Live by the sword

Longquan swordsmiths are busy reviving past glory

Sword w

In the cutting room: a blade from a Longquan workshop

In the movie Kill Bill, the Okinawan swordsmith Hattori Hanzo breaks a 28-year blood oath to forge a samurai sword for the character played by Uma Thurman. Hattori describes her new katana blade as so sharp that should she “encounter God, God will be cut”. Thurman embarks on a journey of revenge, destroying everything in her path.

The Hattori Hanzo character was inspired by a famous Japanese ninja. But outside the fictional world, there is a place in modern day China that aspires to similar status as the apex of sword-making: Longquan.

A small county in Zhejiang province, Longquan means “dragon fountain”. Legend has it that Longquan’s water is particularly suitable for ‘quenching’ a sword (the crucial but tricky process of rapid-cooling in which up to a third of blades are lost). That’s why the master swordsmith Qu Yezi was able to forge the first Chinese iron blade in Longquan some 2,500 years ago (previously weapons had been made of bronze). Since then Longquan has become the standard for Chinese swords and home to one of the country’s most famous traditional handicrafts.

Sword-makers there have inspired many Chinese idioms too. “Sharpening a sword for 10 years” describes someone who has made painstaking effort to achieve an objective; “hammered thousands of times and refined hundreds of times” refers to a person who has been thoroughly trained or tested. Proverbs like these pretty much epitomise the unforgiving process required to make the finest blades. According to Zhejiang Daily, an ancient Longquan sword was typically made from four to six pieces of iron (of differing carbon level, hardness and flexibility) that were then welded together. A swordsmith would then heat, hammer and fold the blade repeatedly until the metal was layered “several thousand or even a million times”.

Because of sword-makers’ reluctance to pass on their best techniques to anyone besides their closest relatives or pupils, state broadcaster CCTV reckons that most of the secret formulas for making the best Longquan swords has vanished. Before 1978 the town’s sword-making industry was reduced to state-owned factories producing cheap replicas of ancient blades. “The reputation of Japan’s katana, which is believed to have preserved the techniques of ancient Chinese bladesmiths, has overtaken Longquan swords by a long way. This makes many Longquan swordsmiths angry,” CCTV’s documentary notes.

Things began to change in the early 1990s, when private ownership was reintroduced to the sword-making industry. Since then Longquan swordsmiths – some of them from the same families that ran the traditional workshops – have been striving to revive their former glory.

“We used to focus only on the production and sale of our swords, but now we are starting to pay attention to the promotion of sword culture,” Zhang Yesheng, a workshop owner, told Want China Times. The former apprentice took over his workshop, a lossmaking state-run factory, in 2003 and has transformed it into a popular supplier of weaponry for movies.

In fact, film and television drama has contributed significantly to renewed interest in ancient blades. For example, the martial arts blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon triggered a frenzy for replica swords in 2000. Kill Bill, too, had buyers looking for a similar katana weapon to hang on their walls. Most of these Samurai replicas were produced by factories in Longquan and whenever classical movies such as John Woo’s Red Cliff start production there are always contracts for Longquan’s bladesmiths.

Currently there are about 120 sword-making workshops in Longquan, with more than a million swords produced every year, returning nearly Rmb300 million ($48.6 million) in sales for a county with a population of 270,000.

Of course, mass production of cheap replicas doesn’t help to enhance Longquan’s reputation. It’s the quality of its custom-made swords, forged by hand, that defines a true master. The best handcrafted Chinese swords can easily sell for Rmb500,000 each – a price that’s risen 50 times in the past decade.

But how can a swordsmith attain a master reputation? First of all he has to refine his forging skill and metallurgical formulas. CCTV’s programme describes how some masters have been seeking “innovation from ancient secret formulae” by studying the forging techniques of blacksmiths in other parts of China. Some have also visited Japan’s katana makers for inspiration.

But in today’s marketplace, a master swordsmith also needs a few promotional gimmicks. Foreign sword lovers who visit Longquan will find that nearly every practitioner can reel off the names of swords that have been forged for celebrities. On those clients list are Jet Li, the martial arts actor, former US President Richard Nixon, as well as the father of China’s current leader Xi Jinping.

And no surprise perhaps, that last month a Longquan workshop announced it had specially forged a dazzling new blade for Xi Jinping himself. It was named personally too (traditionally only the best swords have names) as Zhizunjian. That means ‘the most revered blade.’ The weapon might even come in handy (figuratively-speaking) as Xi continues his fight to cut graft.

At the time of writing, local media was unclear whether anyone from Xi’s office had picked up his new weapon…

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