THE DAGGER-AXE OR ko, a weapon unique to China, was originally designed to pierce the neck and upper body and thereby maim or slay by cutting and severing, rather than inflicting the sort of crushing injuries caused by shock weapons. Even in its earliest form the point was fully capable of penetrating the era’s scanty armor and disabling the victim. Moreover, just as depicted by oracular characters and later tomb pictorials, before the lengthened shaft of subsequent eras came to require two hands, the short, single-handed versions common in the Shang were certainly used in conjunction with a shield.1
Several characters associated with warfare reflect the primary role that the dagger-axe played in Shang dynasty combat, including the word for “attack” (fa), which appears in the oracle bones as a man with a ko. The most important character for battle in later ages, chan, would consist of a component that provides the sound and originally meant “great” (itself derived from the primary meaning of a particularly large vessel) conjoined with ko once again on the right. The character for “being wary” or “guarding against” something, chieh, is formed from two hands holding a dagger-axe in a sort of defensive posture.2
Although this sort of speculative interpretation can easily become overly imaginative, it might be noted that the basic character for “martial”—wu—is composed of two components that are generally interpreted as a foot and a dagger-axe, the latter sometimes placed above the former rather than on the right, suggesting a warrior on foot with a dagger-axe. However, a purportedly post-battle dialogue dating to 597 BCE provides another interpretation, one that would be cited frequently in imperial court debates when claiming that the only real justification for employing martial power is to effect the cessation of warfare.3 When the upstart but increasingly powerful southern state of Ch’u gained a significant victory over the antique state of Chin in the north, Ch’u’s officers encouraged the commander to raise a victory mound with the enemy’s dead so that “the martial (wu) achievement would not be forgotten.” 4 However, in declining he noted that “wu means resting (chih) the dagger-axes (ko)” and then cited various historical examples (including the Chou conquest of the Shang), wherein the victors had manifestly set aside their arms after extirpating the evildoers.
Even though dagger-axes were fabricated from stone in the late Neolithic,5 the ko is primarily a bronze weapon that first appeared in cast form in the Hsia capital at Erh-li-t’ou, proliferated during the Shang, and continued to function as China’s distinctive battlefield implement during the Chou in one form or another. Although several puzzles remain because numerous variations developed across China’s ancient expanse before the dagger-axe evolved even further through interaction with indigenous cultures,6 the thousands already recovered provide an adequate basis for reconstructing the weapon’s early history. In the ongoing quest for combat lethality, four major styles emerged by the middle Shang, and though three of them would subsequently be abandoned, the so-called crescent-bladed ko dominated Western Chou warfare until it was gradually displaced by the chi (spearheaded ko) during the Spring and Autumn period.7
Artifact-based discussions of the ko’s evolution are complicated by a number of factors. First, any single weapon recovered from a burial site, although perhaps a favorite of the interred, may actually be just symbolic, intended to enhance the deceased’s status at death or in the afterlife. Second, perhaps because they may have been produced from the same molds, the replica weapons that appear early on at Yin-hsü are visibly identical to functional versions. However, they differ in being characterized by a much higher lead content, a change that facilitated casting while saving copper but rendered them too soft for edging or use.8
More stylized, abstract, thinner, obviously simplified replicas begin to multiply by the third period at Yin-hsü. Sometimes extensively embellished, they were increasingly produced from lead alone and gradually became common even in ordinary tombs.9 During the transition period from highly realistic bronze replicas to these purely symbolic realizations, the exact nature of any individual specimen can be difficult to determine. Nevertheless, it can reasonably be assumed that there is a direct correlation between the number and opulence of the weapons discovered in any particular grave and the occupant’s military achievements or prestige.
