Archive for the 'Weapon' Category


Chinese bronze dao handles

I’ve always been fascinated with archaic bronze. Now green with age, I think they are some of the most beautiful man-made objects we have today. The weapons are no exception.

While doing some research on ji (戟 – halberd), I came across this amazing Chinese site on archaic bronze yesterday. Here are some of the stunning images I found there. These are handle portions of dao (single blade sword).


Reality of weapons fighting

The History Channel has a lot of documentaries on the realities of gun fighting in the Wild West.  One thing the viewer quickly get is how much of what we think we know about the subject were embellished by writers of the time to sell newspapers, magazines, and books.   If we think about it, in China or the West, from the days of epic poems to modern media, when it comes to martial art, it has always been exaggerated.

One area where this gives people the wrong idea is what weapons fighting is like, specifically, what does it take to incapacitate/kill an opponent.  In movies, sword fights tend to end in a sensational, gory fest of decapitation and dismemberment…


In Chinese, chop (劈pi or 砍kan) means a big powerful cutting/splitting motion. You can do that with a jian (straight double-edged sword), but in reality jian fighting is more like (small) knife fighting. You don’t need to split someone in half to kill or disable them. If you got a one inch deep cut on the opponent’s thumb, back of the hand, wrist, inside of arm or leg, on the neck, face, front of the torso… , it would be very serious.

This is true even for heavy dao or katana.  In terms of practicality, anyone who has spent time in the kitchen can appreciate how difficult it is to separate a joint in one clean stroke when you’re preparing meat for dinner, especially when it’s not frozen.  Now imagine doing that when that body is sweating, moving, and resisting. In real life that’s very hard to do. Fortunately in weapons fighting even the smallest cut will do the job. That’s one major difference between empty hand fighting and weapons fighting right – the margin of error.

Giuseppe Castiglione, Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in ceremonial armor

In terms of body armor, there has always been an inevitable tradeoff between protection and mobility.  You can never make it as strong as you want – complete protection.  Because that would mean it has to be so thick and heavy, that you’ll be barely able to move.  Remember that European knights in full armor had to be mechanically lowered onto their horses.  And if they ever fall off…

For these reasons, the real value of the armor then is probably not in offering complete protection against the most powerful direct hits from all weapons, but to save us from those smaller glancing blows that would otherwise incapacitate us.



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.


January 2020
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