Chinese armour

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A suit of restored Han period iron lamellar armour, unearthed in Hohhot.

Armour in China was predominantly lamellar from the Warring States period (481 BC - 221 BC) forward, prior to which animal parts such as rhinoceros hide, leather, and turtle shells were used for protection. Lamellar armour was supplemented by scale armour starting from the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) forward, partial plate armour from the Northern and Southern dynasties (420–589), and mail and mountain pattern armour from the Tang dynasty (618–907). During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), brigandine began to supplant lamellar armour and was used to a great degree into the Qing dynasty (1644–1912.). By the 19th century most Qing armour, which was of the brigandine type, were purely for show, having kept the outer studs for aesthetic purposes, and omitted the protective metal plates.

Shang dynasty[edit]

Helmet covered with ornate decorations from the Zhou dynasty tomb complex of Emperor Wu Wang, circa 1020 BC.

During the Shang dynasty armour consisted of breastplates made of shell tied together. Later on bronze became popular and bronze helmets appeared. Regular folks had no protection except for a leather covered bamboo shield.[1]

Zhou dynasty[edit]

Armour in the Zhou dynasty consisted of either a sleeveless coat of rhinoceros or buffalo hide, or leather scale armour. Helmets were largely similar to Shang predecessors but less ornate. Chariot horses were sometimes protected by tiger skins.[2]

Warring States[edit]

A Warring States helmet.
Han iron strip armour.
Northern Yan horse armour.

In the 4th century BC, rhinoceros armour was still used. In the following passage Guan Zhong advises Duke Huan of Qi to convert punishments to armour and weapons:

Ordain that serious crimes are to be redeemed with a suit of rhinoceros armour and one halberd, and minor crimes with a plaited leather shield and one halberd. Misdemeanours are to be punished with [a fine of] a quota of metal [jin fen 金分], and doubtful cases are to be pardoned. A case should be delayed for investigation for three [days] without allowing arguments or judgements; [by the time] the case is judged [the subject will have produced] one bundle of arrows. Good metal [mei jin 美金] should be cast into swords and halberd[-heads] and tested on dogs and horses, while poorer metal [e jin 惡金] should be cast into agricultural implements and tested on earth.[3]

— Guan Zhong

However by the mid-4th century BC, lamellar armour of leather, bronze, and iron appeared. Lamellar consisted of individual armour pieces that were either riveted or laced together to form a suit of armour.[4]

In the 3rd century BC, both iron weapons and armour became more common. According to the Xunzi, "the hard iron spears of Wan 宛 [a city in Chu, near modern Nanyang 南陽, Henan] are as cruel as wasps and scorpions."[5] Iron weapons also gave Chinese armies an edge over barbarians. Han Fei recounts that during a battle with the Gonggong 共工 tribe, "the iron-tipped lances reached the enemy, and those without strong helmets and armour were injured."[6] As a result of the increasing effectiveness of iron weapons and armour, shields and axes became less common.[7] The efficiency of crossbows however outpaced any progress in defensive armour. It was considered a common occurrence in ancient China for commoners or peasants to kill a lord with a well aimed crossbow bolt, regardless of whatever armour he might have been wearing at the time.[8]

Armour was mostly restricted to elite guard units and each state distributed armour in their own ways. The state of Chu favorited elite armoured crossbow units known for their endurance, and were capable of marching 160km 'without resting.'[4] The soldiers of Qin are said to have thrown off their armour at times and engaged in fanatic charges in some sort of berserk rage.[9]

By the end of the 3rd century BC at least a few horsemen wore armour of some kind.[4]

Han dynasty[edit]

Han dynasty armour was largely the same as the Qin dynasty with minor variations. Infantry wore suits of leather or iron lamellar armour and caps or iron helmets. Some riders wore armour and carried shields but horse armour is not attested to until the late 2nd century.[10]

During the 2nd century BC, the government created a monopoly on the ironworks, which caused a decrease in quality of iron and armour. Bu Shi claimed that the resulting products were inferior because they were made to meet quotas rather than for practical use. Much later in 150 AD, Cui Shi made similar complaints about the issue of quality control in government production: "...not long thereafter the overseers stopped being attentive, and the wrong men have been promoted by Imperial decree. Greedy officers fight over the materials, and shifty craftsmen cheat them... Iron [i.e. steel] is quenched in vinegar, making it brittle and easy to... [?] The suits of armour are too small and do not fit properly."[11]

Three Kingdoms[edit]

By the Three Kingdoms period many cavalrymen wore armour and some horses were equipped with their own armour as well. The warlord Cao Cao boasted that that with only ten sets of horse armour he had faced an enemy with three hundred.[12] The horse armour may however have just been partial frontal barding.[13]

