Myths and Facts about historical Chinese swords and polearms vs. Media

Discussion in 'Military History' started by crobato, Jan 10, 2010.

  1. crobato
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    crobato Senior Member

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    When you watch many Chinese movies like Red Cliff that are set on historical settings, you get to wonder about the accuracy of the melee weapons and martial arts being portrayed. There are attempts in many recent high budget "spectacle" movies to at least get the swords and polearms right, but again, movie makers often take too many liberties to satisfy audience preconceptions.

    Myth No. 1

    The kind of Kung Fu swordsmanship using Jians (straight swords) most often see in movies and Kung Fu tournaments and demonstrations, are fairly modern and is very unlikely used in ancient Chinese arms combat. So is the kind of straight, fencing Jian you often see. For practical purposes I like to call them Kung Fu jians.

    Myth No. 2

    Equally mythical is the Kung Fu broadsword, those thick curved swords. Broadswords of this nature never really appeared in Chinese history till the last century of the Ching Dynasty, often used by revolutionaries.

    Myth No. 3

    Guan Yu bears this long pole arm with the long curved blade. This is made famous in Peking Opera, plays, illustrations, carvings and statues of Guan Yu in art and temples. Now its even made more legendary in movies and video games. It is often referred to as the Green Crescent Dragon blade.

    Ths kind of polearm, similar to a halberd and known as the Guandao in honor of Guan Yu, is a lot more common in the Ming Dynasty, when the Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written, as opposed to the real weapons of the actual Three Kingdoms era. It is likely the historical Guan Yu would be swinging a more ordinary dao or ge (dagger axe) as opposed to a Guandao.


    Fact no. 1

    Up to the time of the early Han Dynasty, the main sword is the bronze laminar Jian. Again, you just have to look at the museums to see what they're like. As metallurgy improved, jians increased their length, so the earliest swords tend to look more like long daggers.

    Fact. no. 2

    The main melee weapon of ancient and dynastic Chinese armies is the Ge or dagger axe. Its easy to find picture of this, but for reference sake, it bear a stronger resemblance to a pick. The use of the Ge started ebbing away from the late Han Dynasty on and it becomes less and less of a fixture with Chinese armies. The Ge remained part of the 18 legendary Chinese weapons though.

    Fact. no. 3

    From the Han Dynasty on, and straight into the Tang Dynasty, the iron Dao gradually took over from the bronze Jian. These are straight single edged swords that are direct ancestors to Japanese To (Nihonto, To being the same kanji as Dao). So are the means of making them, using sandwiched laminar techniques. The main difference between Chinese Dao and Japanese To is that Chinese prefer them straight, while Japanese allow them to curve while curing, and that Chinese prefer to keep a ring pommel at the end of the handle. Also for aesthetic reasons, Japanese swords are generally the same diameter in their handle and blade, but over time, Chinese dao developed thicker blades than their handles.

    Fact no. 4

    Around the time of the Sung, horse choppers were being introduced. Seen many names associated with them, Dadao, Pudao, but the best of all, Zhammadao as in Horse Cutting Dao. When pronounced in Japanese, these characters form the word Zambato, where they became an anime fixture of late. But the general idea is a long heavy blade with a long handle. The official spec for a Zhammadao is about four feet, three feet for the blade and one feet for the handle. But it later evolved to other dao forms where the ratio of handle to blade increased to 1:1, and further until it shifts where majority of the length goes to the handle. When handle length surpasses blade length in ratio past 1:1, technically the weapon is no longer a sword but a polearm. Around the time of the Ming, dao polearms became common. This is probably where the Guandao legend formed.

    Fact no. 5.

    Around the time of the Mongols, the saber was introduced. What's the difference between a saber from other swords? A good example of the saber is the official US Marines sword. The design is basically of Middle Eastern origin, and where introduced to China from the Middle East. There were many different sabers in Chinese hands, such as the Goose Quill and Willow Leaf daos. Such daos are commonly practiced with Kung Fu today and are essentially far more common during the Ching Dynasty than the scimitar or Chinese broadswords.

    Basically for every Chinese dynastic time period, certain weapons and designs are prevalent.

    If a movie tells a drama based on the Qin Dynasty, expect to see the straight Jian with a metal handle and various artwork on the blade itself.

    A movie set on the Tang Dynasty, should have swords that resemble Japanese Katana, except its all straight with rings on the end of the handles.

    A movie set on the Ming Dynasty, likely to have polearms, with the dao blades on the end.

    Not commonly seen, Chinese kung fu broadswords, sometimes referred to as oxtail dao, only prevalent during revolution against Ching, and most especially not seen are opera, Kung Fu or Tai Chi jians, which are actually the most prevalent image of the Chinese swords and swordsmanship.
     
  2. AssassinsMace
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    AssassinsMace Senior Member

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    I believe the long pole and a blade is a glaive in Myth No.3.
     
