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At the Crossroads - a sword of many influences

 October 9, 2023    Asian Arms

Swords of southeast Asia are very much a reflection of the cultures that made them and by the 17th century what is now modern-day Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam were truly diverse in the personnel and influences to be found in their militaries. This included both heavy influence from Japanese Nihonmachi communities throughout southeast Asia as well as Europeans, in particular the Portuguese as well as Turks and many other ethnicities. This can be seen with historical figures I the 17th century such as Yamada Nagamasa, a Japanese mercenary who became an influential governor within the Ayutthaya kingdom of what is now modern day China, Filipe de Brito e Nicote, a Portuguese mercenary who served as a governor within the Arakan kingdom of modern day Burma and later rebelled and allied with Ayutthaya and an unnamed Turkish governor of a town called Suhan in Ayutthaya. These are merely three men of what were large and vibrant communities across the region. In addition to playing an active role in the local power structures the arms and armour of these immigrants also proved highly influential. Portuguese artillery and firearms became a core element within the armies of the kingdoms of Thailand and Burma while Japanese swords and polearms were widely copied, particularly within Thailand and Vietnam. Influence from what is now modern day China, particularly from the Tai people who would also occupy large areas of modern day Burma, Thailand and Laos, is also common, in particular within Burma as the semi independent Shan/Tai states formed an important buffer to Qing China.

This melting pot of influences and an openness within these societies to borrow and adopt and assimilate with outsiders has led to some intriguing weaponry. This sword is one example, a sturdy fighting sword with little ornamentation and a great deal of age. Almost certainly from the region that is now broadly speaking Northern Thailand and Southern Laos it is in essence of the dha/daab type but significantly different to the 19th century examples commonly seen.

The blade features and intriguing geometry with a blade that swells at the tip and exhibits incredible distal taper. The spine is V shaped and incredibly thick at the base.

 V shaped spines are not unusual in Thai and Laotian swords, but the angle is often less pronounced than this example, particularly in 19th century swords. It is seen to some degree on transitional Qing sabers. It may also owe something to Japanese influence who formed communities across southeast Asia after political upheaval in the 17th century. Katanas were widely copied in a variety of locally adapted styles from Vietnam to Thailand. Dha/daab with less pronounced V spines can be observed across Shan and Lanna examples as well.

In these later pieces it is interesting to observe the feature has become subtle enough to suggest the form is out of tradition rather than whatever stylistic or functional purpose the deeply angled examples had.

The blade form itself is of a ‘wing’ like shape with a broad tip. In fact, when sold the sword was mislabelled as a katana. A somewhat understandable mistake in terms of the overall profile however quite different in terms of the geometry.

Turning to the fittings, this sword has a large, flared bronze guard and simple iron pommel cap with a bronze ferrule. The guard is four lobed, which is relatively uncommon with 8 lobbed guards seemingly more common. These guards likely own their origins to Chinese dao, while tsuba like guards are also found on both Vietnamese and Thai pieces. Other examples of four lobbed guards with a similar style can be seen on swords commonly identified as being Laotian and from the Vientiane region as well as the general Chao Phraya river basin area.

This example is quite plain with little to know decorative elements besides a ‘braided’ decorative element and some incised lines on the bulbous base.

Unlike Japanese or Chinese inspired guards, this example is not slotted to fit the blade but is rather open, with the guard filled with resin from the gluta usitata tree known in Thailand as ki’tai resin.

This is an important feature as it points away from Japanese influence. The raised edge on the guard is more like many Chinese dao guards. The number of lobs on the guard is also intriguing. Double trefoil guards and quatrefoil guards can be found on both Chinese and Tibetan swords as far back as the 17th century. Large guards on Southeast Asian pieces seem to be an element perhaps influenced by outside design given they are usually present on pieces exhibiting other characteristics from outside influence, such as katana like blade profiles.

18th century dao (Met museum)

A sword previously owned by Peter Dekker of Mandarin Mansion is another intriguing parallel, perhaps from Yunnan it also features a similar four lobed guard, wing like blade and hard wood handle. In this case the pommel being the characteristic “bulb” of the Yunnan region and Tai people swords. On this piece the guard may be Vietnamese, which is another potential vector of influence for the sword under discussion. Four lobbed guards may reflect the Buddhist motif of the “Four Noble Truths”. However, in this example it is important to note the guard is slotted for the blade, unlike the sword under discussion.

The reason for including this sword despite its differences is that it is also part of the so called ‘Tai world’. A loose but vital grouping of principalities across what is now northern Thailand and Laos as well as Burma and into southern China. Not only where these states often fluid in their allegiances they also were often crucial in geopolitical events and at the nexus of military campaigns between Burma, Ayutthaya, Lanna and Lan Xang. The Tai where known to be some of the main suppliers of blades throughout the region and as originally settled in the region due to upheaval in their southern Chinese homelands. The Shan and other groups close to the modern-day Chinese border still retain strong cultural ties across the border. This migration happened over a protracted timeline and across many groups with different ethnic designations, but it is an important feature of not only how the culture of southeast Asia developed but also their weaponry. It would be difficult to discuss any dha/daab type sword without including some element of the Tai story. While modern China is often wrongly portrayed as a monolithic society there are in fact still a myriad of ethnic groups particularly in the south with their own unique relationships with the border regions of their southern neighbours.

The reason for this brief diversion into regional history is the importance, in the mind of this author, to emphasis not only the external influences of Japanese and Western culture within southeast Asian arms development, but also an ingrained cross border influence due to the migration and ethnic diffusion of the population of these lands. In fact, many elements that we might be tempted to highlight as an external influence are best viewed as in fact a natural progression or reflection of the changes in ethnic population of these regions due to external pressures. This is not only a relic of earlier periods but an observable fact into the modern era, such as the post-revolutionary (WWII) establishment of Yunnan villages in northern Thailand.

Dating dha/daab is not an easy exercise but it is likely that this sword is most likely from the 17th century, the size, form and quality are all good indicators in this regard. This shape of the spine immediately points to northern Thailand or Laos (Lan Xang) while the guard form owes perhaps something to Chinese forms. This is then an excellent example of a weapon that comes from a crossroads with many elements having been incorporated to achieve a finely made and balanced fighting sword.