A study confined to undisturbed graves from the four periods at Yin-hsü has revealed that dagger-axes and spears are the only weapons that were buried with all ranks, and that dagger-axes far exceed spears.10 Late in the dynasty high-ranking commanders and members of the martial nobility might be interred with several hundred weapons, including yüeh, ko, spears, arrowheads, and large symbolic tao (knives).11 Middle-ranking officers were accompanied by ko together with spears and arrowheads or spears alone, often amounting to a dozen or more; low-ranking officers rated fewer than ten weapons, invariably ko combined with spears or arrowheads; and ordinary soldiers were usually limited to just a ko, spear, or several arrowheads, never interred with any ritual vessels.12 However, in chariot burials only ko are found, never spears.13
Based on the numbers and pervasive distribution, it can be concluded that the dagger-axe was the most important weapon in the Shang, even though commanders were honored with battle-axes and perhaps even employed them on the battlefield. Furthermore, although Shang oracular inscriptions never mention them being awarded for merit, ko are known to have been given as a token of recognition over 2,000 times in the Western Chou, not only making them the most frequently bestowed weapon, but also preserving the names of several specific types, including “plain ko” (su ko).14
The dagger-axes found at Erh-li-t’ou simply affixed a short, daggerlike blade near the top of a wooden shaft. The blade’s upper and lower edged surfaces were both sharpened and essentially parallel except near the front fifth or sixth, where they tapered down to a relatively well-defined point. However, because daggers had not yet appeared, only short single-edged knives, the “dagger-axe” was not fabricated by affixing preexisting “daggers” to a shaft but instead derived from long, tapered mattocks, hatchets, or similar choppers and axes employed in woodworking or in the fields, to create a more lethal weapon than an axe alone.15 The dagger-axe has been likened to the Western halberd and has even been called a halberd, but the halberd’s blade is traditionally broad, more like a yüeh with a spear affixed on top, a variant known as the chi in China.
The earliest Neolithic versions were essentially elongated rectangles fabricated from a variety of stone materials (including jade) that tapered down somewhat over the external third of the blade and were rather tenuously lashed to a shaft. However, the improved variants and the first bronze embodiments secured the blade by inserting it through a slot in the shaft as well as generally binding it through a single hole molded into the protruding portion of the tab.
As may be imagined from the dynamics of its employment, affixing a blade to a shaft in the absence of modern nuts and bolts would have been problematic. Two methods were employed: (1) simply drilling or carving a rectangular opening in the shaft and (2) slotting down from the top (combined with preparing the necessary opening) before attempting to secure the blade by nailing, pegging, or most commonly lashing, whether singly or in combination. (Rectangular openings alone could only accommodate simple, parallel edged blades whose tabs could be inserted through them.)16 However, slotting and drilling could fatally weaken all but the most durable wooden shafts just where the impulse from striking the enemy is transferred, and bindings alone would probably have been unable to prevent early dagger-axe blades from being pushed through on impact.
Numerous impressions left by long-disintegrated shafts in the compacted soil indicate that Shang era shafts averaged about 85 to 100 centimeters in length but could reach 113 centimeters (roughly 44 inches), and the narrow blade was affixed just about a meter (39 inches) from the butt.17Despite its being a single-handed infantry weapon, the length was sufficient to ensure considerable head velocity as the shaft turned through its arc, seriously stressing the bindings and the joint where the blade was attached upon impact. (Even greater forces would be exerted when the shaft was extended to 9 feet and the dagger-axe became a two-handed weapon in the Spring and Autumn period, prompting warnings in the later military writings that even though they look impressive in court, weapons with overly long shafts are unwieldy and break easily.)
The earliest shafts were probably fabricated by shaving down tree branches or saplings, presumably explaining why some Shang dynasty characters show a base with rootlike protuberances. (Speculation that the character depicts an integral base that was employed for standing the weapon is absurd, though a detachable stand would have been feasible.) Naturally the wood species chosen would affect the weapon’s overall strength, resiliency, and degree of flexing experienced in use. The Han dynasty K’ao-kung Chi mentions that although stiffness is desirable in thrusting weapons such as the spear, some flexibility is necessary for hooking weapons such as the crescent-bladed versions of the dagger-axe and chi, both of which evolved in the Shang.
By the Spring and Autumn period, if not earlier, laminated shafts were being fabricated from multiple strips of predimensioned wood and bamboo. This advance greatly facilitated realizing the requisite strength and flexibility within dimensional limitations and allowed the shaft to be lengthened to accommodate two hands in the Chou, as demanded by the exigencies of chariot-based warfare. However, in the Shang and Western Chou the shaft was still short and therefore a weapon for ground troops, even though they have been found interred alongside chariots. (No blow could have been struck across the gulf between the chariot box and an enemy standing outside the wheels.)
