Of all the artisans in ancient China, the most highly respected were the swordsmiths of the states of Wu and Yue in the Warring States period. Their names were recorded in the history books, and many swords were named after them.
In the modern age, a Taiwanese businessman has spent three years going back into history, to once again play the role of a swordsmith. . . .
The famous swordsmith Gan Jiang was summoned to the palace of the King of Chu, for-so it was said-the king's concubine had given birth to a lump of black iron. The king decided to have this extraordinary treasure made into a sword.
Gan Jiang carried the iron home, and he and his wife heated it day and night for three years, but it wouldn't melt. So they cut off their hair and nails and threw them into the fire. At last the molten iron began to flow.
When the furnace was opened, inside lay two swords, glowing red. Gan Jiang took water drawn from a well at dawn, and dripped it slowly onto the swords for seven days and nights. The swords seemed to have disappeared, but when one looked closely, they were still at the bottom of the furnace, as translucent as two strips of ice. . . .
So goes the story "Forging the Swords" in Lu Xun's collection Old Tales Retold.
Fires of Heaven
Since ancient times many fascinating legends have been spun about sword making. In them, not only are the swords wrought in remarkable ways, but they often also have magic powers.
For instance, it is told how King Gou Jian of Yue once had the swordsmith Ou Yezi make him five swords. Later, when Yue was defeated in war, the king sent three of them to King Fu Chai of Wu as a peace offering. But Fu Chai was not a man of kingly character, so one of the swords, named Zhanlu, "made its own way" to the state of Chu.
The King of Chu awoke one day to find an unfamiliar sword lying beside him. He called the swordsmith Feng Huzi to give his opinion of it, and tell him its worth. Feng told him the sword's value was incalculable. When it had been made, Mt. Chijin had burst open to reveal its deposits of tin, and River Ruoye had dried up to show its bed of copper ore; the rain god had sent rain to wash the ground, the god of thunder had pumped wind from his bellows, the flood dragon had carried the furnace, and the Emperor of Heaven had filled it with coals. The great swordsmith Ou Yezi, who knew all nature's secrets, had beaten and tempered the metal a thousand times to fashion the five swords of which Yuchang and Zhanlu were two.
In ancient times the making of a sword took mountains bursting asunder, rivers drying up, and the spirits leaping into action, and also called for a great swordsmith versed in all the secrets of nature. Yet in our own age, when one Taiwanese businessman saw a precious Qing-dynasty sword in mainland China, he decided to replay the role of an ancient swordsmith by trying to recreate it.
"He" is none other than Chen Chao-po, in his early forties, and president of the Dalian Hanwei Metal Company.
The idea of recreating the sword came quite fortuitously. Chen Chao-po had moved his knife and tool manufacturing business to the port city of Dalian in mainland China's Liaoning Province. In 1992 he visited the Qing Imperial Palace in Shenyang, and there he saw several ancient swords.
As a child, Chen's favorite toys were always swords, and he was left a samurai sword by his grandfather. "When I was little, I didn't go out to play with other kids-I just stayed at home and played with my sword," reveals Chen, whose friends all call him "Ah-Po." He also began to make swords himself. He started with wooden ones, but later he began to grind blades out of steel. This was to be a lifelong hobby.
Chatting with the palace staff, Ah-Po learned that in the Liaoning Provincial Museum there was a more precious sword of the Qianlong reign of the Qing dynasty. He decided to make a special trip to see it.
But the sword, a saber named Kouming -"the Ringer"-for its bright sound when struck, was not given pride of place in one of the museum's galleries as he had imagined. Instead, it lay abandoned in a storeroom. Iron and steel weapons are difficult to preserve, and the museum's funds were limited. To prevent the sword rusting away, the curators had no choice but to seal it in a thick layer of grease, and this naturally meant it could not be exhibited.
After some negotiation, the museum staff brought out the Ringer to let Chen examine it. Although the "flying dragon" crossguard on its hilt showed signs of cracking, the blade itself, once the grease was wiped off it, showed no signs of age. Despite the passage of more than 200 years it was still a fearsome looking weapon, and flashed with a mesmerizing glint which Chen has never forgotten.
