Weapons of Ancient China - History
Did we create weapons to for death or for life?

On this page . . .

You will find out about the Ancient and Traditional Weapons, approximately when they appeared in history, their significance and how they fit into Chinese development and history.

First Finds

One of Chinas Oldest Citys
Hover over the pics for more info

It would be difficult to define the difference between tools and weapons or to speculate which was first. Looking at prehistoric discoveries we find a lot of stone knives, spear and axe heads. This defiantly establishes tool and weapon existence hundreds of thousands of years ago. Wooden tools would not have lasted this amount of time so our only reasonable source of information needs to be stone implements. But then again, spears, arrows and axes need wood as handles. This suggests that we knew the basics for using a stick and a club. Finally, we can again only speculate that rock throwing was also part of a Cave dwellers repertoire for hunting . . . and defense.

From this we can deduce that items such as the spear, knife, etc. could be dated back to 2 million years BP. Whereas the first metal implements appeared in the Middle East and Southeast Asia some 8000 years ago making those the oldest metal weapons and tools around. This would make Bronze Age Chinese Weaponry as some of the oldest in the world.

Conflict or Commerce

This still leaves the question open; what came first, weapons or tools. Did humans design implements for killing each other, or did they design tools to help each other. Perhaps we will never really know. There is a long-standing argument amongst historian as to which it was; the Weapon or the Tool that brought Humans together. Why did humans urbanize?; what caused us to work together; was it an external threat or an internal need? Was it War or Peace?

The Weapon view speculates that the main reason we came together into towns and villages was for reasons of security. That we needed to primarily protect ourselves from nature and from each other. It suggests that we banded together like Zebras, where greater numbers will secure the survival of the species, of the tribe.

The Tool view speculates that it was commerce and trade that bought us together. That we sought to improve our lives and we sought to exchange goods and services with each other. For this we needed town and trading centers, traders and transporters. And all that come with handle and trade.

So which was it; was the 'Weapon of War' or the 'Tool of Commerce' the main (but not only) reason we humans became civilized. Was it War or Peace, external or internal motivation for us to start being civilized? For a long time there were no conclusive evidence to suggest either the one or the other and all arguments were just that. Yet, a recent discovery of the oldest known city/village on record (as reported on the National Geographic) suggested a possible answer, if we go with the logic of the discoverers.

The First City

The First City

With the unearthing of the city and artifacts it was interesting to note that there was a predominance of materials used for commerce and trade and very little evidence of weaponry and stifle. This has lent more credence and weight to the view that we were motivated to live in city's because of commerce and trade not war and fear (although there will also be an element of this too). This is actually a very satisfying as it suggest that humans were bought together in Trade & Commerce not Strife and War!

This allows us to speculate that many of our weapons are derived from hunting, farming and civilization, rather than predominately for killing each other. Yet, this is not to say that it stayed that way. What happened then is chronicled in the following paper on the History of Traditional Chinese Weaponry.

Stone Age

The Stone Age was the time before the use or discovery of metals; when tools and weapons were made of stone and wood. It started around two million years ago and finished at different times in different parts of the world. The Middle East and Southeast Asia were the first to end this period through the discovery of metals around 6000 BCE (Before the Current Era). Europe followed some 2000 years later around 4000 BCE and a bit later the rest of Asia and Africa. In the Americas it started when human beings first arrived in the New World some 40,000 years ago and ended in some areas about 2500 BCE at the earliest.

First Weapons

The earliest weapons utilized may well have been the Axe and Knife as these would have been essential to life and food. Not much later the Bow or Spear would have also been very prominent (In archaeological studies, a grave was uncovered with a body whose skeleton, penetrated by a bone arrowhead illustrates the transfer from tool to weapon).

Stone Axes, Sharp Stones (Knifes) and Hammers were very popular tools and thus have also been used as weapons. Axes evolved over millennia becoming thinner, sharper, and harder culminating in the Tomahawk or throwing axe. It was not only a popular weapon but also a symbol of social status (A jade tomahawk discovered in the tomb of a noble proves that at that early time artisans are already producing ceremonial weaponry - on its upper corner is the carving - an immortal riding Tiger like beast, and on the lower corner was the pattern of a bird)(unclear sentence, please clarify.

Knifes would have evolved both into the knife we know today but also the Sword. And as we know now, there is much symbolism and ritual that surrounds the Knife and Sword. Bow and Arrows much later evolved into Cross Bows and even Siege Bows. Spears developed into many different types of Spears and long Lances.

First Metals

The Iron Age

Copper is created in volcanic areas high in concentrations of hot sulfuric solutions. No one knows exactly when copper was first discovered, but earliest estimates place this event around 9000 BCE in the Middle East. Silver is known of by mankind since Pre-History, and its discovery is estimated to have happened shortly after that of copper and gold. The oldest reference to the element appears in the book of Genesis (silver or gold? Also, "The Epic of Gilgamesh" beats Genesis by some 2000 years on that score (Sandars, 1972, pg.75) (3000 BCE)(Sandars, 1972, pg.7).(N.K. Sandars, 1972, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books, London).

