Lamellar and scale armours of the Ming Dynasty

For most of China's history, lamellar armour and, to a much lesser extent, scale armour were the most widely used armour types in Chinese armies. The use of lamellar armour declined during Ming period, having given way to the more convenient yet no less protective brigandine. Nevertheless, it never disappeared completely from Chinese arsenal.

Generally speaking, there were several different styles of lamellar or scale armour in use during Ming period.

Traditional Song Dynasty-style "Ornate" Armour
Traditional Song Dynasty Ornate Armour
Section of an early Ming Dynasty religious scroll painting, depicting a Chinese general in an ornate suit of composite armour. Shanxi Museum.
This type of armour is one of the most recognisable of Chinese armours, and is usually reserved for the highest ranking generals and Jin Yi Wei (錦衣衛). It can be of either lamellar, scale, mountain pattern or even mail construction, or a composite of multiple types. As this type of armour is often ornamental in nature, it is usually made of bronze or gilded iron/steel. Field armour of this style also existed, but never common.

While Ming armour followed the design and aesthetic of Song armour very closely, they were not completely identical. The development of extremely long hanging loin armour know as Hu Wei (鶻尾, lit. 'Falcon tail') was unique to Ming Chinese.

Traditional Song Dynasty-style "Cataphract" Armour
Ming Chinese Cataphract Armour
Section of the scroll painting 'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)' currently kept at the University of Tokyo, depicting a Ming general and his retinue.
Plainer and more practical version of the above armour, this armour was widely used during Song period, both by the Chinese and their Khitan and Jurchen enemies. It was later adopted by the Mongols, and nowadays this armour is more associated with Mongols rather than Chinese.

One of the most prominent characteristics of this armour is the crossed straps on the chest to fix the pauldrons in place. Most armours of this type feature exposed straps, although the straps can be hidden beneath torso armour as well. Some pauldrondesigns also feature extra chest plates to cover the straps. Unlike the ornate armour, this type of armour uses lamellar construction exclusively.

This armour was used by Ming Chinese in limited numbers from early to mid Ming period, and possibly later. It was probably more common in South China than in the North (due to South China being less exposed to Mongol influence). The face-covering heavy helmet that usually accompany this armour was no longer widely used though.

Traditional Song Dynasty-style Liang Dang Jia (兩當甲)
Ming Chinese Light Lamellar Breastplate
Section of scroll painting 'Guan Yu Qin Jiang Tu (《關羽擒將圖》)', depicting two Guan Yu's subordinates in Liang Dang Jia.
Liang Dang Jia (兩當甲, can be written as 裲襠甲) is a simple armour that only protects the chest, abdomen, and back of its wearer, while leaves the shoulder (and sometimes flanks) vulnerable. It probably serves as a "base" armour of sorts that can be quickly upgraded into other types of armour by adding extra components such as spaudlers, thigh armour, and extra breastplate.

During Song period, this type of armour was used by the rank and file. It was rarely used by Ming Chinese, which seem to preferred waistcoat type instead.

Transition into Ming Dynasty-style armour
The ninety-seven year long Mongol rule of China had introduced many changes to Chinese culture. Among other things, a type of collarless, sleeveless single-breasted coat known as Bi Jia (比甲) was developed during Yuan period and became fashionable among women during Ming period. Bi Jia eventually developed into a male version known as Zhao Jia (罩甲) during Ming period.

Zhao Jia was used as military uniform (although civilians quickly imitated the design), and soon developed into actual armour. Both armours described below, as well as their more common brigandine counterparts, are all variations of Zhao Jia.

Ming Dynasty "Long Coat" Armour
Section of the Ming Dynasty scroll painting 'Chu Jing Tu (《出警圖》)', depicting Ming cavalrymen in long lamellar coat.
Also known as Chang Shen Da Jia (長身大甲, lit. 'Long body great armour'), this style of armour is essentially the same as Ming brigandine, except with armour plates on the surface of the coat rather than beneath it. It can be made of bronze or iron, and of either lamellar, scale or mountain pattern construction. Field armour of this type was almost inevitably iron lamellar suit.

This armour was commonly but not exclusively used by chosen elites, officers and generals. Nevertheless, it was sometimes criticised for being too expensive and very hard to maintenance.

