3 May 2016

Ming Chinese cavalry tactics — Part 1

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 accompanied 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 tactic 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 tactic to be used against them.

Hollow out the nest

Ming border cavalry routinely conducted Dao Chao (搗巢, lit. 'Pound the nest') operations against the Mongols. Dao 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 affected 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.

    3. @ Igor, Sorry I know this is an old post but I feel like there is some context that needed to be provided. To help explain why the Chinese never seemed to gravitate toward Shock Cavalry use was due to a few reasons, and during the periods when China has similar societal pressures, you begin to see an independent developement of such tactics.

      Heavy Shock cavalry is a arms race answer to decentralize military organization. With the collpase of massed armies in feudal europe, and the decentralization of the late roman defensive troops, the heavily armored elite cavalry was a great force augmentation of fewer troops(squire knights). The same can bee seen in Byzantine(much of its military had a decentralize nature built around local themata) and the Parthia local elites creating Cataphract units. If your military involves landed elites who need to equipt themselves this is usually the end game. Downside is that these troops are not flexible at the tactical level.

      Centralize armies on the other hand, have to account for not only a bigger budgets but greater variety of tactical options(campaigns across greater distances between supplylines. At this point the small qaulitative advantage of heavily equipt nobility is less advantagous due to being easily out maneuvered or overwhelmed. The Ottoman Army had elite troops but mostly as a minority or european mercenaries, but the bulk of the army was not of these unit type. When centralize armies have troops like this it is meant to augment existing flexibility not to rely on them heavily.

      With the exeption of the Polish Hussar, the rise of the Ulhan, Lancer, and Hussar units in Europe was a symptom of what I was mentioning, with the rise of the infantry dominance in late medieval and Renaissance europe, even before wide gun poweder adoptions, the armies were slowly becoming larger(though still decentralized) but more professional. Thus creating a high degree of local centralization, leading to the greater need for light cavalry to scout and screen the advance of a Army.

    4. Another thing to account for this is also the need for bigger warhorse which could only be accomplished by a existing desire for local elites to have better equipment.

  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.

  5. You give the title of an image, but you never indicate where the painting is found. It would be so helpful to know in what collection one can find these images. Thank you.

  6. How did Ming cavalry fight infantry to maximize their advantage? Contemporary Western European cavalry by 1600 were fighting infantry tactical formations containing both pike and arquebus. So it was futile to try and outshoot them or charge them from the front, so from what I can tell, Western European cavalry either aimed to hit from the flank, or charge an enemy that has been disordered by artillery or infantry fire.

    Did Ming cavalry come to a similar conclusion? Or was the contemporary infantry not organized in a way to both outshoot and withstand charge of cavalry? Interested specifically with regards to Byeokjegwan, where you would think the Japanese had enough long yari spear to withstand cavalry and arquebus to outshoot them. Yet they took heavy casualties. Maybe their formation was not as good as European pike and shot against enemy cavalry, or Ming horse archery was more significant than European cavalry firepower.

    1. This is a topic that I am still looking into (my study on Chinese cavalry is nowhere near enough battles to reach a conclusion). Unfortunately, Ming cavalry being mostly situated in north China, fought cavalry vs cavalry battle (against nomads) far more often than cavalry vs infantry.

      I do think (note that this is just my personal opinion and definitely NOT authoritative) horse archery played an important part in defeating infantry formation. The danger of arrow does not lay in its lethality but its disruptiveness/damage to morale. After all, arrows are slow-flying and highly visible (compared to musket ball), VERY attention-grabbing (especially when a hail of arrows is flying towards the infantry), and have higher "rate of fire" and thus better suppression effect.

      Obviously, hitting flanks/charging disordered infantry was still the way to go. Horse archery merely provided the cavalry a means to do the disordering themselves (instead of waiting for others to do it for them).

      I don't think Japanese army during the Sengoku period or Imjin War had anything that resemble "Pike and shot" style warfare, and even less experience facing cavalry in the thousands.

