The myths of Shan Wen Kia

Chinese Mountain Pattern Armour
Section of the Ming period scroll painting 'Sou Shan Tu (《搜山圖》)', depicting Chinese war deity Er Lang Shen (二郎神) in a full suit of Shan Wen armour.
The so-called "mountain pattern armour/star scale armour" or Shan Wen Kia (which is a misspelling, correct Pinyin should be Shan Wen Kai or Shan Wen Jia) is a type of scale armour that is (almost) unique to China. However, like many ancient Chinese military equipment, it is shrouded in mysteries and misconceptions. 

In this blog post, I will attempt to clear up some misconceptions regarding mountain pattern armour.

1. No one knows the correct historical name of this armour.
While terms like Shan Wen Jia (山文甲) and Shan Zi Tie Jia (山字鐵甲) can be found in Tang and Song Dynasty records, historical texts provide no explanation nor accompanying drawings. Whenever drawings are present, Song and Ming Dynasty records simply use generic terms such as "body armour" to describe such armour.

In fact, the most probable historical name for mountain pattern armour is actually Suo Zi Jia (鎖子甲), which is also used to denote mail armour (to the confusion of many).

2. There are no surviving examples.
Although mountain pattern armour frequently shows up in Chinese paintings, sculptures and statues, no actual examples survived, which add a lot of difficulties to the reconstruction efforts.

3. It is not strictly unique to China.
While commonly found in China, religious statues depicting mountain pattern armour-wearing guardians can be found across all regions where Buddhism is widely practised such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand.

However, depictions of mountain pattern armour in a non-religious, non-abstract and military context can only be found in China and countries with high degree of sinification such as Korea and Vietnam.

4. Current reconstructions don't work.
Dan Sloane Mountain Pattern Armour
Reconstruction of mountain pattern armour as proposed by Daniel Slone.
One of the more commonly accepted construction method of mountain pattern armour is proposed by Daniel Slone (you can read his article at Armour Archive). However, experiments done in China show that a mountain pattern armour assembled using his proposed method provides almost no protection against arrows. In fact, uneven surface of the armour becomes sort of "arrow-trap", as the strongest part of the scales will deflect/guide the arrow to the weakest part of the armour — the small gap between multiple scales.

Shan Wen Kia Fail
Experiment using the "star pattern" scales. All arrows pierced the armour at the gaps, pushing aside the scales without actually damaging it. Experiment using "mountain pattern" scales yields similar results. Note: The scales used in this experiment were not simply assembled together, they were firmed connected to each other using chain links.
The small gap (circled) is the weakest part of the armour.
Reconstruction efforts in China had produced mountain pattern armour that provides much better protection, although the details of these new reconstructions have not yet been disclosed.

5. It is supposed to be very soft and flexible.
China Skanda Statue
Ming period statue of a Wei Tuo (韋馱) or Skanda in armour, Shuanglin Temple, Shangxi province, China. Note the folded thigh armour.
Shan Wen Kai
Close-up of the folded thigh guard. The upper part of this thigh guard has an arming point that allows the lower part to hook on.
Current reproduction efforts all produced armours that are fairly stiff and inflexible, giving rise to the myth that mountain pattern armour can "shock harden" on impact. This is contradicted by numerous ancient Chinese statues that depict extremely flexible mountain pattern armour.

Chinese mountain pattern armour myth
A Ming period guardian statue, Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Note the highly detailed mountain pattern pauldrons and mail thigh guards.
Some armour enthusiasts in China even suggested that the so-called mountain pattern armour may in fact, simply be the stylistic convention of mail armour. However, there exist statues wearing BOTH mountain pattern armour and mail at the same time, so this is unlikely to be the case.

6. There are more than one type of mountain patter armour.
Variant Shan Wen Kia
Southern Song Dynasty statue of a tomb guardian. Note the breastplate with X-shaped scales.
While "three point star" version of mountain pattern armour is the most common, there are so many variants of this armour that even the most knowledgeable historian in Chinese armour lose count. This in turn add to the complexity of the already difficult reconstruction effort.


  1. Thank you for posting the article Fish scale armour or mountain pattern armour.
    If we were today confused why there were so many different types in statues and even proven by experiment , not as fantastic as it was thought to be. I would not be surprised even back in those ancient of days, the people might just as confused as we are right now. I tend to think after the experiment was conducted, it was just an "artistic' and "easier" to describe and express a real chain armour in real life on to decoration statues, rather being the real thing. Imagine those stone carver artist labouring under the sun and candle lights making carving out of stone to make things look like the real one, they might ended with the ancient version " wrist karpal syndrome" ....

