THE LESS THAN unique role played by tools and agricultural implements immensely complicates any attempt to characterize the nature of conflict in preliterate societies. Like contemporary revolutionaries and subjugated peoples throughout history, early men consciously adopted tools and other implements for combat purposes and no doubt instinctively wielded whatever objects might provide an advantage in exigencies. The late Warring States Six Secret Teachings discussed how to exploit their inherent combat potential:1

The implements for offense and defense are fully found in ordinary human activity. Digging sticks serve as chevaux-de-frise and caltrops. Oxen and horse pulled wagons can be used in the encampment and as covering shields. The different hoes can be used as spears and spear-tipped dagger-axes. Raincoats of straw and large umbrellas can serve as armor and protective shields. Large hoes, spades, axes, saws, mortars and pestles are tools for attacking walls. Oxen and horses are the means for transporting provisions. Chickens and dogs serve as lookouts. The cloth that women weave serves as flags and pennants.

The method that the men use for leveling the fields is the same as for attacking walls. The skill needed in spring to cut down grass and thickets is the same as needed for fighting against chariots and cavalry. The weeding methods used in summer are the same as used in battle against foot soldiers. The skills used in repairing the inner and outer walls in the spring and fall, in maintaining the moats and channels, are used to build ramparts and fortifications. Thus the tools for employing the military are completely found in ordinary human activity.

Wood’s rapid decay unfortunately causes almost every trace of such basic weapons as clubs, spears, javelins, and staves to vanish, obliterating the evidence necessary to reconstruct their evolution. Lacking fortuitously preserved specimens, the inception of the crude wooden bows and fire-hardened arrows that might push the origins of armed conflict further back into the mists of time can only be inferred from early stone arrowheads. Because few shaft impressions remain from the Shang or even Western Chou, it is extremely difficult to determine the actual length of various weapons, their striking range, and whether they were designed for wielding by one or two hands. In addition, even when they can be readily identified by their light weight, inferior metal, or intricate embellishments, the existence of numerous bronze versions manufactured specifically for ceremonial display or burial with the deceased rather than battlefield use further complicates the process of historical reconstruction.2

Archaeological reports often document the recovery of several distinct styles of single weapons such as an axe from individual tombs.3 Whether this means that weapons from earlier periods were carefully collected, preserved, and employed; earlier styles continued to be copied; or the different regions preserved certain styles by habit or preference and their products circulated to some extent is unknown, but trade and capture by warfare were both extensive, and all three possibilities are likely. The quest for lethality also produced some unusual, even bizarre weapons of unknown or forgotten origins that continued on as anomalies.4

As weapons became longer, stronger, and more lethal, they basically evolved from roughly contoured designs laboriously fabricated from natural materials to increasingly precise, forged or cast metallic realizations. Shapes became more complex and dynamic, finishes smoother, and decorations and embellishments more elaborate. However, neither the invention of new weapons nor changes in basic materials necessarily resulted in the latest variants immediately displacing previously popular styles. This phenomenon is readily understandable, if not fully explainable, by remembering that although great energy may be devoted to the unremitting quest for even a minute advantage, an inherent reluctance to change familiar weapons and previously successful tactics has always beset military enterprises. In addition, apart from any antiquarian impulse, ancient weapons invariably required lengthy craft processes to produce and were therefore cherished in cultures that esteemed martial values, including Shang China.

Even when conducive materials such as flint were readily available, highly tedious labor processes were required to transform stone blanks into usable weapons, invariably resulting in slight but noticeably different characteristics, including shape and weight. As part of its emphasis on weapons fabrication, the Hsia embarked on a casting program that did not simply copy the old stone versions but instead embraced new forms and improved designs, initially made possible by copper’s malleability, then its ductility. Even though the mining and smelting of ore required a massive labor commitment, the Shang quickly exploited molds to cast uniform axes and arrowheads.

