Sword Lab, Weapon reviews

Roaring Dragons and Vanishing Rhinos: The Longsword Sword in Ancient China- Ben Judkins

The rhinoceros-hide armor was of seven folds or links, one over another; the wild-buffalo’s-hide armor was of six folds or links; and the armor, made of two hides together was of five folds or links. The rhinoceros-hide armor would endure 100 years; the wild-buffalo-hide armor 200 years; and the armor of double hide 300 years.

                                                                        The Rites of Zhou

This post offers my review of LK Chen’s reproduction of a Warring States era longsword, similar to the types of weapons used by special troops in the Kingdom of Chu. Yet before we can delve into that topic, we must know something about the fate of China’s rhinoceroses. It is actually impossible to tell the story of these swords, attested in a handful of literary references and archeological finds, without first coming to terms with China’s shifting environmental fortunes.

The only place that one is likely to see a rhino in China today is in the zoo. The last isolated pockets of the Indian, Sumatran and Javanese subspecies all seem to have vanished during the Republic period, yet in truth even these were mostly forgotten stragglers of a once great herd. During the Shang Dynasty rhinos had been common in both the north and south and we know from oracle bone texts that they were frequently hunted. 

Western Han wine vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros. Source: Wikimedia.

The most sought-after part of the rhino at this point in time does not seem to have been the horns (which were often melted down to make glue), but rather their hides which were a source of exceptionally tough leather. Some of the earliest armor in China was fashioned from sculpted sheets of rhino leather which was then lacquered. This material was both incredibly tough and (relatively) light compared to stone, shell and later bronze armor.  By the Zhou dynasty the use of rhino hide had expanded thanks to the development of laminar armor technology which could allow for better fitting and more flexible types of protection.  Still, the nature of chariot-based warfare ensured that early conflicts remained a relatively elite affair.  This limited the overall environmental impact of the fighting.  

All of that changed as China entered the Warring States period. The scale of warfare escalated, often with catastrophic results for local populations.  As ever greater numbers of common soldiers were pressed into service the demand for armor skyrocketed. Leather laminar armor was a favorite as it could be produced relatively cheaply and in large quantities.  And given the fairly weak crossbows that were used in this period (at least in comparison to the bows that would be developed during the Han dynasty) this sort of armor provided decent protection.  However, rhino hide, which could deflect even the sharpest bronze weapons, continued to be prized for its added strength and durability, despite the fact that by this time the animals had disappeared from the north.  

Rhinoceros leather armor, Chu Kingdom.

Procuring rhino hides for use in armor even became a matter of state policy.  Earlier in the Spring and Autumn period Guan Zhou had advised the Duke of Qi to begin to institute fines that could be paid through the provision of armor and weapons to strengthen his military:

Ordain that serious cries are to be redeemed with a suit of rhinoceros armor and one halberd, and minor crimes with a plaited leather shield and one halberd.  Misdemeanors are to be punished with a quote of metal, and doubtful cases are to be pardoned.  A case should be delayed for investigation for three days without allowing arguments or judgements; by the time the case is judged the subject will have produced one bundle of arrows.  Good metal should be cast into swords and halberds and tested on dogs and horses, while poorer metal should be cast into agricultural implements and tested on earth. 

When viewed from an environmental perspective it is not a coincidence that the longsword should have been adopted in the State of Chu at a relatively early date, or that it would again become a rarity by the Han dynasty. Between the Warring States and the Han most swords (with the exception of those given to the calvary) were meant to be used with a shield. Shields were a necessity both because archery was a common aspect of the battlefield, and most soldier wore very little armor (or none at all).  Indeed, armor was expensive enough that it was often reserved for more specialized troops or officers.

Double handed swords can be wielded effectively against both polearms (which dominated the period’s infantry formations) and lightly armed individuals with smaller swords and bucklers. Yet the precondition for being able to use the such a weapon is the development of some sort of armor that frees the warrior from the necessity of carrying a shield.  We have already seen how Chu (and regions such as the former kingdoms of Wu and Yue) had an advantage when it came to the production of early steel weapons. Obviously, that made the development of the longsword technologically possible. But it was an entirely different set of natural resources that made such an innovation advisable. Specifically, multiple species of wild rhinoceros could still be found in the warmer and wetter south long after they had gone extinct in China’s northern and central regions. 

Two suits of excavated rhino armor from the Chu Kingdom. Source: LKChenswords.com

It was actually the greater access to rhino hides that allowed Chu to deploy the longsword as something more than a novelty or a prestige weapon for the elite. Of course, all of this had a devastating effect of China’s remaining rhinoceros populations. Climate change in the guise of the cooling and drying during this period had already stressed these populations. As the demand for armor increased, the remainder were quickly hunted to extinction becoming yet another casualty of the Warring States period.   

