The Chinese straightsword, the jian (劍) has traditionally been the side-arm of the scholarly elite. Its military would traditionally wage war with single edged dao (刀) of various types: first straight backswords, later curved sabers. Yet, among antiques there are a good number of unpretentious, simple fighting jian that mostly seem to date from two periods: The late Ming and the late Qing.
China was vast, and rural villages often could not rely on the state army for protection. As a response they started to organize themselves in militia called tuanlian (團練).1 The organization and leadership over these militias was in the hands of the local gentry, the literary elite whose sword was the jian. This explains why in times of great social upheaval in China, large numbers of practical fighting jian were produced for militia trained by jian wielders and not military saber instructors. Most of them date from the decline of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century, but a small group can be dated much earlier: The fall of the Ming dynasty in the early 17th century.
"Recently, frontier officials beg for the manufacture of a short bodied jian that [offers] substantial protection."2
(From the Sancai Tuhui of 1607.)
Notes to introduction
1. For a thorough introduction to these militia systems, see Philip A. Khun, Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China, Rainbow Bridge Book Co, 1970.
2. The Sancai Tuhui (三才圖會) was an illustrated encyclopedia compiled by Wang Qi (王圻) and his son Wang Siyi (王思义). It was completed in 1607 and published in 1610. Quote from Di Cosmo, Nicola; Military Culture in Imperial China, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England, 2009. Page 233.
Overall length: 76.8 cm / 30.2 inch
Blade length: 60.8 cm / 23.9 inch
Thickness: forte 11 mm, middle 6.5 mm, near tip 5 mm
Blade width: forte 40 mm, middle 31.5 mm, near tip 25 mm
Weight without scabbard: 1037 grams
P.o.b. 13.8 cm from guard (handle side)
Materials: Iron, steel, brass.
Dating: Early 17th century
A short and stout Chinese fighting straightsword associated with the fall of the Ming dynasty. It has a simple iron guard with sharp, forward pointing quillons, forged onto the base of the blade. The blade is incredibly thick and stiff, and there is a gently hum when one taps the pommel. A stout piece with a very good balance.
In the blade are seven brass dots, representing the stars of the Big Dipper. In traditional Chinese thought the Ziwei dadi 紫微大帝) or "Great Emperor of Purple Tenuity" resided in these seven stars. His responsibility was determining the date of a person's death.1
Tell-tale features of Ming design are the very thick tang, flat pommel plate, the sword's considerable taper in width over its length and the absence of a hole for a wrist lanyard.
A rare jian that can be dated to the social upheaval at the end of the Ming dynasty. An honest, unpretentious fighting weapon with good quality blade and excellent handling characteristics. Swords from this period are increasingly hard to find on today's market.
Notes to description
1. Fabrizio Pregadio; The Encyclopedia of Taoism, Volume One: A-L, Routledge, London, 2011. Page 382.