Peace that people enjoy nowadays uninterrupted is, of course, not a new phenomenon. However, what is interesting is that the humanity has lived only several hundred years without warring for whatever reason could bring large armies face-to-face in a lethal confrontation for questionable reasons. Besides soldiers, the brute force of conflicts, the main tools of war have always been weapons indicating the state of technological advancement of nations, being the litmus paper and the benchmarks of progress. Thousands years ago, there was no such concept as a long-lasting peace, and the weaponry was a lot more different than it currently is, being used to exterminate rather than deter. Kings and emperors looked to it that the latest technologies might be applied to gain a military advantage over belligerents. After launching into eternity, the highest authority figures would be equipped with the attributes of power and the personifications of might and victories, such as personal swords put into the burial sarcophagi. Retrieved from the royal grave in China, the Sword of Goujian, the illustrious King of Yue, has not gone rusty despite external factors thanks to its inimitable and complex chemical composition, design, and forging techniques used by ancient Chinese artisans to preserve its sharpness and tenacity though centuries.
A Historical Background of the Sword
As has been established by historians, the Sword of Goujian belonged to King of Yue State. The artifact is a bronze sword found in the December of 1965 seven kilometers away from what remained of Jinan, the ancient capital of Chu state, in Hubei Province of China. Kalamidas (n.p.) notes that the unique artefact together with 2.000 other objects was found in proximity to the aqueduct of the Zhang River Reservoir. Not only its composition, but also the ancient script along with other details is unique in its own right. The double-edged one-handed straight Sword of Goujian is believed one of the earliest Jian swords, a kind of weapons associated with Chinese mythology. One of eight Taoist Immortals, Lü Dongbin was a master of internal alchemy and their leader depicted as carrying a Jian sword though being a scholar (Kalamidas n.p.). Archeologists making excavations found the sword sheathed in a wooden scabbard lying on the bottom of an ancient tomb. The identity of a sword owner kindled disputes among Chinese language scientists and archeologists. It was after experts spent two months debating that they reached a consensus that Goujian, the King of Yue, was the original owner of the sword. His perseverance in the days of a hardship made the king a known historical figure in China (Greg’s Martial Arts).
According to Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.), King Goujian imposed hardships on himself to solidify his self-improvement and resolution in the wake of a notorious defeat he suffered at the hands of his enemy. As for the sword, it remained the property of Goujian who reigned over the Kingdom of Yue from 496 to 465 BC, which was close to the conclusion of the Spring and Autumn Period spanning from 771 to 476 BC. Thus, the sword appears to be 2.500 years old (Greg’s Martial Arts). Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.) suggests that 2.400 years failed to take sharpness away from the sword, reducing the longevity of sword history by hundred years.
The biggest question, an answer to which could shed some light on the history of the sword, is why the weapon owned by the King of Yue was retrieved from a tomb of the Chu Dynasty. Unresolved remains the mystery why the sword of the last mighty king in the Spring and Autumn period became a burial object of Chu nobility on their lands situated thousands of miles away from the kingdom of Goujian. Archeologist Mr. Rongfang argued that the owner of the tomb was a certain Shao or Nao Hua, a known nobleman who lived during the sovereignty of King Huai of Chu. It is assumed that the king dispatched the nobleman to Yue to ignite the internal contradictions in the kingdom, incite civil commotions, and to lay wires for a future onslaught. The sword of Goujian was stolen by looting only to be conferred upon the nobleman by the king for his exceptional contribution to the victory. The sword was placed into the grave along with its new master (Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government n.p.).
According to Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.), Archeologist Chen Zhenyu put forward a different version of sword history based on other burial objects and aspects. His assumption is that Shao Gu, not Shao Hua is the owner of the grave and the sword found in it. The person lived in the days of King Wei of Chu. As per bamboo and historical records, Yue and Chu maintained a close relationship before King Huai of Chu married a daughter of the King of Yue, Goujian. There is the possibility of Goujian having bestowed his valuable bronze sword upon King Huai as a marriage gift. A member of Dao family, Shao Gu was a member of Chu’s royal court. Speculations have it that he was none other than the great-grandson of King Dao of Chu, judging by his worshipping the tombs of ex-kings as well as his “frequently attending with King of Chu,” that are indicative of his close contacts with the king. Dying at a young age, the member of the royal court might have received the sword in reward for his devout service.
If other versions are to be believed, the sword may have been buried with a Yue prince who sought safety in the lands of Chu and perished in Yindu. There is no way the famous sword could have been lost abroad at a time when the Yue state was flourishing before its ultimate demolition by Chu. A number of archeologists suggest that, at the conclusion of the Spring and Autumn period, Jin leagued with Wu to combat Chu and Chu attempted to enter into alliance with Wu, which led to the objects of Wu penetrating Jin territory and the objects of Yue being later unearthed in Chu territory. After Goujian had exterminated Wu, Chu and Yue became the countries to neighbor upon each other, which expedited the reciprocal exchange of gifts (Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government n.p.).