    1. Ancient Chinese sculptors could and did sculpt normal "4-in-1" mail on statues though.

      Personally I think the so-called Shanwen armour is most likely ceremonial armour, although the “unique mail weave pattern” theory is growing on me as well.

    2. I hold the same hypothesis. Since Tang dynasty used other armours more widely, and there was a huge armour improvement in Song, then a steep decline in Ming due to gunpowder, and Shanwen was mainly seen in painting and sculptures as exotic armour, it signifies that it is leaning on being a ceremonial armour than a practical one. That is, of course, not to say it was not practical at some point.

  2. What do they saying about san wen jia in records?

    Just mentioning the name?

    1. Yes, and some vague description like "it is made of iron".

  3. Three thoughts ons this.

    1. While an arrow may be forced into the gap, it will also have spent part of its energy. A backing of leather or cotton may stop the arrow.
    Is this type of armor worse at stopping an arrow than narrow lamelar armor? That has a tendency to 'flip' and let an arrow through, when hit on an edge.

    2. This type of armor looks as if it will be very, very strong versus slashing (sword) or crushing (mace). Maybe the not-so-great stopping of arrows is acceptable?

    3. What if it is not just one layer? If you duplicate and invert an extra layer, the inverted V's will fall into a V, covering the gaps and making it much harder to force the links apart.
    It will probably reduce flexibility though, and definitely make it more time consuming to produce.

    1. @BlackPrince

      1. While true, it is still safer to stop the arrow altogether.

      Since no one actually try it out, I can say which is better.

      2. Any type of metal armour is good against sword slashes, but you may have a point vs blunt weapon.

      3. Many traditional Chinese armours have two layers of breastplate, so this is not limited to Shan Wen Kia.

    2. Could the metal scales be sewn onto a cloth or leather backing? The force of the arrow would be spread out from these weak spots theoughput the material, and the arrow head would have to push apart the plates to the point it tore the leather. That would be much more difficult than breaking a single metal ring.

    3. @Ray
      Yes, that's what was usually done (backing material) if we look at the statues. That being said, normal lamellar also use backing.

    4. Was normal lamellar not designed to be resistant to arrows?

    5. @Ray

      Normal lamellar armours is supposely supremely resistant to arrows.

  4. Where do you get the image? (Testing picture)

    I need a source

    1. I think it was from China's 刀劍天下 (hfsword) forum, but the forum was closed down, so I am unable to locate the original source anymore.

    2. than there is no specific data of that test?

      (like material of star and arrow)

    3. No, as most armour reconstructions or experiments in China are done by enthusiasts rather than professionals or academics, don't expect research paper or anything like that. Best they can do is to shoot a video or something.

      Anyway, whether the test was done with crappy metal matter very little, since the scales were not damaged but pushed aside by arrows.

  5. The test on the picture had lots of flaw. Just like how people test mail using butted ring instead of rivetted. This kind of construction would definetly include a rivet between the piece and the enclosing hardened leather..

    Butted mail as it was used on some ignorant "history" tv show n hobbyist. Were also show the same flaw, the ring act like a "trap" just like this mountain scale.

    But if its was riveted one to the other n the hardened leather side n behind. It will stop a light arrow from a distance.

    But offcourse.. The result will vary base on the type of bow, draw weight, tipe of arrow tip, weight of arrow, distance n angle.. Heavy crossbow with armor piercing tips on short distance would be very different with non composite shortbow

    1. I understand the analogy with the famously flawed butted mail test(s), however unlike mail we don't even know whether historical mountain scales were riveted or not, or how it was riveted.

      Currently known reconstructions (including Armour Archive's riveted Mountain Scale) do not seems to hold out very well.

      There are indeed more recent reconstructions that stand up to arrow test, but details on the construction have yet to come out.

    2. While it is true that we do not know how it was constructed, I think it is safe to say, this was not it. If we want to test any potential practical value of this design, so as to better judge if such armor was indeed used in battle, a questionable and flimsy prototype hardly constitutes much evidence. Rather, an educated Guess would be to sew the pieces in a similar fashion to lamellar armor, as was practiced.

    3. The "filmsy prototype" only serves to demonstrate that "this reconstruction does not work". It does not disprove the armour in general, or whether it is effective.

      By the way, lamellar armour is not sewn together, but laced to each other. There are numerous ways to lace lamellar, but to my knowledge non of them applicable to mountain scale armour, which has drastically different scales.

    4. Sorry, I meant sewn onto a leather backing. I can see that being possible...

    5. @Ray

      Many Chinese lamellar armours have some sort of backing (AFTER the lamellae are laced to each other), so the "directly sew to backing" method will result in an armour that's weaker than normal lamellar armour, which doesn't fit the notion that mountain scale armour was preferred by high-ranking generals.

