Links and Articles


Thomas Chen's Message:

" I hope you have enjoyed and have benefited from the information and pictures presented on this website. All errors of analysis, interpretation, omission and/or commission are entirely mine.

The main aim of this website is to educate the general public on the superb features and world-class qualities of Chinese swords. Chinese swordmaking was a major force in the history of swordmaking in the Far East as well as in Indochina; the advanced Chinese techniques of forging and folding, forge-welded/laminated construction, ridged cross-sections and differential heat-treatment (with and without clay) went on to influence in a major way, the swordmaking techniques of Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, amongst others.

However, these techniques were developed NOT only by the Chinese. In Europe, they had developed in parallel, characteristics of forge-welded/laminated construction, differential heat-treatment etc., best personified by their superb and magnificent pattern-welded Celtic/Viking swords.

The excellent wootz damascus steel, originally developed in India, and used in Arab and Indo-Persian sabers, was also a unique form of laminated material. Ridged cross-sections were also developed independently and used during certain time periods in Central Asia, Turkey and Iran.

I therefore strongly encourage all scholars/lovers of the Chinese sword, to pursue not just the study of Chinese swords, but also the study of the equally great swords of the Europeans, Arabs and Indo-Persians, Japanese and other notable cultures, so as to develop an international and broader perspective. "

A Dedication:
" I would also like to dedicate this website to the great swordsmiths and soldiers of China throughout the centuries. Though many of them remain anonymous, their achievements, sacrifices and contributions shall be honoured and remembered by the Chinese people forever............."

Chronology of Chinese Dynasties:

1) Xia (21st-16th century BC)
2) Shang (16th-11th century BC)

3) Western Zhou (11th century-770 BC)
Eastern Zhou (770-221 BC)[also considered as
Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods]

4) Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC)
5) Warring States Period (476-221 BC)
6) Qin (221-206 BC)
7) Han (206BC-220AD)
8) Three Kingdoms Period (220-280)
9) Jin (265-420)
10) Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589)
11) Sui (581-618)
12) Tang (618-907)
13) Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-979)
14) Song (960-1279)
15) Yuan (1279-1368)
16) Ming (1368-1644)
17) Qing (1644-1911)

Links and Articles:

Question: I would like to buy an antique Chinese sword. What should I look out for ??

Answer: There are a few international dealers for antique Chinese swords. I would recommend Scott Rodell of Seven Stars Trading in the United States and Alex Huang of Huangfu Antique Arms based in China as reliable and reputable sources for such weapons.

One word of caution is the easy availability of FAKES or modern-made replicas misrepresented as Ming or Qing Dynasty antiques, often offered at EBAY or through ignorant/dishonest dealers. My advice is to do your homework by seeking advice from experienced collectors.

I wish to highlight very strongly to those of you who are going to visit Hong Kong or China to beware of cheap fakes, and to be careful of antique-looking Chinese swords that are actually modern-made. There is an increasing flow of good-looking Chinese swords with damascus patterns and proper heat-treatment that are actually modern-made but passed off by the dealer as antique, in order to fetch higher prices.

Seeking advice from experienced collectors/scholars is always the best insurance against making a wrong decision.


Question: Are there any surviving traditional Chinese swordsmiths still practicing their craft today ??

Answer: Yes, there are a number of smiths operating today. Two groups of Chinese swordsmiths who know how to forge Chinese-style blades in the traditional manner are working in the Mainland China forges / factories of Paul Chen (owner of the Hanwei Forge) and Fred Chen (owner of the Huanuo Forge). Another mainlander swordsmith (who does custom pieces) is Zhou Zhengwu.

In Taiwan, there are custom swordsmiths, Chen Tianyang and Guo Changxi.

In Thailand, a number of Chinese swordsmiths had migrated from southern China to the town of Aranyik a long time ago, who are still making traditionally forged swords, knives and tools today. These swordmakers trace their ancestry and swordmaking traditions to earlier swordmaking families in China.


