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September 24, 2009

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Last known sword maker to keep working until he 'drops'

THE sword maker inserts a 45.7-centimeter shaft of metal into his red-hot kiln. Then he adds his special ingredient: a human thigh bone.

The bone, says Kuo Chang-hsi, is supposed to purify the metal and give it a special aura.

For the past 30 years, the craggy-faced blacksmith has been replicating ancient Chinese and Japanese swords. At 65, he is Taiwan's last known practitioner of the art. His workshop is a dimly lit set of rooms crowded with sword-making equipment.

Kuo's technique features yew- and coal-fed fires, lethal-looking slabs of steel and iron, and perfect timing with those bones, which he keeps in a ceramic urn.

"When I first tried to make a Kanjiang sword I failed," he says, referring to a famous weapon first made in China some 2,400 years ago. "Then I remembered - there's a saying that if one wants to make a good sword, one needs human bones."

Some of them come from disused cemeteries, left over when the bodies were reburied elsewhere. Or from relatives who believe a sword containing their loved ones' bone will make a fitting memorial. These bones are retrieved years after the death. A whole side industry of bone-washing exists in Taiwan.

Among Kuo's countless replicas is the "Green Destiny Sword." It featured in the acclaimed martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Kuo says he spends several weeks making a sword.

He comes from a family of blacksmiths that started in the trade in 1888. He started at the age of 13.

"I didn't want to be a blacksmith, but my dad told me that if I refused, he would tie me up to stop me from running away."

He branched into sword making around 1980, and it is now the signature element of his trade. His workshop is in Che Ding, a small southern fishing port.

He has no intention of retiring.

"I'll work here until I drop," he says. "It's impossible to reject orders from my customers. For better or worse, sword making is the calling God gave me," added Kuo.


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