There were hundreds of different types of cold weapons in ancient Chinese battlefields, with the most commonly used including bow (弓), crossbow (弩), sword (剑), broad knife (刀), spear (矛), speargun (枪), cudgel (棍), battleaxe (斧), battle spade (钺), halberd (戟), lance (殳), whip (鞭), blunt sword (锏), hammer (锤), fork (叉), plow (钯), dagger (戈) and shield (盾) – known as tools for 18 military skills (18般武艺).
The earliest Chinese firearms were invented around the 9th century during the Song Dynasty. Ming Dynasty saw China’s firearm development led the world, with Magic Machine Battalion (神机营) established by the third Ming Emperor Yongle, and cannons played a decisive role in the battles to reclaim foreshore region in Suzhou from Japanese pirates.
Below is a brief introduction to some quite unique Chinese cold weapons and firearms.
Traditional Chinese Cold Weapons
The use of spear as a military weapon can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty some 4,000 years ago, by then the spearhead was quite broad and made of bronze.
Entering the Warring States era (475 BC – 221 BC), the iron or steel spearheads became more common, and were narrower in shape, while the shafts were often made of wood wrapped with bamboo sheets that improved strength and resilience.
According to The Book of Technology (考工记) compiled around 250 BC, the spear for infantry would be 4.5m long, while chariot soldiers normally used the spears as long as 5.4 metres.
It’s a special spear with the spearhead weaving like a snake, designed to widen the thrust wounds in complicated fractures. The red tassels are used to stop the blood from flowing into the pole when thrusting.
Snake spears were particularly popular among the warriors fighting mounted combats.
This is a bronze spearhead unearthed from an ancient tomb in Horse Hill, Jianglin County of Hubei Province, dating back to Spring and Autumn Era (770 BC – 476 BC).
The notches in the middle on both sides serve the same function as red lace on a snake spear for blood to flow through without smearing the weapon.
According to the inscription on the spearhead, it was the weapon once used by the King of Wu of a Suzhou-based kingdom.
Traditional Chinese battleaxes had many different shapes and were mainly used on the battlefield before the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907).
During the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties in the period between 2,000 BC and 250 BC, battleaxe was chiefly utilised as the symbol of state power.
One of the earliest records of combat involving crossbows happened between Qi Kingdom (in Shandong) and Wei Kingdom (in Shaanxi) during the Warring States Era.
In the year 342 BC, Qi’s military strategist Sun Tzu – the author of Art of War – arranged 10,000 infantry soldiers armed with crossbows to ambush the Wei army and won the battle.
The use of the crossbow in the Qin Dynasty (immediately following the Warring States) became more common. Among unearthed weapons from First Emperor Qin’s tomb, terracotta cavalrymen carrying crossbows featured heavily.
It is believed that Three Kingdom’s Zhuge Liang developed a crossbow with speed-wind-up capacity using pulling rods. Military engineers in Ming Dynasty further improved the speedy crossbow by making it semi-automatic through a coordinated team effort.
Ancient Chinese Military Equipment
Mobile Watch Tower
Ancient Chinese warfare often involved attacking and defending a walled city, thus mobile watchtowers were regularly used by both offensive and defensive parties in combat, as they could be used to observe the activities on the top of the city wall by the attackers or monitor the situation outside the wall by the defenders.
The cars commonly have wheels at the bottom and a timber frame to sustain the raised carriage for observers.
An entry in ancient Chinese historical records mentions how in 575 BC during the battle of Yanlin, the King of Chu ascended a mobile watchtower to monitor the enemy troops’ movements.
In year 23, the rebel force of usurper Wang Mang also used a 30-m tall mobile tower to find out defence army’s activities within the city of Kunyang.
During the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), a coded language using different colours of flags was developed that allowed the watchers on the tower high up in the air to inform the troops on the ground instantly and constantly about the situation in the enemy camp.
This giant fortress on wheels was the world’s biggest chariot, designed for the sole purpose that is to forced enter a walled city.
The carriage normally had five floors, connected by ladders, with a total height could reach up to 50 metres. A single mobile fortress was able to accommodate hundreds of soldiers along with their military weapons and equipment.
It could be wheeled to the city wall and shoot the guards on the top of the wall from the carriage.
However, in a pre-electronic age, the mobile fortress had a fatal shortcoming.
During a siege of Chengdu in 1621, the defence army spotted a mobile fortress like a giant monster drawn by a group of cows approaching the wall, thus they used huge hurling machines to bombard the animals with a shower of stones. The cows turned around and led the fortress to crash into its own troops.
Cloud Ladders were designed for attacking troops to mount and seize control of the city wall.
The first “cloud ladder” is said to be built during the Spring and Autumn era. According to The Strategies of the Warring States (战国策), the King of Shu planned to attack the Kingdom of Song and asked master carpentry Shuban from the Kingdom of Lu to build tall landers to break into Song’s capital city.