Chen Chao-po's ancestors came from Zhejiang Province, and on the subject of Chinese swords he betrays a certain degree of "provincial prejudice." "The first place in China where swords were made was Zhejiang," says Chen, who normally speaks nothing but Taiwanese dialect. Yuchang and Zhanlu were owned by the King of Yue, whose capital was at Shaoxing; Longquan, where they were made, is also in Zhejiang. But today, he says, no-one in Zhejiang knows how to make swords.
The Longquan sword which the PRC presented to President Nixon at the time of the "normalization" of Sino-US relations has a scabbard covered with snake skin, and not the shark skin which was used for high-quality swords in ancient times. "It's not just what goes inside-people today don't even know what they should look like on the outside," Chen Chao-po laments.
The Student Outdoes the Teacher
Of all the world's swords, Japanese samurai swords have the greatest market value, and are acknowledged as works of unsurpassed craftsmanship. "Japanese swords are sold at international auctions, but our ancient swords lie about on the ground at the Kuanghua flea market," says sword collector Chi Ming-li. This galls Chen Chao-po, for the Japanese learned the art of swordmaking from the Chinese.
The Japanese first copied the swords of the Chinese Western Han dynasty (206 BC-25 AD), and later those of the Tang (618-907). From these they developed their own style in terms of smelting and tempering techniques and the shape of the finished sword. They also kept systematic records of swordsmiths and the methods of various schools of swordmaking throughout history, so the skills were always passed down.
So why was it that in China the skills of the ancient swordmakers were lost?
"Governments never liked the common people to have swords, so they would often confiscate them or even destroy them en masse," says Eric Tsai, a director of the ROC Arts Knife and Sword Preservation Association. To preserve "military secrets," ancient Chinese texts divulge little about how swords were made-it was more or less a taboo subject. Daoist scholar Tao Hongjing (456-536) of the Northern and Southern Dynasties period wrote: "The art of swordmaking has long been known; all the ancient kings and emperors forged them." But sadly ancient texts do not say much more about it.
The era when the swordsmith's craft reached its highest standard in China was probably the Eastern Han dynasty, in which "hundred-beaten steel" emerged. A Chinese sword found in Japan 35 years ago is inlaid in gold with such phrases as Zhongping and bai lian qing gang ("pure steel beaten 100 times"). Zhongping was a reign title used by the Eastern Han Emperor Lingdi from 184 to 188 AD. "Beaten 100 times" meant the metal was heated, folded and hammered 100 times to drive out all impurities, leaving the finest and purest steel.
But this involved a tremendous amount of work, and it took years to produce just a few swords. From the late Tang dynasty on, the art of making "hundred-beaten steel" was gradually lost.
In the Northern Song, scientist Shen Kuo (1031-1095) wrote of a visit to a forge in Cizhou (in modern Hebei), one of the few places where the skills still survived. It was only when he saw steel being beaten there that he realized what was meant by the expression "true steel." He also described a demonstration of a sword's quality: at one stroke it cut clean through 10 large nails hammered into a wooden upright of a building, yet its edge was quite undulled. With an effort the blade could be bent almost double, but when released it snapped back as straight as a bowstring.
In the Ming the decline continued further. Military expert Qi Jiguang (1528-1587) complained that artisans could not be bothered to grind their swords well, so that "a blow will not cut deep, and the blade is soon blunted. Then they are only fit for scrap."
The Qing Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735-1795) attached tremendous importance to both civil and martial affairs. He was particularly fond of swords, and in the period from 1748 to 1757 he had a series of exquisite decorated swords made. With this royal patronage, skill in forging swords advanced by leaps and bounds.
The Same as Pattern-welded Steel?
Han Rubin, director of the Metallurgy History Institute at the University of Science and Technology in Beijing, surmises that the technique of making hundred-beaten steel may indeed have been lost after the Tang, for little seems to have been written about swords from then on, and few swords have been excavated from later Chinese tombs. "The technique of making pattern-welded steel, as used for the Kouming sword, may well have been learnt from Japan, Southeast Asia, the Middle East or India."
Nonetheless, Chen Chao-po is sure that China's hundred-beaten steel was a type of pattern-welded steel-in which layers of metal fused together by hammering when hot produce distinctive patterns on the surface of the finished sword. According to his study of the subject, the patterns on Damascus swords are the natural crystal patterns formed when steel is cast, and those on Japanese swords are lines of temper color left by partial quenching of the blades. But the patterns on Chinese hundred-beaten steel are the grain patterns which result from repeated folding and hammering of the metal.
