The Crossguard #6: Chinese Swords

This is the sixth post on my article series on the development of hand protection in sword fights. The articles so far:

The first three articles already suggest that the regional available resources was one factor in the design of weapons (which is easily understandable), number four gives an overview on steel and sword production, which helps to understand the reasoning and this article here.

After we done the basics, we could look at the several “regions” to find out, why the swords produced there had no straight crossbar or elaborated hilts like the prominent European swords had. I will not be able to look at every region of the world, but I will try my best. For the “regions” I used the common public name, which is scientifically wrong especially if we look into the past. It would probably not suit a member of the Yuan dynasty to be called Chinese. And it would not suit a member of the Batavi tribe to be called Roman, even though they had filled the ranks of the Claudio Auxilia. But it suits the reader, as it helps to general localize the content of the article. And this is the only reason, why I did so.

This is the second regional article, the first was on Roman swords. This article looks into Chinese swords.


The information on Chinese history an outsider gets is quite difficult to interprete. Fake artefacts and documents (especially regarding the history of ownership) are well known in Europe, but in China the amount of fakes ranges beyond imaginations (see articles on the Lucheng Museum with estimated 5000 fake artefacts). The art of Yahui (bribery with art and antiques as gifts) created an industry of fakes, that was already a problem in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Jiajing Emperor confiscated all properties of Prime minister Yan Song (1480-1567) and his son Yan Shifan (1513-1565) consisting over 6000 pieces of invaluable calligraphy and paintings mostly being bribes. Elegant bribery holds the excuse to say that the item is fake and of little value (if caught on corruption), even if the item is no fake at all. It is extremely difficult to tell fakes from real artefacts due this history of bribery. Additionally, documented history and artefacts suffered greatly from the “Destruction of Four Olds” campaign (po si jiu, 破四旧) 1966 during the Cultural Revolution. To destroy old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits (jiu sixiang, jiu wenhua, jiu fengsujiu xiguan 旧思想、旧文化、旧风俗、旧习惯) thousands of artefacts and documents had been looted and burned. In this article I collected and structured the data I could gather and verified as plausible. Furthermore, I added obvious fakes, that are nevertheless sold (or had been sold) by auction houses as certified original objects.

Early Iron Swords

Because of the problems mentioned above, the Chinese history before the 10th century is based on few reliable sources. It is safe to say, that there was an extremely high developed culture existing at least from the 3th to 1st century BC in the Hubei or Hunan provinces (even though, the provenance of most of the finds are dubious and involve stories of grave robbers, or i.e. the report of the sensational Mawangdui excavations of tombs 2 and 3 containing surprisingly well preserved silk books took more than 30 years to be published). High cultures existing before the 3th century producing bronze swords are proven to have existed, but the data we get from these times are too little or too questionable to extract anything useful for this article on iron, steel, and swords.

Dubious Iron blade and probably original bronze swords of the Zhou dynasty (周朝) (909–255 BC)

Legends tell that iron swords had been already made in the Zhou dynasty (周朝) (909 BCE – 255 BCE). According to Donald B. Wagner, in Iron and Steel in Ancient China (1996) such swords had been produced in the Qin state in the midst of the Warring States Period (Zhan Guo, 戰 國) (403 BCE – 222 BCE). But reliable finds support the Qin dynasty (秦朝) (255 BCE – 206 BCE) following the as the begin of iron production for swords. There are swords exhibited to have belonged to the Qin State during the Warring State Period, but the common sword of that period had been made from bronze in the typical design of bronze swords. Parallel iron swords of the same period would have been similar designs and length (like anywhere else in the world). (It is to note, that the mentioned above Lucheng Museum held a fake Quin state sword). Iron swords became common in the Han dynasty (漢朝) (202 BCE – 220 CE) with large amounts coming from the Chu region (having a port to the Maritime Silk Route).  They were made from wrought iron and partly steel.

Iron Sword that is supposed to be dated during the Warring State Period

The early iron swords either belonging to the Qin State in (very late) Warring State Period or the Qin Dynasty following this period. They are similar in the design of the bronze swords found in the same timeframe and region. The sword blades resemble strongly the Parthian swords to be seen at the Iran Bastan Museum, Inventory number: 1603/18028 and 1604/18029 (see Farrokh, K., Karamian, Gh., Delfan, M., Astaraki, F. (2016). Preliminary reports of the late Parthian or early Sassanian relief at Panj-e Ali, the Parthian relief at Andika and examinations of late Parthian swords and daggers. HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, No.5, pp. 31-55.). This suggests that blades or knowledge had been traded over the predecessors of the Silk Route and later over the Maritim Silk Route, too.

