9 December 2015

Ming Chinese infantry tactics — Part 1

Ming Dynasty Infantry
Large number of  Ming infantrymen, from  'Wakō-zukan (《倭寇図巻》)'.
While many Ming Dynasty military treatises emphasised on small unit tactics such as the famed Mandarin Duck Formation, Chinese were no stranger to large scale, pitched battle. Regrettably, little information is available on how Ming army fought in very large formation, but Chinese very clearly understood the difference between martial arts meant for self defence, dueling or small scale fighting, and military training required for large formation battle.

"Fighting in large formation, against great enemies, is different from fighting in rings or arresting few bandits. In great formation, thousands of men are advancing in order. The braves are not allowed to advance (further than the rest of the army), and the cowardly are not allowed to withdraw. (If our enemy) thrusts with a forest of spearheads, (then we can only) thrust back with a forest of spearheads. (If our enemy) slashes with a storm of blades, (then we can only) strike back to return the favour. (Everyone) can only advance together, there's hardly any room to flip one's hand, let alone dodging left and right! If even one man looks behind, everyone will be left in doubt. If even one man is distracted and missed one step, everyone will lose morale. There's no way one can advance and withdraw freely (when fighting in formation)."
— General Qi Ji Guang

The writings of general Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光) give us some insight into how a large formation battle would look like in Chinese warfare. Qi Ji Guang described thousands of soldiers fighting with pikes and sabres in a formation so dense that "there's hardly any room to flip one's hand" (note that he was speaking in hyperbole), and discipline was of utmost importance.

Facing pikemen

"Japanese experienced and say that Chinese spear technique, Joseon Pyeonjeon and Japanese arquebus are the best in the world."
— Korean scholar Yi Su-gwang (이수광 or 李睟光), in his book Jibong yuseol (《지봉유설》 or 《芝峰類說》).

Qiang Fa and Sōjutsu
Left: A practitioner of Chen Family Taiji Spear (陳氏太極槍). Right: A practitioner of  Saigō-ha Daitō-ryū Aiki-Sōjutsu (西郷派大東流合気槍術). The difference between Chinese and Japanese spear handling and techniques is still evident today.
Hōzōin-ryū Sōjutsu
Left: A fully committed slip-thrust from a practitioner of Shaolin Liuhe Great Spear (少林六合大槍). Right: A spear thrust from a practitioner of Hōzōin-ryū Sōjutsu (宝蔵院流槍術). 
Ming Chinese placed great emphasis on the use of spear and pike. Surviving Ming period spear and pike training manuals outnumber other martial arts (except archery manual) by a large margin, and many Ming period martial arts were designed with defending against and/or countering spear in mind. They also seem to be very confident in their skill, and Qi Ji Guang considered Chinese pikemen to be superior to Japanese pikemen due to the difference in weapon handling: Chinese pikemen held their Chang Qiang (長鎗) at the rear end, while their Japanese counterpart held their Yari (槍) in the middle, thus Chinese pikemen had longer reach than Japanese pikemen.

Chinese pikemen did not use their pikes to perform large slashing/smashing movements in the same manner as Japanese pikemen, preferring to use smaller, smaller, less telegraphed circling movements to achieve the same result with greater effectiveness. Experienced Chinese pikemen can even smash their pikes to the ground and use the bouncing effect to guide the pikes into the abdomens of their enemy.

During an engagement with other pikemen, Ming shieldmen and other soldiers still on standby were instructed to either catch enemy pikes with their bare hands, or hack off enemy pike heads using their sabres.

Facing swordsmen and other shorter weapons

"Concerning the method of defeating sword, all kinds of rakes, quarterstaffs and short weapons has no use, (we) must use long spear of one zhang eight (chi) in length. As sword can wound, but cannot defend, only long spear can take advantage of the opening. So long spear is the best tool to defend against Japanese, followed by Lang Xian and other equipment."
— Chou Hai Tu Bian (《籌海圖編》)

Chinese Dandao Techniques
Most Ming period martial arts were designed with countering spear or pike in mind precisely because Chinese troops would face similar disadvantage should they had to go up against enemy pikemen. (Pictured: Master Scott M. Rodell teaching Dan Dao Fa Xuan (《單刀法選》). Source: Steel & Cotton)
Ming Chinese also considered pike to be the best weapon against swords (particularly Japanese swords) and other short polearms. A group of pikemen fighting in close order were nearly impervious to the attacks of shorter weapons, in no small part thanks to the massive reach advantage conferred by their pikes.

