Of geese and willows: comparison of yanmaodao and liuyedao

Sword typology and Edge Weapons forms of the Chinese Empire and related cultures with an emphasis on their relationship to Swordsmanship.

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Of geese and willows: comparison of yanmaodao and liuyedao

Post by Philip Tom » Tue Feb 27, 2007 2:10 am

This thread will attempt to present the basic elements of the design of the goose-quill and willow-leaf saber (yanmaodao and liuyedao, respectively).

Image

Image

The differences in blade shape can be, to the novice, quite subtle and hard to discern at first blush. However, by picking up the weapon, hilt pointed away from you, the curvature can be checked by sighting down the cutting edge. Or, if looking at a photo taken at 90 degrees to the surface, you can check curve by holding a ruler or other straightedge against the edge of the blade in the image.

YANMAODAO: (See left two examples in photo containing overall views of four sabers)
In the evolution of the peidao or saber, it appears to be the next step up from the "zhibeidao" (straight-back knife) used by China's military from the Warring States period until well into the Song Dynasty, and even by the Mongols on occasion. The zhibeidao, as its name implies, is dead straight, and sharp on one side only. The yanmaodao exhibits the beginning of actual curve in the blade. Earliest surviving specimens date from the Ming Dynasty, and it remained in fairly wide use until the end of the 18th cent. Later examples are rare. Technique utilizes the strong points of both jian and dao. BLADE CHARACTERISTICS:
1. Profile: Straight for most of length, the cutting edge has a curve only along the last 1/4 or so approaching the tip. The back or spine of the blade sweeps up slightly to form the point.
2. Backedge: There is USUALLY though not always a bevelled area, forming a subsidiary edge, on the spine running about 1/4 way back from the tip. This backedge (sometimes called "false" edge) varies from blunt to fairly sharp, though in no wise as keen as the cutting edge itself.
The close up photo of blade tips compares several elements that can be found on backedges. They can be bevelled all the way to the tip, or else "blind", i.e. ending short of the tip itself. The outline or contour of the backedge may be flush with the spine of the blade, or it may project in an offest fashion. Bevels that go all the way to the tip add an additional degree of acuity to the point, making it "sharper" on the thrust. Blind bevels seem to function mainly to adjust the balance, making the tip a little more "lively" without the structural problems of running a groove or fuller out to a fairly thin portion of the blade.
3. Surface features: Yanmaodao blades can have a plain wedge-section (without channels or grooves), see the top-most specimen in the overall photo. They can also be cut with one or more grooves, which serve to lighten the blade while maintaining a certain level of rigidity.

LIUYEDAO: (See the right two examples in the overall image).
Developmentally, the willow leaf saber takes the goose quill concept further in terms of curve--the arc is now distributed along more of the blade length. The deeper the curve of a blade, the more effective it is for cutting, although accuracy on thrust decreases because the point is even further off the hilt/blade axis (with a jian, of course, the tip is in-line with the axis). The liuyedao's curve is moderate, so it is a happy marriage between the two extremes, offering slightly more cutting efficiency than the yanmaodao yet still usable for thrusting. The willow leaf shape is not "native" to China, it appears to have been introduced in the wake of the Mongol conquests, based on Central Asian prototypes. The liuyedao was THE most popular saber type in China; it replaced the jian and zhibeidao in the military by the Ming, and eclipsed the yanmaodao in popularity by mid-Qing.
BLADE CHARACTERISTICS:
1. Profile: Curve extends for most of its length. The curvature is variable depending on the requirements of the user. On some blades, the curve starts out almost negligible and increases in depth towards the point. On others, maximum curve is closer to the hilt, and the arc decreases towards tip. Others are more symmetrical, approaching a [very shallow] circular arc.
2. Backedge: Most blades have them, but some do not. For those that do, the comments under YANMAODAO are applicable.
3. Surface features: See remarks under YANMAODAO above. There is one style of liuyedao (see specimen at bottom of picture) whose blade has prominent ridges (qi) on both sides, similar to the "shinogizukuri" cross-section which is typical of Japanese katana. This is in fact a survival of the typical cross-section of most zhibeidao from the Zhou through Tang Dynasties.

