Blog, Historical Martial Arts, Sword Lab

Katana to Dao part 3: Men of Letters, Arts of War

The Ming Dynasty (大明 1368 to 1644) is a fascinating time period in history. So much change happening on the global stage, the effects of that change have had huge ramifications for people living in the Ming Dynasty and the events happening in China had wide ranging effects on world at large. For Chinese martial artists, the Ming Dynasty represents the traditional origin of many of the martial arts popular today. Taijiquan, Mantis, Shaolin staff styles, and countless others trace their beginnings to persons or texts from the Ming. Many of the names and linguistic features associated with Chinese martial art today also can trace their use to this influential period. The Ming is known for its art, culture, and poetry, with collectors paying exorbitant sums of money to purchase such artifacts. 

The Ming is also known for its social changes. Old dogmas were being rewritten, new ideas and inventions improved the lives of many, and the influx of foreign powers through trade and exploration began to further erode some the traditional divisions found in pre-Ming society. Trade was of primary concern throughout the Ming, culminating in legendary conflict between pirates, civilians, and the various powers in the area. This brought an influx foreign goods and people with them. Urban environments flourished with merchants and did robust trade in goods imported form other lands and of high quality. The Japanese sword quickly captured the mind and fascination of the populace, so much so that the influence can be seen in a wide range of social strata, economic groups, and walks of life of the Ming Dynasty. 

There are several reasons for this. Both internally and externally from the Ming Court. But one major factor at the time dictated and affected many areas of Chinese culture: literacy. The ability to read and write by a growing number of people in the Ming was a catalyst of many things that we now accept as part and parcel to our experiences of modern Chinese culture, including martial arts. But what were the driving factors to this increase in literate populations and what effect did this have on the larger society? There are two major issues that are pertinent to our discussion; the break down of traditional divisions in society, and the availability (and affordability) of printed material like books and gazetteers. 

The “Lettered Class”

At the center of this discussion are the Literati. Traditionally, these are the highly educated scholar official class, and were the principle audience and producers of written material through the Song Dynasty (960–1279). These are the men that have passed the Imperial exams (Women were forbidden to take them). Traditionally, the literati focused on their studies of traditional Chinese thought and philosophy, state craft, and poetry et al. They very much held the monopoly on knowledge, and especially the knowledge that was preserved in printed and written materials. But, the printing boom of the later Ming, changed this dynamic drastically. More and more people from lower stations were not only buying and reading books previously reserved for the literati, but also producing and writing them. This blurred the lines of of class among literate people in China and created an environment that fostered a much more diverse selection of topics produced for sale in bookstalls and towns. 

Mingqing renwuxiaoxiang huaxuan(Nanjing: Nanjing Bowuguan, 1979), pl. 16. Ming portrait of Jiang Shunfu. detail.

The literati or Shi Dafu 士大夫, were the scholar officials of the Ming Dynasty, and represent the Civil end of the Confucian dichotomy, Wen Wu 文武 (Wen-Scholarly, Wu-Martial).  Their history goes back to the very dawn of Chinese civilization, although their role changes slightly through the centuries. The Shi and Dafu were actually two separate social classes of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). Shi were scholar officials holding lower tiered positions and formed the social classes just above ordinary people. The Dafu were the aristocracy holding positions by hereditary claim. With the unification of China and the rise of state bureaucracy , the Shi Dafu became invaluable to lords and by extension the state craft that the lords required. As Early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), they rose to the top level of the Feudal caste system, becoming the elite class of citizens. In the Ming, scholar officials were rated by the imperial examination system, the Ke Ju 科舉, which was re-instituted by Emperor Hongwu 洪武帝(21 October 1328 – 24 June 1398) after the founding of the Ming. This allowed them to obtain posts in the Ming Court as officials. 

The Song Dynasty was the gilded age for the Literati and specifically for the Scholar Official. It is in the Song that the bureaucracy completely replaced the aristocracy in the workings of the Empire. The examination was the major path that literati wished to pursue and it was through these process and reforms to the exam that created such an environment. Culturally as well, Song Dynasty painting, poetry and other refined pastimes and activities reached impressive development and quality. Theatre, literature, and collecting became popular pastimes to these scholars.  

