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A cutting-edge sword-making legacy

By XING YI | China Daily | Updated: 2018-09-25 07:56
A sword made by Zhang Yesheng. Longquan, in Lishui, Zhejiang province, is the home of China's sword making. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Longquan is said to be where China's first iron sword was crafted-and this historical designation sharpens its allure today.

The Yue Jue Shu, a chronicle of the Yangtze River Delta's ancient civilization, says the king of Chu summoned swordsmith Ou Yezi to make exceptional weapons some 2,600 years ago, during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

The craftsman traveled the country, searching for a place with abundant iron ore, cold springs for quenching the forge and suitable stones for grinding blades.

His quest led him to the foot of Longquan's Qingxi Mountain. He spent three years there forging three legendarily sharp swords-Longyuan, Tai'e and Gongbu.

Longyuan is the ancient name of Longquan, which is now a county-level city in Zhejiang province's Lishui city. It's still the home of China's sword making.

"Sword making is far more difficult than it seems," says 50-year-old Zhang Yesheng, who owns the Longquan Sword Factory.

"The art requires a combination of strength and dexterity."

He recalls watching residents forging swords in workshops as a child, like most local kids.

Zhang became an apprentice at the Longquan Sword Factory at age 17.

He mastered the 72 steps of sword making and opened his own workshop in 1988. He innovated to improve the quality by using rust-resistant chromium steel a decade later.

Zhang purchased ownership of the State-owned Longquan Sword Factory for 2 million yuan ($292,000) and registered the trademark in 2003.

"Some low-quality swords previously used Longquan in their names, staining its reputation," he recalls.

Zhang Yesheng forges a Longquan sword in his workshop. He has inherited the craft and mastered the 72 steps of sword making. [Photo provided to China Daily]

He pored over texts and visited museums to study ancient designs.

A high-end handmade replica of an ancient sword can sell for as much as 100,000 yuan.

Zhang forged two special swords that appeared in martial-arts novelist Jin Yong's (Louis Cha) book as a birthday gift for the author when he visited Longquan for a forum in 2004.

Zhang also gave Jin Yong a tour of the factory.

"He said he was amazed by the craft of sword making," he recalls.

"He told me that it dawned on him that it's so much more work to make swords than to write about them."

Zhang also made three prop swords for the television series Bi Xue Jian, or Sword Stained with Royal Blood, which was adapted from Jin Yong's novel.

Zhejiang province nominated Zhang as a master of arts and crafts in 2006. And Longquan's sword making was listed as a national-level intangible cultural heritage that year.

Zhang's swords have been gifted to politicians, including former Kuomintang chairman Lien Chan and Macao's chief executive, Fernando Chui.

Longquan today hosts about 100 workshops and factories that produce tens of thousands of swords annually. They're sold throughout the country and the world.

The city will open a sword museum by the end of the year.

But Zhang still worries about the future of the craft.

"Fewer young people want to do the job now," Zhang says.

"It's a tough work with low pay."

The furnaces run at over 800 C. Workers must hammer each sword hundreds of times next to the forge.

Zhang's factory has trained 50 apprentices in recent years, but only one stayed.

"All of our 25 swordsmiths are growing old," Zhang says.

"It's a time-honored trade that needs new blood."

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