The Origin and History of the Rope Dart and Meteor Hammer, Part 2: Uncertain Origins

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The continuation of the search for the Origin and History of the Rope Dart and Meteor Hammer :

Part 2, Uncertain Origins

The book, ‘Soft Weapons:  9 Section Whip and Rope Dart’, has the rope dart first appearing in a military battle legend during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 CE).  Other legends such as the tale of ‘Three Kingdoms’, which appropriately takes place over 100 years later during the Three Kingdoms Dynasty (220 – 265 CE) makes mention of the meteor hammer, but not the rope dart.   

The oldest physical dart style head I have seen can be found during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), which is over a thousand years after both the Western Han and Three Kingdoms Dynasties.   Dart heads could predate the Yuan Dynasty, however, I have not seen them.  Looking at all of these previous dates and their respective Dynasties one can see that the accounts of the rope dart and meteor hammer (whether fact or fiction)  have been peppered throughout time.  Stories spring up here and there, but it’s mostly just scattered and unreliable.  Further, the reader will find that historical source information has the rope dart seldom mentioned, if at all.  Instead, ‘meteor hammer’ – the rope dart’s proposed twin sibling – is mentioned.

Horses and Rope Darts

As mentioned above, the book, ‘Soft Weapons:  9 Section Whip and Rope Dart’, has the rope dart first appearing in a legend from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 CE) (4).  As the legend goes, during a battle a general named Du Mu used 5 free throwing darts against the opposing general, Cheng Peng (who was horse mounted) with each throw resulting in failure.  Du Mu then used his rope dart and knocked Cheng Peng off of his horse to the ground.  

This legend found in ‘Soft Weapons’ is the only account I found in a printed literary work that mentions the weapon as ‘rope dart’ by name during the Western Han Dynasty.  However, we must consider that this mention of the rope dart found in ‘Soft Weapons’ is modern (the book was published in 1994). I’m not sure why the book claims this earlier Western Han period as the origin of the rope dart as no source information that has been found mentions the rope dart by name during the Western Han Dynasty. It is the meteor hammer that is mentioned.

Moving forward. The implications of this story suggest that the rope dart (or meteor hammer) was used while in battle.  Further, it seems rope darts were used in conjunction with cavalry or could be.  While the idea of rope dart in war-like battle has been discredited by some, when we consider the origin of the rope dart having potentially come from the double ended meteor (a tool used to entangle an animals legs), it’s easy to see where some things may have innocently been misunderstood, ‘lost in translation’  or victim to the perpetual game of ‘telephone.’  According to Guo JianHua, the Sifu of rope dart legend Daniel Pesina, the rope dart was used as an anti-cavalry weapon with the rope being at least 18’ (5.5 meters) or longer.

 Looking at earlier written fictional material we can begin to sketch a rough picture.

Three Kingdoms

The Three Kingdoms Dynasty (220 CE – 280 CE), one of the bloodiest of all dynasties, consisted of 3 warring states, Wei, Shu and Wu.  

Translated into English by Moss Roberts, ‘Three Kingdoms’ (attributed to Luo Guanzhong around 1368 CE) is a fictional epic tale that takes place during the time of the Three Kingdoms Dynasty. 

A scene from ‘Three Kingdoms’ (Yi Xiang Tang Edition, circa. 1600 CE) depicts the fight between General’s Ma Chao and Zhang Fei.   According to Roberts’ translation, 

“Ma Chao, realizing he could not prevail, decided to trick Zhang Fei into pursuing so that he could twist round and catch him with the brass hammer he held in his hand…He ducked as the hammer flew past him, and it whizzed past his ear.  Zhang Fei turned back, and Mao Chao gave chase again.  Zhang Fei fitted an arrow to his bow, but Chao dodged the shot.  At last the two generals returned to their lines.”  (5)

 It’s true, ‘Three Kingdoms’ is a tale loosely based on historical fact (i.e. the progression of the Three Kingdoms is real).  Equally true, the scene depiction in this painting comes hundreds of years after the Three Kingdoms Dynasty.  However, fiction and the passage of time doesn’t necessarily mean fake.  For instance, if we read a fictional tale that takes place during the Trojan War the characters might be made up, however, the tale wouldn’t include machine guns and helicopters.  Details would be kept as accurate as historically possible.  Given the dynasty that the tale ‘Three Kingdoms’ takes place in, can we hypothesize that this picture is evidence of meteor hammer (in battle, no less) as far back as 220-280 CE?  Or, is it merely artistic license?

