Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Weapons of Kings: A New Perspective on Southern Sword Legends in Early China

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

The Weapons of Kings: A New Perspective on Southern Sword Legends in Early China

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Legends about swords developed in early China are derived virtually exclusively from the kingdoms of Wu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in present-day southern Jiangsu province, and Yue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in what is now northern Zhejiang province. Swords held a special place in the culture of these two ancient kingdoms, which in the late Spring and Autumn period (771-475 B.C.E.) and early Warring States era (475-221 B.C.E.) stood at the southernmost edge of the Chinese world. Both Wu and Yue were famous among their contemporaries for the fine quality of the blades that they produced, but it was not until much later, during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.), that their sword legends were first systematically collected and were included in two texts: the Yuejue shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Historical Texts from the Kingdom of Yue) and the Wu Yue chunqiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Spring and Autumn Annals of the Kingdoms of Wu and Yue). (1) These tales became an important part of Chinese mythology, and introduced such characters as the legendary swordsmiths Gan Jiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Mo Ye [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to new audiences in stories that would be popular for millennia. (2) Thus, from the Eastern Han dynasty onwards, these sword legends were no longer an expression of the culture of the ancient kingdoms of Wu and Yue, but became part of a Chinese tradition. Many of the conventions used in describing weapons in wuxia [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] literature, right up to the present day, can be traced back directly to the tales first recorded in these ancient texts. (3)

The earliest surviving references to swords from Wu and Yue that are found in early Chinese texts describe just two aspects of these weapons--their high quality and great value. However, once local legends from the Wu-Yue region were recorded from the Eastern Han dynasty onwards, a wide array of new tales appeared, and these provide important information about the role of swords in the culture of those two ancient kingdoms. They demonstrate the importance of sword ownership for the royal houses of Wu and Yue, and describe a number of different aspects of possession of these find blades. In the culture of the ancient kingdoms of Wu and Yue, these swords were not just high-quality weapons, of significant monetary value; they were an integral part of royal regalia. When alive, the kings of Wu and Yue used their swords as a sign of their right to rule; when dead, they had the swords buried with them in their tombs as royal grave-goods. This paper will examine both the legends recorded in texts associated with the Central States, and those from the Wu-Yue region itself, to demonstrate the importance of swords within the culture of the ancient south and the response they garnered in the Zhou confederacy. From analysis of the full range of stories recorded in pre-Han and Han-dynasty texts, these can be placed into three loose, overlapping categories: tales about the preciousness of these blades, those concerning their significance as royal grave-goods, and those which describe them as southern royal regalia.

WU AND YUE SWORDS: TREASURES BEYOND PRICE

Although many references to swords from Wu and Yue are included in Central States texts from the Warring States era onwards, they concentrate on two particular aspects of these weapons: the amazing quality of southern swords, and their great value. In contrast to the situation in the Wu-Yue region, there are no stories about the manufacture of precious swords, interment of such weapons in graves, or their importance as symbols of royal authority. Tales from the Central States region prior to the unification of China focused solely on the quality and value of swords from the kingdoms of Wu and Yue. This may simply be a reflection of the acknowledged superior quality of Wu and Yue swords at the time; the technical standards pertaining in the southeast produced much finer weapons than those made in the states of the Zhou confederacy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.