When LK Chen released his reproduction of an T shaped Han Ji (漢卜字鋼戟) blade and it’s hardware, my friend Ben Judkins was very happy. He had been reading about the weapons rediscovery and was keen to get a set of blades. I was not familiar with this style of Ji. My idea of the Ji was the modern “Ji Dao” of the Wujing Zonyao as used modern wushu and king fu. But, Ben wanted one as a pole arm. That presents problem; shipping from China is prohibitively expensive. Being here in Michigan, we have a plethora of wood shops and sources so I was confident that I could find one to help me with getting some of the poles made. That was not to be.
I searched far and wide for wood workers willing to help me out. Most refused at the mention of a few of the requirements we were asking for. First, tapering, second, the lengths we wanted, and third, the contouring to achieve the cross section. It was during the pandemic so many places needed work, but were unable to do anything that required extra room or resources without it being dauntingly expensive. It was then my friend Dror, and I decided, that, between the two of us, he an engineer me an artist, we could figure out how to do it ourselves. After all, the people of the Han were able to do this 2000 years ago. Certainly we have the advantage. So we began.
First things first
What exactly is a Han Dynasty Ji (full name T shaped Ji漢卜字鋼戟)? The Ji is a form of Chinese Halberd. It consists of two brass ends on a tapered staff with a ti shaped blade mounted in the end. Until just 50 odd years ago, this weapon was assumed to be the famous “Ji Dao” form the Song Era Wujing Zong Yao. That shape, with the present moon blade, has now become synonymous with the Ji. But the Han Dynasty Ji is a different beast. But it has been a missing link in the history of Chinese warfare and weaponry until recently. This made research on the construction of the weapon more difficult.
The weapon proper is descended from the previous “Ge” or Dagger Axe. Through the Warring states period and up trough the Qin dynasty, the Ge was a major pole arm used on the battle field. The dagger axe blade was able to stab, hook and slice and was later paired with a spear tip to add attacks forward as well. The Ge was a bronze weapon but with the advent of steel, the spear tip and forward blade was fused to create the Ji. This was mounted through a wooden shaft that fit into the brass ends. It was tapered to fit between a large brass end and a smaller one with the blade mounted through it.
Not having access to archeological examples, we had to figure out how to achieve this simple, yet difficult task indirectly. We began getting tips on woodworking and I started to research Chinese work working methods from the Han. Taking into account the tools they had, it was surprisingly easy to come up with a plausible method of attack using conventional wood working techniques. Han craftsman had certain tools that would be replaced in later years. They did not have draw knives, planes, or spoke shaves back then, although they are very useful for just this type of job. But a combination of chisels, axes, knives, and files could get the job done just as simply.
The weapon it’s self consists of four main components: The shaft or handle, the blade, and the two brass ends that will cap the handle at each ends. The Brass cap for the bottom of the shaft is larger and has significant heft to it. At least the reproduction does. The other end is smaller and contains the slot which the blade will fit through. The shafts can be of a variety of lengths, from 3-4 feet (1 meter) to a battalion length ji which will come in at about 9 feet total length. Usually the longer the pole, the smaller the blade head, for obvious reasons. There are a great many sizes for Ji blades found, but they are all fairly standard in their dimensions.
The two ends are ingenious in their design in and of themselves, but this shape which helps steady the fittings of the weapon is used through the entire length of the shaft, creating a unique feel and quality of movement. It also helps to steady the hand and arm by giving it a natural grip, enabling the wielder to keep track of which weapon he is using, blade or dagger spike. It is this contouring and shaping that was the main puzzle we needed to solve.
Problems and solutions
There were a specific number of problems we needed to overcome in producing one of these shafts. First, they were very long. The type of wood needed to be high quality. Second, it needed to be tapered. It became clear to us that tapering something 8-9 feet long was not something that was as simple as we had imagined. We found that that was the leading deal breaker for wood shops we approached. Third, the slot for the blade to fit through need to be snug enough to hold it in place and be aligned to the contours of the shaft.
My partner in crime, Dror, figured out a reliable way to taper such long excess of wood and after experimenting with a few methods and types of wood, we had a good handle on where to go from there. The rough shaping we handled on a table saw for expediency, but after that, we found that hand tools were the best tools for the job. We used planes primarily for the contouring the final cross section. The process is labor intensive but gives good results with a little patience.
For the ends where the brass caps fit, we started using files and sanding. This gave the results we wanted but again was very laborious. After a time, we discovered the a simple hammer and chisel technique can rough out a shape in a fraction of the time, and a spoke shave can finish it off with ease. We wanted to pressure fit these ends and make sure they were very secure, so the shape of the wood end is critical. It takes a bit of focus, but we are able to fit these ends well and they are terribly to difficult to get off (as we found out when we had to remove one that was only half on at the time). The pressure fit is tight and gives no rattle or slipping.
