Historical Martial Arts, Media and Reviews, Weapon reviews

Ben Judkins- Mulan, the Hidden Hilt Dao and the Dragon Sparrow: LK Chen Explores the Northern Dynasties

This is a review and article that our Knight and Council member Ben Judkins has written on his blog “Kung fu Tea“. He reviews three exquisite swords from new sword maker LK Chen. As always, Ben brings his scholarly perspective and insight to some fascinating objects. Enjoy:

Mulan as she appreared in “New Poems and Pictures of One Hundred Beauties” (Bai mei xin yong tu zhuan), a woodblock-printed book published in four volumes between 1796 and 1820. Note that in this print she is carrying both a jian and bow. Source: Library of Congress.

The Ballad of Mulan

One of my personal assignments for this summer was to write an extensive review of the 2020 Disney production of Mulan. While I enjoyed their original animated feature (1998), this new film promises to be quite a departure. That is to be expected. So much has changed in Hollywood over the last few decades. If nothing else, the reaction of Chinese audiences has become a major consideration for any American studio looking to produce international blockbusters, and given the current state of relations between the United States and China, the details and marketing of this film all promise to raise many interesting questions.

These political complexities were only emphasized when the film’s Chinese American star Liu Yifei’s tweeted comments in support of the Hong Kong Police during recent demonstrations. This led to the subsequent emergence of a robust #BoycottMulan movement and her absence from subsequent promotional events. The film is shaping up to be everything that a political scientist who studies the social impact of the Chinese martial arts in the modern world could hope for.

The one small hitch is that the film itself has yet to be released. No studio is eager to screen a film to empty theaters, and given the situation with COVID-19, it is likely that those seats (at least the ones in the United States) are going to remain empty for some time to come. Disney has pushed back Mulan’s release date multiple times.

Still, this delay gives us a chance to think about this story’s long and winding history, as well as the era when it first emerged. First mentioned in the 6th century CE, the Ballad of Mulan was recorded in a collection titled Musical Records of Old and New. Sadly, this first known written version of the song no longer exists. But roughly 500 years later Guo Maoqian, the Song poet and anthologist, transcribed a copy of it, directly citing Musical Records as his source. His work is our earliest extent source. During the Ming dynasty Guo’s poem would serve as inspiration for a massively expanded theatrical script by Xu Wei titled “The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place.” That, in turn, inspired yet another extension included within Chu Renhuo’s 17th century Sui-Tang Romances.

Each of these expansions of the original ballad can also be viewed as a type of cultural translation where Mulan was brought into conversation with the issues of the current era. For instance, the Mulan of the Ming dynasty is not only a warrior, but she is a skilled and classically trained martial artist who is explicitly shown to have studied these fighting systems recreationally with her father before anyone ever planned on her riding off to war. That expansion of the original ballad makes sense as the Ming was the period when more culturally recognizable forms of martial arts practice really came into their own.

In contrast, gender issues are centered in the early Qing version of the story where we now find Mulan hiding her identity (and plans) to enter a man’s world, then committing suicide upon returning home rather than accepting a marriage that she viewed as dishonorable. Themes of marriage or romance are nowhere to be found in the original song.

It is not difficult to read this expansion as a commentary on the values that Han masculinity should strive for, and which it failed to embrace during the disastrous final decades of the Ming, resulting in China’s conquest by a foreign power. Female heroes (with Mulan once again leading the pack) would reemerge at the end of the Qing dynasty as writers attempted to both harness the “yin” aspects of Chinese culture as a means to resist outside domination, and to shame men into more masculine and militant modes of behavior. The heroines of late Qing and Republican era Wuxia novels have always been structurally political figures, as Mulan is today.

It is thus interesting to review the original 6th century ballad and ask what it suggests about the era of the Northern Wei dynasty. First, it is no mistake that the song is set against a period of instability and warfare. Conflicts were common throughout this era, leading to a massive influx of new peoples, ideas (including Buddhism and Daoism) and military technologies into China. Mulan does not fight in a single engagement, rather she serves more than a decade in the military.

