Traditional Chinese and Byzantine armour components: A brief introduction and analysis

Chinese and Byzantine armour glossaries
Left: An unnamed general or guard in Chinese-style "Cataphract" armour. Middle: Wu Dao Jiang Jun (五道將軍), one of the Chinese deities of afterlife. Right: Saint Nicetas the Goth, Christian martyr and military saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.
This blog post is the continuation of my previous article, and will covers Chinese armours of Song to early Ming period. As before, I included a Byzantine armour for comparison purpose.

Traditional Chinese-style "Cataphract" Armour
Chinese heavy lamellar armour glossary
Components of Chinese-style "Cataphract" armour (Click to enlarge)
Armour in the above picture is taken from an unnamed wall painting at Baoning Temple located at Shanxi, China. The mural depicts an unidentified general or guard, quite possibly a Mongol (as the mural is dated to Yuan or early Ming period).

This type of heavy lamellar armour does not have a universally agreed name. It is dubbed "Cataphract" armour in this blog, but might be called Bu Ren Jia (步人甲, lit. 'Footman's armour') or Tie Fu Tu Jia (鐵浮屠甲, lit. 'Iron Pagoda armour') elsewhere, after its most famous users. The armour actually consists of three parts: A pair of large pauldrons, often but not always with characteristic crossed straps, a body armour that somewhat resembles a bib-and-brace, as well as an armoured skirt or a pair of tassets. Armoured skirt or tassets are sometimes integrated into body armour.

Chinese armoured cavalry
Chinese cataphracts and their enemies. From left to right: Two Khitan cataphracts on foot, famous Jurchen "Iron Pagoda" cataphracts, a contingent of Song cataphracts, and several Ming mounted guards on unarmoured horses.
While Chinese had been using various types of similarly heavy lamellar armours since the Jin Dynasty, "Cataphract" armour only gained popularity during Song period. It was used by Chinese, Khitans, Jurchens, Tanguts, and later adopted by the Mongols as well.

Chinese Cataphract armour design feature
Analysis of Chinese-style "Cataphract" armour (Click to enlarge).
Like many lamellar armours, "Cataphract" armour is designed for ease of fabrication, mass-production, modularity and versatility, yet still able to provide maximum protection to its wearer. Many components of the armour come in various standardised sizes depending on the user's height, weight, and combat role, and can be easily removed for comfort, replaced, or exchanged for another piece.

A full suit of "Cataphract" armour, as pictured above, completely covers its wearer from head to toe. It has remarkably few gaps and weak points for a lamellar armour, thanks to its large pauldrons that extend past (and protect) the elbows and even partially cover the armpits. Some pauldron designs even feature integrated chest and back armours to add yet another layer of defence for upper torso. Furthermore, the armour can be reinforced with various additional armour components such as bevor, mirror armour, underarm protector and groin guard to enhance its protective qualities.

Chinese cataphract armour extra components
Some examples of additional armour components. Left: Jurchen "Iron Pagoda" cataphracts wearing their iconic heavy helmets. Middle: Song Chinese cataphracts with lamellar bevors. Right: Underarm protector of a Khitan general.
With its heavy construction and good coverage, "Cataphract" armour is possibly the most protective body armour of its time (i.e. 10th to 12th century), surpassed only by later European coat of plates and full plate armour. In fact, widespread use of highly protective armours in China during Song period caused the proliferation of heavy duty anti-armour weapons such as heavy crossbows, axes, various polearms, maces and two-handed morning stars on a scale never seen before, as both Chinese and their enemies became increasingly reliant of these powerful weapons to overcome the heavy armour.

Unfortunately, the superb protection of "Cataphract" armour does come with some drawbacks. As the armour is usually mass-produced and thus isn't specifically tailored to individual wearers, it inevitably affects the user's mobility. Additionally, its oversized pauldrons also hinder arm movement, while the crossed straps are at higher risk of being cut during battle.

