A few years back, I made response to a historical based YouTube video about the Zhan Ma Dao斬馬刀 as it related to the Japanese weapon the ZanBato (meaning the same thing). The consternation was caused by a description of the weapon’s supposed use in battle. A use, it seems to me to be wholly fantasy. And while I had a strong feeling of this answer, I needed to find support. Since one cannot prove a negative assertion, I needed to find out how they were actually used in their day. Tumbling down this particular rabbit hole was the beginning of the Fighting Words blog and the current projects going on at Sword Lab.
Recently, Sword maker LK Chen has released a replica of a period Zhan Ma Dao. I of course, had to get one. Watch out for a full review on that sword, but having a physical weapon that has the official specification is very enlightening. It definitely helps guide one’s envisioning of how the weapon was used and I can’t wait to do an in examination of that. But there is another question to unravel here; what exactly is a Zhan Ma Dao? And when discussing the Zhan Ma Dao, one falls into a quagmire of naming convention chaos. This is further complicated by the English translations that many of us became accustom to when starting out our journeys. Namely, “The Horse Chopping Saber”, or some thing of that sort.
What is a ‘Horse Chopping Saber’?
Starting with the English side. In the early 90’s, there was a particular nomenclature with most Chinese and kung fu weapons. This was because the sources for such weapons were few compared to today. Before the days of the internet marketplace, mail order catalogs and magazines were the primary places to obtain these things. As such, we all became accustomed to certain names and “translations” of those names. One of these names is the English styled “Horse Chopper”. However, this name was not applied to the Song Dynasty weapon. But rather a pole arm called a “Pu Dao, 朴刀” or “simple saber”.
The Pu Dao (or Po Dao) 朴刀 is translated as “simple” and is a sort of civilian version of a military glaive like the Yuan Yue aka Guan Dao. It is a common weapon in modern Wushu and therefore was available in many magazines, almost always named in English, Horse Chopper, or some variation of that. When I began learning Mandarin, I was surprised to find out the true translation did not contain the words for “horse” or “chopping”.
So, when finally given the means to look in to this question once and for all, I was able to discover the reality behind the Zhan Ma Dao and it’s very long history. The Zhan Ma Dao is invented in the Song Dynasty (960–1279). It is a weapon that tells a story. Like the Han calvary dao bringing dao to the battle field in the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), to the Yanling Dao transitioning from straight sabers to curved ones in the Ming (1368–1644). The Zhan Ma Dao has some very specific attributes, but the names change through time.
The first thing to get to out of the way is the early Han era Duan Ma Jian斷馬劍, or Zhan Ma Jian斬馬劍. The mention of these weapons is certainly due to the similarity to the name. And of course that is what this is about in the end. However, this reference is not to a particular weapon or design but a quality of a weapon. Sharp enough to behead a horse. Yet, it was not used for that but more for beheading corrupt officials and the like.
The Horse chopping tactic
The decision to attack the horses of the enemy in war is not usually ones first choice. It is much better to capture the mounts for your own. But the Song’s lack of grazing lands made such an action untenable. But the fact was, the Song forces were being brutalized by the mounted horsemen. They were able to attack swiftly and break down formations of infantry. They were able to control the terrain and outflank the slower infantry. Song military leaders needed to find a way to be able to hold their own with such mobile and powerful enemies.
From among the infantry, choose only the strongest most capable men and arm them all with Zhan Ma Dao. Distinguish them by their own command, like Tang Emperor Li SiYe used the Mo Dao method. When encountering the Iron Sparrow Hawk unit, they will snipe at our formation or trample us. Infantry with the Zhan Ma Dao, however, can advance and be victorious, which is an unexpected means of wining”.宋史Song Shi “History of the Song”
Anti calvary tactics were nothing new. It appears from this passage from the Song Shi, that the Tang Dynasty(618–907) Mo dao was used in similar fashion. Here it must be noted that while we have the name “Mo Dao陌刀” we have no historical specimens or descriptions to tell us what the weapon looked like. Some theorize it was a “short” pole arm like a glaive, others suppose it might be a large sword like the Zhan Ma Dao. Either way, the Song leaders claim they took the method from the earlier Tang Dynasty.
So, what is the method of using a large sword to fight calvary? Well, it is much different than the image we are given in dojo lore and martial arts movies. Rather than a lone swordsman severing the legs of a horse at full gallop, we have ZMD units as mobile “shock troops” working together with the larger infantry.
