Antique Meteor Hammer
Collection Site: Taiyuan City - Shanxi Province
Width and Height: 1.95 in x 1.95 in – 4.95 cm x 4.95 cm
Overall Weight: 1 lb. 10.4 oz. - 747 grams
Age estimate: 1850-1920
We talk about various groups of weapons in the kung fu world today. Some examples are called singles, doubles, short weapons like the saber, or long like the staff. Another interesting but less discussed group is the soft weapons. A few examples from that category include swung, projected, and retrieved weapons like the whip chain, rope dart, or meteor hammer. These antiquated Chinese arms still live on in our modern world through the practice of martial art training routines which are often very impressive to see. These training movements are a great window into the past related to how the weapons were likely maneuvered, but it does not answer the question of what exactly they looked like and how they were constructed. To learn more about that specifically we can turn to the antique material record. Despite the fact that legitimate examples are now rare we still have opportunities from time to time to let these old weapons reveal a clearer picture of the past, plus inform our martial art practice in the present through their examination.
A good place to start may be learning more about the meteor hammers name. The earliest source I know of is a late Ming Dynasty text called Records of Military Training or Wubei Zhi 武備志. In the small section devoted to this weapon it is referred to as Fei Chui 飛鎚 - Flying hammers and also Liu Xing Chui 流星錘 - Meteor hammers.
The name is not surprising relative to the way it moves and even looks. Although we see only a few minor variations of the spherical shaped hammers available on the modern market for kung fu students today, the meteor hammers of China's past appear to have come in many forms. The most dominant shape I have seen in the antique record is a fourteen sided geometric shape (a tetradechahedron) that you find on so many other Qing era hand held weapons. No need to remember the long name for the shape you can just look at the example featured from my collection above. Another important but much less common form encountered is referred to as a garlic head by collectors today. I am not sure of the names root in history but it is another shape you will see on other later Qing era weapons like mace heads or pommels (Qing Dynasty 1644-1911). Other meteor hammer shapes are seen as well but from my experience in significant less frequency. Please look to the photos for various examples.
Above photo - A group from my collection of various sizes in the most common form. The two in the middle represent the average size I have encountered which is right around 2 in / 5.08 cm across give or take a little. I think the weight of the featured meteor hammer which is 1 lb. 10.4 oz. - 747 grams is also a good representative example of this form.
Above photos - Later Qing era Garlic head mace examples of both brass and steel.
(left brass - 3.5 in/8.8 cm x 1.9 in/4.8cm and 14.1 oz/400 gr) - (right steel - stats unknown).
Photo above - Various later Qing era Chinese weapons from my collection that show the common use of the fourteen sided geometric shape associated with so many meteor hammers.
The materials antique meteor hammers were made of are also
worth exploring. The majority I have seen are made of now oxidized steel like
the example I shared at the top of the page. I have seen quite a few garlic
head examples made of brass but also steel. For me the most surprising material was round wooden
balls adorned with brass studs that may help its structural integrity on
impact, and of course add insult to injury.
Although the meteor hammer is most often seen demonstrated today with a single hammer on a long rope it is historically known to be used with either one or even two hammers on each end connected by not only a rope but sometimes a chain. I cannot speak to any definitive lengths of rope or chain in the past beyond what we see in historic depictions and antique material examples. My general impression is it was like so many other aspects of antique Chinese weapons were variety is quite common. The reader can judge for themselves after exploring the examples presented throughout the article.
I have mentioned in past entries I try to ask myself the basic questions of who, what, why, where, and when while attempting to better understand these antiques. At this point I think we are left with the who and why questions related to the meteor hammer.
Although I am not sure exactly when, I am assuming the double hammers were being used to some degree by the military as we see in the Ming era Wubei Zhi 武備志 - Records of Military Training. This vast text was a compilation of many other military related writings put together in 1621 by Máo Yuányí 茅元儀. The drawing and translation below are really interesting and give us an insight into not only what the hammers looked like but also about ideas on how they were used in the distant past.
Page above from volume 104 of the 武備志 Wubei Zhi ("Records of Military Training")
Characters on the left of the illustration reads - Flying hammers, also called "meteor
hammers", are used in pairs. The one held in the front hand is the
"direct hammer" and the other held lifted in the rear hand is the
Translated by Paul Brennan
Moving ahead in time here is a painting above likely from the early 19th century showing a double meteor hammer being demonstrated alongside a sword swallowing act. The other two painting from the same era are showing martial art demonstrations, one with a single hammer on a longer rope. It is quite possible these were all eluding to street performances that were often seen in Qing era like acrobats, jugglers, strong men, and of course martial artists. Swinging one or two of these dangerous hammers around skillfully at high speed would surely intrigue onlookers.
Beyond entertainment it’s not hard to appreciate these weapons value in offense and or defense. Related to this the meteor hammer seems easily transportable and could be discreetly carried compared to many other weapons such as a sword or spear. In the kung fu world some refer to these as hidden weapons. In old China it may have been a good thing to carry just in case there was trouble. I imagine they could also be used with other weapons like a dao/saber etc. It may make a good entry or retreating combination weapon. Possibly a backup weapon is another potential option? One question that intrigues me is in what context they were being used by the military as it is eluded to in the excerpt from the Wubei Zhi? As always this kind of research stirs up new questions. . In any case these weapons appear to have occupied many spaces in traditional Chinese culture from the military use to folk life.
Past and Present
It appears to me the newly made meteor hammers we see on market today reflect a rather incomplete picture in comparison to the antique examples. One of the biggest differences is the geometric shape hammers like the one featured from my collection has essentially disappeared from manufacture and use. From my experience too this is definitely the most common shape you see in the material antique record. The majority of the meteor hammers made now are spherical and seems to emulate more of the garlic head form. Another big difference is the weight of the new ones versus the old. After doing a survey of new hammers for sale on the internet and looking at all the meteors in my collection I can say there is a big difference. The new training tools range from half to a quarter of the weight of the antiques. The trend of newly made weapons used in the traditional Chinese martial art world getting lighter and lighter over time is apparent in most of the comparisons I have done on this site. I think it is safe to say from my research that as weapon training moves farther away from an actual combat focus toward an emphasis on health, entertainment, and sport the weapons themselves have been getting lighter and lighter to better suit the new motivations and for ease of use.
One surprise for me over the course of this research was a shift from initially thinking this weapon as a long range tool used like the demonstrations I have seen so many times with a hammer on a long rope. Now I have looked at enough different antique examples to believe that in the past it actually depended on how the individual example was put together, and there is actually quite a bit of variation. Even though most of the old meteor hammers I have seen are alone with nothing attached to them, on several occasions I have seen them with short chains and larger rings on the ends to put your fingers in as an anchor. I have also seen many old complete examples with two heads and a rather short chain between them. Yet in contrast the Forbidden City weapon collection in China has an antique round meteor hammer that appears to be a genuine antique with a very long rope attached to it like we are more familiar with today. It appears that like so many other traditional Chinese weapons there was a respectable variety of meteor hammer configurations in the past. With these new insights it seems that not only could they be used as long range tools but also close combat , surprise weapons, maybe even thrown. As I mentioned before please look to the pictures throughout the article for examples and judge for yourself. I hope you find them intriguing and they stir up new ideas that we can apply to our modern understanding of the meteor hammer.