During Taiwan's 1996 presidential campaign, candidates Lee Teng-hui, Peng Ming-min, Hau Pei-tsun and Chen Li-an all visited master swordsmith Chen-Tien-yang at home. But it's not as though Taiwan were ruled from horseback, so what's the connection?
The sword has a long and distinguished pedigree in China. The beauty derives in part from the sharp blade, the ornate pommel, the handle that fits so readily into the hand, and the lovingly crarfted hand guard. But there is more to it than that. The sword also stands for a devil-may-care attitude, an indomitable fearlessness, and, at its finest, a combination of erudition and fighting prowess in the hero who stand against injustice, content to live and die by the blade. Stirring tales involving swords abound in Chinese history and have percolated deeply into the collective psyche. The swordsmiths who create them are today few and far between, but Chen Tien-yang keeps the craft alive with an all-consuming passion. He is so renowned for his skills, in fact, that all the presidential candidates in the 1996 campaign called on him to ask for swords reflective of their personal status and character.
Chell was borln in 1940 in Shalu Township, Taichung County. World War II was raging at the time, and Chen's family left Shalu for Paihe in Tainan County when he was four months old to avoid the conflict. At age 15 he struck out for Taipei, where he enrolled in the night division of Chienkuo Middle School. In Taipei he met Master Liao Yuan, a 75-year-old Shaolin monk. The pair hit it off immediately, and Chen dropped out of school to become his disciple. He took the Buddhist name Ching Yun, began learning the swordmaking technique practiced by the Lingnan Sect, and followed the peripatetic Master Liao Yuan in his wanderings about Taiwan.
Good things don't come easy
In addition to swordsmithing, Master Liau Yuan taught Chen martial arts, beginning with toughtening the body, and moving onto training in kicking, punching, tumbling skills, unarmed combat, the use of the staff; and of course swordplay. "If you can't wield a sword yourself; " Master Liao Yuan advised Chen, "you won't understand the art of swordmaking." After Chen learned the swordplay of several different schools, Master Liao Yuan told him to practice the sword by moonlight, and when the moon wasn't out, to practice boxing, cudgels, and staffs. To develop the ability to respond quickly in the event of an ambush, he should learn to tell the position of a weapon just by listening for it. On rainy days he should practicing meditation, to clear his mind and achieve a state of inner peace.
Master Liao Yuan stressed that the most important thing for the true swordsmith is the ability to endure hardship --he would rather go several days without money for food than sell an inferior sword. Chen's master had "three commandments" for the craft: Never sell to anyone of unknown background; never sell to a jerk just because he's rich; and never sell to anyone prone to violence. Master and disciple spent three or months every year away from the mountain, traveling about mending swords and sabers. The rest of the time they spent almost entirely on the mountain making swords. Life on the mountain was simple, but the pair was often broke.
During the rainy season of 1956 the rain fell more than 50 days in a row. Master Liao Yuan and Chen holed up indoors every day until they had almost no money left for food. Taking advantage of a short lull in the rain, they rode their bicycles down the mountain to a small military facility across the street from Taipei's little South Gate and bought ten catties of guo ba (the chewy rice left sticking to the pot after the rest of the rice has been scooped out), which served them for a good many meals. Hardship of this sort inured Chen to discomfort. "To succeed in art, " his master admonished, "you have to be able put up with material deprivation."
Have sword, will travel
Asked if all that difficulty wasn't enough to make a 15- or 16-year-old have second thoughts about devoting himself to sword-making, Chen replied that parents in those days very much wanted their kids to learn a skill, and were especially happy to see them studying under a master from mainland China. In the 1950s, moreover, sharpening swords brought good money. Most people earned about Nf$25- 30 per day back then, while a sword could be sharpened in three to five days for Nf$150-300.
But while the money was good, on many days there were no customers, and Master Liao Yuan liked to travel around a lot. As soon as he felt he had earned enough money, he would pack up his implements and take off. They most often plied their trade in Taipei in the area around Kuling Street, Heping East Road, and Nanhai Road, home to many high-ranking militaIY officers and collectors of swords and sabers. The pair also did a lot of business on the out-skirts of town in places like Sanhsia, Ching-mei, and Mucha, where there also lived many collectors with ming jian (a famous or "named" sword, as explained below).
