The Qianlong emperor kept large collections of antiques including ancient bronzes, paintings, and also arms and armor. Especially among arms, his curiosity went beyond his own cultural sphere, his troops brought equipment from far away campaigns which he studied diligently.
He also used inspiration gathered from arms of other cultures to design new Qing styles of weapons, resulting in some very eclectic pieces made by his imperial workshops.
In this article, we will zoom into a shortsword or dagger that was obtained from one of the Jinchuan campaigns of 1747-1749 and 1771-1776.
Jinchuan Barbarian Sword
The following page is from the Xīqīng xù jiàn jiǎ biān (西清续鉴甲编), a catalog of antiquities that was compiled for the Nán shū fáng ( 南書房) or "Southern Library" of the imperial palace and published in 1791.
The poem is written in largely archaic Chinese, the tone of voice is very much that of the Qianlong emperor himself. Aware of his place as a foreign leader on a Chinese throne, Qianlong was constantly referring to China's ancient past as a means to legitimize his rule and the achievements of his armies. He chose many of the words in the poem from ancient Chinese literature, making it hard to read even for those familiar with Qing Chinese.
Translation by Juul Eijk & Peter Dekker
Jīnchuān fān jiàn
"Jinchuan barbarian sword"
gōngchéng fúshòu jiǎ yǐ tāo
We have successfully captured and manacled the prisoners, our armors have already been stored away.
guīlái fān jiàn chéng piàoyáo
[When our armies] returned, they presented this sword of the barbarians to their superiors.1
xīqiāng shàngwǔ xiāngzhēng xiāo
The western Qiang revere military skills, they are clamorous in battle.
yíngchǐ lìqì cháng xì yāo
They often carry on their waists sharp weapons, a little over a foot long.
qúshū róngfú wéi fūráo
They use animal furs and woolen cloths as covering for their swords.
qiángshí zhòngbào, chěng jué háo
The strong suppress the weak, they are cruel and short-tempered, and they flaunt their fortitude and strength.
fùjī liánzú xiān bǐ diāo
[Our armies] crushed their castles as if grabbing chickens with their feet already bound.
jiū yì hé chéng jiē rǔcáo
Alas, what have you achieved in the end?
tú guān yúchǎng shì shì jiāo
Just gazing onto the Yuchang Sword,2 its sheath is made of [the skin of] a jiao-dragon.3
zhuì yǐ qī bǎo bàngqiào diāo
It is embellished with seven [types of] gemstones and carved clamshell casing,4
guīwén yǐn qǐ xīngmáng zhāo
a tortoise-shell pattern covers the rising star blade's brightness.5
qióng zuó bǎowù sī chēng gāo
It is the most precious thing from the area of Qiong-Zuo.6
xiá zhēn cái gé zhì xùn láo
Now stored in the Purple Pavillion, commemorating our achievements.7
guāngmíng rìyuè bīngqì xiāo
The brightness of the sun and the moon have appeased its warlike spirit.
qiánlóng sìshí yǒu yì nián suìcì bǐngshēn zhōngxiàyùe yùtí
Qianlong 41th year, 5th month. [July or August 1776]
Notes to translation
1. Piàoyáo (票姚) was an honorary title for high commanders in the Han dynasty. (5156edu.com)
2. Yúchǎng (魚腸) is a mythical Chinese dagger or sword with which Helü (515–496 BC) assassinated King Liao of Wu in 515 BC and ascended the throne himself. Helü famously employed Sun Zi, author of The Art of War, as his strategist.
3. Jiāo (蛟) is much like a sky-dragon but lives in the marshes and dens on land. See Charles A. S. Williams; Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives. 4th edition. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2006. Page 148. This is not the first time that Qianlong ascribes a material to a mythical source, the arrows for his own arrows are listed in Qing regulations as "phoenix feathers", but are actually rare imported feathers from the argus pheasant of the jungles of Malaysia.
4. This passage refers to clamshells, but we know from the study of antiques that these swords generally had types of precious stones such as malachite, lapis lazuli and turquoises, and red corals in them. The clamshell reference either possibly refers to the coral, or perhaps to a clamshell-like shape of one of the sword's parts. Tibetan swords sometimes have conch shells in their design, executed in silver repousse on a plate on the scabbard.
