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Thread: My Visit to a Shanxi Sword Factory

  1. #1

    Exclamation My Visit to a Shanxi Sword Factory

    Reporting from Beijing (i'm posting this report as a series of short replies to make it more user friendly)...

    I've just spent the last two weeks traveling around the Chinese country side & visiting old friends here in Beijing. Every year our company Seven Stars Trading leads a small group tour to Mainland off the beaten path. This year I let our local guides take over to nspend more time with my wife & our son.

    Since I was hanging out in Shanxi province, I thought it time to visit a sword factory. I was only about to get in because I'm well hooked up with the locals. No one denied that new swords were being cranked out daily for the antique market, but they said that they would let me, an American, see how they did it.

    So I put it to them this that one, having seen the swords they made, they didn't have any secrets didn't already know. And two, as they knew, I'm actively teaching Chinese swordsmanship in America & Europe and the demand for jian for training is greater than can be filled be filled by the antique market. So with the oportunity to make money in front of them, a car was arranged and off we went to a little village, down mud roads never seeing a single street sign, finally arriving at what was a family or clan walled village in Qing times. Today, just the main gate and reminants of the mud wall remain.

    There I met the "sword smith". He learned his trade from his father who was a steel worker. His father learned how to work steel in a state run factory. So they are not a lineage of sword makers, but simply steel workers who figured out how to fold steel, which is no big trick.

    Before I go on to describe thier swords and how they are making them, I should explain that there are at least five of these village factories in the area of Shanxi I visited alone. We choose to visit this smith because his work is considered the best. There are plenty of other areas where blades are being forged. And the fancier fittings are being made in Beijing.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  2. #2

    Contempory Swords from Shanxi

    All the work I observed being performed was done by machine. The steel is pounded by a mechanical hammer and all the grinding, shaping and polishing is done on wheels.

    The swords are forged with a softer core steel which is encased or jacketed in lamellar pattern welded steel. From what I saw there are simply folding the steel in one direction, though they said they could do twist core and other patterns. I saw no evidence of any attempt at artistry. And there is no separate edge plate of any kind. I should remind the reader that this is a FACTORY not a sword smith's workshop. The boss is interested in making money, not art and if tomarrow making frying pans became more profitable, not another sword would be pounded out.

    Once the billets are formed, they are drawn out into bars. While I was there they were making jian. The blade bevels are apparently formed by removing stock, grinding it away on a wheel. While this method would not produce very strong edges for a sword that was intended for combat, it produces a nice pattern of concentric circles that run up the bladed centered around the spine. This is a pattern that will be familiar to anyone who has looked at Chinese swords for sale on eBay (as noted in other posts in this forum).

    The final step is tempering the balde, quenching it in either oil or water.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  3. #3

    Final Sword Assembly in Shanxi

    After forging, shaping and polishing the blades they are sent to a second village factory to be fit out. At this factory they make fittings of brass by hand. Of all the many new fittings I've seen cranked out in Mainland, these were the best made I've seen. They are good enough that I wouldn't have a problem getting them to make a replacement fitting for me for an antique sword that was missing a fitting (Of course when we do this with items offered in our catalog we make it clear which part is a contemporary replacement). They were of heavy gauge brass and closest to historical reality. Though there were also a fair number of 'Hollywood' fantasy fittings as well.

    What's important to our discussion is that before the final assembly, the blades are left out on the roof tops to completely rust over, 'antiquing' them. This way the blade surface doesn't look freshly polished and makes the pattern welded pattern stand out more. To the uneducated eye, this may make blades appear old, but the experienced eye will immediately recognize the coloration as contempory rust and not a sigh of age.

    Looking over the racks of finished products, one could easily recognize the source of nearly every "Ming" sword on eBay, especailly those sold by dealers such as Deep Heart and Happy China as well as other.

    At this factory they also remount any old blades they can find that lack scabbards or handles and make repros of Chinese Republican sabers as well as Japanese WW2 swords. (These days we are seeing a lot of old good to adverage late Qing blades in new fittings appear on the market, but that's a separate topic).
    Scott M. Rodell
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  4. #4

    Exclamation Beijing Repro Fittings

    While the fittings made in Shanxi province are of the rather basic/standard variety, made of sheet brass or sometimes iron, with designs hammered into their surfaces, those made in Beijing are more elaborate.

    All the fittings from Beijing I've encountered are made from brass. They usually have their designs carved into their surface to create fairly good to excellent engraved pieces. These pieces usually imitate classical designs & are good enough to fool collectors with some experience in this field. However, when examined closely, one notices small errors in design that expose them as modern work. They are also generally too heavy & a bit clunky, making them improperly balanced.