Beginning in the 3rd century, references to "dark armour" (xuan kai or xuan jia 玄鎧/玄甲) appear. This is probably in reference to the association of high quality steel with black ferrous material.[14]

Jin dynasty and the Sixteen Kingdoms[edit]

Full horse armour appeared in northeastern China in the mid 4th century, probably as a result of Xianbei influence. By the end of the 4th century murals depicting full horse armour were found in tombs as far as Yunnan.[15]

Sources mention the capture of thousands of "armored horses" in a single battle.[12]

Northern and Southern dynasties[edit]

Northern Wei heavy cavalry funerary figurine.
A soldier of the Northern and Southern dynasties.

During the Northern and Southern dynasties period (420-589), a style of armour called "cord and plaque" became popular, as did shields and long swords. Tomb figurines often depict soldiers wearing "cord and plaque" armour which consisted of breast plates held in position by waist cords, while holding an oval or rectangular shield and a long sword.[16] Types of armour had also apparently become distinct enough for there to be separate categories for light and heavy armour.[17]

In the 6th century, Qimu Huaiwen introduced to Northern Qi the process of 'co-fusion' steelmaking, which used metals of different carbon contents to create steel. Apparently sabers made using this method were capable of penetrating 30 armour lamellae. It's not clear if the armour was of iron or leather.

Huaiwen made sabres [dao 刀] of 'overnight iron' [su tie 宿鐵]. His method was to anneal [shao 燒] powdered cast iron [sheng tie jing 生鐵精] with layers of soft [iron] blanks [ding 鋌, presumably thin plates]. After several days the result is steel [gang 剛]. Soft iron was used for the spine of the sabre, He washed it in the urine of the Five Sacrificial Animals and quench-hardened it in the fat of the Five Sacrificial Animals: [Such a sabre] could penetrate thirty armour lamellae [zha 札]. The 'overnight soft blanks' [Su rou ting 宿柔鋌] cast today [in the Sui period?] by the metallurgists of Xiangguo 襄國 represent a vestige of [Qiwu Huaiwen's] technique. The sabres which they make are still extremely sharp, but they cannot penetrate thirty lamellae.[18]

The Northern Wei employed the "iron-clad" Erzhu tribe who fought as armoured cavalry.[16]

Sui dynasty[edit]

The Sui dynasty made prodigious use of heavy cavalry. Both men and horses were heavily armoured.[19]

The History of Sui provides an account the first cavalry battalions of the dynasty's 24 armies. They wore "bright-brilliant" (mingguang) armour made of decarburized steel connected by dark green cords, their horses wore iron armour with dark green tassels, and they were distinguished by lion banners. Other battalions were also distinguished by their own colors, patterns, and flags, but neither the bright-brilliant armour or iron armour are mentioned.[20][21]

Tang dynasty[edit]

A Tang sculpture depicting a combination of lamellar and plate armour.

By the Tang dynasty it was possible for armour to provide immense personal protection. In one instance Li Shimin's cousin, Li Daoxuan, was able to cut his way through the entire enemy mass of Xia soldiers and then cut his way back, repeating the operation several times before the battle was won, at which point he had so many arrows sticking out of his armour that he looked like a "porcupine."[22] The effective range of a composite bow against armoured troops in this era was considered to be around 75 to 100 yards.[23]

Infantry armour became more common in the Tang era and roughly 60 percent of active soldiers were equipped with armour of some kind.[24] Armour could be manufactured natively or captured as a result of war. For instance 10,000 suits of iron armour were captured during the Goguryeo–Tang War.[25] Armour and mounts, including pack animals, were supplied by the state through state funds, and thus considered state property. Private ownership of military equipment such as horse armour, long lances, and crossbows was prohibited. Possession was taken as intent of rebellion or treason.[26] The army staff kept track of armour and weapons with detailed records of items issued. If a deficiency was discovered, the corresponding soldier was ordered to pay restitution.[27] The state also provided clothing and rations for border garrisons and expeditionary armies. Soldiers not on active duty were expected to pay for themselves, although "professional" soldiers were given tax exemptions.[28]

Li Shimin's elite cavalry forces were known to have worn distinctive black "iron clad" armour,[29] but heavy cavalry declined as Turkic influence became more prevalent and light cavalry became the dominant mode of mobile warfare. Tang expeditionary forces to Central Asia preferred a mixture of light and heavy Chinese horse archers. After the An Lushan rebellion of the mid 9th century and losing the northwestern pastures to the Tibetans, Chinese cavalry almost disappeared altogether as a relevant military force.[30] Many southern horses were considered too small or frail to carry an armoured soldier.[31]