5. Another puzzling passage. This possibly refers to a type of scabbard covering. See below.
6. Qióng zuó (卭筰): in the Han Dynasty, it referred to the area of Xichang and Hanyuan, Sichuan, just southwest of Chengdu. Later it more generally refers to the remote areas in the southwest or ethnic minorities in this area.
7. The Zǐguānggé (紫光閣) or "Pavillion of Purple Brightness" is a two-story pavilion located just west of the imperial palace. It was used to store and display war trophies, tribute, and portraits of meritorious officers who fought in campaigns. It was also where the highest military examinations were held.
Comparisons to extant swords and daggers
The dagger depicted bears some striking similarities to a fine Tibetan gem-studded dagger I am currently offering on this site.
Another example, possibly also from the Jinchuan campaigns, is kept in the Palace Museum in Shenyang.1
Shenyang Palace Museum example.
"Knife from minority race of south-west China"
Length 47 cm.
And finally, one was published in Robert Hales' Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime's Passion, page 199. It is described as a Tibetan dagger of the 18th century.2
The puzzling reference in Qianlong's poem to tortoiseshell pattern covering something may refer to a type of silk covering that appears on some Tibetan sword scabbards.
A Tibetan dpa'dam with a pattern resembling a tortoiseshell.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion.
1. Grace Wong, Goh Eck Keng, editors; Imperial life in the Qing dynasty, Treasures from the Shenyang Palace Museum, China. Singapore, The Empress Place, 1889. Page 26.
2. Robert Hales; Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour: A Lifetime's Passion, Robert Hales C.I. Ltd., 2013. Page 199.
The Divine Edge swords
The Qianlong emperor was obviously very much charmed by either this dagger or a very similar one. By the 15th year of his reign (around 1751 to early 1752), Qianlong ordered a redesign of the swords carried by the imperial guard during auspicious ceremonies such as the prayer at the Temple of Heaven. The hilts and scabbards of these swords closely follow the design of the Jīnchuān fān jiàn in his possession.
They are illustrated in the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi.1
"Imperial Auspicious Ceremony Attendant Backsword,
In the 15th year of Qianlong, the emperor set the design of this sword.
It is made of forged iron, the tip is a jian shape but with only a single edge. It is 3 chi long overall, the blade is 2 chi 5 cun, and the width is 1 cun 4 fen.
In the center of the blade are three ridges. At the spine a golden dragon, and the dragons' mouth is 2 cun 2 fen from the tip. Near the handle, there are silver inlaid inscriptions.
On the left is side: Shenfeng ("Divine Edge")
On the right side: "Made in the reign of Qianlong"
All written in li style calligraphy.
The guard is a round silver disc and has patterns inlaid with gold. It is 2 fen thick.
The handle is 4 cun 8 fen long, made of wood covered with white ray skin. There are 9 bands of decorations on it. The middle is turquoise and has lapis lazuli on both sides, and red precious stones between them. Above these, it is decorated with turquoises and red precious stones, and has a light yellow silk lanyard cord.
The scabbard is 90 cm long, wood covered with green ray skin in the middle. Both sides have iron fittings that are decorated with golden patterns. The other fittings are decorated with silver patterns, and with turquoise, lapis lazuli and red precious stones."
A series of these sabers were made, and a few of them are still preserved in the Palace Museum Collection in Beijing. They combine a Chinese jiàn shaped tip on an otherwise single edged straight sword. The guard is lobed, like our example here, but the pommel is octagonal which could be a reference towards 8 as an auspicious Chinese number or towards the Eight Banners, or both. These all carry the name Shénfēng (神鋒) or "divine edge" on their blades, like the above regulations stipulated.
Our dagger compared to one of the published Shénfēng swords.2
1. Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式) or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Present Dynasty". An imperially commissioned text that was published in 1766 based on a 1759 manuscript. Chapter 15.
2. See: Gugong Bowuyuan Cang Wenwu Zhenpin Quanji 56: Qing gong Wubei (故宫博物院藏文物珍品全集 56: 清宫武备) or "The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Beijing 56: Armaments and Military Provisions", Palace Museum, Beijing. Published Hong Kong 2008. Pages 131-133.
For more about the campaigns, see my article: Jianruiying (1); introduction.