Ma Mingda*


In the lengthy History of relations between Japan and China, the trade between the two Countries in swords and sabres and fencing techniques for these weapons, is a subject which merits in-depth research. Having presented a work on the topic,1 recently came to my attention that Macao played an important intermediary role in the sword and sabre trade between China and Japan, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The information already compiled results from the analysis of secondary data, which obviously indicates that more research must be undertaken.


The trade and commerce of weapons such as the sword and the sabre between Japan and China goes far back in History and involves a long process which can be divided into two principal Periods: the first Period is from the Zhou (1122/1027-256 B. C.) and Qin (221-206B. C.) Dynasties until the beginning of the Northern Song (960-1279) Dynasty; the second period is from the Northern Song Dynasty until the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties.

The first Period mainly involved the export of Chinese swords and sabres to Japan, the second Period the export of Japanese swords and sabres to China. The latter finally resulted in busy trading in these weapons between the two Countries during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

In China, the time between the Spring and Fall Period and the Warring States Era, and the Eastern and Western Han Dynasties, (cal 122/1027 B. C.-AD220) were the high points for swords and sabres as far as manufacturing technology was concerned. During these Periods, the Chinese sword and sabre entered Japan in large quantities and were favoured by the Samurai. This was especially true of the iron sabre with round coquilles from the Han Dynasty. It developed out of the long sword of the Warring States Era and was technologically refined: it was lightweight but sharp, giving very effective results on the battlefield.

After its introduction into Japan, this type of sabre had a profound influence on manufacturing technology and the form of the Japanese sabre, as well as on the art and technique of using the sabre in battle. The Japanese term for sabre fencing techniques was jiandao (the Art of the sword), which originated in the [Eastern and Western] Han (206 B. C. -AD220) Dynasties. From the Han Dynasties until the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) Dynasties, Chinese sabres and other side-arms continued to arrive in Japan. During the Three Kingdoms' Era (Wu 220-280; Shu 221-253; Wei 220-265), Queen Himiko, of a Japanese Yamatai Kingdom, sent envoys to the Wei Kingdom to forge friendly relations. Among the gifts given by the Wei Kingdom was wu chi dao (a five chi [a unit of lenght] sabre). 2

In the District of Kumamoto, in Kyushu, Japan, Chinese sabres from the [Chinese] Southern and Northern Dynasties were uncovered in a Koudasenzan tomb. 3 The original sabres of the Tang Dynasty and the so-called "Tang-type sabres" and "Tang sabres", among others, are registered in the Gifts Registry, kept in Shosoin,Japan. 4 This is evidence that the Chinese sword and sabre retained their predominance until the Tang Dynasty.

A change occurred at the beginning of the Song Dynasty.

According to The History of Song -- Chapter on Japan, in the second year of the Yongxi Period of Emperor Tai Zong (year 985), the famous Japanese monk Tatezen sent his disciple Kankoku, to China, to render hommage to the Song Emperor.

Among the gifts that Kankoku offered the Song Emperor was an "iron sabre" manufactured in Japan. This constitutes an important sign. It indicates, that at that time, Japan not only equalled the level of the sword and sabre manufacturing technology of China, but also surpassed it, and began to convert its imports into exports. In fact, during the Northern Song Dynasty, the Japanese sword and sabre entered China by unofficial commercial channels. Chinese enthusiasts went to great expenses to obtain them and would ostentatiously sport them in a competitive manner. This caught the attention of Ou Yang Xiu and inspired him to write the famous poem that bears the title Riben Dao Ge (Poem on the Japanese Sabre),5 the first of dozens of poems with the same title, composed during the Song Dynasty. As the Japanese book U Ji Ju I Mono Gatari states: "leave ten sabres as a pledge, and one can ask the Chinese for a loan of six or seven thousand pieces of cloth."6 It is thus clear, that as in the Song Dynasty, the sabre and the sword became an important product in Japanese trade with China.

During the Ming Dynasty, the manufacture of the Japanese sabre became increasingly refined and, because of the exchange between their peoples and the activities of Japanese pirates, this weapon arrived in China and gained wide support from both the civilians and the Chinese military. This is why the Japanese always retained the sword and sabre as principal items of merchandise in Japanese-Chinese trade, during the Ming Dynasty.

