seven-lever catapult

According to the imperial encyclopedia of the 14th century, there were 4,478 walled towns in China at one time. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Song period is a good point to take stock of China's military technology. First, warfare was central to the history of the period. The confrontation between the Song and the three successive non-Chinese states to the north (Liao, Jin, and Yuan) made warfare not only a major preoccupation for those in government service, but also a stimulus to rethinking major intellectual issues. Second, we have illustrated sources for the military arts of the period, in particular, “The Essentials of the Military Arts,” published in the eleventh century. Most of the illustrations in this section have been drawn from this book. Third, the military technology of the Song-Yuan era can be compared to that of Europe in the same period. In this era, although China did not win all the wars, it had surprisingly advanced military technology. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“Traditional weapons such as spears, axes, clubs and swords remained in use into the twentieth century, never fully supplanted by firearms. The handles of clubs, maces, and axes could be up to three or four meters long. “The Essentials of the Military Arts: pictured two-edged swords, "iron whips" and "wolf-tooth maces". In an illustrated version of “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, a general holds a long-handled halberd with a long blade under his arm. “The Water Margin” shows various weapons in use in cavalry fighting and bombarding attackers. /=\

“From very early times, soldiers wore armor and used shields to protect themselves from arrows. Horses, which were more important than ever when the Song was coping with the Jin and Yuan, were also armored. Armor was often made from the hide of a rhinoceros and then lacquered. So many rhinoceros were slaughtered for this purpose that the animal was largely wiped out in China and rhinoceros hide had to be imported. /=\

“As in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, military equipment was often embellished in ways that served no utilitarian functions. Generals often wore elaborate armor and carried well-crafted shields and quivers. An armored officer probably had armor for his horse and made a shield depicting a demon king. /=\

Chinese Crossbows

crossbow arming method

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Crossbows were in use in China by the fifth century B.C. and quickly became an important element in the warfare of the Warring States period. Where other bows rely on the strength of the archer, the crossbow has a mechanical trigger, so that many releases could be made without tiring the crossbowman. The Chinese development of the crossbow depended on bronze technology advanced enough to allow manufacture of accurately machined trigger-mechanisms. Early crossbows were portable and mostly operated by one archer. They became popular for the defense of royal entourages and for hunting; the later multiple-firing crossbows were intended for military campaigns. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“Crossbows were also used in the West. They were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and by medieval times in Europe, the crossbow had evolved into a powerful weapon capable of penetrating armor. Chinese crossbows could pierce several layers of iron armor, but in China, where the defense and attack of walled cities was the primary focus of military campaigns, the crossbow was valued for its ability to deliver volleys of bolts even more than for its power to penetrate. /=\

“Crossbows remained one of the major weapons in Song times. In the eleventh century, Shen Gua argued that the crossbow is to the Chinese what the horse was to the Khitan -- the asset that gave them their advantage. In field battles against foreign cavalry, the Chinese infantry would have a row of pikemen with shields, rows of archers, and a row of crossbowmen. When the cavalry approached, the crossbowmen would shoot first above the crouching pikemen and bowmen. The pikemen and archers would shield the slower-firing crossbowmen, who, however, could inflict more damage.” /=\

In a scene from shows a famous story from “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, the Shu strategist, Zhuge Liang, successively "borrowed" 100,000 arrows from the rival state, Wu. With his arrows in short supply, he covered the Shu boats with hay, so that the arrows from Wu would stick and could be collected later. /=\

Although the crossbow was a very effective weapon, using one took training. Some crossbows had the loop hanging from the armed bow. By inserting his foot into the loop, the soldier could pull down the bow as he pulled up on the string until it caught in the trigger mechanism. Others had a "belt-claw," which hooked onto the bowstring so a soldier could pull it back into the trigger mechanism while pushing the bow away with his feet. A triple crossbow from the Song period would have taken as many as 20 men to operate and had an effective range up to 125 yards. The heaviest one was said to take 100 men to operate and had a range of 175 yards. /=\

Attacking Cities in Medieval China

attacking a fortification

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: ““Warfare in this period usually aimed to capture cities, which were the centers of both commerce and government. Therefore, this unit deals primarily with the type of weapons, implements, and strategies used in attacking and defending cities. Before firearms were invented, crossbows and catapults were the most important of these weapons. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“The Chinese have been building walls to defend cities since the Neolithic period. Walls were usually built with pounded earth, but often, in later periods, faced with brick. The small wall immediately behind the moat, known as a "sheep-horse" wall, it created a space in front of the main walls where animals could be corralled when the area around a city was evacuated. It was also another barrier to attacks. /=\

“Cities isolated on a plain were less vulnerable than ones in rougher terrain, where the enemy would have more places to hide and rocks offered ammunition for catapults. When an attack seemed likely, one defensive measure was to evacuate nearby residents, both to protect them and to protect the city against the possibility that they might reveal information to enemy forces.” Defenders would also generally clear a space around the city to gain an open view of an approaching army's activities, and at the same time deny the enemy access to firewood, ammunition, or cover. This sometimes meant that the enemy would run out of food, firewood or fodder long before a well-stocked city would exhaust its supplies. /=\