    I have also encountered old blades mounted in excellent fillagree fittings produced in Beijing. These are of such high quality, near that of the Imperial Workshops, that I have even listed some in our Seven Stars catalog. These pieces have clearly been copied from orginal pieces.

    In some ways I am happy to see this tradition has not died out or has been reborn in China. After all, there is a thriving market for the work of modern smiths in our country. On the other hand I'm concerned that 1) these new fittings are being passed off as old, thus cheating unsuspecting collectors and 2) Beijing dealers may be stripping old swords of their plain brass & iron fittings & remounting them in flashier fittings they consider to be more sellable. Along this line, we are seeing old fittings gold guilded regardless of whether they were orginally guilded or not.

    You can see pictures of real Chinese swords at
    go to Featured Articles at the bottom of the Home page.
    Last edited by Scott M. Rodell; 09-03-2002 at 04:15 AM.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  5. #5

    Angry Copies of Classic Fittings (Beijing)

    Originally posted by Scott M. Rodell
    I have also encountered old blades mounted in excellent fillagree fittings produced in Beijing... These pieces have clearly been copied from orginal pieces.
    Its not uncommon for me to sell peices for collectors here in the USA. Usually well known collectors don't want to sell their own pieces, even though if costs them in commision. This is because they don't want to be pestered by other collectors asking "what else are you selling." There's also the "if he's selling it there must be something wrong with it" syndrome they want to avoid. But lately, I've encountered a new trend, Chinese collectors who want me to sell their peices over here. Just this week I was sent a silver fillagree mounted saber for sale by a Chinese collector.

    These Chinese collectors aren't looking for more money. They're trying to safe guard the intergity of their collections by preventing copies from appearing all over Beijing. And that is exactely what happens when they send a peice to auction in Beijing & its picture is published in the show catalog. Its also happening because of the web.

    These makers are not backward peasant farmers. They use the web & every other source they can to produce accurate reproductions. And yes, they read this Forum. Unfortunately this is not from a desire to reserrect a dead tradition. Its because they realize that fancier swords sell for more money. They aren't looking to make a few hundred bucks on each fake, they're looking to produce swords that will pass as those of high officials, that they can sell for thousands. I've seen a good number of these high quality fakes being offered as real in Beijing for $5000 USD & up.

    The last time I was in Beijing I saw & handled a copy of one of my swords, the Kanmadao that was previously the icon for this Forum. At first I wondered where & how they made such an accurate copy of Qianlong era fillagree work? There aren't any to be had on the Beijing market (mine was purchased from Europe). And there aren't any on display in any Beijing museum. Then I realized how they got the design, photos of mine have been circulated to friends, fellow researchers AND posted on the web...

    So what's the serious collector to do? Study the old pieces all you can. Visit museums. The old piece look & handle different for the new. There are some fairly obvious ways to tell the fakes from the real old stuff. Unfortately, I can not explain how here, as noted above, the fakers read this Forum & I don;t want to help them improve their work. However, if you read these posts carefully & study genuine antique pieces, these sighs will be clear to you too.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  6. #6
    How would I obtain quality reproduction scabbard peices for a jian? You may recall the ones that Bonnie posted of a jian with the Stab the Demon engraved on it, the fittings of that scabbard. I like those type of raised fittings and have seen them reproduced on ebay, although I am sure that the workmanship is not nearly as good as the real thing. Is it possible to find reproductions that look good?

  7. #7

    RE: Obtaining New Fittings in Mainland

    Originally posted by F. Schmitt
    How would I obtain quality reproduction scabbard pieces for a jian?
    The only way I can think of that you could get them to do fittings yourself is to actually take the sword over to China to have the fittings made to order for its scabbard. If you already have a scabbard made & just need the fittings, you could just take the scabbard. (Keep in mind that it is illegal to remove antique swords from China & your sword could be confiscated when you try to leave. It could also be confiscated as a weapon as you enter). I don't know anyway you can do something like this from here. Remember, these people are purposely keeping themselves out of the public eye. Not being known to them, you couldn't drop in & say "hi, I know you guys are making fake swords, how about making me a few scabbard pieces"?

    The other problem you could have is that most dealers in China will try to get all they can out of you. So they'll name a really high price & see what happens. Afterall, they're not going to make much on a few fitings. I was & am only able to do the things I do because I've been doing business in China for over 10 years, speak Mandarin, have some reputation as a martial artist & have a personal realtionship with enough of the right people.