Chen will always remember the time he was dispatched to pick up some swords from General He Ying-chin, an old friend of Master Liao Yuan's. Chen wrapped up the swords in a big piece of doth and headed back on foot, but the police on Nanchang Street took him for a thief and hauled him in to the station. The police only became more suspicious when they unfurled the doth and found three swords. The boy's protests that the general was having the swords repaired fell on deaf ears. It took a visit to the police by the general's aide to extricate Chen from his predicament, but thereafter Chen could swagger about canying swords without any problems.
After Master Liao Yuan passed away in 1962, Chen continued studying under Wu Hsiu-hai, becoming a 32nd-generation member of Zen Buddhism's Rinzai Sect For four years Wu Hsiu-hai trained Chen in martial arts and northern-style sword-making, and also taught him about a wide variety of sabers and swords from both northern and southern China. During this time Chen repaired sabers and swords, and even spent a half-year at NTU Hospital sharpening surgical scalpels.
In 1969, approaching age 30, Chen returned to his hometown in Shalu, where he set up shop at a small, private temple. The Cultural Revolution was raging in mainland China, while martial law came under strict enforcement in Taiwan. Although it was not illegal to own swords, most people nevertheless felt it best to leave them well enough alone. From 1969 to 1977, no one other than elite government officials dared hire Chen to make or repair swords.
During those long years of hardship, Chen came to understand only too well the truth of the old saying, "Good things take time." Most craftsmen make Seven-Star Swords, for example, by drilling seven little holes into the flat of the blade and filling them with molten copper, but Chen went the extra mile by grinding out seven notches in the blade's edge, thus making an authentic Demon-Destroying Seven-Star Sword. He followed up with a Dianlond Sword and a Dragon-Vanquishing Sword, all of which he crafted on his own, for his master had already passed away by that time. In 1978, he went on to successfully produce the Wu Hook and the Qi Clan Saber, further strengthening his claim to fame in the martial arts world.
The Wu Hook was first made during the Warring States period in the kingdom of Wu. Zhang Jian wrote enthusiastically of it in Chu Sai Qu (Ode upon Leaving for the Frontier), giving later generations an idea of the fine craftsmanship that went into these weapons. During the Ming dynasty the emperor equipped the Dong Chang (a domestic spy apparatus, run by eunuchs and relied upon heavily by the Ming court) with Wu Hooks, prompting people at that time to refer to the weapon as "the royal saber of the Dong Chang." Chen improved upon the Wu Hook by modifying the length and giving it a very flexible blade that made the weapon easier to wield. He also added some nice aesthetic touches, gilding the mouth of the scabbard and the scabbard protector. His efforts won him an ROC Consumers' Association Award of Excellence for 1996.
Another famous old saber that Chen has modified is the Qi Clan Saber, which originated in Manchuria. Due to its shape, reminiscent in some ways of an olive and in others of a watercaltrop, the weapon is also called an "olive saber" or "caltrop saber."Yet another name for it is the 'Tang saber," owing to the fact that it was a favorite weapon of martial artists during the Tang dynasty.
One hammer-blow at a time
Total commitment to swordmaking has enabled Chen to tough out the hard times without a shred of regret From grimy lumps of pig iron to gleaming shafts of tempered steel, he has pounded out thousands of swords over the years. Yet for every one of his creations that goes to the customer, Chen tosses many more into the scrap pile.
Says Chen: "It takes patience to smith a sword. The artistic aspect of the process is a sort of expression through action; the craft aspect is a kind of self-rultivation. You have to concentrate to make a sword. You can't let yourself be distracted." The first step is to melt down different types of steel and mix them in the proper proportions. The molten steel is made into an ingot, which is rolled much like a lump of dough, then folded over and pounded down repeatedly. After each fold, the pounding continues until the layers are thoroughly joined together. The steel is then pounded and ground into a shape roughly approximating that of the eventual blade. This process is repeated 36 times to be absolutely sure the blade will stand up to severe punishment.
After the steel has been through smelting heat treatment, hammering, and cooling, the metal is deliberately exposed to the elements to test its quality. The rusted blade is then subjected to a beating, and will be thrown away if it can't withstand the punishment. If it doesn't break, it shall have at last proven itself. After it has been through Chen's unique "cross hammering," the blade will emit a clear ring when it bends, and the degree of the bending can be perfectly controlled by a skilled martial artist. The blade will slice cleanly through just about anything.