Minor variations of the long coat armour. From left to right: Sleeveless long coat, cap sleeve long coat, sleeveless long coat with armguards, cap sleeve long coat with armguards, long coat with spaudlers reminiscent of Song Dynasty armour. The spaudler version seems to be used exclusively for parade and ceremonial duties.

Ming Dynasty "Waistcoat" Armour
Ming Chinese lamellar waistcoat armour
Section of early Ming Dynasty painted scroll 'Zhen Wu Ling Ying Tu (《真武靈應圖》)', depicting a standard bearer in short lamellar waistcoat.
Also known as Qi Yao Jia (齊腰甲, lit. 'Waist-length armour'), this armoured waistcoat is essentially a shorter counterpart to "long coat" armour. It was commonly used by foot soldiers.

Other Armours
Other less common lamellar and scale armours are covered in the following blog posts:

Leather (and other animal-derived) armours of the Ming Dynasty
Scale armours from 'Yu Zi Shi San Zhong Mi Shu Bing Heng'
Fan Jiang Hun Hai Fei Bo Shen Jia


  1. Did Koxinga's Iron man armor resemble any of this?

    1. @Alex
      Judging from the picture and comparing Dutch and Chinese texts, both long coat and waistcoat version were used. Waistcoat version was worn together with apron thigh armor.

    2. However, do note that Iron Troops were copying Manchu armour rather than using Chinese ones (then again Manchu themselves copied from the Chinese).

    3. Hi, would you rate the Koxinga Iron Men armour superior / heavier compared to contemporary Ming or Qing armour? Though I heard they would remove arm and leg protection due to the amphibious nature of their operations.

    4. @Jayson
      The armour of Tie Ren was well made, but not significantly heavier than contemporary Chinese armour. Recorded weight for the full suit is 30 catties, or 41 lbs/18kg.

      That being said, weight of armour only influences the protective quality of armour to a limited extend. Armour coverage and the quality of metal are far more important.

      Yes, they would discard arm and leg protection for amphibious operations. Chinese source records that they also retired the mask, although Dutch witness still encountered masked Koxinga troops afterward.

    5. So the Tie Ren's legendary status was due to their fighting ability, tactics, and morale.

    6. True.

      Then again, please keep in mind that their armour was considered quite heavy by 17th century/South China/infantry standard. Most contemporary infantries (from a global perspective) would be unarmoured.

  2. Were they riveted on cloth?

    1. AFAIK, no. Unlike brigandine plates, lamellar and scale plates are laced, not riveted.

  3. Is there any surviving artifact ?

    Was it one piece style?

    1. AFAIK there's a waiscoat parade armour of some Emperor (Wanli?), and a "cataphract" style survived in disassembled state. There's also news of a “V-neck” armour recently being restored, although its details have yet to be disclosed.

  4. were they looking like tibetean and mongole lameller coat?

    1. Umm, yes, sort of. These cultures basically cross-influencing each other.

      Tibetan lamellar suit does bear similarities to Ming lamellar, particularly the sleeveless long coat type.

      Too few Mongolian lamellar armour survived for me to make a comment.

  5. Is this one accurate?

    1. Yes, that particular armour is very good for a TV show prop, if you ignore the obviously plastic material, wrong way of assembling lamellar on his thigh armour, and the overly large arm hole.

      This suit heavily referenced Wanli Emperor's parade armour from 出警图.

  6. Than it is a one piece armor?

  7. @s ss
    Which one? The TV prop?

    The TV prop is apparently two-piece, although I can't tell just from one picture. Most armour in 出警圖 are one piece though.

  8. Would there be any overlap in the front of the waistcoat armor? If not it seems kind of vulnerable to have an opening running down the middle of your torso.

    1. No AFAIK, or it only overlaps slightly and thus not visible. This is apparently of no concern to warriors of old, as front-opening armour existed across all cultures.

    Somewhat related though the armor is specifically Han Dynasty. Tests against cloth, leather scale, mail, and lamellar armor vs. mace, sword, spear and arrows.

    1. While cool to watch, those tests are not done on historically accurate armours (i.e. butted mail and all that), so don't take it too seriously.