With a long military history and rich martial arts tradition, China has its share of interesting and unique weapons, each with its own particular use and set of etiquette. Most of the ancient weapons were made from bronze and date to the Middle Ages, although more prestigious weapons were sometimes handcrafted from finer materials like jade and ivory.
Many of the ancient weapons that have been excavated in China are now on display in the country’s national museums in Shanghai and Beijing. Most of these date from the West Zhou Dynasty (1100-771 B.C.) through to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), although some of the earliest known instruments go as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 B.C.). Weapons crafted from the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) on were made out of iron rather than bronze.
Though many types of weapons existed, the most common types were the saber, axe, spear, sword, halberd and dagger.
The smallest type of ancient Chinese weapon was the saber, or dao. These small dagger-like weapons consisted of a short blade attached to a longer handle. Sabers were very popular because they were easy to carry and could be used in a variety of situations to slice and chop. The Chinese dao became internationally popular after the release of the 2004 film, The House of Flying Daggers (Shi Mian Mai Fu).
The axe, or fu, was mostly used by imperial security forces and guards, rather than soldiers. Axes were characterized by one large blade that was often engraved or carved with the image of a powerful animal or a face. The axe was a symbol of power.
Spears, or qiang, were a long handled weapons with a short pointed blade attached to one end. Spears were used for military combat or for hunting and would usually be thrown or thrust to attack. Spear heads came in many different varieties, but were always in a pointed, triangular shape.
The sword, or jian, is perhaps China’s most well known weapon. The grace and beauty of the sword became legendary and mythical throughout Chinese history, and was later exported to Japan where it was modified into the curved Japanese fighting sword used by samurai warriors. Chinese swords were usually straight, double-edged weapons made from bronze or other strong metals. Swords later became associated with religion and heroism.
Halberds, or ji, were very ornate weapons consisting of a long handle with a curved blade attached to the top and a pointed metal tip. This combination of elements allowed the bearer to slash with the side blade or stab with the tip, making it a very diverse and useful instrument. When later replaced by the simpler spear for military combat, the halberd was carried by ceremonial guards and used in martial arts.
After the advent of gunpowder based weapons, China’s ancient weapons well out of use. However, they are still popularly used in some martial arts training and are still the subject of much historical interest and preservation.