Weapons would have started taking on clearer shapes and different sizes. Ornamental as well as functional weapons would have found their first appearance then. Yet, Copper was relatively soft so Stone Weapons and Implements would have continued to exist side by side.

Bronze Age

As people began to add lead and tin into copper to make the alloy Bronze (9 times harder than Copper), stone weapons declined. As early as the Warring States Period (480 BCE to 221 BCE), there are records on the casting of wares in Bronze: different proportions of those three metals could make weapons of varying rigidity and temper. This would have applied to Weapons and Tools.

The Bronze Age also was not at the same time everywhere, because different groups of people began to use bronze at different times. In Western Europe, the Bronze Age lasted from about 2000 BCE until 800 BCE. In the Middle East, it started about a thousand years earlier.

Archaeologists think that people became more organized in the Bronze Age. This is because making metal tools and weaponry was difficult and needed special skills. The people who had these new skills would have been important. Before the Bronze Age, in the Stone Age, people might have been more equal. The new metal tools were bought, sold, or traded across large distances.

Metal Age

In the Western Zhou Dynasty (1040 BCE), weapons made of the naturally occurring Siderite (a widespread mineral that is an ore of iron) had been manufactured. These are the earliest known examples of ironwork in the world (source). With refinement of the process, iron weapons became all pervading during the late Warring State Period (480 BCE to 221 BCE), enduring through Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE), and till the Han Dynasty (206 BCE.- 9 CE). However, since few iron weapons had had an exterior process(coating?), they are corroded when excavated. This adds a level of difficulty when compared to those of the Bronze Age; as the latter, through a natural process of oxidation, were protected by this oxidized layer from further corrosion (which is why many statues were made from this metal). For all intents and purposes, plastics have not supplanted the Metal Age.

Age of Catapults

Crouching Tiger Catapult

The late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) was the first to develop Stone Throwers or Catapults. These were greatly used in the Three Kingdoms Period (220- 280 CE) and many were made of wood and iron, being able to throw large stone balls some distance.

Initially, the Stone Throwers were used in defense. City's placed large Catapults just inside their walls to defend against invaders. Thus huge stone projectiles were thrown over the wall at attackers who sometimes did not even see these projectiles coming. This would have been a huge advantage initially, having stones rain down from heaven.

The Stone Thrower or 'Pao' was a significant development and is immortalized in the Chinese Chess. It follows the original basic principle as when stone throwers were still behind walls (not on top or attacking them). It attacks another chess piece only when there is a chess piece between the Pao and the target.

Age of Shields

With the rise of cavalry during the Western Han Dynasty (206 - 9 CE) an oblong shield appeared that soldiers could hold one handed. It was bound to the left forearm of mounted soldiers. With time and experience the shield changed shape in many ways. Originally it became to circular and the Northern and Southern Dynasty (420 - 588 CE), used a long hexagon. Another Shield Style prevailed with the shield face introverting vertically like a leaf. When in battle, it could either be held, or placed on the ground with the support of a stick and other shields, forming a sort of Shield Wall.

Age of Iron Armor

In the Western Han Dynasty, iron armor replaced leather armor and evolved into fine scale armor and plate armor. Scale armor shows a high level of technical know-how, with typical Scale Armor sets comprising of around 2,200 components. During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265 CE) chain armor developed, for protection from arrows and became very popular (did scale armor not come between mail and plate? Mail is infamously ineffective against arrows?). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) the trend changed from heavy armor to light maneuverable armor. With the advance of metal work these lighter armors were still being able to withstand the thrust of a spear (at least the better worked armor).

Age of Steel Armor

With the development of steel armor, stronger, lighter and easier to wear, not only soldiers but horses wore the armor. This turned the horseman into a veritable tank making them almost impregnable to anything short of siege engines. Thus the Quan Dao made famous by General Quan (Kwan) some 1000 years earlier to cut of the legs of charging horses to bring the rider, lost its place on the battlefield. Spears evolved into lances to give greater reach and thrust, and were used exclusively by cavalry, offering a high power of penetration.

Age of Warships

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) is the key period of the development of Chinese warships, no matter what the scale. Oars in the Western Han 206 BCE to 9 CE, rudder in the Eastern Han (25-220 CE), both were the brilliant achievements. The scull changed the way of thrashing from front/behind to left/right and improved the efficiency, which was the precursor of modern helix thrusters. The helm made up the flexibility of steering, sailing course of oar and paved the way for European exploration (unclear sentence, please clarify). In the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 CE), warships of large scale stood out. In the records there had been a ship combining many hulls with a length and breadth of 180 meters and could hold more than 2,000 people on board. Atop was fixed a wooden city, and horses could gallop through the four city gates. In the Sui Dynasty (580-618 CE), an extremely large ship over 30 meters high was built that could hold 800 people. Until the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) nearly all the armies used warships. Many reports of 110 meters ships with towers, skirt-board and wheel-oars are recorded.

