Chinese arms and armour

To celebrate the coming Chinese New Year, this month we take a look at the number of remarkable objects from our collection that demonstrate the fascinating and pioneering development of weaponry in China.

The Ming sword – 15th century

The Ming-era sword is a later example of a jian sword (sword with a double-edged, straight blade), although single-edged swords were starting to become far more prevalent as functional swords from the Northern and Southern Dynasties onwards.

The Ming sword is a particularly precious item in the Royal Armouries collection because armour and weapons from the time of the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) rarely survive. The name ‘Ming’ was adopted as a dynastic title because it means ‘bright’ or ‘shining’, and this stunning sword certainly lives up to that association.

Close up of wooden scabbard covered in green stained leather and bound with gilt iron.

The scabbard of the Ming sword

Composite bow

Archery has one of the longest and most admired traditions of any martial skill in China. In fact, composite bows dating to around AD 200 have been excavated from burials in the border territory of Xinjiang. We have a number of elaborately decorated composite bows and archery equipment on show in the Oriental Gallery.

This bow takes the shape typically associated with Manchu-style bows and Chinese archery during the Qing dynasty. The belly of the bow (facing towards the archer when strung) is covered with albino horn. This is translucent and the painted surface beneath shows through, allowing pictures of clouds and immortals to be seen quite clearly. The bark-covered back (facing away from the archer when strung) is colourfully painted with human figures, dragons, flowers and clouds, as well as decoration at either end of lotus blossoms and similar.

Close up of bow, with ears covered on top and bottom with ivory, with black lacquered or painted decoration on top

Close up of bow, decorated with a painted human figure

Bow, painted with human figures, dragons, flowers and clouds

Lamellar armour

From around the fourth century onwards, lamellar armour became very widespread across the Steppes and China, and we have several interesting later examples of lamellar armour. These armours are all examples of lamellar cuirasses/coats and helmets which are on show in the Oriental gallery.

Close up of leather panels, lacquered black on the outside with decoration in red and yellow.

Close up of leather panels, stitched together to form the chest defence

Mounted lamellar coat and a helmet. The coat is full length, and the leather is lacquered red and gold. The helmet is hemisperical and lined with leopard skin

Lamellar armour and helmet

Dagger Axe (ge) – 399–300 BC

Dagger-axes were one of the most important weapons wielded by Chinese troops during the Shang, Zhou, Qin and early Han dynasties. This blade can be dated to the Warring States period due to its shape with the downward curve and perforations. The thick tang would have been slotted through a wooden haft and the whole weapon lashed into place. This dagger axe is one of our oldest Chinese weapons and resides in stores because it is too fragile to be put on permanent display.

Dagger with double edged blade and wooden scabbard, lacquered with a scene of men with spears hunting animals.

Dagger axe (ge) and scabbard (399–300 B.C.)

Discover more in our Arms and Armour series.


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