To resolve the problem of push-through on impact, the blade’s rear portion was reduced to create a rectangular tab, producing a cross-sectional profile with blade portions that effectively butted against the shaft. The contact area was then further increased by adding a molded flange at the rear of the blade portion (as shown in the illustration). During the Erh-li-kang period at Yen-shih, Cheng-chou, and Lao-niu-p’o, this flange was subsequently extended to form two small protrusions above and below the blade’s edges just at the shafting point, though these adjustments did not become popular until the second period at Yin-hsü.18
Some early versions of these straight-bladed ko with protruding flanges also included a lashing slot or two just in front of the flange area and subsequently the roughened area in the front portion of the tab, where it would be inserted into the shaft during the Yin-hsü period, though these slots must have compromised the blade’s integrity and somewhat weakened it. An alternative mounting method consisted of creating a tubular socket by molding a vertical shaft hole where the flange on the tab normally affixed the blade to the handle. This resulted in a somewhat pudgy profile when viewed from the top and considerably greater thickness in the rear portion of the blade and front of the tab, developments that initially required the blade’s spine to be broadened and flattened. However, blades with rhomboidal cross-sections (which had already evolved) quickly reappeared.19
The mechanical joint created by forcing the shaft up through the socket reduced the wobbling experienced with slot-mounted blades and eliminated the danger of push-through in use as well as slippage under conditions of lower humidity, but coincidentally introduced a tendency to rotate on the shaft. Despite being a problem that could have easily been resolved by molding a small opening on the side and inserting a peg or nail horizontally through the socket into the shaft, oval-shaped sockets and matching shafts were instead employed, and any residual wobbling was remedied by jamming thin pieces of wood into the gaps.
The socketed dagger-axe first appeared in the Erh-li-kang period,20 but the tubular socket is generally believed to have originated somewhere in the Northern complex.21 Increasingly found at Anyang beginning with a small number dating to Wu Ting’s reign,22 despite claims to the contrary they seem to have proliferated quite rapidly and displaced the straight-tabbed ko, eventually accounting for the majority of dagger-axes found in the tombs of some high-ranking martial officials in Yin-hsü’s third and fourth periods.23 Nevertheless, the development of the crescent blade catapulted the yu-hu-ko style into prominence, presumably because of its lethality in both infantry combat and chariot encounters, resulting in the virtual disappearance of the socketed ko in the Western Chou, though not before more pronounced rhomboidal blade shapes and a variant incorporating a similar downward extension that increased the solidity of the mounting appeared late in the Shang.24
A second early development during the third period at Erh-li-t’ou was the enlargement and elongation of the tab (t’ang) in a downward curve. However, the curved tab style did not proliferate until Yin-hsü and then rapidly disappeared after the Chou conquest.25 Said to have been similarly inspired by the curved handles found on knives from the Northern complex, the initially simple, flat tabs soon gave way to increasingly intricate decorative motifs coincident with the tendency to more elaborately embellish ritual vessels. Abstract patterns, Chinese characters, and fanciful animals were all employed to enhance prestige, identify the user, and seek divine protection. However, the most imaginative and complex figures appear in nearby peripheral cultures, including one associated with the Hu in the south that depicts a tiger eating a man.26 Even though their intention was ostentatious display, their primary function overawing others whether on the battlefield or in martial flourishes, these longer, thicker, heavier tabs provided a natural counterbalance to the blade head, thereby improving the battlefield dynamics, while the weight increase augmented the energy at impact.27
Surprisingly, these enlarged dagger-axe tabs were never edged, reshaped to form any sort of hammer, or pointed, three improvements that would have allowed their use on the back swing or over the shoulder and off to the side in an emergency. However, coincident with the evolution of more complex tab shapes, the ko’s overall profile changed somewhat. One of the most obvious alterations was the relocation of the curbed tab to a more upward position so that the top sometimes even formed an essentially continuous line with the blade’s upper edge, particularly in the replica weapons that became common late in the Shang.28 However, these minor stylistic modifications would have had no real effect on the weapon’s primary function or effectiveness, unlike the elongated crescent’s development.