There were two major routes by which the Japanese sword and sabre entered China. The first route was a gift from the Japanese Imperial household to the Court of the Ming Dynasty. The bestowing of gifts began in the third year of the Jian Wen Period (1401). The first gift included "ten swords and a sabre". Henceforth, the gifts of swords and sabres increased in volume, with the largest number being of more than a hundred. In effect, this was 'back door' commerce.

The second route was commercial activities. From the Chen Zu Period onwards, under the gise of "paying tribute to the Court", Japanese merchants very often "brought contraband merchandise" to be traded in China, and swords and sabres occupied the largest part of this "smuggled in merchandise." The Government of the Ming Dynasty often imposed restrictions and limitations, stipulating that in each "tribute voyage" the number of swords and sabres brought into China could not "be more than three-thousand" and, in addition, created the tribute voyage system which stipulated "one tribute for every ten years."7 Nevertheless, owing to the great export profit to be had from swords and sabres, -- "a Japanese sabre cost eight-hundred to one thousand sapecas [in Japan], but once taken to the Ming territory, the price goes up to five thousand sapecas"8 -- the businessmen paid scant attention to the limitations imposed on the tribute voyage system and brought increasingly large numbers of swords and sabres. According to the Registry, on the fourth "tribute voyage", the merchant ships brought thirty-thousand sabres, and on the sixth "tribute voyage", thirty-six thousand. Of the mere eleven "tribute voyages" registered, the ships brought more than two-hundred-thousand swords and sabres to China, 9 not including the large number of contraband swords and sabres!

In conclusion, Japanese-Chinese trade in swords and sabres reached its peak towards the middle and end of the Ming Dynasty [early sixteenth century to 1644] and only began to gradually decline during the Qing Dynasty. The entry of a large quantity of swords and sabres had a great influence on the troops and the people of the Ming Dynasty, specifically on arms, the manufacture of weapons, and the art of sword and sabre fencing techniques. In the History of weapons in China, the 'side-arms' system of the Ming Dynasty was characterized by the introduction and reproduction of the Japanese sword and sabre, which constituted an Historical-Cultural phenomenon that attracted a great deal of attention.

In addition, during the war against Japanese pirates, which preoccupied the Ming Dynasty for many years, the Chinese Military and civilians were victims of Japanese pirates because the latter, besides possessing sabres of excellent quality, were also primed in excellent sabre fencing techniques. Owing to these two facts, the Japanese sabre as well as Japanese sabre fencing techniques not only became subjects for study and investigation by Chinese Military Officers, who attempted to introduce them into China, but they were also subjects frequently chosen by intellectuals and writers for their poems and texts. During the Jiajing and Wanli Periods, several poems and texts about the Japanese sabre appeared, according to the incomplete information that I have at my disposal. Among those which merit attention are the following: Riben Dao Ge (Poem on the Japanese Sabre), 10 by Tang Shunzhi, who was versed in martial arts in addition to participating in the war against the Japanese pirates; Riben Dao Ji (Registry of the Japanese Sabre),11 by Song Maocheng, shortly after the Era of Tang Shunzhi. Tang Xianzu, a famous Chinese dramatist who was in Macao, also wrote a poem entitled Wo Wang Dao Zi Ge (Poem on the Sabre of the Japanese King).12 Also, at the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the three poets of Guandong, Qu Dajun, Chen Gongjin and Liang Peilan, called the "three Great specialists of Lingnan" (Lingnan refers to the Eastern and Southern Regions of the Province of Guangdong), all left poems or texts about the Japanese sabre which furnish us with references that allow us to discover the relationship between Macao and the Japanese sword and sabre and, thus, consider the role that Macao played in the Japanese sword and sabre trade.

Qu Dajun was famous for his vast knowledge. In Guangong Xin Yu (New Words from Guangdong), vol. X, Chapter On Objects, he noted down what he knew about the Japanese sabre. Among the texts written by the Chinese about the Japanese sabre, his description is the most detailed:

