshirs or scimitars. A rather unusual weapon, often used by marksmen in combination with a shield.
- Wodao. Wodao – “sword of the wa” (people of Japan) – Chinese sword has been made since the Ming dynasty, presumably influenced by the design of the Japanese sword. Wodao is very similar in shape to Tachi or Odachi. On the surviving specimens, the handle is about 25.5 cm long, and the length of the gently curved blade is usually about 80 cm.
- Yanmaodao (Qing and Ming dynasties). Yanmaodao, or goose feather sword, is a type of dao. These sabers were produced in large numbers as standard military weapons from the end of the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. The yanmaodao resembles the earlier zhibei dao.The yanmaodao blade is mostly straight, with a curve starting from the center and ending at the point. This allows you to strike and use some of the working techniques as in the case of jian while retaining most of the strengths of the dao (in terms of throwing effective cuts and cuts).
- Zhanmadao. Zhanmadao (Han Dynasty) – “horse-cutting saber” is a long sword with a single-edged blade and a long handle, suitable for two-handed use. The first mention of the production of zhanmadao dates back to 1072. This type of weapon was used against cavalry. With the help of zhanmadao, they mainly attacked the horsemen of the riders, striking at their legs. Compared to Japanese swords, zhangmadao most closely resembles nagamaki.
Types of Jian Swords
Because historically the jian was used as the primary sword on the battlefield in China for much less time, their forms changed much less than those of the tao. Materials have varied in length and weight over time and are commonly used in many different martial arts disciplines. For this reason, specific jian names are often associated with the martial art for which they are used, such as kungwu jian, xuanmen jian, and perhaps most famously, tai chi jian.
- Longquan Sword
The Longquan Sword was the first iron sword in Chinese history, forged by Master Ou Yezi 2,600 years ago. Before that, all swords were bronze swords. By collecting minerals from the water of a nearby river, he increased the strength and durability of the blade. Longquan swords soon became the basis for other blacksmiths throughout China.
- Tai chi sword
The tai chi sword (“tai chi jian”) is one of the most widely known weapons in China, it is used as a Chinese martial arts sword and rarely used in combat. Its use in its style of martial art, Tai Chi Chuan, is believed to have originated during the early Qing Dynasty.
- Hook Sword
The origin of the first hook sword dates back to the Qing Dynasty. Hooked swords are very complex in shape, making them unwieldy and thus impractical for large-scale use by the Chinese military.
The hilts are sharpened to the point of a dagger and can be used for close combat. The shields are crescent-shaped and effectively catch and deflect enemy weapons.
What are the Chinese swords called?
Historically, all Chinese swords are divided into two types, the jian, and the dao. Jian is a straight double-edged sword while dao has been single-edged and mostly curved since the Song dynasty. Jian was sometimes translated as a long sword and dao as a saber or knife.
What is a Chinese war sword called?
Jian swords are Chinese straight swords, with a blade length of about a meter, but there are also longer specimens. In the Bronze Age (Western Zhou and the beginning of Chunqiu), the length of the blade usually did not exceed half a meter. The first cast bronze jian appeared in the era of Western Zhou, but they became most widespread in the era of the Warring States, at the same time, part of the jian began to be forged from steel. In the era of the Tang Dynasty, the jian began to give way to the Tao in the troops, and after the fall of this dynasty, the jian swords became a ceremonial weapon. Swords retained this function until the middle of the 20th century.
How many Chinese swords are there?
There are generally five types of swords in Chinese history: Jian, Zhanmadao, Liuyedao, Wodao, and Yanmaodao.
What is the Chinese version of a katana?
Swords have long metal blades used for thrusting or thrusting. These days, they are more commonly found as a wall decoration, as a collectible, or worn as part of a ceremony.
What is the difference between a Chinese sword and a Japanese sword?
The average length of traditional Chinese swords ranged from 27 to 43 inches. In comparison, most traditional Japanese swords were over 50 inches.
After reading the article about the types of Chinese swords, you can distinguish a Chinese sword from a Japanese one.
If you are interested in purchasing them, there are several factors to consider. These include the blade type or appearance, material, how it is made, budget, and more. Naturally, real Chinese swords are rarer and therefore more expensive.
Read also: Blacksmithing tools list: detailed overview