It is also interesting to note that the main markers of martial culture in the poem are horses and heavy armor. The ethnic groups that Hua Mulan would have been descended from were northern horse-riding warriors until just a generation or two before this story.  While the Northern Wei is remembered for the rapid Sinicization of these groups (including the changing of family surnames and intermarriage with local Han families) certain markers of that Northern warrior heritage remained. A living tradition of mounted warfare was chief among these, followed closely by gender norms that were more egalitarian than what was seen both in the Southern dynasty, and later periods of Chinese history (particularly the Qing).

It is important to note that in the original ballad Mulan does not run away from home, but openly buys a horse and joins the military. Her family was not happy with the situation, but they had no other options and knew what was going on. Other period accounts suggest that female warriors were not unheard of in these northern tribal groups. Rather than being ill-suited to the conventional gender norms of the day, as she is portrayed in Disney’s 1998 production, Mulan is suggested to be someone who is accomplished in the womanly arts (the story begins with her at a loom), but at the same time is motivated by a fierce sense of filial piety.

The surprise of her comrades at the end of story can be read a couple of ways. I would suggest that perhaps we should be cautious of literally accepting that they were unaware that their comrade was a female.  Instead they may have been shocked to see her visually transformed by fine clothing and cosmetics as she voluntarily reentered the domestic sphere. She was far from the only woman to take up arms among China’s northern tribes during this chaotic period.

Alternatively, we might read their shock, and Hua Mulan’s response to them, as a cutting commentary on the dehumanizing nature of decades of war and terror. Her ballad tells us that her time in the military was characterized by constant flight and fighting which claimed the lives of several generals.  When speaking with her colleagues she notes that in this world there are male rabbits and female rabbits, but no one can tell them apart when they are forced to run side by side. Needless to say, the notion that we are defined by the roles that society and the state demand that we perform, rather than our intrinsic qualities, was a radical notion then, and it remains one today.

“The he‑hare’s feet go hop and skip,
The she‑hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am he or she?”

The Dragon Sparrow Dao, sent for review, by LK Chen.

A Northern Dynasties Dao

Still, if I am being entirely honest, I would have to admit that politics, whether gendered or international in flavor, will not be at the forefront of my mind when watching this film. Nor will I be looking for a close retelling of the 6th century ballad or the later Ming dynasty play. Like most Chinese martial arts geeks, I will be watching this film to see how accurately the production team replicates the armor (mostly laminar and scale) and weapons of the period. So far, the initial publicity photos look encouraging. While even the best period dramas take liberties with costuming, the various military officers in full harness look surprisingly accurate.

This is important as physical artifacts are one of the few remaining tools we have for reconstructing the nature of past lives. We can approach surviving armor and weapons as texts that speak to the nature of a now vanished military culture in exactly the same way that we can read a poem (such as the Ballad of Mulan) for hints about a now vanished world. Weapons and armor are particularly important to students of Martial Arts Studies as they combine both highly pragmatic and symbolic choices within a single discursive system. In understanding how these relate to each other we learn about the challenges and values that shaped the world of those who used them.

For most of us the primary challenge is having an opportunity to examine, let alone experiment with, these objects. Locating decent examples of weapons and armor at museums in North America is difficult enough. It goes without saying that no one will let you train with them!

Enter LK Chen, a martial artist and sword designer living in Guangzhou intent on offering museum accurate reproductions and recreations of important weapons from various eras of Chinese history. While the modern Chinese martial arts that most of us are familiar with only begin to be documented in the Ming dynasty (and really take shape in late Qing and Republic periods), his swords offer collectors and students a window into China’s deep past. While all of his reproductions are based on archeological finds, the challenge (and excitement) of this material is that we have no comprehensive documentation on how most of this material was used at the time.

Some scattered literary references survive, and weapons are featured in the rich art of all eras of Chinese history. Still, to pick up one of these blades is to leave the realm of lineage instruction, or the HEMA-esque textual interpretation, and embark on what anthropologists call “experimental archeology.” We haven’t seen very much of that in the Chinese martial arts up until this point. Then again, no one has offered reconstructions of ancient blades at reasonable prices either.

