Antique Chinese yanyuedao, a.k.a. "Guandao" | Mandarin Mansion

Antique Chinese yanyuedao, a.k.a. "Guandao"

One of the most iconic of Chinese weapons, the yanyuedao is commonly known as "Guandao". It was named after the famous general Guan Yu, an actual historical figure that was deified as early as the Sui dynasty as a symbol of loyalty and righteousness. He later became the God of War, and by the Qing dynasty as many as 200 temples were erected for him alone that were mostly frequented by soldiers. Manchu soldier Dzengseo, who campaigned in the 17th century under Kangxi, mentioned in his diary that they burned incense for his image before going out to war.

Separating fact from fiction
While generally accepted as Guan Yu's weapon, there are several issues with this attribution:
1. Guan Yu was born in the 2nd century and died in 220 C.E. and the first appearance of this weapon was in the Song dynasty Wujing Zongyao (武经总要) written in the early 11th century.

2. The weapon is not attributed to Guan Yu in any of the early sources. The first appearance of something like it comes from Ming dynasty book Romance of the Three Kingdom. There Guan Yu's first appears with a large weapon named the "Green Dragon Crescent Blade" that weighed 82 catties. (Estimated 18kg.) The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was a 14th century historical fiction by Luo Guanzhong. Although not described in detail, it is from around this time that depictions of Guan Yu started to outfit him with a yanyuedao.

3. Official texts that describe this weapon, from the Song dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), consistently refer to it as yanyuedao (雁月刀), meaning roughly: "Crescent Moon Blade".

The yanyuedao in historical records
Yanyuedao are characterized in all descriptions as a wide bladed deeply curved pole-arms with a spike on the back. (Similar to the Italian fauchard.) Varieties without the spike exist, but are listed under different names and are considered different weapons entirely. In the Qing dynasty, exceptionally large and yanyuedao, called wukedao (武科刀) or "Military Exam Blade" were used for strength training and strength testing. In order to pass the exam, each candidate was to perform a simple form with a wukedao. The standard exam wukedao was 120 jin or approximately 72 kilos but various other weights were in use for regular training purposes.

As a funny side-note: One of these heavy wukedao is currently in the Purple Cloud Temple in Wudang, being presented as Guan Yu's actual weapon. The size and weight, to some, confirms the incredible might of Guan Yu. In reality, visitors are looking at a weapon that was wielded by common soldiers of the Qing dynasty to build up strength.

Appearance in the Qing
During the Qing, the yanyuedao is listed among others in the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi or "Illustrated Regulations for the Ceremonial Regalia of the Present Dynasty" that was in turn based on a 1759 manuscript. It was listed as being used by the Green Standard Army, the all-Han army under the Qing dynasty that were a remnant of the old Ming army that mainly used traditional Chinese weapons.


"According to:

“In supporting those with swords and sabers, reclining moon hooks do comparatively well.”

“When displayed in practice the yanyuedao is imposing, but it is not practical for actual combat.”

The regulations of our dynasty: Made of forged iron [as to produce steel]. Overall 7 chi long, the blade is 2 chi 4 cun and 5 fen. Blade has a substantial tip that curves upward. The back of the blade has an edged spike . The blade is held in a dragon mouth shaped collar that is 1 chi and 5 fen high. It has an iron disc guard that is 2 fen thick.

The handle is 4 chi 2 cun and 8 fen long with a 5 cun and 2 fen long sleeve. The handle is made of wood and lacquered vermillion. At the end is an iron pommel that is 4 cun long."

The yanyuedao was perhaps known among the common people as "Guan Dao" from the Ming onwards, but this name never made it to any official texts dealing with the manufacture, maintenance or cataloging of Chinese weapons. It is clear that the association of the weapon with Guan Yu was strong by the Qing. During the Qing, the weapon saw use by martial artists, the Green Standard Army, and for preparation of the military examinations. Among antiques, yanyuedao are quite rare today.

This example

Overall length: 64 cm / 25.2 inch
Blade length: 49 cm / 19.3 inch
Blade thickness: 5 mm at base, 3 mm middle, 2.5 mm at tip
Blade width: 49 mm at base, 106 mm at spike
Weight: 1003 grams

Presented is a yanyuedao blade of classic shape: The wide blade dramatically sweeping backwards, with scalloped backedge leading to the spike. A decorative ornament is still attached to the hole in the spike. The bade emerges from the mouth of a brass dragon, shaped with protruding eyes and ears. This is a representation of Yazi (睚眦), the most aggressive of the nine sons of the dragon of classical Chinese mythology. Some slight damage to one side, see pictures.

The blade is pretty well-made, with signs of an inserted hardened edge plate. Some damage to the very tip, and a crack at the upper base of the spike. Design and construction of this example suggest it was not for practice or parade, but built as an actual fighting weapon. The damage here and there seems to indicate it has seen some active service.

A rare example of an actual Qing dynasty yanyuedao, with a blade made for service.


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