Chinese Swordsmithing - A Rediscovered Treasure

4 minute read

Japanese swordsmithing is renowned worldwide, and for good reason: the blade quality is superb, and the fittings are works of art in their own right.  Using traditional methods, a sword made by a mastersmith can take months to prepare and can run in the thousands to millions of dollars to purchase - when one can be acquired at all.  In contrast, Chinese swordsmithing is still relatively unknown, perhaps because it was used more for arming infantryman rather than serving as a status symbol for noble Samurai. However, if we look back at the history of Chinese sword production, we uncover a few surprises.

Ancient Chinese Swordsmithing

Chinese swordsmithing began development early, with knives found dating as far back as 1200 BC.  As time progressed, those knives lengthened until they could be considered short swords, and they eventually began to replace daggers and axes in the 7th century BC.  Up until this point they were made of Bronze, but, around the 6th century BC, steel processes were imported from India, and China began steel production. While poor at first, the quality of steel blades quickly improved, and with the discovery of quench-hardening in the 3rd century, bronze weapons went obsolete.

Chinese swords are divided into two types: the Jian and Dao.  The earliest swords were Jian, double-sided weapons, as they descended from daggers.  Dao swords were created later, as it was discovered that dulling one of the sides and thickening it could strengthen the blade, making it more reliable and less prone to breaking.  In addition, Jian blades are straight, while Dao blades, especially later ones, tend to be curved. Some people believe that the curved Dao influenced the Japanese toward making their own curved blades such as the later renowned Katana and Wakizashi.

By the 2nd century BC, the Jian and the Dow were each considered one of the Five Weapons - along with the spear, halberd, and staff.  As swords became useful when paired with shields or used for cavalry, the Dao became the weapon of choice for battle. Jian weapons were still used, but, because of their lower durability, were wielded only by experts or officials.  Around this time, it is possible that Chinese swordsmiths discovered that coating swords with chromium oxide would protect them from rusting, a technique soon lost that wasn’t re-discovered until the 1930s and 40s by the Germans and Americans.

Time continued until the 6th century AD, when co-fusion steelmaking was developed (combining different iron ores with varying carbon content).  This greatly enhanced swords by giving them the best of both worlds - a hard but brittle edge with a soft but flexible spine. It also seems to have given them an advantage against contemporary armor.  Around this time, Chinese sword-making techniques were imported into Japan by immigrants from China, and the Japanese began their own sword traditions.

However, Chinese sword development did not stop as Japan’s began, but they both continued down separate paths in parallel.  For another 6 centuries in China, the Dao continued its dominance over the Jian, and was divided into 4 categories: Ceremonial, Cross, Defense, and Divided.  Ceremonial Daos were ornate and decorated with precious metals. Cross Daos were worn by crossbowmen as a sidearm. Defensive Daos were used for, you guessed it, self-defense, and Divided Daos were longswords attached to meter-plus long handles - some of these weapons reaching up to 3 meters in total length!  Around the 12th century AD, the Jian experienced a short period of revival, until again being overtaken by the Dao a century later.

After this period, less is known about Chinese swords as there is little written material to work with.  A few reasons have been suggested for this. One such reason is that sword-making in China was so well-established and developed that there was little need to continue writing books on the subject, so instead attention was given to newer technologies.  Another idea is that because of Confucian values urging against militaristic pursuits in favor of cultural ones, the sword was no longer a “worthwhile” subject to write on. Whatever the case, while there may not be a large written tradition from those times, swordmaking in China never truly stopped, and today there are swordsmiths in China whose swords’ values match and even outstrip their Japanese counterparts.

Modern Chinese Swordsmithing

Chinese swordsmiths gain experience through the time-honored tradition of apprenticeship, often starting in their teenage years and continuing for years before they can hope to obtain the rank of master.  Of those who do eventually reach master-rank, China divides into 3 levels: city-level master, province-level master, and country-level master (also known as a national treasure smith). Levels 1 mastersmiths typically work for large factories or small smithies owned by others.  Levels 2 and 3 mastersmiths usually work at their own forges, with a few owning their own factories. Level 1 mastersmiths can command prices of around $5-10K for a sword. Level 2 smiths can command prices from $10K and up, and swords made by Level 3 masters range from over $100K to over $1M. Some mastersmiths choose to specialise, creating only the blade, while others choose to generalise, creating the fittings as well.  The work of Level 2 and 3 swordsmiths are considered meritorious enough that some of them have been chosen to gift swords on behalf of the Chinese nation to foreign heads of state.

Today, Chinese swordsmiths have learned how to make Japanese swords along with their own, using the traditions shared by both and a few imported techniques such as folding. (Folding was not developed in China because they had access to better iron ores than Japan, making folding unnecessary.  Today it is used mainly for the aesthetic appeal of such folded swords.) Because of this, Japan and China are two of the few countries using traditional techniques passed down over more than a millennia to craft swords similar to those made by their ancestors. If you’d like to see representations of ancient Chinese swords, please see our Chinese Sword collection*.

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*Note, these swords are for ornamental or display use only.