Age of Hot Weapons


In the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1125 CE), gunpowder began to be used in weaponry and the earliest experience in the world. In the Compendium of Military (what?), we can determine that there were three production methods for cannonballs, which were hurled by a stonejacker (pre Cannon designs) as in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265 CE). In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE)), Records of Defending Cities by Chen Gui showed the earliest use of flamethrower's. People at that time held powder in a thick bamboo tube that spewed fire in order to burn the enemy.

Age of Fire Arms

The shooting fire weapon Huo Chong made of metal came about in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 CE). It was the predecessor of firearms. When soldiers used it, they usually foisted (?) powder into the powder chamber, fixed the powder wick and the stones, and then lit to shoot. In the following Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it played an important role in wars and was the most advanced weapon worldwide. Huo Chong with larger caliber evolved into the cannon, and the ones with small caliber evolved into guns.

Although hot weapons once occupied the top place in Chinese Weaponry, they didn't develop much further according to the Training Records (or Lian Bing Shi Ji - Ji Xiao Xin Shu and Lian Bing Shi Ji , two military books by the famous anti-Japanese general Qi Jiguang) cold weapons (steel) were still dominant. While afterwards powder spread to the Western world, and firearms were quickly employed. Until the merchantmen of Spain and Holland brought the latest Guns and Cannons back to China during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Chinese had not realized their own lack of development (an old Chinese proverb describe the nature of Chinese innovation states "we have forgotten far more than we remember").

The imported cannons in the Ching Dynasty had a high reputation and received individual names such as 'Great General in Red'. However in the late Ching, it fell again behind during the confrontation between westerners and Chinese.

Age of Western Weapons in China

Having suffered the failure of the Opium War in 1840, officials of the Ching Dynasty began to import western weapons and the Chinese weapons industry came to an end. In 1900 the famous Boxer Rebellion was quashed and the 250 year old resistance against the foreign invaders who ousted the last Chinese Dynasty, was utterly crushed. Yet this defeat was short lived as 11 years later, this dynasty was finally ousted and not replaced with a new sovereign. A time of unrest and conflict began again until 1949

After the foundation of Modern China in 1949 CE military weapons manufacturing took the path of the Western Weapons. Old ways and methods were discarded (including TCM, Kung Fu and Tradition Kung Fu) in favor of Mao Tse Tungs vision of a modern Western orientated Communist country.

Influences on the View of Chinese History


Because of its length and complexity, the history of the Middle Kingdom lends itself to varied interpretation. After the communist takeover in 1949, historians in mainland China wrote their own version of the past; a history of China built on a Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism being at its peak. Historical events became a function of the class struggle and Communist ideals. Information that did not fit was discarded and often destroyed, no matter how conclusive it was (this type of behavior is not limited to Chinese Governments but a fact of many in the past and present; the Chinese just did this so well). Historiography became subordinated to proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the Chinese Communist Party to suit their direction and Goals. A series of thought-reform and anti-rightist campaigns were directed against intellectuals in the arts, sciences, and academic community to the point of death or incarceration.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) further altered the objectivity of historians. Yet, in the years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, interest grew within the party, and outside it as well, in restoring the integrity of historical inquiry. This trend was consistent with the party's commitment to "seeking truth from facts." As a result, historians and social scientists raised probing questions concerning the state of historiography in China. Their investigations included not only the historical study of Pre-Communist China, but penetrating inquiries into modern Chinese history and the history of the Chinese Communist Part.

Shaolin 5 Animal Kung Fu Academy about the influence of Mao on History

In post-Mao China, the discipline of historiography has not been separated from politics. A much greater range of historical topics has been discussed and probed but what can be looked into and used is still determined by Party Policy and Decision.

Slowly, but seemingly surely, figures from Confucius (who was bitterly excoriated for his "feudal" outlook by Cultural Revolution-era historians) to Mao himself have been evaluated with increasing flexibility. Among the criticisms made by Chinese social scientists, is that the Maoist-era historiography was much distorted through Marxist and Leninist interpretations. This meant that considerable revision of historical texts was in order in the 1980's, although no substantive change away from the conventional Marxist approach was likely.

Historical institutes were restored within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a growing corps of trained historians, in institutes and academia alike, returned to their work with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. This in itself was a potentially significant development. Thus interpreting the nature of Chinese History or Weapons history is almost impossible for anything less than a full-blown university study. Until such time that a true effort is made, you will need to make do with this version.

Some of the many, many References

Sijo Robert Z is the author of this History. If you have any questions or additions etc. . . .
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