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The Ancient Chinese Sword That Is Still Razor Sharp After 2,500 Years

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

Can a Sword Remain Sharp for So Long?

The sword had been sitting in a damp tomb for almost 2,500 years. But as the sword was pulled free from its airtight scabbard, globules of light reflected from its polished surface. The blade's surface was crisscrossed with intricate designs, and the most incredible part is that despite two millenniums of aging, it appeared newly forged and razor-sharp.

Yes, the sword still has the potency to draw blood as an archaeologist cut his finger while attempting to test its sharpness. Yes, even now, it can slice like butter through 20 layers of paper at once. In Chinese folklore, this weapon is called the ‘Knight of the Arms’ and is one of the four primary weapons, along with the stick, the spear, and the saber.

The miraculous sword belonged to King Goujian, the legendary Chinese king who reigned the Kingdom of Yue (present-day northern Zhejiang) near the end of the spring and autumn period more than 2000 years ago.

Goujian was known for his perseverance in times of hardship and his resilience to bounce back against all odds, and the sword of Goujian echoes the story of his great conflicts, power struggles, and his long-lasting impression on the future of China.

The Sword Was Discovered in an Ancient Tomb

In 1965, an archaeologist team discovered a series of ancient tombs along an aqueduct of the Zhang River Reservoir in Jingzhou, China. They discovered more than 2,000 artifacts, but the most interesting discovery was the Sword of Goujian.

The sword was lying next to a human skeleton in a water-damaged casket, and the whole tomb was heavily waterlogged for more than 2000 years. So, when the team pulled out the sword from its wooden scabbard, no one expected a gleaming piece of artistry to be unearthed in pristine condition.

The magnificent sword was untarnished, and its edge was razor-sharp as the Hubei Department of Culture described the blade as sharp enough to cut through ‘20 pieces of hard paper’ at once.

The Sword of Goujian

The Sword of Goujian is double-edged primarily of copper, but the edges have a higher tin content, making them harder and able to keep a sharper edge. Black rhombic etchings cover both sides of the blade, and blue glaze and turquoise are embedded on the sword handle.

The sword's grip is bound by silk, while the pommel is composed of 11 concentric circles. The sword has a total length of 22 inches (55.6 centimeters), with a 3.3-inch (8.4-centimeter) hilt.

Now the big question – Whom did the sword belong to, and who was the person lying next to the sword in the tomb?

The answers to both questions came from eight characters engraved in what is known as bird-worm seal script on one side of the blade. Six of these ancient characters were deciphered immediately as ‘King of Yue’ and ‘made this sword for [his] personal use.’

The other two characters could not be identified, and it was only later in 1966 that Tang Lan, a researcher at The Palace Museum, said these two Chinese characters were ‘Gou’ and ‘Jian.’

Goujian, the King of Yue

Goujian was one of the greatest kings of the state of Yue, ruling from 496-to 465 BC, and the story of the sword echoes the story of the life of Goujian himself.

As the story goes, in 494 BC, Goujian was captured by the state of Wu and served as a servant to its king for three years before being released.

Returning home, Goujian resumed his reign, but he never forgot the humiliation meted on him and vowed to avenge it. He inflicted pain on himself, slept on brushwood, forced himself to drink bile every day, and said to himself, ‘Goujian, do not forget the mortification that you experienced in the state of Wu.’

Goujian began to build his army and started manufacturing weapons. One day, an elderly man named Ouyezi approached him and offered his expertise in building swords. Goujian agreed, and Ouyezi cast five rare swords for the king: Zhanlu, Chunjun, Shengxie, Juque, and Yuchang.

It is said that by virtue of these superior weapons, Goujian defeated the state of Wu in 473 BC and regained his kingdom and his respect.

Some archaeologists believe that the occupant of the tomb was none other than Ouyezi, who helped the king defeat the state of Wu. The king rewarded him with riches and also awarded him one of his swords as a trophy to him. Later Ouyezi’s descendants buried him along with the king’s sword to highlight his illustrious war exploits to the future generations.

It was a fitting tribute to a great king and his even greater advisor.

How Did It Remain Sharp for So Long?

Over the years, many scholars have wondered how this sword could have remained rust-free in a humid environment for more than 2,000 years.

Researchers who analyzed the sword extensively believe that the sword is resistant to oxidation because of sulphation on the sword's surface. This, combined with an airtight scabbard, allowed the legendary sword to be found in such pristine condition.

While why the sword has still remained sharp for so long is still a mystery, researchers believe that while the blade was made mainly of flexible copper, the edge, however, was mainly tin. This allowed the blade to keep a sharp edge for much longer.

That said, the sword undoubtedly is a testimony to those countless Chinese blacksmiths who had reached such a high level of metallurgy skills that they could incorporate rustproof alloys into their blades, helping them survive through millenniums relatively unblemished.

Aerial view rural China, Enshi City, Hubei Province

Aerial view rural China, Enshi City, Hubei Province

Travel Details

The Sword of Goujian is currently exhibited in the Hubei Provincial Museum in the Wuchang District of Wuhan, Hubei Province. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance is free.

  • About Hubei- It is situated close to the Yangtze River and the north of Dongting Lake, with Wuhan as the capital. There are many lakes in Hubei, so it is also known as the ‘land of a thousand lakes’. Hubei is not only abundant in scenic beauty but also has fabulous historical ruins, primeval forests, and majestic mountains, providing innumerable options to the intrepid traveler.
  • How to Reach- Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan has both domestic as well as international flights to about 12 countries, including Dubai, Moscow, London, Japan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. Wuhan is also well connected by a good network of bullet trains crisscrossing across China. The important ones are Wuhan to Beijing West Station in 4 hours, Wuhan to Shanghai in 5 hours, and Wuhan to Yichang in 2 hours.
  • The best time to Visit-The weather in Hubei is generally temperate with hot summers. March-May and September-December are the best times to visit when temperatures are cooler, and flowers are in full spring blossoms.

Things To Do in Hubei

Hubei has played an important role in Chinese history and was the seat of the 2000-year-old Chu Kingdom. Besides ancient monuments, Hubei offers many options to do for the feisty traveler. Some of them are:

  • Wudangshan: Wudang mountains are the sacred place of Taoism in China and are known for their mesmerizing scenery and ancient buildings.
  • Jingzhou Ancient City: The city is a lovely well preserved, intact ancient city located about 220 km from Wuhan.
  • Three Gorges Dam: The dam is located in the areas of Xilingxia gorge and powers the world’s largest hydroelectric power station across the Yangtze River.
  • Chibi Battlefield: Located about 140 km from Wuhan, the city of Chibi is also called the ‘southern gate of Hubei.’It contains the remains of an ancient battlefield in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280).
  • Yangtze River Cruise: These cruises available both day and night are one of the must-do things to be done at Wuhan. There are two ferry terminals available for both types of cruises, and the routes and itinerary vary according to the duration and the ticket.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ravi Rajan