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Tang Swords: Ancestry and the Mystery of Their Disappearance in Japan

During the Song Dynasty, the renowned Chinese literary figure Ouyang Xiu composed a poem titled “Ode to Japanese Swords.” This poetic masterpiece documented some aspects of Japanese swords, portraying a scene in which these weapons were highly regarded as treasures by the people of Song China. It is even recorded that merchants from the southern regions, known today as southern China, ventured to Japan to procure these remarkable blades. Furthermore, Ouyang Xiu’s poem provided an artistic perspective by vividly illustrating the aesthetics, shapes, and styles of Japanese swords.

One of the World’s Three Renowned Blades: The Japanese Sword

Throughout history, Japanese swords have garnered fame not only for their functionality as weapons but also for their exquisite craftsmanship. Many of these swords have been revered as artistic treasures.

What sets Japanese swords apart from blades of other nations is their unique combination of aesthetic design and artistic expression, which extends beyond surface ornamentation to the very essence of the blade itself.

Japanese swords, technically known as “平面碎段复体暗光花纹刃,” can be classified based on their shapes and sizes:

  1. Tachi: Originally designed for cavalry, these swords were suspended edge-down from the belt using cords. Tachi swords typically boasted a curved blade with a length exceeding 100 centimeters but less than 165 centimeters.
  2. Katana: Katana swords, shorter than tachi swords, featured straighter blades and were worn thrust through the belt. To facilitate swift drawing, katana swords were worn edge-up and were favored by samurai wearing armor.
  3. Wakizashi: These swords had a length of approximately 66 centimeters and were employed for breaking armor or fighting in confined spaces. Samurai often used wakizashi in dual-wielding combat.
  4. Tanto: With blades measuring less than 30 centimeters, tanto swords were used primarily by non-samurai classes for self-defense.

When the Japanese refer to “刀” (tō), they are specifically referring to the katana-style swords.

Tang Swords: Ancestral Origins of Japanese Blades

In 1932, a Japanese publication titled “Sword and Swordsmen Encyclopedia” by Shimizu Tachimura candidly acknowledged that the ancient Japanese weapons, including swords, originated from Goguryeo (Korea) and China. The influence of Chinese culture on Goguryeo, coupled with the migration of this culture to Japan, established a direct lineage connecting Japanese swords to China.

Archaeological studies support this assertion, revealing the presence of iron swords in Japan prior to the Tang Dynasty, dating back to the Yayoi period, which commenced around 300 CE. These early Japanese swords bore a striking resemblance to the Chinese “环首刀” (huán shǒu dāo) from the Han Dynasty.

During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, China engaged in significant cultural exchanges with Japan. Chinese envoys and emissaries visited Japan on five occasions, bringing back numerous finely crafted swords and imparting advanced Chinese techniques for sword forging.

The Enigma of Tang Swords’ Decline

Despite their exceptional sharpness, Tang swords suffered from inherent drawbacks. Their production costs were prohibitively high, necessitating meticulous and repeated forging. Crafting an ordinary Tang sword required a substantial quantity of iron, with craftsmen expending considerable effort to meticulously refine impurities, sometimes dedicating a lifetime to crafting a single blade. Additionally, maintaining these swords posed significant challenges, demanding frequent honing and polishing with various specialized fabrics. Failing to maintain these swords properly would result in rust.

The practicality of Tang swords in actual combat proved less impressive. During the Ming Dynasty, when China faced the invasion of Japanese pirates, Chinese troops initially wielded imitation Japanese swords, commonly referred to as “double-handed” swords due to their usage with both hands. However, it quickly became evident that Japanese swords, while exceedingly sharp, were prone to blade deformation, rendering them ineffective after a few engagements.

This experience illustrated that sharpness alone did not guarantee superiority in combat. Consequently, Chinese swordsmiths began prioritizing practicality, opting for sturdier and more reserved designs. Divorcing themselves from the relentless pursuit of sharpness, Chinese swords became more utilitarian, more accessible, and easier to maintain. In contrast to the laborious care required for Tang swords, Chinese swords developed a protective patina through natural oxidation, reducing the risk of rust. These blades no longer necessitated elaborate scabbards and could be conveniently carried thrust into a belt. Furthermore, the manufacturing process became simpler, making these swords accessible to ordinary citizens.

However, this shift in design came with an unintended consequence—the decline in craftsmanship. In comparison to earlier Chinese swords, which were often ornate and exuded an air of opulence, swords produced during and after the Ming Dynasty tended to lean towards either impractical extravagance or rough workmanship. The legacy of Tang swords gradually faded, to the extent that later generations of craftsmen struggled to recreate authentic Tang swords.

Scarcity of Tang Sword Artifacts

Historical records from the Tang Dynasty and subsequent eras contain limited descriptions of the specific forms and dimensions of Tang-style swords. Concurrently, systematic archaeological excavations in China have yielded a substantial number of artifacts such as bronze swords from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, steel longswords from the Han Dynasty, and “环首刀” (huán shǒu dāo) from the Han Dynasty. In contrast, artifacts of Tang-era swords are remarkably scarce.

Several factors contribute to this scarcity:

  1. Shift in Burial Practices: Prior to the Han Dynasty, a substantial number of weapons were included as burial goods in tombs. However, this tradition declined during and after the Han Dynasty and was virtually abandoned by the time of the Sui and Tang Dynasties.
  2. Recycling and Destruction: As dynasties changed hands, ruling authorities often collected weapons from previous regimes for military purposes or directly melted them down for iron. This practice aligns with Confucian principles advocating the conversion of weaponry into agricultural tools, as espoused by Confucius himself.
  3. Cultural Emphasis on Literature Over Martial Prowess: Chinese society has historically emphasized literary pursuits over martial ones. Rulers consistently imposed strict regulations on weapons, prohibiting private ownership. Consequently, the tradition of collecting and preserving weapons waned. Even if tangible artifacts survived the ravages of time, they were frequently lost or difficult to trace due to wars, invasions, and the erosion of historical records.
  4. Lack of Inscriptions: Many ancient swords, especially those used in warfare, lack inscriptions. Even when inscribed Tang swords were discovered, the iron used in their construction tended to corrode over time, making it challenging to decipher and verify these inscriptions. Moreover, the continuity of sword designs across different dynasties complicates chronological categorization, contributing to the scarcity of unequivocal Tang sword artifacts.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, the legacy of Tang swords stands as a testament to the glory of the Tang Dynasty and their profound impact on the development of weaponry. Their historical significance should not fade into oblivion, even if genuine Tang sword artifacts remain rare in the archaeological record.

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