Chinese long sabers of the Qing dynasty | Peter Dekker's Mandarin Mansion: Antique Arms & Armor

Chinese long sabers of the Qing dynasty

      ...and an alternative theory on the origins of the miaodao.

by Peter Dekker

In the late Ming dynasty, Chinese coasts were raided by Japanese pirates -mockingly called 倭寇 wokou or "Dwarf Bandits" by their Chinese adversaries- who were using their long sabers, nodachi, to great effect. They consisted of Chinese sailors, fishermen and masterless Japanese samurai, or ronin. Apart from the fact that that they operated from ships and coastal settlements, they were not so much pirates as we commonly know them. The wokou had vast armies, sometimes taking the field with over 10.000 men, raiding coastal areas and penetrating deeply inland on occasion.

Some "Dwarf Bandits" and their long sabers.

The problem became so pressing that the Ming sent out notable generals Qi Jiguang, Yu Dayou and Tan Lun to fight them. Qi Jiguang noticed the quality and effectiveness of the large Japanese sabers. Not that the Chinese had never used long two handed swords before, but by Qi Jiguang's time they had fell out of use. He ordered his craftsmen to copy these long sabers for use in his own army, and ordered them to take special note of the Japanese ridged blade geometry and sharpness of their edges. Through the use of these weapons, combined with Qi Jiguang's innovative formation tactics they managed to suppress the "Dwarf Bandits". After this, the long saber was to stay in the repertoire of Chinese martial arts up until today.

Pages of the Dan Dao Fa Xuan by Cheng Zongyou.

The Ming Chinese long saber: dandao
In the Ming, such long sabers were simply referred to as 單刀 dandao or "single saber". The name refers to the fact that at the time, sabers were normally either used in pairs, in combination with a shield. This newly introduced saber was so large that it required both hands to wield it, thus leaving out the possibility to use anything else with it. Hence, when it entered the Ming military it became known as "single saber" to differentiate it from the other saber systems. Later, also single short saber methods became known as dan dao, such as in Naer Jing-e's 1843 "illustrated manual for the mastery of military techniques".

The Ming produced various writings about the long saber, including Cheng Zongyou's 單刀法選 Dan Dao Fa Xuan. Jack Chen wrote an excellent translation Ancient Art of Chinese Long Saber after which interest in these Chinese long sabers piqued once again in our time. And so have discussions about sizes and typology of Chinese long sabers practiced in various schools. With this current article I wish to shed some light on the long saber typology as it came down to us from Qing dynasty regulations.

Long sabers of the Green Standard Army
When the Manchus took over China in 1644, they left a large part of the old Ming military intact. This massive army consisting of mostly Han Chinese soldiers was known as the Green Standard Army, and it consisted of en estimated 700.000 men in the 18th century. Their weapons and tactics were a remnant of the teachings of Qi Jiguang, Cheng Zongyou, Yu Dayou, and others. The 皇朝禮器圖式 (Huangchao Liqi Tushi) of 1766, based on a 1759 manuscript, lists a number of these long swords under their official names. Here is an overview:

A visual overview of the Green Standard Army long sabers of the 1766 edition of the Huangchao Liqi Tushi.
Click to enlarge.

The Huangchao Liqi Tushi

For the true purist, here are the original pages of the 1766 皇朝禮器圖式 (Huangchao Liqi Tushi) with my annotated translations below. This was a set of court regulations on various matter, including dress, musical instruments and banners for official assemblies, but also lots of weapons. Regulations seemed to have been closely followed in the capital and its direct surroundings, but to a lesser extent in the provinces. Also, styles and materials changed over time. Where most of these were fitted in iron fittings, the trend went towards brass fittings nearing the end of the Qianlong reign.

A note on sizes
I base the size conversions not on the commonly held standard of 1 chi equals 32 cm. This is because Qing measurements are not as standardized as many might assume. Every profession and even different guilds within a profession had different standards of how long a chi was. I have a collection of old Qing rules, all one chi long, that vary as much as 6cm per ruler. I came to a conversion of 1 chi equals roughly 35 cm by reworking the Qing armorer's chi from extant examples of equipment from the Palace Museum in Beijing that were made exactly according to spec.

Green Standard Army Zhanmadao

"Horse cutter"

According to: Wang Yinglin’s JADE OCEAN:1
“In the 5th year of Xining the workshops made zhanmadao that were about 3 chi long and that had ring pommels. When the tortoise pattern stands out on its surface, it indicates excellent manufacture. It is easy to use in parrying, it is a good tool for war.2

The regulations of our dynasty:
Made of forged iron [as to produce steel], it is shaped like a peidao.
Overall 4 chi 8 cun long. (Approx. 168 cm / 66 inch)
The blade is 3 chi 4 cun. It is 1 cun 5 fen wide.
It has an iron disc guard that is 2 fen thick.
The handle is 1 chi 3 cun 8 fen and made of wood, wrapped with red and yellow leather.
It has an iron pommel and a blue lanyard.
Scabbard 3 chi 5 cun, wooden handle wrapped with leather, lacquered vermillion. Iron fittings.

1Compiled in 1252 as a manual for preparing for the great state examinations. It was published in 1337.
2The 5th year of Xining corresponds to the year 1073, at the time of the Northern Song dynasty. The Song military was in constant war with the mounted Jurchen armies of the Jin dynasty, creating the necessity for specific anti-horse weaponry. The Jurchen were the ancestors of the Manchu, rulers of the Qing dynasty. Special thanks to Justin Ma for his valuable help in translating the archaic language of the Song passage.