Traditional Chinese-style "Ornate" Armour
Chinese ornate lamellar glossary
Components of Chinese-style "Ornate" armour (Click to enlarge)
Armour in the above picture is taken from Di Fu Wu Dao Jiang Jun Deng Zhong (《地府五道將軍等眾》), a religious scroll painting depicting Wu Dao Jiang Jun (五道將軍), one of the Chinese deities of afterlife and guardian of the five entrances to hell. The scroll is also kept at Baoning Temple.

Like "Cataphract" armour, this type of armour does not have a universally agreed name. It is dubbed "Ornate" armour in this blog due to its ornamented appearance. This particular armour is a composite type, consists of mountain pattern pauldrons, lamellar body armour, additional laminar chest armour, and scale tassets (note that many Chinese "scale" armours are actually lamellar as well). Despite looking nothing alike, "Ornate" armour is most likely just a heavily customised and decorated version of "Cataphract" armour.

Chinese ornate armour design feature
Analysis of Chinese-style "Ornate" armour (Click to enlarge).
Zoomorphic armour components are perhaps the most distinguishing feature of a Chinese-style "Ornate" armour. Spaudlers and belly guard appear to be the most common, and can be found on most armours of this type, although some armours have additional zoomorphic elements on bevor, back guard, vambraces, tassets and greaves. These components are more decorative than functional (many, but not all, appear to be made from molded organic materials like leather), although they still provide some extra protection.

As befitting an armour meant for the most elite, "Ornate" armour is also richly decorated with exquisite coverings, trims, fringes and embellished gems, all mounted on thick backings. While aesthetically pleasing, these decorations do little to improve the defensive qualities of the armour. Nevertheless, the trims and backings help tremendously to prevent wearing and abrasion, as well as muffle out most of the noise generated by the armour, making "Ornate" armour surprisingly silent for a heavy metal armour with so many interconnected parts.

As such, while "Ornate" armour is not more technologically advanced than its plainer counterpart (it is still only a suit of lamellar/scale armour after all), it is arguably* made to a much higher standard of craftsmanship and material quality, as well as custom tailored to its user, making the armour an overall superior choice to "Cataphract" armour despite its ornate appearance.

*NOTE: It should be reminded that quality difference isn't inherent to the armour design. It is entirely feasible to make a plain and undecorated "Cataphract" armour to the highest standard of craftsmanship, material quality and tailoring. In fact, I suspect that is what most field commanders would have preferred.

Byzantine Armour
Byzantine armour components
Components of Byzantine armour (Click to enlarge).
Armour in the above picture is taken from the fresco of Saint Nicetas at Saint Nicetas monastery, located at Banjane, Republic of Macedonia. This fresco is roughly contemporaneous with the Chinese painting and mural above, although all three depict armour styles of a much earlier period.

The fresco does not survive the ravage of time well and suffered numerous cracks and damages, so I took the liberty of doctoring the image in Photoshop in the hope that I can make it slightly more presentable. Unfortunately, while most damages of the fresco can be restored with some degree of accuracy, the bow case portion of the fresco is damaged to a point where it is beyond my ability to repair. I am forced to redraw that portion based on nothing but imagination, so the bow case in my doctored image is most likely completely inaccurate.

Byzantine armour design features
Analysis of Byzantine armour (Click to enlarge).
At first glance, Saint Nicetas appears to be severely under-equipped, lacking a helmet as well as any sort of limb protection. However it should be noted that equipment of military saints should not be taken as being representative of Byzantine military equipment as a whole, as period painters often intentionally omitted details such as helmet (kassidas) and padded armour (kavadion) in order for the saints to appear more identifiable and more "Roman".

The full panoply of a Byzantine kataphraktos consisted of an iron helmet (kassidas sideras) with double or triple-layered aventail (zabai) presumably made with mail, a lamellar cuirass (klivanion) with short armoured sleeves (manikia) which can be of splint, scale or "inverted lamellar" construction, padded silk armguards (manikelia) and skirt (kremasmata), both presumably reinforced with mail, iron vambraces (cheiromanika sidera) and greaves (podopsella or chalkotouba), as well as a padded overcoat (epilōrikion). Later they would upgrade the kremasmata to use splint, scale, or lamellar construction, and adopt Western-style mail hauberk (lōrikion) and chausses to be worn underneath existing armour.