Chen has gotten his steel from four main sources at different stages of his career. In the early years under Master Liao Yuan he mostly used Fu An steel (so named because it was produced in Fujian Province's Anxi County). This steel had many impurities and required intensive working. Chen would work two catties of Fu An steel into a bar of high-grade steel weighing only a quarter of that amount. A finished sword blade only weighed two catties, but Chen had to stan out with three catties of high-grade steel, for much metal was lost as he filed, sharpened, and polished away. The entire process took at least a month.
Around 1960 he switched to 35-ton leaf-spring steel from Japanese vehicles. Fu An steel, says Chen, was plenty sharp but easily lost its edge, while leaf-spring steel from old vehicles was just right for working because it was softened through long use. The problem with leaf-spring steel, however, was that the shaft of the finished sword broke easily.
The biggest breakthrough in Chen's career came in the 1970s when his nephew Chen Ke-chang, today the director of Feng Chia University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, told him about a new theory on how to improve steel. Uncle and nephew launched into a tireless quest, comparing the materials and methods used throughout the centuries, studying, discussing, and researching the ins and outs of steel-making. These efforts propelled Chen to a new level of swordmaking expertise. It was during the 1970s that he switched to a special West German steel that offered the required softness yet yielded shafts that would not easily break. But this steel had a draw-back too --it tended to warp when hammered. In the 1980s Chen switched to a fine-grained Swedish steel that was soft and not easily broken. This remains the steel that he uses most today.
In 1983 Chen registered the Chinese characters for "Ching Yun" as a trademark, and he was also awarded the first patent ever granted in Taiwan protecting the process for the manufacturing of a silver sword. These were great honors, and Chen's life began going much more smoothly from that point forward.
Swords of wisdom
One ancient Chinese word for sword was shuang ren tong (double-edged bronze), and prior to the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) the weapon was also known as a shou bing (hand weapon). The term jian first appeared during the Zhou dynasty (BC 1121-249). No matter how it's been called, however, the sword has always been regarded as a precious object symbolizing wisdom and valor. Originally made for warfare, the sword's purpose underwent a change in the latter years of the Warring States period (BC 475- 221) as iron came into use, giving rise to the saber. China's earliest sabers appeared first in the kingdom of Chu. The use of mounted cavaIry also began during the Warring States period when Sun Bin and Wu Qi, two generals in the kingdom of Chu, developed nine different types of both long and shon weapons for foot soldiers and mounted cavalry. This was the origin of the "18 weapons," a term that has been a household word ever since. For the purposes of combat, the saber gradually replaced the sword, which by the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25-220) was only an ornament worn at one's side. Still later the sword came to a playa role in Daoist
ceremony. Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu learned the an of swordplay, and Li Bai wrote moving poetry about it, thus completing the sword's migration away from the battlefield and into the lives of the literati.
Modern collectors often mistakenly use the terms ming jian (famous sword or "named sword") and bao jian (precious sword) interchangeably, but Chen explains the difference. A ming jian is simply a sword that the maker himself felt satisfied with. The swordmakers of old concentrated all their energies in the making of each and every sword. They had no machines to rely on, and each sword was imbued with creative significance and purpose. Any sword successfully completed under such conditions can be called a ming jian. A bao jian, on the other hand, cannot be so called unless it was made to commemorate some cenain person, place, or thing, or unless it was given a name reflecting a particular characteristic of the sword itself. The Ci Yuan etymological dictionary states: “ A bao jian is a highly prized sword." It was said that the renowned Kun Wu Sword could cut through jade, and that the Yu Chang Sword could slice through a rhino's horn. There have been many swords named after people, such as the Yue Nu Sword and the Qi Men Sword.
In 1994, Chen won the 3rd Award for Folk Arts for his Demon-Destroying Seven- Star Sword. As long ago as the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), the great strategist Zhuge Liang used a Demon-Destroying Seven-Star Sword. Later, Tao Hongjing, an alchemist active in the Liang dynasty (502-549) made a Seven-Star Sword by serrating the blade's edge with seven "stars." By the Song dynasty (960-1279), however, this type of sword was relegated to ritual use because people felt the serrated blade was simply too cruel a weapon. From that time forward, Demon-Destroying Seven-Star Swords were made by drilling little holes in the flat of the blade and filling them with molten copper. But Chen was not content with that. Using a manual bequeathed to him by his mentor, Chen filed out seven brilliant "stars" by hand, with the cuts made from 106 different angles. The resulting sword was beautiful to behold and a formidable weapon as well. In 1996 Chen won the 5th Award for Folk Arts with his Qi Clan Saber. In the meantime he was also displaying literary accomplishment, publishing such works as "Zen and Autumn Water,", “Three Feet of Autumn Water," "A Mind for Swords, a Hean for Poetry," "My Life as a Sword Maker," and "Passing the Torch to a New Generation of Swordmakers."