The Exterior Design of the Sword and the Scabbard
The wooden scabbard, in which the sword was sheathed at the time of the excavation, had been finished in black lacquer (Greg’s Martial Arts). Lacquer is a liquid applied to a wooden surface as a protective coating; hence, lacquer making the scabbard less decay-prone must have allowed the sword to remain intact for so long despite the humidity of soil and other factors usually contributing to metal corrosion. Obviously, lacquer was more than just an element of sword exterior design. According to Greg’s Martial Arts, the body of the sword tucked into an airtight scabbard was found untarnished upon unsheathing. Experts found that the artifact retained its sharp blade (Greg’s Martial Arts). It is fair to admit that the lack of contact of the surface of sword body with the air was the reason it avoided being eroded as well as preserving its sharpness and the original cutting property it implies.
However, Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.) suggests that the burial place where excavations were made has neutral soil with the little content of oxide, which is a binary compound of oxygen and another chemical element. An enclosed environment also did a lot to keep the sword, as the king knew it, so to speak – sharp and tenacious. Another fact casting a shade of doubt on the extraordinary merit of the scabbard is that three bronze swords left in the external coffin room outside the tomb coffin were found slightly rusted (Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government n.p.). That said, there should be no denying the merits of the scabbard that could have let the external factors got the best of the unique artefact if the sword had been left unsheathed. Water-resistant lacquer as a part of the design of the scabbard, a highly essential element of the sword, is one of the major reasons the inimitable artefact has retained its sharpness and gloss proudly standing the test of time.
On one side of the cutting artifact, two text columns are to be observed, with ancient script used to write eight characters on the body surface. Experts conducting an initial assessment managed to decipher six out of eight characters that read, “King of Yue” and “made this sword for [his] personal use.” Two characters that remain unidentified are believed the names of the King of Yue. After spending plenty of time debating, linguists reproduced the whole inscription that the surface of the sword contained. It reads, “Belonging [to] King Goujian of Yue, Made for His Personal Use” (Greg’s Martial Arts). It is close to the Ge, or the oval position between the hilt and the blade that the two lines of inscriptions are situated. They represent the so-called Bird Characters, otherwise known as bird-and-insect script. It is worth noting that the preliminary attempts to interpret the inscription on-site by the archeological team conducting excavations did help identify a total of six characters that meant “self-made and self-use” and “King of Yue State” (Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government n.p.).
Apart from inscriptions, the sword body contains other decorations. Besides the repetitive patterns of dark rhombi on both sides of the blade, the artifact contains decorations of turquoise and blue crystals. Eleven concentric circles constitute the pommel of the sword while its grip is bound by renowned Chinese silk (Greg’s Martial Arts). “Casting and Decoration Techniques – Sequel l” (n.p.) suggests that the technology of covering with silver or gold foil, inlaying with silver or gold, carving, gilding or engraving was common during the Spring and Autumn period. Artisans pressed or hammered heated silver or gold threats into grooves on the surface of their production. After cooling, inlay was polished. The sword of Goujian is a shining example of this technology (“Casting and Decoration Techniques – Sequel l” n.p.). Since artisans used the technology of gold inlaying, the surface of sword of Goujian was covered by the elements of gold, which is corrosion-resistant or able to withstand aqueous solutions or the impact of air that in combination with water can have corrosive effects on metals. While a mere part of sword design, at first glance, such ductile metal as gold can perform a corrosion preventive function, as may have been the case with the Sword of Goujian.
Chemical Components and Casting Technologies Applied by Production and Accountable for Sword Sharpness and Durability
Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.) claims that the sword is so sharp as to have caused a member of the archeological team to cut his finger on the edge bleeding profusely. Another team member tried evaluating the sword sharpness with 16 layers of paper cut off without any serious efforts and with one easy stroke (Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government n.p.). Since the blade has retained its extraordinary cutting potential, there must have been a secret composition of metals and forging techniques used by ancient Chinese artisans to produce a weapon masterpiece like this. Greg’s Martial Arts and Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.) suggest that the artifact is 55.6 centimeters in length, 8.4 centimeters hilt included, while the blade is 4.6 centimeters wide at its base. The total weight of the sword is 875 grams. According to Greg’s Martial Arts, this sword is much shorter than its later historical versions are since there was no technology that would allow producing longer swords some 2.500 years ago.