While undoubtedly very protective, Byzantine armour does have one serious flaw, namely it does not adequately protect the thighs and knees, as most Byzantine kremasmata are quite small (in fact they are slightly smaller than Chinese lamellar groin guard) and only cover upper thighs. The single-piece design of lamellar kremasmata also makes them unsuitable for mounted combat. It is possible that single-piece kremasmata was designed for infantry, while cavalry would use a splinted design reminiscent of Classical pteryges. In any case, adoption of mail chausses largely solved this issue.

Despite the shortcomings, Byzantine armour does have several advantages over Chinese armour, namely it does not obstruct mobility as much as "Cataphract" armour and effectively has no gaps or weak points (other than hands and eyes) due to the use of mail armour. Additionally, the humble padded armour is another piece of equipment not available to the Chinese, at least until twelfth or thirteenth century, as cultivation of cotton did not become widespread in China until then.

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  1. "That being said, not even a fully equipped kataphraktos of the tenth century can compare to a contemporary Chinese armoured warrior in term of protection."

    The 10th century East Roman Kataphraktos on an armored horse was the equivalent of a tank, trained to break through infantry formations, with khoursores/medium cavalry intended to engage other horse. Dawson makes a case that pteryges in art are in fact the artist's way of depicting lamellar or splint armor, as they're shown as too rigid.

    The chest harness was more than likely a rank indicator, since saints are usually depicted as officers, like centurions in art, a variation of the cloth sash, instead of a means of weight distribution, as even a common foot soldier would've had his armor easily altered in the field.

    1. @Condottiero Magno
      Good day and welcome to my blog.

      I fully agree with you that Kataphraktos on armoured horse is the medieval equivalent of tank. However, I think my point still stands.

      "Dawson makes a case that pteryges in art are in fact the artist's way of depicting lamellar or splint armor, as they're shown as too rigid."

      I am fully aware of this and made a mention in the blog post.

      Regarding the so-called "Varangian bra", AFAIK it is not mentioned in any of the Byzantine source (not even its actual name is known), so it's hard to be certain. However, similar items do serve the purpose of helping weight distribution on other armours (i.e. Chinese), so I think it's safe to say that Varangian bra does help, even if that's not its primary purpose.

    2. I modified the Byzantine section of the article slightly so that my remarks appears less...volatile. It is not my intention to disparage armour designs of other cultures.

  2. In that chinese mural plates in armor looks so small

    Accurate representation or just for a artistic expression?

    1. Probably accurate. A Chinese lamellar can be made out of something like ~1800s of plates instead of several hundreds.

  3. "Additionally, the humble padded armour is another piece of equipment not available to the Chinese, at least until twelfth or thirteenth century, as cultivation of cotton did not become widespread in China until then."

    I know that cotton armors appeared rather late in Chinese history, but they had paper and leather armors before, aren't those somewhat similar to padded armor?

    1. Yes, but they didn't wear it on top of lamellar armour like the Byzantines, as far as I am aware.

  4. Hi!
    I really like this series of yours, is really educational and explanatory.
    Regarding the "Cataphract" armor, I have some question;
    Which kind of lamellar structure was used? (size and thicknesses of the lamellae and laces patterns)
    And also, how much does this configuration weigh? It looks fairly heavy!

    And finally, some food for thought.
    Unlike Europe, in the Far east, like Japan or China, apparently, mail armor was rarely worn as a form of primary/standalone protection, lamellar was the mainstream form of armor since ancients periods. Do you think that this has something to do with the amount of projectiles and ranged weapons used? (horse archery and crossbows).
    I think that, compared to the West, Asian warfare saw more volume of arrows/darts and projectiles than the average European medieval, especially when we consider Horse archery, something rarely seen in the West. But I wanted to hear your opinion!

