China has one of the oldest sword-making traditions in the world, tracing back to the Western Zhou period over three thousand years ago. For a long time, sword-manufacturing was dominated by bronze and fashioned through a combined process of casting and polishing. Over time, ancient swordsmiths discovered that bronze swords could be strengthened by adding metallic layers, which formed intricate web-like patterns on the surface. The addition of more flexible metallic components such as iron enforced the original structure, making it more endurable and less susceptible to cracking, which was a major shortcoming of bronze weapons. This fusion process produced complex and attractive patterns on the blade, and these were the first patterned swords in China.
Before unlocking the secret of refining iron, swordsmiths in China extracted high-quality iron from meteorites, which could contain up to 90 per cent of pure iron. In the earlier part of the Warring States period, the iron used to make composite bronze swords were obtained in this way. Because of the extra-terrestrial origin of the material, the mysterious nature of refining iron (then unknown), as well as the grave purpose to which swords were generally put to use, sword-making was regarded as an occult exercise that had to be accompanied by ritual cleansing and other ceremonies.
By the Han period, swordsmiths discovered that iron could be obtained through refinement. However, as the technology at the time only yielded crude iron ore, a laborious process of further refinement – which involved welding iron bars together at high temperature – was required to remove impurities. And even then, iron is a relatively soft metal and tends to bend under stress, so the metal needed to be ‘improved’ for sword manufacture. This led to the next stage of sword development – carburising iron into steel.
In the ancient world, two separate technologies were developed for steel manufacture, which respectively made use of the common ‘pattern-welding’ process described above, and smelting, which fused iron and carbon together at high temperature to form ‘Wootz steel’ – a technique that was first developed in India. In either case, this organic fusion process led to the formation of beautiful patterns that inhere in the metal, which are then brought to the surface by polishing. Over time, the techniques of producing patterned-steel acquired the name ‘pattern-wielding’ or ‘Damascus steel’. The resultant carburised steel is much harder than refined iron, and this discovery led to the phasing out of bronze weapons in ancient China during the Han dynasty.
However, carburised steel remains imperfect for sword-making, for hardness also means it is brittle and easy to break. A good sword needs to be hard on the edge for cutting, but flexible in the core to withstand blows. Therefore, to meet the robust demands on battlefield, swordsmiths in ancient China meticulously analysed the functional requirement on each part of the sword, and developed several metallic components with differing carbon-to-iron ratio, which were then fused together to form a truly remarkable sword that was tailor-made to function, and at the same time pleasing to behold. A good sword is much more than a weapon but a beautiful work of art. For this reason, sword appreciation was not only an occupation by men of war, but it was considered a refined discipline suitable to the taste of the social elites and literati.
In 2006 China’s ancient sword-making heritage was declared a ‘National-level Intangible Cultural Monument’. Currently, the knowledge of making pattern-welded sword is preserved by a small group of master swordsmiths in Longquan in southern Zhejiang province.
In a forthcoming exhibition entitled ‘Emblazoned Steel: Pattern-welded Swords from China’, nearly twenty handcrafted swords by Master Hu Xiaojun, one of the most highly regarded and sought-after swordsmiths in China, will be on display. Each of his blades is handcrafted using only traditional materials and techniques, which takes eight months to complete on average.
Emblazoned Steel: Pattern-Welded Swords from China
Date: May 29 – 31, 2014
Time: 11:00am to 7:00pm
Address: Galerie Huit, G/F, No. 8 St. Francis Street, Wan Chai