Fighting with the ôdachi

To get an idea of the fighting techniques with the ôdachi, we have to make a detour via China of the late 16th century as hardly anything is known on this topic from the time this sword stlye emerged, i.e. the Nanbokuchô period. Japanese pirates (wakô, 倭寇, Chin. wokòu) were raiding the coastlines of China and Korea for almost three centuries from the Kamakura period onwards. There were of course several attempts to get a grip on this situation. One of the most successful Ming-dynasty military leaders appointed to deal with the wakô was general Qi Jìguang (戚継光, 1527-1588). In Eiroku four (永禄, 1561), Qi Jìguang captured from Japanese pirates a mokuroku catalogue (目録) of the Kage-ryû (影流) of swordsmanship, although there is some discussion about what such a document is doing on a pirate ship. Some say Aisu Hisatada (愛洲久忠, 1452-1538), the ancestor of the Kage-ryû was himself a pirate. There are namely records extant which show that Hisatada made it over to Ming-China as a young man. Others assume that Qi Jìguang bribed several pirates to bring him as much information on Japanese warfare as possible to be used by him against the wakô.

However, the data from this mokuroku was worked into Qi´s later 14-volume „Kikô-shinsho“ (紀効新書, Chin. „Jìxìao Xinshu“) from 1588. The first 18-volume edition from 1560 does not contain the mokuroku. Later the Ming-officer Máo Yúanyí (茅元儀, 1594-1640?) worked the „Kikô-shinsho“ in 1621 into his epic 240-volume standard work „Bubi-shi“ (武備志, Chin. „Wûbèi-zhì“).  The „Bubi-shi“ in turn was reintroduced to Japan and republished, for example by Matsushita Kenrin (松下見林, 1637-1704) in Genroku one (元禄, 1688) in his work „Ishô-Nihon-den“ (異称日本伝). Via this way, the early mokuroku of the Kage-ryû was again in circulation in its native country. In the same year as Máo Yúanyí, i.e. in 1621, the Shaolin warrior-monk Chéng Zongyóu (程宗猷, 1561-?) published his „Tantô-hôsen“ (単刀法選, Chin. „Dandao-fâxûan“) in which he introduced 22 kata forms for using a Japanese sword (in a later edition, these kata were extended by two to altogether 24 forms).

Interesting is now first, that general Qi´s studies on Japanese swordsmanship based on the captured Kage-ryû mokuroku had a great influence on Chinese martial arts and artists, and second, that Chéng Zongyóu mentions in his „Tantô-hôsen“ that the kata for the ôdachi are meant to ward off attacks with the yari. Incidentally, the Chinese version of the ôdachi is called „cháng-dao“ (長刀, see picture 1). It is assumed that the cháng-dao was not just a copy of the Japanese ôdachi because very similar swords were used in China since earlier times as anti-cavalry swords (zhânmâ-dao, 斬馬刀). Another derivative of the overlong cháng-dao or zhânmâ-dao was the miáo-dao (苗刀), although this sword form appeared somewhat later. The entire mounting of the cháng-dao is strikingly similar to Japanese swords (see also pictures of the kata forms at the end of the article). That means they have wrapped hilts, narrow saya with kurigata, a habaki and a small and roundish tsuba. However, at the Chinese variant the hilt narrows somewhat down towards the tsuba and the tip also narrows down almost in shôbu-zukuri manner.


Picture 1: Two extant cháng-dao.

Chéng´s emphasis on a yari defence goes probably back to the 13th century when the Mongols invaded China. Back then the long spear turned out to be very effective for larger armies of foot soldiers. Thus some assume that the emergence of the ôdachi in Japan is connected to the Chinese experience when namely at the same time the so-called „kikuchi-yari“ (菊池槍) was introduced on the Japanese battlefield. Apart from that also the Japanese pirates made frequent use of the ôdachi. We know that from mainland chronicles which write that specialized men of their smaller units used it to break or just cut open doors or walls of houses with these oversized swords which were then ransacked. In picture 2 we see at least one pirate who is carrying a longer than usual sword. It is also said that the ôdachi were used to cut in half the long poles with which the people from the mainland tried to keep away the Japanese pirate boats. Picture 3 shows such a scene where wakô are fighting against Koreans, although they are wielding standard-length swords and one pirate even wields two swords of the same length.


Picture 2: Japanese pirates attacking a mansion.



Picture 3: Koreans trying to keep away Japanese pirates.