    1. Warriors of stepp often use mail as much as maile

      Beside usage of maile in far east is still debatable

    2. @Gunsen History
      Thanks for your support!

      Here's a Jin Dynasty lamellae plate for your reference (although this is not the only type). The lamellae plate has a slighty curved surface to increase strength. Average thickness is around 1.2~1.5mm thick, although 2mm thick lamellae is not unheard of. I think I've seen the instruction to lace/assemble them somewhere, but I am unable to find it at the moment.

      Yes, the armour was indeed known to be extremely heavy, around 30kg for the heavier infantry variant.

    3. cont'd

      While I do think that Asiatic warriors having more and better projectile weapons does factor, socio-econimic & cultural factors probably played a bigger part.

      Broadly speaking, lamellar armour has several characteristics:
      1) Low material requirement - It can be made out of almost anything, thus very suitable for material-poor cultures (i.e. steppe nomads etc).
      2) Can be manufactured quickly if needed be, thus making it idea for large empire like China that'd rather outfit tens of thousands of troops with okay armours instead of giving a few elite units the absolute best. On the flip side, lamellar armour can be a nightmare to maintain/repair/clean, so the long term cost is higher.
      3) While actually replacing broken lamellae and torn lacing are difficult, field repair is very easy, as you can simply swap the broken parts for a new replacement.

    4. Thank you for the references!
      I didn't think about all of these factors but now is even more clear why they didn't adopted on a wide scale mail armor, especially in the Chinese context

  5. Hello, this is Joshua again

    I always heard many comment that the Song Dynasty period have the heaviest armor in Chinese and it is also the time where their enemy wore the heavier armor than before, yet when I search more and more into the Tang Dynasty period, I found that the Tang also have a lot of heavy armor and almost all of their enemy are also heavily armored, like I mean full body armor like European knights. Could you check about it? What make the Song Dynasty period special in armor?

    If you want pic sources, I could give it to you.

    Also I found out that in the Tang Dynasty and 5 Dynasties 10 Kingdom, Chinese armors have a tubular sleeve that fully protect like mail, not only that, it seems that a lot of laminar and plate armor are also used. They even have a strange mail weave pattern I never see anywhere else.

    However I found out that all of it is almost gone by the Song era, could you find a reason for it? Why do the Chinese abandon rigid plate armor and laminar and stick with flexible lamellar and mountain pattern, while European use less and less mail and change to plate and other transitional armor?

    Also I think what you said about cataphract armor in the comment is right, it might be volatile, but in my opinion by the Tang period, armor technology around the world already surpass what the Roman and Sassanid have and would not be equalled until European full plate armor.

    Could you make an article about Chinese armor in the Yuan Period?

    1. Good day Joshua.

      Indeed, Tang had armours just as protective as Song "Cataphract" armour (if not more so, since at least some of them wore mail under regular lamellar), and their enemies (Tibetans for example) were also heavily armoured. The hearsay of "Song Dynasty heaviest armour" probably stem from the fact that we have some records on the weight of Song armour, but don't have any on Tang armour (as far as I know).

      As far as I am aware, tubular sleeve were only in use from Han-Jin period, and fall out of use after that. Some Tang armours have large, flexible zoomorphic "sleeves" but no pauldrons. I don't think the "plate and cord" armour or so-called "Mingguang armour" disappeared after Tang. You can still find elements of Tang armour on some of the Ming period "Ornate" armour.

      There was actually a period of overlap where BOTH Chinese and Europeans (and elsewhere) switched to cloth-covered metal armour such as coat of plates and brigandine. Even after the emergence of full plate, lower-ranked troops continued to wear brigandines.

      I think the reason Chinese stuck to lamellar and later brigandine was mostly economical - they're cheap and certainly "good enough". This happened whenever a state wanted to raise a relatively massive army, but still wanted the army to be reasonably trained, professional and well equipped.