Readers may recall that I reviewed one of LK Chen’s Han dynasty jian (the Flying Phoenix) in  early 2020. A friend and fellow martial artist at Cornell purchased that sword and let me play around with it back in February. I was so impressed with what I saw that I decided to order one for myself. Sadly, time got away from me during the Spring semester, and after COVID-19 hit everyone in the “educational-industrial complex” suddenly had more pressing matters to worry about. As things settled down, and the reality of months of solo training began to sink in, I decided that I needed to fill a hole in my armory that prior to a few months ago I was unaware even existed.

While placing my long-delayed order I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email asking me if I would be interesting in helping to test prototypes for some of the new projects that LK Chen currently has in the development. I happily agreed and hoped that I might see something towards the end of the summer. Three weeks later I came home to find a box from Longquan on my doorstep. Upon opening it I discovered not the Han jian I had ordered, but a set of three ancient dao. Two of them date from the Han (roughly 100 BCE-100 CE) and will discussed later in a separate post. The design of third originated in the Northern dynasties (386-589 CE).

While all three swords are immensely interesting, this last one really caught my attention. So many foundational things were happening in China during this time. While conflict was unfortunately common, and the economy suffered cataphoric setbacks after the fall of the Han, the Northern Wei offered a respite from the chaos. This was an era that saw the development of Daoism as a popular religion as well as Buddhism’s initial appearance. The Shaolin Temple was built at the very end of the 5th century and it functioned as a center for the translation and dissemination of foreign religious and philosophical concepts. The nature of the period made people receptive to new ideas and practices.

This is immediately evident in the Dragon-Sparrow Dao produced by LK Chen. In an era when China was being transformed by horse riding warrior tribes from the North, we see clear cross-cultural borrowing and important changes in military technology. While the origin of the steel dao dates back to the Han dynasty, this later blade is shaped and mounted somewhat differently.  Surprising light and narrow in profile, the spine has a thick cross section allowing one to deliver strong slashes from horseback or on the ground. Of course, the invention and spread of the stirrup in the Jin dynasty ensured that more combat was happening while mounted.  Small angular tips could deliver efficient cuts without fear of becoming lodged in a target or punch through heavy armor. Hand guards are largely irrelevant when repeatedly slashing down and away from horseback.

The lack of a handguard on this saber was also necessitated by the rather unique way in which the blade meets its scabbard. The svelte oval hilt is totally hidden (and securely held) within the mouth of the wooden scabbard when the dao is at rest. Mounted in this way the weapon system is surprisingly compact and the hilt is unlikely to get in your way when riding or using a bow.  At the same time the weapon is unlikely to become dislodged.

The single clasp system of attaching the blade to the belt, which had its origins in the Han dynasty and works so well for infantry, is now replaced with a set of double metal loops (mounted on the top of the scabbard, rather than the front) which allow the sword to be slung at a 45 degree angle on the belt and drawn with relative ease while on horseback. L K Chen notes that the style and functionality of these fittings seem to be influenced by Sasanian Sabers of the same period.  I would further emphasize that they mark one end point in an evolutionary process as swordsmiths in the second half of the Han dynasty began to adapt their work to different styles of mounted combat.  So much about the evolution of Chinese warfare over a period of three to four hundred years can be seen in these swords.

As a martial artist I find the Dragon-Sparrow fascinating on a couple of different levels. While I have seen the remains of these types of swords in museum collections, I had never really been able to get my head wrapped around how their unique hilt construction worked before picking up this sword and trying to work with it.  While the total lack of a handguard is disconcerting at first, I quickly fell in love with how light this sword was. The spine appears substantial, tapering from 6 mm at the base to 4 mm at the tip (advertised specs 7mm to 4.2 mm), yet my example weights only 823 grams (a bit less than its official 850 grams).  That is remarkable for something that is 65 cm (close to 26 inches) long.  When slashing or chopping down and away (as one would in the saddle), the finely cast bronze ring and hilt assembly holds the otherwise narrow hilt firmly against the base of the hand and prevents the blade from pulling away from the user, either in the cut or through its own momentum.