Iron Sword and Ring Knife dated to the Han Dynasty between (206 BCE and 25 CE)
Copper alloy or bronze crossguard of a Han dynasty Jian

The early iron swords had been found with bronze, brass, Silver, or copper alloy crossguards. All named materials are found in the crossguard during the Han dynasty. Iron crossguards are extemely rare and maybe an wrong interpretation. The jade crossguards appearing during the Han dynasty could get very elaborated. The market of antiques, auction houses and even museums are full of fake and original jade crossbars belonging to the Han dynasty (or later), of which excellent fakes are hard to recognize as such.

Jade crossguard sold for US $1,800.00 as “belonging to the Warring State Period”
Same, but aged crossguard sold for US $2,000.00 but now “belonging to the Han dynasty”

Steel Production

The earliest iron production site was excavated recently since 2007 at the Barabash village, 70km away from the border between Korea and Russia in a direction of Vladivostok. Nine iron objects had been unearthed there relating to Yankovskaya culture, including parts of an iron axe and an arrowhead. The excavated ironware from the 7th to 5th century BCE is made of gray cast iron. Gray iron is made by adding graphite, requires more sophisticated technology than white iron. This technology appeared during the 2nd century BC in China and had spread all over the country by the 1st century BC. Archaeologists have found, what they believe is an iron manufacturing workshop. There were signs that the workers destroyed on purpose their iron manufacturing workshop, when they migrated elsewhere (see Paleometal Epoch in the Primorye (south of the Far East of Russia), Alexander N. Popov, Irina S. Zhushchikhovskaya, Yuri G. Nikitin, March 2020, World Archaeology 51).

The role of the Korean peninsula, here the southeast Kingdom Pyonhan, as a source of iron at that time is recorded in Chinese history books such as Chen Shou, a Chinese historian of the 3rd century, wrote in the Records of the Three Kingdoms: “Pyonhan produces iron. People from Han, Ye and Wa all come to buy it. Iron is used for buying and selling, and Pyonhan also supplies iron to the two Chinese commanderies of Lelang and Daifang.” he also claims that “When Pyonhan people bury their dead, they bury the iron (ingots) as the Chinese do whit coin money.”, which illustrates the meaning for Korean people. Guya (present-day Gimhae) was the centre of iron production. According to the articles on Byeonhan in the Book of Wei of the Records of the Three Kingdoms, Guya sold iron to the rest of Samhan (Korea) as well as to Dongye, Nangnang and the Japanese states. Iron was also used as currency.

Steel production in China was mainly based on using either cast iron or imported iron, wrought iron production methods similar to Europe was not common as it was in other regions of the world. While cast iron was of little interest in Europe, it was the preferred method in China for smaller venues even up to the 20th century. Wrought iron production had been introduced in larger scales during the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), which was essential for sword blade productions. The process was described in three Ming dynasty texts more than thousand years later: Tie ye zhi (16th century), Guangdong xinyu (late 17th century), and Tian gong kai wu (early 17th century), which had been carefully translated and analysed by Donald B. Wagner, 2003.

Guangdong xinyu described the effort of iron production from ‘lump iron’ and ‘sand iron’ in the Guangdong province (near Hongkong) around 1680. The workforce rounded up to 300 miners, 200 water-carriers and charcoal producers, and 200 furnace workers. Logistics had been 200 oxen and 50 smaller river ships. David Wagner questioned the output of the furnace, which is noted as 2-4 metric tonnes per day, and assumed that this was the output of a single production site with a pair [or more]of furnaces.

The brittle cast or pig iron had to be refined by a process called “puddling” into wrought iron or puddling steel. According to David Wagner’s analysis of the texts the costs of producing wrought iron / puddling steel in the 16th century was 50-60 man-months per tonne. The quality of the steel produced by this method was mediocre.

Blast furnaces in western Hunan, 1958, photographed by Rewi Alley (1961, no. 10)

An additional problem was the amount of heat needed in the furnaces for cast iron/steel, that was only possible with double action bellows, an invention superior to the single-stroke accordion bellows used in Japan or Europe and could be driven by waterpower, but probably had not.

