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Dao vs. Jian Swords : The Yin and Yang of Chinese Blades

Written By: David Mickov
Published On: April 4, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Over the centuries, throughout China, many different styles of swords have been used in battle, fighting, ceremonies, and martial arts. They are the Dao, sometimes called a saber, and Jian, which is shorthand and most commonly referred to as the Chinese sword in modern times.

Both have proven effective and practical in all four of the aforementioned contexts, each serving a unique role. In this article, we will discuss and compare the Chinese saber and sword, as well as explain why and how the Dao saber became the most used Chinese sword in history.

Design Comparison

Saber (Dao)Sword (Jian)
EdgeSingleDouble
BladeStraight, curvedStraight
GuardRound, cup, hook, diamondCrescent, narrowed, diamond
HandleStraight, curvedStraight
PommelRing, metal cap, curved, narrowed, tassel or lanyardRing, round or diamond style, tassel or lanyard
Length27.5 to 70 inches (70 to 180 cm)20 to 43 inches (50 to 110 cm)
Weight1.5 to 4.8 lbs (700 g to 2.2 kg)1.5 to 2.4 lbs (700 g to 1.1 kg)

Edge

The blade edge, or the sharpened part of the blade to be utilized for cutting or slashing, is the most obvious and defining feature between the two categories of Chinese swords. Whereas the blade of a Dao saber is always honed on one side, the blade of a Jian is always sharpened on both sides. In other words, Jians are double-edged, and Dao’s are single-edged blades.

Blade

Sabre vs Sword Chinese
A straight Jian Sword (left) and a curved Dao saber (right) – Credits: Dude Songan

Although the widespread understanding is that a saber is a curved single-edged blade, early Dao blades developed during the Han period were not necessarily curved. They had straight blades for a couple of centuries, but as the employment of cavalry grew in popularity, that edge began to bend, making the curved blades the most common in the Chinese sword arsenal. 

The Jian is essentially an extension of the traditional Chinese dagger, and its blade is always straight and double-edged.

Guard

Guards are the metal pieces mounted on the top of the handle that shields the user’s hands from injury. The guards on Jian swords are the classic Chinese crescent shape, and they may be adjusted to fit closer to the blade or the grip. Both in size and the level of security it provides, it falls short of the Dao guards, who are superior in all respects because they are larger, heavier, and, in most cases, spherical or round. 

Handle

The Chinese sword handle is typically straight and designed for one-handed use. The Miao Dao, for example, is a type of larger and longer Chinese saber designed to be wielded with two hands and has a curved handle for increased cutting efficiency.

Pommel

Chinese saber and Sword
Chinese Sabers and Swords next to each other – Credits: Diatrex

The ring pommel was a Chinese innovation that made it simpler to make a blade with a full tang. Both the Jian sword and the Dao saber would initially have these, but eventually, they would be replaced. The sword’s pommel was either a diamond or a circular Chinese design, while the Dao’s would be a simple metal cap. Usually, a Chinese sword tassel or lanyard is attached to them.

Length

Both Dao sabers and Jian swords come in short and long lengths, with the shorter ones typically being one-handed. However, two-handed Dao sabers are significantly longer than their two-handed Jian counterparts.

Weight

There is no discernible difference in weight between one-handed Chinese sabers and swords. It’s true that the Dao saber, especially the broad-bladed Dadao, is heavier than the Jian, but that’s because the Jian’s balance point is closer to the middle of the blade. The Dao’s is closer to the end of the blade, where the cutting power is greatest. 

Uses Comparison

Saber (Dao)Sword (Jian)
Thrusting✖️✔️
Slashing✔️✔️
Cutting✔️✖️
Versatility✖️✔️
Mounted✔️✖️

Thrusting

The straight blade and two sharp edges that taper into a thinner blade tip of the Jian sword make it the superior thrusting weapon. Because of this, unlike the curved Dao saber, it may pass through holes in armor and be utilized in half-swording techniques, such as gripping the blade with the hand and utilizing it as a dagger.

Slashing

Cutting strikes with the Chinese Dao Sabre – Credits: Champ Archer

The Jian is commonly thought of as a thrusting sword, but it is also capable of performing deadly slashes comparable to those of a one-handed Dao saber. Despite this, the Chinese sabre’s curved blade makes it a bit more effective at cutting or slicing into flesh and creating larger wounds.

Cutting

When it comes to cutting, the Dao saber stands head and shoulders above the Jian sword. Like the Dadao and Niuweidao, these rare versions were made for slashing strikes throughout history and could easily sever body parts. For this reason, Dao sabers are the preferred Chinese execution swords.

Versatility

Cutting and thrusting strikes with the Chinese Jian Sword – Credits: Champ Archer

The Jian sword has greater versatility and adaptability. The fundamental reason for this is that the guard is where most of the sword’s weight is concentrated, allowing for faster and more unpredictable strikes. Because of the double-edged blade, blocks and attacks can be delivered quickly and from any direction.

Mounted

The best-mounted Chinese swords are the curved swords or Dao sabres. They have a single edge that curves slightly throughout their length, which is especially useful when coupled with the speed of a horse. It can rip through gaps in armor easily and cause severe wounds. Its curved design prevents it from getting caught on shields or flesh, a major advantage over the Jian swords in history.

The Better Sword & Replacement

Chinese Saber vs Sword
Making 100.000 Dao sabres was much cheaper than 100.000 Jian swords; Han Dynasty soldiers with Chinese sabers – Credits: Wiki Media

Finding the best Chinese sword in these two categories is simply impossible because they both have their own purpose and place in combat. However, we believe the Jian sword would be the superior weapon of choice in a one-on-one duel when both combatants are equally skilled with swords, mainly thanks to its versatility and adaptability.

Although that’s our opinion, China’s history has gone in the other direction. Their preferred weapon of choice was the Dao saber, which was the preferred blade by both civilians and soldiers alike. It must be noted that this switch wasn’t gradually done by the soldiers, but the choice of the institution of the Military in the Han Dynasty, and most likely during Han Wudi’s reign (~150 BC).

There are four main factors as to why this happened.

  • Economy – Dao sabres were cheaper to produce
  • Utility & Durability – single-edged blade is easier to maintain
  • Mastering the Weapon – the Dao single-edge sabre is much easier to use with hacking strikes
  • Effectiveness – Chinese sabres were as effective as the sword, and especially popular with the increase of the cavalry forces
Sources Cited

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