I always like studying markings on arms because in many cases they help provide context, and when dated they can serve as a "benchmark piece" by which we can date and attribute others as well. General auspicious markings and Republican era sword names aside, most markings are found on military edged weapons, usually in the form of serial numbers and characters denoting a place or unit.
Today such pieces are not too common on the market, which is counter-intuitive when you think about the hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers the Qing had up until its fall in 1912. This is probably because contrary to privately owned pieces, most pieces with serial numbers were probably held in military depots. Those caches of arms that remained in storage after the fall of the Qing were emptied during Mao's Great Leap Forward and all the steel melted in an attempt to produce industrial steel.
As a result, we find most Chinese swords with military markings outside China. These are often pieces taken back during the Qing dynasty.
Qing military arms production
Most marked pieces encountered today are probably attributable to the Green Standard Army and various auxiliary units who usually had their gear produced and provided by the state. Qing regulations of the 18th and 19th century cover this maintenance and production in detail. Sabers, for example, were usually written off and replaced after 40 years.1
Manchu Bannermen in Beijing were initially also supplied by the Board of War, via the Board of Works who handled the actual production. After 1758, most Manchu Bannermen got a payment in silver to buy and maintain their own equipment. This ranged from thirty taels of silver for the ordinary soldier, up to 600 taels for an officer of the imperial guard.2 By comparison, the average total annual wage for a Yangzi delta farm worker was around 2-5 taels, with an extra 8.4 taels worth of rice.3
In the capital, craftsmen attached to the banners made the equipment. At the garrisons across the empire, private craftsmen were hired and paid directly by the bannerman who commissioned the piece.2 Such private purchases tended to be unmarked, at least not with military serial numbers and often showed the personal taste and preference of the person who commissioned it.
1. See Qinding Junqi Zeli (欽定軍器則例) or "Regulations and precedents on military equipment" of the 56th year of the Qianlong reign (1792). It covers schedules of maintenance, repair, and replacement of military equipment. The standard Han soldier's saber was expected to last 40 years before it was replaced. Bannermen were expected to buy their own equipment
2. See: Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way. Stanford University Press, 2001. Page 178.
3. Robert C. Allen, Jean-Pascal Bassino, Debin Ma, Christina Moll-Murata Jan Luiten van Zanden, Wages, prices, and living standards in China, 1738–1925: in comparison with Europe, Japan, and India. Economic History Review, 64, S1, 2011, pages 8–38.
4. See: Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way. Stanford University Press, 2001. Page 441.
Antique Chinese swords with markings
1. Southern Chinese Bannerman saber
漢鑲黃 (Hàn Xiāng Huáng): "Han Bordered Yellow"
勝 (Shēng): "Superior"
The marking indicates that this saber was used by the Hànjūn (漢軍), Chinese Eight Banner forces who were mostly descendants of Han soldiers who joined the Qing during the conquest of China in the 17th-century. Like the Manchu Eight Banners, the Han eight Banners were divided under eight banners each with their own colors. This saber is attributed to the Bordered Yellow banner, one of the upper three banners that were under direct control of the emperor.
The shēng mark can have several meanings, including "superior" but also "able to bear" and "victory". It was most likely a quality proofmark, possibly stamped on the blade after the blade passed a certain test.
2. Chaoyang Saber
二百二十九号: "Number 229"
朝陽營 (Cháoyáng Yíng): "Chaoyang Army"
才 (cái): "Ability" or "talent"
The Chaoyang garrison of the Green Standard Army (綠營) was located along the coast of Chaoyang district in Guangdong, just under Shantou. The garrison is mentioned in several Qianlong and Jiaqing period versions of the Regulations and Precedents of Military Equipment.1
From these texts, we learn that their sabers were provided to them by the state, and were expected to last 40 years until they could be written off. A major repair could be initiated every 20 years, other repairs and maintenance were to be arranged by the soldier himself. Other equipment used by them, like a "strong bow", were to be sourced by the soldiers themselves.
The Chaoyang Ying, somewhat of an elite coastal force, used a wide variety of other weapons, including "fire arrows", cannon, muskets, a great number of pole-arms and various long sabers that were a legacy of Qi Jiguang's time. These included the zhanmadao and wodao. See my article on Chinese long sabers for more information about these weapons.
Despite the general decline of military power of the Qing, the Chaoyang Ying was still a very able force up to the end of the dynasty. In 1907 they defeated a Nationalist force lead by Chen Yongbo which was part of the third uprising of Sun Yat Sen. They liberated nearby Nationalist occupied Shantou and Chaozhou and forced the Nationalist troops them to flee to Hong Kong.2
When I had the saber apart for conservation and restoration I noticed a mark on the tang as well: cai. Chinese hilts were peened over the tang at the pommel end so the user would never get to see the tang. Because of this, a tang marking probably serves only the workshop that made it. It was probably a proof mark that indicated the steel passed a specific test.
1. See Regulations and Precedents on Military Equipment (欽定軍器則例). I consulted the editions of the 56th year of Qianlong (1791), 5th year of Jiaqing (1799) and 19th year of Jiaqing (1815) editions.
2. See Mao Min, Revival Mind (茅民, 复兴记).
3. 17th century Manchu saber
The blade has markings chiseled on both sides of the forte, and on the tang.
Kanahan in Manchu, which in this context probably means “to make use of opportunity” or "to grant fame".
國字五白二十六号: (Guózì # 526) or “Country series number 526".
(It seems like the number was changed at some point. Perhaps from 523 to 526.)
前 (Qián) or "forward".
We find the word kanahan in a Manchu-Chinese dictionary of 1704. Apart from "to make use of opportunity" and "to grant fame", it can be translated as to borrow, or pretense, neither seem to make any sense. Per my current knowledge, the word kanahan does not appear in any later dictionaries.1 On the Chinese marking, guó is written as a shorthand that resembles the modern character but then without the dot next to the 王. I found this character in the Kangxi dictionary of 1716 as a shorthand for 國 but it seemed to have fallen out of use not long after.
The format is that of a typical Qing military marking, but where military marks typically start with a city or province the "country series" (國字) encountered here probably refers to the main imperial forces from the capital Eight Banners.
Looking at the markings it is also interesting to see how coarse and almost child-like the Chinese characters are in comparison to the Manchu. This may reflect a time when bannermen were probably still better versed in Manchu than Chinese, something that was about to change drastically over the course of the next century.
The qián marking on the tang simply means "forward" and it is not a common character in names or quality indications. The first thing that comes to mind is the Manchu Vanguard, or qianfeng (前鋒). It is possible that the workshop was finishing a batch of sabers for this unit and had the tangs marked for that purpose.
1. See: Tongwen Guanghui Quanshu (同文廣彚全書) or "Enlarged and complete dictionary", a
Qing imperial dictionary in Chinese and Manchu of 1702, of which each entry was double-checked and approved by the Kangxi emperor himself.
4. Southern Chinese shield sword
廣字一百三十八号: (Guǎngzì #138) or "Guang series number 138"
同治三年: (Tóngzhì 3 nián) or "3rd year of Tongzhi"
Guǎngzì number 138 is a serial number that probably refers to either Guangdong province or Guangzhou city, the style of the weapon is also consistent with what we expect to find in that region. Alternatively, guǎng can also mean "broad" or "wide" and this particular piece happens to be a broader variety of a common southern weapon.
The 3rd year of the reign of Emperor Tongzhi corresponds to 1863-1864 depending on the exact date.