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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Qing dynasty sabres – Exceptional weapons for Chinese soldiers

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The Qing dynasty of China, sometimes called the Manchu dynasty,  lasted from 1644 to 1912.  During this period the long, single-edged and slightly curved blade of the dao (saber) was the primary weapon of common Chinese soldiers.

The longer classic straight double-edge blade of the  jian was considered the weapon of gentlemen.

Today, we’re focusing on the dao, using the works of Philip M. W. Tom (see Sources) as our main sources.

Qing Imperial bodyguard

Qing Imperial bodyguard, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Generally, only ordinary soldiers were issued dao.  Even where officers, generals and nobility decided to use these sabres as their weapons of choice, there was a marked difference in construction, dimensions, style and decoration of these weapons

A warrior’s rank and status  was marked as much by their weapon and its trappings as as by their uniforms and jewelry. Indeed, in 1796 all these trappings were formalized in a court document: “Illustrated Regulations for Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Qing dynasty“.


Classes of Dao

During the Qing period there were a number of different styles and designs of dao being used;  as a whole these groups of dao were called peidao, meaning “waist knife”, for how they were hung at the belt.

There were five major classes of sabre used during this period

Four major classes of dao plus jian

Four major classes of dao, plus officer’s jian, from Blade Profiles, Cross-Sections and Surface Grains

  • Classic Mongol sabre of the previous dynasty (top right), used by just about everyone.
  • Yanmao dao, or goosequill sabre (second right)   This weapon is largely straight, with a curve appearing only at the center of percussion near the blade’s point. This allows for thrusting attacks (like a jian), as well as dao slashing attacks.
  • Liuye dao, or willow leaf sabre (third right):  The most common form of dao, this blade has a gentle curve throughout the length of the blade.   This was issued to both cavalry troops and foot soldiers, and is the design generally used in martial arts today.
  • Niuweidao, or oxtail saber (fourth right):  A heavy bladed weapon with a  flaring tip.  It is considered a civilian weapon only.
  • Piandao, or slicing sabre (not pictured):  A rare,  heavy curved blade much resembling a scimitar, used for fighting at close range.


Goose quill and willow leaf dao

Willow leaf sabre (top), Goose quill sabre (bottom). From Military Sabers of the Qing Dynasty


Forging technology

The blades themselves were quite often made of high-quality steel, and steel making technology reached new heights in the early Ming period.  Many of these blades were forge-folded and pattern-welded, with some having cores of multiple strand wire twist, often (somewhat incorrectly) referred to as “Damasked blades”.

In general there were three main kinds of fold or grain patterns found in forge-folded dao blades:

  1. Straight grain, where the lines of the folds and the grain of the steel ran roughly parallel to each other;
  2. Wooden grain, where the grain pattern looked more like wood grain, with some parallel lines but also the occasional “knot”;
  3. Burled grain, where the pattern consisted mostly of concentric circles, knots or even whirlpools.

As always, smiths creating pattern-welded and multiple twist core dao could develop intricate patterns on the blade surface, and a number of set patterns were seen in the more elaborate dao designed for nobles, including the following image of the surface of a four-twist cored dao;  you can see the lines where the individuals cores have been welded together.  The pattern created by a twist-core blade was known as huawengang — literally “flower patterned steel”.



 Blade decoration

Chinese smiths made much use of chiseled grooves and fullers on the surface of dao, both for decoration and as a way to lighten balance what was obviously a heavy blade.  They also inscribed verses from Confucius and various poets, along with a range of animals;  tigers and dragons were very common.


Four blades with different fuller designs chiseled in

Four different designs of incised fullers, 18th century. From Military Sabers of the Qing Dynasty


Guard and hilt designs

In the 15th and 16th century, prior to Japan closing it’s borders in the 1630’s, there was a thriving trade between China and Japan.  During this time, thousands of Japanese swords were imported into China.  Stylistically, this had an influence on some weapon designs, and a circular guard — the pan hushou — replaced the older-style straight quillions as the guard of choice.  Of course, the materials the guard was made from and decorated with varied greatly with the rank of the owner.  Hilt-wrappings were very straightforward, and tended to be made of woven and interlaced cotton, silk or leather.


Dao crossguards

Three styles of dao crossguard. From Military Sabers of the Qing Dynasty


The hilts themselves tended to fall into two categories of design:  either an angular pattern known as fangshi, or a rounded and circular pattern called yuanshi (seen below).   The hilt decoration of an ordinary soldier was likely to be very sparse, as opposed to the gilt-laced decoration seen in the following image.


Angular and circular hilt designs

Examples of fangshi (top) and yuanshi (bottom) hilt designs. From Military Sabers of the Qing Dynasty




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