Heavy Song Dynasty Armor 宋朝重甲

The 宋 Song dynasty (960–1279) was by no means a large dynasty by territory nor exceptionally powerful when compared to the greatest of China's dynasties, but the singular ways in which armor was constructed during this era was nothing less than exquisite. In short, Chinese armor design during this time reached its zenith in sophistication and artistry.

Ultimately, the Song dynasty would field some of the heaviest armors in all of Chinese history in its struggles against its fierce barbarian neighbors. Both men and the horses would often be very heavily armored and also decorated with elaborate silk scarves, tassels and fringes. The already- elaborate Souzi 琐子, or known in the western academia as"Mountain scale armor" or "Mountain pattern armor" reached its most sophisticated form in this era, as well as the heavier lamellar armor. Below we will examine the general development of armor in early Song dynasty, then Song era armors in detail.

Before I continue, I'd like to direct your attention to Mr. Wen Chenhua 温陈华's amazing Weibo page, nearly all of the images you see below are from his blog, which features his wonderful armors from his forge and his practice hall. Go support him.


The 宋 Song dynasty (960–1279) was by no means a large dynasty by territory nor exceptionally powerful when compared to the greatest of China's dynasties, it was faced with a myriad of aggresive hostile neighbors on all of its fronts~ from the Khitan Liao dynasty in the northeast to the Chinese-Tibetan intermixed Tangut kingdom of Xixia in the northeast.

The Song dynasty was born in chaos after nearly 53 years of constant civil war between rival successor states (commanded by highly independent military governors) that scrambled for supremacy after the disintegration of the Tang empire. Those seven decades of bitter internal strife became- in time like a crucible that actively stripped off many of the old ways of warfare that were no longer relevant, and by the end of the raging chaos~ forged a new dynasty, a proven form of warfare, and a new way of making armor.

Mountain pattern armour (Chinese: 山文铠; pinyin: shānwénkǎi) began to appear during the Tang dynasty and was further perfected during the Song dynasty. This type of armor is made from a multitude of small pieces of iron or steel shaped like the Chinese character for the word "mountain" (山).

Above: Song dynasty lamellar composite armor. By the Song dynasty, various distinctive "Chinese" elements in armor, such as the incorporation of scaled/ lamellar pieces of pauldrons and tassets, grimacing heads of demons/ animals, and protective straps were all combined into an elaborate and composite form. 

When the Song finally proven its supremacy by conquering the last three of the remaining kingdoms- China Proper had been warring in a Balkanized fashion for 72 years. By then much in armor had changed.

Instead of the massive maelstrom of cavalry on cavalry warfare that characterized early and mid Tang warfare, where a decisive sweep or sudden outmaneuvering could whirl the tide of battle, the Song army~ which largely consisted of massed blocks of crossbowmen and halberdiers- having lost most of the horse breeding north and western regions- resorted to innovation, quality, and their immense economy to offset their general lack of cavalry troops.

Mountain pattern armour (Chinese: 山文铠; pinyin: shānwénkǎi) began to appear during the Tang dynasty and was further perfected during the Song dynasty. This type of armor is made from a multitude of small pieces of iron or steel shaped like the Chinese character for the word "mountain" (山). By the Song dynasty, various distinctive "Chinese" elements in armor, such as the incorporation of scaled/ lamellar pieces of pauldrons and tassets, grimacing heads of demons/ animals, and protective straps were all combined into an elaborate and composite form. 

An elaborate reconstruction of a Song officer's gilded mountain scale armor. During the early Song dynasty, long aventails made of rows of small interlinked lamellar plates were still attached to the back of the helmet. Elaborate carved heads of lions, tigers, and demons hinges shoulder pauldrons and serves to lock the belt to the torso. Partial armor usually covers the bracers and the greaves and the topside of the boot. 

Reconstructed Song dynasty scale armor for an officer.

Contemporary diagram of a Song dynasty armor. Displaying the intricacies of a Song officer's helmet.  

Song dynasty helmets: to lighten the general bulkiness of the Tang design, most Song era helmets eschewed the heavy and stressful radiating folds and instead chose to enhance the cheekguards. These cheekguards would morph into elaborate designs throughout the dynasty,- most often in the form of jutting gilded wings or stylized nimbus.

