Ancient China – Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD
With the appearing of philosophical Taoists in the Han Dynasty one could say the Han Dynasty was a high culture which changed China and the fundamental understandings of many things. The Han swords are the ancestors of the Tang swords (618-907 AD) which were the very foundation of the later Japanese Samurai swords.
One big step in the Han forging culture was the “steel lamination”. This is a sandwich technique of laminating hard steel on the edge and softer steel in the blade core. The average Han sword had between five or eight lamination layers. This principle is very complex and the Japanese later adapted this technique to a more simpler lamination for the Samurai swords.
Han swords still exist today but their forging technique became lost during the many wars and revolutions. Our technology can manage to forge similar swords but not with the same quality. There are hints but the full process of traditional Han sword forging is lost and was never handed down properly.
Wudang and Han Dynasty
While there are not many records, it is clear, that philosophical Taoism gained power in the mid-late Han Dynasty. The Taoists evolved and adapted, but the roots of this high culture is clear and the traditional and old ways should be preserved. Our Sanfeng school is leaning onto this roots in the traditional way of ancient Chinese martial arts.
As you can see in the header picture above, there are four strong sides on the blade of a traditional Han sword. Front and back edge, left and right bulge. Together all this sides join at the tip of the blade and form a strong head like a spear. Unlike other swords the Han is very close to the french blade breaker (which of course is much more modern). The function of a blade breaker is to have a stronger blunt side to break the sharp and thin blade of your opponents sword. The fundamentals of Han sword fencing used the stronger left and right bulge sides for blocking to protect the more fragile sharp edge. The most dangerous part of the Han sword did not come from the straight and sharp edge, but more from the tempered and joined blade tip which could be used like a spear and penetrate any armor. To supply enough power into the thrust there was a big and flat button on the end of the sword handle. This could be used like a lever with your other hand to push your body weight into the thrust to penetrate hard surfaces quickly.
On this picture we see the bronze Han swords used in the early Han Dynasty. Here you can see the handle button, the handle, the guard and the blade are joined in one piece. This is important to provide a stable thrust. The first 2/3 of the blade are stronger and thicker which results in better balancing and enhanced defense. The lever in defense becomes shorter and so the power to block and deflect the strikes becomes greater. The last 1/3 of the blade are more refined, more tempered, thinner and more sharpened. Through pushing with the palm of your hand on the handle button it was possible to excel in thrusting power from a large pushing area to a small pointed tip. This principle is also used in modern glass breakers.
The Han sword is a short-range weapon with a mid-range thrust, effective against armored soldiers. Spears were used against riders. Later at the end of the Han Dynasty and the beginning of the Three Kingdoms longer slashing weapons like the Guandao gained more importance as they proofed to be more effective against cavalry. The slashing power of curved blades is more effective and easier to learn.
The Han sword technique was hard to learn and needed at least one year of training routine. While other weapons like the saber only needed 2 weeks to proof effective in actual combat. For this reasons the Han sword was discontinued and soon in the army replaced by curved slashing weapons. There is no doubt that the technology of the Han sword is advanced and very optimized. With enough training and devotion the Han sword would proof very effective.