      While some armours are objectively better than other armours, and I am hardly innocent for writing these comparison articles (I can't be complete without bias after all, and I actually had to edit my previous armour comparison article numerous times as well), the intension of including armours of other cultures is to compare and contrast the design considerations of these armours, not to rile up the feeling of "my armour is better than yours!". These armours obviously worked well on their respective battlefields/time period.

      As far as I am aware, Yuan simply inherited the Song/Jin/Liao armour designs whole and then passed them down to the Ming, with hardly any modifications (in fact, the guy wearing that "Cataphract" armour is likely a Mongol).

    2. "Yuan simply inherited the Song/Jin/Liao armour designs whole and then passed them down to the Ming, with hardly any modifications"

      Didn't the Yuan also introduced brigandine armor to China and Korea? There was a Japanese painting about the Mongol invasion of Japan and it seems that most of the Mongol soldiers on that scroll were wearing brigandine armors.

    3. @The Xanian
      Mongol (not necessary Yuan Mongol) introdution of brigandine is a possibility and most likely true, although far from a concrete theory, especially on how or when it happened. To my knowledge Ming and Joseon only started using brigandine during fifteenth century, several decades after Yuan period.

      Most Mongol soldiers on the Japan invasion scroll appear to be wearing 1) no armour 2) padded armour (no studs) or 3) lamellar. There are several soldiers wearing something that might be brigandines (with red coloured dots), but one of them actually his armoured skirt flipped slightly - and reveals no plates underneath. I personally think that those red dots represent stitches and they are wearing padded armours as well.

    4. Tang Tubular Zoomorphic pauldron

      Tang laminar arm armor

      Tang lamellar tubular upper arm armor

      That is what everyone said the Yuan dynasty doesn't introduce new armor.

      How many Yuan dynasty period scroll and painting showing soldiers are there? I have search for a long time, but only a very small amount and that are religious pictures meaning it is meant to be unrealistic.

      I mean even the painting of the mongol invasion of Japan already show different armor than the Song.

      Also where do you find the term for both Byzantine and Chinese armor components?

    5. Also the comment about plate armor, I don't know about that. Didn't the European produce a very large amount of plate armor for normal soldiers in the 30 Years War and even before that?

      The Chinese have certainly make large amount of metal plates before, I heard about metal plated ships in the Song-Jin war, so why not plate for soldiers.

      I think it may have been the way the Imperial Chinese military operate. The theater is very large compare to Western European theater where cities are close to each other, while the Chinese operate in an area more like Russia, although there are crowded areas, they would also operate in widely different climates such as tropical jungles and steppes, not only that, but China also have few amount of coastline meaning they have to travel long distances through canals or land.

      Lamellar and brigandine are easier to store. They can be folded to save space just like Japanese tatami armor. Meaning more armor can be sent or stored for more soldiers.

      Probably ease of repair for normal soldiers is also another reason. It is probably easier to replace lacing and lamellar plates than hammering back damaged plate armor without forges in the field.
      I mean try wearing a cuirass that have a hole from a musket ball or which have been ripped by cannonball, even when hammered the edge would still be sharp, whereas with lamellar you can just cut the lacing and tie new plates.

      Also what I find interesting is why the Japanese and Korean abandoned plate armor early on. The Japanese did return to plate armor, but the Korean generally did not.
      Maybe plate armor interfere with archery?

      Also what is your opinion about this armor?

      I have read about it being mentioned as Xiong nu armor and sometimes Yuan dynasty armor. It could also be modern creation and then buried to make it look old.

    6. @Joshua
      The picture with Tang tubular lamellar sleeves is new to me. I've seen that before, but did not pay attention to the sleeves. Come to think of it, those sleeves are remarkably similar to what the Byzantine used.

      Actually Mongol armours in the Japan invasion scroll are hardly any different from Song armour (most of them are without pauldrons though).

      There aren't many paintings from the Yuan period (since it isn't my focus), and what I have come across depict soldiers in "Cataphract" armours anyway.

