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Executioner's sword

Posted: Thu Jun 07, 2007 4:44 pm
by Graham Cave

This picture is from a series of British magazines entitled 'Peoples of all Nations' edited by J.A.Hammerton.The caption reads:

"A GHASTLY RECORD Capitol punishment in China is inflicted either by strangling or by decapitation with the sword. With the blade he is exhibiting this executioner is said to have decapitated something like twenty thousand criminals."

There is no publisher's date but there are a few references to the early 1920s and I would expect the magazines to have been published in the mid-twenties. They are a pictorial and written record of indigenous peoples around the world and are presented primarily for entertainment. Given this, it is perhaps wise to question the accuracy of what they portray.

What is the sword? Is the blade full length? Is it likely to have been used for executions?

the jian as a headsman's tool

Posted: Sat Jun 09, 2007 12:09 am
by Philip Tom
What you see here is a rare type of jian (d.e. straight blade) fitted up as an executioner's sword. I have seen only one other photo of this type, the sword in that pic is of similar dimensions but the edges are radiused, not angular, where they meet the tip. This other photo is even more macabre, it shows the headsman squatting beside a number of heads, holding the sword up in plain view for the camera. There was no caption or annotation on that pic indicating the date or what area of China it was taken.

As in Vietnam, there was no one characteristic type of "beheading sword". In the military, a regulation-style liuyedao often served the purpose. (you might want to refer to T. T. Meadows, "Description of an Execution at Canton", in the JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY, Vol 16 No. 58 (1856). Otherwise, the common two-handed falchion "dadao" popular with militia and civilian martial artists of the lower classes was widely used. Over 20 years ago, an old Navy vet stationed on the Yangtze in the 1930s told me about a beheading that he saw on the streets of Shanghai (Goumindang constables dispatching a drug peddler), and his clear recollection described a classic specimen of a niuweidao, or ox-tail saber. The old salt was quite impressed with the "daofa" of the guy wielding the saber!

Posted: Sat Jun 09, 2007 9:57 am
by Dan Pasek
Another dao in use for beheading is shown in a "tourist photo" at this site: ... ina-01.htm

Shanghai? ca. early 1900s?


Re: the jian as a headsman's tool

Posted: Sat Jun 09, 2007 10:17 am
by Graham Cave
Philip Tom wrote:What you see here is a rare type of jian (d.e. straight blade) fitted up as an executioner's sword. I have seen only one other photo of this type, the sword in that pic is of similar dimensions but the edges are radiused, not angular, where they meet the tip.
Thanks Philip. Do you know what these swords were made of? The pronounced central ridge made me wonder if it was bronze.


Posted: Sat Jun 09, 2007 1:04 pm
by Peter Dekker
Judging from the time, I assume it was a steel sword as steel was the only material that I am aware of that was used for making swords in the picture making era.

I can see the resemblance with bronze swords indeed. I have never seen a late jian like this before. Where a jian can surely cut well, I would expect an executioner to have a preference for dao. Seeing this sword presented as an executioner's sword is very interesting.

Some time ago I've seen an executioner's dadao for sale, it had a prominent patina from the blood of the victims at the center of the blade. I am not sure if the statement of 20.000 would be very accurate for this jian as it looks rather crisp but who knows.


effectiveness of jian-type blades for cutting

Posted: Sat Jun 09, 2007 5:01 pm
by Philip Tom
Hi, Graham and Peter,
Blade is definitely steel. Bronze went out of use in China for cutting implements at least a couple centuries BCE. Prominence of rib may be due to photo retouching.

One would think that a headsman would prefer a curved blade. Certainly, in China, practically all the executioners' blades I've seen in documentary graphics are curved. But don't forget that in Europe, the straight double-edged sword was the norm for decapitation (in those countries that didn't rely on the ax) -- such as France, the German-speaking lands, Holland, etc. The German or Bohemian style "Richtschwerter" are quite distinctive, with their squared off tips; you may have seen them in museums in Europe. In countries such as Poland, Russia, and Hungary, the saber was also used, and this might be the result of Asiatic influence (from Tatars and Turks).

Getting away from justice and back to martial arts, Scott has enough practical experience to dispel that "dojo truism" that says "you can't cut with a jian!".

Posted: Sat Sep 13, 2008 6:20 am
by Graham Cave
Another photograph of a wide bladed jian used for executions :

The whole of this image may be seen at Beheaded Art. Please note that this site contains graphic images of public executions and is definitely not for the squeamish.

Most of the pics are from China around the turn of the last century and despite being gruesome, are interesting records of life at that time. The images of swords are not all in clear focus - but the most common type appearing is the dadao.

Posted: Sat Sep 13, 2008 9:51 pm
by Philip Tom
Interesting site, to say the least. I note that at least 3 of the pics are actually depict executions in Thailand, the weapon isn't clearly shown but appears to be a "daab" or long handled saber; the victim's position and the headsman's "dance" would be familiar to anyone who has seen the epic film "Suryothai".

A few of the shots are labelled "executions in Nagasaki" but I wonder what all those Indian soldiers with turbans, and Chinese troops in Qing uniforms are doing in the scene.

I note that in the few cases in which we see pics of execution jian in China, the blades are relatively short, especially in relation to their width and when compared to their European counterparts.

Re: Executioner's sword

Posted: Sun Oct 14, 2012 10:22 pm
by chrisjane
The Blade so wide and it's steel .

Re: Executioner's sword

Posted: Tue Oct 16, 2012 7:45 pm
by Tony Mosen
A bit off topic but the most disturbing pics I have ever seen are of the Chinese 'Death by 1000 cuts' there are pics of this practice on youtube in what looks to be quite recent history, similar grainy photos as the ones posted in this thread. Very horrible to look at though :!: