Tibetan sword terminology

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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Tibetan sword terminology

Post by Philip Tom » Fri Nov 07, 2008 2:46 pm

On the "Crossguards" thread, mention was made of Tibetan swords, using the term "ke tri" which has been featured in an article on a noted ethnographic arms forum. While not disparaging the author's efforts, I would like to mention that Donald LaRocca, curator of arms and armor at the Met, advised me some years ago that the term is incorrect. From his masterful exhibition catalogue, WARRIORS OF THE HIMALAYAS: REDISCOVERING THE ARMS AND ARMOR OF TIBET (NY, 2006), I list below three useful terms from the lengthly glossary of arms term in the back of the book. I hope that the collecting community will take the correction in a collegial spirit, and use these more specific Tibetan names when identifying swords.

DPA DAM (alt. spelling PA TAM), long sword, applied to the common Tibetan backsword or zhibeidao, which is straight, single-edged, with an oblique or angled tip

RAL GRI, sword, applied to the type (usually with a shorter blade) whose tip comes to an acute, tapering point in the manner of an old Scots highland dirk

SHANG LANG: sword with curved blade, i.e. a saber or peidao.
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Post by Peter Dekker » Fri Nov 07, 2008 5:12 pm

An example of a rather typical but above average quality dpa dam in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York:

Image
This is the most common type of Tibetan sword encountered.


An example of a ral gri I have:
Image
This is a somewhat more rare type of Tibetan sword, that may have been carried by Tibetan nomad chieftains according to period accounts.


The shang lang variety is extremely rare, only a few have surfaced so far.


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Post by dennee » Sat Nov 08, 2008 7:02 pm

Always happy to see discussion of Tibetan weapons. I had always taken the terminology for curved sabers to refer to imported weapons, as I have only seen, and very rarely, foreign sabers remounted in typical Tibetan hilts and, of course, Indian talwars brought in through war, pilgrimage or trade (as still found in some monastery protector-deity chapels or from the archaeological work at Tsaparang, Guge, a 17-century context).

It's hard to say how rare is the triangular-bladed short-sword relative to the longsword, as I have seen a lot of both. The short-sword or dagger may represent a general trend toward shorter swords as guns became more common, although there were regions where shortswords seem to be favored, such as Kongpo, and the nomads seem to naturally gravitate to shorter working blades for their daily chores. I have seen varying qualities of shorter swords, both with oblique/rounded end and pointed. Many of the former are quite rough, and the latter range from highly decorated and precious to quite plain. One of the latest date I have seen (i.e., as opposed to modern repros or fantasies) was mounted in a very basic but traditional fashion, but with a Red Chinese blade.

Nomad objects are a little hard to classify by socioeconomic class,as they had to carry their weath, so they was sometimes more conspicuous display than with people of comparable total wealth (see headresses, belts, earrings, rings).

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sabers in Tibet

Post by Philip Tom » Sat Nov 08, 2008 9:43 pm

True, curved blades are not common in a Tibetan context, and it seems that the lion's share of those few that are seen appear to be imported. The couple of examples in Mr. LaRocca's catalog fall within these parameters. I have in my collection a saber which from all indications is of Tibetan workmanship throughout. The blade, undoubtedly inspired by an Indian or Chinese prototype, has the characteristic "hairpin" lamination but also has an inserted edge-plate forged with the serrated "horse-tooth" delineation found in China. The scabbard also has a variation of the bar-on-two bands suspension system, and there is nothing Chinese or Indian about the hilt -- it could be just as comfortable existing on a ral-gri or a dpa-dam.
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Post by Peter Dekker » Sun Nov 09, 2008 9:30 am

On the nomad chieftain attribution of the ral gri, I quote a passage that appears to originally come from Lt. Col. Laurence Austine Waddell who explored Tibet and was among others the cultural consultant on the Younghusband expedition.

"Though a few officials and soldiers wore curved, sabre-like swords at the right hip, and a few nomad chiefs had shortish swords with a pointed tip, the most common variety of the Tibetan sword was a straight, single-edged weapon with a rounded end and a 30-36 inch blade..."

It continues to explain how it is worn, with the edge up, and that they were generally of rather soft steel and were frequently blunt. It also tells about Edmund Candler who received 17 blows of such a sword and only received wounds on the exposed parts of his body, losing one hand.

From Ian Heath's Armies of the 19th Century - Central Asian and the Himalayan Kingdoms, Foundry Books, Guernsey, 1998.

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Post by dennee » Sun Nov 09, 2008 10:14 am

Good "point." Although I've read Waddell's book and Candler's and a hundred others, the typical fleeting mentions of weaponry provide less conclusive evidence than one might like. Despite his apparent interst in the subject, Waddell is perhaps not the most reliable observer on matters of armament (see, for instance, http://www.rel.su.se/Papers/Tibetan%20M ... Reform.pdf), although I am certainly willing to accept his observation on the relative numbers of sword types he observed during hostilities. Photos of the 1904 invasions show a lot of long swords. On the other hand, while he may have associated these pointed swords with chieftains, I reject such a narrow attribution, as there are plenty of examples are unworthy of chiefs. Most Tibetans would not be able to afford more than one sword, but to the extent that they were available, longer swords may have been preferred during times of all-out war, but perhaps less desirable for everyday use in a town or a cultivated valley or among the nomads. As a doctor and antiquarian, Waddell's perspective may have been more limited than that of, say, the Gurkhas who pursued the Tibetans into the mountains, so I would take what he says on any subject (especially the Buddhist religion, about which he claimed to be an expert) with a grain of salt.

