The Japanese long sword, most commonly known by the name ‘katana’, has long exercised a charm on sword collectors and aficionados around the world. Graceful of form, well-balanced and executed without a flaw, the katana is synonymous with the Japanese obsession with perfection.
Since Ruth Benedict published Chrysanthemum and the Sword in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Japanese sword has come to dominate cultural representations of Japan. In fact, the katana soon became so entrenched in popular perception that pattern-welded blades were – and continue to be – thought of as the exclusive property of Japanese sword-smiths. Little do people realise that the tradition of Japanese sword-making originated in China, and that this heritage is at present undergoing a mini-revival in its home nation.
As a martial art practitioner and researcher, I have long taken an interest in China’s sword-making legacy. However, it was not until November that I finally made the pilgrimage to Longquan, the mecca for Chinese sword fanciers. Accompanied by my good friend and fellow martial artist Omar, we travelled to Longquan to visit Hu Xiaojun, alias Jian Cun (literally, ‘Sword Village’), who is leading the effort to revive this ancient craft.
Nestled in the hills in southern Zhejiang and with no direct flight, the journey from Guangzhou was a tedious one. To get there, we took a short flight from Guangzhou to Wenzhou, and then a further three-and-a-half hour drive into the wooded hinterland between Zhejiang and Fujian.
Situated between two of the most economically developed and densely populated provinces in China, I was surprised by the seclusion and pristine beauty of the area. The journey by car took us deep into the hill regions of Southern Zhejiang, and as the city gave way to mountains and mist, with patches of ploughing fields dotted among the hills and river valleys below, I felt as if travelling back in time, along the footsteps of ancient clans who fled the plains of northern China as dynasties crumbled. In truth, I could not have imagined a more idyllic place for sword-making.
In ancient times, the practice of pattern-welding was a necessary process to refine bars of iron ore into steel blades. To do so, layer upon layer of iron bars are welded together through a strenuous process of repeated hammering and carburisation. The resultant blade is highly laminated and, in ancient China, a well-made sword can contain up to thirty thousand steel layers. Iron and steel swords began to appear in China towards the end of the Warring States period and but it was not until the Han dynasty that steel swords replaced bronze blades, so we may assume that it was around then that the technology and techniques of steel-production and pattern-welding started to reach maturity. It is also around this time that steel swords started to make their way to Japan in large quantities, reaching a peak in the Tang and Sui dynasties.
Our trip to Longquan began with a visit to Jian Cun’s shop and private museum, where some of his swords and other bladed works are on display. These include accurately reconstructed single- (dao) and double-edged (jian) swords from historic weapons such as various short and long Han-dynasty jian, Tang-dynasty ring-pommelled dao, archaic Tibetan swords, as well as more common Qing-period single-edged curved blades. There are also a few daggers and knives crafted by Jian Cun and his younger brother Jian Ge. In addition, on one side of the wall there is a poster of the 2006 Chinese blockbuster, Red Cliff, for which Jian Cun created over 30 swords for all the lead characters.
After lunch was a tour to the forge, which is located in a small village a short distance drive from the town centre. Our host took us through the meticulous process of sword-making, from welding the steel bars to beating the blade (a process known as ‘forming’) to heat treating, sharpening and finishing. During our stay, Omar and I were also given a crash course in blade-making, and with the help of a patient master smith, we managed to make our own blades – albeit not quite in a finished form.
Another highlight was test cutting. Outside Japan I do not know many blade-smiths who are prepared to test their blades – which often took many weeks, if not months, to make – in this way. But Jian Cun insists a sword’s purpose is to cut, and regardless its form and beauty, a sword is worthless unless it has demonstrated its ability to cut. Equipped with this notion we climbed a mound behind his house where there was a bamboo grove. It was the first time I had the opportunity to test-cut a sword. The result was instant addiction: not only did Jian Cun’s swords feel incredibly comfortable and well-balanced in my hands, they effortlessly cut through mature bamboos. After cutting through a good couple of dozen of them, I inspected the edge of the blade and found not a single nick.
As I sat in the car on the way to Wenzhou I could not suppress a sense of satisfaction at having met China’s most accomplished sword-smith, and pondered what my martial art friends back home would say when they learnt of my unique experience in Longquan.