Let me recapitulate. Overlong swords were known and used in China since at least since the Han Dynasty (漢, 206 BC – 220 AD) as we find names like zhânmâ-dao in later records on that time. Later it gained again popularity when the Mongols attacked the Jin Dynasty (金, 1115-1234). The zhânmâ-dao and cháng-dao were namely used to attack horses and ward off and cut in half enemy yari. With the use of kikuchi-yari and the changes in warfare during the Nanbokuchô period, the ôdachi entered the stage of the Japanese battlefield whereas fighting with this kind of sword should become soon the strong point of the Kage-ryû. Connected or not remains to be seen but the Japanese pirates of the 16th century made also frequent use of the ôdachi. When general Qi captured a mokuroku catalogue of the Kage-ryû from Japanese pirates, he made the overlong sword again popular in his own country and used the new style of fencing against the raiders. On the other hand, the ôdachi was never used in larger scales in Japan, even with the changes in warfare and the focus on yari during the Muromachi period. It is assumed that this is directly connected to the quality standard and forging techniques of the nihontô. That means it was just too expensive and time consuming to equip larger troops with ôdachi.  But with Qi´s capturing of the Kage-ryû mokuroku and the subsequent publications we have at least a small insight on the pre-Muromachi period swordsmanship using the ôdachi. That means there was definitely a certain training with this weapon and it was not just giving them to low-ranking foot soldiers so that they can swing them around in the hope to hit some horse´s legs. Apart from that we know several accounts of famous bushi using the ôdachi as main weapon and their heroic deeds with them. But I want to introduce these accounts on another occasion.

Below some kata depictions from the „Tantô-hôsen“.


6 thoughts on “Fighting with the ôdachi

  1. There again, an hidden gem of the web. Many katana “cultists” on YouTube, and more katana bashing, but it seems both groups avoid this wonderful blog, sadly. Shogun Total War’s staff too. ^^’

    It seems chinese standards of quality for changdao were verry lower than those of japanese Nihontô, right ? I mean, they couldn’t craft so much blades for foot soldiers if it was not the case. It also bring proof individual training as a martial artist is (or “was”) not useless for soldiers.

    • Chinese swords actually were considered it the higher quality, the main problem for the japanese blacksmiths and weaponry, is the lack and quality of iron ore on the japanese archipelago. That is the reason why japanese quality swords took so long to be made, and constant refinement of the poor iron ore was needed to make the sword durable. However China, just like Europe has naturally higher quality and quantity of iron ore for the quality weaponry and armor.

      • I know that, but it was mainly true from the antiquity to Heian period.

        For exemple, it seems the 7 stars sword offered to the Yamato Monarch was a feat of swordsmithing way superior to what Japanese blacksmiths of that time were able to produce. But compared to a Nihontô (from let’s say Kamakura period), even if the ore is of poorer quality, the sword itself who resulted from it is of higher quality than European or Chinese swords. As said Mao Danqing “Japanese have a perfectionist streak that demands high standards” or something like that.

        What I’m curious about is if the Chinese always had lower quality standards in blades.

  2. Great article!
    I did an article on Chinese long sabers as they appear in Qing dynasty regulations of the mid 18th century:

    As for the zhanmadao, it is indeed a very old weapon but the name is misleading as its shape evolved a lot over the centuries. The first zhanmadao was a pole arm, closer to the naginata with with a wider blade, and later it became a ring pommeled two hander, much like an enlarged republican “dadao”. Only in the Qing dynasty it took its final form as a large two handed saber.

    In response to some of the comments below, my two cents on quality, as someone with hands-on experience with antique Chinese swords:

    As far as quality goes, I think the correct answer is “it depends”. Both China and Japan made utilitarian swords, strictly made for the fight, most of which have not survived because no-one cared to collect and preserve them. On the better Japanese swords, the Japanese craftsmen took great care in the aestethics of the hamon and hada, and the polisher spent a great amount of time to show these elements. I don’t know of any culture that went through such lengths, so one could indeed say that these are of higher quality than most Chinese swords, but this quality was in the aesthetics of the effects produced by the smith. It’s rare to find a Chinese sword with the same attention to detail, although they do exist.

    That said, the Chinese knew -and used- all the tricks in the book to produce an incredibly hard edge and a tougher body, just like the Japanese accomplished, on even their most simple swords. They just didn’t care so much about the visual effects of these methods as the Japanese did. And as said, they had better resources of iron than Japan had to start with. So on a strictly functional level, the Chinese didn’t necessarily produce lesser swords than the Japanese. Some famous accounts of Chinese complaints on sword quality as opposed to the Japanese come from the late Ming, these are snapshots of an empire in decline and at the brink of being toppled. The military worked on a very low budget at the time, with decline of arms manufacture as a result. The same can be said of the last century of the Qing, from which most Chinese swords today survive.

    Considering all the above, I think the real answer thus is: “it depends”. Qi Jiguang felt the Japanese swords were much better, in his time, and he probably had good reason to think that. There have been times the Japanese looked up to Chinese manufacture as well.

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