The myths of Shan Wen Kia

Ming Dynasty Shan Wen Kia
Section of the Ming Dynasty scroll painting 'Chu Jing Tu (《出警图》)', depicting armoured guards on parade. The guardsman in the middle is wearing a so-called Shan Wen Kia. 
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.


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 moutain pattern armour-wearing guardians can be found across all regions where Buddhism is widely practiced 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 heavily sinitized countries 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 yield similar result. 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 better protection against arrows (but yet to achieve "practical battlefield armour" standard), although the details of these new reconstructions have not been disclosed.

Note: This presuppose historical mountain pattern armour was indeed used as practical battlefield armour.


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 armour. The upper part of this thigh armour 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.

Some armour enthusiasts in China even suggested that the so-called mountain pattern armour might in fact, simply be the stylistic convention of mail armour.


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.

13 comments:

  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" ....

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    Replies
    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.

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    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.

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

    Just mentioning the name?

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

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  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.

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    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.

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

    I need a source

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    Replies
    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.

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

      (like material of star and arrow)

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    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.

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  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

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    Replies
    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.

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