The first task is to slow the incoming calvary down. This is done by using caltrops, holes, and ditches to prevent the riders from just galloping up onto the line of infantry and picking them off as they ride by or simply trampling them. Infantry with spears, long handled axes, halberds, and other long weapons will further entangle them. This is where the Zhan Ma Dao units springing action. Once a rider or riders is caught the soldier with the Zhan Ma Dao can stalk under the front line and hack away at the horses legs and head if they are able. The Zhan Ma Dao is constructed to be able to withstand a lot of abuse and still be able to be wielded like a melee weapon against a fallen rider.
And this was not the only weapon to be used in this manner:
“The Song Dynasty invented many different weapons for the infantry to deal with heavily armored cavalry. One such weapon was the zhan ma dao best described as a two handed “horse chopping sword.” In the Official History of the Song Dynasty it states the sword was massed produced in the tens of thousands. Another bladed weapon(s) used in similar fashion was the mei jian or eye brow tip glaive similar to the Japanese nagamaki or the blade used by the elves in The Lord of the Rings. Yue Fei, a famous Song general, used anti-cavalry troops trained with a large two handed axe or Ko. In the mid 1100’s Yue Fei, used these highly trained anti-cavalry troops, defeated a Jin army and destroyed 70% of the Jin cavalry.”“The Mongol Siege of Xiangyang and Fan-ch’eng and the Song military”
by SANDRA ALVAREZ posted on MAY 11, 2014
If we take a look at some of these weapons like the Axe and the Eyebrow shaped Jian, we see that these are long handled weapons. They operate in a space between long and short range. The Weapons that first appear in the record in the Song are all said to have been lost arts by the Ming. But, they persist. And their names start to get interchanged between them.
A knife by any other name…
Ever since the Han Dynasty, the dao has been the main side arm in the military. As such the categories and configurations of dao are myriad. Through out the centuries, dao have been named and grouped according to the the time. But as we move forward those distinctions get complicated.
In the Tang Dynasty, there were 4 type of Dao identified in the Six Edicts of the Tang 唐六典 :
The Dao has four main types: the First is Yi Dao, the second is Zhang Dao, the third is Heng Dao, and the fourth is Mo Dao. “唐六典– scroll 16, section 15.
The Yi Dao, as it explains in the commentary, covers the ceremonial and presentation weapons used as status symbols among Military officials, Priests or heads of Temples, and wealthy gentry. The Zhang Dao is a bit more mysterious, having no real description or archeological examples. “Zhang” is the name of a city that was in what is now Shandong province. The etymology of the word reveals that it means to “screen” or “block like a screen”. The Mo Dao is also lost to us as to what exactly it looked like or how it was was used. The Heng Dao is the dao that we come to think of when we imagine the side arm hanging from the belt.
In 1044 the Wujing ZongYao( 武經總要) was completed. This was a compilation of all the military classics and knowledge amassed up through the Song dynasty. In this text, 8 forms of dao are identified: Phoenix Beak Dao鳳嘴刀,Writing Brush Dao筆刀 ,Falling Dao掉刀, Crooked/Bent Dao屈刀,Crescent Moon Dao偃月刀, Eyebrow Tip Dao眉尖刀,Halberd Dao戟刀, and Hand Dao手刀. Unlike the Tang Dynasty divisions, Most of these dao are pole arms. Absent is the Zhan Ma Dao since it had not been developed yet and the Pu Dao which was a civilian and non standardized weapon.
