5 June 2015

Famous Military Unit of the Ming Dynasty — Tie Ren (鐵人)

Age of Empire 3 Iron Troop
Aftermath of the Siege of Fort Zeelandia, depicting Chinese troops wearing heavy lamellar armour, possibly Tie Ren. Artwork taken from 'Reise nach Java, Formosa, Vorder-Indien und Ceylon' by Albrecht Herport, an artist, soldier of VOC, and witness of the battle.
Tie Ren (鐵人 or 銕人, lit. 'Iron man') were a type of elite heavy infantry that served the legendary Zheng Cheng Gong (鄭成功), known to the West as Koxinga. They were amongst the finest troops Ming loyalists had to offer. Formally known as Wu Wei Zhen (武衛鎮, lit. 'Martial Guard Garrison') and Hu Wei Zhen (虎衛鎮, lit. 'Tiger Guard Garrison'), the formation of Tie Ren was inspired directly by the heavily armoured cavalry of the Qing Dynasty.

Recruitment and training
Tie Ren were only recruited from the strongest men: one must be able to walk three laps around a training field while carrying a three to five hundred catty stone lion (presumably in a manner not dissimilar to modern strongman's stone carry) in order to be eligible for recruitment.

Once recruited, Tie Ren underwent rigorous military training to better prepare them for war. They drilled twice a day in full gear (albeit without wearing their masks, as metal mask can get extremely hot under the sun) with sandbags tied to their legs, and underwent performance assessment every other day, with a particular emphasis on archery.

Chinese scale armour
Fragmented iron scales salvaged from a sunken ship of Koxinga's fleet.
Tie Ren famously wielded Zhan Ma Dao (斬馬刀) as their weapon of choice. They were heavily armoured, wearing an iron helmet, an iron mask painted with terrifying visage, a possibly double-sided (i.e. iron plates wired to both sides of a heavy cotton garment) armoured coat fastened with iron chains, an armoured skirt, armpit armours, armguards and iron boots. Because Tie Ren often served as marines and participated in amphibious assault and boarding action, they often discarded lower limb armours and removed trousers and footwears for ease of movement.
A short, single-edged sword (highlighted) that exhibits many characteristics unique to Southeast Asian dha, such as the very long, rounded hilt and small guard. From 'Jing Guo Xiong Lue (《經國雄略》)', written by Zheng Da Yu (鄭大鬱), a contemporary of Koxinga and follower of Zheng Zhi Long (鄭芝龍), Koxinga's father.
Other equipment of Koxinga's army (although not necessarily by Tie Ren themselves) included bows and arrows, grenadesrattan shields, Ai Pai (挨牌), Gun Bei (滾被), spears and pikes, and a type of sword known as Yun Nan Dao (雲南刀, lit. 'Yunnanese sabre'), presumably inspired by Southeast Asian dha. They also used a type of weapon known as Kuang (鋛) and Ri Ben Kuang (日本鋛), which seems to refer to Japanese yari (鑓).

Organisation and tactics
Tie Ren were organised into left and right Wu Wei Zhen, as well as left and right Hu Wei Zhen, which served a dual role of Koxinga's guards and crack troops. They numbered around three to five thousands initially, although subsequent recruitment increased this number to around ten thousands.

During battle, Tie Ren usually fought in mixed six-man squads consisted of two rattan shieldmen, two pikemen, two Tie Ren wielding Zhan Ma Dao as well as three supporting porters (although they were also armed with spears, they were not counted among the combatants). Each squad could be further divided into two three-man cells that operated independently. Sometimes, pikemen were omitted to include even more Tie Ren.

Every Tie Ren was also an archer. They were usually organised into archer contingent and close combat contingent with a ratio of 4:6.

Soldier par excellence
Such was the fearsome reputation of Tie Ren that they were highly respected by Koxinga's other troops and dreaded by their Manchu and Hollander enemies. They were known to be disciplined, fierce, and fearless to the point of recklessness, and demonstrated many impressive battlefield feats to back up this reputation. Tie Ren had withstood repeated cavalry charges by a superior number of Manchu heavy cavalry, utilised smoke screen to countercharge and defeat said cavalry, ignored seemingly delibilating arrow wounds, and weathered through severe Dutch bombardment without faltering. They were also noted for their skill in archery and ability to maintain good formation order by Dutch witnesses.

