Kung Fu Secret: Their Big Knives

Few weapons are as iconic for the martial arts as the Chinese Dao, (刀) often called a broadsword though it looks nothing like the European weapon of that same name. Alternatively it might be referred to as a cutlass or more recently a sabre, each one of those names describes a specific weapon used with-in a different context; a cavalryman’s sabre would function very differently with-in the crowded confines of a ship and its rigging where such weapons are most frequently found. While the character dao is conventionally translated as “knife,” it may refer to any large blade that is curved.

Types of Dao

While they’ve varied greatly over the centuries, most single-handed Dao are based (sometimes loosely) on Ming dynasty and later arms. They tend to share the following characteristics. Dao blades are moderately curved and single-edged, often with a few inches of the back edge sharpened as well; the moderate curve allows them to be reasonably effective in the thrust. Their hilts are sometimes canted, curving in the opposite direction as the blade and cord is usually wrapped over the wood of the handle. Hilts may also be pierced or feature a ring for the addition of a lanyard or more commonly tassels or scarves for modern sword-work performances. The guard is typically disc-shaped often with a sort of forward facing cup shape to prevent rainwater from getting into the sheath, and to prevent blood from dripping down to the handle. Sometimes guards are thinner pieces of metal with an s-curve, the lower limb of the curve protecting the user’s knuckles.

Parts of a Dao

Over the centuries the blade has included longer and longer handles. All Chinese polearms fall under the category of Dadao, which literally means “big knife (大刀).” But some are fancier than others. The character pu (朴) in Pudao can mean “simple” or “unadorned,” or even “sincere” and now refers to the generic polearm, which is a two-handed weapon consisting of a broad steel blade mounted on a wood or metal shaft. The weapon is rarely measures longer than 5 feet and stands in stark contrast to the iconic and frequently ornate Guandao (關刀).

originally called a yanyuedao (reclining moon blade 偃月刀), the name under which it appears in texts from the Song to Qing dynasties such as the Wujing Zongyao and Huangchao Liqi Tushi. It is comparable to the Japanese naginata and the European fauchard or glaive and consists of a heavy blade with a spike at the back and sometimes also a notch at the spike’s upper base that can catch an opponent’s weapon. In addition there are often irregular serrations that lead the back edge of the blade to the spike.

According to legend, the guandao was invented by the famous general Guan Yu during the early 3rd century AD, hence the name. It is said that he specified its form and size to be made by a smithy, and was uniquely able to wield such an imposing weapon due to his large stature and legendary strength. Guan Yu’s guandao was called “Green Dragon Crescent Blade” (青龍偃月刀, Qīnglóng yǎnyuèdāo) which was said to weigh 106.66 pounds

illustration of Guanyu by Patrick Lugo

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms on of the four Great Classics of Chinese Literature which are the foundation for Kung Fu’s favorite genre, wuxia, he is described as wielding the guandao. But this description may be anachronistic, intended to make the character seem more imposing. Apparently there is no evidence to show that Guan Yu used the weapon attributed to him. There seems to be no indication that what we consider the guandao existed prior to the 11th century, when it was first illustrated in the military manual Wujing Zongyao. It’s possible the guandao had not been invented during Guan Yu’s era, and could be bit of a pop culture-derived misnomer instead. But that in no way diminished the iconic nature of the weapon its lore and significance for the Chinese Martial Arts.

The Da Dao

Also known as the Chinese War Sword, the Dadao was made famous by the 29th Army of the Chinese Nationalist Army fighting against the technologically superior Japanese invaders during the 1930’s World War II era. About 500 elite soldiers that comprised their Big-Saber Contingent (Dadao Dui 大刀隊 ). Almost the same length as a Japanese Katana, it has a much broader blade and longer handle. Its size enabled it to withstand harsh combat conditions, even though it did not go through a rigorous sword forging process like the Katana. High durability and ease of manufacturing made the Dadao nearly standard issue, worn across the back, creating an X with the rifle.

Much has been written about the Dadao, it’s specification and significant to military theory of the time. Used specifically to fight against the Japanese rifle bayonet, soldiers faced an unequal battle.  The rifle bayonet had greater leverage and reach.  In close combat, the Dadao wielding soldier would have to be skilled, disciplined and fearlessly aggressive or he would perish quickly.  Beginning immediately, one commander Jin En-Zhong began working on a manual for the use of the Dadao, in June of 1933 his manual, Practical Dadao Techniques (Shi Yong Dadao Shu) was published. 

illustration of a Dadao by Patrick Lugo

Its unique history and design make it one of the more obscure weapons to know and use. Similar to a rare variant comic-cover, or a hard-to-find recording of a specific track or remix, the Dadao is kind of a mark of cool for martial artists who know it or own one.

Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine has run two Dadao photo spreads in their Featured Weapon section as well as two feature artices which you can find below –

  • The Presentation Dadao JAN+FEB 2011 was 43.7″ long and weighed 3 lb.
  • The Dadao JAN+FEB 2012 was 28″ long and weighed 2 lb. 2 oz.
  • The Lost Legacy of the Big Blade Troop (MAR+APR 2006).
  • The Chinese Military Saber: From the Past to a New Future By Chris Bashaw, PhD (MAY+JUNE 2016)

And if you’d like to see a newsreel of Chinese troops training with Dadao, you can find it on this facebook page.
《 長城戰役喜峰口大捷 – 二十九軍大刀隊於南口練兵(1933)》

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