A fine Chinese straightsword blade, of typical Qing form with a rather wide profile.
87 cm / 34.2 inch
73.2 cm / 28.8 inch
forte 6 mm
middle 5.5 mm
near tip 3.5 mm
forte 29 mm
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Most Chinese swords and sabers are made with a hard high carbon steel edge plate sandwiched between two softer "cheecks" of iron and mild steels. When polishing and etching such a sword, the details of its construction are revealed and often show pretty nice patterns. Yet, usually this construction is strictly utilitarian: the goal is to produce a hard edge that can take and hold a keen edge, the tougher layers preventing the sword from breaking. Although most collectors can appreciate the patterns in these swords, often, no particular effort was made by its smith to enhance it's visual effect. There are some rare exceptions, where the Chinese smith went through considerable lengths to forge a sword that is both functional and showed off their forging skills in the patterns produced.
One of the rarest methods used to this effect is twistcore, or huawengang (花文鋼) in Chinese: "flower patterned steel". To the Manchus, the pattern resembled a series of small birds. They called such sabers: ilha cecikengge loho or "bird pattern saber". In making twist-core, the smith first produces a billet with many layers by repeatedly folding and forging various types of iron and steel. The end result is a billet that is about as long as the final sword is going to be. For four row twistcore the billet is then cut lengthwise in four equal pieces. Each piece is heated and twisted. Once done, the four pieces are welded together again. To reach the desired effect, the surface is ground down until you see the twisted core of these rods, hence the name. The extra labor involved is considerable, where a billet just has an edge inserted in it and is beaten out to the general shape of the sword, and then ground. With twist core, one would stretch the pattern too much if one would beat the billet out after twisting. In an age before power tools, the extensive grinding was another laborious task.
Schematics drawn by Jaap Ypey, a prominent Dutch sword researcher. A-F shows the variation in pattern caused by increased amount of twist of the bar. F-J shows how the pattern comes out after grinding more and more, J is ground to the center of the bar. K shows an alternative pattern if the layers in the initial bar were not flat to begin with.
Twistcore demo piece made by bladesmith Ed Caffrey, showing off the work that goes into creating a relatively simple twistcore patterned blade.
Presented here is a very interesting saber from the height of the Qing dynasty's power: the Qianlong reign. It is probably a one-off piece commissioned by a connoisseur of swords. It combines a number of very rare features: The blade exhibits on the left side a forging pattern typically found on Tibetan swords, and on the right side excellently executed twist-core. It is hilted in a style that was common in the Ming, but with typical 18th century Chinese decor. It comes in a newly made wooden resting scabbard.
The long blade of early liuyedao form with gentle curvature for the most part, and accelerated curvature at the tip section. The blade is of qiangang construction, with a high carbon edge inserted between two plates of milder steels. The left side shows a linear lamellar pattern that strongly reminds of the hairpin forging seen on swords from the Tibetan cultural sphere that were found not only in Tibet but also in Bhutan, Sikkim, and into Sichuan which was the Qing empire's western frontier at the time. It is characterized by the light "male steel" with three bands of darker and softer "female steel". The amount of slag seen in the steel suggest that not only did the smith emulate Tibetan forging methods, the steel might very well have come from the Tibetan region. The right side shows a very refined steel with no slag whatsoever, indicating that whoever made it also had access to some of the best steel in the empire. The execution of the twist-core is exceptional in how delicate and even the "flowers" are. The smith's incredible level of skill is further demonstrated at the back of the blade, where the twist core meets the Tibetan steel with great precision. Blade is without nicks and cracks, even contours throughout, some pitting remaining near the tip.
We can only guess as to how and why these two very different methods of forging were combined. Was the Tibetan part imported, or manufactured locally? The Qing army waged their biggest and most expensive wars during the First and Second Jinchuan campaigns of 1747–1749 and 1771 – 1776, respectively. Tibetan style swords were taken back from there as war trophies, some of them published in Palace Museum publications. It is conceivable that the Tibetan side may have been re-forged from a battlefield trophy, or otherwise came from trade or travel from the Qing's western frontier around this time of military activity in the area.
The demarcation between the twistcore and Tibetan steel as seen at the back. Note how incredibly straight and even the line is.
The hilt is of rather rare Ming form that we mostly know from Ming woodblocks. It has a downward curving grip with a rounded pommel cap that is almost flush with the handle. Only a few antique examples have survived, most of them seem to be dating from the early to mid Qing, indicating the style was preserved in some circles up to the height of the Qing. All fittings are decorated with motiffs inspired by archaic Chinese bronzes. The beautiful guard shows on each side a pair of phoenixes on the top side and a pair of mythical kui dragons below them. The other fittings are en-suite, with similar motifs. The popularity of such designs peaked in the 18th century under the Qianlong emperor who was an avid collector of archaic bronzes and had their stylistic motifs re-incorporated in many newly made items, including weapons. The ray-skin on the handle was renewed, all fittings and the handle wood are original.
An extremely rare Chinese twist core saber featuring two distinct forging methods, combined with one of the Qing's rarest hilt styles. A one of a kind saber, probably commissioned by a connoisseur who was of considerable means.
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A rather well-made example of its type.
Used to move imperial orders from the emperor’s quarters to the recipient.
Made of heavy silk with gilt copper alloy mounts.
With finer forge folded blade than most of its type.
With elaborately pierced and chased silver scabbard.