 A wedge of heavy Song dynasty cavalry- both the men and their mounts are encased in elaborate mountain scale armor, note the elaborate~ almost floral shaped chanfrons (head armor) worn by the horses typical of the Song dynasty- in many cases such extravagant horse helmets would also be gilded- or copper gilded as to further enhance the already resplendent mount.

Above: A side by side comparison of a heavy Song dynasty horseman's armor placed next to the armor of a Jin dynasty cataphract~ called the "Iron Pagoda Cavalry" (or "Iron Buddha Horseman") the Jin eventually became the mortal foe of the Song dynasty, contended with the Song in a full century of bloody battles.  


  1. Usualy the (northern) Song are known for an absolutly horrible military preformance. I doubt that most troops of the Songs 1 million army in the provinces wore such armor?

    Concidering its very high armor production tough it would have been possible to outfit more soldiers with metal armor cheaper then any other dynasty ever could. If so, then the many victories the Khitan or even Tanguts had over Song armies numbering over 100 000 must have earned them quiet an income in scavenged armor allone.

    1. You are right to point out to at least the Norther Song's performance- specially during its cataclysmic collapse to the Jin invasions, Wuzhu was able to destroy no less than 7 armies on his march down south before being stopped around Nanjing. Though I would contend with you about the performance of the transitional period between the Northern and Southern Song (1130-1140) That's where figures like Han Shizong and Yue Fei deftly dealt a series of devastating blows to the great Jin war machiine.

      But back to you points. I have never said these are the armor of the laymen soldery. Most of the Song levies wore little armor, most had uniforms that were similarly colored (but not unified) with wide brimmed hats. If they wore armor, its mostly a lamellar chestplate or lamellar square for their torso.


      Mid tier to professional level troops (as opposed to provincial) troops did indeed wore armor, but again, mostly scale, lamellar torso armor, with paldrons and bracers- they also usually wore them under cloths and robes. Like this 12th century contemporary Song painting.




      Example in modern Chinese painting of a warrior in Water Margin

      The heaviest of the heavies are very rare in the Song army, because of the general unavilibility of horses and metals. Both problems exaggerated after they have lost the central plains to the Jurchens. However trade with Tibet negated some of that problem: See Tea- Horse Trade between China and Tibet.




    2. Sorry I must have formulated my toughts wrongly.

      From what i know the northern Song did in their early period wage several wars against bouth Khitan and Xia, usualy with very little sucsess. While they did slowly manege to gain the upper hand over the Xia, the Xia were a rather weak foe compared to the Khitan and the losses of the Song were so high that these victories could be compared to the Soviet victory in its war against Finalnd 1940.

      The Jurchen did manege to defeat the Khitan several times in a row despite being outnumbered, but when Huizong decided to use this ocasion and sent 150 000 men under the (only bearded eunuch in history) Tong Guan, they were easily annihilated by the Khitan border troops under the command of the future Kara Khitai ruler. From what I know this weakness was "a feature not a bug" since the Song state was on purpose built in a way that prevented the any kind of strong army. Basicly going the oposite way from that of the Tang.

      Later the Jurchen maneged to crush the song armies and march towards the capital 2 times in a row.

      It was only after the Song seemed to have fallen that skilled leaders like Yue Fei did basicly build up armies from scratch and trough their own skills, intelligence and charisma brought thous forces on a level that the neglected armies of the Song state could have never achieved. It was these armies that defeated the Jurchen before they were one could say stabbed in the back by their own emperor who was afraid to cede his throne to his brother who was in Jurchen captivity and who was moved by filial piety to his mother, whoum the Jurchen released.

      The Southern Song army was much stronger tough and there was propably no state that gave the Mongols as hard of a fight as the southern Song.

      I always did wonder how the Southern Song did manege to preserve a mandarin dominated social order while at the same time having a very strong and combat ready army and what made them different from the northern Song.

      You write about a lack of metal. If the Greenland ice caps are to be believed the Song produced more iron then any state in the world previous to 18th century Europe. Curious that such a state would have a lack of metal.

