Old or New? The Miaodao and Invention in Chinese Martial Arts
Searching for the Miaodao
What exactly do historians mean when they assert that the Chinese martial arts being practiced throughout the world today are, for the most part, a relatively recent creation? Even the veneer of age that systems like Taijiquan or Wing Chun hold up is often the result of sort of “soft orientalism.” Certain names may seem ancient (and hence authentic) in lineage list, yet as Douglas Wile so adeptly noted, it is only because we place these figures in a sort of mental silo forgetting that they were contemporaries with quintessentially modern figures like Darwin, Woodrow Wilson or Einstein. Making an effort to recall this fact is vitally important as it reminds us that the Chinese martial arts have historically functioned as a means by which certain marginal groups have advanced their own vision of what an ideal “modern Chinese society” should be. To the best of my knowledge, the one thing that they have never been is a blind retreat into the premodern past.
Exploring this process of social creation can be a challenge. Lineage mythologies actively obscure moments of innovation while historians are left to lament the general lack of published documents or private letters. Still, if we wish to understand the social functions that the Chinese martial arts have filled it is vitally important to know something about the periodic bursts of creative energy that are seen in these systems, as well as the more familiar patterns of traditional transmission. The analysis of actual weapons can be helpful as they sometimes outlast the systems of bodily practice that first gave rise to them. And the rich symbolic associations that they gather suggests something about how the process of “invented tradition” actually comes together. To paraphrase Karl Marx, while many masters seek to create new systems, approaches or styles, they are not free to do so just as they wish. Collective memories of the “past” (whether real or imagined) exert a gravitational pull on the trajectory their creations.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the miaodao (“sprout saber”). Most historical discussions of this weapon begin with events late in the Ming Dynasty. Cheng Zhongyou’s manual “Dan Dao Fa Xuan” (單刀法選) has generated much interest and is currently one of the most frequently discussed martial arts publications of the late Ming. Given the importance of his works as a source of illumination on late Ming martial arts, it is not really surprising that so many introductions to the modern miaodao ground themselves in his dandao (“single saber,” a reference to fact that it is used with both hands and hence without a shield or second weapon). Nor does it hurt that this manual has given us some truly evocative images of these weapons in action.
Nevertheless, most commentators place the genesis of the miaodao with the Ming era martial arts pioneer, General Qi Jiguang. His encounters with combined forces of Japanese and local Chinese coastal raiders led to a healthy appreciation of the nodachi (field sword) which was often employed against Chinese spearmen to great effect. Qi Jiguang would be forced to develop new types of small unit tactics to counter what he perceived to be the superior weaponry and individual combat prowess of the Japanese warriors. In his writings he referred to his own version of the long Japanese saber as a changdao and he would employ them to great effect against spear wielding and mounted opponents in his later campaigns in Norther China. Contrary to the popular mythology, his changdao seems to have played much less of a role in the defeat of the Japanese pirates than his other innovations, such as the Mandarin Duck formation. General Qi had no intention of trying to beat the Japanese warriors at their own game in a fair fight. That only happens in martial arts movies.
The lessons of the late Ming were not soon forgotten, and Qing military regulations list a number of different Japanese inspired long sabers that continued to be issued to the ethnically Han Green Standard Army. These had their own names with the zhanmadao most closely resembling the weapon described by both Cheng and Qi. As an official military weapon, it continued to be practiced until the late Qing, and is often assumed to be identical to the miaodao in both practice and shape. Of course, assumptions can be tricky things in the field of martial arts studies.
Other practitioners have latched onto the name zhanmadao (“horse cutting knife”) and attempted to connect this relatively late innovation to the much more ancient Han dynasty fencing tradition. Here we also find a reference to a “horse cutting” blade, but it was a ceremonial double edged jian used in state executions of high value prisoners and entirely unlike anything that Ming era soldiers encountered in a bloody confrontation with Japanese pirates.
