4 November 2015

100th Post: Some ramblings and random thoughts on Ming Chinese armies in tabletop wargaming

It has been over a year since I start writing this blog. I originally wrote this blog as a means to reorganise my thoughts on the Ming Dynasty military (it's a long learning process, and I still learn something new everyday), with the added bonus of disclosing the relatively obscure and largely untranslated Chinese sources to the world at large (or whoever that might be interested). Over the time I started to find interest in tabletop wargaming, reenactment and martial arts, but to date I haven't joined any of these, as it is really hard to find a shop that sells miniatures, or a friend to play with, or a reenactment group, at the place I am living.

That being said, I did read a couple of wargaming rulebooks and army books, and seen the currently available miniatures (not that there are many to begin with). I think I have some (arguably extremely limited, and probably full of errors) grasps on how a Ming Chinese army is played on the tabletop, and I think “they are doing it all wrong”.

Random thoughts on Ming Chinese army in wargaming

1. Wear some shoes!
Wargame Ming China
These barefooted and unarmoured guys are supposed to be the general's bodyguard.
I always have the urge to flip some tables in a flying rage whenever I see the depictions of barefooted Chinese troops. I blame Osprey.

Shoes and socks were not rare nor expensive in China. The poorer class usually wore shoes and puttees, while the more prestigious ones wore black-coloured (riding) boots.

There's of course exception to the rule. Chinese troops sometimes fought barefooted during amphibious operations or in muddy environments. In this case it has nothing to do with the availability of footwear, as even the elite Tie Ren (鐵人) discarded their boots.

2. Chinese troops are either too lightly or too heavily armoured, or wearing the wrong kind of armour.
Ming Troopers Figures
Ming troopers wearing vaguely Song Dynasty-style (unhistorical) lamellar armours.
Most Ming Chinese miniatures that I've seen depicts Ming troops as either wearning nothing but his day-to-day clothes or clad in outdated Song Dynasty-style heavy lamellar armour. Accurate portrayal of the looks of Ming army is a big topic worthy of a separate blog post, but as a general rule of thumb, Ming troops from South China wore paper and leather armour, while Ming troops from North China wore cotton armour, brigandine and mail. Even unarmoured troops usually wore some kind of surcoat as military uniform. Lamellar armour was reserved for officers and generals.

Song Dynasty-style lamellar armour only works for very early Ming period (think Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Ming army in South China also retained Song Dynasty-style lamellar armour for much longer.

3. Chinese armies are not exotic.
Chinese Warrior Tourist Attraction
These actors in funny costume certainly do not help matters.
Do not let the hundreds of wonderfully exotic weapons in this blog (and elsewhere) fool you. Chinese made war in pretty much the same way like everybody else. Staple weapons like spears and pikes, swords, bows, crossbows, guns and cannons were the weapons that win war, not the exotic Green Dragon Crescent Blade or angry exploding birds. Even rockets were relatively uncommon due to their rather short shelf life.

With some tweaking, late medieval Burgundian Ordonnance or Hussites can be used as a "count-as" Ming Chinese army passably. Of course, Joseon Koreans are, to some extent, "Ming Chinese-lite", so they count as well.

4. Too many crossbow, especially repeating crossbow.
Ming Chinese Crossbowman
Ming crossbowmen, from a handscroll recently discovered in Guizhou. 
As previously mentioned in my blog post regarding Ming crossbow, Ming army did not field crossbowmen in any significant number (quite unlike their Song Dynasty ancestors). Crossbowmen were generally relegated to camp guard duties, used in ambushes, or as supplement to firearm troops or archers.

A crossbow-heavy Ming army is best represented by an auxiliary-focused force such as Lang Bing (狼兵).

5. Underrepresented pike.
Ming Chinese Pikemen
Section of the scroll painting 'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)' currently kept at the University of Tokyo, depicting Ming pikemen.
This might have something to do with the "Wushu spear" commonly seen in martial arts performances or Wuxia movies, giving rise to the misconception that Chinese spears are light and short. In actuality, Chinese military spear can be very long, certainly no shorter than the weapon used by Landsknecht or Tercio pikemen. I for one wouldn't call a 15 to 18.8 foot long Chang Qiang (長槍) "light spear".

