Blog, Historical Martial Arts, Sword Lab

Katana to Dao: Part 2-Qi Jiguang

(please see part one here: Saber and Coin)

In 1523, two tribute fleets from two rival Japanese seafaring clans arrived at the port city of Ningbo寧波 in North Eastern China. The coastal city had been designated the port of entry for all Japanese tribute missions and was the one place the Bakufu-幕府 of Japan could obtain permission to trade with the Ming Court. The  tributary system was the system of bringing gifts to the Ming court for the privilege of trade. In return, the Ming court would issue “tallies” (勘合符) that would allow trade missions to conduct business officially. Each ruler issued different tallies and these became invaluable to Japanese merchants, traders and other seafaring representatives of Japan. If one did not have a valid Tally, they were not legally able to do business. 

Painting of the Ningbo Incident

In this case, the Ōuchi-大内氏and the Hosokawa-細川氏 clans both arrived in Ningbo with Tallies. However, only the Ouchi clans had a valid tally, as representatives of the  Ashikaga shōgun who had the current relationship with the Ming. The Hosokawa were also loyal to Ashikaga and had been the nominal representatives of the Shogun. The Hosokawa Clan, however, had a Tally from the previous Ming Emperor, not a current one. This is because the Ouchi clan had monopolized all of the tallies that were issued by the Zhengde Emperor -正德帝. In response, the Hosokawa clan sent out their own envoys with an expired tally from the Hongzhi Emperor-弘治帝i. The two clans had been embroiled in a conflict since 1467. 

This set the stage for a pivotal era of conflict in Chinese and in martial arts history. When the Hosokawa arrived at Ningbo, they found the Ouchi already docked there. However, they were able to bribe one of the officials and were then allowed to moor, and were inspected by the port authority before the Ouchi ship. In retaliation, the Ouchi attacked the Hosokawa Ship and set it on fire. They killed the mission’s leader and gave chase to another who presented the out of date tallies. They chased him out of the city and around the surrounding area, raiding and pillaging as they went. The Ouchi ended up killing a Ming garrison commander, commandeering several Ming ships, and escaping the shores of China. The Ming navy attempted to stop them but was defeated by the Ouchi and the Ming commander killed. 

The Emperor promptly stopped all official trade with Japan. 

Qi Jiguang 

Five years later, in Shandong province, Qi Jiguang-戚繼光 was born to an illustrious military family. The Qi Family had been awarded the hereditary post of the  Dengzhou Garrison, present day Penglai. His father, Qi Jingtong -戚景通 (1473–1544), was an accomplished martial artist and General in the Ming military. Qi Jiguang was 17 years old when his father died and he took command of the garrison. While commander, Qi rebuilt the local navy and helped defend Beijing from the Mongols from 1548 to 1552. Mongol troops led by Altan Khan attacked Beijing in 1550. Qi was in Beijing for the imperial examination. All candidates were immediately mobilized to defend the city. During the conflict ,Qi distinguished himself and received commendations for valor in battle and cunning for submitting several strategic plans for approval. Qi’s life trajectory was laid out before him.

In 1553 Qi had his rendezvous with history. Qi was promoted to Assistant Regional Military Commissioner-都指揮僉事 to Shandong’s Anti-Wokou force. It is through this appointment that Qi began not only to build a name for himself, but also have the experiences that would shape his training methodology to the one that influences Chinese Martial arts to this day. 

The state the of coast

When Qi was appointed to his new post, the forces under his command were in tatters. While there were 30,000 troops under Qi’s command on paper, the reality of the situation was much less promising. Many of the strong and young soldiers had deserted and left the area. The troops that remained were older and weaker. They were lacking in good training and lacked skill in combat. Beside the cowards of the lot, many were corrupt and regularly took bribes from pirates and ran protection rackets among the populace. The long period of peace before Ningbo, had rendered the military outposts in the area and at sea a burden to the local populace. Many of them were withdrawn or abandoned. The rampant desertion, corruption and general low quality and number of Ming Troops required that local forces were augmented with mercenaries, gentry guards, security companies and even criminals to fill the ranks called “Kebing”客兵, or visiting/guest soldier. This created obvious problems. 

