A great sword with a great story

Shanghai Daily - - NOW AND THEN - Zhu Ying woxin chang­dan

Even af­ter more than 2,000 years, the Sword of Gou­jian, a bronze dou­ble-edged sword, can still eas­ily cut through 20 lay­ers of pa­per at once.

Un­cov­ered in 1965, it is one of China’s na­tional trea­sures and now rests in the Hubei Pro­vin­cial Mu­seum.

The ear­li­est Chi­nese swords found so far date back to the West­ern Zhou pe­riod (1046-771 BC).

The early bronze swords served as a weapon and a sym­bol of power.

By the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618-907), literati were wear­ing swords as well, as an or­na­ment, a sign of stand­ing or of am­bi­tion.

The sword also served a rit­ual role in buri­als.

Many were buried in tombs with the bod­ies of the an­cient Chi­nese aris­toc­racy.

And the most prom­i­nent ex­am­ple is the Sword of Gou­jian. The blade of the Gou­jian sword is pat­terned with re­peat­ing rhom­bus, or par­al­lel­o­grams, and the hilt is dec­o­rated with blue crys­tal and turquoise.

It was un­earthed from the con­struc­tion site of the Zhang River Reser­voir in Jingzhou, Hubei Prov­ince in 1965. In the area, arche­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered more than 50 an­cient tombs of the state of Chu (1115-223 BC).

The sword is one of around 400 ar­ti­facts in­clud­ing bronze ves­sels, jade and lac­quer­wares that were found in the Wang­shan No.1 tomb.

But at first, it was not known who was ly­ing in the tomb.

In De­cem­ber 1965, arche­ol­o­gists opened the cof­fin and found a sword with a wooden scab­bard be­side a hu­man skele­ton.

Those arche­ol­o­gists were thrilled at its gloss and the fact it had not tar­nished over the cen­turies.

It is said the blade was still so sharp that an arche­ol­o­gist’s fin­ger was cut.

Two columns of text were en­graved on one side of the blade. Th­ese eight char­ac­ters were writ­ten in an an­cient script, called as bird-worm script, which evolved from seal char­ac­ters, a style of Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy.

Among the eight char­ac­ters, six were rec­og­niz­able, trans­lated as “King of the state of Yue (2023-222 BC),” “per­son­ally made” and “per­sonal use.”

But it did not im­me­di­ately iden­tify the owner be­cause there were nine mon­archs in the his­tory of the state of Yue, and the two char­ac­ters that may have been the name of the owner were ar­cane.

In 1966, Tang Lan, a re­searcher at The Palace Mu­seum, said th­ese two Chi­nese char­ac­ters were “Gou” and “Jian.” Gou­jian was one of the kings of the state of Yue, rul­ing dur­ing 496-465 BC.

Although the mys­tery of the owner had been solved, an­other re­mained: Why was a sword be­long­ing to a king of the state of Yue buried in a tomb in the state of Chu? As it turns out, the story of the sword echoes the story of the life of Gou­jian him­self.

In 494 BC, Gou­jian was cap­tured by the state of Wu (12th cen­tury – 473 BC) and served as a ser­vant to its king for three years be­fore be­ing re­leased.

Re­turn­ing home, Gou­jian re­sumed his reign. He slept on brush­wood, forced him­self to drink bile ev­ery day and said to him­self “Gou­jian, do you for­get the mor­ti­fi­ca­tion that you ex­pe­ri­enced in the state of Wu?”

The Chi­nese id­iom

(sleep­ing on brush­wood and tast­ing gall), ex­presses his tenac­ity.

Ap­point­ing ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cians as ad­vis­ers, such as Fan Li and Wen Zhong, Gou­jian de­ter­mined to take his re­venge. And that meant mak­ing weapons.

Hear­ing of Gou­jian’s plan, an el­derly man named Ouyezi started try­ing to make swords but failed.

One day, he dreamed of an im­mor­tal who sug­gested go­ing to Qinxi Moun­tain where magic wa­ter and gems were avail­able.

It is said that Ouyezi cast five rare swords here — Zhanlu, Chun­jun, Shengxie, Juque and Yuchang. By virtue of th­ese su­pe­rior weapons, Gou­jian de­feated the state of Wu in 473 BC.

Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts and de­scrip­tions in an an­cient book, the Sword of Gou­jian is sim­i­lar to the one called Chun­jun.

A bam­boo slip un­earthed from the tomb in­di­cates that the oc­cu­pant was Hua.

Based on the dis­cov­ery, some arche­ol­o­gists be­lieve that the per­son was Shao Hua, a great noble dur­ing the reign of the King Huai of Chu.

He helped the king de­feat the state of Yue. There­fore, the king awarded the sword as a tro­phy to him.

To high­light his il­lus­tri­ous war ex­ploits to the fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tions, Shao was buried with the fa­mous sword.

But other ex­perts think that the sword is not a tro­phy but a dowry. One of Gou­jian’s daugh­ters mar­ried the King Zhao of Chu and thus the sword might have been sent by Gou­jian to the king of the state of Chu, who later gave it to Shao.

No mat­ter which ver­sion is true, one thing is for sure that the cast­ing of the sword is su­perb. It is made of al­loy of cop­per, tin, lead, sul­fur, alu­minum and other metal­lic el­e­ments.

The ridge of the sword has a high con­cen­tra­tion of cop­per, which makes it more mal­leable. The edge con­tains a large amount of tin, mak­ing it harder and sharper, and sul­fur helps it re­sist tar­nish­ing.

This na­tional trea­sure echoes the his­tory of China.

It is a story of great con­flicts, power strug­gles and last­ing crafts­man­ship.

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