Longquan Swords




COMPARED to sabers, rapiers or cutlasses that are more commonly seen in the West, Chinese swords are distinct in their look, and more importantly, rich connotation of culture.


In ancient China, people carried swords for self-defense, but also for displaying their social status and fondness of errantry. In modern times, sometimes swords are hung at home or office to ward off “evil” things. It is said that swords with a “soul” could alarm their masters when dangers approach or sinister things intrude. Therefore Chinese always called the sword baojian, meaning treasured sword.


Liquid iron sparkles around at Shen Guang-long Sword Smithy, Longquan County of Zhejiang Province.


The most famous sword in China is undoubtedly the Longquan Sword. According to historical records, it was the first iron sword, forged about 2,600 years ago by master smith Ou Yezi. Prior to that, swords had been made of bronze, while Ou was the person that figured out the method of smelting pig iron and forging it into a sword. The place of origin was hence named Longquan County, now in Zhejiang Province. Longquan later became a geographical indication; swords produced here are all called Longquan Swords.


Beyond a Weapon


Swords are one of the earliest cold weapons in Chinese history. In the seventh century they were gradually replaced by new weapons and arms in the battlefield, and then began to bear more cultural connotations.


In ancient China two objects were regarded as the emblem of power – seals and swords.


Due to strict hierarchy at that time, it was seen as a privilege to carry swords, which represented social status, rank, and taste. The rules for wearing swords were also clear and obeyed rigorously. In the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), for example, kings could start to carry swords at the age of 20, magistrates at 30, aristocrats at 40, while commoners could be armed with swords only on occasions of utmost necessity.


The sword has always been seen as a symbol of masculinity. In the Chinese martial art culture, swords are the physical manifestation of many notions of chivalry – pride, freedom, justice, strength, among many others. A chivalrous hero defended justice by a sword, not by a saber or a gun – through a sword the hero was able to remove any obstacles in the path to a new world. In this context, swords were thought of having souls, like faithful friends of their masters. Therefore, many scholars and poets also wore swords, and the most famous ones are Confucius (551-479 BC) and Li Bai (701-762), the Tang Dynasty poet.


King of Swords


For aristocrats and officials, a sword was an important accessory that should match its master’s status. This explained why Longquan Swords have been popular throughout history for their high quality, design, and fame. They were offered to emperors and high-ranking officials as tributes and given as gifts among friends. Longquan also appeared in poems, synonymous with the sword. Li Bai once wrote: commoner like me, carry Longquan at the waist. The verse expressed his resolution of serving the country and deterring enemies.


Dense texture and sharp blade are characteristics of Longquan Swords.


Longquan Swords are known for their hard texture and sharp blade, which are attributed to the forging technique. As early as the fifth century BC, Chinese were trying to make the iron harder by carburizing the heated iron and forging it repeatedly. As an old saying goes, a hundred times of forging turn iron to steel. Repeated heating, folding, and forging can remove impurities from the pig iron, and eventually turn it to steel with a firm and dense texture. The texture could be seen on the surface of the blade, which in face indicates the times of folding and forging. Normally, to make a one-kilogram blade for the Longquan Sword, it requires tens of thousands of times of hammering pig iron weighing three to five kilograms.


Restricted by the ancient technology, the carbon content of steel remained low back then, so quenching is imperative to improve the blade’s rigidity, hardness, tenacity, and resistance to abrasion. The steel at 750-800 degrees centigrade should be put in water with an appropriate temperature to cool down. The temperature of the water is vital – as it determines whether all efforts come to a success or nothing. In other words, the moment when steel goes into the water is decisive – and discerns masters from ordinary smiths.


This explains why generations of ironsmiths were so eager to find “magic water,” which, in modern scientific perspective, contains special microelements prone to causing chemical reaction. Water in Longquan County is rich in specific minerals, making it ideal for quenching. But folk tales attribute Longquan’s success to a mysterious oracle – it is said that close to where Ou Yezi forged the first Longquan Sword, there were seven wells aligning like the Big Dipper stars, and then Ou carved the seven stars on his sword.


Traditionally it takes more than 20 processes to make a Longquan Sword, many of which hinge on the experience of sword smiths. Take hand grinding for example. A good grinding can make the blade sharper, texture look smoother, and the connection to the hilt sit firmly. A kind of stone in Longquan County, called “light stone,” is found perfect for grinding. The whole process of hand grinding takes several days to months, as it is divided to coarse grinding, fine sharpening, and polishing.


History Stands Witness


Longquan Sword, as the first iron sword in Chinese history, has long represented the pinnacle of metal smelting technique. In the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC-AD 220), Longquan County was the sword supplier for imperial families. The smith trade here hence boomed and ushered in its heyday in the 10th century when sword smithies and shops were seen everywhere with a street named Sword Shop Street. In the following several centuries, the Longquan Sword prevailed across the country along with the spread of Taoism and Buddhism. Taoists used swords at religious ceremonies, while Buddhist monks advocated practicing martial arts, both boosting the demands for swords.


Longquan smiths took pains in enriching their products’ cultural connotation, packaging, and identity. For centuries, Longquan Swords have been preferred by not only kungfu practitioners but also art connoisseurs. In 1978, on a national crafts fair, a Longquan Sword was used to cut a stack of six copper coins in half, with the blade intact. In Wanjian Shanzhuang, a sword museum in Hong Kong, three Longquan Sword made in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) are among its collections.


In June 2006, the forging technique of Longquan Swords was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage. The 130-year-old Shen Guanglong Sword Smithy was nominated the protector of the technique, and its fourth generation owner, Shen Xinpei, the representative heir. Longquan Swords have been presented as the state gift to foreign dignitaries such as former U.S. President Nixon and Russian President Putin. The swords of the Honor Guard of the three services of the People’s Liberation Army are also made in Longquan technique.


The sword is of great significance in Chinese culture – it is the symbol of supreme rule, and consolidates the glory that generals pursue; it is the weapon of warriors, but also epitomizes the world of adventure that roving knights long for. It is the heritage that generations of smiths protected for centuries.  


(Compiled by China Today)