Wokou campaigns and routes

The Navy had continued its downward spiral. By the time of Qi’s appointment, there were fewer than 70 Ming vessels on patrols off Fujian. This was identified by Qi’s fellow General and colleague, Yu Dayou俞大猷. Citing the lack of ships and fire arms, he petitioned for more. Due to court politics, philosophical splits between the court and the military, and general economic factors, he had been repeatedly denied aid for these from the Ming government. This had allowed the crisis to spiral out of control. It had reached a zenith by the time the Qi Jiguang arrived on the scene. The situation had gotten to be so bad, the rot permeated every level of society. From the local brigands who joined the Japanese in their raids, to the court officials who had clandestine (and some not so clandestine) relationships with the Japanese Sea Lords, who were ultimately in league with the Chinese merchants and ‘pirate’ raiders. 

Local crafts people would be enlisted to produce for the military in the region.

The supply chain offered its own challenges, making some goods and supplies difficult to get and impossible to select for quality. The system in place had the central government dictating village craftsmen to produce, armor, weapons, and equipment as payment for their taxes. This created a large disparity between manufacture quality of these goods. The lack of standardized and quality controlled equipments was a burden that Qi himself acknowledged. 

Training guides and standards of practice for military commanders was also in short supply. There were no extant treatises about soldiering, commanding, or training recruits and troops. Martial arts were also conspicuously absent from the General’s allotted texts. Training of troops was either in the form of drills and formulaic maneuvers , or was under taken by the commander of the troop. It is something that is mentioned time and time again in the Ming era writing, that such and such martial art is no longer practiced. This combined with the variable quality of equipment and supplies, the existing Ming Military presence on the Coast during the late 1500’s a shadow of the great military forces of the Han and Tang Dynasties and even the early Ming. 

Ming Calvary

The enemy

Who were the Wokou倭寇? This a a very difficult question to answer simply. The term “pirate” is thrown around, yet, most of the raids took place inland and involved strong forces of Wokou on foot. The actual forces or groups of people who were called “Wokou” or “pirates” is actually quite diverse. Because trade with Japan had been effectively banned, there was not a lot of trade happening that was truly legal. Therefore, the government tended to throw all interested parties under the term. Anyone involved in shipping or receiving, mooring boats, trading goods for import/export, salt merchants, and anyone else that had a stake in doing business in the region. Many otherwise legitimate business owners were forced to take part in ‘piracy’ to continue to earn a living. 

The Wokou forces proper also consisted of a variety of members. There were of course the local Chinese brigands and thieves that signed up with Wokou clans. There were a large number of these Chinese making up the armies and gangs that raided villages and cities. There are also many local businessmen engaging in smuggling and the selling of smuggled and illegal goods. Officials in the local governments help keep Ming response to illegal trade in check and provided the Wokou clans with alliances and trading partners. At the very end of the Crisis, the bulk of these forces were comprised of local muscle and not true Japanese Wokou. In the end, it is estimated that 70% of the Wokou operating in the area were of Chinese heritage.

This is not to say there was no Japanese involvement. The Japanese that were involved directly with the events in China were not to be trifled with. If the Ming forces were disorganized and ill prepared, Japanese forces were a well oiled machine. These servants of the the Sea Lord Clans had military experience from the chaotic Japanese landscape of waring daimyos. They brought to bear this extensive experience by creating organized fighting forces and squads capable of moving quickly and attacking as well as defending. Most of these Wokou did not opt to use firearms extensively, and instead relied on swordsmanship to cut down their enemies. To accomplish this, they brought weapons. Swords, spears, and knives were used to great effect not only in combat but for intimidation of on lookers. Highly polished weapons were used with mirrors and other reflective surfaces to disrupt Ming forces. The effect was a force that the Ming Military could not hold a candle to. 

Rebuilding a military

Qi Jiguang approached this problem from its root. The personnel and training of the force its self. Because of the terrible state of the military, Qi had to pretty much start from scratch. And since there was no official training methodology, he had wide birth. He set to finding ways to codify the selection, training, and deployment of new soldiers not taken from the military class. He came up with ways to train, feed and board soldiers in the field, and talked of training regimens. He mainly chose people from the rural areas. These people were less likely to relocate in trouble than city dwellers. Farmers and miners were conditioned to hard work and Qi paid them a steady wage for their service. The importance of making these things go smoothly cannot overstated, as in the Ming Dynasty, mutiny and rebellion was common place among troops and often about pay. The renegade garrisons in the area would sometimes refuse their duties, holding local populations ransom for pay. 

