Part 95 - Chinese Maille
by Lord Thomas the Black
“Never get involved in a land war in Asia!”
- Sun Tzu by way of General Westmoreland and William Goldman
Welcome back to another edition of Blackmaille!
Once upon a time, a patron approached our demo at renfest and asked if we knew how to make Chinese maille. In all my research, I had never come across such a thing, and indeed, in subsequent research, discovered that there is no such thing (turns out the patron was referring to Japanese maille, which we do know how to make, and in fact had samples of on the table).
This got me thinking, though. Why didn’t China produce maille? Between Russia, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe, they were geographically surrounded by countries that did produce maille, and did trade with maille-producing countries, so why no Chinese maille? So began a research odyssey into Chinese armor…
Chinese armor during the Song Dynasty (960 CE – 1279 CE) was produced in many varieties, but most were of either lamellar, coat-of-plates, brigandine, or scaled construction. The most significant development was that of Shan Wen Kai, or “Mountain Pattern Armor”. This was a type of scale armor of interlocked iron plates, which were vaguely shaped like the Chinese character for shen (mountain), hence the name. These scales were riveted to a cloth or leather backing.
Korean armor during this time was also of lamellar, scale, or brigandine construction, but tended to be made of larger pieces so as to be distinguishable from Chinese or Mongolian armor on the battlefield.
Russian Armor during this time was called “mirror armor”, and was nearly all maille, with highly-polished iron or bronze plates worn over it. These plates were usually round, resembling mirrors both in shape and in polish (hence the name “mirror armor”). This was believed to protect the wearer not only against cold steel, but against the Evil Eye as well.
Mongolian armor was influenced by Chinese, Russian, and Middle Eastern armor, but needed to be light for riding. Mongolian armor lacked maille due largely to the Mongols’ nomadic lifestyle.
Japanese armor consisted of lacquered plates laced together with silk cord. Maille in geometric patterns (such as squares or octagons) can be found in arm and leg defenses, but with the maille serving as a hinge to secure plates together, rather than being used as a defense in and of itself. During the Nanban Trade Period (1543-1641), “Nanban-Gusari” came into use. This was simply European 4-in-1 pattern maille hung 90-degrees from normal.
The Silk Road (or Silk Routes) is an extensive interconnected network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as, North and East Africa and Europe. The Silk Road gets its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade, which began during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), and was the major reason for the connection of trade routes into an extensive trans-continental network.
The Silk Routes (collectively known as the 'Silk Road') were important paths for cultural, commercial and technological exchange between traders, merchants, pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from Ancient China, Ancient India, Persia and Mediterranean countries for almost 3,000 years. Extending over 7,000 miles, the routes enabled people to transport goods, especially luxuries such as slaves, silk, satin and other fine fabrics, musk, other perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels, glassware and even rhubarb, as well as serving as a conduit for the spread of knowledge, ideas, cultures and diseases between different parts of the world (Ancient China, Ancient India, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean). Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome, and in several respects helped lay the foundations for the modern world. Although the term the Silk Road implies a continuous journey, very few who traveled the route traversed it from end to end. For the most part, goods were transported by a series of agents on varying routes and were traded in the bustling mercantile markets of the oasis towns.
The central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BCE by the Han dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian, but earlier trade routes across the continents already existed. In the late Middle Ages, transcontinen-tal trade over the land routes of the Silk Road declined as sea trade increased. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other products were traded, and various technologies, religions and philosophies as well as the bubonic plague (the so-called 'Black Death') also traveled along the Silk Routes.
It does not appear that armor and weapons were widely traded (or traded in at all) along the Silk Road. Being as it would have been mostly tradesmen and merchants doing business along these routes, this may help explain the lack of maille found in Chinese armor. Also, much as it was with the Mongols, the constantly-moving nature of trade routes may have prevented a maille industry from taking hold along the Silk Road.
