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I have spent this week chasing butterflies across the Internet; in search of capturing a concise understanding of the Hudiedao, to use in the writing of this seventh essay in the series, “Sharp as Knives”. When I picked up my net, I had no idea what a difficult task this butterfly-hunt would turn out to be. As I began, I thought, “How hard can it be? It is just a matter of gathering up the bits and pieces of recorded history, reading explanations of applications, and noting how the form and usage of the swords have evolved into the present. I had little inkling as to how elusive an understanding of Hudiedao could be. Nor did I imagine I would be spending days upon days examining my findings; only to watch my ephemeral understandings vanish under the strong light of investigation. In the end, what is left on the examination table is a dis-jointed collection of facts which seem to be held together by the imagination. And, imaginations, being what they are, tend to send their own butterflies fluttering into the wind.

In essence, there are different understandings to be caught in the butterfly-net concerning the Hudiedao; and, many of these have been caught flying over unstable ground. The butterflies of the imagination may well be the result of the enthusiasm of the hunter. Some enthusiasts appear to be chasing the butterflies which their own imaginations have created for themselves; in the effort to join the facts, making a beautiful butterfly to suit their own esthetic desires. Other enthusiasts appear to be chasing particular butterflies based upon who has sent them on their wings. It is the rare investigator who is capable of looking at the table of facts without creating any new butterflies to be sent out for others to follow; patiently awaiting the arrival of new facts, and accepting that the facts available may never create a butterfly.

I greatly admire people of imagination; the creators of the possibilities of the mind. To a certain extent, this quality has a valuable place within scholarly investigation. The creation of butterflies can offer new, unconsidered paths of investigation. The caution lay within the investigator’s enthusiasm and desire to find “confirming” results in order to make the connections for which he has set out to create. The cost can be a lack of objectivity and the turning of a blind eye to information which does not support that particular butterfly in the air. Personally, I much more greatly admire the rare individual who can accept “not knowing”, without closing himself off to the idea of one day “knowing”. This person does not chase butterflies; he looks to the horizon, following logical leads of investigation, without carrying a pre-fabricated net of conclusion.

Pink flower, pink butterfly

In my own case of looking to understand the Hudiedao, I began with the misconception that I knew which butterflies to follow. In fact, I thought that I already “knew” the Hudiedao and that I “knew” the information I would be reading. Acquiring the information meant merely chasing the butterflies which I assumed would fill the lines of inquiry on the page I wanted to fill. What I came to experience was confusion. I had not expected conflicting information, nor conjecture to be presented as fact. I found it very difficult to distinguish between the facts on the table and the butterflies of imagination which were being passed from site to site without the light of doubt having been shed equally upon them all. Not being able to make clear distinctions, I felt uncomfortable about writing any statements without first getting confirmation or correction about my understandings of the Hudiedao. I contacted one of those rare individuals who likes to stick with the facts on the table rather than creating butterflies to follow; Peter Dekker. Peter is a man of scholarly integrity; always being very specific about what is “known”, what is “not (yet) known”, and what he has “not yet thoroughly studied”. I was able to ask my questions and receive his answers; with the only butterfly in sight being the Hudiedao, itself. I can’t claim to understand everything there is to know about the Hudiedao. There are a few points for which I need more knowledge and experience to be able to fully understand. However, there is a body of information of which I feel that I can pass on in confidence. I shall present only those parcels of information which I understand to be genuine facts and not conjecture. I will be drawing heavily upon the writings of Peter Dekker, Johnathon Clements, David J. Atkinson, Ben Judkins, and the Great Ming Military blog. From these sources; I shall paraphrase, summarize and quote from what they have as facts on the table. There will be no apologies for my limits of understanding, merely an attempt to stay within the boundaries of my own level of knowledge.

