General Qi's saber

Tang swords Part 2

Tang sword fittings

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Heat-treatment Patterns Part 2

Da Dao Part 2

Ridged Cross-Sections

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Question: The Chinese sword versus the Japanese sword, which is superior / inferior or are they equally-matched ???

ANSWER: Please allow me to give you a brief run-down on the technical development of the Chinese sword before I touch on the 64 million dollar question:

In the first thousand years after Christ was born, Chinese swordmaking techniques had steadily and gradually developed. Chinese swords of the Tang Dynasty were popular in Japan among the royalty.

The Nihongi (together with the Kojiki, known as the 2 oldest classical histories in Japan) was complied in AD 720 (Tang Dynasty or the equivalent Japanese "Nara" period) and records a poem* by Empress Suiko (died AD 628):

"My good Soga** ! The sons of Soga !
Were they horses,
they would be the steeds of of Hiuga.
Were they swords,
they would be the good blades of Kure***.

* From the "Nihongi", translator: W.G Aston, Charles E. Tuttle Company 1998

**Soga was a aristocratic clan of Korean decent and was very influential in the Japanese Imperial Court at that time.

***Kure was the Japanese pronunciation for "Wu", one of the 3 states of China during the 3 Kingdoms period (220AD - 280AD). In this case, the Empress used it to denote China.

During this period, Chinese and Korean swordsmiths were invited and recruited to Japan where they taught the native Japanese swordsmiths the respective Chinese swordmaking techniques of:
a) forge-welding / laminated construction
b) repeated forging and folding of sword blanks to enhance the quality of the steel
c) differential heat-treatment using clay
d) ridged cross-sections (consisting of 2 variants known to the Japanese as kiriha-zukuri and shinogi-zukuri)


In the Song, the Chinese military had to engage a couple of tough enemies, namely the Xixia (proto-Tibetans), Khitans, the Jins (proto-Manchus) and the one of the things they did to fight off these threats was to innovate new anti-cavalry weapons, ie new types of polearms and a new type of infantry sword called the zhanmadao (horse-chopping sword). This incident was recorded in the "Official History of the Song Dynasty" under Chapter 150 of the Records (zhi), sub-chapter 11 of the military (bing) section:

"In the 5th year of Xining (1072), the Emperor (Shenzong) showed the (newly-designed) zhanmadao to the Court Offical Cai Ting, who commented on its excellent workmanship and its ease of use. He thereby ordered the sword to be mass-produced in tens of thousands by the Imperial smiths to be presented to his subordinates and men. The handle's length was in excess of one (Chinese) foot, and the blade's length was in excess of 3 feet, and a ring was attached to the end of the handle........."

Under Emperor Shenzong, who had placed a heavy emphasis on weapons manufacture and design, this heavy two-handed sword, the zhanmadao, was devised to be used by the Song's infantry forces to cut through their enemies' heavily-armoured cavalry (armoured horses and riders).

The weapon was perceived as effective in combat, as was recorded in "Official History of the Song Dynasty" under Chapter 143 of the Records (zhi), sub-chapter 4 of the military (bing) section. It continued to be in use during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

However, as the Japanese and Chinese armies had never fought each other during this time, the question of whose sword is superior / inferior / or that both are equally-matched, during this period, remains unanswered, in my personal opinion.


Just 5 years before the Mongols had finally conquered the Southern Song in 1279, Kublai Khan had sent a large naval fleet to conquer Japan in 1274. He had conquered the vast northern part of China by this time and I understand that he had used Northern Chinese and Koreans in this expedition. As the Mongols had a policy of making use of every available resource, they armed their troops with swords forged by smiths from among their subject peoples. It was highly likely that the Japanese sword had come into contact with the Chinese sword in this fight. Ditto for the 2nd invasion in 1281, when the Mongols had the resources of the whole of China at their disposal.

I am unable to find any primary historical sources in Chinese that comments on the quality of the continental swords versus the Japanese swords.

Kokan Nagayama, in the book "The Connoiseur's Book of Japanese Swords", Kodansha International 1997, states on page 21 that the "Japanese warriors had never before encountered such an enemy (the Mongols), who was protected by leather armor and wielded a very stout sword -- clearly superior to theirs -- in a unique style of fighting." He added that certain Japanese swordsmiths started to adopt thinner and simpler temper lines due to their belief that " blades with wide temper lines reaching near to the ridge line look gorgeous, but tend to break."

Unfortunately, Mr Nagayama did not quote the Japanese historical references that he derived his comments on the superiority of the Mongol (ie continental Chinese, Korean and other makes) sword over the Japanese sword.

Other Japanese scholars had also highlighted that certain Japanese swordsmiths of this period, began to make blades with thicker backs and bigger points, as a counter-response to the Mongol threat.


After the Yuan, during the middle Ming (mid 1500s), General Qi Jiguang of the Ming Army had first encountered the large and long Japanese swords used by Japanese pirates raiding the south-eastern coast, and it had impressed and inspired him to make his own copies, later on, as a complement to the shorter single-handed Chinese saber used by his forces.

As a side-note, Chinese swordmaking skills in the northern part of China had also declined for a period. Due to low wages / incompetent administration by the Imperial authorities, certain northern Chinese swordsmiths started making blades with inferior workmanship, prompting General Qi Jiguang to specify and stipulate certain minimum standards with regards to this:

Translation on General Qi Jiguang's essay**** on the short sword:

"The following steps in the manufacturing process of the short sword are necessary:

1) The material of iron used must be forged many times (that is heated, hammered and folded numerous times).
2) The cutting edge must be made from the best steel, free of impurities.
3) The entire part of the blade where the back or ridge of the blade joins the cutting edge must be filed so that they appear seamlessly joined together. This process is necessary to enable the sword to cut well.

