Collectors, battle enthusiasts and weapons experts once found a great difference between cheaply made Chinese swords and museum-quality reproductions that commanded prices in excess of $10,000. However, sword-smiths are rediscovering China's history of making famous swords, which inspired other countries like Japan to refine these processes and surpass the originals in quality according to many experts, but many martial arts enthusiasts and collectors disagree.
The Jian and Dao
Chinese swords fall into two categories: dao and jian, or single-edged and double-edged swords. Artisan sword-smiths now reproduce ancient Chinese swords with better quality and lower prices due to revived interest in martial arts, collecting and scholarship. Handmade Chinese swords make worthy additions to weapons collections, wall displays and combat training strategies using the five elements: earth, water, wind, fire and the void.
Modern re-creations of classic swords use exacting standards that include:
- Swords that aren't too flimsy or heavy
- Renditions with modern improvements of materials and techniques
- Contemporary influences without sacrificing historic functionality
- Custom work that includes mirror polishing, artisan woodwork and producing hardness levels of 50-57 HRC for cutting edges
The jian Chinese sword is also known as gim, tai chi and taiji and is considered a gentleman's weapon. Dao or single-edged sabers include various cutting, chopping and fighting implements that have been used in China for thousands of years. Literally meaning “knife,” the dao is often a broadsword or saber and one of four weapons used by Chinese soldiers: sword, knife, staff and spear.
Chinese Sword-making Techniques
Ancient Chinese metallurgists used advanced techniques that other cultures borrowed and refined. Swords were often named for the mountains where they were used and the fighting styles that the swords encouraged. Sword-forging techniques that artisans still use include:
- Casting Bronze: This refers to the handcrafted sword fittings. The blade is made of forged folded steel and not bronze.
- Steel Forging: The discovery of iron and steel allowed early metal smiths to create longer, more flexible blades by using three distinct processes: wrapped steel, inserted steel and folded steel.
- Baogang or Wrapped Steel: Core metal is Iron and wrapped around with Steel, so the edge is harder than the ridge. It makes the edge sharper and stronger and prevents it breaking from battle.
- Jiagang or Inserted Steel: A high-carbon core is sandwiched between mild steel, which produces a distinct surface pattern when polished.
- Folding Steel: This forging technique uses hard and soft steel twisted together to provide strength and flexibility.
Evaluating Handmade Chinese Swords
Choosing a handmade Chinese sword depends on its intended use, and criteria for selecting a blade include balance, weight, toughness, sharpness, strength and geometry. Blades should be firmly mounted in the handle. Other criteria for choosing a sword include:
- A sword should appear straight when viewed down the edge.
- A properly balanced sword reaches equilibrium at one-third of the sword's length from the hilt.
- Pay attention to the blade first before considering artistic features.
Most commercial Chinese swords are manufactured with modern tools because these products generate greater profits in less time. However, hand-forged sword-making combines the classic craft with modern embellishments for the guards, pommels, hilts and sheaths.
Artisan-inspired handmade Chinese swords are being rediscovered by collectors, history buffs and students of martial arts. New discoveries about the history and techniques used in ancient Chinese sword-smithing inspire craftspeople to new levels of ingenuity in creating modern equivalents of gentlemen's blades, sabers, broadswords, iron swords, curved swords and various kinds of knives or dao swords.