“Hudiedao is Chinese for “butterfly knives”, a name given to these blades as a reference to their use, its style resembling the flapping wings of a butterfly. An alternative name frequently used in the South where they probably originated is bazhandao in Mandarin or baat jaam do in Cantonese. They are usually encountered in sets of two with hilts of flattened cross-section so they neatly fit into one scabbard together. The scabbard in turn was worn through belt or sash. Some large versions were used single, and in conjunction with shields but in this case were referred to as paidao instead. The typical d-shaped knuckle brow is not native to China and was probably inspired on the hilts of Western naval swords encountered in the Southern Chinese harbors of Hong Kong and Canton in the 19th century. Despite claims of martial arts schools teaching “ancient” traditions, no antique hudiedao or references to them exist from before about mid nineteenth century. Historically, such knives were used by security guards, militia, thugs, and even some branches of the late 19th century southern Chinese military. Hudiedao remained in use among rivaling triad gangs in Chinatowns all over the world, mainly San Francisco, up to at least the 1930’s.” – Peter Dekker

Pink flower, black & white butterfly

The Hudiedao are a topic of debate amongst researchers because no one has been able to trace the exact time and place of origin for these blades. Naming things is always an issue for consideration when investigating historicity in China. The Chinese have the habit of using many names for the same thing; and any of those many names “may” vary from period to period, place to place, and/or person to person. What can be significant to note is: when, where, and for whom a specific name came into or out of use for a particular item. In tracing knowledge about the Hudiedao, it is first necessary to trace the naming. That has yet to be done with success. It seems to have merely come into general use in Southern China. And that general use, seems to have developed in the second half of the 19th century. I say “seems” because general use is something which grows and gets noticed. That growing can indicate the introduction and use of a new item. But, it can also indicate a change in popular vernacular for an item which had long been in general use.

To make matters more complicated, we have to also consider the long held custom of the Chinese to refer to “double-swords” as a genre; a catch-all term which lumps all double blades into one category. The word “dao” can indicate a knife, straight sword, or saber as a collective category of things which are specifically sharp and pointy. But, the word “dao” can also be used to differentiate a saber from a straight sword. This means, to me, that when I read the word “Shuangdao”, I don’t know with certainty if the object is a knife, straight sword or a saber. But, if the word is “Shuangjian”, I am certain that the object is a straight sword because it has been differentiated by the use of “jian”. “Shuang”, itself, just means two, double, a pair, or an even number and is often combined with a noun to create a word which has one of these concepts within it. It is context and habitual usage which determine the exact meaning of words in Chinese. This needs to be well understood when searching for evidence of the Hudiedao. The Hudiedao are definitely Shuangdao; but, not all Shuangdao are Hudiedao. In the early part of the 19th century there were recordings of Shuangdao; but, without the context making a distinction, no one knows to what kind of double blades are being referred.

While we are complicating things, let us consider the fact that there were two main types of Hudiedao blades which may have developed along the same timeline, yet evolving in very different directions. “Their [Hudiedao] blades come in several varieties, the most common antiques are long, thick but narrow blades with a subtle back bevel and sharp tip. Another common type has shorter, wider but thinner blades with clipped tips. This is the type that is most popular today among martial artists. Several other varieties exist, among which sets with curved blades with raised back-edges, and several varieties that follow blade styles of southern ethnic minorities. My understanding is that the heavy, narrow type is capable of delivering heavy cuts and deep thrusts, making it a lot more lethal. As such, it was more likely to have been used by local militia and the military who were allowed to kill in some circumstance. The wider, thinner version now popular under martial artists is much more suited for disabling the opponent while trying to avoid killing him. I think this explains their continued popularity into modern times.” – Peter Dekker

Pink & white flower, red butterfly

“Although neither the name hudiedao nor bazhandao turn up in military texts, many units were listed that used shuangdao which could mean anything single edged. We know that parts of the Qing army were allowed to use their own regional variations of weapons, and it could well be that the shuangdao of the north was a double conventional saber – as seen in the regulations – but that the south may have been at some point substituted with what we now know as a hudiedao, a weapon adopted to combat in the confinement of ships.” – Peter Dekker. The connection of Hudiedao to naval history is strongly acknowledged by all researchers. Most comment upon the d-shaped guard which many versions of the Hudiedao possess; referring to the influence upon the design taken from Western Navies. But, not all versions of Hudiedao had d-shaped guards or even guards at all. David J. Atkinson writes of the “River Pirate Swords”. “River piracy along the Yangtze River was rampant in the 19th century. The coasts of both Guangdong and Fujian province were literally covered in pirates in the 19th century in the 1840s. Pirates battled the military for nearly a century. These swords without guards can be instantly reversed in the hand and used with the back edge to subdue an opponent without lethal cuts. The lack of hand guard distinguishes the “river pirate” type from other hudiedao. The hudiedao were widespread by the 1860s.”