My discussion on the superiority / inferiority question of Chinese swords vs Japanese swords
My chronology table recording 2500 years of Chinese sword technical developments




Article by American swordsmith Francis Boyd on Chinese migrant swordsmiths in Thailand, based at the town of Aranyik:


Below is a reproduction of an English language article in the free access online government magazine " Taipei Review, November 2001" on Taiwanese traditional Chinese swordsmith Mr Chen Tianyang (no relation to Paul Chen or Fred Chen).

For those of you who are interested in seeing the pics of Mr Chen and his works, his website (in Chinese text) is listed above.

As mentioned in the article, the important characteristics to take note is that Mr Chen utilizes the 2000-year-old Chinese dual methods of forging and folding his swordblanks multiple times and forgewelding/laminated construction on his blades; one particularly unique technique is the "stress test" of leaving the semi-processed swordblanks exposed to the natural elements of the weather for a number of years as a form of quality control. I have never come across any other Japanese, Western or Chinese swordsmith today that executes such a technique. Interesting...............

Title: A Swordsmith and His Legacy

The art of Chinese sword making might have been on
the verge of extinction but for one man's keen interest
to learn all he could from a rare master of the craft. For
decades, Chen Tian-yang has demonstrated a skill in
creating swords that can "rip through iron as if it were
mud," and now he is sharing his expertise with others.

Some say it is a movie about traditional Chinese chivalry; others describe it as an epic love story. Regardless of what "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" may be about, there is little doubt that it is packed with dramatic sword-fighting scenes and gravity-defying acrobats. Based on a novel, the story has all the elements essential to the genre: supernatural martial arts and a legendary weapon--the Green Destiny sword. Upon leaving the theaters, most audiences readjust to reality where walking on the tops of trees or flying across rooftops are no more feasible than running up vertical walls (although some believe such skills once existed). But the other element of the fantasy--a weapon that can "rip through iron as if it were mud"--remains very real.

Chinese-made swords have had a long history. Bronze swords were first created about 3,000 years ago in the Western Chou dynasty (1122-770 B.C.), iron swords with bronze handles appeared approximately in the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.), and iron and steel swords gradually replaced bronze ones in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220).

After the Chin dynasty began in A.D. 265, swords that were used as military weapons were eventually replaced by sabers, single-bladed weapons that are easier to wield than the double-edged variety. Swords went on to assume multiple roles such as decoration, symbols of honor, power, and rank, and articles used in ceremonial or religious rites. Even today, swords continue to hold a unique place in Chinese culture. They are mentioned in poems and novels, featured in TV drama series and traditional operas, and found in temples or parks where people practice martial arts.

But despite their prevalence, very few old swords have been preserved in China. One reason can be traced to the edicts of many emperors of ancient China, who did not allow civilians to own or make weapons so as to reduce the risk of an armed rebellion. Also, many swords were taken as souvenirs by American, European, and Japanese troops as they left China in the 1900s. Of those that survived the pilfering, most were melted down in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward when people were encouraged to produce steel in their "backyard" smelters. Nowadays, most of the weapons owned by Taiwanese collectors have been either bought at foreign auctions or excavated from old tombs in mainland China.

Analyzing such finds with modern equipment, observers note that the blades of some of these swords are of a higher quality than those made of contemporary steel. But unfortunately, the skills of traditional sword making have long been lost. Given the fact that literacy was not widespread in ancient China, it is not surprising to know that sword makers did not record their knowledge. The only way the craft was passed down was through apprenticeships. Most of the skills and details of the craft may have suffered from the onslaught of history, but not all was lost. Through a set of special circumstances, Chen Tian-yang has learned the secrets of producing Chinese swords.

Born to a farming family in Shalu, Taichung County, in 1940, Chen entered the craft of sword making largely by accident. At the age of fifteen, when he was a student at a Taipei high school, he met Liao Yuan, a seventy-five-year-old monk who was repairing urns and jars at the Botanical Garden. The young boy was not interested in school, and often cut classes to keep Liao Yuan company. When there was a lull in business, Chen would encourage Liao Yuan to teach him some kung fu moves, and the two formed a firm friendship.