The “cloudy ladder” was formed with three parts: the wheels to make it mobile, the cart as a foundation of the ladder and the ladder.
In the next 2,000 years, the equipment was frequently used but its efficiency was frequently questioned. From the Ming Dynasty on, “cloud ladders” military equipment was abandoned.
Chinese began using the level principle to design tools for civil and military purposes thousands of years ago, which include stone hurling machines.
One of the well-recorded battles involved the hurling machine occurred in the Spring and Autumn era (770 BC – 476 BC) when the Chu army stroke Qin troops that were crossing a river with a shower of stone balls, and subsequently destroyed Qin’s 200,000-strong military force.
The heyday of the hurling machines was during the Song Dynasty. Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques (武经总要), published in 1044, described 8 commonly used hurling machines of the time. The biggest one among the 8 measured 8.76 metres long with a hurling range over 140 metres. It required 250 men to operate and could hurl 45 kg stone balls in one go.
This simple military tool is quite effective to crash open a gate to the city.
Ancient Chinese Firearms
Magical Machine Battalion
These are part of firearms equipped by the Magical Machine Battalion, an artillery division in the Ming armies established by Emperor Yongle at the beginning of the 15th century.
In 1410, the firearm battalion was first deployed to engage Mongols and won the battle, which allowed the construction of the new Beijing to be carried on and the Chinese capital to be formally relocated from the south (Nanjing) to the north (Beijing) in 1421.
Nearly three decades later in 1449, a regrouped Mongol army of 120,000 men launched a new military campaign against China. Ming Emperor Yingzong (Yongle’s great-grandson) was captured by the Mongols when he led the troops to confront the enemies outside the Shanhai Pass, and the defence lines along the Great Wall were almost lost. It was also the Magical Machine Battalion that played a critical role in regaining control of the situation.
China invented firearms in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) during its fight against Manchus (in North Song) and Mongols (in South Song).
The barrels of the earliest firearms were made with bamboo and paper, packed with black powder, iron filings and bullets inside.
Entering the Southern Song, the bamboo and paper barrels were replaced with metal. In 1163, Chinese general Wei Sheng used dozens of war chariots loaded with metal firearms in a decisive battle against the early form of Manchus and claimed a great victory.
After China was occupied by the Mongols in the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s army learned the technique and brought it all the way to Europe through its burning, killing and looting adventure.
The top one is a typical Chinese fire gun, but the two below were produced based on European models. During the Ming Dynasty, China had a whole range of cultural, technological and economic exchanges with the world.
The first Chinese landmine was also produced during the Song Dynasty using iron. And the earliest record involved landmine was combat in 1130 against Manchus.
Another famous landmine battle occurred in 1400 when the government army tried to crackdown the rebel force of Prince Yan, who later became Emperor Yongle.
The iron container was basically filled with gunpowder, covered with small stones then used sands to fill the gaps. The container was buried under the ground and the fire could be detonated through fuze concealed in bamboo tubes that were placed on the ground.
In the early 16th century, improved technology allowed mines to be buried 1.5 m deep below the ground surface with the fuze concealed in a short bamboo tube.
During the later 16th century, landmines with chain detonation capacities came into use in the wars against Japanese pirates.
The army of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) was the first to use torpedo at war in the world when defending China’s maritime border against Japanese pirates.
China’s earliest anti-boat missile was developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) for the purpose of expelling Japanese pirate ships.
However, since the middle of the 17th century, Manchu colonists, the backward Tungus-origin tribes, feared and banned firearms in Chinese society and in military forces thus China returned to the age of cold weapons until the middle of the 19th century.
Classic Chinese Military Commander Seals
This is a pair of 2,500-year-old gilt bronze military commander’s seals, 9.5 cm long and 4.4 cm tall, unearthed from a Warring States tomb in Xi’an in 1967.
By rule, one half of the tiger was carried by the commander while the other in mirror image was kept by the emperor. When the emperor needed to issue an order to the commander in the field, his envoy would have to present the seal to match the one from the commander.
This is a pair of 1,000-year-old Tang Dynasty military commander’s seals.
Traditional Chinese Military Uniforms
This is a 2,200-year-old military armour made of pieces of thin slate, unearthed from Emperor Qin’s tomb.
Each piece is crafted with a certain curve and has tiny sowing holes, that allow the entire helmet and armour to be assembled using brazen threads.
This is a statue of a general in full military gear erected by the path leading to 13 Ming emperors’ tombs on the outskirts of Beijing.
This is a colour ink painting produced by an ancient court artist about the royal army’s military expedition, which faithfully illustrates ancient Chinese servicemen in their Chinese-style military uniform.