Historical references on Chinese saber types are scarce, and the information they provide scant. The most comprehensive Chinese military text is the massive Ming dynasty Wu Bei Zhi (武備志) or "Treatise of Military Preparedness" by Mao Yuanyi. It mentions the existence of 8 different types of saber, of which only two remained in use by the time or writing: The changdao (長刀) or "long saber" and the yāodāo (腰刀) or "waist-worn saber" which at the time was mostly used by soldiers in conjunction with a shield. None of the other types are described in detail.1
Qing period texts dealing with military sabers refer to them as yāodāo (腰刀) or pèidāo (佩刀) both synonyms for "waist-worn saber". Pèidāo was an archaic term that the Qianlong emperor re-introduced in court circles in the 18th century. The term yāodāo remained in widespread use on a more operational level. Regulations of this period focus mainly on the outward appearance of the sheathed saber, describing different mounting styles while not giving much is any detail on the blade inside.2
Then there is a 1932 martial arts manual by Jin Yiming (金一明) called "Single Defense Saber" (單戒刀). He admits most of the names have been lost by then already, but he does describe two swords as a miaodao or ("sprout saber"): a large two handed sword, and a single handed sword. The common denominator is the narrow, gently curved blade. This is remarkable, because today the term miaodao is exclusively used for a large two handed sword.3
Until more accurate historical information surfaces we are left with period artwork, early photographs, and antique examples to study. Pioneering work in this field is done by Philip Tom, who wrote an excellent introduction to Chinese sabers in "Some Notable Sabers of the Qing Dynasty at The Metropolitan Museum of Art".4
The current article aims to continue in this line, providing for the first time a basic illustrated typology of styles. Most antique Chinese sabers encountered in museum and private collections today tend to date from the 17th to 19th centuries, this article will focus on that period. First we look at the two basic mounting styles, to continue with the main classifications of blade curvatures and blade profiles.
1. Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀), Wu Bei Zhi (武備志). A monumental military treatise of 240 volumes with 10405 pages, compiled in 1628.
2. See Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式), or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty". A 1766 publication based on a 1759 manuscript describing all sorts of ceremonial regalia and weapons.
3. "Single Defense Saber" (單戒刀) by Jin Yiming (金一明). Published by 新亞書店印行, New Asia Press, Oct, 1932. (A translation is available here.
4. "Some Notable Sabers of the Qing Dynasty at The Metropolitan Museum of Art". Metropolitan Museum Journal 36, 2001. Also see by Philip Tom:
“Design and Decoration of the Saber in Late Imperial China”, Arma Virumque Cano, Kraków: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie,
2006. Out of print.
"Die säbelwaffen der Ming- und Qing-dynastien", Cultura Martialis, Heft 03 April / May / June 2005. Out of print.
“Of geese and willows: yanmaodao and liuyedao”, published online.
“Military sabers of the Qing dynasty”, published online.
1. Mounting styles of Chinese sabers
During the Qing there are two basic types, fāngshì (方式) or "angular style" and yuánshì (圓式) or "rounded style". The origins of fangshi are unknown, but the style is never seen on Ming artwork and becomes ubiquitous on early to mid Qing artwork. It seems possible that it was introduced -or at the very least widely popularized- by the Qing's founders, the Manchus who invaded from the north in the 17th century.
Classic Qing yuánshì starts to appear in the mid 18th century among in elite Manchu circles of the 18th century. The very first to carry them were the emperor himself, elite soldiers of the jianruiying, and certain ranks of imperial princes. The topic is a fascinating one, that deserves it's separate article. For this article, it suffices to know that the popularity of yuánshì increased over the course of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, so that by the mid 19th century even standard pattern military sabers were executed in yuánshì. Here is a diagram showing the classic fāngshì and yuánshì styles:
In the fāngshì or "angular style" the hilt and scabbard have an angular cross-section, often slightly wedge-shaped, and usually fairly simple fittings to match. Most fāngshì sabers are iron mounted but brass mounted examples are encountered from time to time. Most fāngshì scabbards were covered with morocco-grained leather in black, green or brown, although lacquered or ray-skin covered scabbards are encountered. Most fāngshì handles were straight, but some were curved.
