Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The History of the Chinese Dadao

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an excellent article on the history of the Dadao, the Big Saber. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Rediscovering the Dadao: A Forgotten Legacy of the Chinese Martial Arts.

Any review of the history of the Chinese martial arts in the 20th century will quickly suggest that these civilian art forms have, at various points, been co-opted and used to advance the aims of the state.  Both the Nationalist (GMD) “Guoshu” program and the later Communist (CCP) “Wushu” movement sought to use the martial arts to strengthen the people, improve public health and build a sense of nationalism.  However, these movements have also had a darker side.  In times of conflict both national and local leaders have used them to militarize the population, supporting paramilitary organizations and guerrilla forces.  These activities were widespread during both Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII from an American perspective) and the long running Chinese Civil War.  Some martial arts schools, such as the Foshan Hung Sing Association (which was closely aligned with the CCP during the 1920s and 1930s) continue to promote and glorify these stories today.

Nowhere is the association between the martial arts and the militarization of the population more evident than in the creation of “Dadao Teams” between the 1920s and the 1940s.  Receiving a contract to train one of these organizations on behalf of a political party, or other organization, was a major source of pride and an important form of economic patronage for civilian martial artists.  In southern China (my own geographic area of expertise) leaders in the Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut and Pakmei styles (among others) were all actively engaged in training of citizen militias which were subsequently embroiled in a number of conflicts.

It goes without saying that a truly effective militia would have to be armed with modern rifles.  However, the weapon that most captured the public’s imagination, becoming the defacto symbol of the paramilitary organization during this period, was the Dadao.  This blade caught the mood of the country for many reasons.  It harkened back to a romanticized view of the past, and it advertised the “martial skill” and attainment of the one who could wield it.  It was a visually impressive weapon and had a long association with the less pleasant aspects of Chinese law enforcement.  In fact, the Dadao was often an implement of terror.

This is the critical aspect of this weapon that is so often overlooked by modern martial artists with romantic notions about the past.  Individuals often wonder why Chinese troops were issued a cumbersome bladed weapon as late as the 1930s.  Surely this would be ineffective against Japanese machine guns and artillery?

China’s military officers were often poorly equipped and stretched to the limit, but they were not stupid.  They realized that the Dadao would have limited value on the modern battlefield.  Yet much of China’s brutal civil war revolved around capturing, controlling and projecting authority into villages and urban areas.  The Dadao proved to be an effective means of producing terror, and therefore compliance, within the civilian population.

The weapon had another advantage as well.  It could be produced very cheaply in almost any small shop or forge in the country.  China was certainly capable of producing modern weapons (though admittedly their quality was variable).  But it was still cheaper to arm the home guards, militias and second line troops with traditional weapons such as the spear and the Dadao.  These troops often receive the rudimentary training they needed from local martial artists, and while they were not effective on the battlefield, they could be a useful resource when it came to the more mundane tasks of maintaining order and dealing with traitors.  It was these two factors, the cheapness of the Dadao as a second line weapon, and the terror that it inspired as a tool of public control, that ensured the weapon’s survival well into the mid-20th century.

Currently the Dadao is enjoying something of a revival among students of the Chinese martial artis.  The growing sense of nationalism within mainland China, and increased curiosity about history in the West, are conspiring to bring the Dadao back into the training hall after a nearly half century absence.  The recent uptick in the popularity of “realistic” weapons training also seems to be accelerating this general trend.  Further, it was so popular in the 1920s and 1930s that there are many different styles of use just waiting to be “discovered” and reconstructed.

Both practical and historical students of the Chinese martial arts might benefit from a brief description of these weapons as they actually existed and were used from the closing years of the Qing dynasty through the end of WWII.  We are also fortunate in that this period is extensively documented.  This provides us with the sorts of photographs and accounts that students of earlier periods of martial history can only wish for.  All of this makes the sudden rise and fall of the Dadao a good case study for change and adaptation within the Chinese martial arts more generally.

One could easily write a book on the Dadao and what it reveals about the evolution of the Chinese martial arts and their ever evolving relationship with society.  Clearly such a project is beyond the scope of this article.  Instead I hope to use a number of historically important pictures to suggest the basic outline of this story.  A more comprehensive treatment will have to wait for a later date.

However, there are number of outstanding issues that must be addressed before we can undertake even a brief review.  First, there is little consensus as to how to best translate “Dadao” into English.  The character used for “Da” means “big” or “large.”  “Dao” translates to “single edged knife.”  Unfortunately “Dao” does not imply anything about the length of the knife in question or its intended purpose.  A paring knife or a cavalry saber can both be referred to with this same term in Chinese.

This causes confusion when students of the Chinese martial arts speak in English with non-specialists.  They are often adamant that a Chinese military saber should be called a “knife”, which is technically correct in Chinese, but is absurd in English.  A literal translation for Dadao would be “big knife.”  Yet when talking about a weapon that might be three feet long and requires two hands to wield, such a rendering seems calculated to cause confusion.

Some martial arts teachers refer to the Dadao as the “military machete.”  While this does not attempt to be an exact translation of anything it does provide the reader with a basic visual image of what is being discussed.  The broad blade of the Dadao does (to some degree) resemble the short broad blade of a jungle machete.  It is also the sort of tool that one might expect military troops to carry.

Still, there are problems with this translation.  It implies that the Dadao might be a tool with some sort of practical application.  I suspect that this is mistaken.  I have never run across an account that indicates that these weapons were useful “camp tools” in the same way that a kukri or a machete might be.  The Dadao is a purpose-built chopper.  The blade of the machete is thin and flat to cut vegetation without resistance.  Most Dadaos have a much heavier blade with a triangular profile.  They are really only good for hacking through flesh and bone. The heft of the weapon is distinctively ax-like.

For all of these reasons I favor translating Dadao as the “military big-saber.”  This should be enough to convey that we are dealing with a single edged weapon that differs from other, more conventional sabers.  It also has the added advantage of being a somewhat popular solution to our linguistic quandary.

Our second problem has to do with the photos below.  I gathered most of these off the internet and while I have spent a couple of hours trying to figure out where they were originally published, that has not always been possible.  The circular republication of vintage material with no attribution of its ultimate origin is a problem in a lot of the Chinese language literature on the martial arts.  If any reader has firm information about the origins of an unlabeled photo, please let me know in the comments.  I am currently trying to collect this information.

Origins of the Dadao

Our first puzzle has to do with the early development and adoption of the Dadao.  While 20th century examples of these weapons are quite common, very few examples can be reliably dated to the early Qing dynasty.  This is odd as Qing military regulations dictated that a number of these swords should be issued to every unit, but evidently they did not survive in great numbers.  Occasionally weapons turn up on the antique market with very early dates or are even attributed to the “Ming era.”  Great caution is required as few swords from the Ming period have survived at all and I don’t think I have ever seen a Military Big-Saber that dates to this period.

Still, one school of thought basically holds that the modern 20th century Dadao is a resurrection, or a re-imagination, of a classic Ming era weapon.  While similar weapons seem to have become less fashionable during the early Qing (though regulations did exist for its use in the army), stories of the Ming dynasty and the exploits of its heroes became quite popular in the 19th century.  When republished these stories were often illustrated with copies of Ming era illustrations, or with new images of heroes dressed in Ming style cloths with antique weapons.  Their swords often featured ring shaped pommels and clip point blades.  In fact, many of the same fashion styles were preserved in both Mandarin and Cantonese theater companies so people were fairly familiar with them.


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