The Tiger Hook Swords or Seung Ngau 双鈎, also known as Fu Tau Ngau 虎头 鈎 (Tiger Head Hooks), are an exclusively Chinese weapon, unparalleled anywhere else in the world. With a very peculiar shape, it is a weapon as devastating as it is difficult to master. Probably because of the latter, it was never used in the army. Although some trace their origin to the Warring States period (Zhànguó shídài 戰國時代) in the 3rd century BC, such an antiquity is rather unlikely. Its oldest examples or representations date from the Qing Dynasty 清朝 (1636-1912).
Although it is traditionally associated with the martial arts styles of northern China, southern styles now also use it.
Hook swords are effective at short, medium and long range.
The Hook Swords have a unique design that makes them a versatile and very effective weapon in both defense and attack. It is said that the hook swords constitute "four weapons in one", since each sword is composed of characteristic elements of four weapons:
- A long blade like that of the straight sword gim 劍 (jian, in Mandarin), sharp on both sides.
- A dagger-shaped tip at the lower end (below the handle).
- Guard in the shape of a crescent moon blade.
- An open hook at the end of the blade, similar to the hook of a cane, but sharp inside and outside.
A fantasy weapon?
Tiger hook swords are very unique. They were not a common weapon, and there are very few extant examples of them. They certainly were not a military weapon, nor were they ever mass-produced. Their design must have made them really expensive to make and therefore to purchase, and the risk of self-injury while handling them might have rendered them not the best option for real combat. A practitioner might achieve some mastery performing routines, but still hook swords are not often used in two person sparring routines, and definitely not in real sparring.
This leads us to believe that tiger hook swords are, somehow, a fantasy weapon. Still, they were used, probably, by some very unique individuals as a personal choice for self-defense, but definitely these people were few, and the kind of techniques used must have been very simple and straight-forward, in order to avoid self-injury. Nothing to do with the flashy techniques used in current Kung Fu routines and movies. Today's training with them is more focused on perfecting one's own body control.
We must say, however, that hooks have been used as weapons since antiquity. But these were just hooks (similar to dagger-axe or gē 戈 halberd, and other kind of hooks), not tiger hook swords. Those hooks were used to take down an opponent from his horse, to disarm and to cut the bridles.
The tiger hook swords might have had their origin in Chinese novels and opera. There is one semi-legendary character, Dòu Ěrdūn 竇爾敦, that uses them. According to legend, he was a very talented martial artist that rebelled against the Qīng dynasty, and he is credited with the invention of this weapon.
Whatever it might be, tiger hook swords are really inconvenient to carry around. We have not any knowledge of sheaths used, and I don't think there were any. The reason for this is what we mentioned above, it's more of a fantasy weapon and real examples are few. In fact, from extant weapons of this kind, few are sharpened. That means, and this is just our opinion, that it was more a training weapon than a combat choice.
Applications of the tiger hook swords in combat:
It is this peculiar design that turns the Hook Swords into highly effective and powerful weapons. Their multiple edges give them a great destructive potential, and their structure an uncommon versatility, since they can be used both at short and medium distances and at a long distance.
At medium distance the main blade, used as a straight sword, allows us to use techniques of cutting and blocking; the hooks allow the techniques of hooking and pulling, digging into the flesh and severing muscles, tendons and ligaments or pulling the enemy's weapon to disarm it. The external edge of the hooks also allows the sword to be thrusted forward like a lunge. The weight of the hook at the tip adds power and speed to the movements of the sword, and is perfectly compensated by the weight of the lower end, in the form of a dagger. This dagger enables short distance techniques, such as cutting and nailing from top to bottom, or backwards. The blades in the shape of a crescent moon complete the arsenal of techniques at close range, allowing to drive forward and, again, catch the enemy's weapons to disarm, in addition to its obvious protection function.
But, in addition to all this, and precisely because of the hook at the end of the weapon, the Fu Tau swords can hook with each other to attack long distance with a circular movement that sweeps all around (using the two swords, linked together, with one hand), and which uses the lower dagger of the second sword as the cutting element.
The true martial artist has dedicated time and effort to the improvement and perfection of each technique.
In conclusion, Hook Swords are weapons that require advanced training and a long time of practice to master them. His learning involves knowing how to use straight sword techniques, cane, daggers and half moon blades; this is undoubtedly the path of mastery. Knowing how to handle a weapon is not just knowing a form or sequence of movements with it. If a student does not train the techniques in isolation, does not know the applications of each movement and is not able to chain them smoothly, the realization of a form is nothing more than a mere choreography, in no way different than a dance. The true martial artist, the one who possesses the Gong Fu, is the one who has dedicated time and effort to the improvement and perfection of each technique and has trained its applications.
The legend of Dòu Ěrdūn
According to legend, Dòu Ěrdūn 竇爾敦 was a martial artist born in Xiàn 獻 county in Héběi 河北 province. His real name was Dòu Kāishān 竇開山, Ěrdūn being a nickname. As a child, he learned martial arts from a local rebel for three years.
At a very young age, he stood out for his virtuous conduct and sense of justice. This led him to confront a corrupt local magistrate whom he ended up killing, and he had to escape the region, starting a life of wanderer. On his travels he met a monk named Jìng Cí 靜慈, who taught him supernatural abilities. Dòu Ěrdūn created for himself a magical weapon: the tiger hook swords.
Later, Ěrdūn began recruiting warriors to fight the Qīng Dynasty. Among his exploits are the theft of a large sum of money from the imperial treasury, as well as one of the emperor's horses.
The court sent troops to capture him repeatedly, but they failed to defeat him. Finally, having knowledge of his filial conduct, they imprisoned his mother, thus forcing Dòu Ěrdūn to surrender. The mother, embarrassed for having caused the capture of her son, committed suicide by hitting her head against the wall of her cell. Ěrdūn managed to escape, but was eventually cornered, caught again, and executed.
Dòu Ěrdūn, who is also known as "Iron Luóhàn" (鐵羅漢 tiě luóhàn), is one of the main characters of Chinese opera (戲曲 xìqǔ), alongside the famous general Guān Gōng 關公. While the latter is depicted with a red face, Ěrdūn is depicted with a blue face, and over his eyelids are drawn his weapons, the hook swords.
Chinese opera mask depicting Dòu Ěrdūn 竇爾敦. Note the hook swords painted over his eyes.