One day, Liao Yuan took Chen to his nearby shelter. There the teenager found a number of swords and other weapons waiting to be repaired. He then learned that the elderly monk not only could fix urns, but was also capable of making and repairing swords and knives. Three months after they first met, Chen convinced Liao Yuan to accept him as an apprentice. "Life was tough in those days. Learning a skill where one could earn a living was more valuable than anything else," Chen recalls. "My father gave me permission to drop out of school and learn from Liao Yuan. It was then that I began a lifelong career of making Chinese swords."

Chen moved in with Liao Yuan to a house in Mount Kuanyin. Before learning anything about sword making, Chen was first taught the different styles of fencing. Periodically, the master and the apprentice would head into the cities to earn money by repairing swords and other weapons. In 1957, the two had an opportunity to repair a sword belonging to then President Chiang Kai-shek. They then established a reputation as skilled swordsmiths among high-ranking military officers. In the following two years, Chen spent much time honing his skills on the weapons of many generals, and in the process gained valuable expertise.

In 1962, shortly after Liao Yuan passed away, Chen completed his first sword. He then began to make a living by repairing swords and knives, and sharpening surgical blades for the National Taiwan University Hospital. "Sharpening surgical knives wasn't very difficult for me and the pay was quite good. But being a swordsmith, I didn't feel right about spending the rest of my life in a hospital," Chen recalls. "Besides, I couldn't stand the smell, so I quit." He decided to return to Mount Kuanyin and devote his time to perfecting the skills of sword making. In 1970 he established a workshop in Puli, Nantou County. And after years of crafting swords, Chen set up the Chin-yun Sword Folk Cultural Gallery in his hometown of Shalu to display his works and collections.

Sword making is a complex process involving more than simply the pounding of iron. The first step is to select the materials. Over the years, Chen has experimented with different types of steel and iron and combinations of the two. He began with Fujian iron, following in the footsteps of his master. But because of the high percentage of impurities it contained, a resultant sword usually required four times the normal amount of iron. He later shifted to truck spring steel, which was purer than Fujian iron but still not strong enough. Finally in the mid-1970s, with the help of his nephew Chen Keh-chang who is now a university professor of material science, Chen found that German and Swedish steel have the best qualities for making swords. "Hard steel tends to be brittle, and a springy and resilient one is softer but will not hold an edge very well," he explains. "The purpose of combining the different metals is to reach a balance between the hardness and elasticity of the final material."

The next step involves cutting the material to a desired length, which is determined by the function of the weapon and the height of the user. A weapon used while on horseback, for example, is longer than the one used by an infantry soldier. Chen measures the ideal length by holding a sword behind the user's arm; the tip of the weapon should reach the height of the user's ear. After appropriate measurements are taken, the proportion of the different compounds to be used are "crumbled" together. Steel and iron are layered and heated, folded in half by hammering, doused in cold water, and hammered to the predetermined length. This process is repeated until impurities are removed and the desired hardness and elasticity are reached.

In the past, when no reliable method existed to measure the temperature of the furnace, this crumbling and hammering process was performed at night so sword makers could gauge the temperature of the fire by observing its colors and characteristics. Today, even though furnaces are equipped with thermometers, Chen still relies on his eyes. "You can have every factor under perfect control, but swords made under that environment are the equivalent of industrial products," he says. "It's the uncertainties in every process completed by human hands that make sword making more than a craft."

After folding and refolding the sword thirty-six times comes the quenching process, which is the first stress test a sword is exposed to. If the different steels and irons are not perfectly welded together, the sword may bend or crack. Those that survive are left outdoors for five years to be tested by the rain, the sun, and the change of temperature. Usually, only 30 to 50 percent of the "embryos" survive the test of nature. The successful are then wrapped in mud and bamboo, and heated under a gentle fire to increase their elasticity. Then come a number of complicated tasks such as grinding, filing, edging, polishing, making the scabbard and the handguard, and assembling all the parts.