When Du Shi (杜詩) made the horizontal waterwheel driven bellows for furnaces popular in the seventh year of the Chien-Wu reign period (31 CE)  it could helped enormously in the production of iron. Horizontal watermills spread all over the empire to an amount that the ship transport was hindered until in the Tang dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE) they regulated the watermills. However, the medieval watermills had been simple constructions with the millstones for the grain on the same axis as the wheel.

A Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) era Chinese painting of a water-powered mill for grain, with surrounding river transport.

Complex constructions like the one developed by Du Shi, had been probably very rare. While in Europe waterdriven trip hammers still exists today (in mills older than 500 years), there is no archeological find known to me of a waterpower driven bellows of a furnace or iron workshop in the design of Du Shi of the first century. This may lead to the conclusion, that this invention never was applied in a large and continuous scale on iron or steel production.

During Eastern Han Dynasty (202 CE – 220 CE), central government designated iron officials to 34 places. During the Wei, Jin, and South and North dynasties, up to the Sui Dynasty (581 CE -618 CE) the production of iron was disturbed by constant (civil) wars, and efforts had been invested in gold, copper, tin, lead and silver production to finance the wars. In the Tang Dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE) there were only 104 iron, but 62 copper production sites all over the country (excluding Southwest China’s Yunnan and Guizhou provinces). The water driven trip hammers had been introduced in China at the end of the Song Dynasty (960 CE to 1279 CE including North and South), which helped the production.

Iron Crossguard Jin Dynasty (金朝) (1115 CE to 1234 CE)

During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the imperial government set up special department in charge of mining and metal production, with rules and regulations. In the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE – 1644 CE), iron production developed remarkably.

If we compare the number of iron production sites with the numbers of soldiers to be equipped in the constant wars happening in China until the Ming Dynasty, the similarity with the Romans in Europe is striking. China must have been a huge importer of iron and steel to support the troops, paying by exporting metals, easier to be smelted, and of cause other valuable goods like silk, paper, spices.

Mid Ming Dynasty Scroll, Smithsonian Freer Gallery (above), West Chinese Sabre 13th century with an iron crossbar (below) looking very much like a 10th century Magyar (Hungarian) sabre

Similar to Europe the amount of iron and steel crossbars increased with the amount of production of this metals. The iron production output increased during the regulations by the Yuan Dynasty and even more in the Ming Dynasty. And from these dates swords with larger crossbar appeared especially in depictions. Artefacts of this kind are extremely rare, probably because they are not typical and will not sell.

We cannot say if these sword design appeared because of contact with Europeans, but it would probably become a common feature if not something happened, that changed the appearance of the Chinese swords forever. It had been the battles with the Japanese pirates.

Japanese Pirates

Since the Han Dynasty, the double-edged jian was the main sword design. There had been other sword designs, knifes and sabres as well. But it was the straight jian sword that was depicted mostly and formed the image of the ancient Chinese warrior, until regulations in the Ming dynasty changed that.

The army/navy officer Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀, 1594–1640?) compiled the book Wubei Zhi (武備志; Treatise on Armament Technology or Records of Armaments and Military Provisions). There he wrote that the old style of Chinese sword fighting was nearly lost, and the new way of using the sword was based on the fighting of the Japanese pirates, Wokou, and their sabres. To understand this, we must recognize that since the begin of the 15th century the Empire itself experienced a rather peaceful period for nearly three centuries, with the Mongols and Oirat nomads, and Japanese pirates being the biggest threats at the borders and rarely invading into the empire. In contemporary depictions you rarely see officials or common people of some rank wearing swords, unless they are in connection with the military.

Wokou engaging in rape and pillage, “Tai Ping Anti-Japanese Picture Scroll” (太平抗倭圖), Ming Dinasty

In comparison to the same time in Europe (where every adult male had a knife, dagger, long knife, or sword with him) this was a lovely peaceful time. Weapons like swords or guns, as well as martial training did not take the central place in education, as it did in Europe or Japan at these centuries. Weapon development or the tactical development was not high on the priority list of Ming Emperors. While the production of iron and steel like the trade improved, the weapon and the martial art did not. This was known to the Japanese pirates, who harassed the coast and river deltas in a horrible manner. While the Chinese army sent to fight the pirates had not been without success, the superiority of the Japanese swords in comparison to the bad steel of the Chinese swords, and the sword fighting, which was based on martial education, became obvious.

This (weapon) only became known (to the Chinese) since the incursion of Japanese into China.