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Post by Peter Dekker » Sun Nov 09, 2008 10:29 am

Good points indeed.

While I am not so thoroughly read on Tibetan arms, I also frequently find errors, assumptions or wrong observations on Chinese bows as well even when observed by military men in the 19th century.

What struck me from his account is also that he only describes those Tibetan swords with no guard and a horn handle: A type that, as far as I know, is generally associated with southwestern Tibet.

Considering the vastness of the country I am guessing that what he described may have been common in a particular region but may not go for the entire country. Perhaps the ral gri was much more common in other areas, and thus only the travelling nomads were seen with them in other parts of the country. The shortness of it may suggest it was carried more often in a more urban area such as the capital.

The description of some soldiers and officers carrying curved sabres may have to do with the proximity to India of the area he describes.

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multi use

Post by Philip Tom » Sun Nov 09, 2008 10:44 am

Waddell's observation on the bluntness of Tibetan swords may be based on what another visitor observed (unfortunately, the name and reference escapes me) who said that Tibetan nomads used their swords or long knives for a multitude of purposes, including digging in the ground, as circumstances required. Over the years I've seen a number of the more workaday examples which had seen some extremely hard usage, with scarred, blunted blades with irregular edges from wear and repeated sharpening on coarse stones.
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Post by dennee » Sun Nov 09, 2008 11:02 am

That's a good point, Phil. There are numerous references to the use of swords when chopping steps into icy slopes when traveling, for instance.

Peter, I think you are absolutely correct about the sabers. I think that particularly among general officers, they were probably likely to have Chinese or perhaps Indian swords as more "modern" and perhaps more fashionable. When the Tibetan army was (re)formed several years after the invasion, it eqipped itself along British colonial lines.

I'm interested in your observations of the horn-handled, guardless swords. I recall that you had at least one example, and a few others appeared on the market in the last couple of years. I had initially guessed that they were from Amdo, only because the scabbards had chapes (sometimes seen in photos of Amdowas). I'd love to hear what you have found out about them and their origins.

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Post by Peter Dekker » Sun Nov 09, 2008 11:34 am

I've learned about their southwestern attribution by Chinese collectors of Tibetan arms, but unfortunately don't know what exactly this is based on and how much merit there is to it. One of them did travel to Tibet himself frequently to buy arms locally, so it may be pretty accurate.

I've had a few of those, and handled a few others that were in Chinese collections. I sold one to a good friend of mine, it has a nice wild donkey leather scabbard in which part of the hilt sinks. The hairpin folding on this example is very fine and prominent, probably due to repeated etching with mild etchant.

The tang runs the full width of the handle, and is attached with four iron pins. The tang is visible from both sides and appears to thicken somewhat under the pommel.

Another example that comes to mind, in an anonymous Chinese private collection, also had a similarly simple hilt with horn and iron and no guard, but a double row twist-core blade with a pattern that was very much like the pattern on its, again, wild donkey leather scabbard. Its hilt was attached in the same fashion with four pins on the same places. As my friend's example, the pommel also flared out but this time had alternating layers of horn, silver, copper and brass like seen on some modern made Tibetan knives sold in Tibet and Western China today.

As the example my friend bought, it had no guard but it did have a small copper plates covering the horn end of the hilt on the blade side to protect it from entering the scabbard. It's scabbard had sheet silver fittings, (both chape and mouth piece) adorned with chiseled copper rims. All quite simple but well-made, and with no added stones or coral.

I add some pics of my friend's example. I don't have it at hand for measurements but I think it was about 36 inch overall. The twist-core example was on the shorter side, perhaps 30 inch overall.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

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Re: multi use

Post by Peter Dekker » Sun Nov 09, 2008 4:10 pm

Philip Tom wrote:...Tibetan nomads used their swords or long knives for a multitude of purposes, including digging in the ground, as circumstances required.
Interestingly, when watching national geographic today I saw survival expert Ray Mears demonstrating how more useful a standard saw was in making a shelter in the snow than a shovel. He just cut out large blocks many times the size of what a shover could hold, and removed them one by one. I can imagine the sword fulfilling a similar function in Tibet on occasion, making stairs and temporary dwellings in the snow.

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Post by dennee » Sun Nov 09, 2008 6:02 pm

I went back to the handful of books I have that contain photos from the 1904 invasion. Several are reprints, so the photos aren't as good as originally printed, but the weaponry of the Tibetans was not the focus---except for Waddell's interest in old armor.

