Presented here are a two interesting Chinese forked mace from my antique collection. Until recently I was not entirely sure about the traditional name of this weapon. Without a clear historic text or body of evidence available from the past to anchor its specific name in I thought it may fall in the more general category of “iron ruler” (铁尺 Pinyin tiě chǐ), or just “mace” (锏 Pinyin jiǎn). Thankfully new evidence has emerged from an early traditional Chinese martial art manual from about 1829 to help us better understand how to differentiate this particular forked style of Chinese percussive weapon from others. The newly found text that Paul Brennan translated as Selected Techniques of Hero Boxing by Gao Xingfang uses the term cha 叉 to describe this weapon, which he states "is an abbreviated form of the word chai 釵, the same weapon as the Japanese sai." I am very grateful for this new information and and it truly demonstrates how our collective knowledge can continue to grow if we keep digging for new information to learn and share. Please take a look at this short manual linked below for yourself and pay special attention to the section Blue Dragon Subdues the Tiger. Hero Boxing link.
This style weapon first caught my
attention as young martial artist way back in 1980 when I saw the
movie “The Octagon.” I think that may have been the case for a
lot of young Americans. Today you can see it regularly demonstrated at open
Karate tournaments around the country. Despite the fact that this
weapon is generally associated with Okinawan
Karate its roots reach farther back in time to China and other parts
of Asia. Although it is not a particularly visible or common weapon
seen today in Chinese martial arts it is certainly still trained by
practitioners of Southern Chinese styles like Hung Gar or Fujian
White Crane and others.
When handling the first example I shared above it does not feel particularly heavy. I think it could be shoved in a person belt and carried quite easily. Looking at the photos you can see that its construction is quite similar to many other hand held antique Chinese weapons. The percussive bar is the same continuing metal rod as the hand grip. The guard is two pieces sandwiched on top of one another and forge welded together to make the fork. Forge welding is basically the process where two separate pieces of metal are super heated and hammered into a single piece. As you can see in the picture below it has separated a little over time and is now a bit loose. The pommel is also forge hammered into its commonly found geometric shape that is certainly a hallmark of 19th century Chinese weapons. One can imagine this rather simple mace being put together by a blacksmith. The design is minimalist, efficient, and practical. Although the hand guard is loose on this present example, I seriously doubt it was after it was freshly forged. I believe when smiths were assembling these types of weapons some pieces of the metal were still hot, counting on the steel contracting during the cooling process which would really snug the composite pieces together. Sometimes they even used metal shims in the finish work to fill in the gaps that were left when the project was done. Last but not least, I re-wrapped the hand grip with a natural colored cotton twill tape. There are many different treatments that you will see on original wraps that we will explore over time, and this is certainly a common one.
In contrast to the first example, the feeling of the second mace is definitely more hefty. The difference is approximately 11 oz./314.0 g. extra on this one, which is quite a bit. It still feels very well balanced in hand though.
They are both generally constructed the same way with an octagonal percussive rod to strike, poke, deflect or even control others. The guard, grip, and pommel are more or less the same as well. Upon closer examination though you start to see that almost every part of this weapon is really well executed by its maker. The forked guard is more rounded, which would take additional time and skill. There are even metal shims as I mentioned before (see photo) hammered down into the main bar and hand guard connection to ensure nothing gives when you need it to be strong. The consistency, symmetry, and overall impressive finish work of all the various pieces are a cut above most of these that I have seen. Its also very impressive that this mace is still rock solid and ready for action after so many decades without any movement in its various parts.
I am always trying to figure out who owned these items in the past. The more I can nail them down in a specific time and place with reliable evidence the more complete a picture I have of their history. This field of study in particular has not received a lot of scrupulous research. Most of the people with any interest in these weapons today are martial artists who are generally more concerned with their actual use in physical training rather than their history. Although that certainly makes sense to me, I would simultaneously argue that one can inform, guide, and enrich the other. In addition to the transmission of oral history from student to teacher which is so important in the continuing traditions of Chinese martial arts, digging deeper into period texts and personal accounts, antique paintings, photos, and the collection and examination of actual period weapons will cast new light on how we interpret and express out art today. In this modern world Chinese martial arts is a pastime rather than a necessity generally speaking. I see the weapons we practice with today get lighter and shiner with a shift toward Hollywood performance rather than combat. Of course change does not have to be a bad thing. Its my opinion though that it should be informed change. Along those lines we can guide the future sensibly rather than finding ourselves one day as performance artists rather than martial artists.
With all that said, I was excited when I came across the photograph below. Albeit a somewhat disturbing image, it is undeniably a fascinating and very rare piece of period evidence that actually shows the item in use. The caption reads, “Min Ch'ing Ch'i and his guards, 1895.” The photo is part of the Oswald family collection. John Charles Oswald was a British tea trader and race horse owner living in Fuzhou City, Fujian province. The photo is of one of the men accused in taking part in the Kucheng massacre on August 1st 1895 in Gutian Huashan, Fujian and his captors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kucheng_massacre ). The incident was essentially an anti missionary/western influence attack that ended with eleven foreigners murdered. I would encourage you to read the Wikipedia link above, its a short entry and worth your time.
What a haunting photograph. The way all the men are looking into the camera definitely adds to the intensity. I am assuming these men with the weapons are police or prison guards. Translating the sign on the wall in the background could possibly put this scene in to a clearer context. In the past I have read that these forked mace were used by both Okinawan and Chinese police but had not seen any evidence to back that up. This photo definitely lends credibility to the claim. It looks like the guard on the right may have a secondary mace like weapon slung on his back as well.
This type of tool certainly makes sense as a police or prison guard weapon. When you hold one in your hand you quickly think to yourself, I would seriously not want to be hit with this thing. The intimidation factor is without question. At the same time the fact that it does not have a blade makes it more versatile and less lethal much like today's police clubs.
I think just like practice and improvement in your physical kung fu training, gradually working on an understanding of your styles history and or Chinese martial art history in general is important part of the art. If nothing else this kind of study helps put the folk traditions that we practice today in a more
realistic historical context. The insights above are a good example. With only a passing thought it would be easy to look at this style of mace and simply think its just an old time self defense weapon. Maybe its just that thing you have seen an adult or child perform at a local Karate tournament. In truth these were tools that a person like a 19th century Chinese policeman,
prison guard, or soldier might use in their paid profession, and thats only part of the story......
Please check out the photo gallery section for other Chinese forked mace to compare and contrast.