Green Standard Army Changren Dadao

"Long Edged Great Saber"

“Long sabers: The style of the Japanese is stepping. Their blades are 5 chi long."

The regulations of our dynasty:
Made of forged iron [as to produce steel].
Overall 5 chi 1 cun long. (Approx. 178.5 cm / 70 inch)
The blade is 3 chi 3 cun. It is 1 cun 5 fen wide.
The handle is 1 chi 8 cun long
Scabbard is 3 chi 4 cun long and lacquered with urushi.
The rest is like the zhanmadao.

Green Standard Army Shuangshou Daidao

"Double Hand Carried Saber"

The regulations of our dynasty:
Made of forged iron [as to produce steel], it is shaped like a zhanmadao but a little shorter.
Overall 4 chi 2 cun and 2 fen long. (Approx. 148 cm / 58 inch)
The blade is 2 chi 7 cun long and 1,5 cun wide. It has an iron disc guard that is 2 fen thick.
The handle is 1 chi 5 cun long and made of wood. It has a braided wrap with red and blue cord.
Iron pommel.1
The scabbard is 2 chi 8 cun long, made of wood and covered with green leather. It has iron fittings.

1 Even though no lanyard is mentioned, it is depicted with one.

Green Standard Army Beidao

"Back Saber"

The regulations of our dynasty:
Made of forged iron [as to produce steel], it is shaped like a zhanmadao but shorter.
Overall 3 chi 2 cun and 2 fen long. (Approx. 113 cm / 44.5 inch)
The blade is 2 chi 3 cun long and 1,3 cun wide.
It has an iron disc guard that is 2 fen thick.
The handle is 8 cun long and made of wood. It has a braided wrap with green cord.
Iron pommel, blue lanyard.
The scabbard is 2 chi 4 cun long, made of wood and lacquered vermillion. It has iron fittings.

Green Standard Army Wodao

"Bandit Lair Saber"

According to:
“Japanese swords: The ones they use can be summarized as being quite alike, short and heavy.”

“Japanese swords, bamboo sectioned whips, they are the same.”1

The regulations of our dynasty:
Made of forged iron [as to produce steel], it is shaped like a peidao.
Overall 3 chi 4 cun and 2 fen long. (Approx. 120 cm / 47 inch)2
The blade is 2 chi 6 cun. It is 1 cun wide.
It has an iron disc guard that is 2 fen thick.
The handle is 8 cun and made of wood. It is either wrapped with rattan or in braided wrap with [strips of] leather, lacquered green. Iron pommel. It has a blue lanyard.
The scabbard is 2 chi 7 cun long, made of wood that is covered with green leather. It has iron fittings.

1A bamboo-sectioned whip is a very heavy striking weapon. Cheng Zong You is referring to the heavy striking power of the Japanese sword here.
2This is about the size of the sword described in Cheng Zong You's manual.

Where is the miaodao?

Today, the most famous of large Chinese sabers is undoubtedly the miaodao, 苗刀 in Chinese or literally: "sprout saber". It is taught in various systems of Chinese martial arts, but yet doesn't turn up in any official list of sabers of the Qing. There is a persistent myth that the miaodao would have been taught at the Central Military Academy of Nanjing, yet there is no mention of it in any of their curricula. It was not even practiced in the Nanjing Central Martial Arts Academy.1 In fact, there is no historical record of any kind that mentions the miaodao! One of the following explanations can be brought forth:

1. The name is relatively new
2. It was an unofficial term for one of the standard long sabers
3. It is a different saber altogether that was not used in the military

However murky the history of the miaodao, when going by descriptions from oral traditions it seems to be about as long and narrow as a Green Standard Army Wodao. Wodao literally means "Bandit-lair saber" and at the same time the name is a pun for "Japanese saber". Both are humorous references to the defeat of the Japanese pirates in the late Ming dynasty by great generals such as Qi Jiguang. I am going to make an educated guess that after the Second Sino-Japanese war, with atrocities such as the massacre of Nanjing, this term lost its humor and anything related to the Japanese now had bad connotations.

Chinese martial artists may have renamed the wodao into the purely descriptive and not politically laden miaodao, or "sprout saber" somewhere during the course of the 20th century. A gentle, narrow sprout of green grass: New life. Pure. It would effectively rid the weapon -that by now had been in use by Chinese troops for well over three centuries- of any negative connotations and thus give it a new lease on life in the broad spectrum of traditional Chinese martial arts.

Update, october 1st, 2016
It has come to my attention that there is mention of a miaodao, in the book "Single Defense Saber" (單戒刀) by Jin Yiming (金一明). Published by 新亞書店印行, New Asia Press, Oct, 1932. (A translation is available here. He explains the wodao as a large miaodao for two handed use, confirming what I thought: They are one and the same.

He also describes a miaodao, which today we describe primarily as a liuyedao. The term miaodao thus seems to have been in use before the Japanese occupation, but to describe a certain blade style, regardless of its length.

1See Dennis Rovere, THE XINGYI OF THE CHINESE ARMY. Berkeley CA, 2008. Page 104. It is a translation of Huang Bo Nien's Xingyi fist and weapon instruction. Dennis Rovere is the only non-Chinese to have studied at the Central Military Academy of Nanjing.

An antique miaodao sold at Mandarin Mansion.

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