One officer, said to be a general from Lhasa, carried a Bhutanese sword through his belt. One of the wounded is shown as having dropped one of the swords with the round iron guard. Several men carry they typical swords with the U-shaped scabbard frame, some apparently from Kham, judging by their decoration. In most photos, weapons cannot be made out, or were not worn, or had already been captured. I'd like to get to the National Army Museum in London some time to see all of the photos they have from the invasion.

Most of the defenders were apparently peasant militia, presumably from Tsang and U. Monks were also involved and supplied weapons from their monasteries. As time passed, Khampas arrived from the east. Although the peasants probably included both those who were primarily farmers or primarily herders, there were probably no true nomads, as they generally inhabited the north and would be hard to pull together (not that Waddell would have known a nomad if he saw one; he may have been referring to the Khampa horsemen).

By "southwest," observers usually mean Tsang or nearby areas. I don't know if your informants mean the same in their attribution of these swords. There is much less information available on the far west, Ngari Khorsum, which was sparsely settled except for the trading towns near the frontier passes. And the books I have read on Ladakh don't talk about weapons much at all.

It may be mere coincidence, but this bunch of guardless, horn-hilted swords seem to have come out of China since the Golmud-Lhasa railway opened. It's not dispositive, of course, but the railway passes through northeastern Tibet.

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Post by Peter Dekker » Mon Nov 10, 2008 4:49 pm

Hi,

Thanks for the link to this paper. Very interesting and apparently well-researched, and one I hadn't seen before.

Some small comments:
Furthermore, the situation was the same in the
Qing army, which despite having abandoned the use of armour already in the eighteenth century, continued
to use similar equipment - although without the actual metal armour plates - as a kind of ceremonial officer’s
dress.
I've assumed this for a while as well but had to adjust when I obtained a photocopy of military regulations of the early 19th century that still described troops being supplied with iron helmets and armor. Ceremonial armor was common for ceremonies and the Grand Reviews in safe environments but in the actual field they apparently held on to real armor much longer than was previously assumed.
It was then designed to imitiate regular armour but consisted of mere padded silk or, at best, silk studded
with gilt rivet-heads.
Where the rivet heads were indeed meant to simulate lamellar armor, the "mere padded silk" is probably a highly underestimated type of armor that was capable of reasonable degrees of protection against sword blows and arrow hits. It sounds odd, but an arrow that can easily pierce armor has a hard time penetrating a soft teddybear. Yes, we tried.
Suits of armour must be sized according to the man who wears it, and I know of no time or place when an armoury for real
soldiers disregarded this fact of life.
I personally think that this is far more relevant to plate armor than it is to types of lamellar and chain mail that could probably be mass produced in a number of "confection" sizes.
Some weapons were manufactured in Tibet, but Fukang’an had noted that the Qing army in Tibet had a
considerable surplus in the form of especially bows and arrows brought from China.
This is very interesting. Tibetan bows are smaller than the Qing variety, especially in the ears. Tibetan arrows are also made differently and of different materials. To not get into any technical details, a tibetan bow could not as effectively shoot a Qing arrow as it could its own arrows, and vice versa. It is known that the Tibetans sawed off the ears of Manchu bows, apparently to make them "faster". Reading this, I think the reason would rather be to make them suitable of their style of use.

Of course, none of my comments above destabilize the main point made in this article. It is interesting to have learned more about the context in which Waddell made his observations.

On the railroad / guardless dpa'dam connection, for what it means, I can say that all examples I've seen had come to China before the railroad was finished.

-Peter
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Willing is not enough, we must do.


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Tibetan Dpa Dam Sword

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Mon Jan 24, 2011 12:07 pm

We recently had two Tibetan dpa dam type swords pass thru our hands at Seven Stars Trading & though everyone might enjoy a look/ This swords are peculiar to the Kham area of eastern Tibet, bordering China's Sichuan province. I particularly liked the balance of this one-
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Another Tibetan dpa dam type sword

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Mon Jan 24, 2011 12:12 pm

A Tibetan dpa dam type sword with a large flanged disc guard and expanded, flattened pommel clearly inspired by Chinese sabers of the late imperial period.

Blade 29 3/4 in. x 1 1/2 in. x 5/16 at forte, a very good quality hairpin lamination, the contours straight and even, tip profile appears original, edge straight and sharp, clean with minor surface scratches and speckles of old corrosion that are negligible. Overall 35 1/2 in.

Iron fittings of better-than-average finish, heavy gauge and well-fitted, the forward surface of the guard under the flange is lacquered red, the anterior surface of the pommel precisely inlaid with alternating copper and brass lines. Wood grip covered with leather with beaded brass bands on either end, adjacent to the iron fittings . The whole in very fine condition with no losses or looseness.

In exceptional condition for the type, and of impressive size, this style of Tibetan sword is not common. The Kham area is a region of mountains and high grasslands inhabited by nomadic herders who were known as the most warlike segment of Tibet's population. Every man went armed with at least a long knife, and firearms of all types were common. The Khams resisted the Chinese incursions of the 1950s with great ferocity, and many areas were not fully pacified for years afterward. Even today, these tribesmen are practically the only minority people still permitted by the PRC government to wear blades in public, and allowed to keep the modern rifles which they had in their possession since pre-invasion times.
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