Chainmail was already known to the Chinese since they first encountered it in 384 AD when their allies in the nation of Kuchi arrived wearing "armor similar to chains". However they did not procure a suit of chainmail until 718 AD when Central Asians presented to the Tang emperor a coat of "link armour". Once in China mail was imported, with the main source being Persia, but was not produced widely. Before the Yuan and Ming dynasties, mail armour was precious due to its rarity, typically belonging to high ranks and those who could afford it.[32]

Liao dynasty[edit]

The Khitans of the Liao dynasty employed heavy armoured cavalry as the core of their army. In battle they arrayed light cavalry in the front and two layers of armoured cavalry in the back. Even foragers were armoured.[33]

Western Xia[edit]

Western Xia mail armour.

The Western Xia made modest use of heavy cavalry, of which it had 3,000 at its height.[34]

Song dynasty[edit]

Song soldiers wearing lamellar and mountain pattern armour.

During the Song dynasty (960–1279) it became fashionable to create warts on armour scales to imitate cold forged steel, products typically produced by non-Han people in modern Qinghai. Warts created from cold work were actually spots of higher carbon in the original steel, thus aesthetic warts on non-cold forged steel served no purpose. According to Shen Kuo, this type of scale armour was impenetrable to arrows shot at a distance of 50 paces. Even if the arrow happened to hit a drill hole, the arrowhead was the one which was ruined.[35]

The History of Song notes that Song "tools of war were exceedingly effective, never before seen in recent times,"[36] and "their weapons and armor were very good",[36] but "their troops weren't always effective."[36]

Jurchen Jin dynasty[edit]

The Jurchens had a reputation for making high quality armour and weapons.[34] Both metal and quilted armour were worn by Jurchens. The Jurchen army was organized into units of a thousand and a hundred. Every hundred was composed of two fifty men social and economic units called punian. Each punian was supposed to have 20 men equipped with armour and lances or halberds. These 20 men formed a standard two rank five deep battle formation while the others formed three ranks of archers.[37]

In 1332 the Jurchens used cast iron bombs against the Mongols at the siege of Kaifeng. The History of Jin states that the fire created by the blast could penetrate even iron armour.[38]

Yuan dynasty[edit]

Mongol armour was capable of stopping arrows due to its thickness. A Song commander's solution was to commission smaller arrows capable of entering the eye slits of Mongol armour, which implies they wore face protection as well.[39]

Ming dynasty[edit]

A Ming warrior wearing mountain pattern armour.
A Manchu officer in brigandine armour.

During the Ming dynasty, most soldiers did not wear armour, which was reserved for officers and a small portion of the several hundred thousand strong army.[40] Horse armour was only used for a small portion of cavalry, which was itself a minute portion of the Ming army.[41]

Brigandine armour was introduced during the Ming era and consisted of riveted plates covered with fabric.[41]

The Ming dynasty employed heavily armoured handlers to fire rocket launchers at close range.[42]

Although armour never lost all meaning during the Ming dynasty, it became less and less important as the power of firearms became apparent. It was already acknowledged by the early Ming artillery officer Jiao Yu that guns "were found to behave like flying dragons, able to penetrate layers of armor."[43] Fully armoured soldiers could and were killed by guns. The Ming Marshall Cai was one such victim. An account from the enemy side states, "Our troops used fire tubes to shoot and fell him, and the great army quickly lifted him and carried him back to his fortifications."[44]

Mountain pattern armour[edit]

References to mountain pattern armour (Chinese: 山文铠; pinyin: shānwénkǎi) appear as early as the Tang dynasty, but historical texts provide no explanation or diagram of how it actually worked. There are also no surviving examples of it. Everything that is known about mountain pattern armour comes from paintings and statues, typically of the Song and Ming periods. It is not unique to China and has been found in depictions in Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and even Thailand, however non-religious depictions are limited to only China, Korea, and Vietnam. Reconstruction projects of this type of armour have largely failed to produce good results.[45]

The current theory is that this type of armour is made from a multitude of small pieces of iron or steel shaped like the Chinese character for the word "mountain" (山). The pieces are interlocked and riveted to a cloth or leather backing. It covers the torso, shoulders and thighs while remaining comfortable and flexible enough to allow movement. Also during this time, senior Chinese officers used mirror armour (Chinese: 护心镜; pinyin: hùxīnjìng) to protect important body parts, while cloth, leather, lamellar, and/or Mountain pattern armor were used for other body parts. This overall design was called "shining armor" (Chinese: 明光甲; pinyin: míngguāngjiǎ).[46]

