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A Study of Chinese Weapons Cast During
Pre-Qin and Han Periods
in the
Central Plains of China
By
Cao Hangang

The ancient weapons of China have spawned their own brilliant and splendid history. As early as Palaeolithic times, the Chinese had divined how to make stone implements and bows and arrows that could not only be used for fishing and primordial farming but could also serve as weapons in the interminable clan wars. In fact, as a result of the rapid growth of clan warfare in the late Neolithic period tools originally used for farming were modified to become weapons on the battlefield. Weapons soon developed in their own right.

Not long after, the ancient Chinese created and mastered the art of bronze smelting, which in turn nurtured a flourishing weapon technology that was the envy of the world during the Shang and Zhou periods. During the Spring & Autumn period, China developed steel and iron-made weaponry, and as the raw iron castings technique was widely practiced - and the ‘folded hundred times steel’ casting method was on the rise, along with various polishing techniques for steel - Chinese steel weapons were very much on the ascendant. Generally speaking, the invention of gunpowder by China in the 8th century introduced a new era in weapons, as China took the lead in manufacturing firearms.

The Origin of Weapons
Prior to the Qin and Han dynasty, weapons were classified as bing 兵 (arms), xie 械 (tools), qi 器 (utensils), bing jia 兵甲 (armour), bing zhang 兵杖 (staves), etc. The origins of the weapon can be traced back to Zhiyu Palaeolithic times – some 100,000 to 20,000 years ago - at which time pre-historic weapons were discovered in Shuo County in Shanxi province in 1963. The star attraction from the excavation was the shi zu 石鏃 (stone arrowhead). It is the first ‘long-range attack weapon’ unearthed in China. Although its shape is very primitive, it suggests the rude form of the metallic arrowhead.

The Peiligang culture, which flourished some 8,000 years ago, is the earliest Neolithic culture yet discovered in the central plains. Most of the implements from this period are whetted stone tools including shovels, sickles, knives, axes, stone balls, and so on. Of these, the stone sickle pre-dated the dagger developed in later periods. It looks like a flat triangle with a bow-shaped top with shaped teeth on the blade. Relics of bone, horn and teeth of animals unearthed in Jiahu also function as weapons like the arrowhead, dart, spear, dagger and knife (fig. 1).

During the Yangshao and Longshan periods, specially shaped weapons used exclusively for combat entered a new phase of development. The stone weapons of this period can be distinguished by their smooth surfaces and shaped edges. At that time, many types of weapon appeared (e.g.) spears, both ‘normal’ and long-shafted, axes and battle axes, long range attack weapons including bows and arrows and sling rope, protective weapons such as the stone-dagger and stone-stick and defensive implements such as shield and armour, made in rattan, leather or wood. In addition, weapons made from bones and shells emerged with the tide of the times.

In the excavated site of Dadunzi in Pixian County in Jiangsu province, whose history dates back 5,600 years; an archaeological worker discovered a tomb. The corpse in the tomb, of a middle aged man, was considered to be a clan warrior because a dagger was found in his right hand and a stone axe under his left thigh, in which an arrowhead was found embedded. Evidently, the arrowhead had broken off after penetrating the leg. . This analysis provides us with convincing proof that the weapon was a tool for killing.

Yancun in Linru County in Henan Province is a site of Yangshao culture. A large, red- paste vat was found there in 1980. On the surface of the vat, there is a painting coloured with brown and white inks, named the “Marabou, fish and axe”. The axe with handle in that painting affords us an opportunity to determine how the axe was installed and used (fig. 2).

During the period spanning 1993 to 1996, a site pertaining to ancient Yangshao culture was discovered in Xishan in the northern suburbs of Zhengzhou City. The site was 4,800 to 5,300 years old. The site measures approximately 30,400 square metres, with its ramparts built to high standards. A moat surrounded the ramparts to form a tight defensive system. Two city gates and a defensive structure like an observation building (fig. 3) were discovered north of the west city gate. The site of Xishan is the oldest site in the city and built with the most advanced methods available in the Central Plains. These structures were the forerunner of large-scale city wall constructions and demonstrated great creative power. At the same time, building a city wall indicated that tensions between the clans were escalating, and also symbolized the later formation of cities as well as the commencement of human civilization.

