The English martial arts internet is awash in people reciting

100 days of bare hand, 1,000 days of spear, 10,000 days of sword,

unless it's

It takes 100 days to learn the spear, 1000 days to learn the sabre, and 10,000 days to learn the sword,

unless it's

100 days staff, 1000 days spear, 10,000 days sword,

unless it's

Learning a form takes 100 days, bo (i.e., staff) takes 1,000, and Tai Chi sword 10,000 days


It takes 100 days to master a spear, 1000 days to master a dao (single-edged sword), and 10,000 days to master a jian (double-edged sword)


To learn the spear takes 10 days, to learn the dao takes 100 days, to learn the jian takes 10,000 days


It takes 100 days to master the broadsword (dao) but takes 10,000 days to master the straight sword (jian)

The infantry can master dao (single swords) in 100 days, but a noble will still be learning the jian (double sword) after 10,000 days

You can give a man a dao and have a soldier in a 100 days; give a man a jian and it will take one thousand days.

Everyone seems to get the basic idea that mastering the Chinese longsword (剑) was hard, but everything else in the "quote" moves around and absolutely no one ever gives a Chinese form of the quote or a source for their "traditional proverb".* The only Chinese source I found with some form of the English quote is

To learn the hand, it takes 100 days; to learn the saber, it takes 1,000 days; to learn the spear, it takes 10,000 days; and to learn the sword takes a whole lifetime

from an article by the guys who took over the Shanghai Daily quoting an American taiji master studying at Fudan. It's unclear if he picked it up from his teachers in the US or from someone in Shanghai.

These all look like they could come from a Chinese original, so I searched Baidu for 百、千、万 and 天 and 剑. The only common phrase I could find was


One hundred days of practice [to master] the dao, one thousand days of practice [to master] the spear/gun, ten thousand days of practice [to master] the longsword.

or closer to the intended meaning (since almost everyone reading the translations in English seems to take the numbers literally)

It takes a short while to master the dao, much longer to master the spear, and forever to master the sword.

which my friend with better Chinese says probably came from The Legend of the Condor Heroes (《射雕英雄传》) by Jin Yong (Louis Cha), who wasn't an ancient Chinese master of anything but a tubby 20th-century journalist and wuxia novelist from Hong Kong.

So the questions are:

  1. Is there any Chinese version of this expression older than 1957?
  2. If not, could you describe the context of the quote in his book?
  3. Especially, what did Jin Yong mean by 刀 here?

since it's usually translated as 'knife' these days but actually covers most large single-bladed weapons, including Chinese sabres, machetes, and halberds. (枪 today usually means 'gun' but, as pointed out in the comments, can also mean 'spear', which is presumably what was intended here.)

*The only exception I found was here, quoting e2, loosely quoting a line in Musashi Miyamoto's Book of Five Rings: "To know how to win with the sword... a thousands days of training to develop, ten thousand days of training to polish."

  • 1
    Small nit: I believe that 枪, in the Jin Yong novel, is meant to be "spear" (the original meaning of that character) rather than "gun", given the time period. Mar 31, 2020 at 23:28
  • @StumpyJoePete: That's a very large nit, but (especially given the translation found by YChi Lu) almost certainly correct. It has nothing to do with the time period (1957) but within the context, sure. I'll fix it.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 14:04
  • Yeah, I meant the time period of the setting, rather than when it was written. Although it's very amusing to imagine a bunch of 武侠 squaring off with late-Song-dynasty firearms. Apr 1, 2020 at 17:12

2 Answers 2

  1. Conceptually, this is not that new. The Tang-dynasty poet Jia Dao (779-843) had a famous poem starting with this phrase:

    十年磨一劍 "For ten years I have been polishing this sword"

    The "polishing" here is a poetic expression of his learning swordcraft. The phrase could be even shorter as 十年劍 ("ten years of sword") in Chinese is also similar to "10,000 days of sword" in stucture.

  2. The original text from The Legend of the Condor Heroes was an explanatory description of a fighting phase-change between charaters. You could find the exact phrase online as quoted below from Chapter 20 ("The Altered Manual") in Frans Soetomo's translation:

    There is a saying among martial arts practitioners, “A hundred days to master a saber, a thousand days to master a spear, ten thousand days to master a sword,” indicating that sword techniques were the most difficult to learn.

  • Quote:- "...sword techniques were the most difficult to learn", this applies to male practitioners. Why? Because Chinese long sword techniques require very flexible wrist and shoulder movements, something which females naturally have. And thus male usually start off with the cudgel, broadsword, spear and only do the sword as an "advance" weapon, whereas females could, if they want, go straight to the long sword in the weapons training phase. Also cudgels, broadswords were heavier. So, this so-called martial arts axiom is strictly from the male point of view. Apr 1, 2020 at 3:30
  • @WayneCheah Huh. That's very interesting. I wonder if YChi Lu would mind including it in their answer.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 13:57
  • 1
    I'll tick this for now as the best so far, but his phrasing it as a quote leaves open the idea that it came from somewhere else in this form. (Of course, it might've been wholly original to him and he just phrased it that way: the guy was a writer.) Thank you for finding the early poem. You're right that it's phrased differently but expresses a version of the same idea.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 14:00

I don't know what you mean by calling Jin Yong "tubby". He is one of the most influential Chinese novelists in the 20th century.

Allegedly he did not invent the saying. It is an old saying among martial arts practitioners. The saying has other versions, like "月棍,年刀,千日枪".

There are different interpretations of the saying(s). The one that makes sense to me is like this:

棍 and 刀 are powerful and handy weapons. If you learn them you can see the effect in a relatively short time. Please note that this is not "mastering" them. You just stop being a noob. Meanwhile 枪 and 剑 need more practice time before you enter that phase.

The sayings do not claim 枪 and 剑 are better weapons or 枪/剑 masters have greater skills than 棍/刀 masters. They are about the minimum skills (and time) you need, rather than the maximum skills you can achieve.

Besides, 剑 has a lot of cultural connotations in Chinese tradition. It was not only used by warriors but also by scholars and 神仙 (gods or celestial people). This gives 剑 a very high status, which might be one of the reasons it is considered the ultimate weapon in the sayings.

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  • @Tubby: No idea why it's necessary to discuss it so prominently in your answer instead of a comment to the post, but I mean that he was tubby: shaped like a tub, round, rotund, out of shape. He was a fine writer but not an ancient master of any martial art, the way that the English-speaking world makes the source of the quote out to be.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 13:39
  • Thank you for your time, but -1. a) "Allegedly" according to whom specifically? b) "An old saying" according to whom? c) How old? and in what source? That's the specific question being asked, and your answer is as hoary, personal, and inspecific as the English examples, which doesn't help.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 13:41
  • Further, you spent some time discussing unimportant characters but skipped over which 刀 he was talking about, which was part of the questions.Further, although I guess I can stop here, the sayings very much imply that the 剑 is the superior weapon unless you're trying to throw together a quick levy of soldiers.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 13:46
  • If you don't know any actual older sources, a helpful edit would be to remove most of what you have here, esp. the personal opinions, and just focus on the context of Jin Yong's original use. If he were making a particular point about the 剑, that would be something, especially if we never find any earlier examples.
    – lly
    Apr 1, 2020 at 13:49
  • I'm surprised by your attitude. Will not respond to you or your question any more.
    – Betty
    Apr 1, 2020 at 14:03

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