Check our Sword Shop

Chinese Sword Breaker: Types and Historical Use

Written By: Abigail Cambal
Published On: February 14, 2023
Edited by: Juliana Cummings

Chinese sword breakers can snap blades in half, break bones, and deliver thrusts. However, sword breaker seems to be a Western terminology for the ancient Chinese weapon called whip (bian) and truncheon (jian). In military manuals, these weapons had other functions apart from breaking an opponent’s blade.

Let’s explore the history of the Chinese sword breaker, its different types, and uses.

Types of Chinese Sword Breakers

The Chinese sword breakers that we know today are actually types of heavy bar maces. In Chinese military texts, tie jian (iron rod or truncheon) refers to those with smooth rods, while tie bian (iron whip) refers to those with bamboo-like segments.

1. Tie Jian (Iron Rod)

Jian chinese sword breaker
Jian, a Chinese sword breaker – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The term jian, written in Chinese character 鐧, refers to the bar mace with a smooth rod. It should not be confused with jian (剑) which refers to the popular Chinese double-edged sword. 

The tie jian or metal rod typically had angled edges. Unlike a katana or machete, these weapons did not have a sharp blade. Some believe that its name comes from zhujian (竹簡): a bamboo slip used as a writing material for written texts before the invention of paper.

Large, two-handed versions of jian were popular in military use during the Ming dynasty. These original antique sword breakers were capable of destroying swords and other weapons. During the Qing dynasty, the military mostly used single-handed versions. However, shorter and more lightweight versions likely served as military batons instead of sword breakers.

2. Tie Bian (Iron Whip)

Chinese tiebian mace
A Chinese tiěbiān mace – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The term bian (鞭) literally means whip, though the weapon is stiff and non-flexible. It is a type of Chinese sword breaker with a rarer, bamboo-sectioned rod. These weapons can be traced back to the Song dynasty when they first appeared in the military manual Wujing zongyao.

During the Ming and the Qing dynasties, the guards and elite forces primarily used these bar maces. These weapons were also heavy and could destroy a sword or inflict damage through armor. A large version of tie bian was issued to the Jian Rui Ying of the Qing dynasty military.

Characteristics of the Chinese Sword Breaker

The Chinese sword breakers are most recognized for their straight iron bars with sword-like hilts, though their cross-section and mountings varied.

Here are the unique characteristics of the Chinese sword breaker:

Metal and Construction

Historical examples of Chinese sword breakers were made from iron or steel. In Chinese military texts, they are called tie jian or tie bian, meaning iron rod and iron whip, respectively. Some examples were high quality while others were coarse or manufactured by villages. Today, reproductions of these weapons often have high-carbon steel blades (rods).

Rod Appearance

Jian tapering to a dull point
Jian tapering to a dull point – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The Chinese sword breakers can feature smooth or bamboo-sectioned rods, depending on their type. The tie jian (rod or truncheon) tended to have an angular (often rectangular or square) or round cross-section. Their square or rectangular cross-sections of tie jian often come with grooves or hollow ground facets, tapering gradually into a dull point.

Chinese tiebian bamboo section rod
Chinese tiěbiān with its bamboo-sectioned rod – Credits: Runjeet Singh

On the other hand, the tie bian (whip) always had a bamboo-sectioned rod, often of round cross-section but can also be angular. Many believe that its segmented rod could bite into armor and other edged weapons, preventing them from sliding off during a hit.

Size and Length

Large tie jian (iron mace) served as sword breakers, with some examples having an overall length of 97 centimeters (38 inches) and a blade length of 79 centimeters (31 inches). Those with tapered rods had a blade thickness of 21 mm at the forte and 10mm near the tip.

Qing-dynasty tie bian also had a similar length, roughly 103 centimeters (40.5 inches) long, with its bamboo-sectioned rod measuring about 80 centimeters (31.4 inches). There were also two-handed versions of these sword breakers comparable to the Chinese long sword or miao dao.

Weight and Balance

Sword breakers were heavy enough to inflict damage through armor and destroy a sword, though they also required greater strength to wield. Some Qing-dynasty bian used by elite forces weighed over 2 kilos (4.4 pounds), which was twice the weight of a typical military saber of the period.

There were also large two-handed versions of both jian and bian that could inflict damage to the weapons used to deflect them. These weapons were likely heavier, yet not top-heavy, unlike a halberd.

Mounting

The Chinese sword breakers typically had sword-like mountings, often with guards and pommels. Some historical examples had fittings that were damascened in gold, though replicas today often feature nickel-silver fittings.

Hilt

Jian hilt
Hilt of the jian – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Many sword breakers had wooden handles enclosing the tang and pommels that could be used for close-range striking. Many had heavy pommels which served as a counterbalance to the rod. In some jian examples, the pommel had a small loop at the end for the attachment of a tassel or lanyard.