Chinese pikemen usually fought in pike formation like their European counterparts (not everyone was trained to be part of a Mandarin Duck Squad). The difference between a Chinese pike formation and a Gewalthaufen or Spanish Tercio is unknown.

Liuhe Daqiang
A practitioner of Da Qiang. Modern Da Qiang is only about ten feet long, which is considered short by Ming Dynasty standard.
As a side note, Chinese pike known as Da Qiang (大槍, great spear) is still practised by some Wushu schools today, but rarely seen outside China or Taiwan. One particular form of note is the Liu He Da Qiang (六合大槍, lit. 'Great spear of six harmonies') of the Bajiquan tradition.

6. Too many "Heavy Weapon" or polearms.
No, glaives wasn't THAT common. (Source: Fanaticus Forum)
To put it simply, Song Chinese army employed heavy axes and glaives to counter the heavily armoured cataphracts of Liao, Jin and Western Xia. Ming Chinese never had to face the same armoured foes like Song Chinese (Except the Manchus. However they had guns now, so it wouldn't matter), so these heavy polearms were retired from their arsenal.

The most common non-spear polearms in a Ming army were Lang Xian (狼筅) and Tang Pa (鎲鈀), neither of which should be classified as heavy weapon. Zhan Ma Dao (斬馬刀) was employed with some regularity as well, but mostly reserved for elite troops (or troops that had some training, at the very least).

Speaking of Lang Xian, it was such an integral part of Ming Dynasty infantry tactics, yet I have not seen a single wargame rule that do it justice.

7. Too many spear-and-shield or polearm-and-shield.
The paint job is superb, though. (Source: Fanaticus Forum)
A pike or heavy glaive is not something one can swing around with one hand.

Rattan shield was always used together with a sword, but Ai Pai (挨牌) could be used in conjunction with a two-handed weapon such as Gou Lian Qiang (鉤鐮鎗), although in practise this was rarely done. Sometimes a soldier with Ai Pai would forgo his weapon altogether. On the other hand, a swordsman always brought his shield with him.

Speaking of shield......no, that white shield with a stupid tiger face painted by a three year old, courtesy of Osprey Publishing, is not historical at all.

8. War wagons are non-existent.
Ming Chinese Laager
Wagon fort as designed by general Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光). From 'Lian Bing Za Ji (《練兵雜紀》)'.
Even though the Chinese practically invented the wagon fort tactics, war wagons are suspiciously absent from most Chinese armies on the tabletop. In reality war wagons formed a very significant portion of Ming army (as well as Jurchens and early Manchu army), especially in North China.

Note: Ming Dynasty Pian Xiang Che (偏廂車) only has two wheels, so it should be called a war cart instead of war wagon. However "cart fort tactics" just sounds so wrong.

9. Some remarks on Ming cavalry.
Ming Chinese Armoured Cavalry
Section of the Ming Dynasty scroll painting 'Ping Fan De Sheng Tu (《平番得勝圖》)', depicting Ming cavalry chasing rebel horsemen.
Chinese did not divide their mounted force into different units with relatively clear-cut roles such as lancer, dragoon, harquebusier or pistolier. A typical Ming cavalryman was an armoured horse archer, but was expected to function as shock cavalry, (dis)mounted archer, (dis)mounted infantry or dragoon. Sometimes, light cannons were brought along as well.

And that's before I bring out the mounted version of Mandarin Duck Formation.

Sabre (instead of lance) seems to be the preferred close combat weapon of Ming cavalry. Horse armour was rarely, if ever, used.

10. Light artillery.
Ming Chinese Artillery
Ming artillerymen and musicians, from a mural section in Fire God's Temple, Yongningzhen, Yanqing, China.
The real forte of the Ming army. Chinese cannons were generally inferior and lighter than their European counterparts, but they deploy more cannons in higher concentration to compensate.

