Ming Soldiers Armor and Gears 出警图



I would like to share a glimpse of China's past. One that's filled with things you probably (in fact, definitely) have never seen on the internet before, one that is almost never found in your history books, one that is seldom referred by artists today when the consider what China was, and how it saw itself. It is called 出警图, or "The Return Herald," the second part of a series depicting the Emperor on a religious pilgrimage to honor his ancestors.

Well, get ready for a ride dear friends. For a better viewing experience, please click on the image for a better zoom to see all the details. If you look close enough, I guarantee you will see the studs on the brigandine armor.


Forgive me, that was much too small, though I do love the idea it might be a pocket dimension where an endless procession of retainers runs quickly from side to side with Yakety Sax playing in the background.

Some quick facts: The painting was done in mid Ming Dynasty, roughly around 1580, during the long reign of the Wanli Emperor, a marginally competent emperor who was capable enough to ensure several Ming victories against foreign aggression.


Wanli oversaw the expulsion of Japanese Wokou pirates from southern China, saw several key victories against the Mongols in the north, including the completion and garrison of the Ming Great Wall along the entire northern frontier, and perhaps most importantly relieved Korea twice from Japan in the Imjin War. It's noteworthy to point out that the earlier Wokou incursions are launched by ad hoc Japanese pirates led by renegade ronins and disenfranchised samurai, while the latter represented a united Japan led under Toyotomi Hideoshi.


There are several types of Chinese paintings, some of them renders its scenes in proportional isometric perspective, but this one is more focused on the long assembly of retainers thus scaling is a bit forced. For in stance in the first part of the scroll (on the right) we see the Forbidden City, but right on the next scroll is the great city gate. It makes a degree of sense as imperial convoys usually are at least four, sometimes ten kilometers long.  


The city gate of Beijing with stories of cannon towers. Heavy imperial guard regiments on foot with saber and bow, notice the red plumes and the feathers, commanders and section leaders are designated with a bronze coating on their scale armor.


The few riders coming into the town are generals followed by the general's ensigns, (notice the blue armored riders with the red "令" embroidered on his back.)


The ensigns and sub-officers are followed by head riders bearing the multi colored divisional flags of the guards.


Next we see the detachment of fast royal heralds follow close. They are lightly armored with blue brigandine and a shield. Their mission including announcing the procession (the horns) and are concentrated at the front to be both probe developing situations and ride back bearing orders all along the line.


In general, the Emperor is always surrounded by roughly 20,000 to 40,000 imperial guards, whether in or outside the Forbidden City, depends on the proximity to a field of battle. The heralds are followed by heavier contingents of fighting cavalry crossing the bridge.


There are also large gatherings of Mandarins (scholar bureaucrats who received the position of power from taking civil exams) with flapped hats that lingers along the shores admiring the river.


The scholar/ bureaucrats and the soldiers represents the two elements of the empire. Power in China had always been in the hands of scholars rather than military men. Sure powerful generals from time to time would turn the empire into theirs but power always fall back to a vast bureaucracy of scholar gentlemen who numbered in the tens of thousands.

Compared to feudal Europe or feudal Japan, power does not devolve from inheritance from fathers with noble's blood. Wealth and land does, but power rests within appointments to important posts in the Empire, they must be able to read and write eloquent essays and read the classics to be eligible for their positions, a trait that was rare in the middle ages. Together, the formed the literary elite of Ming court.


The heavier contingents followed close behind, we see one of the first royal palanquins marked in gold silk.


Gold, or yellow is the color of the emperors (the homonym for emperor rhymes with yellow) probably for a royal prince. Interestingly the palanquin looks like its horse borne. Several heavy riders tails close behind, probably his personal guards.


On the other side of the river, we see several exceptionally armored riders (click to zoom in.)


Behind them comes my favorite part of the painting, one that must be zoomed in to be appreciated fully. Yes, your eyes have not lied to you, elephants, a four elephant drawn chariot! I especially love the colorful dangling lanterns. China had never been strangers to elephants, in fact the heart of China, especially the Henan province near the Yellow River was once a paradise for elephants. That is...until humans showed up in the region 4000 years ago.


Despite this, China had frequent encounters with elephants in its south whether combating the elephant mounted Vietnamese in one of numerous incursions or counterinsurgencies, or against the armored elephants of the Burmese. China was also acquainted with these sacred beasts through Buddhism and foriegn exchange with the various Indian kings. These elephants may likely be a batch of gifts sent by a grateful Thai King, Naresuan, for the Ming intervention in Thailand that drove away the Burmese.


Several more imperial wagons follows close behind, accompanied by bearers, bodyguards, and mounted mandarins. White horses are said to be especially auspicious creatures, and are usually poetically bequeathed to royal personages or those with great contribution to the nation.




A great block of attendants follows close behind, bearing a profusion of colorful symbols and panoplies. The first group of boats appear.


On the second of the three paintings we see the first special detachment of Imperial guards with the distinctive twin golden banners on their helmets. Heavier elements before and behind them have singular tall golden banners, intermingled with bright feathers. Rather than armed with sabers they are armed with a glaive plus the bow and arrows.


Another bit of interesting information are the river troops. Seeing how they are provided with long maces and bright red hats, along with specialized markings on their back they are probably specialized troops.



Heavier detachments, guards with high ranking bronze coated scale armors followed by ultra- heavy guards, geared in heavy lamellar plates, it is worthy to note these heavies carries special glaives with five colorful markings.





Boatsmen and attendants on boats wearing black hats toppled with peacock feathers. It's interesting to note that even some of the musicians have full armors on them. Note the front barges carries guards with halberds wrapped in leopard skin.

Two things are worth mentioning. In the third painting you will notice the emperor. Can you find him?


Yes, that's the Wanli emperor seated on the central barge nearly three times the size of a normal man, more a sitting Buddha statue than human being. It's a classic tradition in the long scroll paintings to distinguish them instantly.


Notice how he was "halved" by the artist, this is an extremely inauspicious and clumsy depiction, one would have been interested to know how the emperor took it. However knowing the withdrawn, neglectful nature of the monarch he'd probably dismiss it as a permissible, even funny mistake.

Another is the still life barge. You can't miss it. I have to insert "myself" back here, because for the life of me I can't figure out what it is for, placed on such rocky, unstable, bizarre arrangements, and specially guarded by so many elite hardened guards.






At last we glimpse the reason of the convoy's visit. In the distant left of the painting, we see the imperial tombs of the Ming Emperors lined along the mountainsides. As this is the return of the Emperor after a long prayer session for his ancestors.

("Prequel" of the events to this scene here)

I especially love the little band of gift carriers in different robe colors talking among themselves. The composition is so private and inclusive, decorated with frames of willow trees and peach blossoms it looked like they are in their own little world while a giant unceasing spectacle unravel around them with the absurd endlessness of a Monty Python sketch.


Dear friend, I hope at the end of the odyssey of this painting you are able to take away something~ something that was ephemeral and utterly unique, something perhaps unimagined in the context of China before.


Thank you for your time, and thank for joining me in thought of this glimpse. It will be our mutual victory, saving this moment in preciseness and freshness. We made it alive again even for a little while.

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