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Han dao /sabre & ancient knives


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#1 Kenneth

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 07:24 PM

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This is a 40cm fragment of a Han era sword blade. This is from a single edged dao that had the distinctive ring pommel which was a feature of the period. The intact sword was likely to be around 60-70cm long but the hilt is lost.
The Osprey text shows examples of the bronze dao being carried by West Han warriors, however the use of bronze went into a quite steady decline and by East Han there is little evidence for real blades being made in bronze.
Improvements to both the scale and quality of the steel (low carbon steel) production meant that bronze could no longer compete either economically or functionally. By the time of Wudi bronze weapons are much more scare as a number of changes in the military date from this time.
Bronze was then only commonly used for casting crossbow bolt points or arrow heads, due to the fine detail required and the ease at which bronze was cast by then skilled Chinese bronzesmiths.
R. Wagner in "Iron and Steel in Ancient China" is much more clear about the emerging steel industry than the earlier confusions that arose from quoted sections of his internet articles. No iron/steel swords were cast. Initially the qulaity of the low carbon steel baldes was not better than a good bronze. Iron sword were however made longer than bronze and this in turn leads to longer bronze swords. By the Han when quenching of blade edges and the art of folding and work annealing had been perfected bronze could no longer compete and was steadily abandoned.
Yang Hong is in agreement with these comments and notes steady improvement from the East Zhou to Han and the elaborate folding and reforging (by hand) that Han steel artisans had developed. He also names Han steel at this time as a low carbon steel which is work hardened.
In this way bronze weapons of Han are the last stages in the long Chinese bronze age, and are fascinating to me. They occur in unique forms (ji halberds and dao) which supplanted the archic weapons of the Zhou.
Iron blades are around for study but are often in a very corroded condition. Such iron blades can come from weapons closer to 1m long but as bronze survives much better than iron I find bronze pieces useful for detailed study.

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One very unusual feature of this blade that I have pondered for some time now was a shallow channel or narrowing of the blade along the central 'spine'. This forms a subtle groove which was first only clear when viewed on the cross sections at the breaks. (see below)
My first impression is of a blood groove, such a bayonets have, which prevents the blade sticking in the wound from a thrust entry. Earlier Chinese weapons do have some features thought to be for 'drawing the blood'.
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After discussing this which others it appears to me it is more likely a feature to conserve expensive bronze in what would be a burial weapon or a tomb object instead of a combat sword.
My friend in Taiwan has handled a number of larger bronze dao up to 80cm long and he hasn't noted such grooves. He makes the reasonable point that the dao by defintion is a slashing weapon and needs no groove. As the cross sections on dao battle blade blades are wedge shaped for strength (a broad back narrows to the blade as per Yang Hong etc.)
I now believe this is an item not intended for fighting. That other bronze dao were made for combat is quite clear, but this blade fragment like other such tomb objects is made to accompany the spirit only.
Another clue was the lack of a clear sharpened edge. A bronze preserves subtle features well the polish and sharpening marks from human hands 2,000 or more years ago are sometimes visible. While some cutting edges show signs of sharpening this blade shows polish but in fact suggests a deliberate dulling of the blade by having a flat blade edge when viewed under magnification. The polising would have been to reveal the lustre of the golden bronze, but not to make the edge ready for cutting.
R. Wagner questions whether long bronze swords were functional or only symbolic and the answer is clearly both. That the Qin long swords were the battlefield examples (commonly accepted) and the earlier Han blades/ge/mao were too seems clearly logical when the iron/steel industry was still expanding and had not yet replaced bronze. Wagner also notes that a good bronze can match a low carbon steel from later East Zhou for toughness.
In this way bronze for a time could face iron in an intermediate period.
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This section of the blade (above) has traces of wood that show the sword was buried in a scabbard. Under magnification of 70x the fibres can be seen at the top right corner. To the naked eye it is more like a fine banding but still visible.
It is apparently a wood of the same type as attached to another earlier sword blade of mine. Such Chinese scabbards were made from light wood like cedar and under good magnification the traces left in the cemented soil on this blade shows the same grain and pithy structures in the wood.
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The second blade edge is from an earlier Jian, a hollowed hilt East ZHou blade. The blade is double edged and sharpened equally all the way to the cross gaurd. Shown here is a small portion of unpatinated bronze showing the sharpening angle. Just above it is a damaged portion of the blade which may be from use, as the parrying with a blade tends to be closer to the grip this area looks more like a strike flaking than a loss from corrosion or tin oxide. The remainer of the blade is in very good condition. Also visible are traces of scabbard wood preserved in small patches.
(CLICK TO ENLARGE ANY OF THE PICTURES)