Although it has generally been claimed that these bronze weapons were sharper, stronger, or otherwise vastly superior in some indeterminate way, these assertions should be closely scrutinized because, for example, arrowheads fabricated from flint were often sharper than variants produced in bronze. In addition, even though astonishing amounts of copper were soon being produced, the quantity was not unlimited, and bronze had to be prioritized, the majority being allotted to the production of the ritual vessels essential to manifesting and maintaining power. It can therefore be readily understood why newly created weapons never immediately displaced previous versions, stone axes continued to be important in the Shang, and enormous numbers of bone arrowheads are still found in Western Chou sites.5

A detailed history of Chinese weaponry is too complex and encumbered by regional variation to undertake here, but the following simplified analysis based on the work of numerous scholars and archaeologists should prove useful to understanding the combat modes and tactical possibilities prevailing in the Hsia and Shang. Unfortunately, despite a number of overview articles (albeit of limited scope) having appeared over the past thirty years, no comprehensive study has been undertaken for nearly four decades.6 Nevertheless, by employing these early efforts in conjunction with hundreds of archaeological reports the broad outlines can be clearly discerned, numerous implications drawn, and a few traditionally espoused claims quickly disproven.

Additional insights may be gained by evaluating the combat implications of recovered artifacts against the encyclopedic weapons knowledge and training practices preserved in written manuals and actualized on a daily basis in traditional martial arts schools.7 Naturally this knowledge must be judiciously employed because many techniques have become highly stylized, designed more for flourishing display than real-world effectiveness. However, since the body’s kinesthesiology remains unchanged, insights gleaned from them can aid in understanding how ancient Chinese weapons may have actually been used on the battlefield, as well as providing a sense of their limitations.8

Combat with cold weapons is frequently resolved in a few seconds rather than determined by the sort of extended slugfest depicted in contemporary movies. Poor technique, fatigue, weakness, overextension, loss of balance, or a lack of familiarity with the enemy’s weapon, even when not decisive, can sufficiently if only momentarily impair a fighter, allowing the enemy to successfully strike. Recovery, even survival, may then prove impossible.

It should never be forgotten that training is the basis of warfare, combat between unskilled fighters is simply a matter of chance, and disorganized groups of warriors can only produce chaos and uncertain results. Every weapon has a unique method of employment, range of effectiveness, required hand placement, ideal arm movement, critical body rotation, and essential leg action, all moderated to achieve the necessary dynamic balance between stability and speed. Soldiers unpracticed in manipulating their weapons pose a danger not just to themselves but to everyone about them.

For every weapon there is also an ideal combat space that allows maximizing its effectiveness while minimizing potentially adverse consequences for the force as a whole. This is one of the crucial differences between single combat on an open field, in which a fighter’s wild or bizarre actions may prove surprisingly effective, and military combat between organized contingents on a battlefield, whatever their numbers.

The essence of both weapons training and group fighting is constant, unremitting repetition that makes movement instinctual and response immediate. As the Art of War makes clear, warfare is a matter of ruthless efficiency; other factors being reasonably equal, whoever achieves the greatest efficiency in every aspect, including tactics and individual weapons, will prevail. Thus, even though little is known about it, military training must have existed in the ancient period, possibly centered on rudimentary versions of the forms employed in contemporary martial arts practice and discussed in the military classics.

In thus charting the history of weapons and attempting to assess their impact, it should especially be noted that ancient China was populated by several disparate cultures that have only recently begun to be recognized as distinct sources of innovation and technological divergence rather than simply beneficiaries of advanced Hua-Hsia achievements emanating from the Yellow river valley. No longer can it automatically be assumed that a certain weapon such as the dagger-axe originated in the northern plains and then spread by diffusion through trade or conquest throughout the rest of China, each area developing its own more or less imperfect copy. Instead, the myriad weapons designs that have been discovered should be viewed as locally engineered styles or regional variants that embody indigenous cultural characteristics and technological constraints. However, while improving the general understanding of cultural interaction and regional differences, these insights inevitably complicate any attempt to discern functional patterns within the thousands of recovered artifacts.