      Byzantine terms for armour components really aren't that difficult to find, most of them can be found by Googling. For Chinese ones, I afraid you have to dig through numerous historical texts.

    7. On European plate, it was definitely a technologically advancement. However, there was also a general drop in the quality of soldier's kit during the same period - armies became larger, but troops became less armoured in general (which paralleled the situation in China, more or less). Top quality full plate with heat-treated steel became increasingly rare, even though they offered superior protection against firearms compared to wrought iron three-quarter armours used by 17th century cuirassiers, plus lighter to boot.

      While you can repair lamellar armour with less skill/craftsmanship, it gets damaged easily and pretty much requires constant maintenance, so I wouldn't say it is easier to repair than plate. Chinese switched to brigandine partly because they got pretty fed up with the (maintenance of) lamellar .

    8. Thank you for the information.

      If the Chinese switch to brigandine because of maintenance, why do they do it so late in history? Rivet should be available even earlier times than the Ming Dynasty.

      Also have you seen this thing?

    9. @Joshua Immanuel Gani
      AFAIK, early plate armours like the Japanese/Korean armours are pretty terrible in quality and a far cry from European breastplate, but I don't know much about them.

      The idea of riveting metal plates to the back of a coat probably didn't occur to them before 15th century... or so I thought.

      I know about that Mongol/Xiongnu "plate" armour. Personally I think that's more likely to be Mongol (since large Mongol laminar plates had been excavated elsewhere), but I can't be too certain.

    10. Isn't brigandine just scale armor except the scale is on the inside? How difficult it is to do it?

    11. @Joshua
      More or less. Brigandine is supposedly easier to make than scale/lamellar. Why it didn't appear earlier (for everyone, not just Chinese) is anyone's guess.

    12. True.

      Brigandine suddenly became widespread in the 14th century to 15th century and armies from Europe and Byzantine Empire to Mongol, Persian and Chinese start using it. Later on, there are also Rajput brigandine.

    13. Awesome discussion you guys had, I wanted to ask are they any good books funny evolution of Chinese armor or perhaps Central Asia armor in English also as to whether the Mongols use brigandine in the invasion of Japan yours is Museum in Japan that show some examples of armor used during The Invasion it's brigandine
      https ://
      https ://

    14. I'm sorry if none of the links I left work type in Mongol armor in Japanese Museum or something, you should see some images

    15. Where it says funny in my first comment it supposed to say good sorry I don't know what went wrong

    16. Good day Kevin.

      The thing with Japan's Mongol Invasion Museum is that it often mistakenly label various weapons and armours coming from China and Korea as Yuan armour. So I treat anything coming from them with huge suspect.

  6. Hemp was used in ancient China and the plant fiber is pretty tough. Depending on the specific species of hemp it could be tougher than linen. It could even be made into armor like linen armor reconstructions. It's likely that the thick hemp robes (worn underneath armor or by itself) of the Qin/Han terracotta army offer some protection against slashes and cuts, but not much against stabbing attacks.

    1. @The Artificer
      Good day and welcome to my blog.

      Padding for Chinese troops will make an interesting topic on its own, I will try to look into that.

      It is true that sufficiently thick clothing can be used in place of padding, plus China also produced silk and paper. Ming troops defenitely wore cotton padding underneath their armours, and sometimes over. Song troops MOST PROBABLY also used some form of padding made of other materials.

    2. Every Chinese armor I see almost always have some kind of backing that looks like leather, maybe that provide the padding.

      Do the robe the Chinese soldiers sometimes wear over armor act the same as surcoat didß

  7. Hello, could I ask you something connected to byzantine armour. I am looking for an answer : what is the white belt worn by many saints in iconography, f.ex. saint George. I send you pic here:

    1. Good day and welcome to my blog. I am far from an expert in Byzantine stuff (actually I barely know anything about them), but I think the sash is called "zone stratiotike" and seem to be the artists's attempt to emulate the military band worn by Classical Roman officer. Most I've seen are worn horizontally rather than diagonally though, and not all are white in colour.