The true Zhan Ma Dao
Unlike most swords and weapons of the Chinese arsenal, the Zhan Ma Dao actually has a paper trail. In the Song text “Renewal of Funds and Governance” Volume 233 it states:
〈熙寧五年〉：禦文德殿視朝。命 供備庫 副使 陳珪 管勾作坊,造斬馬刀.初，上匣刀样以示蔡挺，刀刃长三尺余，镡长尺余，首为大环， 挺言：’制作精巧，便于操击，实战阵之利器也。初，上匣刀樣以示蔡挺，刀刃長三尺餘，鐔長尺餘，首為大環， 挺言：’製作精巧，便於操擊，實戰陣之利器也。’遂命內臣領工置局，造數万，分賜邊臣。斬馬刀局蓋始此。
“In the fifth year of Zhi Ling (1072 CE), on the first day of the fifth month, The emperor arrived at Wen Ta Hall to conduct State Affairs. The Emperor appointed the assistant director of the supplies warehouse, Chen Gui, to manage and over see a workshop to produce Zhan Ma Dao. Initially the emperor presented a prototype in a box to show it to Cai Ting; it had a blade that was 3 Qi long (feet), a handle that was more than one Qi long, and a big ring as the head (pommel). Ting said “This sword is exquisitely crafted, It is sharp and good for drills as well as actual combat.” So he ordered the ministers to set up a workshop to manufacture 10 thousand and send them to the boarder officials. This is how the Zhan Ma Dao workshop was created.”《續資治通鑑長編》卷233
I usually liken this to modern day “skunk works” projects from the US military. This, like the Han Calvary Dao, is a weapon designed for a specific purpose and to particular specifications. A workshop was created solely for the manufacture and development of this weapon. The context for this sword is very specific. The Song had a problem fighting off the various steppe peoples like the Liao Dynasty大遼 and the Western Xia大夏. But they had lost most of their horse lands and were unable to raise and keep enough horses to outfit their entire calvary. As such, infantry was used in large part against the more mobile and fearsome mounted forces. This weapon was instrumental for the Song later being able to hold off the Mongol invasion for 40 years, the longest any people that fought the Mongols had held out against them.
The Weapon is associated with The General Yue Fei岳飛(March 24, 1103 – January 28, 1142). Yue Fei’s influence and accomplishments are legendary, and too deep a topic for this time, but his name inevitably comes up when speaking of the Zhan Ma Dao. While we ahve no direct textual evidence that General Yue specifically used Zhan Ma dao, he is recorded as arming his troops with something called a Ma Zha Dao麻札刀; Hemp Wrapped Saber. There is no actual description of this weapon but thre is record of him using the tactic that the Zhan Ma Dao was created to serve.
In this battle, enemy came 15,000 horses strong, Fei had armed the infantry with Hemp Wrap Dao to enter into the enemies formation, not to look up, and simply chop at the feet of the horses.宋史·岳飛傳 Song Shi- the life of Yue Fei
It is unclear if this weapon was the Zhan Ma Dao as created in the Official Workshops, or it was a variation particular to him. Since the name denotes the make and style of the handle, the dimensions could have varied. It is a good guess that these weapons were at least similar to the Zhan Ma Dao. It is not a far leap to imagine it to be one and the same. Yue Fei being such a patriotic figure brings with it a pedigree that many weapons and martial arts try to capitalize on. Although the truth maybe more complicated, the popularity of Yue Fei in the martial minds even today cannot be overstated.
The Pu Dao
The Pu Dao also appeared in the Song Dynasty but as a civilian weapon. Actually a repurposing of an agricultural tool, the Pu Dao became a popular weapon for the local guards, bodyguards, and other nonmilitary fighting men. It appears in “Water Margin/Outlaws from the Marsh水滸傳” aș a common weapon used by law abiding folk and bandits alike. The Zhan Ma Dao, on the other hand was a purely military weapon. Designed, constructed, and standardized to particular specifications for the armed service. That being said, the modern Pu Dao bears a striking resemblance to the other long handled dao presents in the WuJing Zong Yao.
The Pu Dao has remained popular until the present day. It has entered the modern lexicon through Competitive Wushu and the like. But these long handled dao can have different names for the same weapon, or the same names for different weapons. And they did not always have long handles or even similar specifications. When they came to being in the Song, civilians were not allowed to possess military grade weapons. The stout machete like blades used commonly were simple to attach any length handle. There are no parameters that were set down for the weapon and there were examples of all manner of blade to handle ratios. Some Pu Dao being short one handed affairs while others being the glaive like weapon familiar today.
The result being that the name “Simple Saber” is apparently, referring to the blade, usually a simple straight or slightly curved blade with a clipped tip. This blade shape is very common among Chinese swords from many eras. And it does bare a resemblance to the Zhan Ma Dao blade as well. In fact, depending on the ratio of handle to blade, the Pu Dao and the Zhan Ma Dao share many features: A simple, heavy clipped tip blade for chopping, a functional but basic hilt, and a ring pommel at the other end. Because of these similarities, it seems more likely that the two weapons might be conflated in later years.