Nevertheless, deployment of large blocks of pikemen in South China was not always possible due to its treacherous terrains. Besides, pike formation could still fall victim to enemy swordsmen if it was disrupted or ambushed (which the Wokou excelled at). For this reason Ming Chinese deployed shorter polearms such as Tang Pa (鎲鈀) alongside pikemen in order to protect them.

Fighting against cavalry

"This shieldman must rely on Lang Xian, as (his equipment) are all short weapons, and cannot resist enemy horse. Use Lang Xian to stop enemy horse, (then) use the shield from below Lang Xian and hack at the horse legs."
— Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光), in his military treatise Lian Bing Shi Ji (《練兵實紀》).

Paulus Hecktor Mair
It is totally like this, only more Chinese. Image taken from 'De arte athletica II' commisioned by Paulus Hector Mair. 
Qi Ji Guang actually opposed using pike alone to fend off cavalry charge. He reasoned that a pike broke easily when used against a charging horseman, so a pikeman could only kill one horse before he inevitably lose his weapon. He advised countercharging enemy cavalry with shorter weapons such as sabre and Chang Dao (長刀) under the cover of rattan shield, and focus on chopping off horse legs.

Qi Ji Guang's advise appears to go against all conventional wisdom, but it is not as stupid as it seems. He sought to aggressively engage and defeat enemy cavalry rather than passively repel the charge. Pikes, Lang Xian (狼筅)cheval de frise and field fortifications were still used to slow down and repulse cavalry charge normally. The countercharge would only begin when enemy horsemen were sufficiently slowed down by the pikes. Countercharge prevented enemy horsemen from regrouping and attempting another charge.

Qi Ji Guang was certainly not the one to invent this tactics, as Song army already employed similar tactics centuries before him. This tactic was also used by Tie Ren (鐵人) to great effect, but they replaced Chang Dao with Zhan Ma Dao (斬馬刀), and did not employ Lang Xian.

Nevertheless, this tactics was probably not universal, as it required very high level of training and discipline.


  1. If anyone's wondering how a 18.8 feet (~5.75 m) pike can be wielded "at the hinder end", here are a couple of videos showing martial artists doing just that:

    Taichi training routine using a 5 metre pole.

    Note that modern martial artists use Da Qiang made from Chinese ash, a soft wood, for its dramatic "shaking" effect. Historical Chinese pikes made from hardwood would be stiffer and less agile, but ancient soldiers did not need to perform such rapid thrusts either.

    Taiwanese Zhang Er Gun (丈二棍)or Zhang Er Chui (丈二棰), using a 4 metre long solid wooden staff.

    The wooden staff used in Zhang Er Gun is stiffer and heavier than typical soft wood Da Qiang. It is also balanced with left hand instead of right hand.

    Semi contact Da Qiang competition using 3 metre long hardwood (or PVC shafted) pike.

    2.7~3 metre is the most common length of modern Da Qiang, not because it can't be made any longer, but because longer pike can't be stored (properly) inside typical housing.

  2. Also, while I did mention that Japanese warriors wield their spear/pike differently, not all Japanese Sōjutsu Ryu wield their yari "in the middle", as shown in this video.


    Japanese spear/pikemen typically thrust with both hands, while Chinese spear/pikemen frequently use a "sliding thrust" using only their right hand. However, there are ALSO Japanese ryu that have sliding thrust techniques.


  3. Hi agreed, there's always exceptions. In Wing Chun/Yong Chun's pole system which some believe was descended from spear fighting, we don't really utilize the sliding thrust technique either. Rather we use both hands to thrust (the pole typically should 8-9 ft long of hardwood). But I would guess the longer the spear, the harder it is to use the single-hand sliding thrust due to the weight/length. It'd be more practical and effective to thrust out with both hands at a presumably armored opponent. I believe other Chinese spear/single ended pole system have multiple ways of thrusting, both power thrust and faster sliding thrust included.

    Also found this video regarding a martial artist reproduction/interpretation of a Ming military manual on spear techniques

  4. @Raymond

    Wing Chun's 6.5 staff seems to stem from Southern quarterstaff tradition (right hand front, left hand back), so its use is very different from a spear (left hand front, right hand back).