An 875 contains a wide range of components possibly responsible for its legendary properties and durability. Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.) claims that the composition of the sword is directly accountable for sharpness and the capacity of staying rustproof. Specialists from Static Accelerator in Shanghai Fudan University made scientific measurements in the December of 1977 to reach to initial conclusions that tin and bronze, with smaller amounts of nickel, lead, sulfur, and iron all were used to mold and forge the weapon. Kalamidas (n.p.) added arsenic to the list of elements used by sword production. According to Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government (n.p.), the technique of surface sulfuring was applied to rhombic patterns on the sword blade. That the grinding technique applied to the blade is comparable with that used nowadays in the manufacturing of products from precise grinders vindicates the excellence of the swords-making artisanship possessed by the Chinese thousands years ago. Now it has been clearly established that, for the most part, the sword of the king is composed of tin, copper, and the small amounts of bronze metal, which, in turn, was made of iron, aluminum, sulfur, and nickel. Tin accounts for approximately 16% to 17% while copper for 80% to 83%.
Interestingly, the functions of various sword parts determined the content or proportion of both metals. Thus, for example, the ridge of the sword contains larger quantities of copper, which allows the weapon to preserve its tenacity and avoid fracturing while the blade is rich in tin making it sharper and harder. As has been mentioned, the composition of patterns abounds with sulfur that preserves the shining looking of the artefact as well as keeping it from rusting. However, the biggest intrigue arises from the way the Chinese sword-makers of genius managed to combine so many different metals in one sword. Some experts argue the artisans adopted a composite metal processing, which implies pouring twice and then putting the two together. Not until modern times did countries other than China begin utilizing the technology of composite metal processing (Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government n.p.).
Bronze used to have a relatively tensile or tractile strength back then, which means blades would break or bend easily if made longer. The introduction of iron and steel and the improvement of bronze forging techniques in the period of the Early Han Dynasty from 206 to 0 AD revolutionized the production of swords that became longer and more tenacious. The technology of bronze swords peaked during the Qin Dynasty and earlier during the period of the Warring States that started after the Spring and Autumn Period at a time when Goujian was reigning. The craftsmen during the Warring States period applied unique technologies like casting high tin edges over lower and softer cores made of tin as well as the use of diamond patterns on the sword blade (Greg’s Martial Arts). In the case of the sword of Goujian, it appears that blue crystals were used in lieu of diamonds to decorate the blade at its base (Greg’s Martial Arts). However, softer cores and firmer tin edges are characteristic of the Sword of Goujian.
The sword has preserved its sharp blade, without developing the signs of dullness. Sword body is composed of copper, which makes it more ductile and less prone to shattering. The edges contain larger amounts of tin, which rendered them harder and preserving the sharpness of the edge. In order to keep the patterns from tarnishing, ancient masters used sulfur. Excellent chemical composition, the airtight scabbard, the lack of underground water and air in the king’s tomb has all proved the contributory causes of the excellent state of the artifact (Greg’s Martial Arts). Softer cores, albeit firmer edges might have been considered useful by ancient Chinese artisans especially in close combat. Blades come in contact with flesh, bones, and armor, and edge is the first part of the sword to do so. Ductility was possibly supposed to make it more ductile and less likely to shatter by contact with solid objects like armor. Although ductile, it could preserve its shape due to a relatively short length ensuring its tenacity and durability. As follows from the technology, a firmer edge was supposed to be a solid rim restraining the entire sword body and prevent from its ill-timed fracturing.
Goujian, the King of Yue and the owner of the legendary sword, reigned during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period, which means weapon production techniques common during the period were used by forging the sword. Hangang (n.p.) claims that China invented plenty of exceptional casting processes, such as the crude iron technique, wrought iron technique, cast iron technique, wrought steel technique, tempering technique, cast iron for decarburized steel technique, and standardized iron casting technique in the course of the Spring and Autumn period of the Warring States period. The casting technique applied for forging bronze swords reached maturity during the Spring and Autumn period.
Developed copper alloy technology and high temperature technology used in pottery production made the bronze weaponry like the sword of Goujian that had received the reputation of the best in the world. Swords during Spring and Autumn period are claimed to have increased in length, with the sword of Goujian being a sample of the technological trend. By the time the struggle of seven Chinese states for ultimate hegemony or superiority broke out, bronze weapons had become exceedingly standardized by means of after-casting treatment, the folding, tempering technique, gilded gold technique, and silver and gold inlaying technique. Artisans produced swords with longer handles tailored to pitched battles (Hangang n.p.). The sword of Goujian has a rather long handle and arguably shows the signs of gilded gold techniques along with forging technologies of the period.