"In Guangdong, there are many foreign sabres, some of which are known as Japanese sabres. It is said that in that Country, one hundred hu [a unit of capacity] are prepared from iron refined in a lake for both the tribal chiefs and the simple man, straight after birth, and every year they forge the iron several dozen times. When the man reaches adulthood, there is thus, sufficient iron to make three swords, whose lengths are decided according to the person's height. The longest is 5 or 6 chi and it is called "Jou Ko"; the middle size is the sabre carried at the waist; and the shortest is the dagger. When they begin to plan forging the swords, they kill an ox and a horse for the sword-maker to eat. Then the sword-maker chooses a day to forge the swords and he puts poison inside them. When the swords are ready, they are buried in the ground and sprinkled monthly with blood from humans and horses. Thus the swords are imbued with spirit, their appearance depending on the climate. On windy and rainy days they make noises in the sheath, as if seeking to be drawn from it. The swords engraved with the characters "Jou Ko" are prohibited from leaving the Country. In Macao, there are many swords engraved with Chinese and Buddhist characters, with one or two grooves. Some swords are flexible. There are many which are a mix of pure steel and gold or silver. They can be folded as if they were a walking Dragon, with two linked ends. When they are unfolded, they are straight and can penetrate armour. The sword's hilt has two levels, on one level there is a golden compass and on the other, an eyepiece. Foreigners in Macao tend to carry these swords with them."13

In addition to Qu Dajun, it is should be pointed out that Fan Rui 'ang and Li Tiaoyuan, both of the Qing Dynasty, wrote identical or similar descriptions in Yue Zhong Jian Wen (What you Hear and See in Guangdong), Vol. XXIV, and in Nan Yue Bi Ji (Notes about Nanyue), vol. VI, respectively. Fan Rui 'ang's text is an adaptation of the text by Qu Dajun, with some alterations; for example, the former's sentence: "[...] foreigners in Macao tend to carry them with them [...]" reappears in the latter's text as"[...] foreigners in Macao frequently carry them with them [...]" without adding any new content. Li Tiaoyuan's text is a straightforward copy of that by Qu Dajun, without adding any new facts.

Qu Dajun was a scholar who knew how to observe and describe things well. His detailed descriptions of the Japanese sword, its manufacture and type, even of fencing techniques, were obviously based on his long observations drawn from reality. This fact suggests that at the close of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dy nasty the Japanese sabre was common in Guangdong. On account of the many allusions to Macao, in New Words from Guangdong, we know for certain that Qu Dajun had been to Macao, because he states that "[...] in Macao there are many sword (the flexible and foldable sword) [... and...] foreigners in Macao tend to carry them." These statements stem from eyewitness observations, and besides their acurateness they suggest that part of Qu Dajun's knowledge of the Japanese sword, in Macao, came from observations while there.

Chen Gongyin, a great friend of Qu, wrote the poem Riben Dao Ge (Poem on the Japanese Sabre), of traditional content devoided of inventiveness. Nonetheless, when Yin Guangren and Zhang Rulin wrote about Japan, in the Aomen Ji Lue (Summarized Comments about Macao), vol. III, they transcribed this particular poem by Chen Gongjun. One suspects that Yin and Zhang were struck by the relationship between the Japanese sabre and Macao, although they made no comment to this effect. The fact remains that the Japanese sabre left a relatively deep impression on them both, otherwise from so many poems written about Japan during the Ming and Qing Dynasties they would have chosen another on a different topic.

Liang Peilan, another great friend of Qu Dajun, also wrote a poem entitled Riben Dao Ge (Poem on the Japanese Sabre), whose content merits analysis. It was published in Liu Ying Tang Ji (Collection of Liu Ying's Reading Room), vol. III. As this poem is quite long, the following verses are just an extract from it:

"In the market there is a sabre of five chi

And the salesmen they explain to me

That it was the red-haired devils who

Acquired the Japanese king's sabre


The red-haired devils brought the sabre to Guangzhou

The ship on which they travelled passed through Hai Ruo Chou

No-one recognizes the sabre when they show it in the market

They ask one thousand gold taels without finding a buyer for it."**

This poem reveals one highly significant phenomenon; that in the Guangzhou market there were "hong mao gui zi" ("red-haired devils") selling the Japanese sabre. If it is true that the sabre was acquired from 'the' Japanese King or that the sabre was worth one thousand gold taels, as the sellers state, remains speculative. These descriptions could well be poetical's license, but what seems evident is the fact that the Japanese sabre, as a special and costly merchandise, was on sale, in China, not only by the Japanese but also by Western foreigners. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the term "red-haired devils" normally refers to the Dutch, but at times, it is used generically for all "Western foreigners". The Dutch also produced good quality swords and sold them, in China, during the Ming Dynasty. This has been registered by Zhang Xie, from the Ming Dynasty, in his book Dong Xi Yang Kao -- Hong Mao Fan Pian (Confirmations about Foreign Countries from East to West -- Chapter on Red-haired Foreigners).