A rough comparison can be drawn between the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, where a 41, 300 strong Swedish-Saxon force of Gustavus Adolphus deployed four 24-pdr demi-cannons, eight 12-pdr cannons, one 6-pdr regimental gun and forty-one 3-pdr regimental guns, plus about twenty cannons from the Saxon side (add another forty-eight guns if we count the Saxon artillery train that did not made it to the battlefield on time), whereas Ming Dynasty during the later phase of the Imjin war mobilised about 70, 000 to 90, 000 personnel (roughly twice the number of Swedish-Saxon force), some 1, 224 heavy cannons (roughly ten times the number of Swedish-Saxon artillery, or five times if numbers are equalised), with even more unaccounted lighter pieces.

While the numbers are impressive, a Ming "heavy cannon" is only roughly comparable in weight to a Swedish 6-pdr regimental gun (at best), while being shorter ranged and less powerful. Chinese cannons are also less manoeuvrable (in fact, Chinese cannons become more or less static once deployed) than European cannons of the same weight class.

11. Rocket.
Rocket Siege Concept Art
Not historical, but epic nonetheless. Art by He Qun.
While Ming Chinese did not have direct equivalent of heavy artillery (until they adopted Western cannon in the early seventeenth century), I think rocket weaponry makes for a decent substitute. A rocket does not have the destructive power of a heavy cannon, but it does have vastly superior volume of fire to compensate, and Chinese could manufacture lots of them should they decided to use it. Ming army deployed about 171, 000 rockets during the course of Imjin war. Unlike cannonballs, they were (probably) expected to spent every last bit of these rockets (there's no reason to be stingy on something that has a shelf life of two years, at best) during the war.

One prevalent misconception about Ming Dynasty rocket weaponry is that these primitive rockets were primarily used to scare people or horses. This cannot be further from the truth. Chinese rockets were designed to kill (also maim, blast, burn, blind, choke, and poison, but mostly kill). They were extremely dangerous and should not be underestimated.

Korean records even describe in graphic detail about a Japanese troop being burned to death after he was hit by a Chinese incendiary rocket during Imjin war. Several of his comrades also perished with him when they inevitably catch fire trying to help the victim. Some of them even tried to make a dash for the nearby river, but none of them managed to reach it before being consumed by fire..


  1. I concur,I find it strange how the Osprey's have access or even quote military manuals such as 《武備志》,yet their pictures look quite sloppy and also reflected in army lists where misconceptions such as peasant hordes,repeating crossbows etc.

    The Imjin War is another subject where wargamers parrot information from secondary sources while primary sources such as 《經略復國要編》 ,《神宗實錄》 ,《兩朝平攘錄》 are conveniently ignored.

    It doesn't help that Ming armaments in the 絵本朝鮮軍記,絵本朝鮮征伐記,絵本太功記 etc. are taken at face value.

  2. Off topic,but do you know when the segmented arm guards depicted in 《平番得勝圖》,《明人畫出警入蹕圖》 were replaced by vambraces or brigandine spaudlers in the 《滿洲實錄》?

  3. @Wansui
    Probably because a book with lots of sketches/pictures is easier to absorb than a book with nothing but text...

    Exact date is beyond me, but the transition from Ming-style brigandine (with armguards) to Qing-style brigandine (spaudlers) seems to occur during the last years of the Ming Dynasty, if the few surviving late Ming brigandines are any indication.

    Some armours on 《出警入蹕圖》also have spaudlers, but spaudlers were rarely worn together with armguards during Ming period, unlike Qing Dynasty. However 徐光啟 did mention spaudlers and armguards together in his suggested (idealized?) loadout of a Ming arquebusier.

    Some Qing brigandines, such as the armour of Nurachi, or the ceremonial armour of Emperor...Kangxi of Qianlong (can't remember), retained the metal armguards as well.

  4. @春秋战国
    I assumed that if Osprey's used《武備志》as a reference they would use other texts with pictures such as 《兵錄》,《四鎮三關志》etc.