QI focused on training these recruits, using the extant martial arts of his time, and adopting cold weapons and strategic deployment to overcome the shortcomings of the infantry forces and fire arms. He noted the extremely organized nature the enemy and took to adopting many of their techniques of squad warfare, communication methods, and psychological tactics. These were the areas that Qi felt were the reasons for the Ming military being defeated so many times by the Wokou. 

Using cold weapons like swords, spears, and shields as the Wokou did, led Qi to devise some of the first written systems of dao in existence. Firearms had been fully adopted into he Ming Military at the time, and Portuguese trade had brought in many thousands of high quality guns from Europe. But the pirates, much to the surprise of expectations, favored these weapons to fire arms in their attacks. As such, they outfitted their forces with Japanese archers, swords and spears. Japanese swords were already in circulation and highly prized by the time of the Ning Bo incident, and many accounts of Wokou raids include statements about their weapons flashing in the sun. 

“New” Training methodologies 

Qi was able to create a system that proved extremely effective to train troops who are not from military backgrounds. This fit in well with the Ming Dynasties agrarian philosophy and culture. Qi was able to take farmers, miners, and other laborers, and turn them in to an effective fighting force. And he was able to implement his ideas because at the time, there was no military guide, convention, or support system to implement training of troops. Most forces were training with some basic drills and that was about it. The effect in the area was a Ming force that was unskilled, unprincipled, and not particularly loyal. By filling this void with a specific philosophy and specific types of people, paying them regularly and offering them incentives for valor and success in battle, but also adopting severe punishments for those who disobeyed or deserted, Qi was able to create a force under his command that became widely successful and succeeded in stopping the crisis on the coast. 

Not that all of this was “new” per-se. Qi was well read in the military classics and was literate beyond the needs of a general. Qi was an accomplished writer and poet as well. He set these training methods and ideas down when writing his seminal text, Jixiao Xin Shu 紀效新書(New treaties of Military Training) in 1560-61 and later in his follow up, Liangbing ShiJi 練兵實紀(Record of Military Training) in 1572.  In these texts he relates the method he used in his fight with the Wokou. Inspired both by the Japanese relying heavily on cold weapons and the past military exploits in Chinese history, Qi both recycled and adapted strategies from the past like Song Dynasty Martial Yue Fei. 

Qi and the Japanese Sword

Qi was an admirer of the Japanese sword, both in construction and in use. He identified two main weapons that he adopted into his method; the Long saber-Chang Dao長刀 and the Waist saber- Yao Dao腰刀. In his writings he included descriptions of manufacture and guidelines for testing not only the weapon, but training in the use of the saber. 

“ 試刀,以能衝入釵鈀,狼筅不及遮隔為熟。刀法甚多,傳其妙者絕寡,尚俟豪傑續之。

To test the dao, make sure that it can withstand crashing into wooden figures, the wolf brush does not usually reach to cover. There are many styles of swordsmanship, but few who pass on the subtle mysteries, we still wait for heroes to continue on.”

Jixiao XinShu


Japanese Saber. 

Two people in a row, there are many drills and speed is of the essence. Next, with wooden dao, chop against each other quickly lifting and dropping. It is best to move quickly as not to allow someone to take advantage of the gap. The first rank is revealed with the shield. “

Liangbing ShiJi

Qi adopted the cross section of the Japanese sword, one which has its root in Tang Dynasty China, and attempted to bring the same sort of consistency and prowess to the blades his men used. In both the long and waist sabers, it is this geometry that Qi singles out as one of the best features. He also laments one of the large limitations of Ming Weapon manufacture. At the time such industry was decentralized, with local craftsmen and forges making the weapons for the local garrisons. This is one of the main obstacles that blocked General Yu Dayou from implementing his ideas. This system created a large amount of variance in the quality and standards that Ming Weapons had in the military. Qi made an effort to give leaders some guidelines to help keep such issues at a minimum: 


Forging a Waist Saber.

