A very rare Chinese saber guard dating from the height of the Qing dynasty.
91.5 cm / 36 inch
73.5 cm / 29 inch
forte 7.5 mm
middle 5.5 mm
near tip 4 mm
forte 32 mm
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The ridged and facetted blade shape that is so well known nowadays from Japanese swords actually has its origins in ancient China. It was the common construction on bronzes and iron swords from ancient antiquity, all the way up to the Song dynasty.
When the Song was overthrown by the Mongols, curved sabers -as commonly used by steppe nomads- were introduced and widely adopted in China. Their cross sections were often flat or wedge-shaped, often with features like grooves and (raised) backedges.
The pre-Mongol Chinese shaped blades served as an inspiration for Japanese swordsmiths, on which they based their work up until recent times. It were the Japanese who introduced their typical curvature to this design, which developed independently from the curvature found on Chinese sabers.
After the Song dynasty, the ridged cross-section has seen a series of revivals, borrowed from the Japanese who -living in relative isolation- preserved the design better than the mainland where weapon design was ever evolving as a result of interactions with other cultures through trade and border conflict.
There are Ming records from as early as 1380 that speak of the manufacture of tens of thousands so called wogundao (倭滾刀), the name of which implies they are Japanese styled sabers.1
When in the 16th century general Qi Jiguang was fighting the Japanese pirates he was impressed with the quality and effectiveness of their large two-handed Japanese sabers and ordered his craftsmen to reproduce these.
A possible historical name for the single-handed Chinese sword with ridged cross-section would be woyaodao (倭腰刀), literally: "Japanese styled waist-worn saber".
Nowadays, collectors tend to call these qijiadao or "Qi family sabers" in honor of Qi Jiguang. Even though he was certainly not the first, nor the last, to order Chinese sabers made inspired by the Japanese style. The style was to survive up until at least the 18th century, from which most extant examples seem to date. Qing officers enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in their choice of saber and could commission their weapons as they pleased, as long as they kept within certain regulations regarding size and materials used for the fittings, and the color of their grip wrap.
Portrait of General Qi Jiguang (left) and a page from his saber manual (right).
Various poems indicate that there was a fascination for foreign swords from at least the late Ming dynasty. During this time it was particularly popular to carry swords of the Japanese enemy, or with a likeness to them, by the Ming elite to show their martial prowess.2
There is also a Qing princely saber with an actual Japanese blade in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, accession number: 32.75.301a, b that indicates this practice endured until the high Qing of the 18th century.
1 References to such swords appear in the 欽定續文獻通考 and 明會典. Thanks to 陳兆偉 for pointing these references out to me.
2 For an interesting discourse on late Ming dynasty sword collection, see: Kathleen Ryor: "Wen and Wu in Elite Cultural Practices during the Late Ming" published as part of a series of essays in Military Culture in Imperial China, edited by Nicola Di Cosmo. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Presented here is a large and impressive example of a Chinese saber of Japanese style, its blade dating to the 17th century to the early 18th century. This period covers the late Ming to Qing conquest period, up to the end of the reign of the Kangxi emperor who consolidated Qing rule.
Of good workmanship with precise edges and bevels. Even contours throughout. There are no edge cracks, no areas of excessive polishing. It is tightly forged, with no apparent forging flaws. A few tiny nicks at the tip section of the blade indicate it has seen actual service. Even the tip section is original, and not reground as is often the case on these.
The blade is of what the Japanese call shobu zukuri style, with no kissaki, the line demarcating the transition between blade and tip. This style is believed to date from the Mongol invasions into Japan in the late 14th century. It has its deepest curvature in the center of the blade, known as tori-zori in Japanese.
Its current polish it reveals both the high carbon edge plate exposed from layers of milder iron and steel, as well as the cloudy effect of heat treatment or shuangxue (霜雪) in Chinese, wider known under the Japanese term "hamon" The shuangxue is largely straight and wraps nicely around the tip section.
Like the majority of Chinese sabers, it lost its fittings in the tumults of the Great Leap Forward where countless of swords and sabers were stripped of their furniture in preparation to be molten in backyard steel furnaces. This saber was also stripped but luckily avoided being molten.
It is now mounted in a set of fittings designed by Philip Tom, representing the classic angular style (fangshi) that was the norm in the 17th and most of the 18th century. Philip also manufactured the hilt and scabbard and assembled the piece. Its scabbard is covered with morocco grained green goatskin.
Morocco grained leather was predominantly used before ray-skin got widespread from the late 18th century onwards. The fittings are executed in heavy bronze in a typical early version of fangshi. The grip wrap was done by myself in hand woven and hand braided cotton cord.
In its current configuration, the handle is secured by a peg through a hole in the tang that is meant for the saber's lanyard. This way the blade can be easily removed from its new mountings so that the collector can appreciate the bare blade and the tang can be studied.
An interesting example of a Chinese copy of a Japanese style sword.
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Southern Chinese officer style saber with later inscription H.Hunt 1876.
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