Goujian: The Ancient Chinese Sword That Defied Time

August 4, 2015 Updated: August 10, 2015

Fifty years ago, a rare and unusual sword was found in a tomb in China. Despite being well over 2,000 years old, the sword, known as the Goujian, did not have a single trace of rust. The blade drew blood when an archaeologist tested its edge with his finger. It was seemingly unaffected by the passage of time. 

Besides this strange quality, the craftsmanship was highly detailed for a sword made such a long time ago. Regarded as a state treasure in China today, the sword is as legendary to the Chinese people as King Arthur’s Excalibur in the West.

Despite being well over 2,000 years old, the sword did not have a single trace of rust.

In 1965, archaeologists discovered 50 ancient tombs while carrying out a survey in Hubei Province, just 4 miles (7 kilometers) from the ruins of Jinan, capital of the ancient Chu State. During the excavations of the tombs, researchers unearthed the sword of Goujian alongside approximately 2,000 other artifacts. 

Discovery of the Goujian

According to the leader of the archaeological team responsible for the excavation, the sword was discovered in a nearly airtight wooden box next to a skeleton. The team was stunned when the perfectly preserved bronze sword with scabbard was removed from the box. When it was unsheathed, the blade was revealed to be untarnished despite being buried in damp conditions for two millennia. A test conducted by the archaeologists showed that the blade could easily cut a stack of 20 pieces of paper.

Jian Swords

The Sword of Goujian is one of the earliest known Jian swords, a double-edged straight sword. Jian swords are among the earliest sword types in China and are closely associated with Chinese mythology. In Chinese folklore, it is known as The Gentleman of Weapons and is considered one of the four major weapons, along with the staff, spear, and saber.

(Siyuwj/CC BY)
(Siyuwj/CC BY)


(Siyuwj/CC BY)
(Siyuwj/CC BY)

Relatively short compared to similar historical pieces, the Gouijan sword is a bronze sword with a high concentration of copper, making it more pliant and less likely to shatter. The edges are made of tin, making them harder and capable of retaining a sharper edge. It also contains small amounts of iron, lead, and sulfur, and research has revealed a high proportion of sulfur and sulfide cuprum, which gives the sword its rustproof quality. Black rhombic etchings cover both sides of the blade and blue glaze and turquoise is embedded on the sword handle. 

The grip of the sword is bound by silk. The sword measures 21.9 inches (55.7 centimeters) long, including a 3.3-inch (8.4-centimeter) handle hilt, and has a blade 1.8-inches (4.6 centimeters) wide. It weighs 30.9 ounces (875 grams).

Deciphering the Inscription

On one side of the blade, two columns of text are visible with a total of eight characters near the hilt in ancient Chinese script. The script, known literally as birds and worms characters in English is a variant of the Zhuan Shu Seal Script that is very difficult to read. Initial analyses deciphered six of the eight Chinese characters. They read, King of Yue and made this sword for [his] personal use. The remaining two characters are likely the name of the king. 

The identity of the king that owned the sword sparked debate among archaeologists and Chinese language scholars.

The Yue State existed from 510 to 334 B.C., and was ruled by nine kings. The identity of the king that owned the sword sparked debate among archaeologists and Chinese language scholars. After more than two months, the experts formed a consensus that the original owner of the sword was Goujian (496–465 B.C.), making the sword around 2,500 years old. 

(Yutwong/CC BY-SA)
(Yutwong/CC BY-SA)

Goujian was a famous emperor in Chinese history who reigned over the Yue State during the Spring and Autumn Period (771–476 B.C.). This was a time marked by chaos within the Zhou Dynasty and takes its name from the “Spring and Autumn Annals,” which chronicled this period. The Spring and Autumn Period was renowned for military expeditions; these conflicts led to the perfecting of weapons to the point that they were incredibly resistant and deadly, taking years to forge and lasting for centuries. 

The story of Goujian and Fuchai, King of the Wu State, contending for hegemony is famous throughout China.  Although Goujian’s kingdom was initially defeated by the State of Wu, Goujian led his army to victory 10 years later. 

Unique Properties

Besides its historic value, many scholars have wondered how this sword could have remained rust-free in a humid environment, for more than 2,000 years, and how the delicate decorations were carved into the sword. The sword of Goujian is still as sharp today as when it was originally crafted, and not a single spot of rust can be found.

Researchers analyzed ancient bronze shards in the hope of finding a way to replicate the technology used to create the sword. They found that the sword is resistant to oxidation as a result of sulfation on the surface of the sword. This, combined with an airtight scabbard, caused the legendary sword to be found in such pristine condition.

Tests also show that the sword-smiths of the Wu and Yue regions in Southern China during the Spring and Autumn Period reached such a high level of metallurgy that they were able to incorporate rustproof alloys into their blades, helping them survive the ages relatively unblemished. 

This article was republished with permission from Ancient Origin, Ancient-Origins.net