"Ancient writings describe these patterns as being like rain, like clouds or like meteors. I used to think this was exaggeration, but later when I saw them on sword blades I realized it was true," says Huang Te-chuan, an executive director of the ROC Arts Knife and Sword Preservation Society.
Whether or not the pattern-welded steel of the Qing dynasty was the same as the hundred-beaten steel of ancient times, after the founding of the ROC its armed forces were equipped with firearms, and the techniques of swordmaking were lost again.
Later, says sword trader Wang Sheng-chi with infinite regret, "during the mainland's Great Leap Forward all the old weapons which had been handed down went into the backyard steel furnaces, and their high-quality steel was made into low-grade steel."
Seeing the Kouming sword, this rare survivor, gradually succumbing to the ravages of time, Chen Chao-po felt very saddened. "In another few hundred years, there will probably be nothing left of the Kouming sword but a name in the history books."
Chen had money, but naturally the Ringer was not for sale. After much thought he decided to pay another visit to the Liaoning Provincial Museum. He proposed a cooperative plan to then-director Mr. Jiang: if the museum could make the sword available to him, he would undertake to make a replica of it.
"We very much admired Mr. Chen's desire to support traditional culture. After seeing his facilities and technological capabilities, we agreed to work with him," says current director Wang Mianhou. The museum sent the sword to Chen's factory for two weeks, so that he could examine it closely, make detailed drawings and photographs, and study its craftsmanship and materials.
Previously Chen had already made a hobby of copying ancient Chinese swords. His swords are collected not only by martial arts enthusiasts in Taiwan, but also by overseas collectors. Before Jason Hu, the ROC's representative in the US, left to take up his post, a close friend made him a gift of one of Chen's replica swords to mark his new appointment. The sword now hangs in the Hus' aparment in Washington DC.
Trial and Error
But despite Chen's experience in copying ancient swords, to make an exact replica of the Kouming sword was still quite a challenge. First he had to investigate the sword's hardness and work out how the steel had to be folded and beaten to produce the right pattern on the blade. Mr. Wu, a foreman at the Dalian factory, has over 40 years' experience in forge work. But at that time he knew little about pattern-welded steel, and did not know how the required pattern could be produced.
In search of answers, Chen searched through many ancient books, but frustratingly, "most of what was written was weird fairy tales," such as how swords glowed purple in the night or flew away to smite off the heads of enemies.
However, in the archives of the imperial household workshops in the Palace Museum in Beijing, he did find some primary material from the time when the Ringer was originally made. "Qianlong was a designer, and starting from the drawings he wanted to be shown every stage in the process. If he had any suggestions, he would write notes on slips of paper." Chen found such comments as: "Draw the. . . leaves and branches on the [decorative] panel [below the hilt] to look more robust. The colored panel looks vulgar. Redesign it." The designs would be revised and re-presented until His Majesty was satisfied.
"The Ringer is the best sword I've seen. It was one of the first batch Qianlong had made. Later, his design skills went downhill," says Ah-Po with a chuckle.
These records were of some help with the sword's external appearance, but gave few clues about the steel material. For this, says Chen, "I got most of my information from the sword itself." In the past he had made micrographs from broken ancient swords to analyze the grain flow, and used a hardness tester to map the distribution of different microstructures within the steel.
Twist and Clout
But he could not use these destructive tests on the Kouming sword. All he could do was to take small strips of heat-treated metal and rub them lightly against different parts of the sword to judge its hardness by the sound. From his assessment, Chen judged that the sword's blade was made by the "hundred-beaten steel" method, with the metal folded into some 600 layers.
Foreman Wu is in his 60s, but this was the first time he had made hundred-beaten steel. "It took some doing!" he says. "At first we couldn't control the pattern, so we just had to keep on trying out different ways. But in the end we got the hang of it."
They discovered that folding the metal in the same direction each time produced a pattern of long stripes; twisting it before each set of hammer blows would produce a swirl pattern; while twisting and folding would produce a pattern like stars. The more times the process was repeated, the finer the pattern became. "Once we'd got that off, we were ready to make the replica."
But there were still many difficulties. For instance, mistakes with the temperature or the hammer force would produce detrimental effects. "If you don't hit it hard enough the layers won't weld together, but if you hit it too hard the dimensions will be off and you can scrap it."
