A legendary weapon that many were named after, the true Song Zhan Ma Dao is a mysterious and elusive beast. 6 pounds of steel, approximately 4-5 feet long, used in the wars with the Steppe Empires, and associated with the Great General Yue Fei. The name has been applied to many weapons in the past and even today. But while the name Zhan Ma Dao persists, the first weapon to officially bear it has been obscured by time. Now that sword maker LK Chen has created a period reproduction, we may begin an exploration of this weapon and the characteristics that made it the legendary blade it is.
The Song Zhan Ma Dao
The Song Dynasty(960–1279) is a period of a lot of advancement in technology, art, and science in Chinese history. Poetry reaches some of it loftiest heights in the Song. The invention of moveable type and printing, paper money, agricultural science, and many other innovations propelled Song society ahead to become one of the most modern civilizations of the time. Military advancement and innovation was not left out of this movement. In 1044 the Wujing Zongyao was complied to give military leaders a reference source for the military knowledge that had been amassed thus far. This book also famously contains the first known written recipe for gunpowder. With the advent of printing, such books became more common and we have copious amounts of written material as opposed to the Han and earlier dynasties.
The Chinese military has often been concerned with mass production and/or standardization of equipment for their forces. In the Han Dynasty(202 BC – 220 AD), dao were produced for the military by craftsmen following specific criteria. In the Song, this work was done by the creation of government/military owned and operated workshops. These workshops were tasked manufacturing weapons to specification and quantity. One order intended for an army fortifying their outpost, called for 10,000 Zhan Ma Dao, 15,000 new-style ring pommel sabers, and 6,000 lacquered shields, amongst other items.
It is also decreed: “Recently, according to the analysis, it has been found that the Xihe Min administration, Tongyuan Army and Jihe administration are planning to build three gates, which will use thousands of pieces of guard equipment, of which none are found on this road. 3,000 yellow birch arm bows, and black-tipped golden thread bows, 10,000 Zhan Ma Dao and Bi Zhen Dao each, 15,000 new-style “flat” headed sabers, 2,000 black lacquer single crossbows, 1,000 black lacquer seats, 5,000 bamboo hand shields, 5,000 crossbows, 10,000 awl spears, 20,000 collars, 1,000 black lacquer bamboo shields…”續資治通鑑長編-卷343 “Renewal of Funds and Governance-scroll 343
The Zhan Ma Dao was originally ordered in 1072 CE during the reign of Shenzong, 1067–1085. In “Renewal of Funds and Governance” the specifications of the weapon for the workshop is recorded. :
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 a foot 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-“Renewal of Funds and Governance-scroll 233″
This means that each dao conformed to known variables of weight, balance, and handling. Having these specifications down, meant the workshops could reliably create thousands of weapons for the growing Song army. In the year 960 the Song military had 378,000 enlisted soldiers. By the 11th century it had grown to 900,000, increasing to well over 1,250,000 by 1041. When he took power, Shenzong created the Directorate for Armaments, the central authority on the production of weapons and armor. At its height during the Northern Song, it consisted of the Bow Workshop, the Bow and Arrow Workshop, the Southern Workshop, and the Northern Workshop. The Southern and Northern Workshops consisted of three other workshops: Wood Shop, the Horse Armor Shop, and the Sword-Sharpening Shop. The Siege Provisioning Workshop was responsible for gunpowder and siege weapons. In total, the Northern Song dynasty was able to produce 32,000 items of iron armor and 22.7 million bows, crossbows, and arrows each year.
The weapon itself is large and heavy. The blades of surviving examples are simple but bely a sophistication that is not obvious to the naked eye. The blade is straight, but on most examples, there is a subtle flare to the profile. This means it is wider at the tip than the hilt. This succeeds in bringing the balance point forward more to aid chopping and a small forward cant to help with draw cuts. The handle is at least one third the length of the blade, but many are closer to two thirds. They have a “clipped tip” similar to Tang Dynasty dao, save for the fact that edge is longer than the spine. This gives an upside down appearance to the sword. The weapon has a tang that runs the entire length of the handle and terminates in a large ring as the pommel. This ring is a common feature on dao through out the centuries and can serve many purposes. It is assumed that it functions as a counter weight and hanging device at the very least. Some examples have a blade collar and some do not. The guards are usually disk guards either of circular design or “water drop” shape.