As early as Erh-li-t’ou’s fourth period a slight downward curve at the tip in the straight dagger-axe blades resulted in a slightly longer upper edge and an upper-to-lower length ratio exceeding 1:0.29 Thereafter, despite preserving the slight downward hook at the front of the blade, during the late Erh-li-kang and early Yin-hsü periods the ratio would reverse as the portion of the lower edge closest to the shaft began to be lengthened in an increasingly discernible arc. Moreover, in the Erh-li-kang period, ko blades with sharply tapered, sharpened edges that had initially been flat or characterized by only a slightly protruding spine began to grow wider and evolve the distinctive rhomboidal cross-section that would characterize all subsequent weapons.30 The greater thickness not only increased the weight and the force at impact, but also strengthened the blade against twisting and breakage.
Although exceptions of considerably greater length have been recovered, the normal length of the blade, including the mounting tab, for functional bronze models in the Shang varied from just under 20 centimeters to nearly 30, with the majority falling between 23 and 26 centimeters or approximately 10 inches, but a few running as high as 38 centimeters. (For lengths of about 15 to 18 centimeters, the ratio for the portion of the blade that extends outward from the shaft to the remainder or tab generally varies from 3:1 to 4:1.) Depending on the blade’s thickness, the alloys employed, and whether the tab was a straight rectangle or a heavier, curved, or angled version incorporating complex decorations, the weight could range from a very low 200 to an occasionally hefty 550 grams, with the majority falling between 300 and 450 grams or roughly 10 to 16 ounces.
The large number of dagger-axes that weigh 300, 400, or 450 grams (or just about one pound) suggests that these were considered ideal weights for the particular designs. As with any weapon, extremes tend to result in poor performance. Excessively light ko would have been easy to swing and less fatiguing even over the short period of actual combat, but lightening the weapon would have little effect on the arc speed or final velocity. However, because the head’s weight significantly contributes to the momentum and thus the impulse or energy available at impact, too light a blade might simply glance off the era’s rudimentary body armor or fail to penetrate the body. Conversely, although heavier blades have greater impact, they can become unwieldy and sacrifice precision in striking, accounting for the weight and size constraints suggested by later military writers.
Another crucial issue is the angle at which the dagger-axe blade is affixed to the shaft, because (as some scholars have speculated and our experiments have confirmed) there is a very narrow range of angles that will allow the ko to function effectively. Delivering a piercing combat blow in an overhand style requires that the blade arrive more or less perpendicularly to the surface of the target; otherwise, a glancing blow will result that is unlikely to produce a serious wound, if any at all, should the enemy be protected by body armor.
Although a few ko have been recovered that employ declinations from horizontal of 20 degrees and ascendant variants of an almost unimaginable 45 degrees, the slight upward angle of approximately 10 degrees that appeared in the early Shang eventually prevailed, no doubt the result of hard-won experience.31 Any greater angle simply exposes the lower cutting edge, essentially converting it into an extended saber or a precursor of later weapons that mount broad knives at the top of a shaft, such as the Kuan Tao, named after the famous Three Kingdoms general and God of War. Conversely, angles less than perpendicular preclude both cutting and piercing, rendering the weapon useless.
As attested by the large number recovered from Yin-hsü, even without further improvement the dagger-axe had become a substantial weapon with formidable killing power when wielded by practiced warriors. Nevertheless, it continued to evolve, the next major development being the gradual elongation of the bottom edge downward in an increasingly arc-shaped profile. In its incipient Erh-li-kang embodiment this extension did not yet constitute an additional hooking or cutting edge, but instead provided the basis for a somewhat longer flange that further stabilized the blade’s mounting while providing an additional lashing slot sufficiently offset below the body of the blade to avoid weakening it. However, even these slight changes must have produced dramatic effects, because the lower portion was quickly extended further downward during the Anyang period, resulting in an essentially crescent-shaped blade that could incorporate additional mounting slots and achieved its final realization in the late third and fourth periods at Yin-hsü, as shown in the illustration overleaf.32
Various sizes and basic shapes, including a modified triangular blade, were eventually produced, all generally falling within the overall length and weight limits seen in the straight- and curved-tab models. The triangular- and crescent-bladed ko appear to have evolved separately, but it is also claimed that the former influenced the latter. However, tab variants tended to be more dramatic, and a few actually reached lengths approximately equal to the blade itself. Increasingly displaced slightly downward, these tabs also increased in width, providing ample surface for more complex designs.