The sword smiths of the day had previously made swords in which they had not filed away the excess metal where the ridge joins the edge, resulting in an edge with protruding sides. This would create a sword that cannot cut as deeply as it should.........."

**** From chapter 4 of General Qi's military manual "Ji Xiao Xin Shu" (14 chapter edition published in 1588). General Qi also wrote saying that his reforms in weapons manufacture had succeeded and that the weapons (including swords) were manufactured to specified standards.

It is mostly likely true that the Japanese sword beat the single-handed Chinese saber at the initial period, given the numerous feedback by Ming scholar officials on the superb workmanship and combat effectiveness of Japanese swords used by the pirates. My personal opinion was that it had the several advantages:

1) a stouter cross-section
2) a greater reach due to its longer length.
3) excellent craftmanship

However, as mentioned earlier, the Chinese went on to make their own copies. We know that General Qi had specified strict standards for general sword manufacture, but as few Chinese-made copies of Japanese-style swords have survived from the period of mid-to-late Ming, we may have to suspend our judgement on the quality of these weapons vis-avis their Japanese counterparts until some are found/excavated and evaluated.

With regards to the 2 invasions of Korea by Japan, Stephen Turnbull, the respected author on Samurai warfare and tactics, states on page 247 of his book "The Samurai Sourcebook" Cassell and Co 1998, during the Battle of Byochekwan in 1593 that "the Japanese were victorious (over the Chinese army in this battle) largely owing to the superior quality of their swords." However, he did not specify the Japanese historical references that he drew from.

I am also unable to find any primary historical sources in Chinese that comments on the quality of the continental swords versus the Japanese swords during this war.


In the Qing, which is my favourite period of all, under Emperor Qianlong, Chinese swordmaking went on to attain new and greatly improved levels of development. A document called "Weapons Workmanship Standards" (in 60 chapters), was compiled for Chinese sabers, polearms and other types of weapons, stipulating workmanship standards, quality control, work processes and type and quality of raw materials used.

Take a look at all the Imperial swords made in the Forbidden City forges still extant today and you will know what I mean. The swords and fittings were manufactured to strict standards and quality control.

Under Emperor Qianlong, the Chinese became the pre-eminent military superpower in the region; they defeated and occupied Mongolia, Tibet and Turkestan (present-day Xinjiang), whereas several other countries recognized Chinese dominance ..... resulting in them becoming the largest empire of all in Chinese history, the richest and most populous empire in the world at that time. However, even though Chinese swords were good (in my personal opinion) at this period, their battles were won through superior logistics and organization, plus a good armoury of quality artillery and muskets, using bows, arrows and swords only as complementary supporting arms.

FINALLY, the 64 million dollar question :)
I feel that actually, the best way to find out if the Qing Army under Emperor Qianlong had superior / inferior / equally-matched swords compared to the Japanese was for them to engage Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate's Army in battle. I believe that the best way to see how good the swords were was to see how they perform in combat or in war against each other. There must be blade-to-blade contact. Of course, the outcome of any war depends on many factors, not just on the quality of the weapons.

My opinion is that it remains to be seen whether the Japanese sword was superior to the Chinese sword during this time, as both had not seen battle against each other. My assessment is that should such an encounter occur, one of the most important criteria for the superior sword is one that cuts better / more deeply than the opposing sword and suffers lesser damage when cutting through flesh or armour or against the opponent's sword.

However, there are some scholars or collectors who claim that the Japanese sword is better than the Chinese sword. Period.

They say that the Japanese sword is better because of superior design through the use of:
1) forged and folded steel
2) forge-welded laminated construction
3) differential heat-treatment
4) the curvature of the blade that enhances cutting/slicing while minimizing stress/shock on the blade
5) a diamond-shaped ridged cross-section

My question is this: The Chinese had also made swords with the first 4 characteristics, and there are many Qing period Chinese sabers preserved today that also were made with all the 5 characteristics, including the diamond-shaped ridged cross-section. So, what is this about the superiority in Japanese design??

If they are talking about superior workmanship, then read what Philip Tom, a professional polisher and famous scholar on Chinese swords, has to say:

" Have you ever actually examined a Chinese version of a Japanese-style saber blade? I have handled a number of them over the years, and have restored the polish on a few. They vary somewhat in length, but are fairly similar, with stout shinogi-zukuri cross-sections (author's note -- shinogi-zukuri cross-sections refer to ridged cross-sections).........

The ones that I've polished date from the late 17th into the 18th century (author's note -- early and mid Qing period). Most are sanmei construction -- high carbon edge plate between two "cheeks" of well-forged lamellar steel, and the best one in my collection is of twist-core pattern weld (like the center of a Viking sword or Filipino kalis), with a stacked edge.

All are differentially heat treated, with edge hardness comparable to the range one would expect of something made in Japan. Resilience of the somewhat softer spine is quite good, also (keeping in mind that differentially hardened blades do not have the springlike temper that you come to expect on most European swords). These things compare quite favorably to the various Japanese blades which I've owned and restored. "

It is not my intention through writing this article to denigrate the Japanese sword. It was and is an excellent weapon, in my personal opinion, ranking together with the greatest pattern-welded Celtic/Viking swords, wootz damascus Arab and Indo-Persian sabers, Chinese swords, Indonesian/Malaysian Keris etc.