In the New Words from Guangdong -- Chapter On Objects, Qu Dajun also uses the phrase "swords of the Western foreigners with red hair". It seems unlikely that the "red-haired devils" who were selling the Japanese sabre in Liang Peilan's poem were Dutch, but rather, Portuguese tradesmen who came from Macao to Guangzhou to sell Japanese swords and sabres. Poets not being historians seldom recur to fancy descriptions in their poems.

During the Ming Dynasty, the onslaught of the Japanese pirates severely damaged Japanese-Chinese commerce via "tribute voyages." Thus the most voluminous export of Japanese swords and sabres to China under the rubric "tribute" took place principally in the first Period of the Ming Dynasty, before the Japanese pirates became a major problem. During the Jiajing [JJ] (r. 1522-†1566) and Longqing [LQ] (r.1567-† 1572) Reigns, the Japanese pirates were in their most offensive phase, their successive raids precipitating the end of the "tribute voyage" trade. Import Records for Japanese swords and sabres under the rubric "Tribute" thus cease to appear in the Historical Documents of the time.

However, apparently, the sword and sabre commerce did not extinguish, since at that time the troops of the Ming Dynasty were more eager to posess these Japanese weapons than during the early Ming Dynasty.

Around JJ 40 (1561), when the great General Qi Jiguang lead the "Qi clan troops" to confront the Japanese pirates on the South-eastern coast of China, he wrote the military Treatise Ji Xiao Xin Shu. In this literary work Qi jiguang mentions that his troops were still not systematically armed with Japanese swords and sabres, despite the awareness of the advantage of the Japanese sabre and Japanese fencing techniques. But in LQ 5 (1571), when Qi Jiguang was appointed Governor of Jizhen in order to confront the Mongols, he finished his other Military text, the Lian Bing Xhi Ji (True Notes on Training). By now his troops of several thousand men had already been provisioned with the long sabre and other types of Japanese sword. This was noted with particular emphasis in the Lian Bing Xhi Ji and suggests that, at that time, the eagerness of the Ming troops for Japanese swords and sabres was increasing, rather than diminishing. It as been ascertained that a good number of the Japanese swords and sabres used by the Ming troops were imitations made by the Imperial 'Side-Arms' Department but, exactly because the quality of the Chinese imitations was poor and of inferior quality to similar Japanese products -- which were light, sharp, resistant and flexible -- the interest and demand from both Official and private Chinese entities continued to create a profitable market for the imported sword and sabre business. Besides direct smuggling, priofitable undercover sales were also made via Macao. This explains the high quantities of Japanese swords in such a small Territory as Macao.

Qu Dajun's expression that "foreigners in Macao" like to carry a Japanese sword or sabre with them does not adequately account for this phenomenon. In effect, during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, many Japanese swords and sabres were seen not only in Macao, but also in Guangzhou. 14 There is evidence of this not only in the poems and texts written by the "three great specialists of Lingnan". but in the poetry of Wang Bangji, a native of Fanyu in the Province of Guangdong and a man dedicated to the Ming Dynasty. His poem Riben Dao Ge (Poem on the Japanese Sabre) on this subject, reads:

"The sabre exhales the smell of blood when the North wind blows

When the South wind blows it changes hue to blue

It helped the children of the Emperor and King

To kill people and to take over foreign cities

No killing hero was as heroic as the sabre

But the sabre rendered only a service unpaid

Fifty kilos of human ears in the wind dried

I thank the Japanese on behalf of you!"***

According to Huang Haizhang, "the children of the Emperor and King" refers to the Qing troops; the victims of the slaughter being the innocent citizens. According to this author, the poet intended "[...] to thank the Japanese (ie : the Qing troops) for the manufacture of such good sabres that helped to kill so many innocent people (ie : undirectly meaning Ming partisans)." Huang Haizhang's interpretation seems to fundamentally correspond with the poet's intention. Indeed, up until the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, a time at which the Qing troops were eliminating the remaining forces of the Ming Dynasty, in Guangdong, a large number of Japanese swords and sabres continued to exist in this Region, and they fell into the hands of the Qing troops. 15 The fact that there were many Japanese swords and sabres, in Guangdong, must be related to the fact, revealed by Qu Dajun, that"[...] in Macao there are many Japanese swords[...]", because"[...] whoever is at hand first, always acquires one".

