1 June 2016

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.

  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAoMBrfX62A
    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.

  10. is it possible that long coat style lamellar armor is actually brigandine and lamellar combination?

    just like tie ren's armor

    1. I've never come across any source that describes Tie Ren to wear anything other than scale/lamellar.

      However, it is possible for the "long coat" style armour to be pure brigandine, pure lamellar, brigandine torso + lamellar dress, or lamellar torso + brigandine dress.

    2. I poorly choose my word what I meant is that lamellar armor consists with double plates on the inside and ouside if backing clothes

    3. It's hard to tell if the "long coat" lamellar is double-sided or not, because I have no idea how widespread the practise was. Maybe Tieren was a special case, or maybe everyone was doint it, but I have no way of knowing.

  11. Is there surviving example of 鶻尾 from ming period? and was it long just for aesthetic reasons?

    1. No surviving Hu Wei unfortunately. Yes, I do think the long one is for looks only.

  12. Didn't the Song cataphract had the same form as Northern Dynasties cavalry armor?

    I think the Hu Wei appear first in the Yuan Dynasty. Do you have any idea how they are constructed?

    Also I noticed that this form of skirt armor appear during the Yuan and continue into the Ming, while it is non-existent during the Song.


    Did a revival of Mingguang breastplate happen during the Ming, because I can find painting with those much easier than during the Song.

    1. Hu Wei appeared quite early, although Ming-style Hu Wei became very longe and shaped like actual fish, while earlier Hu Wei were generally squarish or roundish and more practical.

      Personally I suspect Ming-style Hu Wei was made of painted fabric, and served only cosmetic purpose. Ming armours did become fancier (hence more so-called Mingguang) compared to Song armours, although the trend of fancier armour started as early as Southern Song.

    2. Song catapracts were quite different from Northern Dynasties IMO. Northern Dynasties soldiers favoured some kind of triple-layered, leather(?) pauldrons which seem to fallen out of use by Song period.

    3. The Northern Dynasties have relatively similar armor to the Song. It have vambrace too, but the depiction of vambrace is quite rare, on the other hand, we have depiction of lamellar and zoomorphic sleeves in the Northern and Southern Dynasties.

      The pauldron of the soldier had the same shape as Song ones, the triple layer is usually farther down the arm, almost or completely cover the arm from the elbow to the wrist.

      I suspect the armor of the Southern Song Dynasty actually become more simpler and utilitarian in comparison with the armor of the Sui-Northern Song period.

      There is also the regulation to limit the weight of armor and a remark that later Song armor is not as good as during the start of the Song.

      I find it more difficult to find Mingguang armor in the Song than during the Tang or Yuan/Ming Period.

    4. @Joshua
      Personally I consider Northern Dynasties armours and Song armours are distinctive enough to be considered different types.


      One feature of Northern Dynasties armour is that its torso armour usually reaches all the way down to the upper thighs as one single tube. Separate cuisses are worn underneath torso armour and reach below the knees. This feacure can still be found on some Tang armours.

      Song Dynasty armours seem to discard cuisses altogether. Torso armour split in the middle from waist down so that armoured skirt can be made longer (reaching down to the feet) without impeding movement.

      Stone statues became increasingly ornate from Northen Song to Southern Song to Ming. This should reflect the stylistic changes at the time. Early Southern Song actually had pretty hardcore armour (i.e during the time Yue Fei etc were active).

    5. There are several version of armor worn concurrently in the Northern and Southern Dynasties, even cataphract armor sometimes differ from each other.

      The armor you describe is the one used by infantry, cavalry armor is pretty much similar to Song one.


      I am aware that there are a lot of variant anyway, but I still cannot see how Song armor is a significant improvement over Northern Dynasties armor.

      Also Southern Song armor start to be limited in weight unlike Northern Song armor.

      One of the feature of Northern Song armor that was not used in the Southern Song is the manica. Manica was also used in the Tang and Five Dynasties Ten Kingdom.



      Do you know how authentic this Wujing Zongyao print? It seems to depict a Counterweight trebuchet.


