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Ancient Short Weapons

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, October 18, 2010

Short weapons can be divided into two classes based on length. Very short weapons measure less than two Chi (approximately two feet). Often they are no longer than the distance from the hand to the elbow. While short weapons range in length from two to five Chi.

All short weapons possess an inherent advantage over long weapons: they are easy to carry. The same attributes that give short weapons this advantage make them impractical for large battles. They are more effective at short range and, therefore, are used more for personal defense rather than for attack. It is impossible to discuss all of the short weapons of China. From their birth some 5,000 years ago, short weapons have evolved in such numbers as to make any detailed examination a life’s work.

The following is a brief introduction to some common very short weapons and short weapons.

Chinese Very Short Weapons

Since very short weapons were relatively lighter than longer weapons, they were also commonly used as throwing weapons. Due to their size, they could be carried easily or hidden somewhere on the body. The disadvantage of very short weapons was that their defensive range was relatively shorter than that of other weapons.

Short Sword (Duan Jian)

The structure of the short sword was the same as that of the regular sword, except that it was shorter and the blade was not as wide. The advantages of the short sword were that it could be hidden and carried easily as a secondary defensive weapon. In addition, if a handkerchief or a piece of cloth was added to the pommel, it could be used as a thrown weapon. When it was used as a thrown weapon, it was called the “Flying Sword.”

Because it was shorter than the regular sword, the material of the short sword could be made from a harder steel and it could, therefore, be a sharper and stronger weapon. Almost all famously sharp swords are short. Normally, short swords were carried in a pair, and were used in both hands at the same time. The history of the short sword can be traced back to the very beginning of Chinese weapons smithing. During the Huang Di period, (2597-2597 B.C.) short swords made from jade already existed.

Short Saber (Duan Dao)

Short Saber (Duan Dao)

Similar to the short sword, the short saber was also only a shorter variation of the regular saber. Again, it could be carried easily and could be hidden on the body, such as in a boot or in the waist area, without the opponent noticing. Moreover, it could be thrown if a piece of cloth was attached to the pommel, which gave it the name “Flying Saber” (Fei Dao). Often short sabers were used in pairs. The history of the short saber can be traced back to the very beginning of Chinese weapons smithing during the Huang Di period (2597-2597 B.C.).

Iron Ruler (Tie Chi)

The simplest iron ruler was merely a flat metal rod that might or might not be tapered. Some iron rulers had a separate handle. Because the iron ruler was short and easy to carry, it was commonly used by peace officers, in the way a nightstick is used by policemen in the West. The iron ruler originated in the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period (722­-222 B.C.).

Scrape Saber (Xiao Dao)

The blade of the scrape saber was metal, and only one edge was sharp. A groove along the blade equalized pressure inside and out­side the body, so that the blade could be withdrawn after stabbing. If no groove were present, the vacuum inside the body cavity would hold in the blade.

Like all very short weapons, the scrape saber served as a secondary weapon, used in emergencies, such as the loss of a major weapon. The scrape saber could be hidden by attaching it to the forearm with straps, or it might be hidden in a boot.

The scrape saber, like the dagger, was used for stabbing and cutting. Often, martial artists carried two sabers. The scrape saber could also be used as a throwing weapon. The scrape saber was probably invented during the Spring and Autumn Period and Warring States Period (722-222 B.C.).

Chinese Short Weapons

A martial artist carries a short weapon as his primary defensive weapon. It has the advantage of greater killing potential than a very short weapon, and more complex techniques can be applied. Unlike very short weapons, short weapons are rarely thrown, because no smart martial artist would want to lose his or her major defensive weapon.

Martial society today utilizes only a few of the multitude of short weapons. The saber, sword, whip, bar, staff and hook can be found, but techniques used with other short weapons are rarely taught. The techniques for the saber have always been considered to be the foundation of all short weapons. From this foundation, different techniques were developed following the special design or purpose of the individual weapon. Because short weapons were generally lighter than long weapons, they were often used in a pair in order to increase the utility and defensive potential. The following are some examples of common short weapons.