General Qi Ji Guang, referring to the Chang Dao (長刀, long sabre), also known as Dan Dao (單刀, lit. ‘Single sabre’) 

According to the Korean Muye Dobo Tongji, compiled 1790 based on older Chinese books and scrolls, the Ming Dynasty general Qi Ji-Quang  (戚繼光, 1528–1588) obtained a Japanese Kage-ryū (陰流 or 影流) sword scroll and subsequently incorporated Long-Saber training for his troops, during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592 to 1598, where the Ming Dynasty Chinese army lent their support to the Koreans. Qi Ji-Quang is the author of two military manuals. He updated the manual Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書), firstly published in 1560, to include Xin You Dao Fa (辛酉刀法) adding two chapters to the original eighteen. Qi Ji Guang was not the only person to author manuals for the Chang Dao. Other systems such as Dan Dao Fa Xuan (單刀法選) by Cheng Zong You (程宗猷) who learned from his teacher, Liu Yun Feng, who’d previously learnt it from the Japanese. Early Qing Dynasty Dan Dao Fa Shi Ba Shi (單刀法十八勢, lit. “Eighteen stances of single sabre”) by Wu Shu (吳殳) tracing back to the same Japanese master.

Wu Bei Zhi (備志)

The cultural borrowing on the Japanese sword fighting was overwhelming in the centralized empire until the Europeans introduced guns in a large scale into Asia just two centuries later. The Chinese and Japanese records on the Japanese tribute and trademissions to the Ming empire had been collected by Markus Sesko in the blog article “Japanese Sword Trade With Ming China” posted at . He estimated that the eight missions transported 128 thousands swords (respectively sword blades) from 1432 to 1539 to China. The trade of the swords inside of the empire had been controlled by the Ming court. The quality of the swords dropped together with the price of the blades. While the first mission sold the blade for 10.000 mon, the last mission sold a single blade for 300 mon. Even though we do not know about the inflation and price fluctuation in the century in Japan, a price drop of that scale must have resulted in a quality drop. A good sword blade was worth 5000 mon in Japan at this time. Excellent blades are sold for much more money. From this knowledge we can draw safe conclusions, what quality had been exported to China. In the following consideration, it throws a light of the quality accepted in the Ming Dinasty China for blades. Of those directly imported blades only few survived for several reasons, which I leave open to musings of the reader. From the 16th century upwards, European blades had been imported as well, just like this beautiful blade below from the 17th century.

Next to the long sabre, which was a version of the Japanese Katana, the short sabre for single hand was built in the same manner with a disc as a crossguard alike the Japanese Tsuba. The discussion weather it was a descendant of the Mongol sabre or a mixture of the Japanese sword and existing sabre types since the ancient long knifes is debatable. The design altered again with the amount of European and Indian blades imported in the late 17th century. The straigt jian stayed as a undeniable part of the cultural identity but played a minor role in military aspects.


The question “Why had the Chinese sword no crossbar?” is answered by the fact, that they firstly had no chance due to social economical and technological factors. Cast iron is not an excellent material to start and the effort to produce wrought iron and puddling steel used by the Chinese was exorbitant. The high cultures of the dynasties had high value trade goods like silk, paper, copper, silver and could exchange them for iron or steel, or most likely blades. A factor that did not help to develop an own sufficient iron or steel production based on constant innovations. The inner wars did not help as well and innovation on iron or steel production did not move on for centuries. When the long period of (nearly) peace in the Ming dynasty could have enabled such innovations and the iron production was pushed to its limits, the Chinese had been overtaken by other cultures. Knowledge and objects of the Japanese and later European culture had been unconditionally adapted by the centralised state.

Mostly economical factors, very similar to the Roman Empire, had hindered the Chinese dynasties to apply iron/steel crossguards to their sword blades. This factors had not been the only reasons. Like in the Roman Empire, cultural, religious and social reasons played their part as well. Those reasons are are open to research by people knowing much more about the wonderful Chinese cultural history than me.

Unlike the Romans, the Chinese had a severe change in weapon and steel development with the adaption of the Japanese “sabre”, the enormous import of ready made blades and swords from Japan and probably further regions, where this kind of sword was prominent through the partly occupations by the Japanese (i.e. Korea). This break introduced a change in design, at the time swords with larger iron made crossbars started to appear. Soon a crossbar, as it was prominent with European swords, was of no interest anymore. For this reason, the series on articles has to be written with at least one further one: on Japan to be found here under this link.

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