Derui and Haiping (134) suggest that the lozenge patterns of the sword of King Goujian were made by the technique of surface tin-enrichment. Ancient Chinese artisans invented a number of the techniques of surface tin-enrichment to protect and decorate bronze weaponry. There were mostly three principal methods, such as hot tinning and tin-enrichment via paste diffusion and rubbing. Artisans could rub tin powder on a bronze surface, after which tin spreads forming a layer rich in tin, with its content reaching up to 60%. The layers goes on to undergo the process of oxidization forming a thin layer of SnO2, which has a corrosion-resistant ability.
The paste diffusion tin-enrichment could be applied by spreading the paste on bronze surface, mixing active agent and natural binder with the tin-copper alloy powder in order to make the paste, and heating the tin in the paste spread on the bronze surface to produce a tin-rich layer. The layer was 1 millimeter thick while the content of tin was within the range of 40% (Derui and Haiping 134-135). While mirrors serve as the examples of the application of both technologies, the sword is said to have been produced via the same surface tin-enrichment technology as bronze-made mirrors were. Artisans could have used both tin rubbing and paste-diffusion tin-enrichment techniques to provide the sword with an extra protective coating. Had artisans not applied additional protective coating using either of the two or both techniques, the sword would not be as sharp and shining as it is, for corrosion and other external factors would have damaged the unique product a long time ago.
Archeologist Mr. Rongfang suggested that Shao Hua, a known nobleman, was the owner of the grave, in which they found the sword. The nobleman received it as a token of gratitude of King Huai of Chu who had previously ordered that he infiltrate the kingdom of Yue to incite unrest, which he successfully did to earn the sword stolen by looting and later buried along with the statesman. Archeologist Chen Zhenyu argued that Goujian bestowed his valuable bronze sword upon King Huai as a marriage gift after the latter had married one of his daughters. The sword was later presented to the presumed the great-grandson of King Dao of Chu, Shao Gu, a member of Chu’s royal court for his devout service. The third version is suggestive of the last sword owner being a Yue prince who had escaped to the kingdom of Chu and eventually died in Yindu. After the extermination of Wu by Goujian, Chu and Yue became neighbors exchanging gifts on friendly terms. The Sword of Goujian may have been one of such precious diplomatic gifts.
One of the most striking details that caught the eye of archeologists was the scabbard. A part of the exterior design, its lacquer surface was a good protector from humidity. The scabbard itself was an air-tight case, which prevented corrosion and retained the sharpness of the artefact and its shining looking. Another part of sword blade design, a unique inscription revealed whom the sword belonged to originally. It is believed the sword was produced based on the technology of covering with silver or gold foil, inlaying with silver or gold, carving, gilding or engraving was common during the Spring and Autumn period. The use of gold for decorative purposes applied to the surface of the sword body added another corrosion-resistant coating that has kept the blade of the sword as sharp as it was at the time of production. The sword weighing about 875 grams contains a wide range of metals like tin and bronze, with smaller amounts of nickel, lead, sulfur, and iron. The technology of surface sulfuring protecting the rhombic patterns did a lot to retain the original cutting properties of the weapon. The grinding technique also contributing to weapon tenacity does not differ from that applied nowadays.
Each part of the artifact had varying amounts of metals determine by its functional purpose. The ridge of the sword contains larger quantities of copper, which enables the weapon to preserve its tenacity and avoid fracturing while the blade is rich in tin making it sharper and harder. A composite metal processing, which implies pouring twice and then putting the two together to make it possible to combine so many metals is considered as such that was ahead of its time. Artisans of the Warring States period applied unique technologies like casting high tin edges over lower and softer cores, which demonstrates why the sword of Goujian is so tenacious and sharp. The edges contain larger amounts of tin, which rendered them harder and preserving the sharpness of the edge. Tin rubbing and paste-diffusion tin-enrichment techniques also have the potential of improving the tenacity of metals used by producing bronze weapons. Overall, the sword of Goujian is an inimitable ancient artefact that has yet to open all of its historical secrets; still, its inimitable casting and design techniques allowed producing a highly tenacious and sharp sword retaining its unique properties and royal gloss though centuries and millennia.
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Derui, Tan, and Lian Haiping. “The Ancient Chinese Casting Techniques.” China Foundry Association. February 2011. 127-136. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
Greg’s Martial Arts. “The Bronze Sword of Goujian, King of Yue State.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 16 August 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
Jingzhou Municipal People’s Government. “The fastest Sword – Anecdote of the Sword of Goujian, King of Yue.” Jingzhou. China. 3 April 2014. n.p. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
Hangang, Cao. “A Study of Chinese Weapons Cast during Pre-Qin and Han Periods in the Central Plains of China.” History of Steel in Eastern Asia. Macao Museum of Art. n.d. n.p. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
Kalamidas, Thanos. “The Blade that Defeated Millennia.” GB Times. 17 April 2013. n.p. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.