Edited by Kenneth, 11 January 2006 - 10:49 PM.

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#2 Kenneth

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 07:35 PM

The point of the dao in these few examples seems to have a distinctive beak effect. Since all of these blades are quite intact (see those below) the feature seems to be cast onto the dao.
I will look for this when I see the dao collection in Taiwan.
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Also shown here is the earlier bronze blade, from a 4th century BC double edged jian. This shows the stabbing point and sharpness of the blade. It is still noticably sharp in the hand.
These shorter stabbing swords still existed into Han, and bronze examples have been unearthed around JingDi's and Wudi's tomb. The East Zhou style swords do not abruptly disapear entirely with the Qin and West Han dynasties and for self defense they may have been carried even after longer jian and dao appeared.
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Dao examples (note the 'beak' point).
Tony Allen' Authentication of Ancient Chinese Bronze"
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Osprey "Ancient Chinese Armies"
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#3 Yang Zongbao

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 07:35 PM

Very nice pictures.

You said you had a Steel Han Dao too?
More pictures are very welcome, keep up the good posts!
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#4 Kenneth

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 08:59 PM

I don't have any ancient iron weapons since they would require preservation and efforts to stabilise the corrosion. I did see iron jian for sale in both the PRC and in Western sources. Most were broken. I do recall seeing sword fittings on blades in Xian but I didnt check them if they were jade. They do however put modern fake jades onto iron blades to raise the price and so I only glanced at them. There was a hilt and most of the blade of an iron dao on offer only about 1 month back via a credible e-bay source.
Although I know a couple of people with quite intact iron swords, and they can be over 1m, others consider them more difficult than other antiques and so dont seek them. Even some bronze can react to damp and require sealing or other complex procedures, and iron simply continues to rust unless sealed or chemically treated.
The late John Piscopo had the most remarkable private collection of ancient iron Chinese swords I know of, and he posted some images of them when I queried about iron swords. These ring pommeled swords here were some of his examples, and the longest are over 1m in length.
Iron swords of East Zhou to Han vary from 60cm to even 120cm long. This is about 30cm longer than the upper and lower ranges of bronze swords of the same period.
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#5 Kenneth

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 10:34 PM

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This is a Han era ring pomelled 'dao' sent to me by a Taiwanese friend. He didnt think it a good idea to post the longer bronze dao and so sent this for me to keep or return when I revisit Taiwan.
Whether it is accurate to call a blade like this a dao or not is debatable but I found another similar sized Han 'knife' also described as a dao of which I include as the last 2 attached images below (thumbnails at bottom of post). The 28cm sharp pointed knife below and the ring pommeled 18cm knife beside it are both from the 'anythinganywhere' website which has images of various Chinese bronzes.
Both of those bronzes look suitable as weapons but my own lacks a sharp point which would make it useful as a stabbing weapon. The 18cm knife has a surpringly small hilt due to its total length.
Even the double edged knives I show later have been described as 'unclear' as weapons and others consider items like these dao 'utility knives'.
I believe some can be seen as weapons, others as multi-purpose and others only as mundane knives.
The 'dao' here I consider a mundane knife although it is possible the point may have even lost and it was much like the 28cm example(I have seen a sword of bronze whose blade had been broken and then resharpened short)
The 'dao' is more accurately simply a ring pommeled knife and of no use as a slashing or stabbing weapon and so I regard it a utility knife.
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The middle iron bladed 'dao' shows a similar form enlarged as a shortsword. This is recognisible as a weapon and a reasonable size for a Chinese shortsword.
Coarse cord binding can be seen on the handle. The 2 hilts beside it are the 'Sichuan' style swords and are dated to Han also. Their iron blades have corroded away but bronze hilts like this have turned up in some numbers.


