CHINA - FROM
BRONZE TO STEEL
some brief notes
by António Conceição
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 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.
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
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
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
State on an invasion of Yue State and managed to defeat Lord
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
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
One of the many swords of the Lord of Wu State, Fu Chai, is in the
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:
Yuchang (鱼肠) and
In 473 BC, after 21 years of careful preparations, Gou Jian, the
Lord of the State of Yue invaded Wu State and killed
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:
Tai’e (泰阿) and
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
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
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
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
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
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
History of Steel in Eastern Asia Exhibition
Macao Museum of Art