Budo World

The Ideology of Tōken (swords)

The Sword of Go-Etsu (Rival States) in Ancient China

1. Introduction

Discussion to this point has focussed on kendō’s long and rich culture that has been partly based on ancient beliefs. From here, focus will at last be given to the concepts of the tōken—particularly the origin of the ideas behind the tsurugi.

This analysis has looked at the impressive development and divergence in East Asia in ancient times. Yet the core of commonality in each line of thought has been in their ideas regarding the sacredness of the sword. Let us now look at the details of when, where, and how this happened.

Ancient China in particular was a culture known for its written record keeping of knowledge. In contrast to Japan’s history centred on ‘bu’ (martial), one might say that, except for a few rebellions, it was China’s excellence in the arts or ‘bun’ that defined its historical development. As such, it is inevitable that there are many wonderful ancient texts that are still in existence today regarding their intellectual development. One such text is the Ruisho, and this was used by scholars to create literary works, and as important study material for Chinese higher civil-service and governmental placement examinations—not unlike an encyclopaedia today. Specifically, these texts include Hokudō shoshō (literary ‘excerpts from the northern temple’), Geimon ruijyū (collection of similar works of art and literature’), and Taihei gyoran. It is upon inspection of this large number of examples that we are able to find the starting point for the conceptual creation of tōken.

From here, I will look at the ideals of the swords revered by the regions of Go and Etsu during the Autumn and Spring era of ancient China.

2. The Taia Swords

To provide a simple example, in one of the volumes of the Sōji it is written that “those who possess a sword made in Go or Etsu should shut it away in a box; they should treat it as a treasure of the highest order.” At this time the tsurugi swords of both Go and Etsu were known far and wide as treasured items.

The marvellous swords of Go and Etsu can be considered to lie at the root of ideas behind the tsurugi. The text Etsu zetsu-sho further discusses this point, and was said to have been written in the Later Han Dynasty by Enkō and Gohei. As far as its content, it describes the rise and fall of the So province situated on the outskirts of Go and Etsu during the Autumn and Spring era, while giving an account of its history and position.

Below is an excerpt that has been quoted from the Etsu zetsu-sho. Fūkoshi (a sword appraiser) of the state of So, had three other iron swords made in addition to the taia sword. Hearing of these famed swords, the King of the Jin province wanted to acquire them, yet he was unsuccessful. He and his soldiers therefore placed the province of So under a siege that spanned for three years. The food supply within the area became depleted, and the situation became grave. Below is a continuation of this story from an original text. It states:

When the King of So heard of this, he drew the taia sword, climbed the watchtower of the castle himself and led his troupes. The giant army of the Jin Dynasty suffer a devastating defeat, the soldiers lost their minds, blood flowed for thousands of miles, and even the wild animals were frightened, the water of the Yangtze swelled, and because of this, the hair on the head of King Zheng turned white. In delight, the King of So exclaims; “Could this be the might of the gods in this treasured sword, or was it the might of my humble self?” To which Fūkoshi replied; “It was indeed the heavenly might of the treasured sword, and also the great King who has the courage of a god.”

This is certainly a very interesting sword legend, and has two points that deserve attention. The first, in this story the taia sword is spoken of as something that transcended being a mere weapon. This is not because the King of So superhumanly cut down such a large number of enemies with the sword, but that his enemies were so convincingly overcome when he merely directed his troops with the sword. The tone of this part of the story bears a resemblance to the Japanese legends of Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi and Futsu-no-Mitama-no-Tsurugi.

Therefore the second point concerns exactly how hallowed this sword was. That is, was it the possessor of the sword who was great, or was it the sword itself? Using the example of a common Chinese sacred sword legend, there once was a leader who cut down and defeated a snake with a sword 3-shaku in length. In this story, the snake represents the Shin Dynasty (in other words Qin Shi Huang – also known in Japanese as Shikōtei – the Emperor of this state). This is a story that is said to symbolise the 3-shaku sword wielding leader overthrowing the Shin Dynasty (the snake), and thus bringing the rise of the Han Dynasty. As this leader became the emperor of the Former Han Dynasty, the sword used was worshiped, and is still spoken of to this day. However, even if it was a different sword that the leader used, surely he would still have managed to cut down and defeat the snake to become emperor. In other words, it was not the sword, but the man who was great.

Therefore, when looking at the excerpt from the Etsu zetsu-sho when the king of So asks “could this be the might of the gods in this treasured sword, or was it the might of my humble self?” Fūkoshi considerately replies “It was indeed the heavenly might of the treasured sword” while also declaring that the great King “has the courage of a god.” This can be interpreted as meaning that the sword was greater, and at this point, it was certainly a transcendent and sacred item.

3. Transcendence by Time

Why was the tsurugi so hallowed?  This point is clearly answered in the Etsu zetsu-sho. Firstly, it poses the following question: The sword is made of iron. Is it possible that iron was already imbued with divine qualities? The following quote may answer this question.

“Each era makes this so.” From ancient times until the present, there have been various stages of development such as during the time of Kenen, Shinō, and Kakusho, when weapons were fashioned from stone, and even palaces were built from shrubs and branches. In the time of the “Yellow Emperor” Huang Di (also known as Kōtei in Japanese) weapons were formed with jewels, and forests were cut down to build his palace. At this time jewels were also hallowed as sacred. In the era of Yu, weapons were made from copper. Nowadays weapons are made of iron, and the large military forces that possess their might have control, something that no person on earth can defy.

Simply put, there was a Stone Age, a Copper Age, and now the Iron Age; and as each era was considered to be at the cutting edge of civilisation for the time, this is the reason as to why weapons (swords) were deemed so sacred. From this, we can see that the prior to Taoist thought and seishin (astrological) belief and so on, there lay an extremely pure and primitive reason for the reverence of swords due to the material they were made from. 

4. The Transcendence of the Sword as a Weapon

Why was it the sword at the forefront of civilisation in this era and area? The Spring and Autumn era was an approximate 360 years long, and occurred between BCE 770 and BCE 403. With constant warring, it was a turbulent time where only the fittest survived. It was common in battles of the time for soldiers fight on horse and chariot. It happens that the story of Go and Etsu at the centre of this tale, took place on the outskirts of the state of So, a region with many rivers, lakes and marshland that did not suit this mode of battle. Consequently, the soldiers were forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat, and the main weapon used in these mêlées was the sword.

The swords they used were made of iron from the most civilised regions, therefore making them seem sacred. Basically, the origins of ideals concerning the sacredness sword came from its practical use. The practicality of the sword as a weapon was crystalised by the development of advanced techniques that went far beyond common experience, and is why it became seen as sacred, and also why there are so many sword legends like the ones explored here. The Spring and Autumn period in the area of Go-Etsu was a golden age for using the sword as a weapon, and was a very bright stage for it to be featured on.

5. Summary

Following this, the usefulness of the tsurugi sword as a weapon was changed as the straight katana sword was introduced around the Hanera. Tsurugi swords on the battlefield disappeared, but it became a ceremonial item in the Taoism belief system, and an object used in religious rituals. These articles have covered a lot of material to demonstrate the origins of the concepts of tōken, and the reasons why they were revered as sacred objects.