“Ma Chao, realizing he could not prevail, decided to trick Zhang Fei into pursuing so that he could twist round and catch him with the brass hammer he held in his hand…He ducked as the hammer flew past him, and it whizzed past his ear.  Zhang Fei turned back, and Mao Chao gave chase again.  Zhang Fei fitted an arrow to his bow, but Chao dodged the shot.  At last the two generals returned to their lines.”  (5)

Considering other elements of the rope dart/meteor hammer being military issued:

Weapons such as swords, pole arms and cudgels are considered primary weapons whereas a rope dart is considered a tertiary weapon.  This means that a soldier would be more apt to fight with a spear, or sword and shield before they would fight with a rope dart. While the previous Western Han and Three Kingdoms legends have the rope dart used in the military, we should consider the ineffectiveness of a rope dart being used in war: 

 Soldiers, clad in body armor would not suffer the full effects of a rope dart or meteor hammer striking them – certainly, a rope dart wouldn’t penetrate armor.  Further, the range of the rope dart seems impractical in a war;  at a distance an army would use arrows.  In close quarters spears, swords and the like would be the weapons of choice.  Within a melee, a soldier would not have enough room to spin a rope dart, much less fight with one effectively.  

But… maybe I’m wrong?  Could some soldiers have been issued a rope dart-like weapon in times of battle?  It’s certainly possible.  Mention of a spiked meteor hammer did make its way into the Wubei Zhi  (thank you to Alexander Petty of Ravenswood Academy for this). 

 The meteor hammer is and is not the same as a rope dart.  Other than the style and shape of the head we must also consider the difference between rope versus chain.  Looking at weapons like these  I feel compelled to believe that some soldiers were issued a rope dart-like weapon in times of war.

Porcelain Lamps

With few available literary works on rope dart history, a search of the internet fetched myriad unverifiable tales such as the following…

this legend springs up in the Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE).  This legend tells the story of a man who comes from a family of skilled fighters and warriors.  Due to their superior martial skills, the family members work as personal body guards and escorts for wealthy Chinese men, which was and still is a common occupation for skilled martial artists.  As the legend goes,  political unrest caused many of the water channels between the North and the South to open up again.  Those personal body guards who knew the land routes and could protect their employers, now found themselves unemployed due to the ability for transportation via boat.  These former body guards began setting up martial arts schools in an effort to gain disciples and make income.  Those with less than superior martial art skills worked odd jobs, or became beggars.

 In the tale, it is said that this man is a sharpshooter with a rope dart.  In fact, rope dart accuracy was the only skill he possessed.  To prove his merit, he stands a small coin on top of a white porcelain lamp.   He claims he can hit the coin off of the lamp without breaking, or cracking the lamp, which he does successfully in front of the villagers.  He would go on to make a school for dart instruction.  

Though loose, we see an implication of the rope dart going from a weapon to a street performance tool as the character in this story used his skills not to fight, but to entertain.

Could this story be a true early look at performance style rope dart despite its source being the internet?  Could it be argued that this is an old village legend handed down by generations of rope dart masters eager to keep the art – in all of it’s forms – alive?   

Probably not.  As much as the author wishes it were.

With the way things work today anyone can write anything and put it on the internet.  Even books can be proven wrong when faced with contrarian evidence –  maybe these blog writings will be?  Perhaps there is evidence that supports the idea of performing and busking with a rope dart somewhere else in Chinese history-an account that has the rope dart exiting the martial arts world and into the performance world?  Is there something that can give us a richer picture? 

Artwork depicting meteor hammers show up as a part of a piece done by Chinese painter, Du Jin, in the late 1400’s.  The picture is a scene from the Chinese epic ‘Shui Zu Zhuan’, the ‘Water Margin’ story (also referred to as ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’), which is a fictional tale based on 108 bandits.  Like ‘Three Kingdoms’, ‘The Water Margin Story’ is fictional with elements of fact.

The painting is that of Wue Yong, a character in the tale, playing with his meteor hammer while his friend, Du Qian watches.  Wue Yong is kicked out of the military, becomes nomadic and earns income by busking his martial arts skills.  Although a fiction, can we hypothesize that Wue Yong learned the meteor hammer while in the military?  Further, did he use the meteor hammer as a performance prop while busking for money?  Is this a first look of the rope dart/meteor hammer’s migration from war to play, even if fiction?