Renowned academic Engels commented that ‘the erect high wall on the periphery of a new fortified town did not happen without reason. Their deep trench symbolized an end to the clan system, nevertheless, and their gate towers represented the fact that civilization had arrived.’

Tribal conflict and plundering occurred during the Longshan period, erupting more and more into large scale war. The War of the Zhulu described in ancient history and legends occurred in this time. In the war, the northern tribe alliance headed by Huangdi (黃帝) defeated the eastern tribe alliance headed by Chiyou. It was said that ‘Chiyou made five kinds of weapon’, which suggests that it was during this period that that Chinese weapons were first created. Finally, the weapon and warfare itself hastened the disintegration of primitive society.

Many ancient sites of the Longshan period have been discovered within the boundaries of Henan province, such as the the ancient cities of Mengzhuang in Huixian, Hougang in Anyang, Haojiatai in Yancheng, Pingliangtai in Huaiyang, Wangchenggang in Dengfeng, and Guchengzhai in Xinmi. The spontaneous emergence of cities complemented the emergence of increased clan warfare. Therefore, the city with a strong defence became increasingly popular. The ancient city of Pingliangtai is approximately 4,500 years old and it already employed square shapes, which explained its urban setting. The city walls are 740 metres long and 6 metres high. Its base depth is 13 metres and the top width measures 8-10 metres, suitable for holding a large number of troops in preparation for battle. This construction of the wall employed the advanced ban-zhu technique (literally, board construction), which rams earth down layer by layer to become a very steep inner wall subsequently strengthened by having two protective slopes built on each side of it. This method made it difficult to be attacked. At the city gates, we also discovered two sentry boxes and it is not difficult to imagine the martial-looking image of the guards holding their weapons.

More importantly, in some Longshan sites we found evidence of bronze casting. Bronze pieces have been unearthed from the Dongzhai site in Zhengzhou City and from the site in Niuzhai in Zhengzhou City and Meishan in Ruzhou City we also unearthed some crucibles which were used in bronze casting. In a cellar from Wangchenggang in Dengfeng, we found more bronze ware. Bronze residue was discovered in a Pingliangtai city ash pit. The appearance of those bronze wares heralded the beginning of bronze weapon development in Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Bronze Weapons
Since the emergence of bronze casting technology, bronze has been used on a large scale for casting weapons, with the most advanced casting technology applied. This suited the prevailing credo of ‘what was important to the country could be attained through sacrifice and war’.

China’s first dynasty to impose the slavery system was the Xia Dynasty, established in the 21st century B.C.. Records show that the Xia dynasty ‘has troops of soldiers’ in ‘Wutaibo shijia’ of ‘Shih chi’. This indicated that the Xia dynasty had already established an army.

Bronze weapons such as spears, arrowheads and axes were unearthed in the Erlitou site, from the ruins of the Xia dynasty and represent the earliest bronze weapons discovered in China. These bronze weapons were obviously distinct from tools in form. In addition, some jade weapons were unearthed, like the poleaxe, knife, spear and so on. Jade poleaxes were very fine and symbolized power (fig. 4).

Tang, leader of the Shang dynasty, defeated the Xia dynasty in 1,600 B.C. The size of the Shang Dynasty army obviously expanded. According to oracle inscriptions from the Shang Dynasty, ‘The king has three armies - right army, centre army and left army’, indicating that the Shang dynasty had already established a military force of a certain scale. The development of bronze smelting and casting technology in the Shang Dynasty provided physical and technical factors for weapon development, both in quality and quantity.

If we consider Xia to be a dynasty that mainly used primitive weapons such as stone weapons, then Shang was the dynasty that predominantly used bronze weapons and changing the look of weapons in a fundamental way. There was a considerable production of bronze weapons was in the Shang Dynasty. In one king’s mausoleum of the Shang dynasty in a northwest hill of Houjiazhuang, archaeologists unearthed 72 bronze spears with wooden handles, 731 bronze lances in bundles and 141 bronze helmet in assorted forms. Such massive amounts of bronze combat weapons buried in a mausoleum indicate the scale of bronze weapons’ development at that time.

