September 8, 2009—When forged over burning human bones, swords become filled with "spirit," says the Taiwanese swordmaker behind the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sword and other masterpieces.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP)
This skull is not just for decoration.
In a moment, it will be thrown into the fire and burned to make a sword.
Kuo Chang-hsi inserts a slab of metal into his kiln, adding a human femur to the fire.
This 65-year-old craftsman from Taiwan practices the intricate art of Chinese sword making.
As Taiwan's last known practitioner of the craft, he has produced countless replicas of the fighting tools that Chinese and Japanese warriors have used since ancient times.
SOUNDBITE (Mandarin) Kuo Chang-hsi, Blacksmith: "In ancient China, a good sword was made by 'throwing a man into a furnace'. It helps to melt the metal and creates the pure iron that we can further hammer. In Taiwan, there were not many people who studied how to forge a good sword. So when I first made a sword, I did not succeed. In the past there's been a saying that if one wants to make a good sword, one needs human bones. By chance, my friend was collecting bones (from the deceased). Then I just asked him to give me some human bones for forging swords."
Kuo's sword-making process begins when he inserts a slab of mixed iron and steel into a small kiln preheated to more than 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
After heating until it is supple enough to work with, he transfers the metal to a piston-shaped electric press, shaping and flattening it under rapid fire thrusts.
Then, over an anvil, repeated hammer blows shape the metal.
The cycle is repeated again and again until just the right mixture of strength and suppleness is achieved, a process that in some swords can take days.
The insertion of bones into the kiln is a key to his success.
SOUNDBITE (Mandarin) Kuo Chang-hsi, Blacksmith: "Before the human bone is burnt, it contains phosphorus. If it is burnt, the phosphorus will be mixed into the metal. After burning a while, the metal will contain phosphorus and the fire will give a turquoise glow."
Kuo gets his bones from collector friends during cemetery relocations, or from relatives of the recently deceased, who commission swords to remember their loved ones.
According to legend, human bones remove impurities from the iron and steel and bestow the swords with spirit.
SOUNDBITE (Mandarin) Kuo Chang-hsi, Blacksmith: "If it (human bone) is added, the sword that is made seems to have spirit. This was what the people in the past said 'man and sword become one'."
Aside from making swords, Kuo also collects them.
His collection is so vast he has created a museum.
Most are from China, including a few pieces reputedly more than 2,000 years old, but there are also models from Mongolia, Turkey and even Egypt.
Among his notable creations is the Green Destiny Sword used in the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a yard-long and carefully inlaid with a repetitive dragon pattern.