  3. crobato
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    crobato Senior Member

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    That's the Guandao. The weapon is itself is not a myth since it was used widely around the Ming Dynasty as well as others similar to it. The myth is whether Guan Yu actually invented and used that thing.

    When the Romance of the Three Kingdoms were first published in China, romanticized from the Three Kingdom Chronicles, it was around the Ming Dynasty. So the books were adorned with illustrations of the characters in Ming Dynasty armor and weapons. And that continued to the plays, the operas, Chinese art, temple statues, and even to the video games, freezing the image of the characters in Ming Dynasty style armor and weapons.

    Far more likely, the historical Guan Yu would have used a Ge, or dagger axe.
     
  4. rhino123
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    rhino123 Pencil Pusher

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    Actually what u said make sense, however I believe that curved blades such as the one used by Guanyu was actually popularise in Sung Dynasty which is before Ming Dynasty.

    And Guanyu is not the person who invent this weapon, it is just called Guandao as a remenberance to Guanyu or to give him the credit. As you recall many of the generals under Cao Cao and Liu Bei uses Guan dao too.

    However what you say make alot of sense as it is really questionable as to what weapon Guangyu and the rest of the generals actually use. I believe that polearms are already quite popular at that time, however using a Ge on horseback is really not what the Chinese had in mind. I believe that Guanyu and most generals on horseback actually uses spears and the likes.

    From the design of the Ge, I think the weapon might be use for anti-calvery, whereby it can be use to slice through the legs of the charging horses.
     
  5. ronempress
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    ronempress Just Hatched
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    Thanks so much for this info! I'm preparing a book loosely based on "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and this information is invaluable.
     
  6. vesicles
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    vesicles Senior Member

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    Yeah, I think the earliest reference of a dao in the shape of Guan dao was in the Song dynasty although it didn't get popular 'til Ming dynasty. However, many think that Guandao was never popular on the battlefield because of its weight. It's simply too heavy and too slow. It's only popular only in the Kung Fu circle for its showmanship potential. According to some historians, being able to handle Guandao was actually among the strength tests for the military officers in the Qing dynasty (the last Chinese dynasty).
     
  7. rhino123
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    rhino123 Pencil Pusher

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    I tends to think that Guandao is not a parry weapon, for that you would need the normal chinese sabre (dao) or sword (jian). Guandao is a weapon whereby it was normally used on horseback. There the user could simply slashes and swing his guandao around and slash anyone that get too close to his horse and was not run over.

    Another weapon similar to Guandao but much smaller was called the pudao, think of it as a shorter Guandao. Now that is a parry weapon and I believe it is actually quite handy in battle as it had a longer range (obviously not as long as the Guandao), is lighter than polearm and much easier to wield even on foot.
     
  8. crobato
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    crobato Senior Member

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    Didn't think that Cao Cao and Liu Bei would use Guan Dao. Around that time, its more likely they would use the Ge (Ji), better known as a halberd or dagger-axe.

    Dagger-axe - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    It more resembles a scythe or pick.

    The Ge or Ji, along with the Qiang (spear) is the most used melee weapon of ancient Chinese armies.

    The Dao has already begun transition as the replacement for the main Chinese sword starting from the Han Dynasty. But at this point in time, it resembles more like a Japanese katana, with a single or double handed, long and either straight or curved. It hasn't evolved with the longer handle with curved blade form like the Guandao and other Ming Dynasty polearms. Mind you, these polearms were invented to make chop liver of cavalry, with the Ming's case, usually the Mongols.

    Around the time of the Sung Dynasty, various weapons were invented to help take down and chop heavy armored cavalry. Hence the invention of various long Dao, Pudao, Changdao, and most specifically, the Zhammadao or Horse Cutting Dao. Zhammadao itself was officially ordered, approved and presented by the Sung Emperor. It was invented after careful study of the weight, balance, and length, then the designs and strict specs was presented by the Emperor to the Sung court.

    The kind of heavy and long dao that was invented in the Sung Dynasty to battle heavy Jin cavalry would have been impractical in the Three Kingdoms period, even though Cao Cao's Wei was a heavy cavalry user. The Ge would probably still more than enough.
     
  9. rhino123
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    rhino123 Pencil Pusher

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    Er... Ge and Ji is two different weapon.

    Ge (戈) own's a blade that look like an inverted 'L' or '7'.

    Ji (戟) is a chinese halbert.

    Ge is a more common weapon during warring states and is easier to forge while Ji being much more difficult to manufacture and in some instances, I believe Ji actually came about only in Tang dynasty when the forging method are better.

    Reference:

    Ge: http://www.hudong.com/wiki/戈
    Ji: http://www.hudong.com/wiki/戟
     
    #9 rhino123, Jan 11, 2010
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2010
  10. vesicles
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    vesicles Senior Member

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    I think Ji came from Ge. Ji sort of evolved from Ge.
     

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