TO BRONZE WEAPONS

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TO STEEL WEAPONS

 

CHINA - FROM BRONZE TO STEEL
some brief notes
by António Conceição Júnior

Bronze and Shang
It is known that the basin of the Yellow River was the cradle of Chinese civilization. This is a common place, until one, physically visiting some of the archaeological sites, understands the cultural context under which everything took place.
Then, the burial grounds where horses’ and kings’ remains were excavated, tens of meters below ground level, provide the background for the connection with the unearthed ritual bronzes dating back to the Shang (circa 1523 BC to 1028 BC) who were able not only to build cities, such as their ancient capital Anyang, but also possessed the technology to cast bronze vessels that could be considered the highest expression of their art and ranked as of the finest quality, allowing for the perception of the existence of a bronze industry with lost wax casting techniques.
The Shang were able to cast not only highly elaborated ritual vessels with metamorphic and zoomorphic decorative elements, but also drums, wine cups, music bells, as well as axes, daggers, spear heads and halberds, many of them widely decorated with different motifs or patterns that do not necessarily place them under the ritual weapons category but rather under the weapons for war production category that further enhances the already mentioned bronze industry.
Bronze ritual vessels represent a relationship between monarchs and their ancestors, according to the Shang relation with the deceased which involved human sacrifices as well as highly ritualized ancestor’s cult and the worship of Shang Ti, the god who reigned over other gods such as the sun, the moon, the wind and other natural forces that are somehow close to shamanism.
The invention of writing occurs with the Shang and its use is mainly found in oracle bones.

Zhou
The Zhou Dynasty spanned from 1045 to 221 BC, the longest dynasty in Chinese history, and is subdivided into the “Western Zhou Period” and the “Eastern Zhou Period.” During the Western Zhou Period 1045 to 770 BC, the capital was Hao, located near Xian, in today’s Shaanxi province. The Eastern Zhou Period ran from 771 to 221 BC. The capital moved to Loyang, to the East of Shaanxi province, in today’s neighbouring Henan Province. Under the Zhou Dynasty came the period known as the “Spring and Autumn Period”, spanning from 722 to 480 BC and the name was taken from the Spring and Autumn Annals. The by-then fragmented Dynasty ended with the “Warring States Period”, which lasted from an unclear date between between 475 BC and 403 BC to 221 BC.
Bronze daggers carry all shapes as a continuation from the earlier dynasty. Both straight and curved daggers in existence show, like the ritual vessels, the progressive disappearance of zoomorphic images, as the concept of the deity of the Zhou is Tian (Heaven) and it is based on a moral principle instead of the early figure of Shang Ti, and swords of different cross sections denote a concern for longer lasting blades which manifest an ever increasing number of speculative shapes and motives between different pommels and blades shapes that will continue to multiply.
But along with Ge, (halberd), Mao (spear head), Fu (axe), Jian (sword), powerful crossbow mechanisms, and Zu (arrowheads) a multitude of intermediate weapons of hybrid shapes coexists in one of the largest and most ingenious weaponry arsenals.
Bronze wares now represent offerings between a ruler and his dependants. Birds and other figurative motifs appear.

Spring and Autumn Period
One of the most significant features of the 300 odd years of the “Spring and Autumn Period” (722 BC and 480 BC) is the emergence of a number of extremely influential men within a very confined area.
One of the main characteristics of the Western Zhou was feudalism, which demanded for rules of coexistence between the lords of the many states that existed at the time. It was a time of intense warfare between states.
It is under this scenario of a multitude of states where men of knowledge circulated, that Confucius, Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, Mozi also known as Mocius, and founder of Mohism, Sun Tzu, author of the “Art of War”, and less known but not less important, the sword makers O Ye Zi, Gan Jiang and Mo Xie, are some of a number of personalities who will shape the future of Chinese culture. It was a period where “A hundred schools of thought” flourished and these three centuries could perhaps be considered as the most prolific and fundamental period of what is known as Ancient China, and its legacy to subsequent Chinese history.

