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Old 9th April 2010, 04:44 PM   #1
Neil
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Default Insights into Chinese ring pommel swords

I am curious about others thoughts on the use/function/reason for the ring on the end of some antique Chinese swords. Was it just a convenient pommel to create during the forging process, or were there specific functions it provided in use or symbolism etc. I realize examples of this can be seen very far back in Chinese history all the way up to WWII soldiers swords. Feel free to comment about any that you may have thoughts on. Thank you for your insights.
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Old 10th April 2010, 04:40 PM   #2
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Hi Neil,

I suspect the main use of the rings was for storage and transport. Weapons could be carried on poles or suspended by hooks on a wall, and the blade wouldn't get dull. On knives, it also makes a useful loop for pulling a blade out of a sheath, or a thumb ring. Still, the ring hilt is most common on military weapons, and I think it mostly for transport and storage. If you look at civilian daos and jian, they don't have the ring so often.

Best,

F
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Old 10th April 2010, 04:52 PM   #3
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This is an absolutely excellent topic Neil, and thank you for posting it, as well as welcome to the forum!
I think Fearn's suggestion's are very well placed, and make good sense pragmatically as these large rings did lend well to these kinds of uses.
It seems the ring pommels extend well back into ancient China, and it seems there is other literature on rings on swords in European use as well. With these circumstances there are often symbolic applications, and it would be good to look further into that.
I know I'll be doing that later before I write more, but wanted to welcome you and say I very much appreciate you posting this.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 10th April 2010, 05:07 PM   #4
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Also, as we can see in Neil's picture, the Chinese do love to have tassels and trailing silks/ribbons on weapons. The big ring means that you would have much more 'scope' for this, as you could literally improvise by tying scarves or just strips of fabric. No need for anything specialist. Not that I'm an officianado of Chinese warfare or anything, but didn't separate groups/factions/regiments have colours that identified them? Would this also have a purpose for the trailing silk ribbons?
Or distraction etc?
Just a thought.
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Old 10th April 2010, 05:18 PM   #5
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Ribbon's/ a scarf tied to the pommel I think are decorative as used in Wushu...as in the picture Niel posted....you could use the ribbon/cord perhaps to lash the weapon to your hand so it knocked out of your hand you could easily retrieve it. I remember one old drawing in Alex Huang's book Iron & Steel: Swords of China there is a demon depicted with a sword with ring pommel that is chained to his wrist (Page 80) Ring Pommels are seen in Tang Dynasty swords.

On a side note...I remember in some TV show they said the ribbons/ strings near the head of the spear head you see on wushu spears modernly was used to distract the eye of the enemy...and to prevent blood from coming down the shaft and making the pole slippery...and that spinning the shaft would spin the blood off that had accumulated on the strings at the spear head...I have no idea if there is any truth to this...maybe just a good story
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Old 10th April 2010, 10:34 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Nathaniel
Ribbon's/ a scarf tied to the pommel I think are decorative as used in Wushu...as in the picture Niel posted....you could use the ribbon/cord perhaps to lash the weapon to your hand so it knocked out of your hand you could easily retrieve it. I remember one old drawing in Alex Huang's book Iron & Steel: Swords of China there is a demon depicted with a sword with ring pommel that is chained to his wrist (Page 80) Ring Pommels are seen in Tang Dynasty swords.

On a side note...I remember in some TV show they said the ribbons/ strings near the head of the spear head you see on wushu spears modernly was used to distract the eye of the enemy...and to prevent blood from coming down the shaft and making the pole slippery...and that spinning the shaft would spin the blood off that had accumulated on the strings at the spear head...I have no idea if there is any truth to this...maybe just a good story


Its an interesting study.
As far as I know (and I admit this isn't a speciality of mine) ring pommels go right back to Chinese antiquity. There are early 'Dao' (the glorified long single edged bronze dagger variety) with very pronounced ring pommels, and they are dating to several centuries BCE+ (Warring states and Qin)
I'm sure someone will know a more exact date for their origin, but its certainly early.
There are also the classic single edged long bronze dao with ring pommels which go back to 3rd-C BCE (Which according to wiki is Han, lol).

Thats a good story about the spinning spear! Not heard that before
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Old 11th April 2010, 12:57 AM   #7
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As Gene has noted, the ring pommel does date well into antiquity, and as it is intriguing to see the dramatic cross cultural movement which largely insist on the symbolic and ritual significance in varying form.