"In fact, the idea of folding steel is a very natural one," says Chen Chao-po. He explains that when a billet of steel is first produced it contains many impurities. Hammering drives the slag out of the metal and makes its structure finer and denser. But it also spreads the steel out into a broad sheet which is not a useful shape, so it has to be folded back in on itself to continue.
When the blade blank was finished, they carefully filed it down to a flat, straight surface. Then they cut out the blood groove, and shaved the surface smooth. After this, the blade still had to be heated to temper it, and quenched by being plunged into water. The rapid cooling increases the blade's hardness so that it can hold a sharp edge.
According to the 10th-century encyclopedia Tai Ping Yu Lan, in the Three Kingdoms state of Shu there was a famous weaponsmith by the name of Pu Yuan. Zhuge Liang commanded him to make 3000 steel swords at Xiegu. Pu felt the water of the nearby River Han was "dull" and thus not suitable for quenching, so he sent a soldier off to Chengdu to fetch him some of the "brisk" water of the River Shu. But as soon as Pu Yuan quenched a sword in the water the soldier brought, he realized something was amiss. He summoned the man back and asked him: "Why is there River Fu water in this? I can't use it!" The soldier would not admit that this was so, so Pu continued: "There are eight sheng of Fu water mixed in. Why?" At this the soldier hurriedly kowtowed and owned up: "When I was crossing the River Fu the bucket on my back was upset. I was afraid to come back without completing my mission, so I put in eight sheng of water from the River Fu!"
For Pu Yuan to be able tell what proportions of water from different rivers there were in a bucket may be rather too much of a fairy tale, but there is indeed a science to which water one uses for quenching.
In the Northern Qi dynasty, in the 6th century AD, the urine and fat of draft animals were used for quenching different parts of sword blades. Urine contains salt, and cools the metal faster than pure water, making for a hard, sharp edge; but fat cools more slowly, giving the blade a resilient back which absorbs shocks and does not easily break.
Thanks to modern technology the replica Kouming sword could simply be tempered in a modern heat treatment furnace with accurate temperature control. But the next step of grinding the blade and making the edge had to be done the traditional way, by hand.
A Sword Reborn
With the blade completed, it was time to add the fittings. Parts like the white jade grip or the ball of coral and gilded metal lotus flowers on the tassel were intricate, but with care and patience they could be recreated. However, the scabbard had been covered in the bark of a rare peach tree native to Xinjiang. Where could they find such bark?
Just as they were racking their brains, help was found near at hand. One day Chen heard there were several hundred of the trees in Shenyang, and they were all to be cut down to widen a road. He immediately bought the lot, and cut the inner layer of the bark into slivers 1.2 cm long by 0.3 cm broad, which were glued onto the scabbard in a pattern like parquet flooring. With this sumptuous finish, the scabbard glimmered a reddish gold.
After three years' work, Chen Chao-po once again visited the Liaoning Provincial Museum, carrying the completed replica with him.
On seeing the Kouming sword recreated in the hands of a Taiwanese businessman, the museum's senior staff appeared quite astonished. Wang Mianhou admits: "In the beginning we just thought we'd let him have a go, but when he came back with the finished article it was better than we ever imagined, and very close to the original. All in all, we're pretty satisfied."
Today, the replica is in Taiwan, and Huang Te-chuan has got in touch with the National Palace Museum in Taipei, hoping to show it to NPM director Chin Hsiao-yi and ask his opinion.
Lovers of Jade, Not of Swords?
But in fact the NPM's collection does not include any historical weaponry. Eric Tsai feels strongly about how, in Ming and Qing-dynasty China, civil and cultural affairs were valued above military matters, and the armorer's craft bore little prestige.
"Weapons are tools for a nation's survival, and the highest expression of the technology and craftsmanship of an age," says Tsai. He feels that to understand the history of our own people we should look not only at the beautiful, but also at the practical side. Our ancestors had two hands-one was cultured and artistic, but the other was strong and valiant. For many years we have only liked to look at the hand that painted landscape paintings, shaped pottery and sculpted jade; but we have overlooked the other hand, which, wielding a sword, faced up to powerful enemies.
The spirit of the Han and Tang dynasties has indeed been gone too long.