Much iron must be refined, the blade uses pure steel. Beginning from the back, use a flat trowel to file it flat, polish until the blade is flat with no “shoulders”, then it will be exquisitely sharp. Recently craftsmen have made thick blades for combat, but they are not willing to employ the flat grind, and instead use a carpenter’s file. The blade will protrude from each side of the edge, both sides having shoulders, cuts will not be deep, the edge will be blunt, it quickly becomes “stubborn”. This bears discernment. The usage is not detailed in the the “Shi Ji”. But by foreign and enemy roles, a weapon of the same class, it is almost invincible.” 

Qi Jiguang- Lianbing Shiji 

Qi developed two main systems for training recruits in the use of these weapons:The Long Saber or Chang Dao, and the Waist Saber or Yao Dao. The Chang Dao is a system Called by modern practitioners, Xin You Dao, after the time when he set it to writing. This system was claimed to be from the Japanese themselves, with the “Kage Scroll” of Japanese swordsmanship  being included in the Jixiao Xin Shu. Although there is little ink devoted to this weapon in Qi’s Writing, it never the less persisted and gained some fame among contemporaries. The manual Dan Dao Fa Xuan is a direct descendant for this system and most Ming era two-handed sword systems owe at least a portion of their existence to Qi’s contribution. 

The waist saber, a one handed side arm, is said by Qi to be useless without a shield. And thus, it is the shield it’s self that is considered to be the main weapon rather than the saber. Also used with a javelin, the shield helped protect from long weapons as the soldier would attempt to come into close range. 

Qi ordered many sabers for his troops: For his calvary units he required 1152 Yao Dao and 432 Long Dao. For his infantry, the ratio was reversed with 1080 Long Dao and 213 Yao Dao being supplied. Obviously, The use of the shield is suitable for infantry, but the Yao Dao was also a calvary weapon.

He mentions often, as do other Ming authors, that systems for the use of sabers and other such weapons have been lost. This is presumably lost to the military, and Qi then famously tried to gather techniques and method from local martial arts of his time. While he names some of these arts in the Ji Xiao Xin Shu, it is a matter of some mystery and controversy exactly which arts he is referring to and how strong a connection to those arts Qi’s methods represent. 

For the dao methods that he developed, it would seem he took a good deal of inspiration from the Japanese that he encountered. As mentioned, the accounts of Japanese pirates often talk about their weapons and the intimidation that brandishing them produced. Also, the Japanese methods of being extremely mobile on the battle field by employing small squads and very mobile footwork. Leaping and running were common, and there seems to be a good deal of effort in creating chaos for the opponent. 


The long knife, which has been made by the Japanese. and they have been dancing and shining (brandishing) it in front of us. I can not pick up on the weaknesses of the soldiers, long weapons are no good, more than two broken by the shaft. The use of two hands allows for heavy blows.”

Qi Jiguang-Ji Xiao Xin Shu

These techniques, like the Japanese sword it’s self, are largely considered to be developed from Chinese techniques, again retrieved in the Tang Dynasty. Both cold weapons, and the systems of training to use them, had been exported and subsequently lost, only to return to their shores in the hands of an enemy. Ma Ming Da comments on the situation: 


Just as sword making techniques spread to Japan from China, Chinese fencing was exported to Japan. After a long time developing their techniques, they integrated Chinese swordsmanship’s  core principles of “using the short into long, and swift vertical and horizontal” into their traditional systems.”

Ma MingDa

This trading on and off of technology and culture is a feature of Sino-Japanese trade and relationships well into the present day. Much of classical culture in Japan and Korea is based on or imported from China. This placed China at the center of things for better or worse. The historical irony of the Japanese Sea lords giving the Ming forces such a fight goes beyond just the techniques and technologies making the Japanese such fearsome foes. The contact with them during the Pirate conflicts sets the stage and foundation for many aspects of the modern age of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial art. 

After the Victory on the Coast

General Qi finally defeated the last of the major Pirate forces in September of 1565 by joining forces with You Dayou against the Wokou leader, Wu Ping. Two years later he was recalled to Beijing to aid in the defense of the of the city from the Mongols by training the imperial guard, and the next year after that, He was sent to Jizhou to help oversee repairs to the Great Wall and defend from Mongol incursion. From 1567-1683, Qi Jiguang served on the northern borders. He helped fortify the Wall, and defended Jizhou from the Mongols until he was relieved of service in 1583. 