    2. There were different stages ofe developement and while charfging from the flanks looks the be the most logical . There were times were cavalry charged into pikes. And there were techniques to make this possible. As stated by arne Koets who looks into historcial European warfare you could use your lance to circle like you can also do with a spear around a pike and push it to the side. This tactic was used it´s also documneted but was rather not so often used. And there were units like the black riders ( forgot the right name) the guys in the black mass produced armros. That ride in charge of pike blocks shoott there pistros arquebus whatever and retreat reload and repeat the process. This declined with the steadily increase of shoot in pike formations

    3. Two videos going into that topic Black Cuirassiers and the Evolution of Cavalry Warfare in the 16th Century
      Gustavus Adolphus: The Father Of Modern Warfare | Evolution of Warfare

    4. @Tobi
      My knowledge about Gustavus Adolphus cavalry reform is very limited, basically I know: he reintroduced cavalry charge as a primary shock tactic back to Western Europe; he seems to do quite well despite Sweden having inferior small horses, and that his cavalry started to lose out again after his enemies (with better horses and horsemen) began using the same tactic against him.

      Against non-mounted troops, I've read that Swedish cavalry usually target field artillery, and then turn the captured guns against other infantry. Did they attack Tercio infantry directly? How effective were they?

    5. I do not knwo that much I just aded what little I know. This 2 hour video of Arne Koets about mounted combat might answer a few questions about European mounted combat https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=558284401531229&ref=watch_permalink

      On the same side there are also two other interviews with him about horse armor. One about his recently made plate horse armor.

    6. @春秋戰國
      I think if you want to study the problem of cavalry vs infantry,Then I recommend you to study the Jingnan campaign.To a large extent, this can be regarded as a civil war between elite cavalry and elite infantry in the Ming Dynasty. The only problem is that many contents need to read the original historical materials in Chinese, and there is a lack of modern research works.

  7. The best use of repeated charge tactics should be Emperor Zhu Di. According to the ming shi lu(“明实录”), he once led 7000 cavalry to repeatedly charge more than 100 times.

  8. I came across an article and there are an interesting quote and would like to ask for your opinion:

    "During the Warring States period and early Han, martial genius (indeed, even the very notion of swordsmanship) was something that was seen as emerging from the wild and militant cultures that existed in the far the south, including (but not limited to) the culturally exotic kingdom of Chu. In later eras military inspiration would come from the innovations in warfare made by many groups of people to the North and West. Yet during the Ming, even prior to the piracy crisis, Chinese elites were starting to look to Japan as a source of poetic martial inspiration."

    I find it interesting that the Chinese never come up with their own "martial/military art and culture" and have to "copy" (for lack of better word) from their neighbour even though they face just as many conflicts as other countries.

    For context, here is the article I mentioned


    1. Not true. Of course Chinese people had/have their own martial culture. People just like exotic and foreign things and topics, so those are talked about more. And that includes the article you linked.

      For example, during Ming Dynasty it was popular and even trendy among the scholarly circle and common folk to come together and train with martial arts, discuss arts of warfare and current strategic situation of the nation etc., to the point it almost became a social activity. It was also quite popular for scholars that failed imperial exam to go the martial route and become "shanren " (literally translates to "mountain people", or hermit, although they were generally socially active) to the point they formed their own community.

      But you've probably never heard about this aspect of Chinese martial culture, because barely anyone ever explores it. These people trained with swords (jian), spears and horse archery all the time and, of course, wrote all kinds of poems and stuffs about them, but those are simply ignored. When this aspect of Chinese martial culture is shallowly touched, it is almost ALWAYS in the context of "exotic foreign weapons" being used as a source of "poetic martial inspiration", because it is more interesting LOL.

    2. Thank you for the reply. I apologies if my previous comment came off as inflammatory.

      I gave the article another read, and I might have misinterpreted the author.

      Also, for some reason, I missed the part where the author mention that the Japanese Samurais travel to China to learn Chinese spear and polearm technique, and "the bushi class was eager study the latest innovations and training methods coming out of China." Hopefully my comment didn't cause any confusion.

      Anyway, reading all these well research articles and blog posts are definitely eye opening.

    3. @Newbie Guy
      Oh, it's fine. I wrote a long reply because even myself only recently learned a little about this aspect of Chinese martial culture and eager to share the few bits of (skin-deep) knowledge that I know.

  9. https://www.academia.edu/7287771/A_New_View_Regarding_the_Erroneous_Accounts_on_the_Ming_Dynasty_s_Use_of_Battlewagon_in_the_Official_Histories_Compiled_by_the_Qing_Dynasty_%E6%B8%85%E4%BF%AE%E5%AE%98%E5%8F%B2%E4%B8%AD%E6%98%8E%E4%BB%A3%E6%88%B0%E8%BB%8A%E5%8F%B2%E8%AB%96%E8%BE%A8%E8%AA%A4%E6%96%B0%E8%AB%96_?email_work_card=title

  10. Check out this Chinese language pdf file on Ming wagon tactics


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