The weapon was made to withstand abuse and great forces. When it was deployed in the Northern Song, it was used to combat the heavily armored calvary of the Xia Dynasty大夏(1038–1227). The “Iron Sparrow Hawk” unit was specifically mentioned in the Song Shi. Later, the “Iron Pagoda” of the Jurchen forces of the Jin Dynasty 大金(1115–1234) gave the Chinese similar problems. Many tactics employed rode roughshod over the columns of Song infantry. Their armored horses and riders made them almost impervious to normal infantry weapons. Pole arms, axes, and other weapons that maximize leverage were employed at all level of confrontations. These, like the Zhan Ma Dao, were sturdy blades and heavier weapons altogether to both deal damage and stand up to breaking against the armor encountered.
Looking at the armor of the Jin and Xia Cataphracts, the tactic employed with the Zhan Ma Dao comes into more focus. The weapon was primarily designed to attack the lower limbs of the horses, one of the few places the horse is not armored. This tactic, taken from the Tang Dynasty at least, requires a lot of planing and team work within the army. Slowing calvary, especially the heavily armored cataphracts encountered here, required layers of actions and preparation. The Zhan Ma Dao would help disable the enemy mounts, and still be able to be able to defend from or kill the fallen rider.
Yue Fei岳飛 (March 24, 1103 – January 28, 1142) comes onto the scene around the rise of the Jin Dynasty in the north by the Jurchens and the Southern Song Dynasty, joining the military in 1122. The Song had lost much of its area in the north and Yue Fei was famous for being single minded in restoring it. There is no actual textual evidence that Yue Fei actually employed Zhan Ma Dao in his forces. Never the less, the sword is sometimes referred to as Yue Fei Dao in his honor.
The association with the Zhan Ma Dao and Yue Fei is from two places. The first connection that is made is not of the Zhan Ma Dao its self, but another weapon mentioned as being standard issue among officers and soldiers. The Ma Zhen Dao麻 扎刀 or Hemp Wrapped Saber is considered to be at least a stand in or similar weapon to the Zhan Ma Dao. It is described as being used in the same manner against the calvary. Despite this anomaly it is generally accepted, if not entirely supported, that Yue Fei was one of the generals that made the Zhan Ma Dao famous.
Officers and Soldiers carry Hemp Wrapped Dao, hand held knife, and a large axe to engage in grappling, wrestling and chopping the enemy.奏郾城捷狀 Report to the emperor regarding the victory in Yancheng
Second, was that he was recorded to have used the strategy that has been associated with the weapon. Yue Fei fought against the Jurchen Calvary, named the “Iron Pagoda”. This heavy calvary would lash them selves together and simply plow through ranks of soldiers. Yue Fei would have his infantry attack with the spears and conventional arms while troops would rush in underneath and hack at the unarmored horses legs. The idea being one horse being injured would take down all those connected to it.
At the beginning, Wushu had a strong army, with Wei Suo, all of them heavily armored, three people as an alliance, and the official army could not be. In this battle, the enemy came with 15,000 cavalrymen, Fei had the infantry holding Hemp Wrap Dao and told his troops to rush into their formations end not look up, just chop at the feet of the horses. The raiders and horses were connected, if one horse was cut, and the others could not move.《宋史·岳飛傳》：Song History – Life of Yue Fei
Resurrected from the Song
This weapon has long been a fascination for me. Because of the ambiguousness of the name and the weapon it is associated with, it became an alluring rabbit hole to follow. So, it was with great excitement that LK Chen has produced a period replica of a true Zhan Ma Dao. This is fairly exciting because, as mentioned earlier, this particular weapon does not seem to have been produced in any number outside of the Song Dynasty when it was commissioned. That makes modern reproductions of this weapon one of the first attempts to recreate it to period specifications in around 800 years.
LK Chen uses period pieces and weapons to create these swords. Even if they are not 1 to 1 replicas of particular weapons, the features included are all period accurate. With the Zhan Ma Dao, we have a few written sources to which to confirm. The Song dynasty specification still exist and we can compare them with surviving weapons. The result is an inserting piece of military history. Its connections to martial art are also attractive, if tangental. In all respects, it is an important weapon to examine in the greater Chinese arsenal.
The LK Chen replica is named the “Song Hemp Wrapped Zhan Ma Dao” 宋 麻扎斬馬刀. This is obviously a call back to Yue Fei. It is also descriptive as the handle is wrapped in a hemp rope/linen wrap. The over all look is simple and utilitarian. The handle its self is fairly long, being closer to 2/3 the length of the blade than the official 1/3, but most historical examples fall somewhere in between these two extremes. The handle is thick and sturdy, and capped with the traditional ring pommel. It is full tang having two pieces of wood forming the handle affixed to each side. This makes for a solid saber.