Translated from the Chinese by: Zoe Copeland

Revised by: Luisa Hoyer Millar.


Aomen Jilue 澳门纪略

Chen Gongjun 陈恭君

Cheng Zu 成祖

Dong Xi Yang Kao 东西洋考

Du Lu 独鹿

Fan Rui' ang 范瑞昂

Guangdong Xin Yu 广东新语

Hai Ruo Chou 海若愁

Han 汉

Hong Mao Fan Pian 红毛番篇

hong mao guizi 红毛鬼子

Huang Haizhang 黄海章

Ji Xiao Xin Shu 纪效新书

Jiajing 嘉靖

Jian Wen 建文

Jingzhou 荆州

Jiu Yu Ji 九芋集

Jizhen 蓟镇

Li Tiaoyuan 李调元

Lian Bing Shi Ji 练兵实纪

Liang Peilan 梁佩兰

Liu Ying Tang Ji 六营堂集

Longqing 隆庆

Ma Mingda 马明达

Ming 明

Nan Yue Bi Ji 南笔记

Ou Yangxiu 欧阳修

Qi Jiguang 戚继光

Qin 秦

Qing 清

Qu Dajun 屈大均

Riben Dao Ge 日本刀歌

Riben Dao Ji 日本刀纪

Song 宋

Sui 隋

Song Maocheng 宋懋澄

Tai Zong 太宗

Tang Shunzhi 唐顺之

Tang Xianzu 汤显祖

Wan Le 万东

Wang Bangji 王邦畿

Wang Xiangrong 汪向荣

Wo Wang Daozi Ge 倭王刀子歌

wu chi dao 五尺刀

Yin Guangren 印光任

Yue Zhong Tian Wen 粤中见闻

Zeng Jiang 增江

Zhang Rulin 张汝霖

Zhang Xie 张燮

Zhou Wei周魏




1 MA Mingda 马明达, Lishishang Zhongri liangguo Jiandao Wuyinde Jiaoliu (Historical Fencing Commerce between China and Japan) 历史上中日两国剑刀武艺的交流, in "Tiyukeji" ("The Science and Technology of Sport") "体育科技", (5) 1980.

2 See: San Guo Zhi (Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms) 三国志 - Wei Zhi (Chronicle of the Wei Kingdom) 魏志 -- Chapter on Foreign Countries of the East.

3 See: Zhongri liang guo renminde youyi yuan liu chang (An Ancient History of Friendship between the Peoples of China and Japan) 中日两国人民的友谊源流长.

4 In: ("Archeology") "考古", (12) 1964 -- Speech by Ono Katsutoshi.

5 In: Ou Yangxiu Ji (Ou Yangxiu Collection) 欧阳修集, vol. XV.

6 See: Zuikei Shuhou, Register of Treating Neighbouring Countries Well ; WANG Xiangrong 汪向荣, Ming Shi Riben Chuan Ji Zheng (Clarifications about the Chapter on Japan of the Ming History) 明史日本传机证.

7 Idem.

8 SHELLEY, Sword, in ZHOU Wei周魏, ed., ("History of Chinese Weapons"); Inada, Shark, in ZHOU Wei周魏, ed., ("History of Chinese Weapons").

9 See: Zhongri liang guo renminde youyi yuan liu chang (An Ancient History of Friendship between the Peoples of China and Japan) 中日两国人民的友谊源流长; Mindgai Wo Kou Kaolue (Clarifications about the Japanese Pirates in the Ming Dynasty) 明代 倭寇考略 Zhongguo Riben Jiaotong Shi (History of China-Japan Communication and Transport) 中国日本交通, etc.

10 See: Jingzhou Ji (Jingzhou Collection) 荆州集, vol. II.

11 Jiu Yu Ji (Jiu Yu Collection) 九. 芋集, vol. II.

12 Tang Xianzu Ji (Tang Xianzu Collection) 汤现祖集, vol. VII.

13 In: ZENG Jiang 增江, Du Lu Tang Ji (Du Lu Reading Room) 独鹿堂集

14 See: Mingmo Guangdong Kang Qing Shiren Pingchuan (Commentaries about the Anti-Qing Poets in Guandong at the end of the Ming Dynasty) 明未广东抗清诗人评传.

15 Idem.

* Professor in the Department of History, University of Jinan (Guangdong).

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