The essential backbone of a maille industry is the availability of iron wire. This, in turn, depends on a region’s ability to mine and smelt iron ore into workable iron. While this subject will be explored more in depth in a three-part series beginning with next month’s article, I will touch on those aspects pertaining to China here. Wrought iron first appeared in China in 500 BCE, and began replacing bronze as the metal of choice for tools and such around 200 BCE. The Chinese even pioneered the use of a blast furnace hot enough to melt iron, leading to the earliest recorded uses of cast iron. Built during the Han Dynasty of China in the 1st century BC, these blast furnaces evolved from furnaces used to melt bronze. However, cast iron farm tools and weapons were widespread in China by the 5th century BC, while 3rd century BC iron smelters employed an average workforce of over two hundred men. These early furnaces had clay walls and used phosphorus-containing minerals as a flux. The effectiveness of the Chinese blast furnace was enhanced during this period by the engineer Du Shi (c. 31 AD), who applied the power of waterwheels to piston-bellows in forging cast iron. Iron was essential to military success by the time the State of Qin had unified China (221 BC). By the 11th century, the Song Dynasty Chinese iron industry made a remarkable switch of resources from charcoal to bituminous coal in casting iron and steel, sparing thousands of acres of woodland from felling. This may have happened as early as the 4th century AD.
China currently leads the world in iron mining (520 Million metric tons/year). This seems to have always been the case. Per capita iron output rose six-fold between 806 and 1078, such that, by 1078 China was producing 127000000 kg (125,000 t) in weight of iron per year. China remains both one of the top producers and top consumers of iron ores worldwide. Clearly, then, availability of raw materials was not the issue behind China’s lack of a maille industry.
Horses in Asian Warfare
Horses in East Asian warfare are inextricably linked with the strategic and tactical evolution of armed conflict. A warrior on horseback or horse-drawn chariot changed the balance of power between civilizations. When people with horses clashed with those without, horses provided a huge advantage. When both sides had horses, battles turned on the strength and strategy of their mounted horsemen, or cavalry. Military tactics were refined in terms of the use of horses. As in most cultures, a war horse in East Asia was trained to be controlled with limited use of reins, responding primarily to the rider's legs and weight. Horses were significant factors in the Wu Hu attacks on China, and the Mongol conquest of much of Eurasia; and they played a part in military conflicts on a smaller, more localized scale.
The Chinese warhorses were culled from the vast herds roaming free on the grassy plains of northeastern China and the Mongolian plateau. The hardy Central Asian horses were generally short-legged with barrel chests. Speed is not anticipated from this configuration, but strength and endurance are characteristic features. Even then, a horse can only carry about 30% of its own body weight, so the lighter Asian horses were ill-suited to the task of carrying an armed warrior in a full suit of maille. In the late Ming Dynasty, the marked inferiority of the Chinese horses was noted by the Jesuit missionary and ambassador Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who observed:
"[The Chinese] have countless horses in the service of the army, but these are so degenerate and lacking in martial spirit that they are put to rout even by the neighing of the Tartars steed and so they are practically useless in battle."
A major proponent of the change to riding horses from chariots was Wu Ling, c. 320 BC. However, conservative forces in China often opposed change, and cavalry never became as dominant as in Europe. Cavalry in China also did not benefit from the additional cachet attached to being the military branch dominated by the nobility. It is possible that while strength is not a factor, getting these animals to carry a rider in maille (which can weigh up to 80 lbs in addition to the rider himself, and their equipment), as well as the lack of an established military cavalry may have been dissuading factors in the building of a maille industry.
While we may never know for sure why China never developed maille of their own, we can nevertheless speculate on the available evidence. It appears that the lack of maille in China is the result of a number of contributing factors. Lack of armor traded on the Silk Road, a nomadic lifestyle, and the size of the Chinese horses (and their lack of natural aggression) all seemingly conspired to dissuade the building of a maille industry in a country surrounded by maille-producing nations.
Thanks for joining us for another edition of Blackmaille! As usual, any questions, comments, fan mail, or hate mail can be sent to me at:
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 A History of Metallurgy http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab16
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