Besides the great development in quantity, bronze weapons in the Shang Dynasty noticeably developed. The three basic categories of edged weapons times, the long-range weapon, the long weapon and short weapon, have been reviewed. Of the unearthed objects, the offensive armaments are the spear, the lance, the knife, poleax, bow and arrow, the chariot and so on, while protective equipment, includes leather armour and bronze helmet, etc. . Each kind of weapon excelled the former in the functioning as a tool of war. With the diversifications of forms, improvement of standards, and the enhancement of function, bronze weaponry had become specialized. After the middle period of the Shang dynasty, chariots served as the primary means of battle. As a result, long-handled weapons such as poleaxes and spears became the primary weapons during conflicts involving chariots.

In 1976, an astonishing 1,928 relics were unearthed from the grave of Fu Hao in northwest Xiaotun in Anyang. The quantity, variety and excellent quality of artefacts included many types of chariot. The grave contained not only jade poleaxes, spears, lances, etc and used for guard of honour duties but bronze spears, poleaxes, arrowheads and other weapons used for battle. Two gigantic, fine molten bronze poleaxes are most noteworthy. Each of the two is eight to nine kilograms in weight and bear the engraved inscription ‘Fu Hao’. One of them is decorated with double tigers biting the human image (fig. 5). These two big copper poleaxes symbolize the military standing of Fu Hao. According to oracle-bones, Fu Hao, Wu Ding’s wife, had delegated the king to preside over the sacrificial offering and commanded the army to attack Qiang Fang in the west, Tu Fang in the north, Ba Fang in the southwest and Yi Fang in the east many times. Hou Gao, a great general of Wu Ding times, led the forces of Fu Hao. The army she led to attack Qiang swelled to about 13,000, which indicates the great scale of the the war. Thus it can be inferred that Fu Hao was the first female military commander in Chinese history.

In 1046, Wu Wang overthrew the Shang dynasty. Records reveal that Wu Wang of the Zhou dynasty led ‘300 chariots, 3,000 heroic men and four to five thousand soldiers with armour to crusade against the Zhou king’. After defeating the Shang dynasty, the Zhou dynasty divided its army into three parts. The army in Luo Yi was referred to as Luo Yang and could not only control the eastern states and surround and protect the Zong Zhou to the west but could also overawe Huai Yi to the south and Youyan to the north. So, Luoyi was the east capital of the Zhou dynasty strategically placed in the east, playing an important role in consolidating the rule of the Zhou dynasty.

The archaeological discovery of Cheng Zhou site in Luoyang also confirms literary records. Many weapons have been unearthed from the graves of West Zhou times in Luoyang. In the aristocratic graveyard of West Zhou dynasty in Pangjiagou in Luoyang, pikes, spears, swords, halberds, and arrowheads have all been discovered. Excavation of the large-scale site of the bronze foundry of West Zhou times in Beiyao in Luoyang revealed massive weapon, chariot and harness casting which provide important material for the study of the Western Zhou Dynasty’s weapon manufacturing skills.

Weapons from the Western Zhou dynasty states continue to be discovered in the central plain. The archaeological excavation of the graveyards of Wei state in Xincun in Xunxian County, Ying state in Pingdingshan and Guo state in Sanmenxia confirms the appearance of weaponry in Western Zhou times. In the graveyard of Guo state in Sanmenxia, two monarchs’ mausoleums were discovered. They are M2001, the mausoleum of Guo Ji, and M2009, the mausoleum of Guo Zhong. A variety of weapons like jade poleaxes were buried with the dead in the west of the outer coffin. The most important of these weapons is an iron sword, which has a jade handle and bronze core. The weapon measures approximately 33 centimetres. The sword blade is wrapped with silk fabrics and is encased in a fine leather scabbard. (fig. 6). Some turquoise items have been decorated on the area connecting the handle and blade. This sword was made manually with smelted iron, according to tests conducted by the scientific and technical university of Beijing. Thus, the history of China’s manually smelt iron is fixed at the later period of the Western Zhou Dynasty. The sword is called ‘the first steel sword of China’ and signifies the advent of the Chinese steel and iron weapon.

Iron and Steel Weaponry
During the Spring & Autumn Period of the Warring States Period, China invented many superior casting processes like the wrought iron technique, crude iron technique, wrought steel technique, cast iron technique, cast iron for decarburized steel technique, tempering technique and standardized iron casting technique. These technical innovations caused China’s iron and steel smelt technology to advance rapidly and put it ahead for a long time in this field. Steel and iron weaponry had already appeared during the Spring & Autumn Period. According to the literature available and archaeological data, steel and iron weapons had already appeared in the Chu, Yan, Qin, Han, Zhao, and Wei during the Warring States Period. Items such as the sword, knife, halberd, spear, arrowhead, polearm and armour launched the development of steel and iron weapons during the Spring & Autumn Period of the Warring States Period.