With a point of balance between 5 and 6 inches away from the top of the hilt, the dao cuts with a sense of authority; yet with its light overall weight recovery is not an issue. In short, this blade is light and responsive, but it feels like an actual military weapon. It is rigid and I have no doubt about its thrusting ability. None of this should be a surprise as this saber’s design is a composite based on multiple archeologically recovered examples in public and private collections.

Perhaps a few more words on the design process are in order. Rather than being a reproduction of a single artifact, this piece is a recreation attempting to capture a general type of weapon that gained popularity in the Northern dynasties. Because of the nature of hidden hilt construction, and the tendency of steel swords to corrode, it is not uncommon for these swords to be fussed shut when they are recovered from the ground.  Given the delicate nature of these artifacts museum curators have little reason to try and pull them. In this case LK Chen has combined an iconic set of fittings from one (fused) weapon with a blade profile taken from a different (unsheathed) example in a private collection.

A broken and badly  corroded hidden hilt dao with Dragon Sparrow motif in a Chinese museum. Also note the shape and placement of the hangers. Source: lkchenswords.com.
Another period hidden hilt dao, this one free of its scabbard. Source: lkchenswords.com

The quality of this sword is impressive, especially when one remembers the price point ($380 USD).  The blade is absolutely straight and smooth. When looking up the flats towards a bright light there is almost nothing in the way of waviness or hammer strikes. That is impressive on a handmade blade. It is genuinely difficult to tell whether the slight distortions that are visible are from the grinding or if they are just an effect of the pattern welded steel.

The steel itself is a beautifully folded combination of 1065 and T9 tool steel. There are absolutely no faults or blemishes anywhere in the welding. Both the spine and edge of the blade are totally straight with no warps or twists. The grind of the main edge bevels are totally straight.  The only asymmetry I can see anywhere is right at the tip where whoever did the final polish ground the left tip bevel about one mm further back at the base than at the point. Other than that, the polish on the sword is a smooth and bright mirror with no scuff marks or faults. It is simply remarkable that one can get a hand forged blade of this quality for this price.

Given the unique construction of the Dragon-Sparrow dao, the quality of the woodwork and fittings are especially important and deserve detailed consideration. Afterall, it is the hilt and scabbard construction that make this weapon system historically interesting. Once again, LK Chen does not disappoint.

Both the scabbard and hilt are both carved from attractive pieces of teak.  The finish on them is smooth and well-polished. In order to hold the hilt securely both it and the mouth of the scabbard need to be hand fitted. The precision in this process becomes immediately evident if you mistakenly attempt to put your sword back cutting edge up. The hilt and scabbard will only slide together in a single orientation (at least on my example).

When this sword first arrived earlier this week the hilt would slide easily into the mouth. While secure if held upside down, the fit was not too tight. Yet after a particularly humid week in Western New York, things seem to have swollen up a bit. While you can still fully seat the dao with a bit of effort, it now sticks and some care is required in removing it.

Obviously, wood was once alive and remains a somewhat plastic medium. Rapid changes in temperate and humidity can cause things to expand or shrink. This is why so many of those beautiful Buick Yip wooden dummies from Southern China develop cosmetic crack after being shipped to other parts of the world. I mention this here just to remind people about the process and to warn anyone against yanking too hard on a blade that has become unexpectedly stuck. When that cutting surfaces emerges it will be very sharp! Speaking of which, my sword was shipped sharp enough to cut paper with ease. It is not the type of edge that one wants to run your fingers across.

This dao’s metal fittings are also quite impressive. While most of the furniture is constructed of solid brass (chape, hangers, various collars), the hilt ring is cast from bronze.  As I run my hands over this furniture I feel no sharp edges or burs anywhere.  The Dragon-Sparrow’s hilt ring is beautifully detailed and cast with no faults.  I was impressed with the bronze work on the Flying Phoenix, but this far exceeds that in terms of beauty and complexity. The bronze fittings on these swords is consistently one of the most striking elements of LK Chen’s designs.