Hilda Ellis-Davidson ("The Sword in Anglo Saxon England" 1962) describes the application of rings on the pommels of swords of 6th-7th centuries, but these are appurtenances rather than entire ringed pommels. On p.75 she notes that most archaeologists have concluded that these rings were most likely symbolic, and covers that in some detail.

In 1930, Stephen Grancsay wrote on the Japanese finds in a tomb in LoYang in Honan Province in China, where two long swords have ringed pommels which enclose symbolic figures of dragons and phoenix respectively.
These swords are believed of probably Sui Dynasty (589-618 AD) or more likely T'ang Dynasty (618-906AD). It is pointed out that the trade from the Occident travelled virtually directly to Honan, a key center in those times.
There seems to have been profound influence of the Japanese courts by the T'ang, and there are said to be about thirty swords with gilt copper ringed hilts in museums.

Other sources note the presence of rings on pommels of knives and daggers existed as early as the Shang (1600 BC-1046 BC) and Western Zhou (1046-771 BC) with the feature extending through through Eurasia. It is believed that the origins may well have been in Southern Siberia in Upper Yenesei and Minusinsk regions during these times. Obviously tradition carried the form itself through time, and bronze gave way to iron. Laufer (1914) notes that iron swords were typically modelled on thier bronze predecessors.

It is interesting to note an esoteric link that may bring together these far separated spheres and emphasize the trade between east and west.
This was the discovery of the 'Pereschepina Treasure' in the Poltava region of Ukraine in S. Russia. The sword found here had a ring type pommel and dates into 7th century. It carried Greek lettering and was believed a gift from Byzantium to the Homogunduri chieftain Khan Khubrat, of Eurasian tribal standing. This was published in Russia in 1985, and here can be seen the presence of the ring pommel, again with decorated ring and much as seen on the two Loyang straight longswords that seem somewhat contemporary.

While early use of the simple ring on bronze knives and daggers in the very ancient dynasties may well have been utilitarian in some fashion, it does seem that tradition carried it to the longswords where it became a device in imbued symbolism. It was clearly well known in Han times, whose traditions have always been strongly revered in China, and whose ancestry they deeply admire. Therefore it would seem that this ringed pommel feature, in simple stylized form, vestigially recalls the importance it held in earlier times and weapons.

Its use to attach various festoons may be considered auspiciously added, or in warfare, indeed used to distract or offset opponents. It is known that red tassels were added near the head of spears, and often bells were added to frighten horses of cavalry. The use of the cloth or tassels in later times in martial arts displays, common throughout the Qing dynasty, and especially well known as observed by westerners during the Boxer Rebellion, seems to have been to dramatically embellish and dramatize the swift movements of the martial artist. It was psychological warfare at its best, and Chinese even many times painted weapons red, as it was the color of war.

These are my findings from the research I have done on this fascinating topic, and look forward to further comments/corrections.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 11th April 2010, 01:40 AM   #8
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My (limited) experience with a jian was that the tassels were easy to tie on to a small ring, and they certainly got in the way while I was doing a set. By getting in the way, I mean that they tangled around the blade, which may be more a testimony to either my lack of skill, or (possibly) to the fact that I was using a modern wushu blade. As we know, these are not designed to be fought with, and on a real weapon, it's possible that the tassels would be useful.

Nonetheless, my teacher told me that, when they dueled, they took the ornaments off, and that's an important point. He also noted that people often put tassels on things like steel whips to slow them down and make them more obvious during demonstrations.

As for the tassel catching the blood on spears...that's a story I've heard too. I'm skeptical, because spears are one of the most common weapons on the planet, and it's odd that only the Chinese were bothered with this problem. Where are the other spear tassels and blood catchers? While I am loath to criticize the masters, I want to see more than a story.

Finally, I'll point out that the Japanese reportedly tied their swords into their hands before going into battle, so that when their hands grew tired, they wouldn't drop their blades. They didn't need a big ring-hilt on their katanas to do this, either.

So where does this leave us? I'm not sure. I do know that those big rings were used to carry weapons and store them, and I do know, as Jim pointed out, that rings on dao go back a long way in history. Even the dao money had a ring on the back.