    Osprey's "Pirate of the Far East:811-1639" references the 《抗倭圖卷》 as well as the 倭寇図巻 yet they fail to use it as reference material for their drawings.

    Thanks for the explanation,I assume during that time frame Ming started transitioned from a single piece brigandine/lamellar/scale armor to a separate upper body vest/apron thigh guard?

    iirc the Qing armor with the segmented arm guard belonged to Nurhaci while other ceremonial armors had the brigandine spaudlers/armguards.

    Is there a source on what rank each individual helmet tassels/plumes/flags/tridents corresponded to or is 《大明會典》my best bet?

  5. I forgot to include this in my last post,but is there any reason why there is a lack of armpit/groin guards for Ming brigandine?

  6. @Wansui
    To my knowledge《兵錄》and《四鎮三關志》are fairly obscure sources, so I am not sure if the Osprey author had access to them. That being said, about half of Ming military treatises are simply copies of each other.

    The quality of Osprey images very much depend on the illustrator as well. Some are better than the others.

    I believe the separate vest-apron brigandine appeared earlier than that. If you look hard enough, you can find soldiers with only upper body brigandine in 《平番得勝圖》,especially on the guys kneeling at the center of the picture (they exposed their dress beneath the armour, which shouldn't happen if that armour is a knee-length long coat). Some other artworks depicts apron-like armour(?) worn together with vest brigandine as well, albeit smaller than the Qing version.

    That surviving Ming brigandine I mentioned earlier does have attachment points for groin and armpit guard, but the pieces themselves are missing. That said, because the style is so similar, it is hard to discern whether that particular armour belongs to the Ming or Qing.

    I am not aware of any source(s) of army ranks, maybe I haven't look hard enough.

  7. @春秋战国 s

    I should have clarified what kind of brigandine I was referencing,the rank and file cavalry《平番得勝圖》with the single piece brigandine(in the 罩甲 style).

    Thanks for reminding me of the command figures,it seems like some of them have an extra skirt that is also shown on the unarmored archers.

    Maybe groin/armpit guards were for higher ranking officers,I recall that Yuan brigandine already had those innovations,while the Song had lamellar groin guards as well.

  8. @Wansui
    The apron (non-armoured kind) was known as 行裳 in Qing period《皇朝禮器圖式》. I don't know how it was called during the Ming period though.

    Yuan brigandine is a trippy topic too, as the so-called "Yuan brigandine" kept at Yuan Invaders Historical Museum at Japan is most likely a Qing brigandine.

  9. >>"The real forte of the Ming army. Chinese cannons were generally inferior and lighter than their European counterparts, but they deploy more cannons in higher concentration to compensate."

    There's a not-too-long thread on Historum where it's argued that the Ming dynasty's cannons were ahead of Europe in terms of field artillery, and even for a time they may have been ahead in siege artillery:

    "In the field of artillery, the idea that European armies were ahead is also simplistic. First, heavy cannons were rarely adopted for battlefield and was more of a siege weapon. The Spanish were the first to mount cannons on wheels and their cannons were usually no more than a heavy shotgun. Yet in the area of light artillery for field combat, the Chinese arguably outperformed the Europeans. It is highly probable that Chinese units since the late Ming had more cannons per personnel than European armies down to the 18th century, the Ming soldiers were already commonly equipped with field cannons in the Imjin war (something which I have yet to come across when reading l6th century European warfare). Typical Chinese infantries had 10 cannons per 1,000 soldiers in the 17th and 18th century whereas Europeans only had 1 and at most 6 again under the reforms of Gustavus.

    Ming field cannons were behind in heavy cannons for siege but were probably better designed than their European counterparts in light artillery. In 1585, Juan de Mendoca described Ming cannon as "of huge greatness, and better made than ours".
    Furthermore in the wars against Li Zicheng's rebellion in the 1630s, gazeteers of Suzhou showed that gunners using telescope to spot targets, which predates its use in Europe. In the 1620s, even in the field of heavy artillery, the Ming caught up when they introduced large Hongyi cannons and briefly surpassed European designs when they created lighter iron cored cannons."


