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The ‘Ming sword’

To celebrate the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival, the ‘Ming sword’ has been chosen as February’s Object of the Month by Natasha Bennett, Acting Curator of Oriental Collections.

This sword is one of the greatest treasures in the Royal Armouries. It is heralded as one of the most beautiful, detailed, and intricate examples of ornate metalwork still in existence from the early Ming period. It is particularly precious because armour and weapons from the time of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) rarely survive. The name ‘Ming’ was adopted as a dynastic title because it means ‘bright’ or ‘shining’, and this stunning sword certainly lives up to that association.

golden sword hilt decorated with intricate Chinese scrolls and the cross guard in the form of a monster with two garnets for eyes
A sword can mean many things

Chinese swords tended to fall into two main types; the straight, double-edged jian, and the single-edged dao. By the time of the Ming era, the dao dominated as the practical choice for both military and civilian use, but the more archaic jian retained great significance as a symbolic object. It could be used to demonstrate social and professional rank, respect, power, wealth, favour, and artistic taste. Swords such as this played an important role in courtly culture and diplomacy, helping to forge and even sever links through the processes of gift-giving or intimidation.

This particular sword is clearly a high-status object. The hilt and scabbard are richly ornamented in gold, silver and semi-precious stones. The three-dimensional monster-mask forming the guard is exquisitely worked with its flaming, curling mane and jaws which seem to clamp around the top of the blade. Sinuous, beautifully detailed dragons furl within cartouches on the pommel and scabbard.

At either side of the pommel are the Eight Buddhist Emblems of Good Augury (‘ba jixiang’): the wheel of law, the standard, the treasure jar, the pair of fish, the endless knot, the lotus, the parasol, and the conch shell of victory. The Sanskrit inscription halfway down the scabbard has been translated by specialists in the past as ‘Honorific Sword’ or ‘Precious Sword’; this could be a reference to Buddhist symbolism and the jewels or emblems associated with monarchy.

sword and scabbard

Sword (jian) and scabbard, probably made in the court workshops of the Yongle Ming Emperor. Chinese, Ming Dynasty, early 15th century. (XXVIS.295)

Tibetan Buddhism had become established in China during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1367) and became further entrenched during the early Ming period.

Features of the decoration present on the hilt and scabbard are closely aligned with the ornamentation of other iron ritual objects which were commissioned by the early Ming emperors to send as gifts to one or other of the great Tibetan monasteries.

It is therefore highly likely that this sword was produced in the court workshops of the Yongle emperor (1403–24). Moreover, the sword suggests distinct Tibetan influence in its overall form, and the pattern-welded blade is probably a later replacement which seems to be of Tibetan manufacture. It may well have been bestowed on an allied Tibetan ruler to promote diplomatic relations, or presented to a powerful monastery to gain favour. Alternatively, it may have been made for the Yongle emperor himself.

Visit our collection online to discover more about this object.

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