Shandong Ox Tail Saber


Saber Information

Collection Site: Shandong Province

Overall Length: 32 in - 81.2 cm

Blade Length: 25 in - 63.5 cm

Blade width near guard: 1.5 in - 3.8 cm

Blade width at ox tail: 2.5 in - 6.4 cm

Weight: 2 lb 2 oz - 964 grams

This is my first blog entry on this site. I choose to start with this simple Ox Tail Saber (Niuweidao) because it is a form many modern kung fu practitioners are familiar with. This particular example also has a good provenance which is not often the case for antique arms. A past owner collected this saber in Shandong Province. That’s personally exciting for me because it is the home of the particular branch of Northern Shaolin kung fu that I practice.


When studying these fascinating objects I like to ask myself the classic questions who, what, why, when, and where. In addressing these ideas I may bounce around a little but I do my best to use them as a rough guide to my investigations. Often the answers are tied together like a web so one answer will merge right into another.


When first handling this sword you immediately feel it is weighty in hand (2 lbs 2 oz - 964 grams). I would not go so far as to call it heavy, but it certainly feels as though you would not want to be hit with it in any fashion. The hardware is shaped sheet brass and the grip is an unknown wood. The blade edge itself is sharp along its entire length. One thing you notice immediately is that the blade thickness seen along the back or “spine” decreases as you move from its base near the hand guard toward its tip. When approaching the tip area the blade thickness reaches its thinnest point while simultaneously widening along side or “flat” of the blade. This is where the term “Ox Tail” comes from, because it has a profile with a puffy end like the tail of an ox.

 

I think there is sound engineering in this “Ox Tail” design. It would seem the decreasing thickness of the blade toward the end would help the saber be less tip heavy, therefore positively affecting how the tool feels in handling. At the same time the width of the flat side of the blade gives strength and shock absorbing ability to the design as a whole. By comparing the “ox tail” shape to contemporaneous European military designs one can see what a robust form it is. That being said, its chopping power is obvious, and the shape of the tip would inflict a terrible wound with the thrust. Although the tip of this particular example is rounded, I think it is quite likely that it was originally pointy as you would see at the tip of a modern knife.

 

Examination of this saber shows evidence of period use. About two thirds of the way up the blade edge toward the tip you can see small dip along the sharpened edge about two inches long. This area is a common point of percussion where swords and other hand held weapons of this nature are likely to strike another surface. In this example the damage from a previous encounter was filed or ground out, followed by a resharpening which left the shallow dip I just described. I have encountered this on many old Chinese swords, a testament to their violent history.

 

Knowing this saber was collected in Shandong province really helps guide our thoughts in answering the other questions. Shandong was often a troubled place in the 19th century. Many dealt with both social unrest and environmental troubles that affected people’s livelihoods and often made life a struggle. Hard times bred large scale “banditry” which is a romantic way of saying lots of thieves and robbers. In reaction village militias were formed for defense of both villages and crops. These groups sometimes had need of professional martial arts teachers to train and drill their forces. Professional escort businesses were also hired by merchants to travel with and guard goods in route from one place to another. Political changes and globalization were also stresses in this era that culminated at the end of the century with the anti-Christian/Westerner Boxer Uprising. All of these examples are relative to the real people who may have owned this sword. One wonders if it was used for good or for ill? Or what individual originally owned it. Hard to say but It is interesting to think about in any case.

 

I have alluded to my thoughts that this sword was made in the 19th century. It’s really hard to tell for sure with an example like this in my opinion. From what I have seen most museums label a saber of this kind “Qing Dynasty” or “Boxer Era” because they are hesitant to hazard any specific dates. I am trying to use date-able examples, period photos, text, and common sense to do a little better with my educated guesses. I do not think it is unrealistic to say this sword is likely made and used anywhere between 1850 through WWII. I realize that is almost a hundred year span, but I think the time frame is realistic. Crazy as it may sound I have seen WWII footage of Chinese peasants carrying swords similar to this running into combat against Japanese soldiers. Wow!

 

I am also interested in the frequency in which different types of antique martial art weapons are encountered in the collectors market. Looking for old photos, paintings, and period textual accounts are a must too. I think there are a lot of little lessons to be learned by looking at these. It really adds up over time to help create a clearer picture of the history of these weapons and their owners. In the Chinese martial art world we rely a lot on oral history, but searching for period evidence is also an invaluable source of information.

 

While it is true that all of these old Chinese weapons are relatively rare, you certainly see some more than others. These ox tail sabers in particular appear to be more common in the collectors market than almost any other antique Chinese martial art weapon seen except spear heads. I have also seen several late 19th and early 20th century photographs with non military civilian men holding this type of saber. I hope to share many of these photos on this site in due course. As pictured below we also still practice with similar sabers today as modern martial artists. The apparent numbers of antique examples that have survived into the present, continued use of modern copies, plus photo evidence supports what I have heard a few other learned collectors say, which is that these ox tail sabers appear to be one of the most common styles of sword used by civilians in the later Qing and Republican eras. Forgive me if that seems obvious to some, but I feel charting out the actual evidence is important none the less.


We will also explore other important styles of Chinese swords of the 19th and 20th centuries in future posts.


Please browse the images and additional thoughts below.....
Here is a section of a postcard  published by Max Grill active in the period 1906-1919. It is marked "Chinesische Scharfrichter"
- (Chinese executioners). In another area of the card it is lettered "Tsingtao" (Qingdao Shandong) How accurate the description of the men is could certainly be debatable, sometimes titles were dramatized to sell more postcards. In any case it is an interesting opportunity to see actual period men with sabers from the same area as the dao above.

These three sabers to the left are another great comparative photo. Obliviously the dao on top and bottom are Chinese, but the center sword is a British Pattern 1822 Infantry Officers saber (1 lbs 13 oz - 822 g). This particular example can be dated to about 1850. I thought it was important to see the blade forms side by side to truly appreciate the impressive width, associated durability, and chopping/thrusting  power of the Chinese blades.These characteristic are common in Chinese sabers, just like the British form presented here is basically the norm in their military blades at that point in history. Sometimes cross cultural comparisons can really reveal aspects that are easily taken for granted. All of these particular swords above could have been seen on the field in approximately the same time frame from the Taiping to Boxer Rebellion eras and beyond.


Special Note - The Origins Of The Boxer Uprising by Joseph W. Esherick is a very interesting read related not only to the Boxer Uprising and Shandong Province, but also in part to martial culture in that region and time period.

This image on the left is a great comparison between a modern kung fu practice dao (1 lb       6 oz - 624 g) and an original 19th century fighting saber ( 2lb 2 oz - 964 g). Although their fundamental forms are the same one only has to pick them up to feel the difference between a real weapon and its modern prop like shadow of the original. I plan to expand more on this in future posts. I think exposure to, and later experience with handling and ideally training with historically weighted weapons offers present day practitioners many insights into the realities of historic combat swordsmanship. 

Many years ago I started investigating Chinese swords because I was curious about the history of my own practice saber. At that point there really was not a lot of reliable information out there. Thankfully there were a few avenues like internet collectors forums that really helped jump start my knowledge base (see links!). They also connected me with several people who were farther down the path of inquiry and willing to share. I am grateful to them and the work they have done. Now I hope to contribute further with my own efforts here on this site. I would particularly like to see more modern martial artists dig deeper into the history of their style and search for the most historically accurate view of it that they can find. I think seeing real historic weapons will be one step in that journey. Needless to say, one thing leads to another and new questions and answers emerge. Lets keep growing our understanding....