  10. @Andy
    I've read that forum post, but the claims are simply untrue (and overly pro-Ming if you ask me).

    1) Charles the Bold had effective wheeled field gun carriage before the Spaniards, and someone in the 14th century probably had it earlier than him. Simply putting wheels on a cannon does not make an effective gun carriage.

    2) It was the MING cannons that were nothing more than giant shotgun. Without wheeled gun carriage to boot.

    3) Ming Chinese "cannon" could be anything from glorified handgonne to swivel gun to organ gun. Most (I am talking late Ming) were organ guns, with some robinet or serpentine-equivalent, with a few particular heavy ones as falcon-equivalent.

    European records seldom take into account the numbers of organ guns or very light pieces in their "cannon count" (sometimes even regimental guns were ignored), so the numbers are lower than it should be.

    4) European already had light cannon DECADES before Gustavus. Gustavus Adolphus's reform wasn't about inventing new, lighter cannon, it was about reorganizing his army so that there were light cannons following his infantry regiments around and add to the firepower.

    As Ming did not have effective field carriage (with some notable but rare exceptions, see my other blog posts), they couldn't implement reform like Gustavus's.

    5) Juan González de Mendoza never set foot on Chinese soil. His account is hardly trustworthy (he wrote his book at Mexico, Ming Chinese probably wasn't even aware of the existence of America continents at the time).

    6) The person commonly attributed to the introduction of telescope to China, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, also helped in introducing Hongyi cannons to China. So I wouldn't be surprised if that was his idea. That being said, a little bit of "Chinese did it first" would not magically improve the performance of Chinese artillery to the point of overtaking Europe.

    6) Iron-cored bronze cannon is excellent in a "cheaper-but-retain-performance" way. It cannot outperform a fully cast bronze cannon in firepower, and Chinese only had so many of them (and most Hongyi cannons are pretty lightweight too).

    1. "While the numbers are impressive, a Ming "heavy cannon" is only roughly comparable in weight to a Swedish 6-pdr regimental gun (at best), while being shorter ranged and less powerful"

      Do you have comparable ranges for these weapons? Also didnt you mention the Ming loved their breach loading cannons, and arent those shorter in range and power compared to muzzle loaders?

    2. No, no one has tested with a real (Ming) cannon, but it can be inferred based on Length/Bore ratio. Swedish guns of that period usually have 18~24 while Ming guns have 10~12.

      Yes, breachloaders are weaker than muzzleloaders in general. They shoot fast though so that's an advantage, especially against fast-moving enemies.

    3. How does the length bore ratio work exactly?

    4. Longer barrel = more time to accelerate the cannonball basically.

    5. So it's more powerful and longer ranged? I suppose the shorter barrel make a cannon easier to build and lug around

    6. Ming cannons did grow longer by the time they were fighting Jurchens though.

  11. @春秋战国
    I am sculpting a range of Ming figures in 28mm, Wansui and I have been in correspondence for some time and he has given me a lot of help. It will be a while before the figures see the light of day, but I hope I can avoid the pitfalls you outline here; we had been aware of perhaps most of them we'd agree the Ming are very poorly served with wargames figures up until now.
    I can assure you at least that all the sculpts I've done so far have shoes at least!

  12. @Clibinarium
    Wow, so Wansui and you are acquaintances?

    I have to say I am very excited to hear that. Looking forward for the day you finish your sculpt!

    Judging from his comments in my blog, Wansui seems to be very a knowledgeable person in Ming history and warfare, even more so than I. Many of the sources he cited are unfamiliar to me as well. I am sure he could be of a great help!