      It is said to be from 1520, but if this is a direct copy of the Wujing Zongyao, wouldn't this mean that Counterweight Trebuchet is already known in the 11th century before Mongol invasion. Or is the print embellished with new addition?

    6. The Cernuschi Museum terracotta also seems to be wearing the tube + cuisses type armour IMO.

      Northern Dynasty armour has roughly the same coverage as Song armour, although it seems more restrictive, and in some cases partially exposes the legs of the cavalry (although the same problem presisted in some Song armours as well).


      Song armour also have better coverage for the armpits and upper chest.

      I never look at that illustration closely before, but yeah it does look like a trebuchet with fixed counterweight. I do believe later copies of Wujing Zongyao reproduce the illustrations rather faithfully.

  13. As I said before, the armor in the Northern and Southern Dynasties varied a lot.

    Some cavalry armor had standing collar that looks like the one used by Goguryeo, the other look like Song armor, others had mirror plate armor.

    On leg armor, I think some variation do cover the leg the same way as Song armor did.



    How are Song armor better at covering the armpits and upper chest?
    The Northern Dynasties had mirror plate armor and zoomorphic sleeve also appear at the late Northern Southern Period.

    On the trebuchet, I think it is strange because the trebuchet is depicted without ropes, while the other are always depicted with ropes.

    That trebuchet on the ship look closer to this.


    1. @Joshua
      The "iron pagoda" pauldrons were large enough to cover armpit gaps normally protected by rondels (on Western full plate armour).

      Wujing Zongyao illustrations depict pauldrons with additional chest plate. Combine with torso armour, that makes Song armours having double thickness around the chest.

      I think that may be a trebuchet of this type:

    2. The pauldron part that cover the armpit seems to be mostly under the torso armor, that is why we cannot see that part.

      Didn't such pauldron and torso armor arrangement been used after the Sima Jin Dynasty?
      I think that was the period where the old Qin and Han style armor start disappearing.

      This Tang Dynasty statuette show that plate worn over lamellar.


      I think the Tang and Song chestplate is just a shortened version of the one used in Northern Dynasties that is why we can sometimes see the armor below. Because the mirror plate fully cover the torso, we probably cannot guest whether Northern mirror plate is worn on top of lamellar (my guess is yes) .

      I am currently trying to find out how Chinese armor is worn. The Wujing Zongyao seems to have chest or back section that is composed of 2 half that must be fastened like Japanese Haramaki. However from paintings, it seem that lamellar armor are fastened on the side like European cuirass or probably wrapped around like Japanese Do-maru.

      This is useful for guessing whether

      1. The chestplate is worn on top of lamellar armor with pauldron attached to torso armor (2 layer of armor).

      2. Chestplate replace that section of lamellar, pauldron is separate (2 layer of armor).

      3. Chestplate is worn over torso armor and separate pauldron (3 layer of armor).

      Sorry, the trebuchet link is not working.

    3. Sorry for the delayed reply. Was focusing on my Siege defence article.

      What I mean by "partially covering armpit" is this part:

      I see this kind of pauldrons as an improvement over older designs.

      BTW, Your Tang Dynasty statuette link returns a 403 forbidden to me.

      I think both types (fastened to the front/back, and fastened to the side) existed during Song period.

      My current idea is that Wujing Zongyao "Poncho paundrons" is worn before torso armour a.l.a Japanese Manchira (2 layer). There's the possibility of another chest armour worn on top to make it three layer, similar to some Qing brigandines like this one:


    4. I think this picture is one of the most valuable for understanding how Chinese armor are worn.


      Here you can see that those lamellar pauldron could be worn over torso like the majority of the figure, however, one figure wear it beneath his torso armor.

      I think those armor design apply back to Northern and Southern Dynasties Period.


      The Han did not use such 2 piece armor, it appear in the Northern and Southern Period or probably during the 4th century.

      It is very similar to how European armor are worn in the 16th century.


      If you look at Japanese armor, the old design of the Kote are also worn beneath the Do, except the Kote is arm length.