    I could possibly sent your scabbard or sword to a friend in Beijing & have it done for you, but the shipping is going to be prohibitive, about a 100 bucks each way. And its still possible that your sword will get snagged in Chinese Customs.

    I think it will be easier to have fittings made here in the US. Judging from what I've paid before to have missing fittings made for swords in our Seven Stars catalog, I would estimate $40/piece for the throat, 2 hangers, 1 decorative plate & chape that are standard for a jian, or $160 plus domestive shipping ($15-30 USD). That's for simple undecorated brass. That's less than the shipping alone to China. Unfortunately, I don't have a sword smith I'm working with & can recommend at the moment. I was using Vince Evans. His work is excellent, but he no longer has time for small peice work.

    If you are still interested in doing something in decorated brass, engraved or otherwise, contact me directly by phone & we can discuss it futher at:
    Seven Stars Trading Co.
    703/573-2939 in Annandale, VA.

    (We shouldn't discuss business on this discussion Forum).

    Good Luck...
    Scott M. Rodell
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  8. #8

    Re: RE: Obtaining New Fittings in Mainland

    Thanks Scott. I have a replacement scabbard with poor engraved reproduction fittings on it. By putting the brass peices into a mild acid it has gave it a nice patina. I also grew some nice verdigres under the suspension openings with another solution with dissolved copper in the acid. The solution was placed with a fine pointed brush.The peices now are dark enough that the poor engravings do not show well and the green that I added would fool most. I just have the antique blade with the usual carved dragon/demon guard with its related fittings and would have perfered to have better guards.
    I visited a Hunan sword factory last year. The blades were being shaped by huge grinders with the workers lacking any eye protection. The men worked the blades and women in another building that was attached to the main building, fitted the swords with cheap cast and plated fittings. These jians and daos were made to be sold as new. They were similar to what you see in magazines but there at the factory were 7 dollars.

  9. #9

    Re: Hunan Sword Factory

    [QUOTE]Originally posted by F. Schmitt
    Originally posted by Scott M. Rodell
    I visited a Hunan sword factory last year... These jian and dao were made to be sold as new. They were similar to what you see in magazines but there at the factory were 7 dollars.
    There are all kinds of sword factories in Mainland these days. I'm sure there are plenty we haven't heard of yet. Sounds like the one you visited was making swords for the preformance Wushu market. I've yet to meet anyone training with real weight weapons so far in Mainland.

    From what I've found so far, the best repo swords are coming out of Shanxi. But at the rate things are changing in China, that could change at anytime. Its just a shame that they don't put in a little more effort & hand work in. They could probably produce quite nice pieces at very reasonable prices.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  10. #10

    Re: Re: Hunan Sword Factory

    The swords were so heavy that surely they may have been made only to build up your wrists and forearms! They would strike metal pipes with the swords to demostrate that they were indeed made of strong steel. There was little taper at all to the point of the weapons. I would compare the balance to an ax or a sledgehammer. There was a false hamon along the edge of the jians and daos that you find on the tourist Japanese kantans.

  11. #11

    Re: Re: Re: Hunan Sword Factory

    Originally posted by F. Schmitt

    The swords were so heavy that surely they may have been made only to build up your wrists and forearms! ... There was little taper at all to the point of the weapons. I would compare the balance to an ax or a sledgehammer...
    The major problem with almost all the repros being made in mainland today is they are way over weight & improperly balanced. See the Tread "Choosing a Proper Practice Sword" in this Forum for correct lengths, weights & styles.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  12. #12
    Readers of this Thread might also like to see the Thread:
    Identifying the Age of Chinese Swords
    Scott M. Rodell
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  13. #13

    Fakers Still At It

    This Spring I was in Mainland again, I love China & would recommend a vacation there to anyone, but I'd never recommend a newbie go antique hunting there. The dealers are sharp & the rule is its a fake...

    The trade in new swords being passed off as 'Ming' hasn't slowed down, as even a quick glance at sites like eBay demonstrate, but there are some new tricks that everyone need to be aware of.