By the Han dynasty the few surviving populations of China’s rhinos were forced into isolated pockets of the deep south.  Most individuals would never see a rhinoceros and the species quickly entered China rich bestiary of mythic creatures. Nor would there be much of a demand for the remaining suits of rhino armor. With the development of much more powerful crossbows during the Han dynasty, leather plates were eventually replaced with metal (often iron or decarbonized steel). Relatively few soldiers could be equipped with enough armor to provide anything like full coverage and militaries again turned to shields and long pole arms as a primary mode of defense.

It is thus interesting to compare the steel longswords of the late Warring States period to their Han counterparts.  In truth, the blades of even ordinary Han jian tended to be quite long. You can see this for yourself if you just put LK Chen’s White Arc (a direct reproduction of a surviving Han jian) next to the Roaring Dragon (his Chu longsword).  The two blades are roughly comparable in length, with the long sword only being an inch or two greater. The actual difference in these swords is to be found in their hilt construction. Whereas the Roaring Dragon is a specialized two-hander, Han jian generally assumed that soldiers would need to wield a blade in one hand and a shield in the other. Even a Han “two handed” sword, something like the Soaring Sky or Flying Phoenix, is still designed to be used primarily with one hand, while a second hand may be called upon at times for extra support or special techniques.  While some longswords have been recovered from the Han, in general an elite warrior in this later period was much more likely favor a slighter shorter blade with a more versatile hilt. 

The term intersectionality is used to describe the ways that complex social and environmental factors interact with each other.  Certain types of technological change gave rise to the development of the longsword in southern China.  Yet by putting greater pressure on fragile populations of wild rhinos, these same technological changes ensured their own obsolesces.  Once again, it is impossible to really understand how ancient weapons were used in a decontextualized sense.  But when we combine what we know about the development of new technologies (stronger crossbows) and environmental change (the over hunting of wild rhinos), it becomes possible to understand why the Kingdom of Chu’s longswords occupied such a fleeting (if glorious) moment in history.

Roaring Dragon

The description of the Roaring Dragon on LK Chen’s webpage begins by announcing that this sword is “the enhanced version of the Magnificent Chu jian.” While the resemblance between the two swords is obvious on a visual level, in more mechanical respects these are actually profoundly different blades. The family resemblance is most evident in the scabbards and other furniture.

Like the Magnificent Chu, the Roaring Dragon is a composite creation approximating the type of sword that archeologists have discovered, rather than a one-to-one recreation of an existing weapon (such as the White Arc or the Soaring Sky). It signals the shared cultural heritage  with the Magnificent Chu by decorating its scabbard with the same red and black lacquerware pattern (itself a copy of surviving of Chu funerary pieces), and cast chape and belt hook. The sword’s disk pommel also shares the same pattern of concentric rings.

Still, there are subtle differences. I find the scabbard on the Roaring Dragon to be much more elegant than its shorter companion as the greater length allows the craftsmen to really accentuate the two different profiles seen in the top and bottom halves of pieces from the Warring States period. I have always wondered whether the flattening of the scabbard as it descends was meant to invoke the same sorts of shapes seen on the spokes of war chariots during the period.  More research on the question is needed.

While the woodwork on my test sword’s scabbard was excellent, the lacquer was marred in a few places.  There was small chip near the mouth of the scabbard (which was an excellent fit) and there was some roughness near the chape that I haven’t seen on any of LK Chen’s other swords. The red and yellow phoenix motif was crisp and excellently executed. 

After taking a close look at this sword’s fittings, I decided that the handguard, chape, belt hook and disk pommel are probably cast bronze.  While bronze was used in the initial run of the “LK Chen Five” more recently produced models have switched to cast brass. Apparently they had trouble getting the desired degree of detail and quality control in their bronze casts. While bronze is still used on some fittings (notably the hilt rings of sabers like the Dragon-Sparrow and the Double Dragon) all new jian furniture is being cast in brass. Generally speaking, I like the look of bronze (seen on the first run swords) better, but there is no denying that the newer and more detailed fittings on the Flying Phoenix and Soaring Sky are beautiful. 

The original artifact that served as the model for the Roaring Dragon’s hand guard. Source: LKChensword.com

The hilt of the Roaring Dragon before wrapping. Note that the disk pommel is pinned through the tang and wood scales. Source: LKChensword.com

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Roaring Dragon is its relatively wide handguard.  Like the Magnificent Chu it proudly displays the taotie animal mask motif.  LK Chen provided the Roading Dragon with a direct copy of a warring states guard that is similar to, but ultimately different from, the one used on the Magnificent Chu.  While I suspect fans of the Western longsword will be more comfortable with the Roaring Dragon because it has something that begins to approximate a European cross-guard, it is clear that this piece is still meant primarily to protect the fingers from sliding up unto the blade rather than leveraging an opponent’s weapon.