In the yuánshì or "round style" the hilt and scabbard have a rounded, oval cross-section and matching fittings. The pommel is often in the shape of a flattened tangerine -although other shapes like "horse-hoove" pommels are also encountered- while the scabbard mouth- and endpieces (chape) usually have cutouts of stylized cloud designs, like the ones in my diagram. Most surviving yuánshì scabbards are covered with ray-skin, one late military type always comes with black leather. Other materials and / or colors from time to time. Most yuánshì handles are curved, but some are straight.
While the mounting styles depicted above represent the two most common types of mountings for Qing sabers, there are numerous varieties to these themes. Especially in the late 18th century, a number of transitional configurations were in use that held the middle between classic fāngshì and later yuánshì. Some had hilts and scabbards with rounded cross-sections but with simple mounts that remind strongly of the fāngshì they derived off.
Some real-life examples. Note the transitional style to the upper right.
2. Blade classification of Chinese sabers
Officers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) were expected to adhere to certain regulations regarding size, materials and decoration of their sabers. At the same time, they enjoyed considerable freedom in the choice of their blades. This resulted in an fairly large variety of blade types, none of which are mentioned specifically in surviving regulations -precisely because they were not regulated-. A peidao / yaodao didn't even need to be curved, some were straight. As long as they were single edged for most of their length, and meant to be worn on the hip, they classify as peidao / yaodao. Given the wealth of types out there, there is a need to further classify the sub-types.
Coming to terms
So where are these saber typologies? There were probably lists of saber types for workshops making them, but per my current knowledge none such documentation seemed to have survived the Cultural Revolution. As much as I'd like to work exclusively from solid period sources, in this case we are confined to the terminology used by advanced collectors in this field. Some of these may be accurate oral transmissions of the old terms, while others may be neologisms that enjoy various degrees of acceptance. In some cases, names seem to be confirmed by details found on some of the blades. These typologies largely rely on two aspects of saber blade design: curvature and blade profile. Let's first look at curvature.
2.1 Types based on blade curvature
I have made an overview of the most common blade curvatures encountered on Chinese sabers. For clarity, I depicted all types with a fangshi hilt unless it was a type that was never mounted as such.
1. zhíbèidāo (直背刀) or "straight back saber"
Curvature: None. A straight back and parallel edge, the edge only turning up to meet the spine at its very tip.
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's jargon
Technically not a saber because it is straight. But, the Chinese do not hold to our western typology and refer to any singled edged weapon as dao (刀), which is any single edged sword or tool, including straight types. The zhíbèidāo was the standard military side arm until the Mongols invaded with their curved sabers, replacing the native styles everywhere but the fringes of the empire. As such, the zhíbèidāo survived primarily among ethnic minorities such as the Tibetans and Yi of the west and southwest of the country. One rarely finds zhíbèidāo in typical Qing military fittings, but it does occur from time to time.
2. yànmáodāo (雁毛刀) or "goose quill saber"
Curvature: Straight until about the last quarter of the blade, then sweeping up gently.
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's jargon
The yànmáodāo is a transitional phase between the zhíbèidāo and sabers curved over their entire length. The first yànmáodāo seemed to have originated in the Ming dynasty and their use extended well into the Qing. Yànmáodāo are rarely encountered on the market today, most examples appear to date from the 18th century after which the style seemed to have fell out of fashion. For an in-depth overview, see Philip Tom's article Of Geese and Willows.
3. liǔyèdāo (柳葉刀) or "willow leaf saber"
Curvature: A gentle curve along most of the blade
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's jargon
The liǔyèdāo is the most common form of Chinese saber of the Ming and Qing dynasties. They come in many shapes and sizes: Some are nearly straight with only a very gentle curve, while others are more deeply curved. They come in narrow and wide varieties and display a large variety in blade design, with different configurations of grooves, bevels and blade profiles. 3.a illustrates a classic 18th century style, while 3.b illustrates a classic mid 19th century military style.