A WORD ABOUT HILTS:
Yanmaodao almost invariably have straight grips. Those on liuyedao can be straight or curved. The former were almost universal until the mid to late 18th cent. Although downward-curved handles are depicted in Ming artwork, they appear to be in the minority until the end of the 18th cent. During the last century of Qing rule, curved grips became far more prevalent than straight.

WHEN YOU THINK YOU SEE AN EXCEPTION TO THE RULE:
Occasionally, a blade looks "goosey" but the curve in the edge may start a bit further back than the 1/4-of-length rule of thumb dictates. Sometimes, a yanmaodao that has seen extensive sharpening from the center of percussion towards the tip will give this appearance, because more metal has been removed in the area.
On other occasions, it may well be an exception. After all, many sabers were made to order, and the odd in-between shapes do appear once in awhile.
Phil

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Post by josh stout » Fri Mar 02, 2007 1:05 pm

Thank you for the nice overview of the topic. I am getting better at telling the blades apart, but as you say there are so many gradations that it is not always easy.

I have two follow up questions:

When does a liuyedao have enough curvature to become a peidao?

And regarding the blind tip sometimes seen on a back edge, could it be for amour piercing? I have a liuyedao with a blunt back edge and a blind tip as you call it that looks like the tip would be strong enough for punching through mail, while a yanmaodao I have has a thin slicing tip like a jian that seems like it would have a difficult time piercing mail. Yet the yanmao is the earlier design when mail would have been more common.
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Post by Philip Tom » Sat Mar 03, 2007 3:01 am

Josh,
The term "peidao" covers all sabers (long curved, s.e. blades, primarily intended for one handed use, in scabbards carried at the waist [generally slung from the belt]). You are probably thinking of the PIANDAO as the next step up in degree of curvature from the liuyedao. As Scott says, you can tell liuyedao from piandao by how they balance or "play" in the hand, besides from the more acute curve on the latter. A piandao is suitable mainly for slicing drawcuts (hence its name, "pian" means "to slice") but is relatively clumsy for thrusting.

Some tips with "blind" backedges are thick enough for armor piercing, but others not. Also, not all blades were meant to deal with armored foes. An officer could own several sabers: for battlefield use, for "walking out" (off-duty, but where he felt the need to protect against hostile civilians), and for parade. A civilian might carry a saber for protection while travelling, where his primary concern was robbers or hooligans who were not likely to be wearing armor.

By the way, "mail" (armor made of interlocked metal links) was not commonly used in China but let's save that topic for another thread. Scott is the armor specialist and maybe he would like to initiate something.
Phil

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Question about decorations on the liuyedao.

Post by Linda Heenan » Sat Mar 03, 2007 5:18 am

Both of the liuyedao in your picture have decorative sleeves on the blade under the hilt. Was this a common feature? Was it specific to certain types of sword or certain time periods? Did it have any purpose other than decoration? How were they attached?

Linda

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Post by Peter Dekker » Sat Mar 03, 2007 10:28 am

These are called tunkou, and other than decoration they serve to both assure a tight fit in the scabbard and secure the guard. Sabers without it generally have a thickening at the base of the blade that serves a similar purpose. That in this instance both liuyedao have them, and both yanmaodao have not is a coincidence because they are commonly found on both types of sabers. The feature seems to have become less common after the late 18th century, and is rarely seen on late Qing pieces.

The attachment is easier to eplain with a picture, which I have not, but I will make an attempt: Saber blades made for the attachment of a tunkou begin narrower right after the tang than those that are not, leaving just enough space for the tunkou before reaching normal blade width. The tunkou slides on the tang side of the blade and eventually gets stuck, unable to move more forward. Then the pan hushou (guard) slides on, followed by the binggu (ferrule), bing (grip), etc.

Philip has written about the tunkou and it's middle Eastern origins in some articles. As most of my knowledge on the origin of this feature derives from his writings, he can better explain this part...

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Post by josh stout » Mon Mar 05, 2007 11:33 am

Phillip-

Thanks, I was thinking of a piandao. You say they are identified more by their handling characteristics than by particular blade attributes. This reminds me of the similar method of identification I have seen for cavalry blades. Still, there should be some set of measurable factors that would let these blades be identified. Do you think a measure of the deflection of the blade away from linear combined with a measure of the balance would do the trick?