While obviously spurious, this connection born of linguistic resonance seems to enjoy a degree of official popularity. A recent mini-documentary on the miaodao, produced and globally distributed by Chinese state television, shows a museum of display of singe handed Han dynasty calvary dao when arguing for the purely domestic origins of the miaodao. Even though these swords are as mechanically different from a dandao as one can possible get-note, for instance, that their tips have a forward recurve for chopping that is totally unlike anything seen on any modern East Asian saber-these relics were held up as the definitive proof that the miaodao had nothing to do with Japan and was a purely Chinese invention. Anyone who would like to test this theory for themselves can pick up one of LK Chen’s recreations of a long Han dao which, aside from having only a single cutting edge, has no other similarities to any Chinese sword of the Ming, Qing or more modern periods.
Still, the urge to dissociate the dandao/changdao/zhanmadao from its obvious Japanese roots seems to have been a driving force in the modern creation of the miaodao as both an artifact and a social system. Harold Bloom might remind us that we cannot easily dismiss these efforts as lingering “anxieties of influence” often drive creativity in the present. With the emergence of the miaodao we see both the effort to appropriate the mythic reputation of Japanese swordsmanship, but also an impulse to claim that this excellence was never truly external to China in the first place.
This moment of reinvention is not only evident in historical or textual analysis. The term miaodao never appears before the Republic period. Indeed, the 1920s-1930s was an important era in the history of Chinese fencing. All sorts of weapon skills that had lost their primary function on the battlefield were reimagined as either nationalistically themed training programs or modern close quarters weapons systems by both military and civilian martial artists. When thinking about these trends our mind immediately turns to the dadao, but even the jian and spear benefited from the era’s enthusiasm. As did the miaodao.
In an effort to reimagine earlier Ming and Ching tradition, a martial artist and military trainer named Liu Yuchan introduced “miaodao troops” into the armies of the warlord (and future president of the Republic) Cao Kun. No longer concerned with defeating spearmen, soldiers armed with these long sabers, machine pistols and grenades were instead tasked with providing close support to vulnerable artillery units in Cao Kun’s army. The presence of the Japanese on Chinese territory after WWI was an extraordinarily politically volatile question and the adoption of the term miaodao rhetorically distanced the weapon from its foreign roots.
One of Liu Yuchan’s disciples was an individual named Guo Changshen (1896-1968) who would go on to become an instructor at the Nanjing Centeral Guoshu Academy. Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, I can find no evidence that he formally taught the miaodao there. While this claim is often made in miaodao circles it is not a subject that we see on any of the existing class lists from the period. Once again, folk history and documentary history find themselves at loggerheads. Still, he did much to promote the miaodao and ultimately passed his work on to his son Guo Ruixiang.
This is where things get interesting. If you set a set a typical Qing dynasty Zhanmadao and a modern Miaodoa next to each other even a novice swordsman with notice several key differences. Traditional swords tended to have wrapped handles whereas modern miaodao have a thicker hilt made of polished wood. Modern blades also tend to be both shorter and lighter than their ancestors. More importantly, the cross-section and distribution of mass within these blades is very different. Obviously, there was variation in Ming and Qing weapons, so it is dangerous to speak in absolutes. But most surviving pieces have a five-sided cross section very similar to the original Japanese models.
The modern maiodao, however, has an entirely different cross-section. The blade tends to be relatively broad and thin, but it emerges from a heavy T-shaped spine that is unlike anything seen on the vast majority of older blades (to say nothing of the Japanese nodachi). In practical terms the entire arrangement works very well. A broader and thin blade has great cutting characteristics, yet the pronounced “pipe backed” spine allows the weapon to be relatively rigid in the cut and thrust. Indeed, most modern miaodao are relatively straight and thrusting is an important aspect of their use and training. While obviously cousins, these are different weapons than their Ming era forebearers.
So how did this come about? Guo Ruixiang donated his father’s original saber to the National Sports Museum in 1984 as part of the massive campaign that was launched that year to catalog all of China’s existing Wushu traditions. But far from retiring he became even more active in promoting his father’s miaodao techniques.
According to an essay by Mr. Sun Mung Chang published on pages 242-245 of part 7 of the appendix of Guo Guide’s book Chinese Miaodao, this work was mostly done with wooden swords for the next fifteen years. But around 1999 Guo Ruixiang (then 80) began to visit local backsmiths in the Beijing and Heibi areas seeking a prototype miaodao. The initial results were less than stasifactory, yielding long and floppy blades. At Mr. Sun’s suggestion the two of them undertook a ninety day trip to Longquan at the end of August to commission a group of swordsmiths there to make a batch of 22 prototype sabers.
