Purchased 1 April 1991.
The hilt is of gilt iron. The grip is of gibbous rectangular section, punched with small circles to imitate ray skin. Down the centre of the front is a raised, reeded band bordered by tiny flames at either side. The pommel is of trilobed form, bordered at the front and rear by bands of golden scrolls. The front panel is chiselled and fretted with a dragon surrounded by interlacing flames, with triple claws on each paw. At the rear, the central panel is decorated with a monster mask (kirtimukha), surmounted by a silvered crescent and golden disc, and with human hands, also surrounded by flames. At either side of the pommel are the Eight Buddhist Emblems of Good Augury ('ba jixiang'): the wheel of law, the standard, the jar, the pair of fish; the mystic knot, the lotus, the umbrella and the conch of victory. The guard is embossed in the form of a monster mask , surmounted by a silvered crescent and golden disc. The face is punched with circles, the canine teeth silvered, the eyebrows and whiskers chiselled and gilt. The horns are in the form of crab claws. At either side of the mouth is a paw in the form of a human hand. The head is surrounded by scrolling curls of mane. The rear of the guard is rendered as the underside of the jaw, with a set of silvered teeth, and a narrow beard running into a throat of alternate silvered and gilt bands.
The blade is associated and later, probably of Tibetan manufacture. It is formed of pattern-welded steel, of diamond section, straight and double edged. The pattern welding produces a pattern of a series of crescents, with their horns towards the edge, at either side of the medial ridge. The tang is of rectangular section, tapering towards the pommel, with a large expanded peg-hole towards the end. The edges have been ground and sharpened.
The scabbard is of wood covered in green stained leather and bound with gilt iron. At the throat is a V-shaped cut out at the front for seating the blade, and a scalloped cut-out in the leather to accommodate the guard. The throat retains traces of the scarlet silk with which it was lined. The iron binding comprises a long, facetted strip running all the way round either edge, a single, fretted panel at the front, and a chape and eight transverse bands at the rear, the uppermost and fourth of which are wider than the others, and are extended round the front of the scabbard forming suspension loops. The edging strip has four main facets, with an additional narow facet at either side. It is decorated with scrollwork in gold running down each facet, and matching that on the pommel. At either end is a set of three golden lotus leaves. The front panel is divided stylistically into upper and lower sections. The upper section is decorated quite plainly; a series of five pearled transverse bands divide it into six sections, and there are three vertical bands of fretted four-petalled rosettes in each section. At the throat is a cusped section with a pearled border, below which is a band of flames. The ornate lower section has six smaller segments, divided vertically and horizontally by fretted 'vajras', each with a 'yinyang' symbol in the central knop. The half-'vajras' at either side emanate from the heads of lions, and the vertical bands of decoration at either side are formed by rows of flames. Above and in the miidle of these divisions are two square panels, each containing a cusped lozenge shaped central medallion, the corners decorated with interlacing flames. The uppermost of these two panels contains two dragons intertwined amid flames, with the heads at top right and bottom left; the lower has two similar dragons, with thicker bodies, and with their heads confronted at the left and right. The chape section is decorated with a large panel of interlacing flames, within a pearled border. The upper band at the rear of the scabbard is decorated with alternating gold and silver scrollwork, and terminates in a rosette at the front. The next two narrow bands are decorated with silver scrollwork only. The fourth is decorated at the rear like the top one, but is extended accross the front in a broad band, chiselled with four medallions decorated with gilt characters on silver grounds, and surrounded by interlacing gilt flames. The three lower bands are decorated in gold scrollwork. The rear chape panel has a small, flat piece of rather coarse, scrolling interlace at the bottom, and narrow bands of petalled rosettes at either side.
One section of two rosettes is missing in the third panel of the scabbard from the top. The upper ends of the scabbard sides have been bent out and their rivets broken through the wood of the scabbard. The right end of the upper suspension band has broken through at the same time. One of the eyes is damaged. The wooden inserts of the hilt are held in by three original gilt headed iron pins, and five modern brass pins. The tang is retained by a curved brass pin, fitted in May 1991, replacing a bent nail. This passes clumsily through the mouth of one of the dragons on the pommel, and is almost certainly not the original method of attachment.
C. Peers, Medieval Chinese Armies 1260-1520, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series 251, London, 1993: 18
T Richardson, The Ming sword. Royal Armouries Yearbook 1, 1996: 95-9
D J LaRocca, An approach to the study of arms and armour from Tibet, Royal Armouries Yearbook 4, 1999: 113-132, fig. 18
D La Rocca, Warriors of the Himalayas, rediscovering the arms and armour of Tibet, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006: 48-50, no. 55
Dorling Kindersley, Weapon. A visual history of arms & armour, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London, 2006, p. 67
The decoration is closely related to that of two objects, both dated Yongle: the khatvanga (British Museum OA 1981.2-7.1, V. Zwalf, Buddhism, art and faith, London, 1985, no. 307, p. 211) which has almost identical scrollwork in gold and silver, and the Sakyamuni (British Museum OA 1981.4-10.4, Zwalf no. 305, pp. 2 and 210) which has closely comparable flame scrolls and vajras. Another, undated khatvanga with the same decoration was sold Christie's, New York, 23 March 1999 lot 108. The kirtimukha guard is found as the finial of the throne in the Qi sha Tripitaka (British Library, OMPB Or 80.d.25, Zwalf no. 306, pp. 210-11). A ritual hammer from the same group was sold at Sotheby's, London, 24 April 1997, lot 122. The British Museum khatvanga was said to have come from the Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet, the head of which, Karmapa hierarch Debzhin Shegspa (or Teshin Shekpa, 1384-1415) leader of the Kargyudpa sect, was one of Yongle's two Buddhist teachers. According to G N Roerich, Blue Annals of Zhonupal, Calcutta, 1949, he returned from China in 1409 bearing presents given him by the Emperor. Halima, the fifth Tibetan hierarch, exchanged gifts with Yongle in 1407. Tsurphu was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution 1959-66. An earlier group of presentation objects of imperial quality is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It includes a ritual axe (1987.93), with very similar spiral scroll decoration on the haft, and a four character mark of the Emperor Hongwu (1368-98). Associated with this is a sword with a similar double edged, medially ridged blade (1988.326 a-b), said to be of the early 14th century, inscribed with mantras in the Newari Sanskrit of the 13th-14th century, and with a vajra-like hilt. A scabbard with related but simpler decoration was in the collection of Lord McAlpine (no. A1112, drawing and polaroid on inv. file) in 1991. Closely comparable with this is a hilt, probably of the early 15th century also, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (LaRocca 1999: fig. 17). The monster mask is known in Tibetan as chibar ('that which resembles nothing'), or shi-dong ('face of splendour'), in Sanskrit kirtimukha ('glory face'), and Chinese taotie (see V Reynolds and A Heller, Catalogue of the Newark Museum Tibetan collection, I. Introduction, New Jersey, 1983, p. 75; V Reynolds, Tibet, a lost world, New York, p. 64, no. 136a). Translation of the inscription by Braham Norwick of New York, 29 July 1997, thanks to Don LaRocca for help with translating the inscription and with the sword's iconography.