The peidao (佩刀) or yaodao (腰刀) was the main hilted weapon of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Both terms literally mean "waist-worn saber", and they describe the exact same weapon. Peidao is a classier term found in regulations for court assemblies, while yaodao is the term used in the more operational military regulations. The elite bannermen of the Qing were obliged to always wear one when in public. During official assemblies such as grand military reviews, the materials of fittings, colors and decor of the saber and its scabbard were strictly regulated but soldiers and officers were free to chose blade shapes to their own liking. The Qing elite got considerable amounts of silver to buy and maintain their equipment, up to 20 teals of silver a month just for that purpose.
Saber length: 77.5 cm / 30.5 inch
Blade length: 62 / 44.4 inch
Length in scabbard: 90.7 cm / 35.7 inch
Blade thickness: 6.5mm at base, 5mm middle, 3mm at wide part of tip.
Blade width: 30mm at base, 29.5mm middle, 33mm at wide part of tip.
Weight: 691 grams
The blade with gradual widening near the tip leading up to a peak, then sweeping down to a delicate point. These are referred to as 雁翅刀 (yanchidao: "goose wing saber") or 風翅刀 (fengchidao: "phoenix wing saber") among Chinese collectors. Although no historical texts confirm this terminology, the names are commonly accepted among researchers of Chinese arms. It is a particularly 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. Because of their age, and the fact that sabers were often passed down from generation to generation, it is very rare to find the goose wing type saber with all original contours, such as this one.1 This example has a healthy, functional blade with no flaws and decent weight behind it. Bevels and blade contours are precisely formed. It has a good, stiff temper that can be felt resonating when you tap the pommel.
The flat, relatively wide and blade was made without grooves so it could serve as a canvas for the smith to show off his considerable skill in metalwork. In this case two rare forging types were combined: On the right side of the blade we find so-called hairpin laminations, typical for Tibetan backswords and daggers but rarely seen on non-Tibetan edged weapons. The work consists of boldly contrasting layers nicely following the contours of the peaked back of the tip.
Tibetan "hairpin" laminations on left side of blade.
The right side of the blade consists of four-row twistcore, a particularly labor intensive and highly prized forging method. The effect is the the result of twisting four layered bars of different metals, welded together, and then ground down to a plate, exposing the twisted cores to the observer. On this example, the high-carbon edge of the hairpin side was skilfully folded around the edge of the twistcore, merged nicely into the rosettes. Right above the edge appear the cloudy effects of the differential heat treatment. The work is tightly forged.
Twist-core on right side of blade.
The back or "spine", seen from above. It shows a nice straight demarcation between the twist and hairpin forged sides.
Overall a very rare early style of saber that combines two distinctly different steel constructions on a single blade. Chinese sabers with dual twist-core and Tibetan style hairpin forging in any condition are very rare.2
1We've had another saber with hairpin / twistcore combination in the past. Blade of somewhat more common liuyedao form, but this time with very rare Ming style hilt with 18th century decor. The group is too small to draw any sound conclusions, but it is at the very least striking that both exhibit a combination of hairpin and twistcore forging methods on a single blade, and combine Ming and Qing styles in either blade or handle.
The old blade is mounted in brass yuanshi (圓式) or "round style" fittings that were in fashion in the later part of the Qing. This style is first seen on the painting of an imperial procession under Qianlong in 1748. It was originally strictly for certain elite units such as the Jianruiying and specific princely ranks, but we see a trickle down effect from the late 18th century onwards, and eventually the style became the predominant style used in the Qing military.3
The fittings are of classic style and decor of the later half of the Qing. The inner contours of the scabbard mounts are stylized clouds, referring to the fact that they were worn by the emperor's "Heavenly Troops", who were to execute "Heaven's Will". All fittings feature dragons among foliage; two dragons on the guard are chasing the flaming pearl of wisdom. A flower with four petals features on the back of the pommel. Detail of the fittings above the norm for the period, with some more diligent piercing than regular officer fittings of its day.
A young prince Yihuan with his yuanshi or "round style" mounted saber.
The scabbard is interesting, covered in black morocco-grained leather. Many collectors hold ray-skin as a token of good quality but actually in the 17th and 18th centuries, morocco grained leather was the norm. Ray-skin was rarely encountered, even on imperial pieces.4 It wasn't until the 19th century that ray-skin became more widely available through the opening of southern trade routes. When it did, almost every sword, up to simple soldier's sabers and curio trade pieces, got fitted in ray skin scabbards. In this light it is all the more interesting that this example, which was refitted in its current mountings during a time when ray-skin was popular and abundant, still has a grained leather covered scabbard in keeping to earlier fashions of the height of the Qing. The grain in the leather was made with a stamp, creating a pleasing effect with dots laid out in concentric semi circles.
Condition & restorations
Blade in new polish by Philip Tom to reveal its elaborate construction. He fixed a crumbling wooden handle, without disturbing the peened tang end, cleaned the fittings and touched up some very minor damage to the scabbard leather. I did the grip wrap in hand woven, hand braided, naturally dyed genuine silk, aged to match, and added a hand made lanyard, also of genuine silk and of appropriate historically accurate weave. Pre-restoration pics available upon request.
Blade and fittings in excellent condition: two minor irregularities in the edge, so small they can hardly be seen. Some isolated speckles of pitting remain. Leather covering the scabbard in excellent condition, some wear to the inside of scabbard due to repeated use. I have not yet seen a yanchidao blade that was this well preserved, in particular the contours of the tip section tend to get distorted over time.
A heirloom blade of very rare form, exhibiting two rare forging methods, in excellent condition: All contours and bevels still intact. Fitted in quality fittings of the later half of the dynasty, with a scabbard covering that refers back to 18th century fashions. The excellent condition of the blade gives the impression it was probably an important and treasured family heirloom, carried by an officer of some pedigree who had it outfitted to confirm to the fashions and regulations of his own time.
1Various sources make mention of arms being passed down along generations among the elite Bannermen of the Qing. Elliott describes how young bannermen entering service would often purchase their first equipment from the retiring generation. In many cases, the equipment was then repaired and / or refitted to modern needs and tastes. Theobald describes how Manchu commander Neqin -on grounds of cowardice laziness, squandering state finances and exhausting the troops- was forced to commit suicide in front of the army with the sword of his own grandfather Ebilun. See: Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way. Stanford University Press, 2001 and Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010. Page 51.
2We've had another saber with hairpin / twistcore combination in the past. Blade of somewhat more common liuyedao form, but this time with very rare Ming style hilt with 18th century decor. The group is too small to draw any sound conclusions, but it is at the very least striking that both exhibit a combination of hairpin and twistcore forging methods on a single blade, and combine Ming and Qing styles in either blade or handle.
3The first time the round style turns up in official regulations is in the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式) or "Illustrated Ceremonial Paraphernalia for our Dynasty", based on a 1759 manuscript. It states that the style was designed in the 14th year of Qianlong, corresponding to 1749, a year after the style first appeared on artwork of an imperial procession.
4For examples of leather scabbards on sabers the 18th century, see Philip Tom's "Some Notable Sabers of the Qing Dynasty at The Metropolitan Museum of Art": Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 36 (2001) and 故宫博物院藏文物珍品全集 56：清宫武备. 故宫博物院 (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Beijing 56: Armaments and Military Provisions, Palace Museum, Beijing, Hong Kong, 2008.