Because the simplest unimproved stick can deliver a painful, disabling strike by targeting the head, the earliest weapon associated with combat throughout the world has always been the club. Although crushing blows from heavy truncheons can prove fatal, lighter versions are easier to maneuver; however, they suffer from limited impact and therefore require a series of adroit strikes. Nevertheless, being basically amorphous and therefore less restricted than bladed weapons, clubs and short staffs can be employed to attack from almost every position and direction, including sideways or upwards, and still strike nearly every part of the enemy’s body. It has been reasonably said that all combat undertaken with short weapons, whether crushing, piercing, or slashing, is necessarily based on the stick’s mechanics as well as premised upon forearm movement rather than grandiose arm swings. Depending on the type of head affixed to the shaft—dagger, axe, hammer, knife, or even weighted ball—the arm’s natural motion must be constrained and often retrained to wield a compound weapon effectively.

However extensively clubs and staves may have been employed, the bow and arrow and early versions of the axe (but surprisingly not the spear) came to dominate the ever intensifying conflict that plagued China during the Neolithic period. Stone axes represent an important development because the head’s weight, being concentrated at the end of an extended lever whose fulcrum is the warrior’s elbow (unless the axe is being employed through a rather ineffective “wrist snap”), magnifies the energy that can be delivered to a focal area and thus the destructive impact. Despite still being considered a crushing weapon, the axe’s relatively narrow, sharpened edge can also inflict serious internal damage by cutting and severing when wielded in the same overhand mode as a club or truncheon.

The axe assumed many forms in early China, ranging from carefully balanced designs to odd asymmetrical shapes that display remarkable variations in dimensions, materials, and sharpness. Nevertheless, they have traditionally been classified into just two broadly defined categories, the fu, which tends to be longer and narrower, and the yüeh, which is generally wider and somewhat similar to a Western broadaxe. Both types were similarly edged, sometimes gradually but clearly tapered over the last centimeter or two, sometimes just sharpened right at the tip, with the blade edges always being vertical, oriented parallel to the shaft, rather than horizontal as in a mattock.

Unless they are unusually thin and therefore replica or ritual weapons, axe weights and thicknesses are rarely given in archaeological reports. However, the meager numbers available indicate that apart from a few heavy but purely symbolic yüeh, the heads for both were comparatively light, the weight for functional weapons varying from a very low 300 grams to a maximum of about 800, but mostly falling in the 400 to 600 range.9 Moreover, many large bronze fu are actually lighter than most compact versions because their increased size allowed them to be molded with a hollow core that extended throughout the blade’s length.


Even though large numbers of axes have been recovered from the Hsia, Shang, and Chou eras, it has generally been held that the axe was not a factor on pre-Ch’in battlefields.10 Unfortunately, assessing the actual combat role, if any, anciently played by these two axes in all their variants is somewhat problematic because they primarily served as tools for logging, woodworking, and agriculture. Their ready availability almost certainly resulted in them being extemporaneously employed in sudden conflict, but their very ubiquitousness muddies any attribution of a focal combat role. Worldwide, the combat axe has generally been a dedicated weapon, one distinctively shaped to ensure that debilitating blows are inflicted. In comparison with woodcutting, in which repetition and resilience are important, the needs of combat tend to be brief but intense; therefore a certain amount of brittleness can be tolerated in exchange for lethal advantages such as highly sharpened edges.11

An additional complication could have been their potential employment as missile weapons at close range. However, despite martial arts movies sometimes depicting secret societies and anti-Ch’ing loyalist groups throwing hatchets as a matter of choice, it is not a traditionally attested mode of combat. Axe throwing also requires considerable practice to master, especially with weapons that have not been properly balanced, suggesting it probably remained a method of last resort.

Finally, excavation reports tend to lack consistency in their classification of individual examples as fu, yüeh, or ch’i, the latter a variant of the yüeh. Well-illustrated articles often have identical-looking items differently named, even though the fu has traditionally been understood as marked by a longer, narrower shape and the yüeh by a much broader blade whose width can even exceed the head length. Justification is rarely provided for identifying an individual artifact as either a fu or yüeh, and subsequent articles may reclassify previous examples, prompting puzzled comments even from experts.

