Red Cavalry

I went down to Panjiayuan Market this morning. I haven’t been for ages, and I really don’t know why I’ve left it so long – it’s such an amazing place.

It’s called an “antiques” market, and the quote marks are there for a reason; some stalls, a very few, sell genuine antiques and rarities, but the overwhelming majority are essentially wholesale outlets for the vast output of Chinese cultural epherema, the likes of which can be found in Chinatown stores around the world…. The thing about Panjiayuan, though, is that it’s just so big, and there’s so much to be found here at rock-bottom prices…. The other reason to go is to people-watch – all kinds of tourists, vendors from all over China (notably Tibetans), and a vibrant, incessant, buzz of haggling, debate – the heartbeat of a great bazaar…

I was there for a purpose; I’d tracked down someone who was selling shashkas online. Unlike the two I bought from Taobao, these are real swords, not replicas. They are, purportedly, genuine Soviet-issue, and that’s why I’m writing this – I think there’s an interesting story here…

So: the shashkas are Soviet cavalry issue, which means that they have the bayonet of a Mosin-Nagant 1891/30 carbine mounted in hoops on the outside of the scabbard. Soviet practice in the 1930s was for infantry to keep their bayonets permanently fixed; for cavalry using carbines, this was obviously impractical, so the bayonet was carried with the shashka.

The seller was offering two different types of shashka. One, a trooper’s version, is obviously the model for the Windlass shasqua – the curve of the handle essentially follows the angle of the blade. The other, the officer’s version, has a rounded tip rather than the classic pointy shashka tip, with the handle being strongly angled counter to the curve of the blade, thus giving more leverage.

I’d done some research online, and found that there is a strong belief that these swords are fake – recently manufactured, and artificially aged. One writer points out that cossack swords were made to be used, and photographs of these swords show no sign of use in anger.

Now, let’s face it: this is absolutely plausible. Contemporary China is awash with fakes of anything that can be faked, not to mention determined efforts to fake things that shouldn’t be fakeable! So, it shouldn’t be in any way a surprise if these came out of a factory recently, or even are leftover props from a Chinese movie.

On the other hand, the seller insists on their authenticity. When I asked him how these Soviet swords came to be in China, his reply was that the Soviets and the Chinese were allies against the Japanese; after the end of WW2, a number of soldiers in the allied armies swapped weapons as souvenirs. He comes from a town in north-east China, and by some means has come into possession of a hundred or so of these Soviet-issue swords.

This is actually plausible – which is what I find interesting, because it involves an aspect of WW2 that is completely unknown to most Westerners.

The Empire of Japan occupied and colonized Manchuria, in north-east China, during the 1930s. They spread into Inner Mongolia, and attempted to take Mongolia proper as well. The status of Mongolia was unclear at that time; the Chinese Empire had claimed it as part of their territory, but since the declaration of the Republic of China in 1911 Mongolia had essentially been an independent, and Communist, state. As the Japanese threat grew, the Mongolians appealed to the Soviet Union for help, which was forthcoming. In a series of clashes, the Soviets decisively defeated the Japanese, and Mongolian independence was preserved.

This might not have been the end of the story, but then WW2 broke out. The Japanese needed their armies in South-East Asia, while the Soviets needed theirs in Europe. Neither side wanted to be tied up in northern Asia, so a neutrality pact was signed.

During WW2, Mongolia provided material and financial support for the Soviet war effort, but its armed forces, which were mostly cavalry, did not participate in the conflict.

With the allied victory in Europe, the Soviets – following an agreement with the US and UK – declared war on Japan, and invaded Manchuria.

Part of their invasion force was the Soviet Mongolian Cavalry Mechanized Group – which, as the name suggests, was mostly composed of Mongolian cavalry units – who hadn’t participated in the fighting against Germany, but were equipped entirely with Soviet weapons…. These cavalry units actually didn’t fight much against the Japanese either, capturing a lot of territory largely without resistance after outflanking Japanese units…

So, is it conceivable that Mongolian Communist cavalry, equipped with Soviet weapons including shashkas that had never been used in combat, were received as triumphant victors and allies by Chinese troops (either Guomindang or Communist)?

Absolutely it is….. And with the subsequent falling out between the USSR and Maoist China, it’s quite likely that these swords would have been kept hidden away….

Is this the real story of these swords? Or are they simply fakes? I don’t know, and there’s no way for me to find out at the moment. It doesn’t really matter, either – because there’s nothing wrong with the quality of the swords as far as I can tell. So, I’ve acquired today a pretty good sword at a price far, far below what it would cost in the West.

As to why all of my recent posts seem to have been about Russian martial arts, I’m coming to that.

1 Comment

  1. Aha: it is a fake! Well, never mind, for the price, I’m not at all surprised and, indeed, for the price I’m very happy with it even knowing that it’s not genuine! I wanted a useful sword more than I wanted a genuine antique!

    I still like the story, though – who knows, one day….


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