Peter- I understand what you are saying about a tunkou, but I have one Chinese/Tibetan blade where a traditional style tunkou (now gone but leaving its mark) was kept in place by a nail through a small hole in the blade. On another Yi blade the tonkou looks like the brass on a Japanese blade and was also fastened through the blade. I will have to take a closer look at the one pure Han blade I have with a tonkou.
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visual identifier

Post by Philip Tom » Mon Mar 05, 2007 5:00 pm

Josh,
You have a point, eventually we are going to have to develop a "rule of thumb" based on degree of arc or some other parameter to separate the liuyedao from the piandao. So far, Scott and I have just been "winging it" -- if you've seen enough antique blades, you'll notice that there is a distinct "jump" in curvature from the vast family of liuyedao on one hand (they were extremely popular and do vary somewhat in curve characteristics as has been mentioned earlier), and the piandao on the other hand. Piandao were far less popular, and the number of actual examples kicking around are relatively few so it's understandable that people who have not had the exposure will find the differences somewhat perplexing. Scott notices that the difference in handling characteristics do correspond to the visually apparent deepening of curve on the piandao. Eventually we need to quantify this in some way as you suggest.
Phil

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Re: visual identifier

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Tue Mar 06, 2007 12:48 pm

Philip Tom wrote:...- if you've seen enough antique blades, you'll notice that there is a distinct "jump" in curvature from the vast family of liuyedao on one hand... and the piandao... Scott notices that the difference in handling characteristics do correspond to the visually apparent deepening of curve on the piandao. Eventually we need to quantify this in some way as you suggest.
I can only recall handling 2 Piandao (slicing sabers), so they do indeed seem to have been quite rare. Handling one, you will quickly note that there is not a feeling of a place the blade wants to "bite", no focus point where you can feel a precussive cut would be most efective. When one welds a piandao, one feels it wants to slice, not cut, & it is so curved that there is not way it could ever be used to thrust.

In comparison to the less curved liuyedao & yanmaodao, piandaohave a deep continous curve.

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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Wed Mar 07, 2007 12:12 pm

josh stout wrote:... regarding the blind tip sometimes seen on a back edge, could it be for amour piercing?... for punching through mail...
While the Chinese did have chain mail, existing examples are quite rare. It also seldom seen in period illustrations of battles or men at arms. Therefore, it does not appear to have been in wide enough use that a sword tip would be design with piercing mail in mind.

From the late Ming thru the early Qing, dingjia (brigindine) armor was the norm. Last fall I had the opportunity to examine the suits of 18th c. dingjia in the Met's collections & I believe the general construction to this armor type would have made it quite hard to pierce.

Paul Champagne has promised to make me a small reconstruction of Qing dingjia in the future for test cutting on. When he does, I'll be sure to share the results here...

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Post by Peter Dekker » Wed Mar 07, 2007 7:19 pm

Two examples of Qing mail are in the collection of the Beijing military museum. Here one of them:

Image

The use of mail by rebels did justify the mention of a special Qing mail piercing arrow, it was similar to a standard military meizhenjian or "Plum Needle Arrow" only with the extremities of the arrowhead (probably the edges and center ridge) smoothened out. It's steel arrowhead was 107 mm long and 13 mm wide. The same regulations make no notion of special mail piercing saber tips.

I think this is another example of the Qing army making adaptions to fight certain troops, because the use of mail by them or their opponents indeed seems a niche in history.

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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Thu Mar 08, 2007 3:14 am

Peter Dekker wrote:Two examples of Qing mail are in the collection of the Beijing military museum...
The Museum has really been fixed up since I was last there, good to see it... The photo you posted looks like one that I recall was attributed to Kangxi's reign, is that correct?
Peter Dekker wrote:...use of mail by rebels...
Would I right in assuming that those were the from the rebellions in the Xinjiang region? It appears that much of the mail actually used by Qing soldiers was captured in that region. I'm in Holland* at the moment, so I don't have my reference books at hand, but there are one or two paintings of Manchu officers wear mail jackets. It as always been my suspicion that these were trouphies & that they wore them in these official portraits as such.

*hey Peter, the sun is actually out today! You probably missed the only sunny spring day for this year in the Netherlands!