Because it can be used for hooking and slicing, the crescent or scythelike blade radically modified the nature of the dagger-axe.33 Now that it was no longer restricted to fighting in a piercing mode, penetrating strikes were probably relegated to secondary importance, if ever attempted. However, employing the dagger-axe as a hooking and slicing weapon requires a completely different fighting method. Rather than manipulating the point to strike a roughly perpendicular blow, the curved portion of the blade must be employed to catch and pull through the objective. Moreover, as depictions of decapitated bodies and evidence from ritual executions subsequently show, in seeking to sever rather than penetrate, warriors naturally targeted the neck and four limbs rather than the torso. Strikes could also be directed at the enemy’s horses, whose speed would actually contribute to the weapon’s effectiveness, as well as the chariot’s occupants, eventually making it the preferred weapon for chariot combat.
In theory, both the upper and lower edges of the earliest daggerlike ko, as well as the upper edge of the hooked or crescent blade form of the ko, could have been used as cutting surfaces, but only through rather awkward maneuvers. The lower edge of the earliest piercing weapons can make an effective cut only by striking in a swift downward motion against the shoulder, requiring the wielder to hold the shaft nearly vertical and effect an awkward (and therefore weak) hand orientation before pulling forward or through a contorted horizontal hooking and pulling motion. The mechanics of the crescent blade allow it to be directly brought to bear before the lower edge is far more effectively pulled through as the forearms drop and the hands are rotated downward. On the other hand, despite claims to the contrary, the upper edges of early versions were probably only used “on the rebound” or “in recoil,” when an initial swipe missed and the warrior had to abruptly thrust the top edge of the blade back upward in an awkward attempt to strike the enemy in the throat through some sort of reverse blow.
An apparent reference to employing the upper edge of the dagger-axe in this mode appears in the Tso Chuan, which states that Lu “defeated the Ti at Hsien and captured a giant called Ch’iao-ju. Fu-fu Chung-sheng struck his throat with a ko, killing him.”34 Commentators have traditionally explained the fatal blow as an upward thrust with the top edge of the blade, because the enemy’s greater height exposed his throat. (Why he would have been slain after being capturing with a method appropriate to the battlefield is rather puzzling.) However, they generally believe that the weapon was a chi rather than a simple ko, particularly as the two terms were traditionally used somewhat interchangeably, in which case the actual implement of death would have been the spear at the top.35
Issues of rotation would not have been as severe for the early or true “dagger-axe” because, being designed to penetrate, the blow would necessarily have been directed downward without much sideways angle. Nevertheless, because of the weapon’s unusual design, the early ko inherently required highly specialized techniques to wield as an overhead or overhand weapon and would have had somewhat reduced effectiveness when swung horizontally and even less power when striking upward in a rising arc from below. However, the arc need not have been wide—in fact, large sweeps can easily be avoided and there would have been a tendency for the head to rotate—so the ko may have been employed for short punching blows such as those recently determined to have been highly effective for similarly shaped Western-style weapons.36 But in the case of the hooked version, greater torquing forces would have been exerted on the hand when the head angle changed from the initial strike as the blade cut through. In addition, the forces experienced at impact would have tended to thrust the blade upward on the shaft immediately upon encountering any resistance, accounting for the ever increasing length of the crescent blade with its additional lashing slots.
A third, distinctive form of dagger-axe, sometimes referred to as a k’uei,37 evolved on the periphery in Shaanxi around Ch’eng-ku.38 Derived from precursors traceable back to the Yangshao cultural manifestation at Pan-p’o and intermediate realizations at K’o-sheng-chuang, it migrated into the Shang during the Erh-li-kang period and down into Sichuan, where it persisted as an important style well into the Warring States period.39 Basically triangular, it has a relatively broad base but rather rounded tip and thus somewhat resembles the shape of Neolithic stone dagger-axes.
As soon as it began being cast in bronze, this triangular ko developed an integral mounting tab that was roughly 50 percent narrower than the blade’s width, molded binding slots at the inner edge (but no flanges), holes in the tab, and sometimes even a large hole centered in the blade itself. The preferred form evolved over the centuries, ultimately producing late Shang versions marked by somewhat elongated lower edges, similar to those found on crescent-shaped blades but considerably shorter.