“One of the ways to begin defending a city was to send out troops to attack an encroaching army before it got to the walls, as depicted in illustrations from the novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” After a siege was well under way, garrisons often mounted sorties outside the walls to destroy enemy siege engines or supplies and raise morale within the city...When a city did fall, civilians were encouraged to flee, but soldiers were expected to stay and fight. The sack of a city was usually gruesome, with indiscriminate slaughter and desperate attempts to buy mercy.” /=\

Medieval Chinese Sieges and Siegecraft

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “After surrounding a city, attackers would begin by delivering leaflets via arrows to explain the consequences of resistance or the rewards to be given to those who surrendered. When that failed, as it usually did, the attackers would bombard the city with crossbows and catapults, then attempt to scale the walls. They would bring in equipment such as bridges, ladders, carts, and towers, many on wheels, to help in breaching the walls.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

cloud ladder

There is a picture of a "cloud-ladder" in “The Essentials of the Military Arts”. “Scaling ladders were already being used in the Warring States period. The "hang-over-the-sky" ladder was another version of scaling implement. The "fork" cart, another movable seige tool, would have been used by the attackers to chop at the walls. The pivoting beam terminating in long claws would sometimes have been attached to a long ladder for extra height. When a wall's integrity was breached, other implements such as "buildings in the void," "flying ladders" and "cloud ladders" would be moved into the holes thus created to allow invaders access beyond the walls.” A striking cart was used to attack watch towers. One pictured in “”The Essentials of the Military Arts” has three ropes on either side of a pole attached to either side of the cart, keeping the pole upright. /=\

When the attacking side was close to the moat and the walled city, folding bridges could be used by both the attackers and the defenders. A folding bridge is depicted in The Water Margin. Other types of bridges included a suspension bridge or "fishing" bridge. Revolving bridges were connected underground to a mechanism inside the gates. When the connecting pin was disengaged, the bridge would turn over and anyone on the bridge would fall into the moat. /=\

“An early version of the tank had a rigid spine and was covered like a tent with oxhide. It was designed to protect men as they were brought close to the wall. Incendiary arrows could be shot at the cart, but if the oxhide was fresh enough, it provided some protection.” When an army approached a city's walls it was is bombarded by items dropped from above -- one of the major lines of defense. In the eventuality that the gates failed to hold, defenders would have implements such as the "knife cart for blocking up gates," to roll into place.” /=\

“The enemy's approach to city walls was often severely restricted by the many items raining down on them from above. Underground warfare was therefore a significant part of siege warfare, and is one of several reasons for moats-one of the methods to push back invading miners was to set up fans, such as that shown at left, which would propel smoke (sometimes poisonous), fireballs, and various types of shrapnel forward into tunnels.” /=\

Chinese Catapults

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “By the Sui-Tang period, catapults were used by both attackers and defenders, in both siege warfare and field operations. A catapult is a device for hurling stones or other objects. The basic principle in a catapult's operation is a central lever mounted in counterpoise, like a see-saw. Song catapults could throw objects several hundred feet. Deploying catapults required a large number of soldiers, but could cause serious damage. “The Essentials of the Military Arts” lists 18 types of catapults, including both movable and fixed ones. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

On a counterweighted catapult, the arm extends in front at the left, and the wide ring around the bottom of the arm is probably a sliding weight. The large box is the counterweight and could be removed from the rear supports. Among the variations of the fixed catapult were the "one-lever" catapult and the "seven-lever" catapult (seven lengths of wood tied together). The thicker lever is stronger, and so had a greater range. With "whirlwind" catapults projectiles could be hurled in any direction. /=\

20080212-warship 22u wash.jpg
Song-era warship with a rudder

Chinese Warships

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ China has one of the longest histories of shipbuilding. The square ship in the Warring States era was already double-bodied and made up of two junks secured together side by side. Third century warships had eight compartments. Paddle-wheel boats were invented in the late Tang and widely used in the Song. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“The Song period saw major advances in shipbuilding with improvement in speed, security against foundering, adaptability to marine conditions, and steadiness. The Southern Song navy was much larger and comparatively stronger than that of the Northern Song, mainly because it needed to keep northern armies from crossing the Huai and Yangtze Rivers. The navy had both small ships and larger vessels. A strong navy of an attacking army could come right up to a riverside city. If a ship's deck was high enough, soldiers could step from it to the top of the city's wall. /=\

Small boats were used when approaching a walled river city. "Sea hawks" were invented in the Tang and had floating boards on each side to stabilize the ship. By the Song, sea hawks usually had four to six boards on each side. Song ships were also strengthened with iron in the hull. Some had several decks to keep the ship steady. /=\