The Hudiedao, has long been remembered as a civilian weapon; with little attention given to its roll within the military and para-military systems during the 1800’s. This is a misconception formed by modern popular perception. Jonathan Clements gives in his book, “A Brief History of the Martial Arts: East Asian Fighting Styles, from Kung Fu to Ninjutsu”, a rather famous historical account of Hudiedao being used for troops under the command of Lin Zexu. Note, though, that the name Hudiedao is not used in the eye-witness recording. Instead, the word “double-sword” is used. It is with the detailed description of these swords that the type of weapon has been inferred. “As part of his efforts to shut down the opium trade, Commissioner Lin Zexu organized for the training of a number of southern Chinese men to form a militia. A report of their training regime, written by a British sailor in 1842, observes that they are being drilled in a number of traditional weapons.

“March 21st, Lin was busy drilling 3,000 troops, a third portion of which was to consist of double-sworded men. These twin swords, when in scabbard, appear as one thick, clumsy weapon, about two feet in length; the guard for the hand continuing straight rather beyond the ‘fort’ the sword turns toward the point, forming a hook about two inches long. When in use, the thumb of each hand is passed under the hook, on which the sword hangs, until a twist of the waist brings the grip within the grasp of the swordsman. Clashing and beating them together and cutting the air in every direction, accompanying the action with abuse, noisy shouts and hideous grimaces, these dread heros advance, increasing their gesticulations and distortions of visage as they approach the enemy, when they expect the foe to become alarmed and fly before them.” *

Pink flower, 2 butterflies

“The weapons described are clearly ‘butterfly swords’ (hudiedao), the paired daggers common to many modern martial arts of southern China. However obscure or particular they might have been in the 1830’s, a decade later they had formed the basic weapons training of an entire division of Lin Zexu’s army – a group that, upon defeat, dispersed and falling into ever harder times, was sure to form the nexus of the next generation’s brawlers, criminals, body guards and martial arts instructors, if not soldiery in other campaigns.” –Jonathan Clements.

The conclusions of Clements are hard for me to follow. He sees a clear description of the Hudiedao given in the text from 1842. His expertise may well be able to make the distinction of exactly which type of Hudiedao the text refers to. Unfortunately, Clements does not explain to his readers exactly what he “knows”. So, I am left with questions in my mind. I need to take a step back, to clarify some information. I turn to a quote from Peter Dekker, in another article. “[There are] a number of double weapons with half hilts that fit a single scabbard. Among these are the shuangjian or “double straight swords”, hudiedao or “butterfly swords” and shuangdao or “double sabers”. The double swords and double sabers in turn tend to come in short versions and long versions. Short double swords and sabers are seen depicted in 18th century artwork, worn by various peoples within the Qing realm, probably for self defense purposes. The most common double long saber is the nieuweidao, these sets are fairly common on the market and often consist of two fairly flimsy blades. They were primarily used by martial artists who often made a living as street performers, twirling their light swords around in a manner not unlike modern wushu. Much rarer are actual fighting grade double sabers of liuyedao or “willow leaf saber” form. Such long double sabers are described as being used by the Green Standard Army, a large body of Chinese troops that was primarily used for internal peace keeping, and who served a supporting role to the elite Eight Banner troops in front-line warfare. One such set is the gunbei shuangdao. (* Note: Gun Bei (rolling blanket) is an unusual equipment of the Ming Army. It is literally a large cotton blanket measuring two cun thick and serves as the handheld version of Ruan Bi. Gun Bei is usually deployed in front of the main body of an army to screen against arrows, stones, or arquebus shots. Using Gun Bei is such a risky prospect (as it does not always stop the projectiles) that the soldier will earn double pay. – Great Ming Military Blog). The soldiers that put up this protective screen carried these double sabers in case the protection fell and it ended in skirmish… Besides the rather elite gunbei shuangdao, most Green Standard Army posts throughout the Qing empire were issued regular shuangdao.” – Peter Dekker

