Japan and China has always been in the focus of the international study of East Asian culture and history. It is in the interest of Chinese & Japanese art learners as well as history academia to study the phases of history where China and Japan experienced each of their golden ages. When was Chinese systems and methods exported to Japan and when was Japanese methods exported to China?
The Han and Tang Dynasties are China’s golden age. This golden age ended when the middle kingdom’s military fortunes declined in the Song Dynasty, with political wrestling of power of the civil officials away from the military officials, who are generals leading the army in charge of the country’s survival.
Japan however got the fortune to be the first to be studied by the modern Western world as they opened their doors to modernization and Western influence in the latter half of the 19th century. After World War 2, Karate was the first to be introduced to the West before Taekwondo and Kung Fu. Japanese martial arts like Judo, Karate, Aikido, Kendo, Ju-jutsu and Kendo was first popularized in the USA, followed by other Western countries in Europe and Australia.
It is disheartening to see that laymen in the global community who have not studied East Asian history before the 19th century may have the wrongful impression that Chinese Kung Fu are inferior to Japanese martial arts. In today’s world of peace, there are no Chinese martial artists openly having a showdown with Japanese martial artists to help us determine which is more superior, but we can take a historical trip to the Ming Dynasty to take a peek at the war between the Japanese pirates and the Chinese army, free from the nationalistic agendas of today’s Chinese and Japanese governments.
During the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese discovered the zenith of sword forging, which is the high quality folded steel straight single edge sword, which we call the Tang Dao. It was incredibly sharp, yet handy and quick to wield. This design and forging method was learnt by the Japanese who stayed in China, and from then on the Japanese developed this sword into the curved Japanese katana. At that time, the sword was not called Katana, it was called the Nodachi.
The Nodachi was at least 1.5m long, and those used near the end of the Japanese Warring States period were about 1.8m to 2m long. You cannot use it like what you see in Kendo competitions, where participants wave their bamboo sticks in an incense stick praying fashion, spamming this motion quickly to score points and intimidate the opponent. The Nodachi is too long and heavy to wield like that, its strokes were mostly circular and wide swings that made use of its reach and momentum.
Civil War in Japan ended, and we have the Katana that we see in popular media today
In the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate banned the possession of Nodachi among all of Japan, be it civilian or samurai. Swords were only allowed a length maximum of 1.2m, this became the highly praised Katana that we see in weapon collector shops today.
The truth is, the Katana was not used in infantry warfare outside of Japan in the Edo Era, which enjoyed peace for 2 hundred years before the Americans came and forced Westernization on Japan in 1865.
Now we know the Nodachi, in the later stages of the Warring States period (which is the Ming Dynasty in China) warlords gathered samurai swordsmen all over Japan to form a large network of pirates. This band of pirates was huge, in the size of tens of thousands, near half were supplemented by marginalized Chinese criminals from the East Coast of China. The South of China was known for regional crime lords and bandits as the hilly forested terrain made it hard for law enforcement from the central government to reach. Apparently these petty thieves have no shame as traitors of the Chinese people, they joined the ranks of the Japanese pirates learned the sword skills of the Japanese, after which they raided and pillaged their own country folk together with their Japanese colleagues.
Under the raids of the pirates, the entire Eastern Coast of China was thrown into chaos, from Shandong all the way South to Hainan. This was the first time the middle kingdom was being threatened by foreign invaders from the Eastern and Southeastern coast.
Since the Zhou Dynasty and the construction of the first sections of the Great Wall, the emphasis has been to defend the borders from Xiongnu and Mongol barbarian invaders from the Steppes in the North. While the Northwestern provinces were used to fighting large scale cavalry warfare, the regional armies of the Southeast had not seen action in infantry warfare for more than a thousand years. The Japanese pirates would launch guerilla attacks on the coastal towns, which suffered heavy losses as the defense forces could not react in time. The invasion was so effective that the pirates would occupy the beach front and several dozen miles inland. For the Southern and Eastern Chinese, it was a period of terror.
In that era lived a man, General Qi Ji Guang (戚继光). He was from Shandong, a newly appointed general sent by the government to tackle the pirate invasion problem. This was a difficult situation for him and the army he took charge of, as he found that the soldiers in Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong were poorly equipped with outdated weapons and equipment, and the central government did not provide the resistance effort with sufficient funding. He had no choice but to improvise, and exhibited his talent as a martial arts expert, a leader and most importantly a tactician.
Documentary about General Qi Ji Guang
During General Qi Ji Guang's brief retreat, he formulated a strategy to overcome his enemies, based on the battlefield experience and studying Japanese sword techniques. He decided not to meet the enemy at the strong subject, which is swordsmanship. Instead, using a special kind of hard bamboo he invented an improvised weapon called the "wolf brush 狼筅". The wolf brush is 5m long, has several protruding branches that serve to obstruct, jam and trap the long Japanese swords. He created the Mandarin Duck Formation that supported the wolf brush user with 2 shield holders armed with single handed sabers to protect the wolf brush user, and 2 spearmen armed with 5m long spears to deliver the killing blow to the trapped swordsmen.