  6. For the individual "mountain"/"star"-shaped scales, do they necessarily have to be raised angular? I see some examples (albeit reproductions) that they can also be flat. Maybe that contributes to the arrow trap problem?

    It is certainly troubling that no surviving example is found despite being the go-to armor during the Song and at least early Ming.

    1. Not necessarily. There are indeed depiction of both "flat" and "raised" mountain scale.

      There are actually growing supports regarding Mountain Pattern being artistic depiction of mail armour, and its historical name might actually be "Suo Zi jia (鎖子甲)". Then again, there are also hints that ancient meaning of Suo Zi Jia was NOT mail armour, but some sort of lamellar.

    2. I am very interested in these growing supports. Are there any sources present at hand?(if it’s not too much trouble, and yes I can read Chinese)
      If I recall my sources correctly, mail armor was an extreme rarity in China, so it does not really make sense that so many articians would incorporate it in their sculptures. Moreover, it really doesn’t look like mail, artistic or not. It also seems weird to use mail armor as pauldrons( instead of sleeves) when it is flexible and curves around the whole body.


    4. @Ray
      s ss shows you some great evidences.

      Now, the notion of "extreme rarity of mail" is probably based on the fact that hardly any pre-Ming period mail armour survived to present day, although the same can be applied to all Chinese armours in general. Most of the knowledges regarding Chinese armours are based on paintings, sculptures, and historical records.

      Thus, the reasoning goes, if "mountain scale armour" is indeed artistic depiction of mail armour, then past historians misinterpret the evidences and drew the wrong conclusion, so mail was not rare.

      Put it in other word, using the prior conslusion of "mail armour is rare in China" as a premise to challenge/disprove the "mountain pattern = artistic licence mail armour" theory is circular reasoning.

    5. @Ray
      Now you raise a good question regarding pauldrons/sleeves. It does seem weird. However, mail pauldron is not without precedent.

    6. Thankyou for responding.

      I too, am now quite convinced about the mail armor theory. However, is there any knowledge on the design of suo zi jia? Was it a practical design used in battle, or ceremonial? I noticed that the 4th picture is quite different from the previous 3, and may suggests a very different construction of sha wen jia/ suo zi jia.

      In the drawing, there are 3 lines dividing each individual 'star shape' into 3 'L-shape'(s). (I hope you understand what I am saying) While this could represent the angular edges of star-shaped lamellar pieces, it could also be interlocking, 6 in one hexagonal rings, as the name suggests.

      This possible design is unlike designs found in Japan and Europe. It would explain the artistic impressions on statues, and why they differ from other carvings representing mail armor in the pictures of statues provided by s ss. A recreation will also help us better understand the protectiveness and flexibility of this armor.

      I did some research on Japanese armor, and kusari-sode was mentioned several times, so I stand corrected. The idea of mail pauldrons to protect mail sleeves seems.. puzzling. But then again, I am not an expert.

    7. Edit:
      I just saw your article on chain mail armor. Could it be that there were different designs of suo zi jia?

    8. @Ray
      Despite my previous repliles, personally I am not yet fully convinced to the "artistic license mail" theory, merely consider it plausible.

  7. I may be late to the conversation, but I have a few points:
    The arrow test: What type of arrows, arrowheads, bow and pull weight of bow were used?
    Also was that test patch constructed in the same manner as Dan Sloane's method?
    What metal was used for the scales?

    Regarding Dan Sloane's construction method - I have made a functional suit of armor using that method. I had 18g mild steel cut at a metal fab shop and have used that armour for SCA (blunted rattan) heavy combat for the last 8 years. The shoulder guard has seen better days, but the rest of it has held up rather well.
    The oversize shoulder guards were modified to thigh guards and now have been replaced with a skirt and flaps.
    Overall it is very protective when cinched down over my body and has stood up to sword and shield and great weapon combat.
    You can see the full album here:
    And the full kit in action:

    I have not tested any of it against live arrows.

    1. Good day Brian and welcome to my blog.

      Unfortunately tests done in China tend not to be as detailed as those in the West, so a lot of details are not clarified (and the forum with the test result is down).

      If my memory serves, the tester used what he called a "toy bow", a bow with 20~30 lbs pound range for the test. He tested on both Daniel Slone construction and a "three point star" type (as photo) from unspecified range. Can't recall the metal used for armour.

      Please bear in mind that there ARE tests done in China that yield much better result (I mentioned that in my blog post). If there's a test done elsewhere that debunk my point, I'll be all too glad to retract it.

      As for your armour, although there isn't any surviving pieces, the scales on your armour appear to be on the large side. I am glad that to hear that it can stand up to abuse.