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A brief introduction of the armours and weapons in ancient China

A Brief Introduction of the Armours and Weapons in Ancient China
By Lily Watson

5319b07fbaad894639120b9cb534b73b      在传统的天津相声中,我们常会听到这样一段逗哏和捧哏之间的台词:刀枪剑戟,斧钺钩叉,镋棍槊棒,鞭锏锤抓,拐子流星,什么带尖儿,带刺儿的,带棱的,带刃的,带绒绳的,带锁链儿的,带倒齿钩的,带峨嵋刺儿的,十八般兵刃我是样样(捧哏插话:“精通?”)——稀松!


      这一段相声灌口中,罗列了不下十八般兵器,足见我国兵器历史之悠久,种类之丰富。但根据《中国古兵二十讲》的作者杨泓先生表示,“现实中的古代兵器,跟古典小说里所描述的并不一样”,小说里的兵器基本都是小说家依据当时的冷兵器以及流行的武术器械,经艺术加工而构想出来的。那么真实的古代兵器是什么样子的呢?


      在人类社会的发展初期,工具和兵器是不可分的,随着社会的复杂化以及工艺的进步,兵器在此时产生了较为明确的定义,专门指人与人武力斗争的器具。一般而言兵器分为热兵器和冷兵器两种。大约在新石器时代的后期,人类进入了青铜器时期,由于铜加入了铅和锡之后形成青铜合金,容易加工,逐渐取代了石器,人类的工具从此进入以金属为主要素材的阶段。早期的青铜剑约在商朝即已大致成形,在未来的千年间,这种剑的造型逐步迈向成熟,并作为步兵的基本武器而活跃于战场上,并且剑只在近战或肉搏时使用。


      战车也是古代战争中的重要工具。1936年,在河南省安阳市殷墟车马坑中,首次出土一辆商朝战车。坑中南端并排着器具、马骨,车内外分布着 3套兵器。从出土于商、西周、春秋和战国时期古墓中的战车可以看出,商周时期战车的形制基本相同,战车通常每车驾2匹或4匹马,每车载甲士 3名,在车战的起始阶段,使用战车的数量较少。而秦朝则是战车鼎盛时期。秦朝战车的乘法和使用情况,可以从陕西省临潼县秦始皇陵兵马俑坑出土的战车得到准确反映。大约到汉武帝年间(公元前140~前87),汉王朝的军队为了与匈奴进行持续的战争,发展了大量骑兵部队,此后战车在战场上便逐渐消失。


      中国古代弓弩在世界军事领域里算是发展比较早也比较成熟的。我国历史上从战国、秦汉起,就有强弩这种军阵大杀器存在。弩自秦汉起就成为了军阵射远器主力之一,和弓平分秋色,一直到明朝才完全没落。中国古代的单兵弩,其射力都远大于弓。


      随着历史发展,骑兵被大量使用,冲锋陷阵、马上战术对兵器的强度有更高的要求,所以在西汉末年时,钢铁兵器正式装备部队后,因其硬度和韧度都明显地优于青铜,于是钢铁兵器几乎完全取代了青铜,兵器史进入了一个全新的时代。


       明清末年,欧洲的洋枪火炮推动武器进入了一个全新的纪元,往昔强大的弓弩枪剑无法在大规模的火药主导的战场中占据主动,它们也就这样渐渐步入历史,成为了我们对古代的一种认知。

 

So far, humans still do not seem to put a stop to violence or wars. Ancient swords though have already left the battlefield (except military knives). Nevertheless, the inherent hunting instincts still strike us with an indescribable feeling for swords. Perhaps, this is a fraction of genes we have inherited from our ancestors. Without further ado, let’s have a glance at these appealing yet appalling beasts.

 

Weapons in history are closely related to contemporary technology and the form of wars. A simple classification in regard to weapons and equipment in ancient China could be roughly divided into early warfare, chariot warfare, Chinese crossbow warfare, heavy-armour warfare, and firearm warfare.

 

The Early Warfare

We can imagine the forms of war in the prehistoric period. A basic bow could be a long-range weapon at the time but it had no stability; wooden sticks and stone axes could be the main sources of close-range weapons though manually stone-throwing could also be effective in fights. Wars were probably similar to modern gang fighting, wherein the courage and number of people decided who won.