Song battleships were equipped with fire-bomb catapults and incendiary arrows that used gunpowder (discussed in other sections). Sometimes protected stations on upper decks were created for crossbowmen who also played the role of watchmen. Warships depicted in “The Essentials of Military Arts” carried flags that read "commander" and had huge rudders and war drums. /=\

Gunpowder and Military Uses of Fire in Medieval China

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “In China, military strategy focused on outsmarting the enemy, by whatever means possible. Fire was used as a weapon of war since it inspired great fear and confusion among the enemy. Those in charge of defense had to keep the danger of fire in mind and military guidebooks outline in detail the ways to prevent fires from spreading rapidly during attacks. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

fierce fire oil cabinet

“As an offensive weapon, fire was delivered to enemy camps in a variety of ways. Animals with unpredictable behavior, such as birds, were frequently used. To the left are oxen stampeding with burning hemp lashed onto their tails, and below is a fire cart. When used in combination with ladder carts, hook carts, battering rams and tanks, fire could be a particularly useful weapon. Chinese military strategists sought ways to create effects from a distance. For example, by Song times they had sophisticated methods for producing smoke. Gunpowder's potential to move objects therefore made it attractive to military strategists designing weapons. /=\

“Gunpowder was first used by people seeking immortality (though this esoteric use of it was probably not known to most Chinese). The first textual evidence of a proto-gunpowder formula is contained in a work dated about 850. So far as we know, Essentials of the Military Arts records the first true gunpowder formula and describes how to produce it on a large scale. Its first use in warfare was as an incendiary, or fire-producing, compound. /=\

“Gunpowder was of many different types. Chinese texts identify blinding powder, flying powder, violent powder, poison powder, bruising and burning powder and smoke-screen powder. Starting from the Tang or the beginning of the Song, small packages of gunpowder wrapped in paper or bamboo were attached to arrows, which marked the first use of gunpowder in war. These would be lit with a fuse of some kind, so that the arrow became an incendiary, intended to set targets afire.” There were different types of javelin-propulsion methods. Arrows were equipped with gunpowder chambers.” /=\

“Evidence of the first bronze hand-held gun dates to the early Yuan dynasty, but metal barrels were used as early as the Tang dynasty for fire lances that propelled gunpowder bombs intended to burn targets.” The earliest excavated gun, from the early Yuan dynasty (1332), was mounted on a wooden housing. A wooden tube would have been inserted in the wide mouth for extra range. /=\

Medieval Chinese Bombs and Flamethrowers

Flying-clud thundercalp erupter

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Two crucial innovations were needed before the Chinese developed rockets propelled by gunpowder. First, the idea of a counter-balance had to be conceived. A counter-balance would allow the rocket to move on a straight trajectory. The second innovation was a hole bored into the exact center of the gunpowder in the missile tube. This would allow the gunpowder to burn evenly and provide efficient thrust. This process of boring into the gunpowder was extremely dangerous. Both of these developments occurred during the 12th and 13th centuries. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“During the Song, smoke bombs, incendiary bombs, gunpowder grenades, and the usual shrapnel objects such as rocks were used in siege warfare. Hemp or cotton would be soaked in oil, ignited, and catapulted outward. Bombs made of iron shells resembling gourds in shape could shatter a city wall. Gunpowder bombs were a mixture of gunpowder and shrapnel such as charcoal and iron scraps. The range of such "firing balls," or bombs, could be from ten to a hundred yards. “The Essentials of the Military Arts” also lists the formula of a gas bomb, which could contain poisonous elements. This would have been used in tunnel warfare, a significant aspect of siege activity. It was also in the 13th century that bombs started to be used as land mines./=\

Different types of bombs included raised "flower" and ball bombs. The "thunderbolt-ball" was a package of gunpowder and iron scraps attached to a bamboo core. A small amount of gunpowder left outside the ball would explode the contents inside. A whirlwind catapult could hurl such bombs. The "eruptor" fired cast-iron shelled gunpowder bombs, some of which would explode only on contact, hence its name, the "flying-cloud thunderclap eruptor." Non-explosive smoke bombs had been in use since antiquity. The "bamboo fire hawk," had gunpowder and small stones wrapped inside bamboo and hay. /=\

“While Europe, by 675, had a single-acting force-pump contraption that could spurt flames, much like a syringe shoots liquids, it was not a true flame-thrower. For a true flame-thrower a continuous streaming of flames has to be achieved. The Chinese were able to do this by the use of a double-action piston-bellow, which would force the kerosene out of the barrel on both the forward and backward strokes of the pump handle.” An illustration of a flame-thrower from “The Essentials of the Military Arts” shows a tank, a pump, and an ejector. A continuous stream could be maintained because of the use of a double-acting piston-bellows. /=\

"Fire-spurting lances" were also invented in the Song. Bamboo was used as a barrel to hold the gunpowder, though by the Song, metal barrels were also used. Some had narrow barrels and could be held by one person. Others were mounted on wooden frames and can be understood to precede the modern cannon; these were called eruptors.” /=\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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