Object Title

Sword (jian) and scabbard

Sword (jian) and scabbard


Ming Dynasty

Object Number



Purchased 1 April 1991.

Physical Description

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 spine 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 of the pommel is chiselled and fretted with a dragon surrounded by interlacing flames, with triple claws on each paw. At the rear of the pommel, 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 (dharma), the standard, the treasure jar, the pair of fish, the endless knot, the lotus, the parasol and the conch shell 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 but is probably a later replacement of Tibetan manufacture. It is formed of pattern-welded steel, of diamond section, straight and double edged. The pattern welding produces a mirrored pattern of addorsed crescents 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. There are eight transverse bands at the rear, the uppermost and fourth of which are wider than the others, and extend 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 beaded 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 beaded 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 middle 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 beaded border. At the rear of the scabbard, the upper band 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; it is 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.


Pattern Welding


BladeLength30 inches
BladeLength760 mm
Overall (sword)Length35.5 inches
Overall (sword)Length903 mm
SwordWeight1.296 kg
SwordWeight2.13 lb oz
Overall (sword and scabbard)Weight2.009 kg
Overall (sword and scabbard)Weight4.7 lb oz

Inscriptions and Marks

A four character Tibetan inscription on the lower suspension loop reads 'khi'u ga ral gri' (honourific sharp sword).

Bibliographic References

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 the monastery, 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 to him by the Emperor. Halima, the fifth Tibetan hierarch, is also known to have exchanged gifts with Yongle in 1407. Tsurphu Monastery 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 (1988.326 a-b) said to be of the early 14th century; it has a similar double edged, medially ridged blade, a vajra-like hilt and is inscribed with mantras in the Newari Sanskrit of the 13th-14th century.

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 in 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).