Despite these vexing aspects, a general trend to more symmetrical shapes, greater consistency, and increased smoothness and sharpness is clearly visible in the Neolithic stone variants and then the bronze versions that appear in the Hsia. However, as with all weapons and metallurgical techniques, significant differences persisted across China, and peripheral areas such as Fujian generally lagged in adopting various advances. Localized variation in design and size also tended to become more pronounced once bronze casting commenced, resulting in unique shapes and bizarre realizations even though interaction through trade and conflict could transmit highly esoteric influences to the most remote regions.12

By the Neolithic period the fu, which first appeared in uncertain but remote antiquity, had assumed fairly definitive form due to the maturation of the lithic industry. As attested by blunt, relatively long stone precursors that show evidence of heavy use, the fu was primarily a utilitarian implement, a tool first and foremost. However, contrary to some claims, it must have played a minor combat role, because a few recovered from comparatively munificent graves were embellished with motifs identical to those found on the accompanying dagger-axes, spears, and yüeh. Presumably because they were less expensive to manufacture and bronze had to be conserved for ritual vessels and weapons, stone fu persisted into the Shang even though bronze casting techniques had progressed sufficiently to allow multiple molds, hollow blades, effective mounting sockets, and large-scale production.13

Traditionally defined as a “large fu” by the Shuo-wen and other exegetical texts, yüeh were generally much broader, thinner, and sharper than most fu and therefore more suitable for warfare and severing heads.14 (The yüeh variant known as the ch’i seems not to have been distinctive apart from being slightly more compact and thus more easily wielded in combat than an executioner’s axe.) Although the earliest examples show signs of wear and are identified as tools, yüeh seem to have assumed a combat role virtually from inception. Moreover, being found almost solely with opulent ritual vessels and other weapons in the tombs of obviously prominent people (such as Fu Hao), their possession may have been deliberately confined to “men of power” ranging from clan rulers through tribal kings and battlefield commanders, the latter being derivatively held through deliberate award.15With the passage of time more elaborate but paradoxically lighter forms appeared, purely symbolic weapons intended to denote authority.

Later writings envision the yüeh as having played a highly symbolic role in the initial years of the Shang and Chou dynasties. For example, the Shih Chi states that “T’ang grasped the yüeh himself in order to attack the K’un-wo and then Chieh, king of the Hsia.”16 Similarly, King Wu of the Chou reportedly held a yellow yüeh in his left hand when his army proceeded against the Shang and employed it to chop off Emperor Hsin’s head after the Battle of Mu-yeh.17 Hsin’s execution with a yüeh fully accords with the idea that in antiquity “they first employed armor and weapons in major punishments, next fu and yüeh.”18 Furthermore, presumably as described in the Liu-t’ao ritual already reprised, Chou dynasty command authority was bestowed upon a newly appointed commander-in-chief through the symbolic passing of both a fu and a yüeh.19

The yüeh’s comparatively broad face also presented an extensive area for elaborate decorations, including abstract patterns and three-dimensional figures such as animal heads highly symbolic of power that project one to two centimeters out from the upper blade. The addition of “incised” (intaglio) embellishments required parts of the blade to be thickened, resulting in otherwise identically shaped blades displaying different profiles when viewed edgewise.

As the result of new grinding techniques, by the middle Neolithic the utilitarian axe or fu had already moved beyond the earliest stages of flaking and percussive forming to be fairly well defined and comparatively smooth. Some of the earliest, essentially rectangular P’ei-li-kang examples that date to about 5300-5200 BCE, although still small at only 6 to 12 centimeters in length and simply lashed to a shaft without any binding holes, show extensive signs of use.20 Although a few specimens of comparable size from this era reached 3.5 centimeters in thickness, most are a rather thin 1.0 to 1.5 centimeters and some have a single hole in the blade to facilitate lashing.21 Thereafter, even though smaller sizes for specialized purposes and exceptions that attain dimensions comparable to yüeh and presumably had a combat use continue to be recovered from individual sites, fu gradually became larger, more rectangular, and heavier.22