I suspect that we're looking at a feature with a number of uses.

--symbolism. The chinese ring-hilt is distinctive. Yes, there were ring swords in Europe, but I think they had actual, separate, rings attached. Rings also make a place for nice tassels, although you certainly don't need a huge ring to tie a tassel on. Still, it does say "Chinese," and that's important.

--utility: the ring is a good way to transport or store weapons. And you could tie it to your hand. Or, if you're a movie protagonist in Princess Mononoke, you put your ring hilt on your arm like a bracelet to hold your sword while you shoot your bow. Neat trick that might even work in real life

--ease of construction: This one's something Neil pointed out, but we need to think about it. This design has two nice parts. First, it's easy for a smith to work on the handle. All he has to do is to heat and straighten the ring, and he can slide handle pieces on and off easily. Second, when the smith is making the sword, he can get the balance right without adding on a pommel, just by running out the tang until the balance point is correct, then shaping the tang into a ring. As a cheap way to make a blade, that ain't bad.
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Old 11th April 2010, 01:54 AM   #9
Gavin Nugent
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Default Interesting

Having had and still having a number of diferent variations of the ring pommel from the simple ring to the double gourd type I find them of little martial use. Whilst it is possible tassle/rags were tied to the ring pommel, genuine untouched examples I have had were actually sewn to the grip wrap, though I am sure I have seen images of others tied and may still have some on file...I have a look.

For me I see these ring pommel as two fold, a/ A simple manufacturing method that can be done at the forge and there is no need for a seperate pommel to be attached and then having the tang, simple economics. b/ Symbolism.

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Old 11th April 2010, 03:45 AM   #10
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On the 'blood' dynamics with tassels, cloths etc. ...it seems the folklore with weapons and blood features are virtually a given as battle stories are embellished through the years. The most common is of course the 'blood gutters', a cleverly construed story for the less colorful reason for these blade channels, simply to lighten and strengthen the blade. Yet these perceptions persist in lesser informed story telling.
Notches in blades, sword catchers, sliding weights on blades, multiple blades, serrated blades purpose in battle, wavy blades, all have dramatic tales of thier functions, though most have been proven to be fanciful license.

The tassels seem more embellishment than useful as described. It is hard to imagine that distraction would be in the least bit feasible in the melee, where confusion and chaos reigns. In civilian martial arts demonstrations, of course it would be impressive to spectators.

I think Fearn and Gav's comments emphasizing the mastery of Oriental simplicity are well placed, and it is easy to see how this functional feature would be maintained. It is interesting to consider that perhaps centuries ago, there was a time when it was embellished with symbolism, eventually returning to its less symbolized presence.

All best regards,
Jim
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Old 11th April 2010, 03:24 PM   #11
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Picture of some more ring pommels

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Old 11th April 2010, 08:03 PM   #12
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Wow! I really appreciate the great response. I am glad I could contribute a topic that people are interested in. One thing I was musing about was the question of who used these swords, and what was their station in society. Do we know if they were found throughout China or only regionally. Also, why would one use, choose, or be issued this type of sword over a liuyedao and yanmaodao etc. To narrow the time-line down a little I was thinking particularly about the last few centuries, which I believe includes many of the examples collectors and enthusiasts like ourselves have in their possession today. Maybe the answers to some of these questions might enrich our perspective on the original question. Honestly, I do not have any solid answers at this point so I look forward to the information others can offer.

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Old 15th April 2010, 04:14 AM   #13
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Default RING POMMEL CHINESE SWORDS

Gentleman,

A few ring pommel swords from my collection. The one on the far left is inscribed in Chinese "FEB 1943 Made". The tallest one in the image towards the right has been ID as being 2nd to 5th century AD by a very knowledgeable collector.

Best,
Jerry
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Old 28th April 2010, 02:15 PM   #14
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Thanks for sharing the picture. There are definitely some interesting pieces. I am curious about others thoughts on the dates of the swords 4 through 8 from the left. This is relative to my previous question of who would use these swords. Would they be classified as civilian, village militia, military, or rebellion arms. Maybe they could be any of the above. As far as I can tell there is very little scholarship available in English on this subject. So for now the collective knowledge of this type of group on the forum seems very important.

Last edited by Neil : 29th April 2010 at 12:47 AM.
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