 

But towards the end of the Neolithic period, humans entered the Bronze Age and China was no exception. Copper was mixed with lead and tin to form bronze alloys, thus the material hardness increased and the melting point decreased. So the production of bronze became easy, and it gradually replaced stone tools. In this way, metal tools appeared in wars.


image001Figure 2: Bow and arrows in prehistoric warfare

image002Figure 3: Bronze swords

image003Figure 4: Bronze spear

 

Appearance of bronze weapons changed the strength of the battlefield. Bronze spears and bronze pikes defeated weapons like the wooden axe and stick with their hardness. And due to the lack of medicines and defensive tools, bronze weapons could easily cause heavy or fatal injuries to soldiers.

 

During this period, most weapons were still quite simple and basic.

 

Chariot Warfare

With the development of metal forging, chariots joined the history of wars.

image004Figure 5: Illustration of a chariot group

 

The chariot dominated the wars during the ancient eras since its appearance, because soldiers could team up in the chariot with an archer, a pikeman and a warrior. So, the group became a moving fortress that could rank in front of the infantry. It provided long-distance and mid-range attacks, and the opposite infantry could hardly approach the chariot. Although the infantries were also equipped with spears or pikes, unless they had the courage of self-sacrifice they could not stop the chariot; even though the infantry was able to stab the war horse with a sword, the car could still crush the soldiers due to inertia over a short distance.

 

Therefore, in the situation, the fenders and spears became longer and longer till they were about 4 to 5 meters. Archaeologists have unearthed spears and spikes that are up to 6 metres long with Terra Cotta Warriors. These long weapons had been designed precisely against the chariots.

image005Figure 6: Illustration of long pikes

image006Figure 7: Relics from the Terra Cotta Warriors

 

Chinese Crossbow Warfare

When we talk about cold weapons and wars in ancient China, a strong military empire that shouldn’t be ignored is the Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 BC). And the Terra Cotta Warriors are sculptures that were made during the Qin Dynasty rule. They showcase the glories that Qin’s army may have enjoyed in history.

 

The chariots might have been invincible until the invention of the Chinese crossbow.

image007Figure 8: An unearthed Chinese crossbow from the Terra Cotta Warriors

 

As per the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Chinese crossbow was equipped with both a wingman in the cavalry and infantries of the Qin army.

 

In fact, this crossbow is not quite suitable for cavalry, as it is difficult to wind up for the individuals after firing an arrow, especially on the horse. Therefore, the group of hussars with the crossbows was an opportunistic force in wars. When approaching the opponents, they had only one chance to shoot and they could not attack until the arrows had been reloaded. In the absence of stirrups, the cavalry couldn’t be used as an assault force.

 

Consequently, Qin Army's hussars performed the run-and-gun tactics, which meant to wind up, meet the enemy, shoot and quickly proceed to a safe distance to reload and repeat the process. Although the chariot is a moving fortress, it is hard to steer due to its cumbersome structure; the Qin army's hussars could attack chariots from the sides, and the opponent battle arrays would be disrupted. In such a case, Qin’s own infantries and chariots could end the war with a victory.

image008Figure 9: An illustration of an infantry with the Chinese crossbow

 

In order to cooperate with the Chinese crossbow, other weapons of this period were mainly spears that created a distance from swords and knives in close combat. It is noticeable that the development of iron production has replaced the knife with the sword being the main weapon for individual soldiers during this period. And armours were also constructed because of the increasingly mature iron production.

 

Heavy-Armour Warfare

Not long after the Qin Dynasty ended, another prominent military empire took over China, namely the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).

 

The Han Dynasty has a 400-year history, during which the Civil War was continuously happening. Thus, the heavily armed forces with heavy assault, and heavy armour were spawned.

image009Figure 10: Illustration of Han's infantries

image010Figure 11: An illustration of Han's cavalry

 

From the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AC), armours became heavier and more complicated as civilisation and economics touched the high points. The design of weapons and armours kept developing till the firearms were introduced in China.

image011Figure 12: Illustration of Tang's army

image012Figure 13: Illustration of Tang's army

 

Firearm Warfare

Firearms appeared in the Ming-Qing period (1368—1840 AC) of China, and that is when the heavy-amours stepped down in history.

 

Since cannons and guns were introduced in China by the west, heavy armours lost their importance in wars, as they could not provide enough defence against the firearms and the weights significantly slowed down movement.

 

During this period, weapons such as knives, guns, swords, and bows weren’t the main force in war anymore. Although both armours and weapons were traditionally strictly controlled by the government, civilians could possess basic weapons like knives, spears, swords and bows. Amours and crossbows weren't allowed as part of private possession in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD).

 

During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368—1840 AC), cold weapons were no longer the main force of wars. So, the government gradually allowed private possession of some old weapons. And that was when the martial arts and old weapons gradually revived again among civilians.

image013Figure 14: A collection of cold weapons

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