Like many Chinese weapons, the famous Zhan Ma Dao (斬馬刀, 'Horse-chopping sabre' or 'Horse-slashing sabre') has been subject to a lot of confusions and misinformations.
Han Dynasty Zhan Ma Jian (斬馬劍, lit. 'Horse-chopping sword') or Duan Ma Jian (斷馬劍, lit. 'Horse-severing sword')
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the original meaning of Zhan Ma Jian was "sword that is sharp enough to cut through a horse" rather than "sword specifically designed to cut down horse". Zhan Ma Jian was made for nobles and royalties to execute treacherous and corrupt officials.
Sui and Tang Dynasty Mo Dao (陌刀)
While Mo Dao was not explicitly described as horse chopper, it had been compared to Han Dynasty Zhan Ma Jian, and later Song Dynasty texts also compared Zhan Ma Dao to it. The primary use of Mo Dao was to execute cowardly or deserting troops, but it functioned just as well as battlefield weapon. Its most famous user 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 was defeated at Battle of Talas.
Song Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao
The weapon known as Zhan Ma Dao was first mentioned in Song Dynasty texts, although it represented the long and unbroken Chinese tradition of using large, two-handed war sword as battlefield weapon that dates back to as early as Warring States period. Xu Zi Zhi Tong Jian Chang Bian (《續資治通鑑長編》) describes the weapon as having a three chi long blade, a Xin (鐔)* of one chi long, as well as a large ring pommel. Based on the description, Song Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao was apparently a large two-handed sword.
|Photo of a (supposedly) Song Dynasty sword that matches the description of Zi Zhi Tong Jian Chang Bian. Like many Song period swords, it has a steep clip (so-called "reverse tanto") point. Image taken from Thomas Chen's website but original source unknown.|
Unlike Zhan Ma Jian of Han Dynasty, Song Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao was mass-produced for the rank and file. It was also really designed with the intention to cut down heavily armoured horsemen.
*Note: Xin (鐔) usually refers to sword guard, or tsuba (鍔 or 鐔) of Japanese swords. However a one chi long sword guard doesn't make any sense, so it most likely referred to entire hilt in this context.
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》)'.|
|A Zhan Ma Dao with exceptionally large blade (highlighted), from 'Jing Guo Xiong Lue (《經國雄略》)'.|
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.
Zhan Ma Dao was also called Kan Dao (砍刀, lit. 'Chopping sabre') during Ming period.
Qing Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao
|Drawing of a Qing Dynasty Zhan Ma Dao, from 'Huang Chao Li Qi Tu Shi (《皇朝禮器圖式》)'.|