    Heavier and longer pike does make sliding thrust harder to perform (and slower), but as seen in the first video I posted, quite doable even with a 4~5 m long spear. Softer wood makes the sliding thrust "shake" wildly and very inaccurate, which isn't a problem if harder wood is used.

    The third video I posted, showing female Da Qiang competitors (presumably middle school teens, given their smaller stature) performing sliding thrust (with a 3 m hardwood Da Qiang though) without difficulties.

    Jack Chen's reconstruction is a very valuable reference to me, although he used a very short spear in that video (a 5.7 meter long wooden pole is quite hard to come by and even harder to film). Chang Qiang Fa Xuan is actually supposed to be used with a 5.7 m pike.

    1. Same person as above (R.Lau), revisiting the post. With regard to the WC pole. Actually unlike quarterstaffs in general that are even diameter throughout the length, the WC staff is generally tapered to the end point and comparatively long at 9ft average (compared to modern martial arts standards). It makes it somewhat less effective as a swinging weapon since there's less mass at the other end plus more unwieldy with the longer length for swinging. And the movements itself, the thrust is the main attack, with other movements like lateral/downward strokes could also be used for offense but more for deflection purposes. Only one end of the staff is used.

      Regarding the right-hand forward and left-hand back grip for thrusting polearms sometimes seen among southern systems....yea that's kinda perplexing for me as well. My dumb guess is some practitioners but not all is comfortable with it when performing their forms against the air. But probably don't really practice striking power against hard objects with thrusts much. Technically we're suppose to practice both sides to be ambidextrous but I prefer the left-hand forward/right hand rear as more natural. To each their own I guess.

    2. After expanding my knowledge about Chinese martial arts a little bit it seems a lot of quarterstaff traditions (i.e. Tai Chi pole etc) are basically "spear without a spearhead". The hand position appears to be more for the sake of tradition than anything...

    3. Indeed, alot of the martial arts that survived today most likely came to being in the Qing period. A time when spears become shorter, armor become discarded, and local militia is increasingly relied on to keep peace. The spear without spearhead training probably descended from militia tradition, when going off to fight you can attach a spearhead or it's probably was better to injure someone then kill, I hear murder is actually a really big deal in Qing law even in dueling. With Taiji I hear there's a theory that it came from Chen village during Ming-Qing transition or early Qing, not from Zhang Sanfeng which is typical hogwash. Unarmed combat definitely became popular in Qing era, but weaponry and other elements here and there might be possibly older.

    4. @Rayray
      The Chen village theory also has its fair share of critics. It is possible that Wang Zongyue is from mid-Ming Dynasty instead of Qing, making the lineage possibly much older.

  5. What is the quality of Ming spear? The Chinese source said the Japanese sword can cut through the spear shaft quite easy, which is quite unbelievable since the general knowledge is that it is very hard for any sword to cut through the shaft.

    1. Such incidents were by no mean limited to Chinese spears (Doppelsöldner and their big swords come to mind).

      While it is very hard for any sword to slash through a spear shaft in one hit, repeated blows to the same general area (which happens quite often in real combat situation) can probably damage the shaft enough to break it, especially if the sword chop at the shaft from an angle (i.e. not perpendicular like people normally do test-cutting). This is certainly enough of a risk that many European polearms come with langets to protect the shaft.

      Matt Easton (of Schola Gladiatoria fame)found out that three good chops are enough to break a spear shaft.

      Now on the issue of Ming spear quality, Chinese spearhead is certainly of serviceable quality (good enough to poke people to death). I have no idea on the quality of spear shaft, since none survived to my knowledge. I suppose bamboo shaft is weaker than wooden shaft (but bamboo spear can be extremely long due to it being lighter, up to twenty-five feet!) as well as composite bamboo-wooden shaft.

  6. "Most Ming period martial arts were designed with countering spear or pike in mind precisely because Chinese troops would face similar disadvantage should they had to go up against enemy pikemen."

    I would like to offer an alternate interpretation. Given Ming's geopolitical situation, the only time they would go against another similar pike formation would be civil war, and armies tend to train against external threats, like the mongols, whose main tactic was horse archery-mobile warfare.