A raw Dragon Sparrow ring after casting, but before its final clean-up. Note the wedge shaped tongue that will be attached to the dao’s steel tang. Source: lkchenswords.com
An x-ray image of an archeologically discovred hilt showing how the bonze fittings were rivited to the steel tang. Source: lkchenswords.com
The Dragon Sparrow prior to final hilt assembly. Source: lkchenswords.com.
The tang of the steel dao filed into a wedge to fit the Bronze furniture. Source: lkchenswords.com

Like the other fittings, our modern Dragon-Sparrow is modeled on archeological finds. This mythical creature was one of the standard design motifs seen on weapons during the Northern and Southern dynasties. The hilt rings themselves are attached in the traditional way. First the steel tang is filed into a flat wedge wedge. Then the corresponding wedge is filed into the thick bronze tongue that extends beneath the hilt ring. A hole is drilled through the corresponding wedges and they are riveted in place. Lastly they are coved with wood scales that are fitted with metal collars. The end result is an attachment that is mechanically quite strong, and unexpectedly true to examples that you might encounter in a museum.

A period Dragon Sparrow hilt ring. This piece also served as inspiration for the example that was cast for LK Chen’s modern reproduction. Source: lkchenswords.com

The Dragon Sparrow and His World

Still, one question remains to be answer.  What exactly is a dragon-sparrow, and why would it become a (relatively) common design element on art produced between the fall of the Han and the Northern dynasties? While dragons, tigers and the phoenix are still commonly encountered images in traditional Chinese martial arts, the dragon-sparrow has vanished. What did it once denote?

The period between the late Han and the Northern Wei saw a creative explosion of China’s mythological bestiary which has attracted the attention of various scholars. In her chapter “Labeling the Creatures: Some Problem in Han and Six Dynasties Iconography” (published in The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, Hawaii UP, 2016) Susan Bush argues that the dragon-sparrows are associated with a larger group of mythic creatures called feilian. When later used as a proper name Feilian is the Wind Earl, a Daoist deity typically imagined as an older man who carries a large bag. He can unleash his bounty of wind in whatever direction he aims the opening of the bag. And since wind is essential to brining the appropriate seasonal rains, Feilian was widely (and officially) worshiped in an agrarian society.

In their earlier incarnation feilians were a class of zoomorphic spirits generally associated with Thunder gods/soldiers, and often Chiyou. Like him they may have started off as a pre-Han rebels who morphed into storm deities with animal forms during the Han. Indeed, the two figures are often grouped together on monuments or carvings. Feilians also seem to have been invoked as protective spirits in certain mortuary practices.  In some of their later appearances they may also have carried thunder drums, but they were most typically associated with the creation and direction of the wind with their wings.

As one would expect, the exact description of this class of creatures varied from source to source.  Occasionally they are simply seen as divine birds. More often they appear as a type of chimera combining a deer’s body, serpent’s tail, and the wings and head of a bird (typically horned). In other instances they were described in largely similar terms but with the body of a bird and the head of a deer. The variant of Dragon-Sparrow seen on this sword is clearly of the bird headed, serpent tailed family.

Thunder spirits of any kind play a dual role in Chinese cosmology. When properly controlled they can ensure the fertility of the land and good fortune. When misbehaving the results can be flood, drought or destruction. A wide variety of intermediary deities (some of whom, like Nezha, will be familiar to martial artists) are invoked expressly for the purpose of keeping this heavenly machinery running smoothly. Indeed, martial virtue expressed in ritual was seen as important to maintaining the community’s good fortune through the creation of cosmic order.

Given the ability of these figures to command heavenly thunder troops, and thus their ability to function as protective figures in battle, it is not a surprise that we begin to see them appear on swords.  Bush notes that the Daoist master Tao Hongjing (456–536) gave an enchanted sword with a Chiyou image in its hilt ring to Liang Wudi (r. 502–550). The dragon-sparrow’s unique morphology, combing a bird’s head with a sinuous serpent’s tail, naturally lent itself to the creation of all sorts of decorative pommels.  These can be seen in museums, auction houses and private collections all over China. More importantly, they suggest something important about the culture, values and identity of the people who forged and used these marvelous swords.

A recreation of heavy cavalry armor from the Northern and Sui dynasties period. Note the ring hilted dao slung at his side. One suspects that a strong thrusting point would have come in handy. Source: Facebook.

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