More differences are evident when we turn our attention to the blade itself.  Like the Magnificent Chu, the Roaring Dragon features a high layer-count Damascus pattern made of alternating layers of 1065 and T8 tool steel.  A medial ridge is created by engraving both side of the blade with wide double fullers, revealing a beautiful pattern in the metal. The metallurgy in LK Chen’s swords is entirely modern, but the intended effect is to echo the complex weld structures that are seen when jian from the period are polished by private collectors.

Upon handling the Roaring Dragon one will immediate note that the blade is relatively narrow with a subtle, mostly strait taper. It is a full 5 mm narrower at the base than the Magnificent Chu (30 mm vs 35 mm) though both come to about 20 mm just before the tip.  Both swords have the same distal taper (7mm at the base to 3mm at the tip), but when you double the length of a narrower blade, the distribution of mass becomes very different.

My test sword had a total weight of 1074 grams, which is remarkable when you remember that its blade is 100 cm (39.5”) and its total length is an impressive 139.5 cm (mine was slightly longer than advertised).  The fullering in the blade keeps the weight down and the result is a very quick and lively longsword.

The quality of the Roaring Dragon’s blade is excellent.  There are no bends or warps in the blade and the cutting edge is nicely formed.  When examining the flats of the blade under a bright light it is clear what there is a fair amount of waviness but given how difficult it is to make the bottoms of a fuller perfect smooth that is to be expected in a handmade blade. The medial ridge is absolutely straight on both sides of the blade, and its serves to reinforce the tip for extra support in the thrust.

That last point is important as anyone who picks up this blade will immediately notice that it can be somewhat wobbly.  This is typically the case with long, narrow, slender blades.  I suspect that LK Chen could have ameliorated this tendency somewhat if he actually had scaled up the notably wider Magnificent Chu jian.  Of course, that added rigidity would also have resulted in extra weight, and he decided instead to reproduce the range of weights actually observed in archeological specimens.  That meant sticking with a relatively narrow blade that is profiled very differently from a medieval European longsword.

The end result is that the Roaring Dragon is a bit tricky to cut with. While the edge is very good, the blade is very light and it will flex on you if the geometry of the cut is not perfect. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to cut well with this sword, but it can be a bit of a challenge.  Still, given the length of the weapon, the layout of the hilt and the reinforced tip, I found myself wondering whether these sorts of blades might not have favored the thrust and been used almost like a short polearm at times. 

One suspects that it would have been fairly uncommon for two heavily armored longsword wielders to meet on the battlefield. Instead I assume that a sword like this would most likely have been used against relatively poorly armored troops carrying either swords and shields or longer pole weapons. Even a relatively light and narrow blade would have been devastatingly effective against these sorts of “soft” targets. When facing a more heavily armored foe one suspects that the thrust would have become the weapon’s primary attack.

The Roaring Dragon’s hilt, 38 cm (15 inches). Source: LKChenswords.com.

I found the Roaring Dragon’s hilt to be very comfortable.  After weeks of daily use the cord wrapping is still tight and in perfect condition. The slightly slick feel of the cord was advantageous as I switched back and forth between different types of grips, something that is important with a blade of this length. The oval cross section of the hilt also made edge control intuitive.

The sword itself moves effortlessly through the air, and it is a joy to train with something that is simultaneously so long yet so fast.  My test sword’s point of balance was 13.3 cm (or 5.25 inches) away from the hilt.  Its forward and rear points of rotation were 18 cm and 58 cm from the tip respectively.  Its forward vibrational node was 29.2 cm from the tip.  I didn’t experience much hand-shock when cutting with this sword, but I never subjected it to any destructive testing either.

There is a lot of interest in larger double handed Chinese swords at the moment.  Most of this focuses on the historically better attested traditions of the Ming dynasty.  The Roaring Dragon reminds us that similar technologies can arise and decline at various points in history.  More lightly built than later weapons, these jian were a response to the strategic situation and environmental resources that defined life in the Warring States period.  In that sense they are an important reminder that the martial arts can never be separated from the environment that gave rise to them.  While we typically take this as social truism, this unique sword testified that the traditional fighting arts have also been in conversation with, and a reflection of, the natural environment. It may not be possible to appreciate the rise of the China’s first longswords without also remembering the animals who made these swords practical battlefield weapons.


If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: The Maiden of Yue and the Magnificent Chu

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