According to Jin Yiming's "Single Defense Saber" (1935), these sabers can be called miaodao or "sprout saber", referring to the narrow, curved blade shape resembling a sprout. Today, this name will cause confusion because it is now common to only call the large two handed version of the miaodao by that name.
4. piāndāo (㓲刀) or "slicing saber"
Curvature: A deep curve along the entire blade
Origins of Chinese term: 1766 皇朝利器圖式 (illustrated)
The piāndāo is one of the rarest types of Chinese sabers. With their deep curve, they are most suited for close range cutting. They were primarily used by specialized shield bearing units of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Determining whether a saber is a piāndāo or a liuyedāo is best done when having the saber "in hand": liuyedāo feel like the want to cut with some more percussive force while on a piāndāo the edge curves away so far from the center line that it rather slices.
5. niúwěidāo (牛尾刀) or "oxtail saber"
Curvature: Fairly straight to moderately curved from the base, leading to a deep curve near the wider tip section
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's and martial artist's jargon
This is the only non-military saber of this article. The niúwěidāo originated somewhere in the 19th century and found widespread use among rebels and martial artists. After the fall of the Qing, the Chinese military switched completely to European style military sabers. The niúwěidāo was the only native Chinese saber design that remained in widespread use after the fall of the Qing. Widely adopted by martial artist heroes of the republic, it became known as the archetypical Chinese saber while all older designs were gradually forgotten. They generally have wide but relatively thin blades with a widened, upward sweeping tip. This design is optimized for cutting softer, unarmored targets, explaining their popularity among rebels and civilians in a time where firearms rendered armor obsolete.
2.2 Types based on blade profile
The following diagram illustrates some basic varieties to mainly the liǔyèdāo and yànmáodāo saber types. I have kept to the archetypical profiles of these, in reality you can expect to encounter all sorts of varieties on these themes, some of which remain without classification. For clarity, I drew tem all in liǔyèdāo form with a gentle curvature.
1. liǔyèdāo (柳葉刀) or "willow leaf saber"
Profile: Blade of moderate width and curvature.
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's jargon
Added for comparison purposes, the standard liǔyèdāo. Depicted in its archetypical form of most of the 17th and 18th centuries.
2. yànlíngdāo (雁翎刀) or "goose-feather saber"
Profile: Blade of moderate width, with double edged tip with clearly defined back bevel
Origins of Chinese term: Classic literature. It's exact meaning is disputed.
The yànlíngdāo features in a poem by Ming emperor Jiajing (ruled 1521-1567), who sent his general Mao Bowen on a campaign to the south: “The general heads south, bold in his courage, at his waist a shining goose-feather saber.” Another mention of the type is in the Song dynasty text "Jade Ocean" (玉海), chapter 151. It says: "In Emperor Qiandao's first year, he ordered the army be equipped with three thousand goose-feather sabers.". Qiandao reigned from 1127-1194. From this we know it was a historical term, but unfortunately, no diagrams have survived.
According to some, yànlíngdāo is synonymous to the yànmáodāo. Others maintain that it refers to sabers with a double edged tip that is much like the tip of the Chinese straightsword, only with the central ridge between the two edge bevels positioned more towards the back of the blade. It supposedly resembles the tip of the tail feather of a wild goose, the rachis being the ridge and the vanes on either side the edges. I depicted that second type in the diagram, for reference. Both theories are plausible, as both types of sabers were in use by the steppe peoples such as the Mongols with which the Song frequently fought. We know Song dynasty dao primarily as straight swords, but they may have adopted steppe designs already. For sure, a goose feather is not straight.
