Apr 28, 2014

Weapons and Warriors: The Guan Dao of the Shaolin

Art by TL Jeffcoat
This crazy looking pole weapon is related to the Samurai’s Naginata, but is not exactly the same. There are several variations and names for this weapon in China: Ta Dao, Da Dao, and Guan Dao. The Ta Dao was found on lists of the 18 weapons of the Shaolin, while the Da Dao was described in some places as a pole weapon, the Da Dao I know of is more like a large sabre. The name of Guan Dao seems to be the most common and accurate and it came with a popular story that I found to have some fictional mysteries surrounding the credited creator of the weapon.

In the book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, General Guan Yu was said to have crafted this weapon in the 200’s AD. There were also stories that it weighed 40 pounds (18.14 kg), which you might believe that the weight is a clue that it must be a myth. No weapon could ever weigh that much and be used in battle, well, you would be wrong about that. Although no weapon on any battlefield in history, that I’ve read, has anyone wielded a weapon weighing more than 25 pounds (11.34 kg), there are a couple museums that display a Guan Dao weighing around 45 pounds (20.41 kg). The extremely heavy Guan Dao was not used in combat, but was instead used to build strength and endurance and to test soldiers seeking advancement in the military.

When a man tested for rank in the military he performed maneuvers with an ultra-heavy Guan Dao which was an excellent tool to see the strength of the man, his ability to control that strength, and the dexterity he might have to avoid dropping such a weapon. It’s pretty impressive if you think about it. The better a man tested the higher up the chain of command he could go. That made the general the last man you wanted to stumble into on the battlefield; unless you were a highly trained warrior, you were most likely going to die.

The myth of Guan Yu’s Guan Dao weighing 40 pounds is not a myth because it would be too heavy for him. According to some historians, Guan Yu was nearly seven feet tall (2.13 meters). That’s a big man, especially in the early 200’s. The reason Guan Yu’s massive weapon is a myth is because there are no historical documentations of a Guan Dao being used or produced by anyone before 1000 AD. Some historians have reported that Guan Yu wielded dual swords of some kind that may have been larger and heavier than normal.

The size and design of the blade varies, but the one drawn for this post is of the most common version used by the Shaolin monks today. All Guan Dao blades share the same curved blade and are sharpened along the curve from tip to the base. The 5 to 6 foot (1.52 to 1.83 meters) shaft is made with steel or iron, as is the wide blade. The bottom of the shaft is capped with a metal counter weight for the blade to help maintain the momentum of the blade once the warrior begins twirling it. The counter weight is molded into a sharp spike. The ideal weight of a Guan Dao used in combat is between 5 and 6 pounds (2.27 to 2.72 kg), but ancient versions of the weapon could easily have been double, triple or quadruple that, making them more effective at removing the legs of horses in a charge.

Once a warrior begins twirling the weight, he could gradually accelerate the twirl and therefore increase the speed and power of the strike. Once in motion, a trained warrior could strike with surprising speed with either end of the Guan Dao. The Guan Dao, despite its great power, is not considered an offensive weapon. Shaolin monks as well as practitioners of other Chinese martial arts train to use this weapon in a more defensive manner, using the power, speed, and reach to disarm and confuse an opponent. The shaft is capable of blocking direct attacks from any weapon in the ancient world.

The Guan Dao was originally used by cavalry against infantry. The extended reach made it easier to reach the soldiers, but the heavy weapon required two hands so riders had to learn to guide their steeds with their knees. Eventually the Guan Dao became more common among infantry to dismount riders or take down their steeds. The heavy blade was capable of cutting through all light armor and even some chainmail. The weight of the blade along with the speed of the swing is powerful enough to knock a rider off his horse, dismember him, or to dismember his horse.

Many of the modern versions of the Guan Dao have tassels and sashes tied to the blades. Some would say this is to help confuse the opponent, but this is more likely to give the weapon a dramatic flair while it is in motion. Although, these colorful ties would be very distracting against untrained soldiers, a trained warrior would not be so easily fooled. However a crowd of spectators would be awed by the show.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you.

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