The tab’s reduced profile allowed the outer portions of the blade’s base to butt directly against the shaft, greatly strengthening the joint, while the binding slots and holes permitted more extensive, tighter lashing, increasing the overall solidity. (Some analysts believe that the noticeable success of the k’uei’s lashing holes prompted their addition to the then-evolving crescent-shaped extension on the straight ko, and that they may have even preceded the upper and lower flanges that start to become visible during Erh-li-kang.)40 Although they frequently weigh about 300 grams, triangular “ko” tend to have somewhat stubbier blades of about 18 to 20 centimeters, though a few about 22 centimeters long and 9 centimeters wide at the base have been recovered.41
By terming the triangular version a “ko” rather than a variant of the broadaxe, which it more closely resembles, analysts imply that its mode of employment was similar to the relatively straight-bladed, basic variant. Because it tapers to a comparatively narrow tip, the k’uei’s impact area was considerably smaller than that of the average fu blade with its wider, more rectangular profile. However, its relative bluntness would still have rendered piercing efforts more difficult, required greater strength to wield successfully, and perhaps transformed it into more of a crushing weapon with somewhat dubious characteristics.42 The significant popularity it achieved in the late Shang and Western Chou before disappearing by the Spring and Autumn period (because hooking weapons were more appropriate for chariot warfare than the triangular ko, an infantryman’s weapon) attests to its functional value.43
Apart from new shapes and advances in construction techniques, the dagger-axe eventually benefited from the somewhat surprising addition of a spearhead at the top of the shaft, thereby uniting two discrete, fully evolved edged weapons into what has commonly been called a chi or spear-tipped dagger-axe.44 (One rare form, called a kou chi or “hooked chi,” affixed a knife to the top of a dagger-axe rather than a spear. This rather puzzling weapon probably attests more to human ingenuity and an inclination to tinkering with weapons than to any improved realization of lethality, because the nearly perpendicular ko would interfere with the delivery of slashing knife blows.)45 Although the earliest known example from the Erh-li-kang period combines a simple straight ko with a spearhead, it quickly came to be based on the crescent-bladed ko and assumed an appearance somewhat like a Western halberd, even though it remained a hooking rather than crushing or piercing weapon.46
The chi’s extemporaneous character was lost once unitary molded versions appeared in the late Shang or shortly thereafter.47 However, as attested by their relative paucity even in tombs and graves with multiple weapons, chi remained uncommon until multiplying in the Western Chou, proliferating in the Spring and Autumn, and displacing the spear and ko to become the chief weapon in the Warring States period, when there was a resurgence in separately cast pieces.48 Although originally an infantry weapon (as might be expected in having been derived from the crescent-shaped ko), the chi is generally viewed as primarily a chariot weapon, especially those with shafts of six feet or more.49
The Eastern Chou saw the addition of one or two well-aligned crescent ko blades onto these longer shafts to create multiple-bladed chi, mimicking a briefly seen development in the ko itself.50 However, the second and third dagger-axes did not have tabs protruding through the shaft, nor did they employ sockets.51 In addition, these multipleheaded chi disappeared in the late Warring States after having flourished in the Spring and Autumn around the Yangtze and Han river areas, including in the states of Ch’u, Wu, and Yüeh.52 Presumably designed to target the entire space from the tip down to the hands with a single sweep, the resulting weapon must have been too unwieldy even for the strongest infantrymen fighting on firm terrain and should perhaps be considered an oddity with no applicability apart from inspiring terror.
Being a two-part synthetic weapon, the single-bladed chi could be used, albeit clumsily, as a spear in forwardly directed thrusts, a vital piercing capability in situations where an overhand rotational attack would be impossible or an arcing strike missed or had been deflected. Thus, when it was necessary to recover from a swing that had carried the head through an arc into a downward position, the spear could simply be angled upward for a reverse strike in a sort of reflexive mode. However, employing the short or single-handed Shang era chi as a thrusting weapon probably would have been a secondary use at best, because the unbalanced ko head induces considerable awkwardness.53