Time off for different behavior
At age 50 Chen established a personal tradition of dosing up shop once every five years. He has shut down three times so far. His purpose in so doing is to "shut down" the unclean desires of the hean (greed, anger, obsession, and the craving for fame and fortune), and to use the time off to grow as an mist. At age 60, he dosed shop for a year and a half to study ancient swordmaking treatises and make replicas of ancient swords. Tao Hong-jing wrote in Swords Ancient and Modern: "During the Three Kingdoms period, in the first year of the Zhangwu reign [AD 221] Liu Bei, ruler of the kingdom of Shu, crafted eight swords from iron mined on Golden Bull Mountain. Into each sword the name "Zhangwu" was incised. These were known as "the eight swords ofZhangwu, " or "the eight swords of the Shu king." Chen's replicas of the eight swords of Zhangwu bear a dragon motif, symbolizing Liu Bei's status as the true heir to the Han dynasty throne. In addition, the swords feature an ornate floral pattem reminiscent of the decorative style in fashion during the Han dynasty.
In Notes on China from Ancient Times to Today (written in the Ming dynasty, 1368-1644) there is a chapter on sabers and swords, where it is written: 'The Great Emperor of Wu [who ascended the throne in AD 222] had six bao jian, called White Snake, Purple Lightning, Banisher of Evil, Star Rider, Qing Ming, and Baili." Unfonunately, all six swords are lost. But in the course of his research Chen developed a particular fondness for the Banisher of Evil because of the name's auspicious connotations, so he crafted a sword by the same name, with Han-style carvings symbolizing "banishment of evil" on either end of the knob of the sword handle. The effect is powerful, and lends the sword an imposing air of authority. The public was encouraged during the Ming dynasty to practice martial arts, and people were intensely competitive about it. Ming dynasty metal workers were the first in the world to use coke and piston bellows in swordmaking, and they developed a number of advanced steelmaking techniques that led to the production of out-standing sabers and swords. Chen greatly admires the Ming dynasty for its emphasis on swords and swordplay. He improved on the one-handed Ming long sword by simplifying and streamlining it, and by combining the best traditional forging techniques with today's most advanced steels and heat treatment processes. He named his sword Vermilion Gate to express his intent to combine nostalgia, preservation, and innovation. In an age when swordmaking is in decline, Chen feels a duty to resurrect the swords of ancient times, and to help people understand them.
Another reason for closing shop once every five years is Chen's intense desire to pass on his skills to a new generation. When Master Liao Yuan accepted Chen as an apprentice, he did so on three conditions. Among them, Chen had to promise that he would "never pass on the art of swordmaking to anyone who mistreats their parents, to anyone who treats others with disrespect, or anyone who would abandon their principles for a price." Chen took his promise seriously, and so in the past 30 and more years has only taken ten apprentices. Only two remain with him today. It is a great comfort to Chen that one of them, Su Chia-yu, is also a two-time winner of the Award for Folk Arts.
In addition to making swords and taking apprentices, Chen is also the proprietor of the Chin-Yun Sword Folk Cultural Gallery, which he opened in Shalu Township in 1984. On display at the museum are the sabers and swords that Chen has collected over the years, including a stone saber dating to the Warring States period. Unearthed in Taiwan, the saber is quite well preserved. But perhaps the biggest attraction is an executioner's sword, whidl features a rusty blade that hints at the many lives it must have taken in centuries past
One cannot but note a sharp contrast between Chen's life story and the legends that abound in martial arts novels. In the novels, a martial artist typically enters the mountains in search of a master and encounters an immortal sage who gives him a sword that makes him the best swordsman in the land. Chen's rise to the top of his craft has hardly been so meteoric. His swords are completed slowly, at the cost of tremendous sweat. And he certainly wouldn't dream of emulating the mythical swordsmith Gan Jiang, whose forge ran out of metal just as he was trying to make a blade. The problem was solved by Gan Jiang's wife, who jumped into the furnace, sacrificing her body to get the metal flowing again! Unlike the heroes of legend, there have been no shoncuts for Chen. But his real-life story is more moving than any legend could ever be.
(Kuo Li-chuan/photos by Jimmy Lin/ tr. by David Mayer)