Fast forward from 1400 to the 1800’s CE, China where we see artwork depicting street performers wielding double ended meteor hammers and sectioned chain whips.  Has martial art become performance art at this later time, or do these images attest to a long tradition of circus arts that use martial weapons?  There is also evidence of the double ended meteor, used with their heads on fire.

Hidden Weapon

I found another unverifiable legend that takes place during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 CE).   This story tells the tale of a young woman whose father was murdered by a village gang.  Fleeing her home to escape a similar fate, she becomes a nun and changes her name in an effort to hide her family’s past.   Looking to avenge her father, but unable to carry a spear because she is a woman, she removes a spearhead from its shaft, attache a rings to the spearhead and ties a rope to the ring.  She was now armed with a hidden weapon.  The legend goes on to say that she practiced with this ‘new’ weapon similar to the way a chain whip is practiced.  Over many years her practice evolved into what we know as the rope dart today.

It’s true, some depictions of spear heads do look strikingly similar to dart heads and while ‘ …it can be theorized that spear heads may have made excellent rope darts; there is currently no historical evidence of the former being re-fashioned into the latter,’ says Alexander Petty (6).   While I agree with Petty that military manuals didn’t specifically instruct fashioning a rope dart from a spear, it isn’t such a far off idea to believe that it happened either.  Or perhaps, it’s the author’s overly romantic heart that wants to believe that somewhere at sometime a down and out hero saved themselves by employing such a strategy.

But what of the idea of a ‘hidden weapon’?  Another scene from ‘Three Kingdoms’ is the battle between Wang Shuang who with,

“…three concealed meteor hammers, (could) hit his target every time” against Zhang Ni at the battle of Chencang.    During their fight, Wang Shuang fakes exhaustion, flees and Zhang Ni gives chase…out of seemingly nowhere “Wang Shuang threw a hammer at lightning speed, hitting him (Zhang Ni) square in the back.” (8) 

Zhang Ni did not die from this strike, supporting the earlier notion that a rope dart/meteor hammer would not do the ‘ultimate damage’ to a body armored soldier.


According to antique weapons expert and owner of Mandarin Mansion Antiques, Peter Dekker, one possible reason for the lack of written information on rope dart can be attributed to the separate classes of people that lived in ancient China.  The civilian class, educated and literate, hired the martial class, who were uneducated and illiterate.  The literate elite class, didn’t write about the rope dart.  The illiterate martial class couldn’t write about the rope dart.  Some learned to write, some learned to fight.

However, there is no reason to suggest that both classes didn’t intermigle with each other.  A private guard was a good gig – employees were treated well; information, ideas and stories must have been exchanged.  


Where Does that Leave Us?

I believe that the rope dart evolved from the meteor hammer and was mostly used by professionals who would use it as a last ditch attempt to defend their charge.  The earlier story of the Porcelain Lamp may well be complete nonsense, however, the idea concerning martial artists turned into hired guards and escorts is historically accurate.

As a hidden weapon the rope dart is inconspicuous. Being carried somewhere on the body, the rope dart wouldn’t alert others of its presence the way a spear or sword would.  Further, where combat is concerned, the rope dart seems more effective as a weapon against a single, or few assailants, as opposed to being used in a war against an armored force of many.  Never being in the military, but living in New York, I can personally say I find this true. Other assertions I agree with have the rope dart being used by the peasant class – a sort of ‘pocket knife’ for personal self defense (9).  

Like most martial arts, I feel that the rope dart and its techniques were passed down verbally and in forms/sequences, with this passing of knowledge being kept to a minimum as traditional Chinese martial arts were ‘secretive’.  If a particular style of fighting could defeat another style then that winning style was considered superior.  Because of this, the techniques of the superior martial art style were not shared outside of the family or clan.

I hypothesized on the idea of performance art and busking in this section.  Is it so outlandish to think that from a performance perspective the rope darts secrets were also kept hidden?  The “best” rope dart performer would probably earn the most money – good reason to not show someone else how to ‘do the trick.’

The rope dart and its secrets were probably no different, whether battle or busking.

From the previous accounts – much like we see today – I feel the rope dart of old quickly transitioned out of strictly martial arts and into performance art, recreation and exercise.  

Please continue the learning by enjoying ‘The Origin and History of the Rope Dart and Meteor Hammer’: Part 3, Certain Origins