Despite being generally thought of as a comparatively late, regal weapon, yüeh already appear in the late Neolithic, especially in the south. A few clearly show evidence of use, but the many characterized by thin, nonfunctional stone blades and complete lack of discernible wear indicate that the yüeh must have already assumed a symbolic function even in classic Lungshan cultural manifestations. For example, even though the twelve stone yüeh recovered from a Hubei site vary in blade length from 11 to 22 centimeters and in width from 9 to 17.8, their thickness ranges from a mere 1.0 centimeter down to a useless 0.5, with many being about 0.8 centimeter, possibly a compromise between weight and substantiality.23 (One yüeh only 0.6 centimeter thick shows signs of wear, suggesting 0.6 centimeter might have been the lower limit for any sort of functional blade thickness.)24The yüeh at this site already display three of the basic five shapes: rectangular, a gradually expanding blade, and the pinched waist or slight hourglass shape. All twelve have a large binding hole in the upper third of the blade but no tabs or other lashing slots. At another Hubei site whose yüeh has been termed a tool rather than weapon, the blade seems to have been inserted into the shaft before lashing in three directions.25

The greatest concentration of late Neolithic yüeh blades having been found in the Liang-chu culture, which was centered in Jiangsu province and flourished from about 3000 to 2000 BCE, suggests that developments in the south provided the impetus for the weapon’s adoption in the Shang, especially as Fu Hao’s yüeh (described below) is decorated with a southern tiger motif associated with the indigenous Hu culture. Furthermore, yüeh have also been recovered from an incipient Liang-chu cultural site at Ch’ang-shu that has been dated even earlier, somewhere between 3500 and 3000 BCE. Nine of the fourteen graves there, including four of distinctively higher rank, contain a total of twenty-five specimens in four different styles that display little or no signs of use.26 Because some of the skeletons were incomplete and showed other signs of being casualties of war, the excavators concluded they had been brought back for burial and that the yüeh were symbols of martial power. Generally rectangular in shape and still small at only 12 to 14 centimeters in length, the relatively smooth, thin blades still had sharp edges.27

Another eleven yüeh have recently been discovered amid artifacts dated from 4500 to 3500 BCE at San-hsing-ts’un (not to be confused with San-hsing-tui), also in Jiangsu.28 Apart from a single jade specimen, they are all smoothly worked stone versions whose blades were affixed by partly inserting the top into a wooden shaft, allowing the unusual addition of a carved bone filial or cap along the shaft just above the blade. All the yüeh have medium to large lashing holes in the upper portion of the blade, and the shafts apparently once had end caps carved from bone or teeth attached. Recovered shaft remnants of 45 and 53 centimeters conclusively show that they were easily managed, single-handed weapons designed to be wielded with a well-controlled forearm motion.29

Six tombs dating to the late middle phase of Liang-chu culture, located somewhat more westward on the plains in the T’ai-hu area, contain a surprising nine yüeh among just thirteen stone objects.30 Both stone and jade versions were recovered, with the latter generally being more polished and symmetrical in shape than the stone specimens.31 However, symbolic yüeh in both stone and jade have been found even farther afield, both to the north in Liaoning and along the coast in Fujian. A basically square jade specimen dating to the Hungshan culture, recovered in Liaoning, has a well-rounded blade, large center hole, and unusual small double hole with a connecting slot for binding near the top. Just 12.4 centimeters high, 10.5 centimeters wide, and an extremely thin 0.6 centimeter, it has been identified as a purely symbolic martial form that evolved from earlier tools.32Neolithic examples recovered in Fujian dating to a distinctively late 2000 BCE are, however, still small and basically similar in style to the fu simultaneously discovered, much in keeping with the general trend of imitating Shang bronze weapons such as the dagger-axe in stone.33