There is an alternative theory that mountain pattern armour is simply a result of very stylistic depictions of mail armour, but known depictions of mail armour in Chinese art do not match with mountain pattern armour either.[47]

Qing dynasty[edit]

In the 17th century the Qing army was equipped with both lamellar and brigandine armour.[48]

By the 19th century most Qing armour was purely for show. They kept the outer studs for aesthetic purposes but omitted the protective iron plates.[49]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peers 2006, p. 20.
  2. ^ Peers 2006, p. 24.
  3. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 85.
  4. ^ a b c Peers 2006, p. 39.
  5. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 116.
  6. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 117.
  7. ^ Wager 2008, p. 117.
  8. ^ Robinson 2004, p. 10.
  9. ^ Peers 2006, p. 41.
  10. ^ Peers 2006, p. 75.
  11. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 225.
  12. ^ a b Graff 2002, p. 42.
  13. ^ Peers 2006, p. 83.
  14. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 322.
  15. ^ Peers 2006, p. 91.
  16. ^ a b Peers 2006, p. 94.
  17. ^ Peers 2006, p. 99.
  18. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 256.
  19. ^ Peers 2006, p. 115.
  20. ^ Graff 2002, p. 147.
  21. ^ Graff 2002, p. 158.
  22. ^ Graff 2002, p. 173.
  23. ^ Graff 2016, p. 51.
  24. ^ Graff 2002, p. 193.
  25. ^ Graff 2002, p. 197.
  26. ^ Graff 2016, p. 41.
  27. ^ Graff 2016, p. 106.
  28. ^ Graff 2016, p. 39.
  29. ^ Graff 2002, p. 176.
  30. ^ Peers 2006, p. 116.
  31. ^ Graff 2016, p. 161.
  32. ^ Liu, Yonghua (刘永华) (September 2003), Ancient Chinese Armour (中国古代军戎服饰), Shanghai: Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House (上海古籍出版社), p. 174, ISBN 7-5325-3536-3 
  33. ^ Peers 2006, p. 132.
  34. ^ a b Peers 2006, p. 135.
  35. ^ Wagner 2008, p. 322-323.
  36. ^ a b c Andrade 2016, p. 22.
  37. ^ Peers 2006, p. 137.
  38. ^ Peers 2006, p. 143.
  39. ^ Andrade 2016, p. 48.
  40. ^ Peers 2006, p. 208.
  41. ^ a b Peers 2006, p. 185.
  42. ^ Peers 2006, p. 184.
  43. ^ Andrade 2016, p. 57.
  44. ^ Andrade 2016, p. 67.
  45. ^ The myths of Shan Wen Kia, retrieved 21 March 2018 
  46. ^ Liu, Yonghua (刘永华) (September 2003), Ancient Chinese Armour (中国古代军戎服饰), Shanghai: Shanghai Chinese Classics Publishing House (上海古籍出版社), pp. 63–64, ISBN 7-5325-3536-3 
  47. ^ The myths of Shan Wen Kia, retrieved 21 March 2018 
  48. ^ Peers 2006, p. 216.
  49. ^ Peers 2006, p. 232.
Works cited
  • Andrade, Tonio (2016), The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-13597-7 .
  • Graff, David A. (2002), Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, Routledge 
  • Graff, David A. (2016), The Eurasian Way of War: Military practice in seventh-century China and Byzantium, Routledge 
  • Peers, C.J. (2006), Soldiers of the Dragon: Chinese Armies 1500 BC - AD 1840, Osprey Publishing Ltd 
  • Robinson, K.G. (2004), Science and Civilization in China Volume 7 Part 2: General Conclusions and Reflections, Cambridge University Press 
  • Wagner, Donald B. (2008), Science and Civilization in China Volume 5-11: Ferrous Metallurgy, Cambridge University Press 
  • Ancient Chinese Armies: 1500-200BC C.J. Peers, Illustrated by Angus McBridge, Osprey Publishing «Men-at-arms», ISBN 0-85045-942-7
  • Imperial Chinese Armies (1): 200BC-AD589 C.J. Peers, Illustrated by Michael Perry, Osprey Publishing «Men-at-arms», ISBN 1-85532-514-4
  • Imperial Chinese Armies (2): 590-1260AD C.J. Peers, Illustrated by Michael Perry, Osprey Publishing «Men-at-arms», ISBN 1-85532-599-3
  • Medieval Chinese Armies: 1260-1520 C.J. Peers, Illustrated by David Sque, Osprey Publishing «Men-at-arms», ISBN 1-85532-254-4
  • Late Imperial Chinese Armies: 1520-1840 C.J. Peers, Illustrated by Christa Hook, Osprey Publishing «Men-at-arms», ISBN 1-85532-655-8

External links[edit]