What are the 2 Types of Chinese Swords?

Understanding the two primary types of Chinese swords, the jian and the dao, is crucial for anyone seeking to appreciate the rich history and cultural significance of Chinese weaponry. For millennia, these blades have transcended their practical purpose as instruments of war, becoming symbols of social status, artistic expression, and the evolution of Chinese martial arts traditions.

The Jian Sword

The jian, a double-edged straight sword, has played a significant role in Chinese history for over 2,500 years. Originating in the 7th century BCE during the Spring and Autumn period, it is exemplified by artifacts such as the Sword of Goujian. Known as “The Gentleman of Weapons” in Chinese folklore, the jian is one of the four major weapons alongside the staff, spear, and sabre.

Construction

One-handed versions typically range from 45 to 80 centimeters in blade length, with an average weight of 700 to 900 grams. Guard shapes vary, with hilt designs accommodating either one or both hands. The hilt’s pommel provides balance and can be used strategically in combat. 

The jian’s blade, divided into three sections—jiànfeng, zhongren, and jiàngen—supports various offensive and defensive techniques. Blades typically exhibit subtle profile taper and distal taper, with differential sharpening towards the tip. Traditional construction involves sanmei (three plate) or wumei (five plate) methods, with materials ranging from bronze to steel.

Usage

While variations exist in length, balance, and weight across different periods, the jian remains a versatile cut and thrust weapon, excelling in stabbing, precise cuts, and slashes rather than specializing in one form. Terracotta warriors in Qin Shi Huang’s tomb wielded jian made from copper, tin, and elements like nickel and cobalt. 

Historical users engaged in test cutting, known as shizhan, on targets like caoren (grass men) made from bamboo or rice straw. Today, tai chi and other martial arts practitioners continue extensive jian training, considering expertise in its techniques the pinnacle of their kung fu. Notable jian forms include Sancai Jian, Kunwu Jian, Wudang Xuanmen Jian, and taijijian. 

The Dao Sword

The dao is a single-edged Chinese sword designed primarily for slashing and chopping. It can have a straight or curved blade, and the more common variant is often referred to as the Chinese sabre. Those with wider blades are occasionally called Chinese broadswords. 

In China, the dao holds a significant position as one of the four traditional weapons, grouped with the gun (stick or staff), qiang (spear), and the jian (double-edged sword) in what is known as “The General of Weapons.

Construction

While dao sword designs have varied throughout the centuries, single-handed dao from the Ming period onward, and their modern counterparts, share certain features. The blades are moderately curved and single-edged, often with a few inches of the back edge sharpened for versatility, enabling effective thrusts. 

Hilts may be canted, curving opposite to the blade, enhancing handling for various cuts and thrusts. The handle is typically wrapped with cord, and hilts may have piercings for lanyards, though modern performance swords often feature tassels or scarves. 

Guards are commonly disc-shaped and cupped, designed to prevent rainwater and blood from reaching the handle, ensuring a secure grip. In some cases, guards may have a thinner, s-curve design to protect the user’s knuckles.

Usage

The dao, originating in China’s Shang Dynasty, was initially straight-backed knives, evolving into single-edged weapons used for slashing and chopping. During the Han dynasty, its sturdiness, chopping efficiency, and ease of use made it popular among cavalry, leading to its gradual adoption by infantry and replacing the jian. 

Throughout dynasties like Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, influenced by Mongol sabers, the dao underwent modifications, giving rise to distinct types like yanmaodao, liuyedao, piandao, and niuweidao. These variations catered to specific combat needs, allowing for thrusting attacks, draw-cutting, and slashing. 

Even during the Qing period, variations like nandao and the “nine ringed broadsword” emerged, although these were likely designed more for demonstrations and performances than practical combat. The term dao also encompassed polearms like pudao and guandao, featuring a single-edged blade.

Comparing the Jian and Dao Swords

Jian SwordDao Sword
ConstructionDouble-edged straight swordSingle-edged sword for slashing and chopping
Origin: 7th century BCEOrigin: Shang Dynasty (evolved over time)
One-handed: 45 to 80 cm, 700-900gModerately curved blades with single edge
Guard shapes vary, pommel for balanceHilts may be canted, guards disc-shaped
Blade divided into three sectionsHandles wrapped with cord, some have piercings
Traditional construction: sanmei or wumeiGuards designed to protect user’s knuckles
Materials: Bronze to steel
UsageVersatile cut and thrust weaponPrimarily for slashing and chopping
Emphasis on stabbing, precise cuts, slashesAdopted by cavalry during Han for sturdiness
Historical test cutting (shizhan) on targetsEvolved into distinct types (yanmaodao, etc)
Tai chi and martial arts practiceVarious modifications influenced by Mongol sabers
Notable forms: Sancai Jian, Kunwu Jian, etc.Used by infantry, cavalry, adapted into polearms
Continued adaptations in Yuan, Ming, Qing
Used in various combat scenarios

Conclusion

The jian and dao offer a compelling contrast within the landscape of Chinese swords, each embodying unique philosophies of craftsmanship and combat. The jian, with its slender blade and emphasis on precision thrusting, exemplifies a refined and controlled approach, while the dao’s broader profile and versatility lend itself to powerful slashing and sweeping movements. 

Through their individual strengths and historical trajectories, these types of swords tell a fascinating story of adaptation and innovation, reflecting the changing needs of warfare and the artistic ideals of successive dynasties.

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