    The reason why many manuals focus on countering pike is because there was a general agreement that pike completely dominated other weapons and martial artists kept trying to find ways to defeat pikes so they can brag about it. Even pike specialist 吳殳did that.

    Secondly, since pike is such a dominating force, if you can deal with it effectively then you can deal with other weapons very well too. That makes training much more economical.

    Regrading the question of holding pike/spear at the end of further up, there were many schools of thoughts in Ming China as well. Pike/spear purists like 吳殳 suggested that the only reason to hold it further up was because sometimes people try to mix quarterstaff techniques into it too, and to the pike/spear purists, mixing quarterstaff with pike/spear isn't a very good.

    1. Actually Japanese (Wokou) were pretty hardcore about their spears too, but yeah, your interpretation is very correct.

    2. Would be nice if we can talk more about 槍衾 as in using pike perform smashing or slashing attack. I think Qi Ji Guan wrote somewhere that as a concept this is problematic because we are dealing with two irreconcilable trade-offs here.

      In order for the pike to be nimble and to thrust well, the weight of the pike is placed at the very end. In order for a staff to hit well, the weight of the staff is placed at the very top. Therefore, if a spear is to hit well, it will become a staff and vice versa. To overcome this conundrum, he designed a staff with a short bladed attached at the end, and told the soldiers to only thrust and smash repeatedly with this weapon.

    3. Are you referring to the 夾刀棍? That one is indeed shorter than normal Chinese pike.

      From what I heard, Yari tend to features heavier spearhead than Chinese Qiang, due to the tang (instead of socket) construction and generally longer blade. So it is a "cut and thrust" spear. MAYBE this explains the Yari-Busuma tactic of the Japanese.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Yes, I was talking about 夾刀棍. It could be that the Japanese pick a different side of the trade-off due to technology. Maybe this also explains why they tend to hold yari in the middle.

    6. Actually Fukuro Yari uses socketed construction as well.

  7. Hi,

    Do you think Ming Chinese spear fighting style have at least some influence from their steppe neighbour like the Mongol?

    Thank you.

    1. No unfortunately. During Ming period there might be some spear fighting styles with Mongol influence, but currently nearly all surviving Chinese spear fighting styles are infantry based. Plus unlike Chinese wrestling there isn't much record to support this.

    2. Hi, sorry for comment on this old thread.

      I know it may sound weird, but what about the Yang family spear style?

      I came across an article from a Chinese site, apparently, they claim that the Yang family are non Han Chinese / from a non Chinese tribe, so maybe that?

      (My Chinese is rusty, so I might have misinterpret what they say.)

    3. @The Watson
      Good day and welcome to my blog.

      Yang family spear originated from Yang Miaozhen, who came from Shandong and was a leader of Red Coat Army, an anti-Jin (Jurchen) Dynasty peasant rebellion movement. She's a Han Chinese through and through.

  8. Hi, awesome work as always!

    Are there any references in Ming sources about using the pike as a deflecting weapon against shafted projectiles? Especially against the massed archery of the Mongols and the Wokou? The sources about the Ancient Greek phalangites habitually mention the controlled waving of the sarissa pike in the air in order to deflect missiles (in their case, javelins and/or arrows). Even the Roman Legionaries in the battle of Cynoscephale found that throwing their pila on a forest of pikes had little to no effect.
    Tests by various reenactment groups (in Greece and ) have suggested that a file of about 4 pikes can successfully deflect almost any javelin-sized wooden pole coming from straight opposite them. No tests have been done with arrows, as far as I know.

    1. @Thanasis

      No such references about Chinese pikes deflecting projectiles come to mind, but some Chinese sources do mention Lang Xian (which is effectively the pike method taken up to eleven) can protect against arrows.

    2. Thank you for the prompt answer.
      The "bushy" Lang Xian seems ideally suited to the task as it has much more volume to tangle the arrows, even when wielded normally. I was hoping that in the exhaustive chinese corpus about spears (by extension pikes ) there would be some references to the type of synchronized "flag waving" that ancient authors mentioned when saying that Macedonian phalangites could close the distance with Persian archers without taking many casualties. With a shorter spear that would be far less effective so they wouldn't bother, or so it seems.

      It's too bad that such methods are lost to us since it could be game-changers in pre-gunpowder warfare. Especially when countering massed archery.


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