Dadao 1


Collection Site: Shandong Province

Overall Length: 31.75 in – 80.6 cm

Blade Length: 22.4 in - 56.8 cm

Blade width near guard: 2.5 in - 6.4 cm

Blade thickness: 4.8 mm

Weight: 2 lb 15.7 oz - 1353 grams

Approximate age: 1880-1945

The weapon known as a dadao was used by both civilian and military forces. Its form has many characteristics that are similar to other ring pommel swords I have seen and handled from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet this particular and distinct chopping sword has become quite iconic.

The term Dadao literally translates into big knife. The word dao itself refers to a single edged knife. Many different Chinese martial art weapons use this word as part of their descriptive names.

I am choosing not to go into an exhaustive history of the weapon here. Instead I will focus on sharing the material example of a dadao from my collection and link a good article written by Professor Ben Judkins that explores a lot of that material. Beyond his article there is much more to research and learn but it is certainly an informative read which covers a substantial amount of ground. I really appreciate all his time and energy, I am sure you will too.

Antique dadaos are encountered in a wide variety. Often their size, weight, guard shape and or relative quality vary. The dadao from my collection pictured here would be considered a “village” example in the collecting world. The name refers to a handmade and sometimes less refined weapon often made by a village blacksmiths. Some might consider their construction rather crude when compared to some embellished weapons owned by Chinese gentry or European military officers. In contrast to these their purpose was not to show wealth or rank, it was a utilitarian tool and weapon. When first picking up the dadao here you immediately feel the truth of that statement.

This particular example has many telling characteristics. The feeling of it in hand is quite weighty for its size, even for a Chinese sword. It feels very forward and blade heavy, built to chop. I would not say the blade is particularly thick relative to the norm of many old Chinese weapons I have handled, but the fact that the flat side of the blade is so wide brings a lot of surface area and therefore weight to the blade. I think the design is really smart. The shape and its weight allows for additional striking power in a compact and very durable form.

Like many of the other antique Chinese weapons we have explored already the blade is the same continuing piece of metal as the handle area or “tang” that continues right down into the pommel. You can see how the smith flattened and shaped the blade adding two dots at the beginning of the deeply cut and somewhat wavy “fuller” groves. When I look at these specifically I can really see the hand of the smith at work. As the blade continues past the grip area the treatment of the ring pommel is also interesting in this particular example. So many times I have seen very symmetrical and well smith-ed rings as the pommel, but this person simply chose to hammer the end over to meet the other side. I suppose it is possible there were many to make and time was of the essence with hot steel, or possibly a tool is just a tool and aesthetics were not important.

The two other components of this dadao are commonly seen and are again the same as some other weapons we have already explored in other posts. The “rams-horn” hand guard that is sandwiched together and forge welded into a single piece. Also the slabs of wood that are forge riveted by two small rods being hammered wide on their ends so the wood grips stay in place. In the end this dadao comes together to be a truly solid and functional tool.

With all that said I thought it would be interesting to compare this “village” made example to a couple other swords in my collection that are all relatively contemporaneous. The nature of their varied construction may speak to the different type of people that could have originally owned them.

As said before the original dadao is a really robust and utilitarian tool. There is not a lot of great symmetry or aesthetic appeal. For me in this case is its not hard to see the minimal resources used to make it, and the handmade elements visible in the treatment of its construction. All in all it seems like it could be reflective of a poorer farming community or somewhere similar which it may have originated from. 

Moving to the next dadao you still see a similar and simple design, but generally speaking it is clearly a more refined object. The balanced and more precise form of the blade, straight symmetrical fullers groves, and perfectly circular pommel all speak to the probable use of machines in its construction. The use of what appears to be a a cast brass and polished guard that copies the older hand forged style is further proof of a more mechanized construction. All this is not surprising when you know that these were issued to government funded soldiers in the 1930's and 1940's and created in significantly more mass than the first example.

The last example pictured is a Type 95 Japanese non commissioned officers sword also from the 1930s and 1940s. This model of sword shared the field of battle with these other styles of dadao in the Second Sino-Japanese War/Second World War. This very modern sword is almost all machine made down to cast metal handles, or even the hydraulic hammer used to aid in the forging of the blades. Its massed produced and sophisticated construction is also reflective of one of the most modern and mechanized armies in the world during that era. Although swords were relatively obsolete to the Japanese as a tool of war at this time, they were still used as a symbol of rank for officers, and more importantly a revered symbol of Japanese national identity and pride.

I think the adoption of the dadao by Chinese government military forces may have been their retort to the Japanese sword as a symbol of their own nationalism and strength. As I said before the dadao is a very distinct and regional form. I cant think of any other sword outside that general area of the world that is quite the same.

Although the dadao was a secondary weapon at best to modern firearms for most Chinese government funded forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), that was not always the case for citizen militias. Firearms were certainly a big part of their arsenal but there was not always enough, and older more traditional weapons were used out of necessity like they have been for so long in the past. I think the antique dadao presented here is quite possibly one these. Its hard to tell exactly how old it is without a specific provenance, but I have seen photo evidence of these swords in use from the late nineteenth century all the way through WWII and beyond. My inclination is that this form goes even farther back in time but I would prefer to actually see some credible evidence before making a definitive statement.

American photographer and journalist Harrison Forman (1904-1978) has left us with some fascinating pictures from his time in China covering WWII. Thanks to him we are actually able to see some examples of these objects in a specific time and place with the faces of the people that used them. For me seeing these photos opens a entirely different dimension of exploration and understanding. I think I need to stress how rare and important these kinds of photos are. These resources are invaluable in helping to root our understanding of these weapons and Chinese martial history in fact rather than fantasy.

The photos below are of the Chinese Peoples Militia or Min Ping in 1944. These are armed residence of Yan'an city in Shaanxi Province. They were adding their support to activities of the Eighth Route Army which was under command of the Communist Party against the Japanese.

Note the dadao are all the same form as the antique example discussed here. Also note the use of the hole and and ring in the corner of the blade as part of sling.

Its amazing to me to see how late in time these weapons are still in use. Although I started with the image of the men with the guns as not to paint an unclear image, the fact that so many people are carrying swords and spears surprised me when I first saw the photos. If you really look close too you can see that these are old and rusted weapons. I think these are quite possibly militia stores that have been in use for many many years. Seeing the children armed as they are is quite telling of the times as well. Apparently everyone is put forward in some capacity. To think that these people may have faced one of the most well equipped and modern army's with these weapons is shocking. I have actually seen some old film footage taken by the Japanese army at a distance of Chinese groups not unlike this charging Japanese forces with swords, spears, and some on horseback. Wow....

Note the variety of weapons used by this militia. See the dadao laying in the center of the photo.

As I said on the home page the process of exploring these antique weapons has really opened my eyes to a world of Chinese martial history where fact is much more interesting than fiction. As much as I love a great Kung fu film where people can jump to rooftops, the true and real life stories are much more interesting. With that said, in addition to our physical training I think it is important for modern Chinese martial art practitioners to appreciate and seek out credible history related to what they practice. A healthy combination of both ambitions will keep the arts flourishing properly for the next generations to work with.

Please check out the Photo Gallery section for more Dadao examples to compare and contrast.