Using Primary Sources to
Study them.

I enjoy ancient Chinese swords and the martial skill they have produced. If you want to understand your chosen martial art better, take a look at its roots. It is too easy to separate what we do from where it came from. This results in:

  • Weapons made for our training that don't actually work.

  • Forms that are choreographed dances, not preserving real martial skill.

  • Mass produced swords with incorrect balance and design.

  • Fake antiques.

  • People calling themselves teachers or masters, who really aren't

So how do you find a practise sword like the ones the original forms were created with? How can you tell if it even looks authentic? How can you know if the antique you are paying top price for actually is, and not just a good fake?

The answer is research into primary source material. Primary sources are those produced by people actually alive at the time. They include:

  • Written records surviving from the past.

  • Artworks from the period.

  • Original artifacts.

In the absence of primary sources for research, we use secondary sources:

  • Written accounts after the event by people not actually present.

  • Anything that interprets primary sources.

Fortunately we do have a good number of primary sources available. For those who read ancient Chinese, the pool broadens.

Researching Ancient Chinese Swords and Swordsmanship.

Here are some helpful ways:
  1. Handling ancient Chinese swords. I'm fortunate that my teacher has a good collection and has allowed me to handle some of them. When you get the chance to handle an antique sword, check the balance, the colours, the materials it was made of and any evidence of which tools were used. Compare similar pieces to see which were common practises. If the scabbard is available, check it carefully. Look at how it was made and think about the processes. Check all the details of the ancient Chinese sword. What motifs were used? Look at the shapes. Don't miss a thing, and keep it in your knowledge for the next time. Understanding builds on repeated handling of numerous artifacts.
    Green rayskin hilt wrap on Yuan Dynasty art.
    Alt Text--ancient Chinese swords in Yuan art

  2. Studying period artwork. When similar details are repeated on a number of artworks by different people of the period, there is a precedent for accepting that as normal in weapons (or clothing, or other artifacts) of the time. Take a look at this detail from the artwork "Pure Land of Baishajyaguru, the bhudda of medicine" from the Yuan Dynasty. This artwork is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The jian hilt pictured is made of green coloured rayskin. if you are developing your skills in interpreting ancient Chinese sword art from primary sources, that's the sort of thing to notice. Then you would hold that piece of information to compare with others, asking questions such as, within which time period did green rayskin hilts appear? Were they common? Was the colour always the same (try to find out why)? Were these colours used on the weapons of common soldiers, officials, or both?
    From "Remonstrating with the Emporer.
    Alt Text--ancient Chinese swords cloth wrap
      Then, when an ancient Chinese sword with a green rayskin covered hilt shows up, you would have some previous knowledge to relate it to. I'm very fortunate that my martial arts teacher has done a lot of such study and doesn't mind traipsing through museums with me and discussing pieces. I expect to catch some of his knowledge and also develop my own skills for research.

    Now look at this detail from a hanging scroll named "Remonstrating with the Emporer" (act. ca. 1475-ca.1505). You will notice that the ancient chinese sword is wrapped in cloth. The hilt is jeweled and covered in white rayskin. There is a particular shape to the pommel and guard. A blue lanyard is knotted through a hole in the pommel. These are all details worth noting for comparison. This is how the rule and the exception is gradually established.

    Notice fittings and lanyard.
    Alt Text--ancient Chinese swords lanyard
    This detail from the same scroll shows another jian hilt, also covered in white rayskin. It is less jewelled but has some decoration. The fittings are the same, and the blue lanyard is very clear. It is also knotted through the pommel rather than the hilt. Understanding grows with each little piece of evidence.

    Let's look at one more. this detail shows how the sword and bow were worn together. There was a place on the bow holder for the sword to fit in, making them both accessible without getting in each other's way. This jian hilt is wrapped in red and it's not clear whether that is red rayskin or cord wrap. More examples would need to be viewed to establish any pattern. The fittings are similar and there is a lanyard through the pommel. although this one appears to be in a similar green to the earlier rayskin hilt wrap.

    Detail of sword and bow worn together.
    Alt Text--ancient Chinese sword with bow
    I'd be asking questions such as, who and what was the person who owned this? Are the fitting motifs the same? Are they all from the same time period, do other artworks show the sword and bow worn together in this manner? Is the sword for martial or ceremonial use? Do these motifs appear commonly on ather artifacts of the time, and how long were they popular, etc. Piece by piece, such research turns into historical knowledge. This knowledge helps you tell the real from the fake and the exception from the rule. It also sets a standard for reproduction pieces.
  3. Reading original documents. Obviously, this means copies of them in most cases. For those who do read Chinese, there are some original military manuals around, or copies of them on the internet. Then there are the taiji classics, also literature from the time. One thing to keep in mind when reading early Chinese literature is that metaphor applying to the time helps to clarify the meaning. So if the story of the boy and the tiger uses a metaphor, and the same one comes up in the taiji classics from the same period, it has relevance to the meaning that was supposed to be conveyed. I have to leave that one to the linguistic experts. However, it's good for all of us to know these conventions exist when studying ancient Chinese swords from primary sources.

I hope that gives you somewhere to begin in your own study of primary sources. My love of ancient Chinese swords will drive me to continue such study. if it isn't your thing, at least you know to ask an expert, such as Scott Rodell or Philip Tom before launching into purchase of an antique that might not be real. It is my belief that handling real weapons helps us keep our weapons forms real and our expectations of swordsmanship authentic.

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