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Also unique for Chinese bronzes is the consistent use of high tin bronze (17–21% tin) which is very hard and breaks if stressed too far, whereas other cultures preferred lower tin bronze (usually 10%), which bends if stressed too far. (Sword@Wikipedia)

Is there a good explanation for why this distinction happened?

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Why the downvote? –  DVK Mar 11 '13 at 3:29
Seemed like a pretty good question to me (I upvoted). It kinda looked like somebody Sunday went on a bit of a downvoting binge. –  T.E.D. Mar 11 '13 at 13:16
@T.E.D. - Thanks. I started out asking about Ulfberht swords, but figured that there probably wasn't enough info to answer what I had in mind - and stumbled on this tidbit researching metallurgy of sword steels (being from near-Urals, I'm a sucker for metallurgical details) –  DVK Mar 11 '13 at 13:35
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3 Answers

Not all blades were constructed in the same way and of the same materials, but the Chinese are noted for originating binary swords.

Ancient Chinese metallurgy recorded six different bronzes. In practice, the archeological record shows a much wider array of proportions, if only because much bronze was likely to have been recycled, but it seems clear that they would have known about the properties of high-tin and low-tin alloys. High-tin bronze is very hard, as you note, and very resistant to corrosion. It thus would not deform in battle (i.e. bend permanently instead of springing back into shape), and would hold its edge for a long time, at the expense of brittleness.

Early high-tin blades in particular tended to be short (50-60cm) on account of the brittleness, but by the late "Spring and Autumn Period" (~500 BC), the Chinese were quite advanced in metalworking, and were casting bimetallic swords. The core of the sword was softer and more resilient low-tin bronze, whereas the edges were formed from harder high-tin bronze.

Cross-section of a Warring States jian (from http://thomaschen.freewebspace.com/photo3.html , original source not provided)

One should note also that swords in this period were a weapon of the nobility. Tin was rare in the south, and would have been expensive. This technique was also too complex and expensive for mass production. The primary weapon for foot soldiers of this era would have been the dagger-axes, and later spears and halberds, and it was improvements in ironworking and steel making (originating in the south) in the Han Dynasty that would displace the bronze sword.

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This is a very informative answer, but I'm not sure it addresses the root of my question. Why was this such a big disctinction between China (using high-tin) and other non-Chinese cultures who mostly used low-tin. Was it specifically the lack of knowledge of how to create bi-metal blades? –  DVK Mar 12 '13 at 15:21
Interestingly even bimetallic swords had a "high" tin content according to the wikipedia article @DVK linked –  JustSomeDude Mar 27 '13 at 23:27
@DVK - The Indians had iron weapons by 1500BCE, and were beginning to dabble in crucible steel by 500BCE. China was using bronze long, long after other cultures made the change to iron, and refined bronze-making techniques that just weren't applicable to civilizations with iron weapons. –  RI Swamp Yankee Mar 28 '13 at 12:43
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I would say it has something to do with the sharpness gained with the high-tin content, according to several sources higher tin content seems to correlate with sharpness. After that it comes down to a fighting style, the Chinese refined the art of fighting (martial arts have been evidenced in China as far back as the 5th century BC while the earliest reference in europe seems to be around 1200 AD), using precise, deliberate cuts with sword, if you ever tried to use a Jian or for that case a Katana (some claim the Japanese learned blade-smithing from the chinese), it would shatter if you bash it against a tree for example (although a seasoned practitioner might be able to cut the tree without breaking the sword although it would probably be seriously damaged), an ancient middle-eastern or medieval blade would likely just warp. This precision in fighting may have the Chinese would prefer sharpnes to tensile strength

(I dunno if brittleness specifically correlates to sharpness as ceramic and obsidian are both very sharp yet very brittle)

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Several reasons why this may have happened:

  • different composition of the ore. If there were/are copper veins in China with a high amount of tin contamination, it's naturally lead to high tin bronze as a result.
  • different needs. Chinese used different style and type of weapons and tools. Maybe those need to be more resistant to bending rather than breaking.
  • maybe the Europeans (and others) would have liked to use more tin in their bronze but it was simply not available in the quantities required, so lower concentrations were used for economic reasons.

No doubt the actual reason historically would be a combination of factors like this. If you can only make hard, brittle, bronze, rather than soft, bendable, bronze, the design of the items you make will reflect that. Which tends to resist changing the composition of the alloy if you do get knowledge of the other kind. Why change what works after all (especially in a society as steeped in tradition as China, where anything coming from the outside was viewed with extreme suspicion).

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Are any of those points backed up by historical evidence (e.g. ore analysis, tin resources in Europe, weapon/fighting style? –  DVK Mar 11 '13 at 13:32
Copper and tin ores are not generally found together in nature, and a doubling of the proportion of a primary component of an alloy can hardly be attributed to contamination. –  choster Mar 11 '13 at 15:25
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