The Literati of the Ming idolized the Song, going so far as to reproduce hundreds of plays and literature from the period. Most famous among these is the “Water Margin” 水滸傳. This expansive narrative was more than likely first compiled in the form we know it in the Ming Dynasty. However, the story and many of the tales are set in the Song and is based on an entry in the Song Shi 《宋史》mentioning the leader Song Jiang宋江 who is a pivotal character in the book. This text has huge implications for martial arts as much the lore, fables, and ideas that we have of Chinese martial art today are taken directly from “Water Margin”. It also is evidence of the various interactions among the literati of the Ming; between the scholar class and the lower classes like merchants, artisans and menial laborers. 

During the Ming, Literati were associated with Neo-Confucianism. The adopting and blending of elements from Taoism into this unique philosophy has implications that extend all the way to the present. When Hongwu finally re-instituted the exams, he included a separate set of tests for successful candidates in practical skills like mathematics, law, calligraphy, horse riding, and archery. This was a good thing for many literati as many who passed the exams did not receive an official post. These literati branched out into other means of scholarship and making a living. Besides local governments and administration positions, many devoted their time to the activities that were usually seen as the domain of artisans and craftspeople, not scholars seeped in the classics. 

Ming Publishing 

We have mentioned the enormity of Ming era publishing and printing in the past.  Until the invention of wood block printing in the 7th century and of moveable print in 1041, most literature and written material was circulated in manuscript form. It was also written entirely in “Literary” or “Classical” Chinese. As printing became more accessible, publishers began printing books in colloquial and simple language to reach readers of lower station and education. This continued through the Ming until the 1500’s when the publishing boom of the Ming began. During this time, the number of books available to the public greatly increased and , as a result, the literacy of the population in general began to climb. Also, the literati began going through traditional stories that we now know as Classics of Chinese literature. They started to look at documents and information that they previously ignored. They not only began reading more books, but also writing them. In the Ming, it was economically feasible for almost anyone to publish their own book to be sold. 

This change and subsequent explosion of written materials had some very important consequences. Topics that were generally out of reach for people of a certain class or station, were now being sold at book stalls and at affordable prices. Normal, every day people (urban for the most part) were able to learn about things that they never would have had contact with before. This began to erode the current traditional divisions in society. Now, information that was on the exams for civil or military service were available to the public. Theoretically, anyone who could afford these books could take the exams and become upwardly mobile. The idea of changing your station in life was probably pretty foreign to people living back then. But this very modern idea did germinate in this environment.

Books and those that read them

With the increase in books available and the accessibility of publishing for ambitious writers, the literati became quite prominent through the Ming. These men from scholarly families were able to indulge in their passion like none of their predecessors had before. Mao Yuanyi, author of the compendium the Wubei Zhi, was said to have a gargantuan library, consisting of everything from book on farming to martial arts. Book buying and ownership had reached peak level by the 1500’s, creating a large and profitable industry that made many people wealthy beyond their social standing. 

All this resulted in many ways for the traditional lines of society to be blurred. Scholars and literati began to show renewed interest in martial arts and military affairs. Many of them collected swords, weapons, and texts about fighting and combat. While it cannot be said that the literati in general followed this trend, a significant number of them did. So many in fact, that a good number of the ideals of Neo Confucianism are found imbedded in the modern martial arts. The mix of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism found in many traditional styles was directly influenced by this period. While many think this was a more recent development, the literate were influenced themselves by the long history that they have had since the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD; 25–220 AD). 

Not all Literati saw this as a good thing. Many in the era were critical of the increasing availability of books to persons who had no business reading them. Tang Shunzhi 唐順之, mathematician poet, and martial artist, complained about the upwardly mobile merchants and wealthy civilians who were now writing and publishing books of their own.