It was during this period that feudal lords strived for hegemony, and their military forces were already 100,000-strong. The frequency and scale of battles spurred the increased production of weapons and tools, and advanced technology.

The casting technique for making bronze weapons matured during the Spring & Autumn Period. Profiting from the high temperature technology of pottery manufacturing and mature copper alloy technology, China’s bronze weapons could be considered as among the best in the world from this period onwards.

‘Kaogongji’, a book written in the late Spring & Autumn Period, is the earliest handicraft industry technology work extant in the world. The book has summarizes weapon manufacture for vehicles, bows, arrows, armour, weapons with handles, etc. It also explicitly details technical standards for the selection of materials, proportions used, manufacturing expertise and quality control.

In the Spring & Autumn Period, weapon performance had improved and variety increased. The spear was constructed with several perforations and lengthened. The handle was improved. The bronze sword was lengthened. . The famous swords of Gou Jian, Prince of Yue (fig.7) and the sword of Fu Chai, Prince of Wu, are representative of this period. The bronze halberd was developed as was the spear and dagger-axe. The bronze crossbow was used extensively, an obvious enhancement in long-range weaponry.

War by chariot blossomed in the Spring & Autumn Period. The great states of feudal lords had "thousands of speeding chariots, thousands of armoured chariots, tens of thousands of armoured soldiers". It is evident that chariots and soldiers armed with bronze weapons had appeared on an unprecedented scale. The earliest chariots can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty. In 1972, a well-preserved vehicle was excavated in Xiaomintun in west Anyang from which we may extrapolate the original form of chariot during the Yin Period (殷代). Afterwards, chariots and harnesses from the Zhou dynasty were continuously unearthed The chariot pit group in the Zheng aristocrat graveyard in Zheng and Han City best represents quantity, kind and scale. There are more than 3,000 aristocrat graves and 23 chariot pits of large and middle scale in the graveyard of Zheng state, a huge chariot pit group (fig. 8). Its large quantity and scale is affords a marvellous insight into the culture of Zheng in the Spring & Autumn Period.

When seven states strived for hegemony during the Warring States Period, conflict was frequent and on an increasingly large scale. At that time not only did combat by chariot increase massively but ‘the state with thousands of chariots’ and ‘the state with tens of thousands of chariots’ were chronicled. The emergence of infantry and cavalry and the formation of different types of troops, deeply transformed battles strategy, a transformation that deeply affected the development of the weapons industry. First, every country set up regulatory units to monitor the production of weapons. As the scale of production expanded massively. Secondly, the casting technique of bronze weapons had become highly standardized (e.g.) through the emergence of the folding technique, after-casting treatment and tempering technique, gold and silver inlaying technique, gilded gold technique, etc. These techniques made the shaping and styling of bronze weapons more logical and resulted in enhanced function. Thirdly, long handled weapons were highly suited to pitched battles; while the importance of chariot weapons kept pace with the development of weapons suitable for infantry and cavalryman.

The weapons of the Han state in the Warring States Period are quite famous. The Tang Xi (棠溪) sword was regarded as the number one sword of the nine best swords of China, and was named by the renowned ancient historian Sima Qian (司馬遷). Scholar Liu Xiang (劉向) from Han Dynasty had written a poem called ‘Nine Praises’, honouring the Tang Xi sword – ‘A bare touch of Tang Xi’s blade is enough to cut one’s flesh’. Bronze casting and iron casting workshop ruins were discovered in the site of Zheng and Han cities. They could produce swords, halberds, and arrows etc. In 1971, a bronze weapon vault from the later Warring States period was discovered in Baimiaofan village in the south east city of Zheng Han with 80 bronze spears, 90 bronze lances and 2 bronze swords. Some 170 of them have engraved inscriptions featuring the geographic name, official and date of production. These weapons and the engraved inscription have a vital significance in the research of ancient topography and history, the smelting and casting government office establishment, weapon construction and the casting craft of the Han state in the late Warring States period.