Black berries, black butterfly

If I understand Peter correctly, there were many double swords being used in China during the 19th century. Chinese sources were not consistent in their distinct identifications of these blades. According to Ben Judkins, Western accounts of these blades used the enigmatic term, “double-swords”. And, Peter gives the warning to not assume what is meant by that term based solely on the term, itself. For my personal level of understanding, it is enough at this moment to be aware that there seem to be distinctions being made between Shuangdao and Hudiedao in the modern-day discussion of double-swords. What I am very unsure about is the degree to which other people writing articles on this subject are aware of these distinctions. This is something I need to keep in mind for future interpretations of articles on double-swords. Let me now leave this aspect of the discussion and move to considering the “lesser” blade which would continue its evolution within the civilian populations of China and, eventually upon the greater world stage. For this consideration, I turn to the works of Ben Judkins. Whereas Judkins is not an antique weapons expert like Peter, he is a very knowledgeable scholar for developments of Wing Chun. In general, his strongest research seems to come from his multidisciplinary studies of Southern Chinese martial arts from the 20th century to the present. From Judkins we can pick up facts from the table about the historical expansion of the civilian Hudiedao, with the attempt to witness its evolutionary process. Also from Judkins, we can listen to his insightful comments made from within his subjective perspective as a Wing Chun practitioner. The only caution I would give where Judkins is concerned is that he appears to create a few butterflies as a part of his own creative process. I get the impression that he uses these butterflies to contemplate where certain possibilities will bring him. My objection is merely that his great reputation can give weight to his words which they are not always ready to bear. I will attempt to pass over all the butterflies in his article, “An Update and Revised Social History of the Hudiedao (Butterfly Swords)”, and just relay a number of the facts which he has laid upon the table. We begin with Judkins’ basic stance; the perspective from whence he makes his assessments.

“It is hard to really understand what these weapons were capable of (and hence the purpose of the various double sword fighting forms found in the southern Chinese martial arts) without handling them. I think that modern martial artists expect both too much and too little from the hudiedao. With a few exceptions, the modern reproductions of butterfly swords are either beautifully made a-historical “artifacts”, [or] high tech simulacra of a type of weapon that never actually existed in 19th century China in the first place. This second class of “weapon” sets the bar too low, yet it is nearly impossible for any flesh and blood sword to live up to the mythology and hype that surrounds modern butterfly swords, especially in Wing Chun circles.” – Ben Judkins

Yellow flower, black butterfly

Judkins likes to ask questions, and one of the first questions he presents is, “What do We Know?” He begins with names: Hudiedao is Mandarin, WoDipDo is Cantonese, and Butterfly Swords/Knives is English. He also tells us that for the modern world the Hudiedao is a symbol of martial attainment and regional pride within Wing Chun communities; due primarily to the influences of Ip Man and Bruce Lee. Wing Chun is where the focus of the populace has been set; however, there are a number of martial arts traditions which use Butterfly Knives. Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, Lau Gar, and White Crane are all examples of Southern Chinese martial arts which practice the use of Butterfly Knives. These civilian martial schools were cultivated in the regions of Guangdong and Fujian. Within these schools, students from varied backgrounds learned to train with the Hudiedao. This leads us to the next group of questions which Judkins ponders. He concerns himself with the social evolution of the Hudiedao and asks a series of questions. “Who used them? How were they used in combat? When were they created? What did they mean to martial arts in southern China?”

Concerning ourselves merely with martial artists of the 19th century, for the moment; Judkins refers to Scott Phillips who states that those persons using martial arts were members of over-lapping groups. Examples of these categorical groups are: “professional soldiers, bandits, pirates, militia, clan defense societies, pharmacists, entertainers”. “Hudiedao are a basic technology that help to tie the southern martial arts together”. – [Ben Judkins]. To be able to understand Wing Chun, it is important to not only know the historical circumstances of different periods, it is also important to understand the myth-making processes of a martial arts heritage because it gives insight into development.

Wing Chun’s myths are plentiful and Judkins delves into a number of these in his long list of other articles. In this, particular article, he brings forth the myth of Wing Chun’s connection to the Shaolin Temple. The myth tells that monks were not allowed to have weapons, so the weapons they defended themselves with were weapons of lesser lethality. “It’s frequently said that our monks needed protection on the road from highwaymen, especially when they were carrying payments of alms. Some assert that butterfly swords were the only bladed weapons that the monks were allowed to carry because they were not as deadly as a regular dao. The tips could be left blunt and the bottom half of the blade was often unsharpened.” – [as provided by Ben Judkins]. Judkins objects to this myth as being a-historical. He reiterates what Peter Dekker has already brought forth. When examining antique Butterfly Swords from the late 19th century, the innovations of these swords become noticeable. The surviving Hudiedao type used by civilians would become the hudiedao of modern Southern Chinese martial arts systems; and not the more effective fighting Hudiedao with its narrow, heavy, pointed, and deadly attributes.