Guard

Jian guard with decorative patterns
Jian guard with decorative patterns – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Many Chinese sword breakers, both the jian and bian types, had rounded guards to protect the hand. Some guards had decorative patterns, including auspicious symbols, interlocking swastikas, wheel of dharma, scrolls, and fishes.

Scabbard

Chinese tiebian mace with scabbard
Chinese tiěbiān mace with scabbard – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Chinese sword breakers lacked the sharp blades of the swords, yet still came in scabbards. The scabbards made carrying the weapon easier and protected them from rust. Modern replicas of these weapons often have rosewood scabbards.

Historical Facts About the Chinese Sword Breaker

Chinese sword breakers can destroy edged weapons they hit and strike armor with enough force. In military texts, these weapons imply either a tie jian (鐵鐧) or tie bian (鐵鞭). However, due to the ambiguity in the Chinese language, not all jian and bian refer to the same weapon.

The term jian can refer to either a type of bar mace or a straight sword

Chinese Sword with Scabbard
Chinese sword (Jian) with scabbard – Credits: Met Museum

The ancient Chinese sword breaker jian (rod or truncheon) is written with the character 鐧 and pronounced as jiǎn. On the other hand, the Chinese straight sword is written with the character 劍 and pronounced as jiàn. The latter has a double-edged blade and could be a short or long sword.

The term tie bian can refer to both bar mace and flexible whip

A ruan tiebian also known as a soft iron whip
A ruǎn tiěbiān also known as a soft iron whip – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

In Chinese texts, tie bian (鐵鞭) or iron whip describes different types of weapons: rigid bar maces and iron chains. The Chinese sword breaker we know today refers to the heavy steel bar-mace type.

On the other hand, the iron chain type is regarded as a soft weapon because it is flexible. Primarily used in martial arts, these chain whips are named after the number of their sections, such as the jiujiebian (nine-section whip) and the qijiebian (seven-section whip).

The term bian could also refer to a leather whip

The Chinese character for bian (鞭) translates as whip and does not always refer to the Chinese sword breaker. Before the Qin dynasty, the leather whip functioned as a torture tool or punishment for the people. Minor crimes were punished with 20 strokes of the leather whip and 50 strokes or more for heavy crimes. Interestingly, both the iron chain whip and the leather whip are considered soft weapons.

The Chinese sword breakers could destroy blades and other weapons in a single blow

Chinese sword breaker destroying blades and other weapons – Credits: Cold Steel

A Chinese sword breaker has the striking power of a mace and the reach and maneuverability of a sword. However, it was typically heavier than most sabers and swords of the period, making it slower and less maneuverable than a bladed weapon. Greater strength and endurance are also required to use it effectively.

The techniques for the Chinese sword breaker are similar to the long saber

Using the Chinese sword breaker with similar techniques utilized for the long saber – Credits: Jack Chen

In Cheng Zi Yi’s manual for the Chinese whip, the techniques of the Chinese sword breaker, especially the whip and the long saber, are similar. Chinese long saber is also known as dan dao or miao dao. There are various whip stances according to the situation which includes hooking, twisting, and striking techniques.

A large tie bian was among the weapons of the Jian Rui Ying army of the Qing dynasty.

Large tiebian as weapon of the Jianruiying Army
Large tiebian as weapon of the Jian Rui Ying Army – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

The Jian Rui Ying was an elite army of the Qing dynasty and they were trained to overcome fortifications with specialized equipment. Their weapons included sword breakers of the bian type, maces, long spears, bows and arrows, sabers, muskets, cloud ladders, and so on. However, the specialization of the Jianruiying was their function and tactics rather than their instruments for fighting.

Not all Chinese bar maces served as sword breakers

Chinese bronze mace tongjian
Chinese bronze mace (tóngjiǎn) – Credits: Mandarin Mansion Antiques

Some jian examples were relatively short and served as batons of bodyguards and escorts for security purposes. They often lacked guards, yet were heavy enough for hitting. The Green Standard Army which had an internal peacekeeping role, also used non-lethal maces of the jian type, likely to neutralize armed opponents without killing them. Also, there were rarer bronze versions called tong jian (bronze mace) though their purpose remains unclear.

The famous Zhao Gongming is most recognized for his iron whip

Door Guard Zhao Gongming with sword breaker
Door Guard Zhao Gongming with iron whip – Credits: Met Museum

In Chinese folk religion, Zhao Gongming is regarded as the god of wealth and pestilence. He is always depicted holding a bian, though many references variously describe it as an iron cudgel, club, or whip. The bian likely served as a baton or a symbol of his power rather than a sword breaker.