Sword (Jian)

The sword is also commonly translated as “narrow blade sword,” because it differs from the saber in that the width of the blade is narrower, both edges are sharp, and the handle and sword blade are always straight. Also, the metal protrusion protecting the hand flares out perpendicular to the blade, instead of being circular or semicircular, as with the saber. Normally, the blade itself is less than 1.5 inches wide, and is sharpened so that the first one-third is extremely sharp, the middle one-third is less sharp, and the section nearest the handle is dull.

The two basic swords are the scholar sword (Wen Jian) and the martial sword (Wu Jian). The scholar sword, also known as the female sword (Ci Jian), is lighter and shorter than the martial or male sword (Xiong Jian). Another difference lies in the tips of the swords. Whereas the female sword is rounded, the male sword has a sharp tip. In fact, because the martial sword is much heavier than the scholar sword, the martial sword can be used as a battle weapon. However, since the scholar sword is light, and its killing potential relatively weaker than the martial sword, the scholar sword is commonly used as a defensive weapon only.

Martial artists considered the sword to be the most versatile of all ancient weapons, and called it the “king of short weapons” (Duan Bing Zhi Wang). The sharp, upper third of the blade was capable of piercing through an enemy’s body. The blade could also be used to cut. The snake head saw-tooth blade had a greatly increased cutting potential.

The lower two-thirds of the sword blade was used to block the opponent’s weapon. The flared piece at the top of the handle could lock an opponent’s blade as well. This differed from the wide blade sword or saber, which was designed to slide the weapon away rather than lock it. The prongs of the snake tongue sword also served to lock the enemy’s weapon.

Techniques for sword fighting are very complicated. Complications arise from the amount of leg and body coordination in­volved in using the sword as the defensive weapon it was designed to be. Ideally, a martial artist resembles a flying phoenix, flying away to avoid an attack. Only by avoiding and blocking do opportunities arise to stab or cut the enemy.

A martial artist often uses two swords. One sword serves to block, while the other one cuts or stabs. The sword originated from the Huang Di Dynasty (2697-2597 B.C.). At first, there was only the short and wide blade sword (or dagger), made from stone or jade. When metallurgical advances continued, the blade was later made from brass, and later with iron. The blade also improved by becoming narrower, longer and sharper.

Saber or Wide Blade Sword (Dao)

Saber or Wide Blade Sword (Dao)

The character for saber was also commonly translated as “Wide Blade Sword.” The blade was more than 1.5 inches wide, and the handle was often sandwiched between two pieces of wood, and then wrapped with cloth to absorb sweat. A circular or semicircular metal guard pro­tected the hand from an enemy’s weapon sliding down the blade. Often, a handker­chief as long as the blade hung from the handle to distract the enemy and to wipe blood off the blade.

Many different types of sabers existed in China. Their structure was dependent on geographic area, martial technique, and personal preference. Three structural characteristics were common to almost all sabers. First, the back edge of the blade was dull, except near the tip. Second, the upper one ­third of the blade was considerably sharper than the lower two-thirds. Finally, each side of the blade had a blood groove.

Many similar sabers were also created, such as the “Cave Saber” (Wo Dao,) which looks like the Japanese Katana used by the Samurai. In fact, the precursor to the Katana was imported to Japan from China during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1280 A.D.). This was called the “Chopping the Horse Saber” (Zhan Ma Dao). It was designed for defense against the cavalry, by chopping the horse’s legs. The “Chopping the Horse Saber” is also known in modern times as the “Simple Saber” (Pu Dao). The Cave Saber was an officer’s weapon in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 A.D.).

The saber is the foundation for all short weapons. The techniques learned for the saber can be applied to all other short arms. As defensive weapons, sabers were most often used for blocking techniques. The curvature in the blade provides for a violent, powerful repulsion, with less curvature producing less power. Sabers were invented before the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.). During the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.), sabers were actually straight, and were very different after the Song Dynasty.

Short Axe (Fu)

Originally, the axe was comprised of a split stick or club with a piece of stone fixed to it. The axe evolved into a weapon with a sharp, metal head attached to a wooden rod. Different designs or shapes were created and names were also given.

The weight of a short axe made it difficult to block and, therefore, made it an effective weapon for large battles. Chopping, of course, was the main technique of the axe. Occasionally, two axes were carried. Because of the axes’ weight, martial artists needed strong arms to wield them. Axes date from before Shen Nong (2737 B.C.).

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has "made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years." Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.


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