In 1935, a mausoleum thought to be that of the prince of Wei from the later Warring States Period, was excavated in Shanbiaozhen in Jixian County. Spears, lances, swords, halberds, arrowheads and like weapon were discovered. The most noticeable relic is a pair of bronze mirrors which were engraved with a design depicting amphibious warfare (fig. 9). This design could be divided into three parts and its pattern was made in copper-gild craft. Its content can be said to portray the real situation of the war in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. It is known as the war sketch chart of attacks of more than 2,300 year ago. The design vividly depicts ancient war. The infantry war, boat war, personal combat, attacking a high place from below by ladder, the rolling logs and stone throwing are all images that can clearly be seen in the chart. Each mirror design involves 286 people in all kinds of movements, each vivid in depiction. Content includes the system of war drums, flags and scaling ladders as well as shields, halberds, arrows, stones, boats, oars, uniforms, etc. What a bright large-scale work it is! What an impressive sight!

The Qin Dynasty first unified the feudal country. Although the Qin attempted to develop steel and iron weaponry bronze weapons were still favoured by the army. Bronze weapon manufacture reached its zenith during this period. The swords, acupuncture needles, spears, arrowheads, etc. unearthed from the Terracotta Figures Guarding the Mausoleum were as new although they had been buried for more than 2,000 years. They were as knife-edged as before. The swords and arrowheads were chromate oxidized which indicated that this technique was used in China some two millennia before the rest of the known world. The manufacture of bronze swords reflected the excellent processing techniques such as casting, filing, rubbing, polishing and so forth.

The Han Dynasty is the important period in the history of China’s steel and iron weapon development. Infantry and cavalry became the main branch of the martial services and the size of the army expanded. The steel industry developed enormously during the Han Dynasty. Henan Province - which has discovered the most iron smelting ruins of the Han Dynasty – has unearthed 18 Han iron smelting ruins in 14 counties and cities, according to statistics. The Iron Ditch in Gongyi City, Guxing town in Zhengzhou City, Wafang Village in Nanyang City and Zhaoxian Village in Wen County are the most representative four ruins. The excavation and study of these iron-smelting ruins indicated that an increasing number of superior smelting and processing technologies were invented and used in the mid and late Western Han Dynasty. Regardless of intensity degree of hardness or toughness, the steel in this period obviously surpasses bronze weaponry and enabled weapon renewal. In the last years of the Western Han Dynasty, steel and iron weapons essentially superseded bronze weapons.

Crossbows were the most important and universal weapon in the Han Dynasty. A special unit in the army was equipped with the weapon, which is called "Chai Guan Jue Zhang". The crossbow, a long-range weapon, was developed on the basis of a bow with a long arm and It proved to be a lethal weapon. The bronze crossbow trigger mechanism appeared some time around the Spring & Autumn Period and comprised Wangshan (sight), Xuandao (trigger), Gouxin (tooth and two keys) . The bronze crossbow trigger mechanism and the wooden crossbow arm, the bow and the crossbow arrow comprised the complete crossbow. Compared to the preceding period, the crossbow represented obvious progress. A bronze rim was added that caused the crossbow trigger to form a whole system. It could then stand a bigger pulling force and correspondingly increased the tension of bow and shooting distance. On the other hand, the Wangshan was heightened and a sight added, which increased the strike rate.

In 1972,A crossbow trigger mechanism from the East Han period was discovered in the grave of Zhang Wan in Lingbao County in Henan province. There are five scale divisions on the Wangshan (sight). On one side of the rim an engraved inscription explaining the crossbow trigger mechanism was made by officer Kaogongling in the sixth year of the Yongping period (63 A.D.). We can realize by this that one first loaded the crossbow trigger mechanism in the wooden arm tail trough, then installed various parts and fixed them with two bronze keys to hold the rim in the slot. A bamboo bow was installed in front. The strength size of the bow is calculated by the unit "Dan". This crossbow’s strength equalled 240 kilogram pull-weight according to the engraved inscription "eight Dan".

Ancient weapons developed because of the transformations of society. The development of ancient Chinese weapons followed a unique path. Both weapon manufacture technology and their variety reflect national characteristics, and. Made big strides in long-term development. Advanced weapon technology not only elevated ancient Chinese weapons to the leading position in the known world for a long time, its dissemination of steel and iron smelting technology to other lands - including the invention of gunpowder and firearms – has irrevocably changed civilization and human progress.

 

 

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