The blade slot also gave us an interesting challenge. We started with the intuitive way of making such a slot. On a drill press we drilled a series of holes and then squared out the slot. While this worked, it was difficult to really get the good fit that we were after. A little research, however, revealed that these slots are often called “mortises”. They are usually used in conjunction with a wooden tab (a tenon) that would slot into the mortis. This is a building technique that uses no nails or glue in the structure. It is also a method of wood working used by the Chinese for over 7,000 years. Mortising requires a special chisel for the job but is a simple and easy technique to learn and do. With the mortise chisel, we were able to cut a slot in an hour or so, which need only minor sanding/filing to fit the blade nice and snug after they were done. It is my opinion that this would have been the way they made this slot in the Han era.
A nice piece of Ash
For the wood, we decided upon ash. American ash is an extremely tough and versatile wood. It is a good hardwood and has enough flexibility to be very resilient over a long area. When first picking up the pieces of wood, I was taken aback by the weight of them. But after we tapered and contoured them, they balance out very nicely. We also took a scrap of wood about 2mm in thickness and were able to bend it 90 degrees before it snapped. There was no cracking or sounds before the failure. We were impressed. A finished Ji in Ash feels the way the weapon should. Enough weight to give it authority yet light enough to wield with relative ease. Considering it was used on horseback as well, this is important.
The draw back to working in such wood is that it is slower to shape and work. Even cutting it take a fair bit longer than a length of pine. The sanding and final finishing are slow going with this wood but the final product is exquisite. The everything’s that make it difficult to work with are also benefit when it comes to use and practicality. These shafts should be extremely resistant to breaking in full force blows akin to combat much less the typical backyard use these weapon see these days. It also has a nice look when sanded and finished. I liken it to steel wood. I like it very much.
Bringing all these parts together is a fairly straight forward process. But it is, again, very labor intensive. That being said, it is easy to see how even a single craftsman working on this and this alone could conceivably complete 1 in a day. If you had some division of labor, as they most likely did in the Han, it is a simple matter to scale up production. A skilled wood worker who has a method for doing these tasks would be limited only in the time it takes them to do said tasks. We, with no training or guide to follow, were able to plausibly recreate these poles with a minimum of power tools. While we did use hand tools not available to them (planes, draw knives, etc.) these tasks would be completed by others tools like shave knives and flat files respectively.
These weapons would have been created in a workshop, where many crafts people would be working together. In the Han Dynasty, the Emperor Wu decreed that the industries of weapon making and salt production would be under government controlled monopolies. Weapons would be crated in government controlled and operated workshops. These workshops would follow specific metrics for fabrication allowing for a great deal of standardization of weapons like the Ji. After making one ourselves, it becomes even more impressive the amount of production they had achieved with such ingenious design so early inhuman history. And this is the simple version! There were other weapons that had shafts that were covered in bamboo for added durability!
Why would the shaft need to be this shaped cross section as opposed to a simple rounded shape? Would that not be a simpler way to go about it? I am sure that examples exist or at least had existed where the shaft was not contoured as it is here. But there are distinct advantages to this contouring as we have found out. The patency of these advantages make it difficult for me to write them off as coincidental. Once they were discovered, I conjecture that they would have continued the practice.
First on the list of benefits is of course, handling characteristics. The distinct shape, a sort of rounded onion/pentagon, is amazing in the hand. The peak aligns with the protruding dagger spike of the ji and the flat edge with the halberd blade. Being able to rotate the weapon around from blade to spike is made much easier with this cross section. The five pointed outline with rounded corners is well adapted to the human hand and creates an incredibly comfortable experience. And it is easy to index along the pointed edge and the flat edge. Which brings us to…
Edge alignment and indexing with this shape is extremely easy. We had experimented with a round shaft at the beginning and the weapon would turn in the hand very easily if one was not paying attention. And since the blade can attack from either of the blades sides, this was a common occurrence. When you go back and forth from the edge of the blade and the point of the spike, the contouring makes proper edge alignment much easier to achieve. Especially when quickly changing from one side to the other.
Third, the tapering and contouring have a noticeable effect on the balance of the weapon as a whole. This is important as the ji blade at the end of a long shaft needs to be counter balanced at some point long the length of the weapon. Holding the raw piece of ash, I was worried that it might be overly heavy. But once we had the shape in place, the staff felt very well balanced and lively.. Far more well balanced than if you just take a single rod of any hardwood and strap 300g of steel to the end of it.
A window into the past
There is far more to talk about with the Ji and with our journey to recreating it. Researching and finding solutions has taught us much about the sophistication and craftsmanship of the people of the Han dynasty. While it seems like a simple task and idea, it is sophisticated enough to give pause to modern woodworkers. Creating the pole and subsequently the entire weapon and seeing it materialize before our eyes was a thrill that deserves it’s own piece. Then the testing of the weapon in real time, swinging it around and using it against light targets, its design features stand out even more. While seemingly a simple object, it is a wonderful representative of Han Dynasty innovation and ingenuity.
Stay tuned for more on the history, construction and possible uses in video and blog post format. Also, we do intend to make them available to the community so information will be coming on that if you are interested in having one for yourself.
Until next time!