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This knife with ring pommel has an incast design and the blade it so narrow to be of little use other than as a dagger. In this instance short knives of such size can be shown as a true weapon.
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Unusual ring pommeled sword. Closest to a real sabre of any bronze dao. This is clearly a slashing weapon and not developed for thrust. A rather different version of the ring pommeled bronze blades.

The knife attached below in the typical ring pommel fashion is in the size range of my own ring hilted knife yet the point suggests a dagger rather than a utility knife.

Edited by Kenneth, 27 September 2005 - 03:56 AM.

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#6 Thomas Chen

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 10:42 PM

Thks, Kenneth, for your insightful comments...

Btw, fyi, I have a webpage on the emergence of the ridged cross-section on bronze and steel daos...

http://chineseswords...com/photo6.html

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#7 Kenneth

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Posted 26 September 2005 - 11:24 PM

That's an interesting article. Your cross section diagram gives another alternative explanation for what would seem to be atypical cross sections. My dao fragment may then just be a cursory attempt at such a lateral strength feature...but not rendered as elaborately.
Your pictured bronze dao is an elaborate piece. I will be better placed to judge what is 'normal' after I see the number that are in a private Taiwanese collection. If he is kind enough to send photos I will post them sooner.
The more complex cross sections of Qin longswords would seem to be for the same lateral strength reason.
With this in mind I cannot be sure the blade fragment I have is not from a functional weapon that may have been keen edged sometime during its life.
The double edged dagger I have above (just below the Xiongu knives) seems quite likely to be a symbolic piece however as it is too thin to be of use. That some weapons are intended for the tomb only is clearer with the impractically thin or minaturised weapons.
For some blades though a grey area exists and all that be done is geuss work.
That really is a remarkable cross sectioned blade on your site though. A finely made weapon.
Thanks for sharing. My items involve me in a lot of lateral and circular thinking, and so other considerations are always helpful.

Edited by Kenneth, 26 September 2005 - 11:39 PM.

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#8 Kenneth

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Posted 27 September 2005 - 01:37 AM