Besides upgrading the equipment and introducing new battlefield tactics and formations, general Qi also set up an early warning system of sentry towers that signals pirate sightings through flame beacons. This prevented the pirates from harming civilians and always made sure that they are greeted with the most resistance. General Qi would recruit the resistance fighters from villages that the pirates harmed, as they would be fuelled by the anger against the ruthless pirates. He specifically picked men from the countryside as their lifestyle of hard labor made them better soldiers than the inhabitants of rich coastal cities.
Documentary researching the combat effectiveness of Ming army's Wolf Bush VS Japanese pirates' swords
The resistance army would recite loudly, telling their Chinese enemies to surrender and they will be spared. As soon as a few Chinese pirates surrendered, most of the other Chinese pirates will surrender and the remaining would retreat. General Qi was so successful in his coastal defense campaigns that the books that he written about building an army and training troops and the ideal way of building fortifications and using formations were circulated around armies country wide and highly valued by other military leaders in China, even in the Qing Dynasty. He was also sent to help Korea repel the pirate attacks. In Korea’s case, the superior cannons that the Ming army and Korean army and navy possessed were the key to dismantling Japanese fortifications on the Korean peninsula.
Winning with an Unfamiliar Counter, not by being a Copycat
Later in his career, Qi Ji Guang was appointed as the chief-in-command of the Northern border defense corps. He introduced the Mandarin Duck formation to his new army, and introduced a new weapon called the Changdao, meaning Long saber in Chinese. Partially inspired by the effectiveness of a long two handed weapon the Japanese had, he created the Changdao which was 1.5m – 2m long, and it was straight from the handle to the leading edge where it curved towards the tip, unlike the Nodachi which was curved at the handle and the entire blade. The Changdao uses a mixture of Chinese sword techniques and staff techniques, unlike what many people think to resemble Japanese Katana techniques. There are some practitioners who even teach their Japanese Katana techniques to students while calling it the Changdao.
Due to inaccurate transmission of commoner schools, many now propagate the idea that Qi Ji Guang ‘fought fire with fire’, creating the Changdao which was intended as a Chinese Katana, to fight with the Japanese Katana. Their version goes like this, the Changdao which was the Chinese’s Katana was longer than the Japanese’s Katana which was maximum 1.2m long, thus it overcame the Japanese Katana. They say that this Chinese Katana eventually evolved into the Miao Dao that we see in performance Wushu forms today. These people were not aware of the existing historical records of Warring States Japanese armies using the long and curved Nodachi instead of the shorter Katana we see in modern Samurai movies. Against the 1.9m long Nodachi, no human sword on the planet will have the advantage of reach.
The Changdao was in actual fact used for chopping the legs of horses when facing the Mongolian cavalry and heavy cavalry of the Steppes. It wasn’t primarily used for sword vs sword combat. Today, you will see Miao Dao which are no longer than 1.4m and sport a gradual round curved tip. Unlike a sharper angular tip, the round tip is useful for cutting flesh, not so useful when hacking through thick material such as metal armor, animal hide and other swords. Adequate anti-armor ballistic properties need to be present in a battlefield ready weapon. The Miao Dao also sports a significant curve on the blade, which means it is meant for cutting unarmored targets. What we believe is that the Miao Dao is practiced by non-official civilians for self-defense. Also, the Changdao would not sport fanciful fleet footed movements like that of a dancing swan. Flowery sword work has no place on the battlefield full of thick steel and bloodshed.
The Han Chinese’s Innovative Spirit
In the several decades of victories of the Chinese and Korean armies against the Japanese pirates, the Japanese pirates did not modify their battle tactics. They stuck to using the tactic they started out with, guerrilla raids with Nodachi swordsmen supported by some squads of Yari spearmen, and they repeatedly failed and deployed the same tactics over and over again. We wonder if this could be the staunch pride of the Japanese fighters that their art is superior and it is only the fault of their own incompetence that the art failed to work.
Looking at the variety of weaponry available to Japanese Samurai and Ashigaru soldiers, they arsenal was limited to Nodachi, Katana as sidearms, Yari spears, Yumi bows and Naginata polearms. Their close combat weapons were all shaped like the Katana, unlike Chinese weapons that comes in many forms and disciplines, such as the straight sword, curved saber and more special weapons such as the Shuang Shou Dai (known today as Pu Dao), halberds, tridents, staffs, swordbreakers, crossbows, rakes, wolf brush, hook spear and the Changdao. If you have read my blog on the 18 weapons you would know that there are more than 18 weapons used by Chinese soldiers and pugilists.
China simply has seen more war and fighting than Japan throughout its long history. Its history was so long that during long periods of peace, the defenders got complacent and failed to maintain their standards, creating vulnerable spots for foreign invaders to exploit. It is thus important for us to learn from history that we must always seek realistic experiences to constantly stimulate growth and improvement over ourselves and our predecessors. We also need the mindset that if a catastrophe has a chance of occurring, we must surely prepare ourselves adequately for it.