Ming Chinese cavalry tactics

Section of the Ming Dynasty scroll painting 'Ping Fan De Sheng Tu (《平番得勝圖》)', depicting Ming cavalry chasing rebel horsemen.
Although titled "Ming Chinese" cavalry tactics, most of the tactics in this article were also used by Mongols and Manchus. For the most part, tactics employed by Chinese cavalry were not particularly unique, but undoubtedly effective.

Combined shock and melee
"(They) lined (their army) into 'One' and 'Two' ideograph formations. (They) used the 'One' ideograph formation to charge, and 'Two' ideograph formation to continue combat."
— Quan Bian Lue Ji (《全邊略記》)

"Li Cheng Liang (李成梁) personally lead the 'One' ideograph formation, using firearms, rockets, sabres, lances, bows and arrows at the same time. 'Two' ideograph formation (then) advanced by the sound of war drums."
— Quan Bian Lue Ji (《全邊略記》)

Also mentioned in my 100th post rambling, Chinese did not distinguish between different types of cavalry, or between cavalry and mounted infantry. This thinking was also reflected on their tactics, as cavalry and mounted infantry operated in tandem with each other.

Cavalry from Liao Dong (遼東, present-day Liaoning) Garrison usually deployed in two battles: the vanguard, consisted of cavalry and usually elites, and the rearguard, which consisted of mounted infantry. During battle, Liao Dong cavalry would mount a frontal charge at their enemy. Their charge was always accompannied by a shower of arrows, rockets and gunfires, launched from the cavalry themselves. Once the cavalry impacted on their enemy, mounted infantry would follow up from behind and support their comrade in close combat.

Other Ming generals deployed their cavalry very differently. Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光), for example, employed dragoons (mounted arquebusiers) in addition to cavalry and mounted infantry.

Repeated charge
"Every time when cavalry encounter infantry, (they can) withdraw for several zhang, then whip the horses to charge forward. (If) enemy formation is disrupted slightly, (then) they can take advantage and press the attack, (causing) the infantry to kill each other (amidst the chaos). The cavalry can then slaughter with impunity, thus (they) always come out victorious.”

A large all-cavalry force would usually deploy into several battles and take turns to charge at their enemy. If enemy stood firm, the cavalry would withdraw and regroup slowly (without actually impact against enemy formation) before attempting another charge. This process could be repeated ad infinitum, until the enemy either flee or provoked into breaking ranks and pursue the cavalry. To reduce fatigue, every cavalryman was given more than one horse.

There were very few infantry counters to this tactics due to the versatility of medium cavalry that could harass and deliver shock equally well. Foot archer and arquebusiers could be run down with impunity, while pikemen and other close combat troops could be withered down by arrows and gunfires. It was likely that Chinese infantry put great emphasis on countercharging enemy cavalry in order to prevent this tactics to be used against them.

Hollow out the nest
Ming border cavalry routinely conducted Tao Chao (掏巢, lit. 'Hollow out the nest') operations against the Mongols. Tao Chao was a type of lightning raid aimed to pillage and destroy the dwellings or salt sources of nomads, essentially turning the nomadic tactics of the Mongols against them. Since Mongols did not settle in one place for long, an effective intelligence network was required to locate their dwellings and relay the intelligence back to Ming border garrisons in a timely manner.

This tactics was highly effective against the Mongols, as nomadic people was less capable of recovery from a sudden catastrophe than settled communities. A successful raid could force the Mongols to immediately relocate or risk severe starvation, and seriously hamper their ability to perform raid on Ming borders. Nevertheless, it sometimes incur the wrath and vengeance of the Mongol tribes.

Other similar tactics include Gan Ma (趕馬, lit. 'Chase away the horses', i.e. stealing horses from the Mongols as well as dispersing their herd) and Shao Huang (燒荒, lit. 'Burning off the wildlands', i.e. burn away potential pastures, especially during winter).


  1. why they don't use lance as western knight did

    do they wielding a guandao (or similar type polearm)?

    p.s Where do you get banner image? can you tell me the original source?

    1. They did use lance, although lance was not universally used, usually wielded with two hands. Couched lance charge was known by the Mongols and Qing, but did not see much use.

      They did use guandao and other polearms, again not universal though.

      Spears and polearms probably make mounted archery more difficult.

      If you mean the image in this blog post, it is 《平番得勝圖》.

    2. European saddle and overall equipment is contradictory to effective archery, thus it was a "no-go" solution for most peoples.
      As far as I understand, only pre 15th century Russian principalities used horse archery with European equipment as Standart, and as soon as Moscow military was remodelled against mongols by mid-15th century(with archery in mind) - it was instantly dropped.(and decisively won against Novgorod, which fought still using "traditional" semi-western equipment).
      On the other hand, late Byzantine heavy cavalry essentially lost bows when it was modelled after European knights.

      It isn't like there was any secret to it - say, Balkan peoples in Ottoman army used European equipment(be it knights or early hussars) just as fine.

  2. no i wast talking about your site banner the image on the upward

    p.s if calvary use gaundao did they use it like a lance?

    1. Attempt to use any pole weapon without proper(read - European) saddle will send you flying on impact(at best).
      Transferring full kinetic energy of charging Knight through a tiny tip of a Lance isn't as simple as it seems :-)

    2. Well, there are depictions of Mongol? horseman couched charge while sitting on steppe-style short saddle. It isn't as optimised as European version for couched lance, but it is doable.


      Otherwise, use both hands. Literally everyone before the age of knight, and many after that, used lance or polearms on horseback that way.

    3. Yes, but two hands it will still be a thrust. Same with the spear below.

      Everyone actually fought differetly, even among themselves. But main strength of heavy cavalry isn't a spear to begin with.
      It's in hooves and mass.

    4. You can also used a chopping polearm on horseback with two hands.

      It actually confers some advantages over using a sword/sabre, in that you have longer reach, can attack either side of you, and can attack opponent's horse without exposing yourself too much in a horseman vs horsman melee.

  3. @s ss
    You mean the blog header? That's cropped from 《帝王道統萬年圖》, not actually a painting but an illustrated codex. You can easily find the whole book in Wikimedia Commons.

    No, they slashed with Guandao. You can actually learn more about Guandao usage on horseback through 마상월도 section on Muyedobotongji. No Chinese horseback Guandao system survived to the present day, AFAIK.

  4. Hi, it's always me :D
    May I ask if there is any references of the dimensions of Ming warhorses? Did they also used Mongolian horses?

    1. Good day. I haven't study deep into the horse stuffs yet, so I can't give you a definitive answer.

      Ming horse breeds shouldn't be very different in size compared to Mongolian horse.