Dan Dao Fa Xuan, Historical Martial Arts, Translations

Dan Dao Fa Xuan: part one

The martial arts manual is a core piece of modern martial arts lore. The book that contains secret techniques and methods for defeating your enemy is story that is told in countless movies, TV shows, and novels. What surprises most Practitioners of Chinese martial art, is that in China, the grand majority of the oldest manuals were produced late in the Ming Dynasty after about 1500 CE. At least the ones that have survived. These manuals begin the tradition that we know today of training manuals being published as instructions for lay people. And of course, we have a robust industry of these texts. Due in large part to this writer.


During this period, the qualities that we consider to make up a martial arts manual, all got their start. The publishing boom of the Ming helped produce a large number of printed material affordable by the masses. Because of this we have more writers writing and publishing martial texts with out being in the hereditary military system and for military readers. Scholars and literati started to enjoy martial arts and began penning treatises of their teachers methods. These historical ‘hobbyists’ are in large part responsible for these type of books getting published and distributed in the day.

Dan Dao Fa Xuan (單刀法選) is one of the seminal volumes of martial arts in China. Cheng Zongyou 程宗猷 (1561-1636), the author of Dan Dao Fa Xuan 單刀法選. Was one of these literati patrons of the art. Cheng Zongyou, was the author of four volumes of martial technique: Staff, Long Saber, Spear, and Crossbow. These four were later complied into one volume called, Gengyu Shengji (Skills Beyond Farming). These were the principal weapons used by Ming infantry during the later part of the Dynasty. The introductory chapters describe the weapon, its origin, and its use in battle.

The Text: introduction



新都 程冲斗宗猷 撰




   器名單刀,以雙手用一刀也。其技擅自倭奴。煆煉精堅,制度輕利,靶鞘等物,各各如法,非他方之刀可並。且善磨整,光耀射目,令人寒心。其用法,左右跳躍,奇詐詭秘,人莫能測,故長技每每常敗於刀。 余故訪求其法,有浙師劉雲峯者,得倭之真傳,不吝授余,頗盡壺奧。時南北皆聞亳州郭五刀名,後親訪之,然較之劉,則劉之妙,又勝於郭多矣。艮元受劉刀,有勢有法而無名。今依勢取像,擬其名,使習者易於記憶。其用法,亦惟以身法 為要,儇跳超距,眼快手捷,誘而擊之,驚而取之,心手俱化,膽識不亂,方可言妙。今將八弩兼用,亦惟選數勢繪圖,直述其理之可以與鎗敵者。若遇他器,而此圓轉鋒利,制勝又在我矣。

This weapon is called the “Single Saber” because both hands are needed to use one sword. These techniques were taken from the Japanese Slaves. Forged to be strong and powerful, light and sharp. When given a fine polish, it is dazzling to behold and strikes fear into the hearts of men. It is applied by leaping and hopping  left and right , deception and guile make it unpredictable, this is why the “long skill” often fails against the saber. I sought to learn these methods from master Liu Yun Feng of Zhe who had obtained the genuine transmission of the Japanese, he was not stingy with his teachings, and bestowed upon me the all secrets of the art. I visited Guo Wu Dao of Bo Zhou prefecture, who is renowned from North to South. Afterward, I was able to compare his method with Liu’s. Liu’s method is exquisite, and is far superior to Guo’s, unfortunately, I was only able to receive the stances and methods but not the names. I will use names descriptive of the action being performed to make it easy to understand and remember. It’s method of application is dependent on the body mechanics, necessary for nimble leaps, quick hand-eye coordination, lure them in and strike, take the advantage by surprise attack, thought and action are one, courage will clear your mind and give you insight. I have drawn the figures equipped with the crossbow and saber, and selected various stances to illustrate fighting against the spear. If I face other weapons, then it is agile and sharp, and victory will again be mine. 


   古云:「快馬輕刀」。今以倭刀為式,刀(三尺八寸)、靶(一尺二寸),則長有五尺。如執輕刀一言,制不得法,鐵不鍊鋼,輕則僥薄,砍下一刀,刀口偏歪一邊,焉能殺人。如要堅硬,則刀必厚,厚必重,非有力者不能用也。故制法,惟以刀背要厚,自下至尖,漸漸薄去,兩旁脊線要高起,刀口要薄,此即輕重得宜也。鐵要久 鍊去渣屎。磨時無麻子小點,如鏡一樣光彩,則遇潮汗,亦不至上銹,乃鐵多煉少,是久煉成鋼也。刀鞘內要寬,刀口寸金箍入鞘口略緊勿鬆。緊鬆亦要得宜,以便出入。如用弩帶刀,刀長 (二尺八寸),靶長九寸,共長三尺七寸。不可過長,恐懸帶腰間,用弩不便。鞘用皮制,其法載前用弩兼鎗刀說中。