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Xiongnu knives;
Some of the earliest ring pommeled knives are the Steppes stlye knives, attributed to the Ordos culture or the Xiongnu. Even in SHang times Chinese had inwards curving elaborate knives (close to 30cm long but with half this being ornate handles) with animal motifs which are believed to have been influenced by the items used by the steppes peoples. Shang era dao like short heavy cleavers do exist at a very early stage but seem to be a seperate development and the Chinese swords (jian) of East Zhou come from West ZHou shorter striaght stabbing swords). NOTE; I am not personally convinced the Qin 'wu hook' is a curved sword at all. When I viewed them they had a quite different appearance to all the other weapons and didnt show a sharp edge of which all the other Qin weapons were remarkably fine. Again a lack of specific information on the association of items positioned in the pits means what it was used for isnt clear.
Such Warring States era 'steppes' knives are often attributed to the Xiongnu but clearly by this time they are used by Chinese. The adoption of the Warring States era 'sword cash' or 'knife money' shows the value placed on these items and the value of bronze and so the acceptability of a currency that adopted its from (other coins adopted spade/hoe shapes). A number of states cast such coins buch before Qin there was a large variety of coinage in unusual forms. Such knives must be well known and carried by Chinese. Around the Qin pit were found short knives with elaborate gold fittings.
The enlarging such knives into a suitable slashing weapon did not occur untill Han. These tended to curve inwards at the East ZHou period while most dao are straight. The curving sabre of a more traditoinal form occurs more after persian/turkic influence.
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This double edged knife is in a form more related to a weapon, much like a small double edged jian. I was told this was a tomb object in this items case...being far to light and flisy for combat. I tend to agree that the blade is impratically thin for any rigorous use. The hilt is also a modern addition. The large grip is more suited to modern hands whereas ancient swords seem to often be only around 8cm in grip area. This is uncomfortbale in my hands. The grip has been attached to an authentic old blade, and covered with a expoxy/resin to fake a green patina. Both acetone and paint stripper reacted to the fake patina which a real bronze wouldnt do.
The blade being real has an odd feature of a band along the edge to allow sharpening while the blade inside is very thin. There aren't clear signs that it was even sharpened into a real blade. In this instance the weapon seem more symbolic of a self defense weapon to place in the grave. It could be anywhere from East Zhou to Han.
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T. Allens "Authentication of ancient Chinese bronze"
The author comments on how he is unsure this is a weapon as it is lightly constructed. Again the form is much like the short jian. It looks very much like another I had seen that was very roughly and strangley made with an off set hilt. This example here also has a slightly off set hilt, but not so extreme.
This well may be a weapon regardless and would be useful in self defense. Originally swords were carried for self defense in West Zhou, and were only around 30cm long. A knife like this may just be a variation on a dagger for self protection.
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Chinese bronze dagger/shortsword. This seems much more clearly a weapon, it was described as a sword.

The short sword has a 9cm handle, 22.5cm blade, blade width at base is 4.5cm, blade thickness tapers from 1cm-.7cm before the sharp tip and the hilt is dimpled but appears to be solid and its quite heavy for the overall size.

. This does look like sturdy and useful weapon and again blurs the line between a knife and a sword. Not much use as a swinging weapon it appears Chinese weapons simply had large and small versions in the same forms.
A blade like this is a type which appears in late Spring & Autumn and continued as late as West Han. (bronze short jian were found in attendant tombs around JingDi's royal tomb).
This double edged form seems likely to be a true weapon form of knife as opposed to the utility knives that have a single edge.
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Edited by Kenneth, 28 September 2005 - 10:24 PM.

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#9 Thomas Chen

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Posted 06 October 2005 - 04:35 PM

Hi Kenneth,

Thanks for your sharp and detailed insights on all these weaponry.... I like it..

Besides Donald B. Wagner's book, I would like to recommend the book below for your reference...

The Development of Iron and Steel Technology in China, by Joseph Needham, published by The Newcomen Society, 1956 and 1964 editions...

This book is a must have for all students of Chinese steel weaponry...


Anyway... Check out this excavated 2-handed steel dao .. Owned by my friend Alex of Chinese Swordforum... We think it should be Han Dynasty..

Overall length: 112 cm or 44 inches
Handle length: 28 cm or 11 inches...
Back thickness: 1 cm...

Edited by Thomas Chen, 18 October 2005 - 03:35 AM.

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#10 Kenneth

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Posted 08 October 2005 - 04:57 PM

Thanks Thomas,
The dao is depicted in scenes from the period of disunity also so I don't know how to tell the difference btwn a Han and a post-Han dao, but the steel improved in the later period. With bronze it is easier to 'date' of course.
Yang Hong comments that up untill the time of the Southern and Nothern dynasties there was no change to the longsword {dao}. Pictures from this time show cords attached to the ring pommels of marching troops suggesting as had been geussed that it allowed for a wrist loop too, to prevent the sword being lost. I would expect some bronze and even iron swords may show traces of these cords in corrosion if enough were examined.

