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 wokou "dwarf bandits" and their long swords

Some "Dwarf Bandits" and their long sabers.


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.


Pages of the Dan Dao Fa Xuan by Cheng Zongyou.

Pages of the Dan Dao Fa Xuan by Cheng Zongyou.


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 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:



The Huangchao Liqi Tushi

The Huangchao Liqi Tushi or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty" is a set of court regulations on various matters, including dress, musical instruments, and banners for official assemblies, but also lots of weapons for the various Qing military divisions. These regulations provide an excellent overview of what types of long sabers were in use in the Green Standard Army at the height of the Qing dynasty's power. Here are the original pages of this work that formed the basis of my visualization above. Under each page are my annotated translations.

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 rulers, 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 dozens of extant examples of equipment from the Palace Museum in Beijing that were made exactly according to the specs listed in this work.


1. Green Standard Army Zhanmadao
"Horse cutter"

Zhanmadao in the Huangchao Liqi Tushi

"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.


2. Green Standard Army Changren Dadao
"Long Edged Great Saber"


HCLQTS Changren Dadao


“Long sabers: The Japanese slaves manufacture them very sharp. 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."


3. Green Standard Army Shuangshou Daidao
"Double Hand Carried Saber"


Green Standard Army Shuangshou Daidao


"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.


4. Green Standard Army Beidao
"Back Saber"


Green Standard Army Beidao


"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."


5. Green Standard Army Wodao
"Bandit Lair Saber"


Green Standard Army Wodao


"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 crossbowman's long saber described in Cheng Zong You's manual.


Addendum: 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 WodaoWodao literally means "Bandit-lair saber" and at the same time the name is a pun for "Japanese saber". Both are entertaining 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 very 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). Here the author explains the wodao as a large miaodao for two handed use, confirming what I thought: They are one and the same.

The text further 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 was originally used to describe a certain narrow blade style, regardless of its length.2

1. See 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.
2. Published by 新亞書店印行, New Asia Press, Oct, 1932. (An excellent translation by Paul Brennan is available here.)

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Description A rather unusual Vi


An exceptionally large example with a desirable three fullered blade.


A very rare Chinese saber guard dating from the height of the Qing dynasty.


With markings attributing it to the Tongzhou incident and a Japanese surrender tag.


Of classic shape, with a leaf-shaped blade on a socket, connected by a cast bronze base.


Collected by a Russian prince from the hill peoples of central Vietnam in 1892.