    (As you can see from this blog, my references are very Ming-biased, although I tried to be as objective as possible)

  13. @春秋战国
    Wansui and I have been in contact for over a year now over the net. As you say he is very knowledgeable, and he has been of invaluable assistance to me, since I can't read Chinese characters, and that makes researching the Ming difficult. A Ming range was something I had thought about ever since it became apparent that that the Perry brothers were not going to add one to their Samurai/Korean range, what stopped me was a lack of material to go on. Initially I didn't have much more than the Ospreys to work from, and I knew they weren't satisfactory. Without Wansui's generous help I probably wouldn't have been able to start.
    I think we came across your blog independently, not long after it started, and as you know we are both regular visitors here. Wansui and I regularly discuss the material posted on the blog . This blog is a superb resource for the Ming; in fact it might be the best English language source on the subject there is. The cursory treatment in the Ospreys was pretty much all that the average western wargamer had access to. You are doing something very valuable with your work here.
    I think the Ming are very unfairly neglected by wargamers (though that neglect isn't really wilful, its based on the lack of available reading material), but that may be slowly changing with an increasing awareness of the Imjin war. My hope is to launch a range of Ming figures that will fit with the Perry's figures and be as accurate as current knowledge will allow. I doubt it will be a money spinner, but its my interest in the subject that spurs me on.
    One striking thing about your blog is its objectivity, I think you are very careful to note weaknesses in the Ming military system (as there are in all systems), and not to exaggerate the strengths.

  14. @Clibinarium

    Thank you! Your continued interest is what motivates me to keep writing.

    I sometimes worry that I might have going to far to the other side (in my attempt to be as objective as possible) though, although in general I am quite confident with my assertions.

    My general opinion regarding Ming military is that they are stronger in some field (i.e. melee combat, firearms, rockets) while weaker in many others (i.e. navy, heavy artillery, technology in general) than commonly perceived. Then again, this is assuming they weren't led by some idiot with zero experience in warfare.

    I also think that sometimes a relatively sensible innovation/modification suddenly become "exotic new weapon" to better fit with the 'Mythical Asian culture' stereotype. For example, the breech-loading matchlock gun, multiple barrel matchlock gun, or "three-eyed handgonne" or even "bird rocket"are nothing new to Europe, but no one is making a big deal about them.

  15. Would the shoes and puttees you mention be similar to the shoes and long socks with wrapped ties similar to what Shaolin monks wear modernly? Is there an in period image you could point me to for reference?

    1. The Shaolin monk socks and shoes are similar, although I don't see the black cords wrapping around their calves very often. Most puttee images I've seen are old photos from Sino-Japanese War period, but I will try to put together an Imjur gallery or something when I have the time.

    2. So more like Viking winnegas?

    3. Yes, they are more or less the same thing.

  16. Agreed on the 4. Every time the matter of historical Chinese armies come up on the Internet, someone has to mention the repeating crossbow.

    5. is due to this weird idea that only the Japanese ever used pike-and-shot tactics in Asia.

    6. and 10. definitely has Orientalist bias in it. 10. though, I think the more common (and inaccurate) bias is 'Asian cannons are cumbersome and heavy, useful in siege but tactically disadvantaged'. That was the commonly accepted 'fact' of the Ottomans and Mughals cannons until recently.

    1. Also, Osprey's accuracy and quality rapidly declines once they leave the 'Western World' (aka the 'Comfort Zone', when I wants to be snide).

  17. Hi, I love you site and your constant battle to educate the western wargamers of the error of their ways.
    A question. I want to have a 15mm Ming army for about 1450 and I dont know where to go for figures.
    The best I can come up with is Old Glory (timecast) Ming and use the unshielded infantry with swords with an added round wicker shield. The Cavalry seem OK to use?
    Can you help with a suggestion of who does 'authentic' 15mm Ming wargame figures?
    Thanks for any help you can suggest

    1. AFAIK there are no good/accurate wargame Ming Chinese in the market at the moment. My own blog also does not offer many information of Ming army between 1400-1500s because we have far fewer data from that period. You pretty much have to improvise/convert yourself.

      I think using Khurasan 15mm Manchu as basis, then replace all the heads wearing Manchu hat with heads wearing kettle helmet, and you can get a passable Ming infantry.

      For cavalry, replace all armoured horses with unarmoured ones, and replace all unarmoured riders with armoured ones. I still prefer simply using Manchu cavalry as a stand-in for Ming cavalry as they look close enough at 15mm scale.


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