    One sad practice is taking nice old fittings and mounting them on a new and totally "Hollywood" (or prehaps I should use Phil's term "Hollyweird") blade. What's sad about this is that there are old blades worthy of these nice old fittings to be had. The problem is that many dealers, & no doubt rich customers who are looking for a fancy piece to hang on the wall, do not have a refined sense of art (to say the least). So they stick old quality fittings on a fanciful blade that have nothing to do with historical reality. Unfortunately, these swords are also usually priced in an equally unrealistic fashion. Typically we do not discuss prices here in this forum, but is this case it is useful to put things in prespective. I came across one such dao with 18th c. pierced iron fillagree fittings with a new weirdo blade. The blade was crap, but the fittings were excellent. I would have been happy to purchase the piece just to rescue the fittings, but it was priced over $6,000! The dealer knew this was an absolutely insane price, but rather than sell it to someone like me at a fair market price, he'd rather play the sucker lottery & wait for some rich Hong Kong guy to sell it to.

    The other trick the fakers are getting better at is copying old fillagree fittings by making castings from them. These they typically use on old blades. I don't personally have a big problem with this as at least they historically acurate. But they should be advertised as having fittings that are casts from old ones & priced accordingly. My experience is that Mainland dealers are not so honest.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  14. #14

    Fakes are getting Better Still

    Greetings All-

    Sorry I haven't been on in a while, but I was away having a great time in China! I went to visit my teacher, who lives in Taibei these days. Then we traveled to Shandong to visit Qi Jiguang's hometown, which I enjoyed immensely & of which I took many photos for my next book. We finished our trip in my home away from home, Beijing. Where I saw a great number of fakes like I never saw before.

    I've writen previously about the large number of "fake" swords being made in China today. I've written about them above & in many other threads. As I noted earlier, while many of these new swords are junk, many are also quite good & worthy of use for training. I also warned that these "fakes" are getting better, some to the point that they can not fairly be considered fakes because they are indeed true swords, they are only fakes when sold as antiques, which they are. From what I saw in Beijing just a few weeks ago, the time to be scared is now...

    I was visitng an old friend in his Beijing antique shop. Like every antique dealer in China, he has some fantastic & very valuable treasures along with some new antiques for those who can not tell the difference (I know how that sounds, one just has to accept that this is how it is, everyone, & I mean everyone, in China does this). While I was there, a mutual friend from the countryside arrived laden with packages he was delivering to dealers throughout Beijing, packages of new antique swords. Naturally, I had a look.

    As I said, it's time to be scared, very scared. These new fakes are of excellent quality. In fact, I would say they are nearly as good as 18th c. orginals. Indeed, many are nearly prefect copies of examples of 18th c. pieces that have been published or recently on the market. As I wrote about earlier, it has become a common practice for fakers to buy an old piece, make copies of it, then resell the orginal to get their money back (they are not in this for art's sake or to preserve a tradition, there's very real money being made here).

    I would say these fakes are so good that only a seasoned expert can tell the difference, the workmanship of some is imperial quality. However, those who have had the opportunity to handle real 18th c. open work fittings, will notice several details that stand out that immeditally to expose these contempory reproduction. Because the manufactures of these new fitings & blades use THIS Forum, I will not go into what these details are here. I will be happy to discuss these give aways by phone with people I know, as I have been doing for sometime.
    Scott M. Rodell
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  15. #15

    Re: Fakes are getting Better Still

    Originally posted by Scott M. Rodell
    ...These new fakes are of excellent quality. In fact, I would say they are nearly as good as 18th c. orginals. Indeed, many are nearly prefect copies of examples of 18th c. pieces that have been published or recently on the market...
    No doubt many are thinking, what's wrong with that, this sounds great. I have to admit, there is nothing wrong with making top quality reproductions of Chinese swords. Many of us, including myself, having been waiting for just this. In fact, I was tempted to buy some of this new swords for clients who are practitioners here in the USA. So why didn't I? First, the balance & weight of these new repro swords is still not quite right. The fakers can acquire good photos of old swords to copy, buy they are not swordsmen & do not know how a real sword should feel or handles. They just want to make a product that looks good, because that's what sells.

    The other problem is that Beijing dealers know me, they don't try & con me into buying a new sword, they know that would only be a waste of both our time. And they don't want to bother selling me the new repro at a fair repro price because they are waiting for bigger fish. In other words, why sell me the repro for a couple of hundred bucks, when they can pitch it to some Hong Kong rich guy for $3 to 5,000. Oh sure they, they might haggle down to $2,500, but that is still 1,000s more than I'll pay. So the problem isn't with the quality of these reproduction swords, its with how they are sold.

    Frankly, I'm also concerned what this is going to do to the general level of understanding in the field of Historical Chinese swords & swordsmanship. If this Forum has demonstrated anything, it is that the understanding of anitque Chinese weapons & use is in its infancy here & in Europe. If these top quality reproductions flood the market, as I suspect they will in the future, we could be set back years in our collective research.
    Scott M. Rodell
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