In Chinese, a single-edged blade is called dao – knife (刀), no matter how big or small. So da dao means big dao. A double-edged sword that is straight is called jian (劍).

During the Japanese invasion, the Chinese troops, even the Republican forces, were decades behind the Japanese in armament. For that reason, it was estimated that a unit of Japanese force has somewhere between 4 to 10 times the fighting capability of its Chinese counterparts. However, it was discovered during the battle that the da dao was a very useful close-in fighting weapon, superior to the fixed bayonet (as evident after 29th Army‘s famous victories).

A postcard made by a WWII Japanese NGO showing their dreaded opponent The Big Sword Unit of 29th Army guarding the Tianjin Railroad Station during retreat of Nationalist Army.

Throughout the war the civilians have been donating for the war effort. At the time China had a very primitive industrial base (we couldn’t even manufacture matches in bulk – the old name for matches are called yang huo – foreign fire, because they were all imported), we couldn’t manufacture any modern weapons in bulk. That would require high degree of manufacturing infrastructure, as well as all the sophistication implied, like standardization (interchangeable parts), which required high degree of precision and uniformity.

By comparison, the da dao is an very primitive weapon in design and construction. Just about any neighborhood blacksmith can make it. If it’s off by an inch or two, so what? And for the material, even if it’s not the best steel, it’s no big deal. It’s bulk usually guarantees it will have the required sturdiness. This is why there are so many variants of these swords. So donating money to have da dao’s made was very popular, even in the cities.

Many Tonbei Quan masters were involved in training the troops.  My teacher talked to some of them during the 70’s and 80’s.  According to those masters, the techniques they devised and taught to the general troops where no more than 10.  In fact most of the time only one technique was used – a powerful upward sweep to knock (磕) the incoming bayonette away, and at the top, reverse course for a powerful cut (砍) downward toward the neck.

So effective were these simple weapons and techniques, the Japanese military actually devised a neck protector – a folding metal collar that is attached to the helmet. But it proved to be too weak for practical usage.

Since the da dao weighed 4-5 pounds, when swung, it has more than enough momentum to knock away a thrusting rifle bayonet.  In Chinese martial art we say “a 1 once weight when swung generate a 10 pound force”.  Historians note that in European history, most single-handed weapons, like the axe, weighed only 3-5 pounds.

The number and type of techniques taught in this case conforms to what we know about martial art techniques for the battlefield in general: when it comes to the average soldiers, only those that are simple to teach, simple to learn, and simple to use are suitable.

da dao with mauser
An iconic image of the era: units that specialized in close quarter combat usually paired da dao with Mauser C96 pistol.

This and other historical information about dao in Chinese martial art are discussed in more detail in Zhang Yun‘s new book The Complete Taiji Dao: The Art of the Chinese Saber.



8 Responses to “WWII Da Dao”

  1. 1 Robert J. Chong
    2009-10-21 at 1:01 PM

    Hi, saw this interesting tidbit on the usage of the big ol’ dadao during WWII and it’s pretty interesting. I read a copy of the “Xingyi Quan of the Chinese Army’ by Dennis Rovere (the Canadian who supposedly learned from a Col. Chang of the ROC/KMT army) and was comparing your description of the dadao usage with the Xingyi Military Sabre techniques described in the book. Could you elaborate of the particular 10 techniques of dadao usage from the Tonbei/Tongbei Quan. Or if it’s too much a chore, could you illustrate thru words or pictures the 磕 and the 砍 movements of the dadao described in your article.
    I also googled the dadao and saw a particular ‘Zhun (Zhong) Dadao’ (軍中大刀 or 軍大刀)
    vid from a Chinese ChingWoo outfit in Penang, Malaysia. Think that form is from Praying Mantis. Also supposedly there was 2 or 3 other forms from the WWII era floating out and about in the internet. There was one from the Northwest by some fella surnamed Ma which was only a collection of techniques but think it was in a package of just 8 techs. Thanks for any info.

    Bobby Joe Chong


  2. 2 william
    2010-09-30 at 12:15 PM


    I was wondering where can I find copy of the picture you posted of da dao dui, I like this topic very much. Thanks


    • 3 wuyizidi
      2011-02-19 at 10:53 PM

      Sorry for the late reply. Haven’t had time to blog in a while.

      I found these pictures on random Chinese history forums. So far I haven’t found any definitive source on the history of Da Dao Dui.


  3. 4 Dennis Rovere
    2010-10-10 at 1:41 PM

    There is no ‘supposedly’ about whether or not I trained with Col. Chang. My association with him is well documented and his name is specifically mentioned in my award of special recognition as a martial arts instructor from the government of the Republic of China.

    If you look carefully at Col. Chang’s picture in the xingyi book, you will see the scroll behind him presented to him from a general in the Chinese (ROC)army. Col. Chang came out of the 3rd graduating class at Whampoa and both his instructional service at Nanjing as well as his combat record can be easily verified if you just take a little time.

    I find the use of the word ‘supposedly’ offensive as if you have some extant knowledge (which you don’t) that casts doubt on my credibility.

    Dennis Rovere


    • 5 Robert J.Chong
      2011-05-06 at 11:25 PM

      Howdy Mr Rovere:

      First of all, I meant no disrespect to you sir. I read about you in Inside Kung Fu mag back in the 80s or 90s when you went to China to train with the Wu Jing troops. I apologize for upsetting you. When I said “supposedly”, I just mean that I really don’t know since I wasn’t there. Again, I’m sorry but that’s how I talk or write. I don’t really know anything about Colonel Chang, the Nanjing Central Military Academy, the Whampoa Military Academy. Heck, I never even been to China! I was born here in the US and grew up here. I can’t really read Chinese characters either (my girlfriend had to help out), English is my primary and only language.I’m not questioning your credibility sir, I have seen your Chinese Commando Knife fighting tape(s), think I also saw a copy of your knife fighting book and something else about Systema too. I’m also aware that you had previously some “spirited discussions” with somebody questioning your background.

      You’re correct: I don’t know a darn thing about Xingyi or the Dadao except what I read from the books, saw the vids and goggled it online. That’s why I was asking questions. If I already know, I wouldn’t be asking. I’m not a martial artist, just a curious scholar (well sort of anyway). I’m not trying to sound like a know-it-all (sorry if it comes across that way) but I’d really like to get some real info, that’s all.

      Hey, since you’re about somewhere…I never used a sword before, just a machete for clearing brush and an axe for chopping wood. I think of swinging the dadao like a big ol’ machete. I know about the fancy “drawing” cut concept (theory) just not sure if I can really do it (practical). Any ideas? Also, do you know about those Chinese muslims out in the Northwest China with their methods of using the dadao and how do they do it? Thanks and I meant no disrespect or insult to you sir.I have nothing against you, it was just a misunderstanding.


  4. 2011-11-05 at 3:45 PM

    There is supposed to be a da dao form in the art of Kunlun Quan, too, according to one source I’ve seen online. I wish I could offer more than that about it, but a friend and I are trying to find out more about the art, which is quite rare in the USA.



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