I came to a new idea for the ring hilted knives also. I had heard of terracota 'administrators (not warriors) who had been found in more recent years in the Qin tomb area. The text said they had bamboo strip ledgers, and little bamboo 'note pads' as well as small knives to scrape the bamboo to remove errors. This is the 2nd century BC 'invisible ink'. Last night I saw a picture of the knives and they were tied to the belt via a ring pommel by a short cord. The were sharp pointed and shortbladed ring pommel single edged knives. This seems to be the fashion in which the shortest & dagger style 'Han' knives I have shown above could be used. My own dao/knife makes more sense as a scraper of this sort as it has no point. It doesn't need to be so large to scrape bamboo so doesnt have to be so but it does show the general type of knife is a mundane type. It also shows that the straight bladed knives of this kind exist before Han and of course in East Zhou bureaucracies.

re; Needham. He does get mixed reviews on some aspects of his broad works but I will add that to the list of books I really must get.
If there are any points that can be raised from it, or if you can correct me on my flights of fancy (or point out new considerations like the lateral strengthening of cross-sections) then that is both helpful and appreciated.
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#11 Thomas Chen

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Posted 09 October 2005 - 04:33 AM

Thanks Thomas,
The dao is depicted in scenes from the period of disunity also so I don't know how to tell the difference btwn a Han and a post-Han dao, but the steel improved in the later period. With bronze it is easier to 'date' of course.
Yang Hong comments that up untill the time of the Southern and Nothern dynasties there was no change to the longsword {dao}. Pictures from this time show cords attached to the ring pommels of marching troops suggesting as had been geussed that it allowed for a wrist loop too, to prevent the sword being lost. I would expect some bronze and even iron swords may show traces of these cords in corrosion if enough were examined.

I came to a new idea for the ring hilted knives also. I had heard of terracota 'administrators (not warriors) who had been found in more recent years in the Qin tomb area. The text said they had bamboo strip ledgers, and little bamboo 'note pads' as well as small knives to scrape the bamboo to remove errors. This is the 2nd century BC 'invisible ink'. Last night I saw a picture of the knives and they were tied to the belt via a ring pommel by a short cord. The were sharp pointed and shortbladed ring pommel single edged knives. This seems to be the fashion in which the shortest & dagger style 'Han' knives I have shown above could be used. My own dao/knife makes more sense as a scraper of this sort as it has no point. It doesn't need to be so large to scrape bamboo so doesnt have to be so but it does show the general type of knife is a mundane type. It also shows that the straight bladed knives of this kind exist before Han and of course in East Zhou bureaucracies.

re; Needham. He does get mixed reviews on some aspects of his broad works but I will add that to the list of books I really must get.
If there are any points that can be raised from it, or if you can correct me on my flights of fancy (or point out new considerations like the lateral strengthening of cross-sections) then that is both helpful and appreciated.


Your comments on the bamboo knives triggered off my past memories of handling a fine quality Han bronze bamboo knife in a HongKong antique shop, with a similar cross-section as your piece below... only the HK piece was thicker in cross-section...

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Judging from the pic of the British Museum Han Dynasty bronze dao, I think it also appears to have a similar cross-section....
___________________________

Check out this museum exhibit in Southern China a few months ago, showing a rare and fine dagger (top one) probably (in my opinion) dating early Spring and Autumn period... showing the basic profiles of the guard and blade shape and taper, the predecessor of the classic profile of Warring States swords...

Edited by Thomas Chen, 09 October 2005 - 04:37 AM.

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#12 Thomas Chen

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Posted 09 October 2005 - 09:09 PM

Kenneth

Check out also, this Han or later short dao, remarkably well-preserved and showing the forged and folded layers of steel, revealed in the surface grain... I have seldom seen steel daos of this period so well preserved....

Mainland Chinese language website:
http://hfsword.com/b...d.php?tid=14453

Edited by Thomas Chen, 10 October 2005 - 01:40 PM.

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#13 Kenneth

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Posted 10 October 2005 - 06:49 PM

I did take another look at the British Museum bronze dao and it seems there is a suggestion of such a cross section.