Using foreign weapon technology and tactics, changing the way things are done from an organizational stand point, and conscripting hard working laborers as soldiers enabled Qi to bring to bear his experience and know how to defeat the pirates and bring an end to the crisis. This was incredibly forward thinking for the time, and often innovators and folks that think outside of the box are viewed with suspicion. Indeed, he was only able to do what he had because of allies in high places. His successes did not protect him from politics however, and Qi fell out of favor with the empire and was all but exiled. His wife left him and he spent the last years of his life in poverty and diminishing health. 

With his death, on January 17, 1588, his methodology was largely abandoned by the military. Despite the accolades and success on the field of battle, Qi’s method was never adopted widely. He and a few of his colleagues were isolated examples of this approach, which, if one looks at the time, was doomed to be rejected by the military establishment. Qi’s method was highly practical, and used mixed forces of military and non military recruits. His tactics were direct and effective, but often violated the virtue of balance favored by the Ming. After his death, his methods quickly disappeared from the Ming military. 

Soon after, the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592–1598)took place and the Ming were then involved in another conflict to drain their already dwindling treasury. Although they achieved victory on the Korean Peninsula, the financial drain that it had on the empire was devastating. Natural disasters, rebellions and general hardship began to befall the Ming. Hardship brought more crime and chaos to the dynasty. The decline of the Ming Military continued until its eventual defeat at the hands of the Manchus who took over to begin the Qing Dynasty in 1644. 

Japanese landing at Busan

The Legacy 

Page from the Korean Muye Dobo Tongji showing Qi’s influence.

Despite his eventual end, Qi Jiguang has continued to be one of the most influential Chinese Generals in history. While the Chinese military did not appreciate his forward thinking, other cultures in the area did. As early as the 1600’s we see copies of Qi’s text being printed in Japan, Korea, and even in late Ming authors and writing. Mao Yuan Yi included the majority of Qi’s writings in his gigantic treatise the Wubei Zhi. Through out the next two centuries Qi is reprinted and distributed through Asia well into the 19th century. From this his methods and thinking have defined the east in many ways. 

Qi using the Japanese sword as a template for weapons he armed his troops with, had had a profound effect on Chinese Dao. Many of the characteristics that we see as indicative to the Chinese Dao are in fact imported from Japanese and steppe-people’s swords. The curved blade, the disk guard, and blade cross sections are just a couple of examples of features that have been adopted by Chinese sword makers. Or in many cases, re-adopted. The Japanese sword making techniques were replaced with Chinese forging methods so that these sabers could be produced throughout the land. And Japanese style swords were all the range among polite society and collectors at the time.  This was so wide spread that Wodao are often called Qi Jia Do a by modern collectors as tribute to QI Jiguang and his incorporation of these swords. 

For modern martial artists, mainly in the Chinese arts, Qi Jiguang is a seminal figure. Many martial arts practiced today claim some sort of heritage with Qi’s writings, methods, or philosophy. Taijiquan often makes claims to this lineage through Qi’s chapter on barehanded training, “The Classic of Pugilism” as it is sometimes styled, seeing as many the names given to movements in Taijiquan are the same as outlined in Qi’s writing. The influence of Qi Jiguang is palpable even today. When we look at things he has done, we are tempted to call him “revolutionary”. Although that is not exactly the case. While his influence is immense and his contribution to our art should not be diminished, Qi was not, in the end, and revolutionary. He was not seeking to create a new thing or revolutionize the way they looked at war and conflict, or even training. He was trying to accomplish a goal and he was intelligent enough to acknowledge the situation and come up with novel ideas to solve it. The flexibility and adaptiveness of the method has helped it stay relevant to the martial arts.

More information:

Here is a great series on the Great Ming Military Blog:

Excellent typology of Dao from Peter Dekker:


Zhejiang TV animation of the Tactics of Qi Jiguang:

Further Reading/Selected bibliography: 

A look into the many of the issues dealt with here:

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.

Much the biographical information on Qi ca be found here

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

An English translation of the Korean military treatise

Kim, Sang H. (Translator) Muye Dobo Tongji: Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts. english language ed. Hartford, CT: Turtle Press, ©2000.

Military history of China

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. 

Thoughts on topics of martial arts and history from the foremost expert in the field (Chinese only)

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.

The original book by Qi himself(Chinese only)

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.

A fascinating investigation of the Japanese Sea lord clans that comprised the backbone of the Wokou

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.

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