“Writing in the Sixteenth century, Tang Shunzhi (1507-1560) observes that in his lifetime, every small-time merchant who ever operated a brothel or wine shop and had a bowl of rice to eat expected to have a tomb inscription written when he died. Moreover, every person who achieved some measure of wealth or passed the examinations, even if he had only a minor reputation, expected to leave behind a published collection of essays or poems. Tang concludes that it is a good thing these works vanished as quickly as they were produced: Although their predecessors were no longer extant, the current publications could still fill a room. If every volume survived, there would be no space for them all, even if the world was covered in bookcases. (Tang1573, 6:35B-36A). Here Tang comments not only on the ubiquity of books, but also on their evanescence. He pokes fun at the pretentions of the upwardly mobile, who’s aspiration to publish their own words had suddenly become affordable.”

Tobie Meyer-Fong, “The Printed World: Books, Publishing Culture, and Society in Late Imperial China.”

As with modern communities, there was a great deal of gate keeping sentiment from the established scholars. And even though they too enjoyed benefits from this phenomena, extremely critical views on Yu Dayou’s and Qi Jiguang’s poetry complained the the Generals were of too coarse and worldly a background that the written word and its art were above their ability. 

Sword collecting

The Japanese sword owes much of its popularity in the Ming to literati and the like. Literati and other wealthy patrons have been enamored with swords and sword collecting for a long time. The pinnacle of this was in the Han dynasty when a robust fencing and dueling society existed. Sword fighting was common place and many people took up the sword and made a living as a traveling swordsmen.  Those days had long been gone and the modernization of the Song increased the separation between literati and martial pursuits. Still, sword collecting among the literati was more common than one might imagine. 

It is after the Song that the popularity of Japanese swords began to rise in Ming China. There has been a strong trade relationship between Japan and China from the end of the Han through the Tang Dynasty. At the time, the flow of technology and fabrication methods was from China to Japan. By the time of the Ming, that dynamic had been reversed. Japanese swords became sought after collectibles that could fetch impressive sums of money and trade. Literati were so enamored with them that they wrote poetry and songs praising their construction and quality. Professor Ma Mingda dates this fascination to the Northern Song Dynasty with a piece by poet Ou Yang Xiu called “Japanese Sword Song”. This is not the only poem to bear this name. In the Ming, the most famous example of a poem with this title is by aforementioned Tang Shunzhi. In it ,the author is presented with a Japanese sword as a gift. He pontificates on its aesthetics and mentions the Coastal crisis involving the Woku. This form sets a fairly good template for many such writings of the time and in to the Qing dynasty. It reads as follows: 

有客贈我日本刀, A guest presented me with a Japanese sword,

魚須作靶青綠綆, with fish whiskers as a guard and blue and green ribbons

重重碧海浮渡來,floating across the blue sea,

身上龍文雜藻行。 is a dragon with algae on its body. 

悵然提刀起四顧,I raise the sword longingly and look around,

白日高高天炯炯!the sun is high and the sky is bright!

毛髮凜冽生雞皮,The braid shivers and the skin is cold like chicken skin,

坐失炎蒸日方永。sit back and it will last forever. 

 聞到倭夷初鑄成,I heard that the Japanese barbarians were first to forge,

幾歲埋藏擲深井, How many years were they buried in deep wells,

日陶月煉火氣盡,Ceramics by the day, smelting by the moon, the fires were exhausted,

一片凝冰斗清冷。 One sliver of ice freezes alone.

Japanese Sword Song, Tang Shunzhi,

Most of these essays were appreciation pieces that describe the aesthetic qualities of Japanese swords primarily. But some authors did delve into the the making and artistry behind the Japanese sword. Not many literati were knowledgeable about these things back then, however. This began to change a bit with the aforementioned publishing boom that propels this story forward. As more and more exposure to practical concerns like craftsmanship entered into literati circles, some were able to take more detailed yet still cursory looks at such topics. There are no extant writings that detail Japanese sword making processes from the Ming Dynasty. However, the literati adored the craftsmanship evident from the fine quality of the weapons even if they were ignorant in large part to how they were made. 