    3. I hear you, but I have to say the reason I don''t collectively condemn the Song's record is because before the Song unified China, it had to spend nearly 20 years crushing the other rebel forces, they were like one of the many states of Japan's Senkogu Jidai, in a 72 year of endless civil war- most of the time, their founders served . Check out this map~ the fact they have to emerge at the center of the Battle Royale and managered to gobble up most of their neighbors' its not a small feat, specially considering they were probably the riches and best armored militaries in the orient. Like a Roman Civil War


      Having emerged from a~ say massive civil war that literally spanned almost the total years of the USSR, especially with the memory of how the great Tang in later year was balkanized into tens of dozens of warlord states, its it not a wonder how the Song would want to rein in on their military governors, who might easily do the same if given the chance?

    4. History, if anything, repeats after all.

      Now. As for the performance of the Southern Song and its bastardized form of Mandarin and army. All I have to say is necessity dictates reality. The Southern Song was born as a remnant state of mandarin system locked in a mortal struggle. So both factors are simultaneously true for them. And in time, became the dual identity of their messy existence. Not by choice, but- again, by necessity .

      I didn't know about the last part in regards to metal. Not at all. Most of the Chinese sources I ran across lamented that the Chinese have very little metal as well as armor for its lower tier troops. Maybe they were lying. Those self hating bastards! Maybe they were Mongols pretending to be Chinese!

      JK. I genuinely didn't know that one. Perhaps that the Song used a great deal of metal in industry but the army was neglected? I only have conjectures, all I have to say is that I have to look deeper on that one.

    5. You are certainly right. From what I know Taizu himself was a skilled general and his army was of a very high quality. But after unification he enacted laws that deminished the armies preformance and quality, hance its horrible preformance in the next centuries. Once these restrictions were lifted due to crisis (when the Dynasty nearly fell to the Jurchen), the Song army soon learned how to preform very well again.

      What I dont understand tough is why Taizu didnt complete the unification of China before retiering all of his generals tough?

      And yes the Song did seem to have desiered to prevent the fate of the Tang, who have once created a massive empire and even reigned over much of the great Steppe for large amounts of time but fell due to ambitions of generals. And they certainly did succseed, creating propably the best run state the world would see till 18th century France (or even Prussia). Still concidering the neighbors the Song had, such a neglect of the military seems extremly short sighted. Its one thing to be antimilitarist in Europe ala post 17th century Switzerland or much of Italy......If you even get invaded it dosnt hurt that much.
      But if your neighbors "moral philosophy" can be summed up with "The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters." It just spells disaster.

  2. Interesting tough how the Jurchen, basicly a seminomadic semihuntergatherer people of Tungusic stock did manege to create such a potent military mashine. The khitan were far from weak themself. Even a force of khitan refugees did manege to obliterate the main host of the Seljuks. The very same Seljuks who drove the Byzantines out of Asia minor and overall dominated the Muslim world east of Egypt. Still the Jurchen did destroy the Khitan.

    1. That does not surprise me at all. Realize that Jurchen were Khitan vassals, and fought with them on extended, daring campaigns. The military experience was there long before any of them thought of turning on the Khitans.

  3. Also I have to say that I never did understand why China proper was unable to effectivly produce horses.

    At first I tought it was because of the need to use all land for agriculture but only the great rivers with their dense irrigation network were that densly populated for most of Chinas history. There was a lot of land on the periphery that was free.

    1. It could produce horses, but think of the land's main uses. When you have good arable lands beside a river, what do you mostly use it for?

      1. use the flat lands to breed horses to sell, barter, trade, tether all of your people's existence to herds, travel everywhere with them during seasons, only have a small family. And if other people robs you and take your lifestock- or if they all caught a disease you and your family die with them (unless you go on raiding) or~

      2. make use of them so they became the breadbasket of one of the largest areas of sustainable agriculture, get a huge population from there who would pay for annual taxes that dwarves that of any European state, have a regular hierarchical structure from it that delivers on its duties and promises, that's able to raise complex armies from it, and become so powerful as to project your power to the northern steppes and southern jungles because of such surplus. Knowing there are so few areas of arable lands in the world, especially in the Middle East and Northe Africa, it'd probably choose the latter.