The latest concentration of Liang-chu stone yüeh dates to somewhere between 2000 and 1700 BCE and thus falls within the predynastic Shang’s horizon.34 Twenty-eight fu and five yüeh have been discovered in just twenty-three graves at this Shanghai area site, evidence that they played an important role in this somewhat peripheral manifestation. Perhaps most significant but of uncertain meaning, a youth in one grave was accompanied by two fu and three yüeh. However, their interment is thought to be an expression of hope for the afterlife, because the inhabitants dwelled in a complex society that integrated agriculture, warfare, and hunting, one in which the fu and yüeh were both tools and weapons.35

Reconstructing the yüeh’s history in bronze is rendered somewhat difficult by the comparative lack of samples, only 200 or so having been recovered from the Shang and earlier eras in comparison with 1,000 spears and perhaps 2,000 dagger-axes, as well as the presence of anomalies and the persistence of older versions.36 Nevertheless, perhaps because of their uniqueness, yüeh are prominently mentioned in excavation reports, making it possible to discern certain trends in size and complexity, though not with any great linearity. The most basic forms were square and rectangular, but variants that gradually expand outward down the whole length of the blade quickly appeared. Further modifications included rounding the top somewhat, imparting curvature to the blade ranging from slight to extreme, reducing the middle portion to produce a sort of hourglass-shaped axe, and various combinations of these developments.37

The earliest heads were initially mounted by simply lashing the somewhat ill-defined blades to a shaft, thereafter by partially inserting them into a shaft and lashing with multiple bindings that passed through a two- to three-centimeter hole in the upper third of the blade. However, tabbed and socketed blades also quickly developed, the former utilizing a tab created by reducing the blade’s width at the top by about 50 percent to produce a rectangular portion that could be passed through a slotted shaft. As a result the outer portions of the blade pushed against the staff, while the lashing hole, frequently found in the protruding portion of the tab, and two additional binding slots in the upper shoulders ensured fastness. In some versions flanges provided additional surface area, reducing wobble and preventing push-through. Socketed versions, which developed in the northwest, primarily relied on a tight mechanical fit between the interior of the socket and the shaft, both generally rendered somewhat oval to reduce blade rotation in use, but pegs and early nails were sometimes employed to augment the solidity.

Two rather simple bronze yüeh recently recovered from Erh-li-t’ou mark the actual inception of the cast form. The first one discovered, a rectangular blade some 23.5 centimeters long but only 3.1 centimeters wide, was originally (and it would seem correctly) termed a fu but has now been reclassified as a yüeh or possibly a ch’i. However, the second is decidedly less controversial, a sort of rectangle that splays out slightly at the bottom of the blade area, has a decorative band near the top, and would have been lashed through one moderately sized hole. Rather small, with a total length of 13.5 centimeters and a width that tapers inward from 7.6 at the blade edge to 6.1 centimeters at the top, it is marked by a low tin content of 5.7 percent and extreme thinness of 0.5 to 0.6 centimeter, evidence of being a symbolic embodiment.38

Although stone versions would continue to be produced throughout the Shang, bronze yüeh begin to be noticeable at Yen-shih and Cheng-chou, become somewhat more common after the government’s shift to Anyang, and then basically disappear by the end of the Chou. Increasingly an emblem of power, the bronze specimens discovered in the core domain and down at P’an-lung-ch’eng (dated to the upper Erh-li-kang) reflect the era’s vastly improved metallurgical techniques, including the ability to mold increasingly intricate designs in the walls of ritual vessels and onto yüeh blades, particularly in comparison with the more pedestrian fu that would always be found in vastly greater numbers.39


For example, although one of the three yüeh recovered from P’an-lung-ch’eng is plain, the largest yüeh discovered to date in China (at 41.4 centimeters long and 26.7 centimeters wide) displays a somewhat classic bell shape that tapers outward toward the blade, an unusually long tab without any holes, two large rectangular binding slots but no flanges, and a rounded blade edge. It incorporates a very large hole in the center of the blade (as shown in outline), and an intaglio design decorates the border and the upper portion below the shoulder.