In spite of this fearlessness, Tie Ren were not headstrong nor suicidal. They were perfectly willing (and were disciplined enough to be able to) disengage and dive for cover when ordered, either to protect themselves from enemy gunfire, or to take advantage of fire support from nearby friendly artillery.

Nevertheless, while Tie Ren enjoyed prestigious position in Koxinga's army, they never completely shed their piratical roots, and would not hesitate to engage in pillage, rape and massacre when ordered.


  1. can i share and translate it on my facebook?

  2. Do the Tie Ren incorporate other non-Chinese like Japanese and Portuguese, or are they just all-Chinese troop?

    1. Tie Ren were all-Chinese, although Koxinga had foreign troops (former black slaves) serving in other units, such as musketeers.

  3. Do you have any source about this double-sided armor?

    1. Tonio Andrade's Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over the West, from a Dutch withness's description found in the book.

    2. You think that its plausible? Or simple misconception

      any chinese reference to support this?

    3. Plausible? Yes.

      No written Chinese reference, then again, written reference on the construction of Chinese armour was nearly non-existent, even for commonplace armour like brigandine.

      Said Dutch withness personally inspected a suit of armour given to him(and was unimpressed). The likelihood of him exaggerating something he deemed unimpressive was close to none.

    4. Any mention of how plates are attatched on clothes?

      Perhaps different method was used on each side?

    5. The book says iron plates are "fixed with wire on either side" of a heavy cotton cloth.

  4. Does the mask refer to the high collar covering the lower half of their faces or a legit metal mask?

    1. Legit metal mask covering the face entirely.

  5. Hey GMM! I've noticed a lot of recent books and internet dudes claiming that the Tie Ren were inspired almost entirely by samurai, and that due to Koxinga's close connection with various Japanese communities and general Southern/Loyalist Ming sympathies with a lot of Tokugawa-era guys, the Tie Ren were basically trained and supplied by Japanese.



    Are these claims accurate, and what do Chinese netizens/resources say about this? I know this article makes mention of Japanese and Southeast Asian influences as far as weapons go (yari, dha, etc.,) but it doesn't seem to be nearly as extensive as some of the claims that I've linked--either that the Tie Ren were a 'special samurai division' or that their armour/shields/facemasks were a "Chinese spin" on Japanese armour and conventions. The Reddit dude cites Tonio Andrade's "Lost Colony" as evidence for this but I haven't read it.

    1. The Reddit thread is one year old so I don't think there's a need to respond to that.

      The book you linked makes that "special samurai division" claim without citing any source at all. AFAIK, Koxinga did try to borrow troops from Japan a few times, although all of his requests were turned down.

      Cong Zheng Shi Lu (《從征實錄》) explicitly spells out that Tie Ren armours were inspired by captured Manchu armour. Dutch descriptions of Tie Ren armours also don't match with anything the Japanese had (such as helmet with top spike. In fact, if Tie Ren were actually wearing samurai armour, the Dutch would've commented on it).

      Other claims in that book can also be easily falsified - massed heavy polearm infantry was never common in Japan during that period (both samurai and non-samurai mainly used either spears/pikes or guns), and massed sword-and-shield infantry probably never existed in Japan at all. Mixed weapon squad also had a very Southern Chinese flavour, plus Zhanmadao is unlike any Japanese polearms.

      Mask armour obviously existed in China and shouldn't be used as an evidence for Japanese influence. Also, Tiger motif is about as Chinese as you can get.

      I have Tonio Andrade's book, although I need to dig it up from my piles of books to reread it. I don't believe he explicitly mentioned anything about Tie Ren armour being related to/inspired by anything Japanese.

    2. Do note that there are indeed claims about Japanese inspired Tie Ren floating around the Chinese side of the internet - they are unsupported by historical source though.

    3. Thanks for the quick and detailed reply.

      I guessed as much in regards to how well-supported any of those claims were. I think the people that tend to talk about this period of history (late Ming/early Qing/Imjin War) on AskHistorians tend to have really outdated information, though I suppose it's the best they can do for academic sources when English scholarship--at least for the Ming military and things around the topic--seems to just be done by Swope, Andrade, and Peter Lorge as far as I know.