By this point commercial swordmaking had already been reestablished in Longquan which was exporting huge number of low cost copies of Japanese swords to the global market. It seems that Guo and Sun had some trouble finding a group of smiths who were willing to take on such a small order. Complicating things was the fact that Guo had already decided on a number of key design features that were unlike the swords being produced in the area at the time. Sun stated he informed that smith that his “next generation miaodao” should have the following feature:
1. Their profiles should be based on the traditional miaodao but in consideration of modern humans size, should be made a bit shorter and lighter.
2. The basic dimension of the next generation miaodao should be: Total Length: 138 cm, Blade Length: 98 cm, Hilt: 31 cm, Blade Width: 3.5 cm and the weight should be around 1250 grams.
3. The spine should be a spherical pipe shape, thinner toward the tip and gradually thicker toward the handguard. This way the blade would be stiff while reducing its weight.
4. The diamond shape cross section of the tip was to be changed to a flat tip as the era of cold battle weapons is over.
5. Rosewood or some other high quality wood was to be used for the hilt. Its construction should be two piece of wood fitted to the tang and secured by cross pins.
The name of this miaodao should be Chung Wah (Chinese) miaodao, the soul of our people.
What is critical to note about this account is that Guo Ruixiang was not attempting to replicate his father’s weapon. That was left safely in the museum. Indeed, he didn’t seem to see any future for the older design. The miaodao that emerged from his 90 day stay in Longquan was a carefully conceived attempt to make a new type of a weapon that would excel in certain types of practice, but not necessarily on the battlefield of the ancient past.
Both Guo Ruixiang and his son Guo Guide (a miaodao instructor and author in his own right recently features in a CGTN video) would also seek to tie this new sword to earlier Han traditions and to rhetorically distance it from Japanese influences. In my view this is when the miaodao was really born. When a change in blade profile was tied to current modes of practice and social concerns (a need to promote pride in China’s past during a moment of rising nationalism), the miaodao became a distinct facet of China’s current martial culture.
None of this would come as a surprise to someone as steeped in the evolution of Chinese swords as LK Chen, and I have traded many pleasant emails with his American agent, KK Cheung, discussing the twists and turns of the miaodao’s modern creation. Indeed, he was kind enough to provide me with a translation of Sun’s account of its creation in the autumn of the year 2000. As someone who has felt that the Republic period is the single most interesting era in Chinese martial arts history, I am more than happy to see a truly modern blade enter the collection. Afterall, there needs to be something that memorializes the burst of energy and creativity that shaped so much of Chinese martial practice in the 1920s and again following the Cultural Revolution.
LK Chen notes that this miaodao is essentially a test intended to gauge market interest, and that he may explore the older blade designs in the future if there is an appetite for such a thing. I should imagine that there are quite a few Ming enthusiast who would love to get their hands on a decently priced dandao. Still, even the most modern incarnation of the miaodao has critical lessons to teach on the creation and spread of any martial system.
Meeting the Silver Swallow
All of which brings us to LK Chen’s Silver Swallow, an image clearly meant to evoke Guo Changshen’s nickname. He was sometimes called “the Swallow” due to the elegance and speed of his blade work when fencing. While visually similar to many other miaodao coming out of Longquan (most of which were influenced by the innovations of the Guo family) there are also a number of significant differences. As always, the quality of blade itself is higher on LK Chen’s creations than what is typically seen on Longquan export products. We can also see some subtle difference in the way that these blades are mounted. While most production swords have relatively inexpensive brass fittings, LK Chen’s features sleek stainless-steel furniture. But the most obvious difference will be size.
By way of comparison, Sinosword’s “Affordable Miaodao” (a representative example of what else is typically encountered) measures 140 cm overall with a blade that is 98 cm long. That is very close to the specs laid down by Guo Ruixiang when he first commissioned his swords in 2000. In comparison, my Silver Swallow is 152.5 cm overall with a blade 111 cm in length. As always, measurements will vary slightly as each of these is a handmade product. But this is clearly a longer miaodao than most other offerings on the market.
Just as impressive, my review sword weighed in a relatively svelte 1508 grams. That is the same weight as the CAS Hanwei miaodao even though its blade is about 10 cm shorter. While not a light sword, it is still impressively maneuverable for something that stands over five feet tall in the scabbard. The greater length of the Silver Swallow puts it more in the size range of its Ming and Qing era ancestors.