The second, considerably smaller yüeh, at 24.4 centimeters long and 13.3 centimeters wide, has more visibly pinched-in sides, a comparatively short but wide tab without any holes, an even larger center hole, and two binding slots on the shoulders. However, the third yüeh is a unique semicircle 22 centimeters high that flares upward into points, and has a huge beveled hole in the center of the blade, narrow shoulders, and a short tab but two large binding slots.

By the early reigns at Yin-hsü the fu and yüeh had basically realized their final form. However, rather than being produced in large quantities like the fu, individual yüeh were cast in extremely small numbers, often individually for specific people. They therefore lack the fu’s uniform weights and dimensions and embody far more complex, often extravagant decorations ranging from abstract, “incised” or intaglio t’ao-t’ieh motifs through raised depictions of animals, faces, and the pernicious grimace molded into China’s most famous yüeh, shown in outline below.40 Although trade and other forms of interchange resulted in examples of highly localized styles being disseminated throughout China, few socketed yüeh have been recovered at Yin-hsü, the majority (including in the early stage) employing centered tabs for mounting. A large bronze yüeh with an iron blade and another bronze yüeh decorated with an animal motif have also been recovered at T’ai-hsi.41

The four yüeh recovered from Fu Hao’s tomb, although not the only ones dating to the early Yin-hsü, epitomize the weapon’s symbolic nature and confirm its role as the ultimate prestige battlefield implement. The largest two are thick, heavy specimens in a square style that measure 39.5 and a nearly identical 39.3 centimeters high and have blade widths of 37.3 and 38.5 centimeters, respectively. The former has slightly indented sides, a somewhat rounded blade, a wide tab, and two binding slots on the shoulders, and is decorated with two tigers leaping toward a man in the center of the blade itself.42 Although basically rectangular, one of them being 24.4 centimeters long and 14.8 wide at the blade, the two middle-sized yüeh have the deeply indented sides of an hourglass shape, and t’ao-t’ieh patterns embellish the upper portion of the blade, but no flanges.43


The seven yüeh discovered in the tomb of a high-ranking military commander named Ch’ang, apparently the progenitor of the Ch’ang clan, dated to late in the second period at Yin-hsü, well illustrate the tendency to individuality. Not only are the shapes and decorations unusual, but the characters ya Ch’ang are also included on one blade.44 Nearly as large as Fu Hao’s yüeh, the most massive and interesting specimen has a 40.5-centimeter-high blade, a maximum width of 29.8 centimeters where the blade flares outward, and an extremely heavy weight of 5.95 kilograms. Marked by a somewhat asymmetrical curve at bottom and a top shape that conforms to the molded design of the protruding decorations, it was secured by a large, embellished tab and lashing holes at the top of the blade. Dragons and the characters for the commander’s name complete the appearance. Five of the other six are similar, being more rectangular, with a length of about 20.5 centimeters; long tabs; a surprisingly light weight of about 0.67 kilogram; and a combination of stylized circles, triangles, and an animal motif for decoration. However, the last specimen, rather squat at 21.2 centimeters high and 18.7 wide, has a comparatively simple, symmetrical curved edge with a large hole centered in the upper blade, a centered tab, and weight of 0.75 kilogram.

Whether recovered from Anyang or farther afield, the fu and yüeh dating to the final reigns show continuity with previous styles but a pronounced tendency to be symbolic, as attested by specimens whose thinness precludes any combat utility.45 Although a few are marked by elaborate decorations including complex t’ao-t’ieh patterns or three large triangles, others, probably intended for less distinguished commanders or even for interring with the deceased, display simplified, abstract patterns. 46 However, exceptions and anomalies (such as asymmetrical blade shapes) are not unknown,47 especially out in the northwest, where socketed versions evolved, and local characteristics as well as external influences are strongly evident, such as in a comparatively narrow but long half-moon blade with three large holes mounted lengthwise at the top of a short shaft.48 Even some tabbed versions came to display unusual features, including a three-dimensional ram’s head on both sides.49

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