The steel dao there is an odd piece. I am very suspicious of anything I dont know quite where it comes from or if the steel doesnt have traces of wood or such caught in it I just dont know how to authenticate it....This unfortunately means often I may exclude real pieces that dont simply make their age obvious.
Some lucky blades of course can escape the ravages of time if the burial conditions are right.
In this case I kind of like the look/feel of the sword.
There are a few real ancient Chinese swords of iron/steel that are not so long as the more famous 1m examples.
This doa with the slight inwards curved blade, the slight point and the proportions seems to look like an iron/steel version of the early-mid west Han bronze versions. It might be rather earlier in the sequence of Han dao.
Thanks for sharing.

With the earlier double edged swords of early East Zhou the distinction between a dagger and a sword is for me blurred. The earliest swords are only around 30cm and more like a dagger to me & unless it can swing with some sort of useful edge I consider it a dagger exclusively. Kind of arbitrary but it seems there isnt really a definition between a dagger and sword that has helped me out yet.
Any thoughts on this? Anything around 30cm long is kind of a blurry area. Not going to be lopping of somebodies hand with a swing of that.

Also, HELP!
Are you able to find an availible copy of Cheng Dong and Zhong Shao-yi, 1990, ""ANCIENT CHINESE WEAPONS - A COLLECTION OF PICTURES"", (The Chinese People's Liberation Army Publishing House).....anywhere?

Paragon who were the distributors no longer have it....and even a search in Chinese doesnt give any way to order it via the internet.
It was recommended on more than one occasion, and my only other option is to hope for a second hand copyon Amazon.

Edited by Kenneth, 10 October 2005 - 09:46 PM.

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#14 Thomas Chen

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Posted 11 October 2005 - 01:35 PM

With the earlier double edged swords of early East Zhou the distinction between a dagger and a sword is for me blurred. The earliest swords are only around 30cm and more like a dagger to me & unless it can swing with some sort of useful edge I consider it a dagger exclusively. Kind of arbitrary but it seems there isnt really a definition between a dagger and sword that has helped me out yet.
Any thoughts on this? Anything around 30cm long is kind of a blurry area. Not going to be lopping of somebodies hand with a swing of that.

Also, HELP!
Are you able to find an availible copy of Cheng Dong and Zhong Shao-yi, 1990, ""ANCIENT CHINESE WEAPONS - A COLLECTION OF PICTURES"", (The Chinese People's Liberation Army Publishing House).....anywhere?

Paragon who were the distributors no longer have it....and even a search in Chinese doesnt give any way to order it via the internet.
It was recommended on more than one occasion, and my only other option is to hope for a second hand copyon Amazon.


Yeah, it is not so easy to specify what is the difference between a long dagger and a short sword...

I have a copy of the above book, but it is long out-of-print, having been published in September 1990....

ps: I have sent you an email on some other stuff...
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#15 Kenneth

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    Ancient Weapons. Artefact studies.

Posted 11 January 2006 - 08:38 PM

Athena Chang has posted on the sword forum some images of 2 'Han' dao & a jian she recently purchased.


The Han jian is quite beautiful. Over 1m long.
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Note the original wood on the hilt still remaining. Traces of wood on the blade are not as clear but they are there too.

I recently purchased an iron Jian. This one is said to be 28cm although it seems hard to believe by the photos, it may either be a dagger then or else rather earlier as the 3rd century BC jian could be half the length of the elegant Han blades.
I purchased it largely to see the wooden remains of the scabbard since it will help me with the traces I have seen on bronze blades. I am enquiring about chemical/sealant methods of preservation on the sword forum....and from Antheas lessons to keep it away from pets. The oppurtunities to get swords of such 1m plus lengths outside China are rare although I saw a number for sale when in China with bronze fittings and sometimes in fragments unfortunately.
http://forums.swordf...t=&pagenumber=2

Edited by Kenneth, 12 January 2006 - 06:34 PM.

Climb over the Great Firewall.
http://www3.youtube....h?v=tzax4KkQ4ug

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