The blade is a beast. 84cm/33inches long, it is unadorned with sophisticated bevels or pattern welds. It is a cleaver, meant to rend things from other things. It is a simple wedge cross sections making it ideal for cutting. It can easily go though moderate thicknesses of wood and is sharp enough to cut soft targets cleanly. The profile widens as it reaches the tip. This is gives the blade a subtle cant forward in the edge. This can theoretically give more power in the chop toward the end. Not that this weapon needs that. It is heavy, nearly 2.5kg/6lb. It also has a nice distal taper that helps make the sword wieldable. Full specification can be seen on the LK Chen Website.
One feature of many Song era dao is the “clipped tip” that appears as the cutting edge is longer than the spine, causing the tip to extend from the bottom instead of the top. The reason for this is unclear, but there this is a blade shape that is used in other parts of the world and even today. Wether it be straight or curved this tip emphasizes chopping. Bringing the tip past the end of the spine keeps all of the force going straight into the edge with tapered blade by bringing the point of balance forward. Also, a curve or belly from a tip may push the target away from the cut, especially out at the tip where the Zhan ma Dao would likely be most useful for reaching horses legs. The shape is common today on competition knives used for cutting competitions. There is a bit of thrusting capability, but the design is best suited for chopping and hacking. Very much like a cleaver in your kitchen.
Weight and handling
At just under 6 pounds, the Zhan Ma Dao is not your every day dao. It is a specific weapon for a specific purpose and is optimized as such. It occupies a strange place between long and short weapons. It handles much like a short pole arm but also cane welded like a sword. The hilt based design separates it from other long handled dao from the Song. While heavy, it is maneuverable and fairly fast in the cut. Recovery is difficult but there are way to mitigate those effects.
Training methods from the period are characteristically vague, although the chopping of two targets one high one low is described. Since this design went out of use after the Song and does not seem to appear in later eras, there are no contemporary or extant forms or routines for the mighty Horse Chopper. This leaves us to hypothesize exactly how it was trained or how to train it ourselves today. It has characteristics of a sword, with its hilt, hand guard, and construction. Although the handle makes it feel more like a pole arm. As such, it works well with some Long Dao or sword techniques, but is more versatile, at least from my perspective, treating it mostly as a shorter pole arm rather than a longer heavier sword. It works well with Pu Dao forms, although not every technique feels like it is great for the Zhan Ma Dao.
I tried it out with some Pu Dao, Bagua Dao, and Longsword sequences to see how things fit. One could use it with Bagua Dao forms as many Bagua Dao are about the same weight (traditionally, modern ones are significantly lighter). Some long dao moments work well, but there is a lot of horizontal movement that is often missing from dao and Jian forms. Pu Dao sequences work the best, and the long handle is most comfortable when you take advantage of the entire handle for leverage. The weapon also behaves well with staff and spear type hand holds. Yin hand grips, with both palms facing down, can produce a lot of horizontal force and make strong strikes. The length the lever involved helps to make that useful.
Fit and finish
As far as the craftsmanship involved, the Song Zhan Ma Dao is right out of the past. As stated before, it is a simple, utilitarian design with little in the way of bells and whistles. The blacken iron guard and blackened ring both give it a very nice “munitions” feel. The blade is highly polished to mirror finish and is very regular with almost no rippling or hammer marks. The taper is good and profile of the entire weapon is not only impressive, but immediately recognizable. The linen wrapped handle feels nice in the hand and gives it the standard issue look.
Some drawback follow from the above. The blade being such a high polish definitely makes cutting very nice, but is a bit difficult to keep in display condition. Marks from oil, finger prints, and other contact with the blade show very easily. Even the imitation leather sheath provided leaves smudges that cloud the shine of the blade.
Also, the wrap on the handle where I grip it comes loose almost immediately on my piece. This is a bigger issue and I will have to address it in some way. Perhaps another layer overlapped on the handle could fix this issue in the future, if it is indeed and issue with other pieces. But the wrap bunches up under the hand, leaving bare handle exposed and creating some hot spots under the hand.
The Zhan Ma Dao is a fascinating weapon on many points. The weapon exists in a strange balance between a pole arm and a hilt based sword. The Song weapon, the first to bear the name, did not survive past the Song Dynasty in any appreciable form. It has only been recently that modern sword makers have turned their eyes to the famous “horse chopper”. The LK Chen version represents an accessible version that most martial artists can afford. And following in the footsteps of the original makers of the Zhan Ma Dao. This was a weapon that has always been meant for mass production, and , although the utility of the beast is long in the past, history buffs and martial artist alike can benefit from handling the real item in their hands.