Like many Chinese weapons, the famous Zhan Ma Dao (斬馬刀, 'Horse-chopping sabre') has been subject to a lot of misinformations and misconceptions. Over the course of China's long history, the term had been applied to many different weapons, which led to confusion over the true origin and purposes of this weapon.
However, upon closer inspection there are indeed traceable similarities between different iterations of Zhan Ma Dao/Jian. In general, they can be roughly grouped into three types:
Type A: Executioner's sword (Han – early Song period)
Very little is known about the horse chopper of this period. Based on its name ("Jian" instead of "Dao"), it is believed that the weapon is a double-edged sword, although its size and shape remain a mystery.
Han Dynasty Zhan Ma Jian (斬馬劍, lit. 'Horse-chopping sword')
|Five surviving Han Dynasty Jian. All swords in this photo, save for the second one from the top, are designed for two-handed use, with the longest one being 146 cm in length. All swords are currently kept at Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, Guangzhou, China.|
More properly known as Duan Ma Jian (斷馬劍, lit. 'Horse-severing sword'), this weapon is actually a sword of state, made specifically for the emperor for ceremonial purpose and to execute treacherous officials. The sword is believed to get its name from the White Horse Oath (白馬之盟), in which a white horse was ritually slaughtered and its blood wiped on the participants' lips as a symbolism of the oath of loyalty and upholding the bloodline of Han emperor Liu Bang (劉邦).
Sui and Tang Dynasty Mo Dao (陌刀)
Many Mo Dao users were exceptionally strong individuals, but the most famous one was probably Tang general Li Si Ye (李嗣業), who used the weapon to great effect to stop the pursuing Abbasid army after Tang army was defeated during Battle of Talas.
To date, no surviving Mo Dao has been discovered. Drawing upon descriptions found in various Tang Dynasty texts, Mo Dao seems to be a type of double-edged chopping polearm, up to one zhang (118.1 in or 300 cm) in length and fifteen catties (22.48 pounds or 10.2 kg) in weight (after all, Mo Dao was originally an execution weapon). It is also speculated that Japanese ōmi-yari (大身槍) either descended from, or related to, this weapon.
Type B: Cleaver type (Song – Qing period)
Whether a two-handed sword or a polearm, horse choppers of this period inevitably have a long (usually three chi or more) cleaving blade that ends in very steep clip point or so-called "reverse tanto" point (although many Song Dynasty swords have a blunt, square point instead). The blade can be straight (Song period) or slightly curved (Ming and Qing period).
Song Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao
|Photo of a Song Dynasty sword that matches the description of Zi Zhi Tong Jian Chang Bian. Note that the sword blade is facing downward. Image taken from Thomas Chen's website but original source unknown.|
Unlike earlier Zhan Ma Jian and Mo Dao, Song Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao was mass-produced for the rank and file (there was even a special bureau that produced nothing but Zhan Ma Dao). It was also really designed with the intention to cut down heavily armoured cavalry.
Ming Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao
|A Zhan Ma Dao and a Yan Yue Dao (偃月刀), from 'Wu Bei Yao Lue (《武備要略》)'.|
Incidentally, Zhan Ma Dao is one of the few Chinese weapons that made an impression on contemporary Western observers. In his book titled Neglected Formosa ('t Verwaerlossde Formosa), Frederick Coyett described Koxinga's troops "wielded with both hands a formidable battle-sword fixed to a stick half the length of a man", a description that matched Zhan Ma Dao perfectly.
Although labeled as "Ming Dynasty" Zhan Ma Dao, the use of this polearm continued well into Qing period.
Type C: Ōdachi-inspired weapon (Ming – Qing period)
Clearly inspired by Japanese ōdachi (大太刀), which was adopted by Ming Chinese as Chang Dao (長刀), this type of Zhan Ma Dao has a long, gently curved blade and hilt designed for two-handed use. While not specifically designed as anti-cavalry weapon, Chang Dao was indeed used as such by Chinese troops, although the name change only happened during Qing period.
(It should be noted that the name change was rather like a military designation of an existing weapon, similar to how AR-15 was designated as M16 by the US military.)
Qing Dynasty Lu Ying Zhan Ma Dao
|Drawing of a Qing Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao, from 'Huang Chao Li Qi Tu Shi (《皇朝禮器圖式》)'.|
For those interested to learn more about Qing period Chinese two-handed sabres, here is a very good article: Chinese long sabers of the Qing dynasty
Other similar weapons
Qing Dynasty "Zhan Ma Jian"
As the sword is a non-regulation weapon and only a handful survived, it does not have an official name. Nevertheless, the sword has been casually referred to as Zhan Ma Jian and certainly looks the part.
Japanese Zanbatō (ざんばとう or 斬馬刀)
|A modern nakamaki nōdachi being advertised as a zanbatō. Note the wrapping at the forte of the blade.|
In popular media, any sufficiently large Japanese sword, typically an ōdachi, nakamaki nōdachi (中巻野太刀, a nōdachi sword with the last portion of its blade wrapped in thin cord, which serves a similar purpose to doppelhänder ricasso/sub-hilt. It is the predecessor of shorter nagamaki) or sometimes a bisentō (眉尖刀), can be referred to as zanbatō.