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January 22, 2016

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Expert swordsmiths were prized craftsmen of yore

THE Chinese saying “hammered thousands of times and refined hundreds of times” refers to someone who has been tried and tested by challenge or adversity. The idiom derives from the arduous process of heating, hammering and folding a blade repeatedly to make a sword of steel.

Chinese legends and even modern-day movies glorify swords as ultimate weapons that require superb craftsmanship to make and athletic skills to wield.

“Excellent blades were said to have purplish polish that outshone the sun, the moon and the stars,” said Han Huizhi, curator for a current exhibition on ancient weaponry at the Han Tianheng Art Museum in Shanghai.

It’s entitled “Purple Lightning — Ancient Relics of Chinese Armaments” and runs through the end of February.

In addition to swords, the exhibition features relics such as spears, hammers, dagger-axes and body armor used from the Stone Age to the early 20th century.

“The various ways swords were made led to different patterns on the surface of the steel, and a sword made by machine will never look the same as if it were handmade,” Han told Shanghai Daily.

Han contributed items from his personal collection to be part of the exhibition.

Ancient texts documenting the forging of legendary blades called the swords “creations of the gods via the hands of man.”

One legendary blade was recorded to have taken three years to make by the best swordsmith of the day. It was no walk in the park. The text alluded to the collapse of an ancient mountain, revealing a tin mine; a river drying up to reveal a copper mine, a thunderstorm that didn’t stop, and dragons loading carbon to keep the smithy’s forge hot. When the blade was finished, spirits and ghosts were said to cry out in fright.

“Our ancestors often use metaphors, which makes it very difficult to identify and match archeological findings with what was documented,” Han explained. “They describe the patterns on the surface of the steel to be like pine trees, like snowflakes, like turtle shells, like fog, like dragon scales, like lightning. By viewing these blades in the exhibition, you can get some sense of what they meant.”

He pointed to a single-edged sword from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). It is about 1.2 meters long and still as glittering and sharp as if new. Its surface shows a foggy, irregular pattern.

Han said it was one of few swords in the exhibition to be professionally restored and polished to try to recapture its original condition.

“The result was really shocking,” he said, as he asked a group of people viewing the exhibition to press close to the window to look at the surface of the blade.

“Just look at how polished the blade is!” he said. “Look at the irregular patterns on the surface. They can only be the result of hammering and refining hundreds of times. Generations of craftsmen experimented with the process, each developing their own systems and passing that knowledge on to their pupils. You would never be able to duplicate these swords without knowing those secrets, even if you try a thousand times.”

Superb blades were luxuries in the Han Dynasty and before. To make them cost as much as feeding a family of four for a year. They were owned by high-ranking officers or members of royal families.

“The weapons history of a country is closely connected with its history, culture, science, technology, aesthetics and also its ups and downs,” Zhou Wei, a Chinese diplomat in the early 20th century, wrote in the preface to his book “History of Chinese Weaponry.”

The book, a featured item at the exhibition, was the inspiration behind Han’s interest in ancient weaponry, which he began collecting when he was 15.

“I’m mainly interested in standard weapons used by armies rather than martial arts artifacts,” he said. “Those are the armaments that were used to protect the country.”

China’s history is littered with internal wars. They were especially prevalent during the Han Dynasty, when soldiers faced off on horseback.

“Swords were luxuries and only used by high-ranking officers, not ordinary soldiers,” Han explained. “In ancient times, the most common weapon was the spear — three meters and sometimes even five meters long. It was easy to use and powerful in group battles.”

The quality and quantity of the steel in that early period reflected the economic times and the efficiency of state-managed mining to deliver iron.

The exhibition, which is laid out chronically, also includes rare bronze weapons, especially swords that predate the Han Dynasty. At the time, swords were considered even more precious, taking years to make and costing what were then huge sums. It was recorded that kings even came to blows fighting over legendary swords.

Qin Shihuang (260-210 BC), China’s first emperor, is best known today for the famed terracotta warriors and horses uncovered in his mausoleum. Less known, perhaps, is that he almost lost his life over a sword.

The emperor, who had conquered all rival kingdoms at the time, faced countless assassination attempts. One came precariously close to succeeding, when an assassin hid a poisoned dagger in the scroll of map delivered to the emperor. As the scroll was unfurled, the emperor saw the dagger, realized the danger and tried to draw his own sword. But it was too long. In panic, he circled around a pillar trying to evade his killer. He tried twice more to pull out his own sword and failed. But he did escape in the end.

Bronze swords uncovered in his mausoleum helped historians envision how that recorded event played out and helped explain why a long sword was sometimes hard to use in that circumstance.

Only a few swords were discovered in the mausoleum, ranging in length from 80-95 centimeters, much longer and narrower than swords found in other tombs of the same period.

“The forging of cold weapons reached its peak in the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 AD-1279) dynasties, and after Song, gunpowder was discovered, making steel weaponry less relevant,” Han explained. “In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, there were few inventions that improved the quality of weapons and people made them more decorative.”

In the Tang Dynasty, the separation between practical and ceremonial weapons became clearer. For ceremonial ones, decoration became increasingly more delicate and flamboyant, often using gold thread and inlaid jewels. These elaborate swords became diplomatic presents offered to visiting foreign dignitaries.

“To make a good sword, it is very important to maintain a balance between hardness and elasticity,” Han explained. “If a blade is too hard, it might not be elastic enough and could easily break when struck. If it is too elastic, it may not be sharp enough to cut effectively. The wonder of these ancient swords is that they struck the right balance more than 1,000 years ago.”

In the Tang Dynasty, craftsmen made swords wider and longer. The handles were often fashioned to be held in both hands, like the Japanese katana. As the scale of wars escalated and the battles became bloodier, weaponry evolved to be more practical. Swords were no longer so thin and narrow.

“We often think of the Song Dynasty as weak militarily,” Han said. “That weakness stemmed from the emperor trusting intellectuals more than military officers in shaping the army. He was afraid regional warlords would mount a coup. It was a heyday in terms of weaponry, with an evolution toward combining cold weapons and firearms in battle.”

Over time, wootz crucible steel from India and German steel imported by Dutch merchants were commonly used in weapon-making.

“We often say that military power can protect a country, while cultural strength can revive and make it prosperous,” Han said. “These weapons are a good window into how that was achieved in ancient times.”


Date: Through February 28, 9am-5pm. Closed on Mondays

Tel: 5992-3360

Admission: Free

Venue: Han Tianheng Art Museum

Address: 70 Bole Rd


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