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Armor has played a major role in Chinese society from the depths of prehistory to the modern era. The topic of Chinese armor is so very large that it is hard to choose one aspect of the subject. Should I show the Chinese god of war Guan Yu, resplendent in his plate mail or the gorgeous silk portraits of warrior emperors from yesteryear?  Should I write about the Red Army’s mechanized armor program–which began by producing feeble copies of Soviet tanks and has haltingly evolved in its own direction by adding watered-down copies of NATO tank technologies to Russian designs?  I could write about how China’s medieval military leadership adopted and modified the armored mounted archery tactics of the Mongols or about early pre-dynastic armor suits made from turtle shells.

Perhaps the best way to present this topic as a sweeping overview is through pictures. Therefore, here is a series of photos of Chinese helmets from different eras.  I have tried to arrange them chronologically, but, due to the eccentricity and exiguousness of internet sources, I may not have fully succeeded.  Likewise some of these are priceless museum pieces and others are worthless forgeries (I have my eye on you, peacock helmet).

Chinese Shang Dynasty bronze helmet dating from about 1500 BC found at Anyang.

Chou Dynasty helmet from Emperor Wu Wang tomb complex (circa 1020 BC)

A Bronze Helmet from the Yan Kingdom in the Warring States period (ca. 475-221 BC)

A second bronze helm and an iron helm from the Warring States period (476 -221 BC)

A Qin Helmet (circa 221 to 207 BC.)

I'm afraid this picture was the best I could find for Tang Dynasty Helmets (618 AD - 907 AD). It's a pretty remarkable picture though!

Alleged Song Dynasty style helmet/headdress

A Gold and Iron Helmet from the late Yuan (1271 AD–1368 AD)

Late Ming Helmet (end of the17th century)

Emperor's helmet: Qianlong period (1736 AD-1795 AD)

Mass Produced Chinese Helmet from Late Quing Dynasty (circa 18th Century AD)

British Mark II Helmet Used by Chinese troops in World War II

Chinese Cold War Crash Helmet Based on Soviet Design (1950's)

Contemporary Chinese Combat helmet

Kevlar Combat Helmet (ca. present)

One thing that is striking (other than the loveliness of the helmets) is the liberal borrowing from other military traditions from the Mongol era onwards: the Yuan cavalry helmet is a literal Mongol cavalry helmet; the 1940’s era helmet is a British doughboy helmet with a Chinese symbol, and the cold war crash helmet is a Russian knock-off.  The most recent helmet seems to be quite similar to the Kevlar helmets used by United States forces (which probably owe their shape to “Fritz” Helmets from Germany). It will be interesting to see what comes next on this list as material science meet military necessity in the future…

Ximen Bao was an engineer and a rationalist who lived during the warring states period in China.  He served as a magistrate for the Marquis Wen, who ruled the territory of Wei from 445 BC-396 BC.  During that time, the province of Ye (in what is now Hebei) began to decline and falter.  The Marquis sent Ximen Bao to find out what was wrong.

China 400 BCE: The Warring States (Thomas Lessman–Source Website http://www.WorldHistoryMaps.info)

Ximen Bao visited the main town of Ye on the river Zhang.  He was dismayed to find the fertile countryside depopulated.  Whole families were fleeing productive farms and leaving the rich land fallow.  The peasants feared the capricious god of the river, who could cause flooding and death (or alternately draught and starvation), but they feared the crushing taxes imposed upon them by the regional governor even more.  Most of all, they feared a local witch who selected a maidens from the area as a “brides” for the river.  Chosen girls were dressed in finery and tightly bound to sumptuously decorated floating platforms–which were then sunk.  These human sacrifice extravaganzas were the purported cause of the high taxes as well.  The governor levied annual taxes for the ceremony and then kept a majority of the proceeds for himself and his cronies.  People who complained discovered that their daughters were chosen as brides.

Upon finding this out, Ximen Bao arrived at one of the marriage “celebrations” with a troop of Wei soldiers.  As the ceremony started, he proclaimed the girl unworthy of the river god.  He commanded the witch to go down to the river bed and ask the river god whether the previous brides had been satisfactory.  When she began to equivocate, the soldiers threw her into the river (where she quickly sank beneath the current).  When the witch didn’t return, Ximen asked the governor’s cronies to see what was taking her so long.  The soldiers then threw them in the river to drown as well.

Ximen Bao Sends the Witch to Visit the River God

Ximen Bao sarcastically suggested that the witch and the officials were having lunch with the river god.  He was about to send the regional governor to fetch them, when the governor fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for the scheme. Ximen Bao stripped the governor of position and holdings (and then probably tortured him to death–as was customary at the time).  He used the proscribed wealth to build a series of dams and irrigation canals to bring the unruly river under control.   Ximen Bao is still revered for being the first Chinese official to tame a river by means of civil engineering, cunning administration, and, above all, the ability to see that religion was a con trick.

In China, famous generals, courtiers, and scholars have a tendency to undergo apotheosis: their lives and deeds become integrated into religion and folklore as they gradually come to be venerated as gods and immortals (in the way Yuchi Jingde became a door god).   Today Ximen Bao is venerated in China not as a supernatural being but rather as something much more rare and useful–an honest and clear-headed official.

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