Finely carved sword guard | Mandarin Mansion

Finely carved sword guard

Height & width: 81 x 81 mm
Thickness: 6 mm
Weight: 172 grams

Origin: Maritime Asia
Materials: Iron, silver, gold, copper
Dating: Probably 18th century
Use: Has been mounted

A rather unusual piece. (Aren't they all?) This guard at first sight appears very Japanese in overall style, theme and execution. close inspection though reveals some important discrepancies with typical Japanese work.

1. A rather "freehand" style of execution.
2. A sunken washer seat, highly unusual for Japanese work.
3. One of the side openings (hitsu-ana) is unusually small.

The decor shows a typical Chinese theme which in itself is not out of the ordinary for Japanese work.

It portrays the the encounter between Zhang Liang (張良) and Huang Shigong (黃石公). Zhang Liang plotted a failed assassination attempt at emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) and subsequently went into hiding in Xiapi.

According to legend, he met an old man there at Yishui Bridge who threw his shoe down on purpose and asked Zhang to go fetch it. Zhang reluctantly got it, and the man asked if he could put it on for him. Zhang was angry but managed to hide his temper and obliged. First the man left laughing out loud, but then came back and said: "This child can be taught!". He then ordered Zhang to meet him at dawn, five days later. When Zhang arrived the man was already there, scolding: "How can you be late for a meeting with an elderly man? Come back again five days later!". The next time, Zhang came early but still not early enough so the third time he came at midnight and waited for the old man to arrive.

The old man was impressed with Zhang Liang's fortitude and humility, and presented Zhang with a book, saying, "You can become the tutor of a ruler after reading this book. Within ten years, the world will become chaotic. You can then use your knowledge from this book to bring peace and prosperity to the empire. Meet me again 13 years later. I am the yellow rock at the foot of Mount Gucheng."

The old man was Huang Shigong, literally: "Yellow Rock Old Man" The book was Three Strategies of Huang Shigong, that was to become one of the seven Chinese military classics. According to the legend, Zhang Liang went to Mount Gucheng 13 years later and did find a yellow rock there. He built a shrine to worship the rock and the rock was buried with him after his death.

Zhang Liang was to become a strategist and statesman who helped destroy the Qin and found the Han dynasty. He acted as strategist and statesman and was later hailed as one of the "Heroes of the early Han dynasty" (漢初三傑)

On this guard
The facing side of the guard shows Huang Shigong on a horse on top of Yishui Bridge, and Zhang Liang stands under it, holding the shoe up. Interestingly, his right hand holds a Chinese straightsword, jian (劍) whose scabbard is depicted sticking out from under his robe on the left. A large pine tree emerges from the left, its canopy hanging over the bridge. In the bottom left is a dragon emerging from the water.

In the lower right there is a dragon emerging from waves, and rising from the left is a cypress tree, a symbol of longevity, that arches over the bridge. The reverse shows a more tranquil scene of rocks, a cypress tree, a little thatched roof. There is waterfall on the right, and a carp that is fighting its way upstream. Carps are symbols of perseverance and legend has it that some turn into dragon eventually.

The story of Huang Shigong is a classic Chinese folk tale that teaches humility, while the carp and dragon iconography refers to perseverance.

Much unlike typical Japanese work, the background from which the designs are risen shows tool marks throughout where often still the direction of chisel strokes can still be made out, or dents from hammer strokes.The raised work in turn is finely detailed but executed with a looseness that's uncommon in Japanese work. On one side, the washer seat is sunken at the top and slightly raised at the bottom, another highly unusual feature.

Small opening
As mentioned, it has some odd features. One is the washer seat seppa dai which is sunken somewhat on the obverse. Uncommon on Japanese work, it's seen sometimes on Chinese guards.

Another highly unusual feature is the diminutive size of one of the two openings. These openings, called hitsu-ana in Japanese, are to accommodate the handles of a knife and hairpin often carried in the scabbard alongside the main sword or dagger. Such utensils were briefly adopted in Vietnam around the 16th century, but fell out of favor again probably around the 18th century. The feature remained as a decorative element, sometimes so small as to be rendered useless from a practical standpoint:

Lobed guard of a Vietnamese saber. Probably 18th century. Private collection.

The small hitsu-ana on this guard reminds strongly of the Vietnamese example.

In the 16th century, political unrest in Japan caused many Japanese sailors, merchants, craftsman, and leaderless samurai or ronin to flee the country. At the time China was largely closed for maritime trade, treating anyone who came by ship as "pirate". As a result, many kept sailing along the southern Chinese coast until they reached Vietnam and sought their fortune there.

I assume some of these may have been craftsmen that continued working in Vietnam, possibly even teaching locals. As these lineages were isolated from their culture, styles probably watered down over the generations until Japanese influence on Vietnamese arms manufacture was all but gone by the 19th century.

Sacred jewel?
On the forehead of the horse is a "flaming pearl". Known by many other names such as "wish granting jewel", it is often chased by two dragons on the archetypical Canton tsuba, which in turn was based on Chinese saber guards. I don't know if it means anything, but it is an interesting detail. Take a look:

Possible origins
This guard is not a blatant example of an "Asian export sword guard", as in it's not trying real hard to be different, but it has some odd details to suspect it's not Japanese work either.

It is hard to pinpoint where a guard like this was made. There were Japanese craftsmen working in Vietnam and Batavia, Chinese working in Nagasaki, and then there were Sinhalese, Vietnamese and Chinese craftsmen working in Japanese styles, many of them working for international buyers who intended to take such guards to Japan to present as gifts. Then there were Japanese makers in Nagasaki who simply were inspired by all the foreign guards that were imported through the port of their hometown. The work does remind of the Onitake school of Nagasaki.

One possibility is that this guard was made in north Vietnam by either a Japanese immigrant family, or Vietnamese who were taught by them. This could help explain the overly small hitsu ana as seen only on some Vietnamese work.

That said, the workmanship does also remind of some Sinhalese work. The Dutch had factories in both Vietnam and Sri Lanka, where all sorts of goods were made including lavish smallsword hilts in a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Sinhalese and European styles.1 Such workshops were not confined to working strictly in styles of their own culture and produced all kinds of off hybrids.

A fascinating piece that deserves further study.

€ 1600,-

Interested? Questions?

1. See: Sawasa: Japanese Export Art in Black and Gold 1650-1800, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1999.

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