As the old saying goes: “fast horse, light sword”. Here are the specifications for the Japanese sword, the blade is 3 chi and 8 cun, the handle is 1 chi and 2 cun, the entire length is 5 chi. If we only strive to make the sword light, the manufacturing will be incorrect, if the iron is not suitable, the steel will not be strong. It will be light but thin, chopping down with the sword will roll the edge. Then, how will you kill anyone? If it needs to be strong, the saber surely must be thick and heavy, those who are not strong will not be able to use it. An old method to attain the ideal weight, understand the back of the saber must be thick, from the base it must arrive at a keen tip, a gradual distal taper, the ridge line of both sides must be straight and raised, and the edge must be thin. The iron must be well forged to remove impurities. Polish with hemp [cloth] to remove the smallest blemish, so that it shines like a mirror, when it encounters moisture or sweat, it will resist rust and corrosion, surely such highly refined iron is rare, It takes a long time to forge such good steel. The inside of the scabbard must be large, a metal cap should be affixed to the mouth of the scabbard and an opening made to accommodate the blade snugly and should not be loose. It should be just tight enough to allow for drawing and for keeping the blade in the scabbard. If you use a crossbow with the saber, the saber is long (2 qi 8 cun), the handle is 9 cun long, altogether it is 3 qi 7 cun. Too long, it will be difficult to wield while using a crossbow, when it is hung from the waist. The scabbard should be made of leather to be used in conjunction with the saber, spear, and crossbow. 


Size and dimensions

Length of the weapon is measured in chi and cun; 1 cun=1.26 inches or 32 mm, 1 chi =12.6 inches or 32 cm. So the dimensions of the larger sword are: Blade=48.4 inches Handle=15.12 inches Entire weapon=63.54 inches. Where as the smaller weapon for use with a crossbow, is:  Blade=36 inches Handle=11.34 inches , Entire Weapon:46.62 inches

For the time period, Two handed sabers were not as common as they had been in the Han and Tang Dynasties. The Spear and halberd type weapons like the Yue Dao (now know as a Guan dao) and Pu dao, eventually replaced them with superior reach. Like other civilizations, swords became more of a side arm to be used with long weapons and shields. The introduction of this weapon was full circle in the the design and forging of swords with Japan. The craftsmanship and beauty of the Japanese weapons had an enormous influence on Chinese cold arms, just as China had influenced Japan in the Tang Dynasty. This is undoubtedly the largest hilt based weapon (sword) in the Ming Arsenal.

Origin of the weapon and exchange of techniques.

 Cheng uses the term “倭奴- Wonu” or “Dwarf Slave”. This term is related to the more common term “WoKou” Referring to the coastal Bandits that plagued the China coast in the Ming Dynasty. “Wokou” is most often translated as meaning “Japanese Pirate” as it originally was a pejorative for the Japanese, but also specifically, Japanese raiders and other Maritime powers from Japan. However, at the time that this weapon was used by Ming forces, the “Wokou” consisted of mostly local Chinese brigands and thieves. It was also common for many the Japanese “Sea Lords” to employ Chinese ships and crews for many of their illicit and legitimate uses. This may be a reference to those Chinese. The assumption here is that the methods for using the weapon are Japanese in origin as were the method for making them.

The Japanese origin of this weapon is core to its identity. Ma Mingda comments on the influx of Japanese weapons into the Chinese arsenal and the exchange with Chinese methods adapted by the Japanese: 

Section of the “Kage Scroll” from Jixiaoxinshu (紀效新書)


Just as sword making techniques spread to Japan from China, Chinese fencing was exported to Japan, after a long time practicing the techniques, they integrated Chinese swordsmanship’s  [strategy]“Use the short into the long, swiftly and suddenly use the vertical and horizontal” into their traditional systems.(68) Chinese swordsmanship was later abandoned by China, like the irony of “the disciple buying an empty frame, in order to look beautiful in front of others”. It was then recreated with simple and neat techniques, trying to emulate the characteristics of Japanese swordsmanship. Particularly noteworthy is that the Samurai made full use of terrain, incorporating space on the battlefield, and created a set of extremely rapid and flexible steps to effectively defend from strong attacks with combinations of nimble footwork. In battle, in order to “Turn and leap and use the short method for the long”  even when you are unarmored, “naked”, combined with sophisticated instruments, technology and weapons complement each other. Compared with the general Chinese swordsmanship after the Tang and Song dynasties, the Japanese swordsmanship does have many technical advantages.