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Post by Peter Dekker » Thu Mar 08, 2007 6:53 am

As far as I remember I saw no good descripton of the sets of mail other than them being Qing dynasty chain mail, but I'll double check to be sure.

Here is a picture of the other piece of mail in their collection. The helmet is very peculiar, perhaps you can tell me something about it. I've not seen such a helmet appear in any print, artwork or collection before.

Image

I also made some close-ups of the rings, the construction appears to be very dense. The specially designed anti-mail arrow would not be able to penetrate without breaking at least one ring, maybe more.

I'll probably head back there tomorrow with some better equipment to make additional photo's and shoot what I missed last times. Don Larocca was especially interested in closeups of that saber of which a nearly identical version is featured in his Warriors of the Himalayas. (The one with the cruciform guard, Indian blade and Tibetan pierced and damascened ironwork.)

It is too bad I wasn't able to stay in Holland a bit longer in order to join the seminars.. Luckily the weather has been pretty nice here two the last couple of days.

-Peter
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Post by josh stout » Thu Mar 08, 2007 10:55 am

What a strange helmet. It reminds me a bit of Tibetan oracle helmets, but I couldn't find a god picture to confirm it. When the plumes are all on and the helmet is decorated you can't see what is underneath, but there is a general pyramidal shape like the one you show.
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Post by Scott M. Rodell » Thu Mar 08, 2007 4:38 pm

Peter Dekker wrote:... The helmet is very peculiar... not seen such a helmet appear in any print, artwork or collection before...
I remember seeing that helmet years ago, like you I thought it was odd, I think it was that one that might have been directly attributed to belonging to Kangxi, but I'm going by memory, so don't hold me to that. In anycase, I also have never seen any other Qing helmet with sort of plume holders, they do certainly look they are orginal to the hemet. I presume they are a one off sort of thing?

Peter Dekker wrote:... too bad I wasn't able to stay in Holland ... to join the seminars...
Things went well & we missed you. We even had a first time Test Cutting training. I would say the students here are beginning to get it. Quite a few are seriously looking at coming the Swordplay Festival in July in Estonia.

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Post by Peter Dekker » Sun Mar 11, 2007 8:24 am

I went back to that museum again and indeed, both suits of mail and helmets were simply described as "Qing dynasty armor". It could have been different before, though.

I have also found the museum's info, if there even is any, not very reliable. For instance, they have a rack of "the 18 traditional weapons" which is basically 18 random pole-arms rather than anything else. Both the qiang spear and yanyuedao are represented twice and genuine Qing and later replica's are mixed randomly without telling which is what.

Another funny thing I encountered were "fire arrows" which had fireworks like tubes attached and stood on a model of an ancient rocket launcher. Other than the device, the arrows were not replica's but antique Qing military meizhenjian or Plum Needle Arrows, made exactly according to the regulations up to the black birch bark wrapping at the tip and red lacquer between their fletchings. The existence of a nock also gave them away, the "fire arrow" would not have had a nock as it was not shot with a bow.

Such oddities turn up all over the museum, in addition to some of their top pieces like Qianlong's saber missing any description whatsoever!
I remember seeing that helmet years ago, like you I thought it was odd, I think it was that one that might have been directly attributed to belonging to Kangxi
I'd think it too simple for an emperor but Kangxi seems to have been the man to wear a less adorned helmet indeed. It does look a bit crude, though. I had read an anectdote of him telling his officers not to buy such expensive fur hats, he found it ridiculous to spend so much money on a hat.

Upon closer inspection it appears that there are 5 plume holders around the helmet and the base of a sixth that has broken off. But there is a wealth of unused holes and groups of holes all around the helmet, so perhaps even more plume holders or other oddities had been attached to it. I think we are also looking at it's rear because I could see what appears to me a visor on the opposite side. Go curator!

Oh well.. Napoleon also liked to turn his has around.
Things went well & we missed you.... Quite a few are seriously looking at coming the Swordplay Festival in July in Estonia.
It's nice to hear I have been missed.. I hope Estonia will present me a small Dutch communty! I should ask them to bring cheese...

-Peter
Knowing is not enough, we must apply.
Willing is not enough, we must do.


-Bruce Lee

http://www.mandarinmansion.com
Antique Chinese Arms & Functional reproductions

http://www.manchuarchery.org
Fe Doro - Manchu Archery

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