      There was a few examples where China proper was devastated and almost made into pasture lands, during the Era of Fragmentation in the Han collapse, much of northern China was owned and dominated by steppe overlords, some simply let the farming infrustructure to go to the waste and most of northern China became a patchwork of warlordoms without much sophistication in economy (though art and Buddhism flourished, but you can't raise a nation based on only those two things right?)

      Another was when the Mongols came, originally both Ghengis and Ogedei slaughtered millions in Central China and was perfectly fine with slaughter the whole of Central China and turning it all into pasture lands for horses. But they were convinced when they realized that to tax people annually will allow them to farm gold. So they tolerated it.

  4. Song metal production is a hotly debated topic. As much a debated one as is Romes peak metal production. Speculations range from 40 000 to 150 000 tonns anualy by the end of the Northern Song. Just as the numbers for the Roman peak (200 AD) range from 10 000 to 85 000.

    Geological methods do give certain information tough and they seem to support the high end numbers for bouth Rome and Song China.

    And its to be expected that the Song would have neglected the military and much of the metal production would have been consumed by the massive civilian economy. Since the Song dynasty was marked by large scale privatisation and for China atypical support for and tolerance of Comerce.

    So would you say that the Soutehrn Song were so small and so beset by foreign threats that this created a unity between the scholar official class and the military that alowd them to effectivly work togather?

    1. Btw about metal production. from what I know it was very high under the Song and much lower under the Ming who did suffer under a terrible lack of metal in all sectors of society. From the economical historian Broadberry: "A famous politician and historian of the Ming dynasty, Qiujun, estimates that the Ming output of the metals and mining sector was about one to two tenths of
      the level of the previous dynasty (Daxue Yanyi Bu, Vol. 29, Shanze Zhili (profits from metals and mining))." From what I have read the Song originaly used woodcoal for their metal industry and were facing an environmental catastrophy due to deforestation. But then they learned how to use black coal and coke, rising the metal industry even further. The question of "could the Song have achieved an industrial revolution if their development in this direction would have continued" is one historians in the west have debated since the 1940s. I personaly am sceptical due to the lack of a scientific method, still concidering their ever expanding network of foreign trade it could be possible for Greek ideas (trough the Muslim world) to have gotten into China.
      We did after all see some interest in Greek philosophy in the late Ming (just as there was one in Europe for Confucian philosophy at the same time). It is there that the origins of the scientific method can be found. Or maybe the Song would have developed their own, after all they did experience an expanding rate of education, literacy and urbanisation that was very different from the agrocratic chinese norm with its hostility to cities.

      Some oficial data shows that in the state owned manufactures in one province (Shaanxi). Metal output grew from 24,00 tons 995 to 15,180 tons in 1080.

  5. Thank you for the answer about horse and overall livestock breeding.

    The problem for me in such an explanation is that the core territoy of China didnt change from the Han conquest of the south till 1911 while the population there did grow from 50 million (Han) to 60-80 million (Tang) to 100-140 million (Song) to 160-200 million (Ming) to over 400 million (Qing), most of this expansion was acomplished trough the expansion of arable land. Since there was land to expand into this would mean that under the Han, Tang or even Song there was masses of "free" land that wasnt extensivly used. Since horses were expansive and you can breed a lot on free land I dont understand why some enterprizing peasents or scholar gentry wouldnt take some of this low intensivly used land, breed horses on it and get (very) rich. Or why the state itself didnt launch such programes (Just as I cant understand why for instance the Tang government didnt settle Han peasents in central Asia or why Taiwan remained uncolonized for milennia). I know that Wang anshis protosocialist reform programe did include state sponsored horsebreeding but from what I have read it ended as badly as most of his reforms.

    1. About horse breeding:

      From what I know the Han dynasty had about the same population that the Roman empire (50 million, Rome might have even had a higher one with 70-90 million) and about the same territory. Untill the late Tang the south of China was also relativly little populated.


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