Mélange de Couteaux
It is in the Ming Dynasty that we see a return of the term Zhan Ma Dao. This time, however it is applied to a pole arm not unlike the weapon that we call a Pu Dao. At the end of the Ming, Cheng Ziyi 程子頤, Nephew of famous writer Cheng Zongyou程宗猷 (1561-1636), wrote a treatise on glaive like weapons. In this treatise, he lays out some basic techniques for what he calls the Da Dao大刀. Careful examination however shows this is the same weapon as the Yan Yue Dao in the WuJing ZongYao. Also called the Guan Dao now, Cheng shows how the two are related being “cousins” to each other.
No one knows the exact reason why or when the Zhan Ma Dao and Pu Dao merged, but it was by the Ming Dynasty. Interestingly enough, Cheng ZongYi, also wrote a book about the “Pu Dao”. Although his version of said weapon is far closer to the Song era Zhan Ma Dao. A long handled saber with a. Slightly curved blade with a clipped tip like a Zhan Ma Dao, and a handle similar to the Chang Dao his uncle wrote about in Dan Dao Fa Xuan單刀法選.
These weapons continued to be used into the Qing Dynasty. Although, again nomenclature changed significantly. It is this time that many of the terms we come to recognized came into wide spread use. Most importantly, the Qing Dynasty(1636–1912) set down some specifications and categories of Dao for their Green Standard Army. Among these dao, is a Zhan Ma Dao. However, the style of the blade and fittings is closely related to the Chang Dao of the Ming rather than the Song weapon. The use also, is presumably based on Ming Chang Dao technique like Dan Dao Fa Xuan and Xin You Dao.
By the time of the Late Qing and into the 20th Century the the situation gets out of hand. The old names, while less written about, were in use at the same time as the various standards were released and incorporated. But even by the end of the Ming, we see many of these terms being exchanged sometimes as if they are synonymous. But the Republican Period in China (1912–1949), from where most of our modern martial arts understanding originates, the long handled Dao with a ring pommel has many forms and titles. Some of these are names taken from earlier weapons, some are descriptive of their current shape or use. The names of Shuang Shou Dai雙手帶, Kan Dao砍刀, and Tai Ping Dao太平刀 all became names for the Pu Dao along with Zhan Ma Dao. The Republican Da Dao or big saber takes on a life not unlike the Pu Dao having many different blade and handle lengths but all being classified as “Da Dao” which of course was the one of the names used in the Ming for the Song weapon Yan Yue Dao. That weapon of course changed its name to Guan Dao關刀.
Zhan Ma Dao as a Class
Coming from the initial design of the Zhan Ma Dao from the Song Dynasty and following its journey through to the present, we are left with a great number of weapons that have borne or can bear the name of Zhan Ma Dao. Linguistically, tis leads us to a certain conclusion; The Term “Zhan Ma Dao” is no longer referencing a single weapon, but a class of weapons. Whether or not it was used for the purpose of attacking horses is irrelevant. Even the name its self has become generalized.
And this is present in both English and Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese at least). The national relevance of the original weapon, its association with the hero Yue Fei, and its use along side the pu dao and other common weapons has cemented it in Chinese language as a term for a large powerful, long handled dao. As chine3se martial arts became popular over here and the mixture of not just English but other dialects of Chinese allowed this artifact to migrate to western practitioners of martial arts. Now, the terms Zhan Ma Dao and Horse Chopping Saber are equally represented in each language group. Despite the confusing and imprecise application.
Weapons in the class of Zhan Ma Dao, therefore have some similarities that make them unique. They are between a sword and a pole weapon giving them a lot of power and versatility. They are often similar to glaives of the West but seem to be much more favored in Chinese circles (Although I am not knowledgeable enough to comment on the western equivalents). They are primarily used short range but can extend their reach easily. These are weapons of leverage and short energy more so than long sweeping attack as done with a staff. They ar often with in the body dimensions of their user, never extending much past their height but still being above waist height when set on the ground vertically. This seems to encompass the basics of the weapon. Although not complete.
So, while it is confusing from a certain perspective to keep all these dao and weapons straight, Seeing the Zhan Ma Dao as a type of weapon can help keep things straight. From there, designations as to time period and specific dimensions can be more easily applied. But also, they can be compared as to their function and utility. All being the same class of weapon, we can begin to gather the parameters of them. And learn more insight into possible applications for weapons that have long been lost to history.
Further Reading and selected sources:
Renewal of Funds and Governance:續資治通鑑長編
History of the Song: 宋史