    4. Well, actually Koxinga and chinese ambassadors such as:

      asked for the japanese help, which obviously was turned down by the tokugawa shogunate, which doesn't include japanese mercenaries themselves... I mean how could the tokugawa shogunate even be involved with Japanese mercenaries in indonesia and yamada nagamasa in ayutthaya? They are 2 things completely separate things... nations that never declared war on any side during world war II, still swedish, spanish and Portuguese volunteers joined, which had nothing to do with state support.
      The ming loyalists expected japan to join the manchu war... Several chinese and European ambassadors requested every possible intervention from the pope , korea, southeast asian kingdoms to the tokugawa shogunate. I can only imagine how desperate they were...

      Letter from the Empress Dowager Helena Wang (the "honorary mother"(孝正皇太后王氏) of the Yongli emperor) to the Pope with a request for help. November 1650. Latin translation by Michał Boym:

      Even catholic converts in the royal family:

      BTW there were Japanese visitors and villages in Taiwan before any dutch fort.. They even kidnapped the dutch governor who was taken as prisoner to japan:


      Zheng Zhilong received a letter in 1653 from Koxinga who said that he received "troops from foreign countries like Japan and Cambodia to aid the cause of righteousness." Zheng Zhilong received a letter in 1653 from Koxinga who said that he received "troops from foreign countries like Japan and Cambodia to aid the cause of righteousness." Probably the Japanese nihonmachi in Phnom Penh/Cambodia and japanese forces sent to aid Koxinga were supposed to communicate through Zhu zhiyu

      Southern chinese troops certainly outnumbered any other origin in Taiwan... still Japanese mercenaries would have been employed i mean so many references to Japanese, which doesn't mean they were tia ren, at least not the tia ren described on this post. Koxinga's son Zheng Jing continued the war against the Qing. Both Japanese and Chinese were found in 1670 on jeju after their junk got stranded...

    5. @Henrique

      Japanese mercenaries, if they existed in Koxinga's army at all, were probably so few that they were not mentioned in Chinese and Dutch records. Considering that even the "black-boys", only numbering in the hundreds at best, got some mentions, that's very telling.

      In his letter to his father Zheng Zhilong in 1653, Koxinga wrote that "foreign troops such as Japan and Cambodia will soon arrive". It was a claim/promise, not a statement. Those troops never arrive.

    6. However,given how close Koxinga was to Japan (he had a younger brother that never left Japan), it is very possible that at least SOME Japanese warriors fought in his army.

    7. I did some research after downloading for free "Tonio Andrade's
      Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over the West".
      All it says about is iron men/Tie Ren's relation with the japanese is:

      "His mother was Japanese and his Chinese father was a Portuguese-speaking Catholic. The family fortune came from international trade, which was carried in Chinese junks that incorporated elements of European design. His father employed an African honor guard. Koxinga copied him, creating a force of African soldiers who used Dutch muskets under the command of a Chinese commander who, it seems, enjoyed dressing in European fashions. Similarly, Koxinga’s famous Iron Men wore armor and used tactics influenced by Japanese warfare. It’s no surprise that his final victory over the Dutch was aided by a German sergeant"

      How disappointing, says nothing

      The source for
      "Similarly, Koxinga’s famous Iron Men wore armor and used tactics influenced by Japanese warfare"

      Xing Hang. “Between Trade and Legitimacy, Maritime and Continent: The Zheng Organization in Seventeenth-Century East Asia.” PhD dissertation, University of California Berkeley, 2010.


      On page 70:

      "Heavy, shining armor decorated with intricate patterns and motifs
      covered their bodies, leaving only small openings for the eyes and mouth. During battle, each unit of the division, marked by a flag bearing a distinct animal, specialized in one weapon, which included arquebuses, long swords, and shields. In many ways, the Iron Men’s equipment and battlefield formations reflected the influence of Japanese forms of warfare. Besides the actual power of these warriors, they capitalized upon the fearsome reputation of Japanese fighters and swordsmen throughout coastal East and Southeast Asia."

      I understand the source for this is:

      -計六奇 - 明季南略 

      TWWXCK – Taiwan wenxian congkan 臺灣文獻叢刊 (Taiwan Historical Documentary Collectanea)

      -Taiwan waiji (An Unofficial Narrative of Taiwan), written in 1704 by the Fujianese gentry Jiang Risheng. 江日昇 - 臺灣外記

      -Ishihara Michihiro/石原道博: 明末淸初日本乞 師の研究/Research on the Requests for Soldiers from Japan during the Late Ming and Early Qing Periods. Tokyo: Fuzanbō 冨山房, 1944.