An assembled sword must go through two more tests. The first challenge is chopping off a piece of steel bar measuring 0.5 centimeters in diameter placed on a piece of granite. If a sword can achieve this feat without any damage to itself, it has passed the "hardware" test. Several years ago, Chen had the opportunity to perform this test against a Japanese sword, and his sword did not let him down.

Then comes the "software" test, where Chen personally fences with the piece until he is certain that the balance, the weight, and all other details are correct. He explains that there are some basic principles for fencing with a sword, but there are significant differences between different fencing styles and thus the weapons used. A sword with a lighter tip, for example, is ideal for fencing styles that emphasize stabbing, while one with a heavier bottom is more appropriate for styles involving more chopping and cutting movements. "Being able to fence is the most basic requirement to making swords," he says. "If you don't know the styles and aren't able to fence using the different forms, you can produce something that looks like a sword but is actually nothing more than decoration."

Completing a Chinese sword takes much focus and time, and it is not just a craft. "Craft refers to the method, but a sword is a work of art, which has a cultivated inner quality," Chen says. "It's a means of outward-directed expression of what lies inside, originating in the nation's spiritual strength residing between heaven and earth." Whether it is a craft or art, sword making has never gained respect as an important skill by the governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

In the mainland, most sword makers were either killed or kept their identity hidden during the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and the situation did not improve in the subsequent years. "It took twelve chops from various government agencies to get a piece of steel and another eight for a piece of iron," Chen recalls of his mainland trip in 1994. "I stayed for a week, managed to get only eight, and decided to give up."

Sword makers who came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang administration in the late 1940s did not have to worry about the Cultural Revolution. In fact, making or owning swords has never been against the law on the island. But in an agricultural society, there was not much need for swords, thus these craftsmen had to engage in other professions to earn a living. After some time, the skills rusted. After a longer while, forgotten.

Things began to improve with the development of Taiwan's economy when the government as well as citizens could afford some cultural pleasures. More people also began to appreciate the art of sword making. In 1994 and 1996, Chen's swords won him two national craft awards, and many other awards have since followed. His works are now popular among local and foreign collectors. According to the sword maker, a Chiayi collector has bought more than 130 pieces of his works, and many other individuals own over a dozen.

These swords are priced anywhere from US dollars 1500 to 15,000, but money does not always talk in Chen's business. Most of his single-edged sabers are for display only, as these kinds of weapons are easy to use and would be dangerous weapons in street fights. The handling of a double-edged sword requires much more complicated skills, but Chen is very careful in choosing his clients. "A sword maker has to be responsible for his creations," he says. "If someone uses one of my swords to do something bad, I'm guilty for providing the criminal with a weapon, so I would rather starve than sell a sword to the wrong man."

As a sword maker, Chen feels a responsibility to promote the right attitude in collecting swords and fencing. He has written several books about the history of swords, how they are made and preserved, and other related subjects. He has also been invited to lecture on his craft. "Without a compass there is no circle, without a squaring instrument, no square; this is regularity," Chen always tells his lecture audience. "Those who study swords must understand that it's fundamentally a study of circles and squares, as well as a principle of human conduct and life in the world."

As for being the sole maker of Chinese swords, Chen Tian-yang believes that his most important responsibility is to see the craft well preserved. "Master Liao Yuan told me the skills of sword making must not be lost, and what I learned shouldn't accompany me to my grave," he says. To prove his devotion to his old master, he has been teaching everything he knows to his six apprentices.

As he watches his apprentices improve their skills and knowledge, Chen is assured that his expertise will not die with him. He has even considered retirement, but whenever he raises the topic among friends and collectors, it is met with disapproval. "They say my master accepted me as an apprentice when he was seventy-five and taught me until the day he passed away. How dare I talk about retirement when I'm still 'young?'" Chen says. "They're right, so I'll keep on working till my day comes."