The jian (Tai Chi sword) is a double-edged straight sword that has existed in many iterations and styles for a couple thousand years in China. Throughout its history most versions utilize blades varying from 17.7 to 31.5 inches in length. The weight of the average jian typically ranges from 1.5 to 2 pounds. Additionally, there are larger two-handed versions that have been used by many styles of Chinese martial arts.
The jian is known as "The Gentleman's Weapon" and is acknowledged as one of the four major Chinese weapons, along with the staff, spear, and saber.
Construction of the jian
The guard (hilt) protects the hand. The guard is typically shaped by short wing shaped construction pointing forward or backward from the handle depending on the era and region of manufacture. The handle located above the guard provides enough room for the grip of both hands or one hand plus two or three fingers of the other hand. The handle's grip is usually made of wood or covered in a wrapped with cord. The higher quality swords typically use a high quality wood suitable for building fine furniture
At the end of the handle is a pommel that is typically weighted for balance, as well as to prevent the handle from sliding through the hand, and for striking or trapping an opponent. The more accurate historical reproductions utilize a pommel that is pined onto the tang of the blade holding it together as a solid unit. Most jian however, at least in the last century, utilize a threaded tang onto which the pommel or pommel-nut is screwed.
Typically a tassel is attached to a hole in the pommel-nut, however most practitioners discard the tassel for their practice. Historically these were used more as lanyards, allowing for better retention of the sword in combat. Some sword forms use the tassel as part of their style of swordsmanship, but the tassel's use now is primarily decorative.
The blade is divided into three sections of differing lengths for offensive and defensive uses. The jiànfeng (tip) or first 3 to 4 inches of the blade is used for stabbing, slashing, and quick percussive cuts and it usually curves smoothly to a point. The middle section of the blade (zhongren) is used for a variety of offensive and defensive actions such as, cleaving cuts, draw cuts, and deflections. The jiangen or last section of the blade is closest to the guard and is used for defensive actions.
The Jian blade typically features a subtle tapering of width and thickness with the blade's thickness near the tip being only half the thickness of the blade's base at the hilt. The Jiàn's sharpening is usually made progressively sharper towards the tip and duller towards the hilt to correspond with the differing purposes of the three sections of the blade. The cross-section of the blade on a good sword is typically similar to a flattened diamond with a visible central ridge. However, some swords use a ventricular fuller (blood grove)with an oval shape.
Purchasing a Jian for practice or show
Traditionally, a jian was crafted according to the size of the user, and then balanced to his or her preference. Today, many lighter, non-functional weapons are sold that vary widely in weight and balance and are mass-produced for use in form competition and practice. If you are just starting out on your search for the right tai chi sword the offerings get murky, especially if you are purchasing online. Of course, the best way to purchase a sword is direct from a local dealer where you can handle the sword and measure it to see if the length, balance and feel are what you want, but finding a local supplier of quality swords is not always possible.
My first jian was purchased locally and was a bit pricey for the quality, but it had excellent balance and feel. However, the quality of construction was poor, especially at the $200 price. I searched online and bought a couple of swords from China through Ebay, all of poor quality and too heavy for practical use. Next was the Hanwei practical tai chi sword, a nice sword, but the handle and guard we're both too small for my hand and practice. The Hanwei sword though does have good balance and feel plus at around $100 is a good buy.
I was still in search of the right sword so I tried the Cold Moon Sword by Dragon Well, which was touted as one of the best tai chi swords on the market by its sellers. The sword is nice and the quality is decent, but it is more like the claymore of tai chi swords and too heavy for tai chi practice. The blade balance was weighted improperly and so I have had to do a fair amount of work to balance it. A friend with access to a welder and furniture shop tools cut his Cold Moon sword’s handle down and reworked the whole sword to make it fit him better.
As I searched for a sword to meet both my practice and aesthetic needs I looked at the Cold Steel Gim, which sounds like a nice sword, but good luck getting one and you can't buy them to fit your size, it is a one size fits all proposition. The higher quality swords online we're either way out of my price range or the length of the blade was wrong for my size. Plus, there was no way to know their weight or balance points. Finally, I lucked into an arrangement with a manufacturer/forge in China that built a sword to my specifications in length, weight, balance and materials for a decent price. The pictures on this page are of that sword (click on the images to enlarge).
Properly fitting your sword
Weight is a major factor in a tai chi sword that is both functional and a joy to practice with. If it is too heavy it will affect the softness of your form, if it is too light it will not give you the feel or the development of skill that you seek. The ideal weight is around 1.3lbs to 2 lbs for the blade and handle together depending on the length of the sword.
How long should the blade be? If you have a sword and hold it with your left hand so that the tip of the sword point to your ear and the guard is resting in the middle of the fingers with the index finger pointed on the handle towards the pommel, the tip of the sword should be between the bottom and top of your left ear. If you don't have access to a sword use a tape measure. Hold the tape measure in the fingers of the left hand and measure to the middle of your left ear and this will give you a goodmeasure of the length your blade should be.
Jian were originally made from bronze, then steel as metal technology advanced. Today it’s a mixed bag between spring steel, stainless steel, and Damascus steel.
Damascus steel: The general term "Damascus" refers to metal with a visible grain pattern, sometimes with a texture. Modern Damascus is a lamination of folded steels selected with cosmetic qualities, with grinding and polishing specifically to expose the layers.
True Damascus patterns are formed when carbon trace elements form visible swirls in the steel mix, that change properties when work hardened (forged). This blade is more expensive than stainless steel or spring steel, but it is also more beautiful and durable providing flexibility with strength.
Damascus steel is beautiful and requires skill to produce so the blade reflects the knowledge, craftsmanship and sensitivity of the forge. Light plays along its surface and even the most subtle actions are captured in the metal. It maintains a history with the fire and hammer, and because it is so responsive, it has an organic quality that transcends a plain polished blade.
Stainless steel: Stainless steel is an alloy of steel (steel is a product of iron and carbon) which contains the element Chromium of approximately 13-16 percent. Chromium added to steel and helps prevent rust because the chromium forms a protective oxide layer on the surface of the steel.
In smaller amounts, Chromium generally makes the steel deep hardening and helps to refine the grain size. However, in larger amounts, the grain boundaries are weakened, which affects the overall performance of the steel. How much performance is affected increases with the length of the blade. Personally, I would steer away from the more brittle stainless steelsword blade.
Spring Steel: Spring steel is a low alloy, medium carbon steel with very high yield strength. This allows objects made of spring steel to return to their original shape despite significant bending or twisting. Because of its ability to flex it is one of the best materials for functional swords.
High Carbon Steel: Basically also known as Spring Steel.
Click here for a more in-depth review of the difference in sword materials:
For more information about obtaining a custom fit Jian: Wudang Sword