Given the great length of the sword, and its wide thin blade, one might be forgiven for assuming that the weapon would be somewhat floppy. Yet with the proper application of distal taper (9 mm at the base of the spine, 6.5 mm one third of the way down the blade and 2.5 mm at the tip), that has not proved to be an issue. The blade is flexible but not excessively so, and the pipe back profile makes the sword feel stiff in cuts and exercises.
The build quality of the Silver Swallow is generally quite good. The Jichimu wood scabbard that held my blade was beautifully executed with no visible seams. Its fit to the blade was perfect and the saber seats itself with just the right amount of tension. The stainless-steel fittings are substantial and nicely done. They follow the same general pattern that is seen on most miaodao but have a sleek and modern feeling which befits a blade that is fundamentally a modern creation. My one complaint about the scabbard would be that the fittings seemed to be a bit too larger and did not always fight tightly against the wood. Obviously, cast stainless steel is a less plastic medium than brass for this sort of work, making minor adjustments more difficult.
The Silver Swallow’s blade is truly awesome in every sense of the word. Not only is it an inch and half longer than the blade on the Striking Eagle, it has a lot of presence (point of balance is 13-14 cm from the guard) when being manipulated in the cut or the thrust. Both the cutting edge and spine of my review blade are perfectly straight with no bends or twists. However, the blade’s cross section does seem to have been a challenge to grind. Given the unique nature of the Pipe-back spine, the blade has curving hollow grinds on each side that have to be set by hand. When examining the flats of the blade under a light it is clear that there is a certain amount of waviness here, but I think that it is in-line with what you would expect from a handmade sword at this price point. This is also evident when closely examining the spine. While the centerline of the spine runs straight and true, grinding the proper distal tapper into this somewhat irregular shape seems to have been a challenge and you can see waviness along the edge of the spine that I have not seen on any of the LK Chen’s other sabers.
The blades polish was nice and it should hold up to reasonable cutting without too much marring. My review sword came quite sharp along most of the length of the blade, but the tip itself was a bit dull and might have to be touched-up before cutting. Unfortunately, I can’t include a report on that aspect of the sword’s handling in this review. The current blizzard conditions in New York State mean that outdoor cutting is out, and because of COVID-19 restrictions I don’t currently have access to an indoor studio with a high enough ceiling to accommodate this sword. I plan to do a follow up post on the miaodao later this year and I might be able to sneak some cutting into that. Still, my initial feeling is that this blade that should be capable of delivering devastating cuts and thrusts against a wide variety of targets.
I was worried that I might find the bare wood hilt of this dao to be too slippery. Afterall, hilts were wrapped in the Ming and the Qing for a reason. That has not turned out to be a problem in the indoor training that I have been able to do. The Jichimu wood seems to have an open grain structure that lends a secure feel, but things might be different if the hilt were to actually become wet. The stainless steel tsuba is very substantial and possibly my favorite feature on the entire sword. Both the collar at the top of the hilt and the cap at the bottom are perfectly fitted and they feel good as your hand slides across them. Everything on the hilt is nicely fit and polished. This is a hilt that makes it easy to transition between some of the more complex grips that are seen in modern miaodao work.
I realize that not all readers will share my enthusiasm for the martial arts history of the 1920s, or even the 2000s, and so not everyone is going to appreciate the Silver Swallow as embodying a critical moment in the development of the modern Chinese martial arts. That is ok as this is also a brilliant weapon for practicing martial arts students. Given the current interest in the miaodao, I suspect that this sword will find an enthusiastic market. In the four centuries since the introduction of this class of weapons into the Chinese martial arts under under General Qi Jiguang, we have seen them repeatedly come back into fashion. This usually happens at moments of rising national consciousness. Given that China is once again undergoing such a moment it should not be a surprise to see the miaodao being popularized both by individual teachers and state-backed media campaigns. It is this interaction of history and discourse, practicality and ideology, that make the development of the miaodao so fascinating. If you find yourself looking for a working miaodao, one would be hard pressed to find an example that is more conscious of both its 16th and 20th century roots.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: General Li Jinglin, the “Sword Saint” of Wudang