The Sai is probably China's greatest contribution to the genre of "Poor Farmer's" weapons. These were weapons improvised by peasants either forbidden by law to carry or too poor to afford a blade of any sort. The Sai was developed from a three-pronged agricultural tool. This tool had three blunt-edged, pointed prongs: one about a foot in length in the center and one six inches in length pointing out at a slight angle on either side. It was used for digging rows to plant seeds, with the angled prongs to create a raised border on either side of the row (much the way a plough works).
This unlikely candidate was made into a weapon because of an essential problem with many of the previous wooden peasant weapons: while superb for offense, neither the Bo, nor the Tonfa, (nor any other wooden implement) could withstand a direct blow from a strong sword. The Sai, being forged from half- inch-thick black iron, was a logical choice for a more defensive weapon.
The Sai was imported from China to Japan in the late 1400s, where it's use was very quickly adapted and perfected by the peasantry of Okinawa, a small island to the south of mainland Japan. The Okinawan feudal lords were not only particularly repressive, but frequently abused the common people of the island. The Okinawans became the most skilled at improvising common agricultural tools as a means of self defense, and eagerly integrated the Sai into their secret martial training (along with such native inventions as the Tonfa, the Kama, and the Nunchaku).
The Sai is traditionally used in a matched pair, one in each hand. However, most often Sais would be carried groups of three. Two Sais would be kept hidden underneath the peasant's robe, with one of the smaller prongs of each hooked over opposite sides of the belt for quick drawing. The third would be either hidden with the first two, or carried in hand. In either case, at the beginning of a fight the wielder would throw the third Sai directly at the opponent, attempting to catch him off guard. If successful, the thrown Sai ends the fight before it has begun. Even if not, however, the two Sais kept on the belt can be drawn in the same motion as a strike. Thus the thrown Sai serves as a distraction followed quickly by a first strike.
There are two typical grips for the Sai. First, one can rest the hook formed by one of the smaller prongs between one's thumb and index finger. This allows one's fist to curl around the handle of the Sai, while the long blade is secured against the forearm. This allows punches to be made with devesating force via the end of the handle protruding from the fist, and reinforces the forearm for blocks and elbow strikes. From this position, a Sai can be quickly flipped outward into a swinging strike or thrusting motion. From this extended grip, an advanced wielder can actually flip the Sai over, gripping it by the blade (the blade is not edged, only pointed...) and using the smaller prongs and handle as a bludgeoning or hooking instrument to strike or trap an opponent.
Recently, a popular modification to the basic Sai design has been to construct them from hollow aluminum rather than the traditional wrought iron. Although its ability to sustain blows is greatly reduced, an aluminum Sai is far lighter and can be thrown with staggering accuracy at great distances.
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