Mastery of the Blade: The Dao Sword

Used on the battlefield for over two millennia, the dao sword is a pivotal weapon in Chinese martial history, epitomising the mastery and evolution of blade craftsmanship in ancient China. This is the story of the dao, the legendary Chinese single-edged sword.

Military History
5 June 2024

The ancient Chinese sword known as the dao, often called the Chinese broadsword or sabre, boasts a rich and fascinating history which intertwines with the cultural and military developments of China over thousands of years. From its early iterations as a bronze weapon in the Shang Dynasty to its evolution into a steel-bladed weapon during the Han Dynasty, the dao has played a pivotal role in Chinese martial tradition. This single-edged sword, with its iconic curved blade, became a symbol of martial prowess and was celebrated not only for its effectiveness in battle but also for its craftsmanship and artistry, reflecting the profound skill of Chinese swordsmiths throughout history.

Indeed, the dao sword is so revered, it’s one of the four traditional weapons, alongside the qiang (spear), jian (double-edged sword), and gun (staff). Let’s take a trip back to ancient China to discover the dao sword and its origins, its storied history, and its role on the battlefield including, surprisingly, during World War II.

What is a Dao Sword?

Reenactment of ancient Chinese warriors with curved swords (Credit: Jjacob via Getty Images)

These ancient Chinese broadswords are single-edged blades used for chopping and slashing. While there are some straight versions, most have a slight curve at the top of the blade. Similar to other bladed weapons from the region, there were dozens of variations of this Chinese sabre over the centuries and the variety was down to the individual maker and the period of production, as well as evolving military needs and technological advancements.

The construction of the dao sword was meticulous, and the blades were originally made of bronze. Later, towards the end of the Warring States period and the start of the Han Dynasty – around 250 BC to 200 BC – they were made of high-quality iron and steel as swordsmiths learned how to control the carbon content of the metal.

The blade typically featured a gentle curve (although some iterations of the Tang Dynasty dao were straight), with a broader and heavier tip designed for effective slicing and chopping motions. The hilt was often wrapped in leather or cord for a secure grip, and the guard was usually quite basic, offering some protection without hindering mobility. This design – usually around 80 to 120 centimetres in length – made this Chinese single-edged sword not only a weapon of choice for close-quarters combat but also a symbol of martial prowess and discipline.

The History of the Chinese Sabre

Intricate detail of a jian sword (Credit: Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The origins of the dao sword can be traced back to the early dynastic periods of China, with its initial iterations appearing during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 BC – c.1046 BC) during China’s Bronze Age. They were known as zhibeidao, or ‘straight-backed knives’.

However, it was during the Han Dynasty, from around 202 BC, that the dao began to develop into the form we recognise today. During the later Han, the dao took the place of the jian, a straight, double-edged sword, as the principal weapon of the Chinese infantry, though both swords continued to be used for different purposes.

In comparison to the jian, the dao sword was generally easier to use. It was said that it took a year to master the jian, a month to master the qiang, and a week to master the dao. Indeed by the end of the Three Kingdoms period – approximately 220 AD – 280 AD, the dao had more or less replaced the jian.

During the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), the design of the dao was influenced by the weapons used by the Central Asian steppe peoples, including the Turkic and Tungusic people, and the Chinese sabre design which most people associate with the dao, was developed.

Throughout its history, this ancient Chinese sword proved to be exceptionally effective in battle for both foot soldiers and those on horseback. Its robust construction and versatile design allowed it to be used in various combat scenarios, from open-field engagements to confined skirmishes. The dao’s popularity persisted through several dynasties, peaking during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when it became an essential part of military training. It was also used deep into the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) and beyond.

There were four main types of dao sword from the Ming, and later the Qing, eras:


The yanmaodao, or ‘goose quill sabre’, was standard military issue from the late Ming through the Qing dynasty. It featured a largely straight blade with a slight curve near the tip for cutting as well as thrusting attacks.


The liuyedao, or ‘willow leaf sabre,’ has a gently curved blade that mimics the shape of a willow leaf, optimised for powerful slashing and slicing motions. The liuyedao replaced the yanmaodao as the standard sidearm for infantry and cavalry troops, and is the most common form of Chinese sabre. It is still used today by many martial arts schools.


The Ming-era piandao, or ‘slashing sabre,’ is characterised by a deep, curved blade, making it particularly effective for quick, sweeping slashes and agile manoeuvres in combat. It bears a strong resemblance to the Persian shamshir, and other types of scimitar swords.


The Niuweidao, or ‘ox-tail sabre,’ features a pronounced curve and a broad, heavy blade that widens toward the tip, ideal for delivering strong, chopping blows. It appeared in the late-Qing era as a civilian sword; there’s no record of it being issued to the Chinese army. It has often been seen as the stereotypical Chinese broadsword in kung-fu movies.

Twentieth Century use of the Dao Sword

Kung fu master with an ancient Chinese sword (Credit: Rubberball/Mike Kemp via Getty Images)

Despite it being known as an ancient Chinese sword, modern iterations of the dao were used as recently as World War II, particularly during the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. The two-handed Chinese sabre known as the miaodao, a descendant of the Ming-era two-handed changdao, was used by some Chinese forces during this conflict.

The dao sword is also a common feature in many Chinese martial arts schools as a conditioning tool, and a modern version of this Chinese broadsword, called the nandao, or southern broadsword, is used in modern wushu, or kung-fu.

The Dao Sword: A Timeless Legacy of Martial Mastery

Martial arts expert with a dao sword (Credit: Herve BRUHAT via Getty Images)

The dao sword stands embodies thousands of years of evolution in blade craftsmanship and combat techniques. From its early origins during the Shang Dynasty to its peak in the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese single-edged sword’s practical design and formidable effectiveness ensured its dominance on the battlefield and its enduring legacy in Chinese martial culture. Though its use in warfare waned with the proliferation of gunpowder-based weapons, this legendary Chinese sabre continues to be celebrated in martial arts and cultural traditions, symbolising the enduring spirit and artistry of Chinese weaponry.


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