The Wokou crisis and the routes the pirates used for raiding

The Crisis with the Woku on the coast was also a big culprit in the popularity and fascination with Japanese swords. Literati and the like drove the popularity Japanese swords up to such an extent that by the later part of the Ming, the Ming court had to limit the number of swords Japanese could offer for trade. By the time of the Woku raids, trade with Japan had been banned, yet the popularity these weapons did not wane. Japanese swords were often smuggled in and the local merchants were often forced to engage in illegal trade in order to stay in business. With the issues involved in the conflict, restrictions were often easy to circumvent.

However, the popularity of Japanese swords at the end of the Ming Dynasty is well attested to in the writings of these literati who collected and admired swords. It also shows the deep influence and cultural exchange between the two cultures. For it is during the end of the Ming that many of the ideas of martial arts that we adhere to today, began in response to these influences. Professor Ma Mingda gives some examples of these literati collectors:  



Besides Tang Shunzhi, Tang Xianzu, a playwright in the Ming Dynasty, wrote a poem called “Song of the Japanese Pirates”《倭寇刀子歌》, in which he praised a Japanese sword that was said to have been forged by the “Japanese King”. Song Maodeng, a writer in the Wanli period, once wrote an article titled “Records of Japanese Swords”…..

Song Maodeng’s expression is actually that of the Chinese literati as early as the pre-Qin era. The feelings of calligraphy and swords [being connected] that appear are a kind of spiritual quality with far-reaching aspirations based on swords and virtue. Similar works are not uncommon in the creation of ancient poetry. However, the difference is that the ancients were accustomed to using the names of sword [makers] such as Tai’a, Zhanlu, Qingping, and Longquan, but they were replaced by “Japanese swords” in Song Maodeng’s writings. This is a profound change. It contains the evidence of the cultural exchange and integration between China and Japan as well as the cultural migration of swords caused by the comprehensive advantages of Japanese swords. The Chinese scholars could not help but be impressed by them, and could not help but produce verse to show evidence of respect. Chinese literati’s writings on Japanese swords reached their peak in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.

-Ma Mingda

There are also stories of everyone from generals to prostitutes displaying Japanese swords in their offices and places of business. These weapons became part of many people’s reputations and focus of many’s fascination. Military and civilian alike are embroiled in the story of Japanese swords in China. But it is not just the object that had its influence. The introduction of Japanese swords was accompanied by the introduction of Japanese methods for using them. Qi Jiguang is famous for publishing writings on the Kage Ryu scroll, including it in his treatise, Jixiao Xin Shu. And many literati also took up the activity of martial arts and the study of military thought, in direct opposition to long held traditions keeping the civil and military separated. The cross cultural effect is multi layered. And it gave rise to one of our most enduring martial arts artifacts. 

The invention of the martial arts manual 

Page from Wubei Zhi, reproducing Qi Jiguang’s Shield stances

Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou were both instrumental in the creation of the modern ‘martial arts manual’. Both Generals were also published authors of poetry and thought. Although, apparently not well received by the high literati society as being to coarse. But their work on their respective works of military thought is still used as source material by martial artists today. Yu’s treatise “Jian Jing” 劍經,is the earliest surviving military treatise about the training and use of weapons by individuals. Qi Jiguang’s Jixiao Xin Shu, is seen by many arts practiced today as their origin. Many common names for martial arts moves and forms come from Qi’s 24 Fist stances. But both of these men wrote these within larger treatises containing more conventional military topics. And both authors wrote these works with the expressed purpose of informing military leaders and officials in the proper training of troops. They represent the military encroachment on literary circles. But the opposite is also true, and, I would argue, far more relevant to our modern practice of martial arts. 

Korean version of Qi’s Saber method based on the Kage Ryu scroll

Qi Jiguang is famous for incorporating Japanese weapons and techniques into his forces. After his victory over the Wokou, he set down to studying adopt many of the most effective tactics he encountered. He took and published the “Kage Ryu” scroll which can be considered the first Japanese sword style accepted into the Chinese military. This Japanese long saber style was mostly just a series of pictures with little or no commentary. It wasn’t until the text reached Korea that it was reproduced with instructions to the pictures. 

