Unlike the dao (刀), which has a single-sided blade, the jian (剑) is the name of the two-bladed Chinese sword which has been used in China for over 2,500 years.
When thinking of Chinese swords, people are most familiar with the extremely flexible swords we’ve seen in Chinese martial arts schools, which are used mainly for the study of martial arts forms. However, this style of sword has a proud history in many battlefields throughout history. While the modern form of the sword is often flexible, at times this was a rigid and robust blade, which was wielded with two hands.
The earliest jians were much shorter than the swords we know today. As forging techniques improved ever-longer blades were produced; over time, the jian blade grew from 28 cm to 46 cm long. Early examples of these larger two-handed jians had bronze blades, but as forging techniques continued to evolve, iron and steel became the norm.
During the Warring States Period (501 BCE — 350 BCE) the jian came to be widely used on the battlefield. However, there are earlier records of jian use within the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BCE -446 BCE), and the jian may even date back further before this period.
The ancient Chinese were masters of both sword forging and the creation of metal alloys. One of the most famous techniques which allowed for the evolution of the jian into its longer form was the combining of two or more bronze alloys of differing hardness, forged into a single blade. This allowed for the forging of a jian with a more flexible interior of softer metal, with an exterior of harder metal intended to receive and maintain a sharp edge. This technique was refined over time, and continued to be applied as forging shifted from bronze to iron and steel construction.
During the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE — 206 BCE), China continued to hone their forging techniques and to refine their system of using metal alloys for the creation of longer swords. At the beginning of this period, the use of a jian was more focused on stabbing than cutting, taking advantage of the sharpened tip of the sword. It has been speculated that the fighting techniques were derived from the use of spears, which were some of the most widely-used battlefield weapons of the day.
During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE — 220 CE) the Chinese evolved their forging techniques further, developing the technique of metal bending (sometimes called metal folding), which allowed for lighter, sharper, and more durable blades. However, jians began to fall out of favour during this period as single-bladed sabres, which were the standard for cavalry but which were also easier to produce and learn to handle, gained favour. Nevertheless, the jian remained an important symbolic weapon for high-ranking military officers, who were decorated with jians to represent their status. These symbolic blades were important enough that some officers and emperors of this period were even buried with their weapons.
The picture below shows five jians dating to the Han Dynasty. All of these have long blades, the largest measuring 146 cm, and most are designed to be wielded two-handed. Today, these swords are housed in the Museum of the Mausoleum of Nanyue King, Guangzhou, China.
One of the most mystical and legendary of the Chinese swords is the Jian of Goujian, dating from the Spring and Autumn Era (771 BCE — 403 BCE), and discovered in the Hubei Province of China in 1965. It is said that this sword was found intact, and remains sharp despite being over 2,000 years old. Currently, this weapon can be found at the Hubei Provincial Museum.
Over time, styles of jian became more specialized as jians started to be used not just on the battlefield, but also for duels; jian use in duels naturally demanded a more versatile blade. The most modern example of this evolution divides the blade into three distinct segments, but the weapon remains light enough for one-handed use. Naturally, the fighting style also evolved along with the weapon, with increasingly refined and circular techniques.
The upper-third (or jiànfeng) of such a blade became extremely thin and sharp, and is used for attack. However, this section of the blade can be damaged very easily, and so is never used for locking. The middle third of the blade (or zhongren) is thicker and less sharp, used for cutting, but also sliding, guiding and deflecting. The lower third (or jiàngen) is the sturdiest of the three sections, often not especially sharp, and is generally used for situations where firmer locking is required.
As mentioned earlier, it is now normal to find jians with fully flexible blades. These blades are used for training in blade forms, and contactless movement exercises. They are usually associated with tai chi chuan, and other meditative practices; these blades are not intended for combat.
Jian Study at Pa Kua International League
In Pa Kua, we learn two facets of the jian: we learn duelling techniques, such as attacking and defending movements and stances as combat training. We also study the weapons forms of the school, and the characteristic circular movements of Pa Kua. In Pa Kua, we primarily study the jian one-handed, with the earlier-described three-section rigid blade.
Translation made by Colin Peacock