Chinese Swords: Legend and History
The sword of China has a legendary past and fascinating history worthy of true archeological study. The Dao, or the single-edged cutting sword, is purported to be the invention of Sui Renshi, the mythical San Huang emperor who made it by melting pure gold. Chinese swords were either male or female (xiong or ci); names were given to them; and many supposedly had magical powers with the ability to utter sound or illuminate the dark. The double-edged straight sword, or Jian, also had mythical origins , being made of gold with supernatural powers of frightening evil spirits or morphing into animal form.
From an archeological perspective, The Shang Dynasty (c. 1700-c.1100 BC) achieved the mastery of bronze and dominated northern china until they were overthrown by the Zhou. The warfare of this period was undertaken with the bow and arrow, and dagger-axes of bronze known as ge for hand-to-hand combat. Later in the Shang period, the bronze knife made its debut with an animal-headed pommel or ring pommel, which eventually developed into the ring-pommeled sword.
The earliest Chinese swords were of the Jian type, cast in bronze with short, leaf-shaped blades of about 14 inches. With the increasing development of the cavalry in Chinese warfare in the sixth century, the sword itself developed and improved with hollow hilts, longer blades and strengthened tangs. By the fourth and third century, a fully developed Jian of bronze had been used, with ornate gilding and inscriptions of ancestral heritage. The bishou (hand dagger) developed concurrently, and and was used with simpler versions of the Jian, and the single-edged xiao or ring-pommeled dagger.
Iron and steel soon made their way into Chinese sword design, as evidenced by the steel Jian from the Han Empire (207 BC - AD 9), which boasted carved wooden fittings, lacquered bamboo scabbards and Jade ornamentation. By the late Tang or early Song period, the first Dao developed to be the most common sword used by the Chinese military, especially the cavalry. The Ming and Ching Dynasties, the dao was thought of as any cutting weapon, and took the form of halberds and staff weapons with curved cutting blades. But most surviving Chinese swords and weapons come from the later Qing period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Here we have gorgeous extant examples of jeweled Jians made for the Imperial Court, and many dao made for Manchu officials. The majority of modern quality creations are based on these historic examples.