Neither Yu’s nor Qi’s methods met with much wide adoption among the military at the time. Their commands were simply famous for using them. Their writing, however, inspired other writers in the end of the Ming to also pen works of martial arts. The topic of these writings was often, and most famously, based on the Japanese weapon. Two writers are key to this, and both included the Japanese sword in their publications. These are Cheng Zongyou and Mao Yuanyi. Both are literati from traditional scholar families but who resisted tradition and pursued careers in martial arts or the military. Mao is the author/compiler of the Wu Bei Zhi, a frequent topic here. But it is Cheng who made the most important steps toward our modern concept of martial arts manuals. 

Dan Dao Fa Xuan

Cheng’s treatise on the Long Saber, Dan Dao Fa Xuan單刀法選 is one of the most famous martial arts texts of the period.  It breaks the mold in several important ways. First, as we mentioned with the Ming publishing trends of the time, this was written not in Classical or literary Chinese but in simple to the point and practical language. Second, it represents the military/civilian bridge being published by a literati that had taken up the practice of martial arts. His teacher for the Chang Dao was Liu Yun Fang 劉雲峰, who was said to the the student of an unnamed Japanese teacher. So it also represents the cultural exchange between Japan and China. 

A Japanese style long Saber Circa Ming dynasty: Source LK Chen.

Dan Dao Fa Xuan is arguably one of the most influential Ming dynasty texts we have. Not only does it represent the adoption of Japanese methods and weapons into the Chinese milieu, but it’s format and even content were spread far and wide, eventually becoming the text that we are familiar with today sold in book shops and martial arts supply companies.  This is the first manual to be explicitly written in simple language. Cheng States it himself: 


These methods to use the saber against the spear, are described in simple language as to be clear. All of my previous works were described using poetics in songs with drawing diagrams of the individual stances of staff techniques,. Although these methods are easy to record and remember for the reader, they are also easily misunderstood the same as if one did not yet have all the information, so now [I will use] common language to explain the methods of Spear and Sword, for it is my desire for a clear explanation.”

Cheng Zongyou, Dan Dao Fa Xuan- conclusion. 

And this had an effect. It not only opened the door to other works that followed the same model, but the contents of Dan Dao Fa Xuan find themselves repeated in multiple other texts. In Wu Bei Yao Lu 武備要略, written by Cheng’s nephew, Cheng Zi Yi 程子頤, he takes Dan Dao Fa Xuan and creates several weapon styles directly from the original text. The sections on Tie Bian 鐵鞭, “iron whip” (a kind of sword breaker), and two handed axe are move for move the same as Dan Dao Fa Xuan, with minimal change to accommodate the new weapons. Cheng’s work on Shaolin Staff is similarly used as a template for other weapon sets/styles. But his most important influence was on a young literati named Mao Yuan Yi. 

Mao Yuanyi is of course the one who compiled the Wubei Zhi, the most extensive record of military writing in the Chinese language. Among the works that he included in the martial arts section of the Wubei Zhi, Cheng’s Shoalin Staff and Cross bow are reproduced in their entirety. He did not include Dan Dao Fa Xuan however, but did reproduce Qi Jiguang’s Dan Dao which he named “Xin You Dao” for the period he set it down. This is the famous style taken from the Kage Ryu scroll. Mao also included an entirely new style and weapon, the two handed sword or Jian, which he ascribes to having found in Korea. There is some mystery surrounding ChaoXian Shifa, and its connection to Korea is complicated. 

