Language: Mandarin Chinese
Source: Classical literature
The qīnglóng yǎnyuèdāo (青龍偃月刀) or "Green Dragon Crescent Blade" is a mythical polearm wielded by general Guan Yu in the 14th-century historical fiction novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms".
According to the novel, it was created after the three heroes Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei swore an oath in the peach garden:
"Yun Chang made the "Green Dragon Crescent Blade", also known as the "Cold Brilliant Saw", weighing 82 jin."1
Yun Chang was the courtesy name of Guan Yu.
By the time the Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written, 82 jin weighed approximately 48 kilos. The Han dynasty conversion was about 18 kilos.
The earliest depiction of Guan Yu with a yǎnyuèdāo currently known to me. It is carried by the man on the left.
Painting by Shāng Xǐ (商喜), imperial court painter of the Ming. First half 15th century.
Hanging scroll, ink on silk. Palace Museum Collection, Beijing.
The validity of the attribution
It is unlikely that the weapon was actually carried by the historical figure Guan Yu. The yǎnyuèdāo (偃月刀) first occurs in the Song dynasty Wujing Zongyao (武經總要), written almost 1000 years after Guan Yu was alive.2
By the time "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" was written, the weapon was already well-established in military use for three centuries so it probably seemed ancient enough for the author.
Guan Yu as a God of War
Guan Yu was deified as early as the Sui dynasty (581 – 618) as a symbol of loyalty and righteousness. He later became canonized as the God of War, and by the Qing dynasty, as many as 200 temples were erected for him alone that were mostly frequented by soldiers.3 Manchu soldier Dzengseo, who campaigned in the 17th century under Kangxi, mentioned in his diary that they burned incense for his image before going out to war.4
By the 16th-century the weapon was so closely associated with Guan Yu that we find it described as guāndāo (關刀), after Guan Yu.5 Most military writings, however, kept to the name yǎnyuèdāo until the late Qing. In martial arts circles, the weapon is still mostly known as guāndāo today.
Historical mention of the weapon as guāndāo (關刀) in the Sì Zhèn Sān Guān Zhì (四鎮三關誌)
Guan's dao in the Purple Cloud Temple?
The Purple Cloud Temple in Wudang has a weapon on display that is being presented as Guan Yu's actual weapon. Another is in the Haizhou Guandi Temple in Shanxi province.
The size and weight, to some, confirm the incredible might of Guan Yu. In reality, visitors are looking at mass-produced Qing dynasty training implements that can be found in museums all over China.
During the Qing dynasty, exceptionally large and yǎnyuèdāo, called wǔkēdāo (武科刀) or "Military Exam Blade" were used for strength training and strength testing.6 In order to pass the exam, each candidate was to perform a simple form with a wǔkēdāo. The standard exam wǔkēdāo was 120 jin or approximately 72 kilos but various other weights were in use for regular training purposes.7
A Qing dynasty soldier holding a wǔkēdāo (武科刀).
London Illustrated News, 1900.
Also see: yǎnyuèdāo
1. Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi (三國志通俗演義) or "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms". Attributed to Luo Guanzhong who lived somewhere between 1315 - 1400. The first official printed edition of the work was in 1522 with a preface date of 1494.
2. Zeng Gongliang (曾公亮), Ding Du (丁度) & Yang Weide (楊惟德); Wujing Zongyao (武經總要) or "Complete Essentials for the Military Classics" written between 1040-1044.
3. Mark C. Elliott; The Manchu Way, Stanford University Press, 2001.
4. Nicola Di Cosmo; The Diary of a Manchu Soldier in Seventeenth-Century China: "My Service in the Army", by Dzengseo, Routledge Studies in the Early History of Asia.
5. Liu Xiaozu; Sì Zhèn Sān Guān Zhì (四鎮三關誌) or “Record of four Towns and three Passes”, published between 1574 - 1576. The author was deputy commander of an important northern strategic outpost along the Great Wall.
6. See among others Huángcháo Lǐqì Túshì (皇朝禮器圖式) or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty", edited by Yun Lu. 1766 woodblock edition based o a 1759 manuscript. Chapter 15. It mentiones both the yǎnyuèdāo and wǔkēdāo.
7. A detailed description of the wǔkēdāo in the examinations can be found in Etienne Zie; Pratique des examens militaires en Chine. Zi. Imprimerie de la Mission catholique, 1896.