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So, in the Chinese high fantasy "xianxia" genre, a common armament used by characters is magical, flying swords. Sometimes they ride around on them like flying surfboards, sometimes they use them as ranged weapons. It's so common that I suspect that there might be some sort of mythological or literary source for it, like how elves in Western fantasy come from Tolkien, who took them from Norse mythology.

What is the earliest flying sword in Chinese mythology or literary history? The TV Tropes page on the subject mentions that the Norse God's Freyr had a flying sword, but unless there's evidence that the story of Freyr and his magic sword made its way to China and inspired the flying swords of xianxia, it doesn't count.

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    I'm reasonably sure that this trope predates fiction. Mythology question are better asked on Mythology:SE
    – Valorum
    Jul 12, 2020 at 9:10
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    It's a question about the trope of flying swords, and judging by the use of the history-of tag, it seem to be on-topic for the SE. It's also entirely possible that the idea of the flying sword was invented in a genre-defining fictional work rather than mythology, like how much of Western fiction was inspired by Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons. I just don't know, hence the question.
    – nick012000
    Jul 12, 2020 at 14:47
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    For literary, I would check Journey to the West where without reading the actual text is a mention of Sha Wujing being punished by flying swords. As that work has inspirations from other sources as well as embellished upon, I doubt it is the earliest, but perhaps the most popular of possible sources. Jul 12, 2020 at 15:43
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    @Valorum Xianxia is a subgenre of Chinese fantasy, not mythology. Mythology tropes might not be on topic, but fantasy tropes are.
    – nick012000
    Jul 12, 2020 at 16:32
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    @nick012000 I can only point out the first popular Chinese xianxia novel about flying sword is Zhu Xian. novelupdates.com/series/zhu-xian It is the first book of this genre, Actually it create a new genre and name it xianxia. Sep 8, 2020 at 2:05

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It is hard to trace back the very first flying sword in Chinese mythology or literary history, but I might try to give a list of what I could find.

In Chinese characters, "flying sword" is written as "飞剑". Searching this keyword on http://corpus.zhonghuayuwen.org/ACindex.aspx, we can get some examples:

Liu Jingshu (around AD450), a government official at The Southern Dynasties, written a story collection named The Garden of Marvels(异苑). It recorded a story: The sword used by the first Han emperor Liu Bang was lost in a fire, however, bodyguards reported that the sword jumped through the warehouse and flew away itself.

A History book written during the Tang Dynasty (around AD600), named "Book of Jin Dynasty", record a story about a scholar named ZhangHua. ZhangHua's friend has a sword and passes it to his son. One day his son carries this sword passing through a river, this sword abandons him, jumps into the river, transforms into a Chinese dragon, then flies away.

Lu Dongbin (around AD800), a Taoist priest of the Tang Dynasty, written a poem: "得道年来八百秋,不曾飞剑取人头。玉皇未有天符至,且货乌金混世流。" I try to translate it into English: "Since I become immortal, hundreds of years past; Never did I chop an evil's head by my flying sword; The Jade Emperor did not summon me with his heaven's order; I would rather live on the earth as a trader selling mysterious gold". However, it is hard to prove whether or not this poem is really written by him. Lu Dongbin is deified as a god by people in the later dynasties. He often appears as a "flying sword" user in novels of Ming or Qing Dynasty. There is a novel from Lasting Words to Awaken the World(醒世恒言) named "Lu Dongbin flys his sword to slash HuangLong". It is about how Lu Dongbin, a Taoist priest, is defeated by a Buddhist named HuangLong. You can read this story at http://www.xiexingcun.com/3y2p/03/mydoc023.htm (Chinese characters warning!). Lasting Words to Awaken the World is written around AD1600 (Ming Dynasty).

As mentioned by @MorrisonChang, in Journey to the West, there is a very short episode about Sha Wujing being punished by flying swords. Journey to the West was written in Ming Dynasty by WuChengeng (around AD1500). At Ming Dynasty, "flying sword" had become popular and appeared in many novels, such as "Investiture of the Gods(封神演义)", "The Romance of Three Kingdoms(三国演义)". However, at this time, "flying sword" only "made a guest appearance" and is usually not the highlight of the story.

I believe the first "orthodox", and the most famous "xianxia" novel, should be "The Story of a Swordsman from Shushan(蜀山剑侠传)" written by Li ShouMing (AD1932). It is a long story about good and evil celestial beings fighting each other. "flying swords" are often their most important weapon and appear as a highlight in the title: Swordsman means the celestial beings who use "flying sword".

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Flying swords were mentioned briefly in many historical texts, however they were only one of the various treasures deities possessed. It was the book Zhu Xian, and some books about mount Shu, which popularized the flying sword.

From Wikipedia:

Zhu Xian (Chinese: 诛仙), translated as Jade Dynasty or The Attack of Heaven, is a xianxia novel written by Xiao Ding. Zhu Xian creates many characters with unique personalities. The novel keeps looking for the answer to a question "What is true righteousness?" but concludes that "Heartless World, treat everything as straw dogs!", which perhaps is the main theme of the novel.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. The question was about the first work, not a work which may have made them popular. It appears the work you are citing dates from 2005, which is far later than the dates suggested by the other answer.
    – DavidW
    Dec 13, 2021 at 4:42

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