Gunsen - Asian Art Museum

A War Fan is a fan designed for use in warfare and martial arts. Fans are used for offensive and defensive purposes in Chinese, Japanese and Korean martial arts. They are called "铁扇" (tiě shān, literally "steel fan") in Chinese, "軍扇" (gunsen), "鉄扇" (tessen), and "軍配" (gunbai") in Japanese, and "부채" (buchae) in Korean.

War fans were first used as a weapons in 16th century, China. They were portable, easily concealed, and and could be disguised as a common folding fan. Generally, they were used defensively, often to deflect or parry a sword or spear attack. In most cases they were a slicing weapon, but in a closed position could occasionally be use for stabbing motions. As a thrown weapon, they could be quite effective and had good range. Also their round shape meant that the bladed end had a better chance of hitting a target. The war fan could be considered a stealth weapon, as it was made to resemble a folding fan and could be taken into public areas without being obvious. Ancient war fans were made of iron or other metals. Modern war fans are usually steel. The war fan would most likely be used as a last resort weapon in a fight after the sword was knocked away.

Types of war fan

  • Gunsen (軍扇) were folding fans used by the average warriors to cool themselves off. They were made of wood, bronze, brass or a similar metal for the inner spokes, and often used thin iron or other metals for the outer spokes or cover, making them lightweight but strong. Warriors would hang their fans from a variety of places, most typically from the belt or the breastplate, though the latter often impeded the use of a sword or a bow.
  • Tessen (鉄扇) were folding fans with outer spokes made of heavy plates of iron which were designed to look like normal, harmless folding fans or solid clubs shaped to look like a closed fan. Samurai could take these to places where swords or other overt weapons were not allowed, and some swordsmanship schools included training in the use of the tessen as a weapon. The tessen was also used for fending off arrows and darts, as a throwing weapon, and as an aid in swimming.
  • Gunbai or Gunpai (軍配) were large solid open fans that could be solid iron or metal with wooden core, which were carried by high-ranking officers. They were used to ward off arrows, as a sunshade, and to signal to troops.
    • One of the most significant, and perhaps most interesting, uses was as a signalling device. Signalling fans came in two varieties:#1 a real fan that has wood or metal ribs with lacquered paper attached to the ribs and a metal outer cover, #2 a solid open fan made from metal and is very similar to the gunbai used today by sumo referees. The commander would raise or lower his fan and point in different ways to issue commands to the soldiers, which would then be passed on by other forms of visible and audible signalling.


Tessenjutsu(鉄扇術) is the martial art of the Japanese war fan, tessen. It is based on the use of the iron folding fan, which usually had eight or ten ribs. The use of the war fan in combat is mentioned in early Japanese legends.

The practitioners of tessenjutsu could acquire a high level of skill. Some became so skilled, in fact, that they were able to defend themselves against an attacker wielding a sword, and even kill an opponent with a single blow. Like so many other Japanese arts of combat during this era, tessenjutsu reached a high level of sophistication.

Apart from using it in duels against enemies armed with swords and spears, the skilled wielder could also use it to fence and fend off knives and poisoned darts thrown at him.

Tessenjutsu is still practiced by a few experts in Japan to this day.

War fans in history and folklore

One particularly famous legend involving war fans concerns a direct confrontation between Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin at the fourth battle of Kawanakajima in 1561. Kenshin burst into Shingen's command tent on horseback, having broken through his entire army, and attacked; his sword was deflected by Shingen's war fan. It is not clear whether Shingen parried with a tessen, a dansen uchiwa, or some other form of fan. Nevertheless, it was quite rare for commanders to fight directly, and especially for a general to defend himself so effectively when taken so off-guard.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a hero of Japanese legend, is said to have defeated the great warrior monk Saitō Musashibō Benkei with a tessen. Yoshitsune is also said to have defeated an opponent named Benkei by parrying the blows of his opponent's spear with an iron fan. This use of the iron fan was taught to him by a mythological creature, a tengu, who also had instructed him in the art of swordsmanship.

Araki Murashige is said to have used a tessen to save his life when the great warlord Oda Nobunaga sought to assassinate him. Araki was invited before Nobunaga, and was stripped of his swords at the entrance to the mansion, as was customary. When he performed the customary bowing at the threshold, Nobunaga intended to have the room's sliding doors slammed shut onto Araki's neck, killing him. However, Araki supposedly placed his tessen in the grooves in the floor, blocking the doors from closing.

The Yagyū clan, sword instructors to the Tokugawa shoguns, included tessenjutsu in their swordschool, the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū.

A famous swordsman in the late 16th century, Ganryu, was able to defeat several enemies with an iron fan.

Mortal Kombat

Kitana uses dual war fans (called "Steel Fans") as her weapon style in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Unchained, and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. She also uses war fans as weapons from Mortal Kombat II onwards.

Khameleon uses war fans similar to Kitana's in Mortal Kombat Trilogy.
Jade uses war fans similar to Kitana's in Mortal Kombat II.

Kitana uses her fans in their closed state in a fight scene of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.[1]



  • Cureton, Ben, and Paul Edwards. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance: Official Strategy Guide. Indianapolis, IN: BradyGames, 2002. Print.
  • Ratti, Oscar, and Adele Westbrook. Secrets of the Samurai: a Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. Edison, NJ: Castle, 1973. Print.
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