Yellow seeds, 2 butterflies

To make distinction between the Hudiedao of southern martial arts communities and the general description of “double swords”, Judkins comments, “In modern martial arts parlance, “double swords” (shuang jian or shuang dao) refer to two medium or full size jian (or dao) that are fitted into a single scabbard. These weapons also became popular in the late 19th century and are still used in a variety of styles. It is possible that they are a different regional expression of the same basic impulse that led to the massive popularization of hudiedao in the south, but they are a fairly difficult weapon. For our present purposes I will be referring to any medium length, single edged, pair of blades fitted into a scabbard, as “hudiedaos”.” Judkins adds that these Hudiedao were (probably) made by local smiths. This can explain the wide variety found in extant hudiedao from that period. Some were fitted with heavy d-shaped guards, some with s-guards, and others with no guards at all. Most of the carriers of the Hudiedao did not attempt to conceal them. Most had no reason to do so, as they were mercenaries, local militia members, civilian guards, etc… benefiting by exposed weapons as a manner of warning.

Amongst the varied designs, the shorter and broader blades became important for cutting and hacking. These, Judkins mentions at the end of his running list, “Lastly there are shorter, thicker blades, designed with cutting and hacking in mind. These more closely resemble the type favored by Wushu performers and modern martial artists. Some of these weapons could be carried in a concealed manner, yet they are also better balanced and have a stronger stabbing point than most of the inexpensive replicas being made today.” So, what happened between the end of the 19th century and the beginning if the 20th century. How did these, still functional swords evolve into dysfunctional swords? At this point, Judkins thoughts become a bit difficult to follow. He digresses into elaborating upon discussions which had already been made; discussions which bear little relevance to this question. In the time-line of his conclusion, Judkins gets back onto the track we are trying to follow.

We begin with Judkins’ statement, “The biggest difference is that most of these mid-century swords were longer and more pointed than modern swords.” From there we can note that the hudiedao was exported to America along with the Chinese immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian in the 1850’s. By the 1880’s Hudiedao of the shorter, wider, with more rounded points were in general used by criminals, enforcers, street performers, and opera singers in Chinatowns around the world; obtaining much notoriety in places such as San Francisco, New York City, and Hong Kong. Many Tong/Triad wars were fought on immigration soil during the later half of the 19th century. The exact details and reasoning of how, when, and why the hudiedao made the transition from a reasonably effective civilian double sword to the absolutely ineffective double sword during a time of extreme violence, escape me. I either do not fully understand what Judkins is trying to say or he is failing to set sufficient facts about this on the table. My notes from Judkins’ article jump from the violent 1880’s to the 1930’s when he informs his readers that the, “Hudiedao began to fall out of street view.” By the 1950’s the Butterfly Swords were, “no longer thought of as fearsome weapons of community defense or organized crime. Instead they survived as the tools of the “traditional martial arts” and opera props.”

Pink flower, black & red butterfly

This is as far as I can bring the reader. So, I am leaving the discussion now with only a few well chosen parting words. Apart from information about the Hudiedao, what I hope the reader has gained from this essay is an understanding concerning the nature of investigation. Hard and fast statements come from what is actually on the table. It is in our nature to fill-in the gaps with things not (yet) on the table; constructing butterflies using our imaginations, and sending them out into the world to see if the winds of reason will support them. I have enormous respect for those who take the time to do careful research; to bring things to the table. And, there is a place in the processes for a carefully designed use of butterflies. Having said that, I would like to add that as a novice, I need to first understand the things on the table before attempting to understand the butterflies. Butterflies introduced to a novice can be more confusing than helpful; causing a transmigration of butterfly followers dancing hither and thither, further and further away from the table of understanding.

Butterfly swords

For those interested: a list of links to the Hudiedao related words and photographs on of Peter Dekker.
Chinese Shuangdao double sabers
Set Chinese butterfly swords
Hudiedao set butterfly sword (sold)

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