Woyaodao: Chinese saber of Japanese style | Mandarin Mansion

Woyaodao: Chinese saber of Japanese style

The ridged blade shape that is so well known nowadays from Japanese swords actually have their origins in ancient China. It was the common construction on bronzes and iron swords from ancient antiquity, all the way up to the Song. When the Song was overthrown by the Mongols, curved sabers -as commonly used by steppe nomads- were introduced and widely adopted in China. Their cross sections were often flat or wedge shaped, often with features like grooves and (raised) backedges. These older Chinese shaped blades served as an inspiration for Japanese swordsmiths, on which they based their work up until recent times. It were the Japanese who introduced their typical curvature to this design, which developed independently from the curvature found on Chinese sabers.

The ridged cross-section did not completely fall out of favor after the Song dynasty, and has seen a series of revivals, borrowed from the Japanese who -living in relative isolation- preserved the design. 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 When in the 16th century general Qi Jiguang was fighting the Japanese pirates he was impressed with the quality and effectiveness of their large two handed Japanese sabers and ordered his craftsmen to reproduce these.

A correct historical name for the single handed Chinese sword with ridged cross-section would be woyaodao (倭腰刀), literally: "Japanese styled waist-worn saber". Nowadays, collectors tend to call these qijiadao or "Qi family sabers" in honor of Qi Jiguang. Even though he was certainly not the first, nor the last, to order Chinese sabers made inspired by the Japanese style. The style was to survive up until at least the 18th century, from which most extant examples seem to date. Qing officers enjoyed a high degree of autonomy in their choice of saber and could commission their weapons as they pleased, as long as they kept within certain regulations regarding size and materials used for the fittings, and the color of their grip wrap.

Portrait of General Qi Jiguang (left) and a page from his saber manual (right).

Various poems indicate that there was a fascination for foreign swords from at least the late Ming dynasty. During this time it was particularly popular to carry swords of the Japanese enemy, or with likeness to them, by the Ming elite to show their martial prowess.2 There is also a Qing princely saber with an actual Japanese blade in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, accession number: 32.75.301a, b that indicates this practice endured until the high Qing of the 18th century.

The example in the Metropolitan Museum. Accession number: 32.75.301a, b

1 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.
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.


Overall length: 91.5 cm / 36 inch
Blade length: 73.5 cm / 29 inch
Thickness: forte 7.5 mm, middle 5.5 mm, near tip 4 mm
Blade width: forte 32 mm
Weight without scabbard: 941 grams

Presented here is a large and impressive example of a Chinese saber of Japanese style, its blade dating to the 17th century to early 18th century. This period covers the late Ming to Qing conquest period, up to the end of the reign of the Kangxi emperor who consolidated Qing rule.

Of outstanding workmanship with precise edges and bevels. Even contours throughout. There are no edge cracks, no areas of excessive polishing. It is tightly forged, with no apparent forging flaws. A few tiny nicks at the tip section of the blade indicate it has seen actual service. Even the tip section is original, and not reground as is often the case on these. The blade is of what the Japanese call shobu zukuri style, with no kissaki, the line demarcating the transition between blade and tip. This style is believed to date from the Mongol invasions. It has its deepest curvature in the center of the blade, known as torri-zori in Japanese.

Its current high grade polish it reveals both the high carbon edge plate exposed from layers of milder iron and steel, as well as the cloudy effect of heat treatment or shuangxue (霜雪) in Chinese, wider known under the Japanese term "hamon" The shuangxue is largely straight and wraps nicely around the tip section, showing off considerable control by the smith.

Like the majority of Chinese sabers, it lost its fittings in the tumults of the Great Leap Forward where countless of swords and sabers were stripped of their furniture in preparation to be molten in backyard steel furnaces. Luckily, this blade somehow managed to escaped such an ill fate. This treasure of a saber blade is now housed in a set of fittings designed by Philip Tom, representing the classic angular style (fangshi) that was the norm in the 17th and most of the 18th century. Philip also manufactured the hilt and scabbard and assembled the piece. Its scabbard is covered with morocco grained green goat skin. Morocco grained leather was predominantly used before ray-skin got widespread from the late 18th century onwards. The fittings are executed in heavy bronze in a typical early version of fangshi. The grip wrap was done by myself in my highest grade, hand woven and hand braided cotton cord.

In its current configuration the handle is secured by a peg through a hole in the tang that is meant for the saber's lanyard. This way the blade can be easily removed from its new mountings so that the collector can appreciate the bare blade and the tang can be studied. The end of the tang comes through the pommel, so it might be easily secured in the traditional manner by peening, might a future owner so wish.

When it comes to quality and condition of a blade, this is about as good as Chinese sabers get. An asset to any serious collection of Chinese weapons, or a study piece for the true connoisseur. From a martial arts perspective: A good example of a heavy cutting saber as used by the military of the late Ming and early Qing.


Interested, or questions?
Contact me at: peter@mandarinmansion.com