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Bronze sword of King Fuchai of Wu State

WANG YUANLI | 2023-03-09 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

The bronze sword of King Fuchai of Wu, now preserved in the National Museum of China Photo: COURTESY OF WANG YUANLI

In 1976, a bronze sword once belonging to Fuchai (r. 495–473 BCE), king of the State of Wu [a state located at the mouth of the Yangtze River during the Western Zhou Dynasty and the Spring and Autumn Period  (770–476 BCE), existing from 12th century to 473 BCE], was discovered in Huixian County, Henan Province.

A sword of King Fuchai

Measuring 59.1 cm in length and 5 cm in width, the sword is now preserved in the National Museum of China. The pommel of the sword is disc-shaped, the grip cylindrical bound with two hoops in the middle, and the guard decorated with turquoise and shou-mian patterns [generally known as tao-tie patterns, characteristically consists of a zoomorphic mask in full face that may be divided, through the nose ridge at the center, into profile views of two one-legged beasts (gui dragons) confronting each other]. The blade is slender, wider at the shoulder and narrowing towards the point, and is decorated with dark, diamond-shaped patterns [The diamond patterns are the result of the thermal diffusion of alloys. First, powder of the stannum-group alloy was applied to the surface of the bronze sword. The elements of the alloy permeated the body of the sword through heating, causing the powder-covered area to become white while the rest of the sword remained copper-yellow. After thousands of years’ of corrosion, due to variable corrosion resistance, the unique diamond patterns checkered with black and grey present themselves before our eyes]. There is an inscription with 10 characters in seal script near the guard, written in a neat and slender form. This inscription indicates that this sword belonged to Fuchai.

Swords are short weapons, mainly used for straight, thrusting movements, suitable for close combat. It is recorded in Mozi [an ancient text ascribed to the Chinese philosopher Mozi and his followers] that “Carry a two-edged sword which penetrates when it pierces and severs when it cuts. When struck with the flat side it does not break, this is the utility of a sword” (trans. W. P. Mei).

Archaeologists have discovered swords dating as far back as the late Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE). The early swords were shorter, mostly around 30 cm, and could only be used for forward stabbing. Their function was similar to that of the daggers appearing later. In the era of cold weapons, a shorter weapon meant more danger, as a longer one gave one better reach, more power and more control. Therefore, after the late Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BCE), swords were generally made longer. A longer sword required a suitable thickness of its blade: it should be neither too heavy to be used with one hand, nor so thin that it would break easily. Hence, the length of bronze swords was usually between 40 and 60 cm during the Zhou era, and more than 50 cm in the Spring and Autumn Period. 

It is known that the Qin (221–207 BCE) people made the longest swords—Most of the bronze swords unearthed together with the famous terracotta warriors from the archaeological site at the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang in Lintong, Shaanxi Province, are between 81 and 94.8 cm in length. One problem with a sword of this length is that it may be difficult to unsheathe it from its scabbard, and may even get its bearer killed in a critical moment. It is said that when Jing Ke [a retainer of Crown Prince Dan of the Yan state, famous for his failed assassination attempt on King Zheng of the Qin state, who later became Qin Shi Huang after he founded the Qin Dynasty] attempted to assassinate King Zheng, Zheng tried to draw his sword to defend himself. However, because his sword was too long, he failed to draw it three times and was almost killed. 

Outstanding sword casting of Wu and Yue

Frequent battles during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770–256 BCE, also generally known as the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods) resulted in a strong practical demand for weapon improvement. The states of Wu and Yue [a rival state of Wu] were located in the southeast of China, where war chariots had limited military capabilities [as there are few open, flat landscapes]. Therefore, both Wu and Yue attached great importance to producing swords suitable for infantry and sailors. Their casting skills far exceeded that of the states in the Central Plain, and stories such as Gan Jiang and Mo Ye [a swordsmith couple who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period] also appeared. The Wu and Yue enjoyed refined technology of casting, quenching, and application of alloys. The toughness, sharpness, and appearance of the swords they made were quite rare. Wu and Yue became well known in the late Spring and Autumn Period for their sword production technology. The swords they made were favored by the nobles of all the states in the Central Plain. They represented the highest level of pre-Qin weapons and even of bronze casting technology. 

In the Spring and Autumn Period, the predominant alloys used for bronze swords varied from a certain percentage of tin to a combination of lead and tin. The casting processes of bronze swords, particularly the alloying techniques, were far more complex than that of bronze tableware and wine vessels of the same period. The toughness and sharpness of bronze swords were entirely dependent on the alloy of copper and tin. If the sword was too soft, it could curl easily; if it was too brittle, it could be snapped very easily in a fight. Therefore, a double-casting technology [using bronze of different proportions] was adopted. Workers chose bronze with low proportions of tin, which provided good roughness, for the central ridge and grip of the sword. Some even used iron cores to prevent the blade from breaking. The edge of the sword was made of bronze with a high proportion of tin so as to increase its hardness. An alloy of copper, tin, and lead was used to produce the sword guard, on which exquisite patterns could be cast. The different alloys of copper and tin in the ridge and edge of the sword ensured the toughness of its central ridge and the sharpness of its edge. Bronze swords made in this way tempers toughness with flexibility, and are difficult to break even when chopping. 

With the development and popularization of iron smelting technology, it was discovered that steel is far tougher and sharper than copper, making it possible to produce a sword over one meter long. The blade of such sword was narrow and thin, with more obvious advantages. Therefore, during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), bronze swords were gradually replaced by iron swords. With the increasing number of battles with northern nomads, in order to meet the trend of cavalry slashing on horseback, single-edged knifes with thick ridges gradually replaced double-edged swords on battlefield. After the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), iron knifes became the mainstream of short weapons.

Cultural significance

The bronze sword was originally a weapon for war and self-defense. In Chinese history, however, it went beyond military and became a unique cultural symbol. The practice of holding a sword on the waist was an important part of ancient etiquette. It was popularized in the early Western Zhou Dynasty. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, swords were favored [as cultural symbols] by all walks of life. Swords and jade were regarded as symbolic decorations of junzi, or gentleman. As bronze swords withdrew from battlefields in the Eastern Han Dynasty, their non-weapon attributes became more prominent. Dressing neatly with a sword at the waist became a kind of ceremonial decoration, indicating the bearer’s social status and power. It then rose to a spiritual symbol used to express lofty aspirations, or to show the heroic manner of martial arts. The charm of swords was appreciated throughout China’s feudal era.

Bronze swords were cast in large quantities during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, but the swords that belonged to kings were quite rare. A total of nine swords that are believed to have belonged to King Fuchai of Wu have been discovered so far. They feature similar shapes and inscriptions, but were unearthed in different places. Fuchai came to the throne in 495 BCE and reigned for 22 years. It was during his reign that Wu State was at its most powerful. Fuchai was also one of the most legendary historical figures in China. The story of him, the famous beauty Xi Shi, and King Goujian of Yue have been passed down for thousands of years.

Fuchai once went north to the Central Plain in 482 BCE, where he challenged the duke of Jin for the status of hegemon at an interstate meeting in Huangchi [in the southwest of present-day Fengqiu, Henan]. In 473 BCE, he committed suicide after Wu was defeated by Yue. This sword was discovered at the Central Plain, far away from the Wu mainland. Whether it was a gift for the conference in Huangchi or plundered in wars is hard to verify. However, it is a microcosm of the history of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, which were full of the stings and clashes of battle. The Yue inherited and improved the advanced technology of Wu, thus forging the more exquisite and pinnacle sword of Chinese history, the Sword of Goujian.

Wang Yuanli is a professor of library science from Xinxiang Museum in Henan Province.