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Sword maker's secret is in the bones

The last practitioner in Taiwan uses yew- and coal-fed fires, steel

September 20, 2009|Peter Enav

CHEDING, TAIWAN — The sword maker inserts an 18-inch shaft of metal into his red-hot kiln. Then he adds his special ingredient: a human thighbone.

The bone, says Kuo Chang-hsi, is supposed to purify the metal and give it a special aura.

For the last 30 years, the craggy-faced blacksmith has been replicating ancient Chinese and Japanese swords. At 65, he is Taiwan's last known practitioner of the art. His workshop is a dimly lighted set of rooms crowded with sword-making equipment. Framed photographs of him with local politicians and foreign visitors attest to his celebrity.

Kuo's technique features yew- and coal-fed fires, lethal-looking slabs of steel and iron, and perfect timing with those bones, which he keeps in a ceramic urn.

"When I first tried to make a Kanjiang sword I failed," he says, referring to a famous weapon first made in China about 2,400 years ago. "Then I remembered -- there's a saying that if one wants to make a good sword, one needs human bones."

Some of them come from disused cemeteries, left over when the bodies were reburied. Or from relatives who believe a sword containing their loved one's bone will make a fitting memorial. These bones are retrieved years after the death. A whole side industry of bone-washing exists in Taiwan.

Among Kuo's countless replicas is the "Green Destiny Sword." It featured in the martial arts epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," directed by a fellow Taiwanese, Ang Lee.

In Asia, the best craftsmen are the Japanese, who can spend years working on a single sword, Kuo says. "Makers in the Chinese tradition usually take only a few days," he says. "That has an obvious effect on quality."

Kuo says he spends several weeks making a sword.

He comes from a family of blacksmiths that started in the trade in 1888, specializing in farm tools. He joined the business at age 13.

"We were poor. My granddad was a blacksmith, and I followed my dad's path to become a blacksmith too," he says. "I didn't want to be a blacksmith, but my dad told me that if I refused, he would tie me up to stop me from running away."

He branched into sword making around 1980, and it is now the signature element of his trade. His workshop in Cheding, a small fishing port in the island's south, stands among market stalls in a town square smelling faintly of fish.

A sword begins with a slab of iron and steel softened in 2,400-degree heat. Next comes the bone, its phosphorus content turning the light from the kiln to turquoise. Then the metal goes into an electricity-powered press to be shaped and flattened in dozens of rapid-fire thrusts, and finally is hammered into completion.

"When people worship using these swords, they will feel a strong sense of security," Kuo says. "There are some venerable monks who tell their followers to take their bones and use them in swords that can be used later in religious rites."

Kuo says his most valuable sword was an elaborate Japanese-style weapon he made for a collector 16 years ago in exchange for a new Mercedes-Benz. Five years later, he says, it changed hands for about $200,000 -- at least five times what the Mercedes cost. "I wish I hadn't sold it," he says.

Kuo's own collection is in his Museum of Weapon Art, a short drive from his workshop. Meticulously laid out in display cases are 4,800 swords, knives, axes and pieces of armor.

Most are from China, including a few reputed to be more than 2,000 years old. There are also pieces from Mongolia, Turkey and Egypt.

Kuo has hired a 24-year-old apprentice, but he insists he has no intention of retiring.

"I'll work here until I drop," he says. "It's impossible to reject orders from my customers. For better or worse, sword making is the calling God gave me."

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Enav writes for the Associated Press.

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