      This is a different link for the Tang armor, please try it.


      Whatever the layering would be, I think it is certain that there are at least 2 layers of armor at the upper torso.

      The lower torso are additionally protected with belly plate or armored sash.

    5. In covering the armpit, the Tang pauldron also cover it when their pauldron are worn on top of torso armor.


      Similarly if it is worn beneath the torso armor, it wouldn't look like it is covering the armpit.


      I read a Chinese article once, that show those part of the Song pauldron that cover the armpit are actually its normal width, while the narrower part at the bottom is due to curvature of the inner elbow joint.

      If full torso length cuirass are known in the Tang Dynasty, would it still be composed of lamellar below the plate or would it be lamellar skirt attached to the cuirass?


    6. @Joshua
      Hello I am back again =D. Sorry for the lack of activity these few days.

      Yes, that picture is truly invaluable for researching Chinese lamellar armour. I've been trying to find a high resolution picture, but yours is the clearest picture I've seen by far.

      Personally, I believe that the "Over" and "Under" style pauldrons are two slightly different designs. The "Under torso armour" type ought to have smaller coverage so as to not limiting arm movements.

      But I do agree that whatever the layering might be, there must be at least two layers of protection at the upper torso at the very least.

    7. I am aware that Tang pauldrons also have the same (probably even more if you make them large enough) armpit coverage as Iron Pagoda pauldrons, although I also think that they are more limiting to arm movements.

      The "curvature of the inner elbow joint" is not really a good explanation IMO - the narrowing of the bottom part of Song pauldrons seem to be an intentional modification.

      The Tang figurines you show appear to be wearing a long coat lamellar with "Mingguang" cuirass worn on top, but it's hard to tell.

    8. About under and over torso armor,

      I think the Wubeizhi show different kind of pauldron.
      I think the square poncho design is for under the torso.

      About the curvature in inner elbow joint. I think the curvature allow the pauldron to be lengthened to cover the elbow completely without causing the lamellar to fold at the inner elbow joint.

      Although I find it strange, that such pauldron would also be depicted with cut away section on the back side.

      About the Tang figurines, do you mean the first one with the error link or the second one with the large cuirass?

      About the first one,


      Do you think the soldier wear a Han style 1 piece armor with Mingguang cuirass above the lamellar armor
      did he wear an under torso pauldron, while the lamellar on the lower torso is attached to the Mingguang cuirass.

      There is also a third possibility, he wear 2 piece lamellar and then he wear the cuirass on top of the torso armor (3 layer),

      but why is the shoulder straps didn't look like they are doubled?

  14. I found another picture that look like counterweight trebuchet from the Wujing Zongyao.


    1. Counterweight trebuchet is said to had been around in china before the hui/muslim trebuchet type brought by mongols. Kublai Khan brought 2 siege engineers:   Al al-Din and Ismail

      Considering the whole diversity of Chinese siege weapons, I wouldn't find it a little strange counterweight trebuchet in China before any muslim influence.


      Now muslim one:

      If you search it up... dozens of depictions for western european and Muslim trebuchets are alike, they share the same origin in common... meanwhile the Chinese one depicted is quite different to be understood as chinese artists failed to depict accurately the muslim technology, which leads us to believe the drawing of a counterweight trebuchet that neither looks European nor Islamic can only be another, chinese and unrelated

  15. That's the thing, making a counterweight when you already have traction is not a great leap of logic.
    I think what limit the widespread use of counterweight trebuchet in China is the great mobility of army in which carrying and setting up counterweight trebuchet will only slow down the army.

    The use of counterweight trebuchet during the Mongol siege of Xianyang and Fancheng may not be due to the its strength, but its range.
    During the 14th century Ming vs other rebel battle, I remember reading that improved counterweight trebuchets fail to destroy a city wall, instead the city wall was destroyed by tunneling.

    It seems counterintuitive to think that Chinese city wall could be destroyed by trebuchets, when WW 2 Japanese artillery cannot do it.


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