Chaoxian Shi Fa

ChaoXian Shifa was said to be imported from Korea. However, no such style exists in the historical record of the country. Ma Mingda has theorized that this particular two handed sword stye was in fact a relic of Chinese origin. Possibly somewhat based on Qi Jiguang’s long saber. Mao may have had contact with returning troops from the Korean War with Japan. Mao compiled the Wubei Zhi in 1621, and in the coming centuries, much the martial arts and training of weapons presented in the book was reprinted in Korea in new treatises. Mao’s two handed sword style is found in these texts, namely, the Muye Dobo Tongji 武藝圖譜通志 ,but it is called “Officials Dao” and it is presented as using a double handed long dao instead of a Jian. Both Qijiguang and Mao Yuanyi enjoyed great respect and popularity among 18th and 19th century Korean military writers. Xinyou Dao is only recorded in any detail in the Korean manuals. It is by referencing these that we have a clearer picture of the original writings in Chinese. So just as in the Ming, Korea has been able to preserve a crucial bit of Chinese culture and history. 

Modern lineage

Modern practitioners of Chinese martial art will sometimes have certain ideas about where the arts we practice originated. Now days, there is a big push for what is called “real world” or “street” fighting skill. The spread of MMA and its popularity have somehow created an environment where it is thought that if a martial art is not from a military, prize fighting, or some other form of explicit practice of violence it is not a martial art. Among traditional styles of Chinese martial art, we give a lot of stock to military people in the lineage, and talk of the martial arts history always seems to center on military use and action. Even Taijiquan, the slow, now widely therapeutic style, traces their origins to Qi Jiguang’s military treatise. 

And we tend to think martial arts are isolated monoliths. Chinese is Chinese, Japanese is Japanese, etc. But as we see from the popularity of Japanese swords and swordsmanship, Chinese martial art is a living tradition, taking in any and all influences it comes into contact with. The popularity of Dan Dao Fa Xuan in the modern day has extended this influence. Even Korean arts have contact and cross pollination with both Chinese and Japanese arts of the time. The Imjin War (1592-1598) saw Japan invade Korea with great violence and terror. The Ming military, including the Troops of Qi Jiguang and You Dayou went to fight with the Koreans and brought their training with them. If we can believe the time lines, this meant that Japanese art was being imported to Korean military sources through Ming troops and writings. 

But the main component to all of this surviving is not the military per se, but the Literati who were involved. Their writings, philosophies, and lofty ideas remain with us today. Stories of heroic and upstanding young swordsmen and of the spiritual side to the practice of arts of war were championed by the literati. It was these very tales that prompted some to become involved. The literature and history they were inspired by continues to inspire us today, mainly through their accounts and efforts to keep it alive. The oceans of time involved with Chinese martial arts means that there is an ebb and flow of styles, practices and methods. Keeping this in mind we should view things from Chinese culture not as being unique to them, but unique in their application. Without the Literati of the Ming, Chinese martial arts, and by extension, martial arts in general, would be much different.

Suggested reading/selected biography

The topic of Ming Printing and the literati is an immense one. It was difficult not to follow the rabbit holes that appear during the research of this article. So, for those who want more detailed information and continue the look at this fascinating subject, here are some good sources to get you started.



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.- Provides a good overview of Literati and their involvement.

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.- A great piece in a larger book about Military culture. Gives a good look at the relationship between the scholars and generals at the time.

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.- A fascinating and entertaining book that delves deep into the publishing world of the Ming Dynasty. No specifically martial arts or military in nature it give a wonderful idea of the many facets that the publishing industry had during the Ming. Highly recommended!

Ma, Mingda馬明達. 無系列Wu Xi Lie. chu ban. ed. Vol. A113-A114, (歴史上中、日、朝劍刀武藝交流考 Study of the exchange of swords and sabers between China, Japan and Korea.) 武學探針Wu Xue Tan Zhen. Taibei Shi: Yi wen chu ban you xian gong si, 2003. (Chinese only)- This article by Ma MingDa goes into painstaking detail about these topics and forms the foundation for much of what I have said about Japanese swords and swordsmanship here. If you can read Chinese, this is essential reading.

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.- A book about the the Japanese side of the Coastal crisis. It gives good context for what we observe in Ming China.

General information:

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

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

Swope, Kenneth. Campaigns and Commanders. Vol. 20, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, ©2009.

Hopefully this will help keep people interested until our next dive into the Literati! Enjoy! And Patience, Practice, Perseverance!

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