It happened that among the many States that fought each other during this period, three States surfaced as part of the history of Longquan, a city located in the present province of Zhejiang that is considered the birthplace of Chinese sword-making. Wu and Yue States were also located in Zhejiang province, and Chu State, whose swords were superior to those of the Zheng State, whose capital was Zhong Yuen, of what is now Henan province.
Wu State waged war on Yue State, whose sovereign, Gou Jian, won the war and killed the invading lord. However a new lord of Wu arose, by the name of Fu Chai around 494 BC. Fu Chai once more led the Wu State on an invasion of Yue State and managed to defeat Lord Gou Jian, who was taken prisoner for three years. During his imprisonment, Lord Gou Jian was subjected to the most unimaginable humiliations, to all of which he submitted. Lord Fu Chai became convinced that the fighting spirit of Gou Jian was broken, and against the advice of his lieutenants, set him free to return to his Yue State, absolutely certain that Gou Jian was useless as a leader.
Never forgetting the almost unbearable humiliations that Lord Fu Chai subjected him to during his three years of captivity, Lord Gou Jian arrived at his Yue State with a determined mind for revenge. He slept over dried fire wood, so as to never to forget for one single day those three years of captivity, while he ordered his State to intensify agriculture for the accumulation of food and of wealth. He ordered his troops to train with the utmost intensity. Legend says that he had an ox gallbladder hung over his dried fire wood bed, which he would eat every morning to remind him of the bitterness of his humiliation.
One of the many swords of the Lord of Wu State, Fu Chai, is in the present exhibition.
As the build up of the revenge goes on, Lord Gou Jian asks famous smith O Ye Zi to make him five swords, which he does, naming them:
   Zhanlu (湛卢)
   Juque (巨阙)
   Shengxie (胜邪)
   Yuchang (鱼肠) and
   Chunjun (纯钧)

In 473 BC, after 21 years of careful preparations, Gou Jian, the Lord of the State of Yue invaded Wu State and killed Fu Chai, fulfilling his revenge, giving rise to the saying: leaving your enemy alive is plotting your own death.
Yue State becomes the stronger of the states and Gou Jiang becomes the last of the powerful Lords of the “Spring and Autumn Period”.

These events caused the Lord of Chu to seek to have O Ye Zi and his students Gan Jiang and Mo Xie making swords for him. Thus, he offered to provide the master smith all he wished and needed.

O Ye Zi accepted the patronage and set out to look for a place that had all the elements and conditions for making fine swords.
Bronze swords of this time were made with a circular pommel and some even carried turquoise inlays and lacquered scabbards and achieved blade lengths up to 50 cm.

After a long search, O Ye Zi and his students reached a region known as Long Yuen, where the mountains had dense forests, the water from the rivers was pure and crystalline, and the sand was rich in iron. And by coincidence, Long Yuen also possessed seven wells, or springs, laid out like the seven stars of The Big Dipper constellation, and also a large lake in the shape of a dragon.
Legend says that when they settled there, not even a rooster existed to salute day break.

O Ye Zi made three bronze swords for the Lord of Chu:
   Longyuan (龙渊)
   Tai’e (泰阿) and
   Gongbu (工布).

Longyuan and Longquan
Still today there is a temple dedicated to O Ye Zi in Longquan. To some scholars the interpretation is that O Ye Zi never existed, and it is the mythical denomination for all smiths of Longquan. The reason for this is that O (欧), the name of a river at Longquan, and Ye (冶), meaning steel, do not make sense as a person’s name. However, truth and legend merge, since the written history is accurate enough to name swords that were created by this smith.
For those like myself who have been to Longquan - the name Longyuan was changed when a Tang Dynasty emperor, also named Yuan and considered a dragon in the mythical Chinese pantheon, decided that the name Yuan could not exist so as not to compete with that of the Emperor’s – one realizes that it does possess all the ingredients to be a sword making centre due to the already described forests, mountains over 1.000 meters high, rivers that carry as much iron as 20 percent, with rocks that are ample proof of thousands of years of deposited hematite, producing beautiful effects in large surfaces.