3. yànchìdāo (雁翅刀) or "goose wing saber"
Profile: Blade of moderate width, gradually flaring out towards its clipped tip
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's jargon
An old and rare form of blade that seems to have lost its popularity around the Ming / Qing transition period. Most remaining examples date from the late Ming to early Qing. A blade of this general shape was found at the site of the Kalka River battle, suggesting its use dates as far back as the Mongol invasions of the early 13th century. The "clipped" contour on the back of the tip section can be straight like on my drawing, but also slightly concave, with a scalloped edge, or serrated edge. Some of the scalloped edged ones almost seem to resemble the ends of the feathers on a bird's wing tip, lending some credibility to the term.
4. yútóudāo (魚頭刀) or "fish head saber"
Profile: Narrow blade with a peaked widening at the back, near the tip
Origins of Chinese term: Collector's jargon / blade decor
Another old form, most examples appear to date from the late Ming to very early Qing. A main difference with the yànchìdāo described above is that the peak at the back of the blade is further from the very tip and the contour from peak to tip is always concave. Some examples have eyes and gills engraved on the tip sections, which seem to confirm the legitimacy of the term.
5. Saber with raised backedge
Profile: Narrow blade with a raised Turkic style backedge
Origins of Chinese term: We still have no good Chinese term for this type of saber.
This type is characterized by a raised backedge in a style commonly seen on Turkic sabers, called a yelman. It is a remnant from the nomadic sabers introduced into China by the Mongols during their invasions that lead to the Yuan dynasty. Like the previous two types, it is an old style. Most remaining examples seem to date from the late Ming to early Qing.
6. wōyāodāo (倭腰刀) or "Japanese styled waist-worn saber"
Profile: Narrow curved blade with oblique tip
Origins of Chinese term: I created a historically plausible merge between the wōdāo (倭刀) and yāodāo (腰刀). The wōdāo being its two-handed variety, yāodāo referring to its smaller conception meant to be worn at the waist.1
Chinese sabers styled after Japanese sabers were very popular in China from the 14th to late 18th centuries.2 In Western collectors circles we call these "sabers with ridged cross-section" or "Japanese styled" saber. Nowadays, Chinese collectors tend to call these qijiadao or "Qi family sabers" after general Qi Jiguang. He famously ordered his workshops to reproduce these, after being impressed by the quality and effectiveness of the large two handed Japanese sabers he fought against. Qi Jiguang was certainly not the first, nor the last, to order Chinese sabers made inspired by the Japanese style:.There are Ming records from as early as 1380 that speak of the manufacture of tens of thousands so called wogundao (倭滾刀), whose name implies they are Japanese styled sabers.
1 These terms are found in the Qing 皇朝利器圖式 and 欽定軍器則例 respectively.
2 For an interesting discourse on late Ming dynasty sword collection, see: Kathleen Ryor: "Wen and Wu in Elite Cultural Practices during the Late Ming" published as part of a series of essays in Military Culture in Imperial China, edited by Nicola Di Cosmo. Harvard University Press, 2011.
3 References to such swords appear in the 欽定續文獻通考 and 明會典. Thanks to 陳兆偉 for pointing these references out to me.
So, now you know the basic typologies. Let's do a little test, and try to classify this saber we currently have for sale:
It's a "fangshi mounted yaodao, with wide liuyedao blade."
The blade is almost straight but has a gentle curve over its entire length. So while being very close to a zhibeidao, it is still regarded a liuyedao according to our typology. The blade profile is not a classic liuyedao, being so wide, but it doesn't accord to any of the other common types we are familiar with. Therefore, we stick with liuyedao.
Let's try another:
It is a yuanshi mounted yanchidao with liuyedao curvature.
I hope you enjoyed this article!
Swords and sabres of the Ming Dynasty
Another article on typology is featured on the very good and informative Great Ming Military blog. There are slight differences between us about the interpretation of yanlingdao and yanmaodao. Without more factual evidence, we agreed that it's hard to say which view is correct, although the views presented in this blog do reflect the consensus among Chinese collectors. The search is on for more info! Keep an eye out on this blog, it is excellent.
Do you have an antique sword for sale?
We might be interested!