Canton group
Height & width

1: 70 x 70 mm

2: 71 x 68 mm

Thickness

1: 6 mm

2: 6mm

Weight

1: 99 grams

2: 101 grams

Origin

1: Probably China, Vietnam, or Sri Lanka.

2: Unknown.

Materials

1: Iron, gold.

2: Cast iron.

Dating

1: 17th or 18th century.

2: Probably 18th century.

Use

1: Has been mounted.

2: No obvious signs of being mounted.

Price €600, -

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Introduction

Many Asian export sword guards, and later Japanese guards inspired by them, were modeled after the archetypical Chinese sword guard that was imported into Japan in some quantity in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Such pieces were originally called Canton-gata or "Canton form", named after the port from which they seemed to come, although the type almost certainly originated in the north, Beijing and possibly even Shenyang. Among collectors nowadays the term "Canton tsuba" is common.


A Chinese sword guard of the 17th century.
The mother of the entire genre of kwanto-gata or "Canton-form" tsuba.

 

In this article, I present a pair of guards that were derived off that original Chinese guard.

1. An Asian export guard in "Canton" style

An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

Description

A lovely sword guard of archetypical Canton form. It shows two facing dragons among complex scrollwork, reaching for the "Wish Granting Jewel".

The washer seat (seppa dai) is rectangular, following Chinese convention of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the ribbed form is a simplified version of that seen on the Chinese originals. (See above.) It was made with one aperture for a by-knife, the kogatana, and later -probably in Japan- another was cut for a hairpin-like implement, the kogai.

The style and workmanship are not very Japanese and remind more of Chinese or Vietnamese work, possibly even Sinhalese. This seems far-fetched at first, but those were all places where the VOC had "factories" that made and sourced goods for distribution all over Asia, where iron carving such as this was done. The fact that it came with one aperture for the kozuka suggests it was probably made with export to Japan in mind from the start.

A nice piece, of good workmanship for the genre.

2. Multi functional guard

An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

Description

The second guard is crudely made, probably of cast iron, as a seem can be made out on the inside of the tang opening. The dragons are caricatures of the beautifully rendered dragons on the other tsuba, their heads almost sheep-like. Their tails meet at what look like four leaves, of the shape of bamboo or willow leaves. They are not chasing a pearl, but some other unidentified shape.

So why is this of interest? Well, partly, because of its crudeness. Look at the seppa-dai (washer seat), with the opening for the tang: It's multifunctional as to fit both the tang of a Japanese sword, and the rectangular tang of the European smallsword.

What? Weren't small-swords for the wealthy? Yes, mostly. But not everybody was rich, you know! There were captains, officers, and officials. But also lots, and lots, of crew members. Weapons of the rank and file rarely survived but with such pieces around, surely there were swords that fit them.

I haven't been able to find any solid evidence to explain just why these are made, by whom, and for whom. But this we know: It was mass produced and designed to fit two types of swords: European smallswords and Japanese swords. Gift giving was very important in international Asian relations and any primary resource one opens on trade missions mention lots and lots of gift giving, sometimes in sessions lasting more days. So, it was a good idea to carry lots of pre-made gifts to "oil the machine" of Asian trade relations.

This guard probably represents a ready-made item that was ordered in some quantity, to be presented as a gift to both a Japanese contact (of low standing, of course) or a European (again, of fairly low standing).

It was probably commissioned by the Dutch VOC because several guards are known with multi-functional tang apertures that bear the VOC cypher. Europeans, including the Dutch VOC, employed masterless samurai (ronin) on their ships. A guard like this could serve as a gift appropriate to all crew members on such a ship.

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Three Japanese tsuba's with Chinese influence.

 

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Products of Asian maritime trade in the 17th-18th centuries.

€1000,-

A large circular Asian export sword guard with elaborate decor carved in relief on both sides.

€2500,-

A chiseled iron sword guard depicting a Dutch ship with a figure on its stern.

€850,-

This guard, at first sight, appears very

€1500,-

A robust Chinese or Vietnamese sword guard of rare form, probably imported into Japan by Dutch or Chinese merchants.

€480,-

The import of foreign sword guards like t

€600,-
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