Ma, Mingda馬明達. 無系列Wu Xi Lie. chu ban. ed. Vol. A113-A114, 武學探針Wu Xue Tan Zhen. Taibei Shi: Yi wen chu ban you xian gong si, 2003.

Much of this Reconstruction took place in the late Ming, possibly started by the efforts of General Qi in developing new training methods for conscripted troops. These fighting techniques, were developed from the earlier exposure to (most likely) Tang era swordsmanship and technology brought to Japan.

Dao Fa in the Jixiaoxinshu (紀效新書) Qi JiGuang developed this method from the Japanese.


From the Ming dynasty’s works we see that in the time period, coastal areas of China were under massive invasion from Japanese pirates, who threatened the lives of Chinese soldiers and civilians and were armed mainly with Japanese swords.This is how this sword [techniques] and the martial arts and tactics of the Japanese were brought to the attention of the Ming generals.



Description of use

Cheng’s description of how it is used is backed up by other period sources, although the text was written in the later days of the Ming and Cheng’s work could be a result using these same sources.


“The rate of their fighting was like a tornado, plunging into the column 5 soldiers deep with his single saber. The sword was long and as he used it, he appeared to become shorter, as he squatted back and cut down on to the arm. Then he would flick up to cut the wrist, by means of “hiding and casting away like a boar” and  then suddenly scuttling off like a crab , 10,000 people saw, the true skill of the islanders.”

屈大均《廣東新語·語器》Qu Dajun, “New Language and devices of Guangdong” as quoted by Ma Mingda, Ibid

From a technique stand point it makes sense that such a large and heavy weapon would be making use of footwork and nimble movements rather than the speed of the weapon to cut. Its length and weight make it very easy to create power. The main goal as stated in other treatises was too close in on the long weapons like spears and kill the enemy in a range that they are helpless. Being inside the spear and outside sidearm range.


“This is a long saber, which has been made by the Japanese. They advance while brandishing their shining swords, Our soldiers are out of breath, long weapons are no good, more than two have been broken by the shaft. The use of two hands allows for heavy blows with the weapon.”

Qi, Jiguang戚繼光. Wu Shu Xi Lie武術系列. chu ban. ed. Vol. 6, Ji Xiao Xin Shu.績效新書 Tai bei shi: Wu zhou, 2000min 89.

Clarity of Description

One of the most important contributions to martial arts literature that Cheng gives us with this text is the attempt to write it in plain, descriptive language. The common method for Chinese martial arts texts, even of generals like Qi JiGuang, was presented in poet language and verse. The most well know of these is Qi’s 32 Fist stances at the end of his presentation the martial arts for soldiers. Even Cheng’s earlier works on the Shaolin Staff are presented in verse form. It is his stated purpose to make the instructions clear and easy to understand. Something that is often lacking in the types of documents. 

Further reading and resources

Mandarin Mansion has many high quality photos of period Dan Dao. Peter Decker is also a very knowledgeable source on the history of Chinese weapons and his web site is a great source for folks interested in cold weapons. https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/dandao

Also an invaluable source for Ming era military history is The Great Ming Military Blog

Selected reading:

Brook, Timothy. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. harvard university press pape ed. History of Imperial China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013, ©2010.

Di Cosmo, Nicola, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China. (Ryor, Kathleen, Wu and Wen in Elite Cultural Practices During the Late Ming) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011, ©2009.

He, Yuming. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Vol. 82, Home and the World: Editing The “Glorious Ming” with Woodblock Printed Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013.

Huang, Ray. 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven: Yale University Press, ©1981.

Kennedy, Brian, and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books :, ©2005.

Lorge, Peter Allan. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

-War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795. Warfare and History. London: Routledge, 2005.

Ma, Mingda馬明達. 無系列Wu Xi Lie. chu ban. ed. Vol. A113-A114, 武學探針Wu Xue Tan Zhen. Taibei Shi: Yi wen chu ban you xian gong si, 2003.

Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai, ©2008.

-“Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61, no. 2 (2001): 359. doi:10.2307/3558572.

Shapinsky, Peter D. Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies. Vol. 76, Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2014.

Next: the positions.

5 thoughts on “Dan Dao Fa Xuan: part one”

  1. Fascinating article. Something registered in my head reading about weapon use in battle and the accompanying illustrations are very helpful. Footwork.


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