Canton style study group | Mandarin Mansion

Canton style study group

Two sword guards after the Canton style.


Many Asian export sword guards, and later Japanese guards inspired by them, were modelled after the archetypical Chinese sword guard that was imported into Japan in some quantity in the 17th and 18th centuries. Such pieces were called Canton-gata or "Canton form", named after the port from which they seemed to come, although the type almost certainly originated in the north, Beijing and possibly even Shenyang. Among collectors nowadays term "Canton tsuba" is common.

A Chinese sword guard of the 17th century. This style of guard was the mother of the entire genre of kwanto-gata or "Canton-form" tsuba. (This is merely illustrative, not included in this offering.)

In this article I present a pair of guards that were derived off that original Chinese guard.

1. An Asian export guard in "Canton" style

Height & width: 70 x 70 mm
Thickness: 6 mm
Weight: 99 grams

Origin: Probably China, Vietnam, or Sri Lanka
Materials: Iron, gold
Dating: 17th or 18th century
Use: Has been mounted

An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

A lovely sword guard of archetypical Canton form. It shows two facing dragons among complex scrollwork, reaching for the "Flaming Pearl of Wisdom" or "Wish Granting Jewel". A concept from Buddhism, it was known as Known as hōju (宝珠) or hōju-no-tama (宝珠の玉) in Japanese.

The washer seat (seppa dai) is rectangular, following Chinese convention of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the ribbed form is a simplified version of that seen on the Chinese originals. (See above.) It was made with one aperture for a by-knife, the kogatana, and later -probably in Japan- another was cut for a hairpin like implement, the kogai.

The style and workmanship are not very Japanese and remind more of Chinese or Vietnamese work, possibly even Sinhalese. This seems far-fetched at first, but those were all places where the VOC had "factories" that made goods for distribution all over Asia, where iron carving such as this was done. The fact that it came with one such hole suggests it was probably made with export to Japan in mind from the start.

A nice piece, of good workmanship for the genre.

2. Multi functional guard

Height & width: 71 x 68 mm
Thickness: 6 mm
Weight: 101 grams

Origin: Unknown
Materials: Cast iron
Dating: Probably 18th century
Use: No obvious signs of being mounted

An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

The third guard of this listing is quite a departure from the previous two. Crudely made, probably of cast iron, as a seem can be made out on the inside of the tang opening. The dragons are caricatures of the beautifully rendered dragons on the other two tsuba, their heads almost sheep-like. Their tails meet at what look like four leaves, of the shape of bamboo or willow leaves. They are not chasing a pearl, but some other shape, I don't know what it represents.

So why is this of interest? Well, partly, because of its crudeness.

Look at the seppa-dai (washer seat), with the opening for the tang: It's multifunctional as to fit both the tang of a Japanese sword, and the rectangular tang of the European smallsword. What? Weren't small-swords for the wealthy? Yes, mostly. But not everybody was rich, you know! There were captains, officers, and officials. But also lots, and lots, of crew members. Weapons of the rank and file rarely survived but with such pieces around, surely there were swords that fit them.

I haven't been able to find any solid evidence to explain just why these are made, by whom, and for whom. But this we know: It was mass produced, and designed to fit two types of swords: European smallswords and Japanese swords. Gift giving was very important in international Asian relations and any primary resource one opens on trade missions mention lots and lots of gift giving, sometimes in sessions lasting more days. So, it was a good idea to carry lots of pre-made gifts to "oil the machine" and make doors open in Asian trade relations.

This guard probably represents a ready made item that was ordered in some quantity, to be presented as a gift to both a Japanese contact (of low standing, of course) or a European (again, of fairly low standing).

We can only guess which of the factions active in the complex Asian maritime trade networks commissioned these. It's not easy to guess who may have had use for them, though. There was the powerful southern Chinese merchant / pirate fleet of the Zheng's. Zheng Zhilong long had a base in Hirado where he was in close contact with the English. Zheng Zhilong's son Coxinga later managed to expel the Dutch from Taiwan. Europeans, including the Dutch VOC, employed masterless samurai (ronin) on their ships. A guard like this could serve as a gift appropriate to all crew members.

Price of pair:

€ 700,-

Interested? Questions?

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Three Japanese tsuba's with Chinese influence.

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