      As 明季南略  is the most firsthand account of all above:

    8. Xing hang, the author of "Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c.1620-1720".

      He states:

      "Ishihara Michihiro,on the other hand, takes an opposing position. He believes that many samurai from Japan actually settled in China and joined Koxinga’s ranks. Of course, his work, written in 1944, contains much speculation, which it uses quite explicitly to advance the agenda of Japanese expansion into East Asia (Ishihara 1944, 57–60). Nonetheless, a close examination of primary sources yields fresh evidence that, while still not entirely conclusive, bolsters Ishihara’s claim and complicates the excellent work of Huang and Carioti*."

      Patrizia Carioti and Huang Yuzhai*

      Link here, page 123

      In other words, the samurai taiwan might Just be all about Japanese world war II propaganda.. we cannot deny that possibility

    9. @henrique

      Thank you for looking for the sources. They are refreshing to read and give new insights on how the claim came about.

      It's odd that Xing Hang cited from Mingji Nanlue (《明季南略》) though, the book (in Chinese) is freely available on wikisource, and the only Japanese item mentioned in it is Koxinga's arquebusiers armed with Japanese matchlocks.

      (That certainly counts as Japanese influence, although using that as a basis to claim samurai influence on Tie Ren is way too far-reaching)

      Taiwan Waiji (《臺灣外記》) is also available on wikisource. Its only mention about Japan is a discussion on how Koxinga planned to supply food for his army with trading ships from Japan (and Luzon, Siam, Jakarta, Vietnam etc).

    10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    11. Thanks for digging into the footnotes and sources, henrique! Really interesting stuff. I guess it's no surprise that a lot of early(?) Japanese adherents of these claims invoked Koxinga to justify their colonial project in Taiwan.

      I've yet to read more on it but I guess a lot of people these days are maybe overestimating Japanese/samurai battle prowess and how much they actually influenced the late Ming or Southern Ming. Maybe it's the lingering influence of Noel Perrin (of course, debunked here and in the past by legit academics when it was released, yet somehow maintained long-lasting influence), or Hawley/Turnbull (not that Swope is without error!).

  6. Koxinga's victory over the Dutch East India Company was well received in Tokugawa Japan, in the 1700's a popular puppet and kabuki play was made and it endured into the 1800's too:


    1. I am aware of that. The plays were made in part for propaganda purpose and emphasised the Japan-ness of Koxinga while downplaying his Chinese heritage.

  7. Thank you so much, you gonna help me defeat the Dutch and the Manchu in a role-playing mapgame I'm playing, your post is really useful lol.

  8. Sorry to bombard you with a bunch of questions:
    Do you know which sources mention the use of “Kuang” and “Riben Kuang” by Koxinga’s troops? Were these weapons Yari purchased along side arquebuses in Japan?
    In a lot of online sources and the now defunct China History forum, a lot of people mention that Koxinga’s Tieren used “Yunnan Zhanmadao”. I haven’t been able to find any primary/contemporary sources mentioning this name. I vaguely remember reading many years ago on the old forum that the name Yunnan had nothing to do with the region but was rather just a name. Another fact thrown around was the use of Dha by Zheng troops, though aside from the illustration in the 經國雄略, I haven’t found any sources mentioning this. Are people conflating the Zhanmadao in the 經國雄略 and possible uses of Dha-like sabers?

    1. Mentions of Kuang came from 《鄭氏史料續編》.

      The context of the record is that Qing troops captured a Zheng ship (beached by storm) and found those items on the ship. So we don't know how they acquired the weapons.

      Both "Yunnan dao" and "Zhanmadao" can be found in records, sometimes listed separately, sometimes listed together as "Yunnan Zhanmadao". I am more inclined to believe that they are two different weapons, since "Zhanmadao" had a specific meaning during Ming period, and match with Dutch records about Tie Ren weapons.

      "Yunnan dao" as a Dha-inspired weapon is a speculation on my part, although the illustration from 《經國雄略》does resemble Dha, and Yunnan is indeed the region where dha can be found.

    2. Also Yunnan dao was also recorded separately from Yao Dao (waist sabre), that is, typical Chinese sabre.


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