Other cultures also had their own versions of sword breakers

Parrying dagger c. 1600
Parrying dagger c. 1600 – Credits: The Wallace Collection

Early rapiers were accommodated with a parrying dagger for defense. Some extreme left-hand daggers had combed-shaped steel blades or teeth designed to trap an opponent’s sword. If successful, the wielder could twist the sword breaker to disarm his opponent or even break his blade.

Conclusion

The Chinese sword breaker is a rare ancient blunt weapon designed for breaking blades and other weapons. In military texts, it is more known as the Chinese truncheon (jian) and whip (bian). Although it is not commonly practiced in Chinese martial arts, it remains popular among collectors and historians today.

Sources Cited

u003colu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eArrault, A. (2020). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eA History of Cultic Images in China: The Domestic Statuary of Hunanu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e (L. Verchery, Trans.). Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eA u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eChinese sword breakeru003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e (u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ejianu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e)u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. (n.d.). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from u003c/spanu003eu003ca href=u0022https://www.mandarinmansion.com/item/chinese-sword-breaker-jianu0022u003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ehttps://www.mandarinmansion.com/item/u003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003echinese-sword-breakeru003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e-u003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ejianu003c/spanu003eu003c/au003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eBruzdzinski, J. E. (2004). DEMYSTIFYING SHASHOUJIAN: CHINA’S “ASSASSIN’S MACE” CONCEPT. In A. Scobell u0026amp; L. Wortzel (Eds.), CIVIL-MILITARY CHANGE IN CHINA: ELITES, INSTITUTES, AND IDEAS AFTER THE 16TH PARTY CONGRESS (pp. 309–364). Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. u003c/spanu003eu003ca href=u0022http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep11969.13u0022u003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ehttp://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep11969.13u003c/spanu003eu003c/au003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eGrant, R.G., u0026amp; Ford, R. (2016). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eWeapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armoru003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. DK.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eJiǎn (鐧)u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. (2019, May 23). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from u003c/spanu003eu003ca href=u0022https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/jian-maceu0022u003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ehttps://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/u003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ejianu003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e-maceu003c/spanu003eu003c/au003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eJianruiying (2); weapons and equipmentu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. (2018, December 5). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from u003c/spanu003eu003ca href=u0022https://www.mandarinmansion.com/article/jianruiying-weapons-and-equipmentu0022u003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ehttps://www.mandarinmansion.com/article/jianruiying-weapons-and-equipmentu003c/spanu003eu003c/au003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eJohnson, D. (2021). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eA Glossary of Words and Phrases in the Oral Performing and Dramatic Literatures of the Jin, Yuan, and Mingu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. University of Michigan Press.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eKit, W. K. (2002). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eThe Art of Shaolin Kung Fu: The Secrets of Kung Fu for Self-Defense, Health, and Enlightenmentu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. Tuttle Publishing.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eLorge, P. A. (2017). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eChinese u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eMartial Artsu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Centuryu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. Cambridge University Press.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eLust, J. (2021). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eChinese Popular Printsu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. Brill.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eMcNab, C. (Ed.). (2010). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eKnives and Swords: A Visual Historyu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. DK Pub.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eO’Bryan, J. (2013). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eA History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults u0026amp; Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Upu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. Chronicle Books.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eStone, G. C. (1999). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eA Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times: Together with Some Closely Related Subjectsu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. Dover Publications.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eTheobald, U. (n.d.). Craftsmen and Specialist Troops in Early Modern Chinese Armies. u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eCivil-Military Relations in Chinese History: From Ancient China to the Communist Takeoveru003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e, 191-209.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eTiěbiān (鐵鞭)u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. (2019, May 23). Mandarin Mansion. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from u003c/spanu003eu003ca href=u0022https://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/tiebianu0022u003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ehttps://www.mandarinmansion.com/glossary/tiebianu003c/spanu003eu003c/au003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eWhip Truncheon 鞭 – Chinese u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eMartial Artsu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e Manualu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. (n.d.). u003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eMartial Artsu003c/spanu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e From Ancient Manuals. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from u003c/spanu003eu003ca href=u0022https://www.chineselongsword.com/whipu0022u003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003ehttps://www.chineselongsword.com/whipu003c/spanu003eu003c/au003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ern tu003cliu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eYang, J.-M. (1999). u003c/spanu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eAncient u003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003eChinese Weaponsu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003ciu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e: A Martial Artist’s Guideu003c/spanu003eu003c/iu003eu003cspan style=u0022font-weight: 400;u0022u003e. YMAA Publication Center.u003c/spanu003eu003c/liu003ernu003c/olu003e

Get Weekly Insights on Everything Swords