The photograph is undeniable evidence concerning the resources, and it is almost as if Nature taught how steel should be worked, by being folded in many layers.
Therefore, in this distant village very near an enormous lake in the province of Zhejiang, while the Spring and Autumn Period waned, iron swords took shape in Longquan, little by little, and while the usage of iron started to replace weapons of bronze by the time of the late Spring and Autumn Period, and the rise of the Warring States Period, 475 BC to 403 BC, it would became an entirely different process from the casting of bronze weapons.
In its earliest form, a method known as the “Ye iron making method” as a reference to O Ye Zi, attempted to melt iron at forges that were below 1.000° Celsius, which generated a very sponge-like textured iron that was brittle as well. This is most certainly an indication that a casting method was employed, substituting iron for bronze.
In order to effectively separate the iron from the sand, smelting must occur in a forge capable of higher temperatures, as the melting temperature of pure iron is 1.535°C, as opposed to the lower bronze melting temperature of 1.083°C.
It would have not taken too much time for the smiths of Longquan, in their isolated spot, to realize that they would have to improve the quality of their bellows, their forge and, most importantly, the use of wood coal, capable of generating higher temperatures.
Then hammering out the impurities of the iron, and understanding that if they added what we know today to be carbon it would generate low carbon steel.
For this reason, swords of iron blades and bronze handles appear between the Warring States Period and in the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC).

It is not clear when the profound metamorphosis of iron swords into water-quenched steel swords occurred, hammered from a billet and having very many layers of forging, but it would not be surprising to think that a time span of a century or less would have allowed enough gathered experience for smiths to understand the reasons for folding steel, its enrichment by carbon, and the consequences of immersing a red hot blade into a bucket of water.

It can be said that by the Han Dynasty, 206 BC to 220 AD, ring pommel straight swords whose main characteristic is being one edged, were in full use. These swords already had polished surfaces, but would have to share their use with the multitude of weapons already in existence. They would be the first type of iron and steel swords to be exported to neighbouring countries.
While wars and political plots unfolded, Longquan maintained its distance and reinforced its position as a metallurgical centre for swords where smithing families unceasingly continued to improve and gain control of steel, to a point that it is common knowledge in Longquan today that it had then a technological advantage over other places of manufacture of about 600 years.

When the dust settled over the many events that mediated between the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD and the emergence of the splendorous Tang Dynasty (618 – 917 AD), four hundred years had passed. Now, the country was once more unified, living in peace and prosperity, steel swords were long, highly decorated for the Emperor and the court, displaying long handles, symbols of power and rank for Emperor and nobility.
The Silk Road continued to connect China to Europe, and China itself kept diplomatic ties and technological exchanges with Korea for many centuries, mainly through Liaoning Province, neighbour to Korea, while since the early Han Period that China had kept contacts with Japan.
To the West and South West also natural contacts were established both through marriages of nobility to the West or border relations through minority tribes at the South West.

During the Song Dynasty, 960 AD to 1279, thick spine curved swords are made common, which are no novelty, as since the Bronze daggers have curved in all shapes, as mentioned earlier. Recurrent shapes resurfacing with different materials or made with different techniques, are an intrinsic part of the history of Mankind.
From the moment the so called Jian and the Dao are established, the latter soon to originate the evolution of the saber, all that comes afterwards is recurrent.

Forged folded steel patterns names.
Again, originated by the incessant search for further perfection of swords that could be extremely flexible, resistant and sharp, Longquan smiths created different pattern names corresponding to the folded steel appearances.

- Light clouds and rising sun
- Pine tree festival
- Phoenix feather
- Lotus and twin streams
- Spring, rocks and clouds.
- Large waves.

These six patterns can be observed in polished swords appearing subtly like the clouds become undefined in the misty scenery of a mountain.

It is hoped that these brief notes will help to bring some more clues to all those who have a curiosity towards the history of steel in China, which is seeing a resurgence of this so ancient metallurgical centre coming from the times of the Spring and Autumn Period of the Zhou Dynasty.


António Conceição Júnior
General Coordinator
History of Steel in Eastern Asia Exhibition
Macao Museum of Art

       

 

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