Song Dynasty Armor, 宋甲

The 宋 Song dynasty (960–1279) was by no means a large dynasty by territory nor exceptionally powerful when compared to the greatest of China's dynasties, but the singular ways in which armor was constructed during this era was nothing less than exquisite. In short, Chinese armor design during this time reached its zenith in sophistication and artistry.

By the Song dynasty, various distinctive "Chinese" elements in armor, such as the incorporation of scaled/ lamellar pieces of pauldrons and tassets, grimacing heads of demons/ animals, and protective straps were all combined into an elaborate and composite form. 

Ultimately, the Song dynasty would field some of the heaviest armors in all of Chinese history in its struggles against its fierce barbarian neighbors. Both men and the horses would often be very heavily armored and also decorated with elaborate silk scarves, tassels and fringes. The already- elaborate "Mountain scale armor" or "Mountain pattern armor" reached its most sophisticated form in this era, as well as the heavier lamellar armor. Below we will examine the general development of armor in early Song dynasty, then the Song era lamellar and mountain scale armor in detail.

Above: (山) The Chinese character for "mountain," Below: A wedge of heavy cavalry- both the men and their mounts are encased in elaborate mountain scale armor, note the elaborate~ almost floral shaped chanfrons (head armor) worn by the horses typical of the Song dynasty- in many cases such extravagant horse helmets would also be gilded- or copper gilded as to further enhance the already resplendent mount.

A closer look at the rider and the mount, again, note the (山) shaped scales that appeared to be overlapping "caltrops" which formed the surface of those armors. Also note the elaborate horse helmets which bore floral shaped fringes, Song cavalry often feature these rather surreal and "fantasy-sque" designs.


Infancy. From late Tang to early Song,

The Song dynasty was born in chaos after nearly 53 years of constant civil war between rival successor states (commanded by highly independent military governors) that scrambled for supremacy after the disintegration of the Tang empire. Those seven decades of bitter internal strife became- in time like a crucible that actively stripped off many of the old ways of warfare that were no longer relevant, and by the end of the raging chaos~ forged a new dynasty, a proven form of warfare, and a new way of making armor.

Above pictures: examples of late Tang dynasty cavalry helmets that eventually inspired the early samurai O-Yoroi helmets of the Genpei Wars, usually constructed with a folded layer that radiated out to protect the wearer from slashing attacks.

When the Song finally proven its supremacy by conquering the last three of the remaining kingdoms- China Proper had been warring in a Balkanized fashion for 72 years. By then much in armor had changed.

To put things into perspective, in the nearly 7 decades of strife, from when the Song declared itself as a new polity in the 5th decade of national civil war, all the way until the reunification of China under the Song 2 decades later, gunpowder and greekfire would be prevalent in the early Song China- grenades, primitive guns, rockets, landmines, and Chinese flamethrowers would all have been introduced as a constant in Chinese battles.

Song dynasty helmets: to lighten the general bulkiness of the Tang design, most Song era helmets eschewed the heavy and stressful radiating folds and instead chose to enhance the cheekguards. These cheekguards would morph into elaborate designs throughout the dynasty,- most often in the form of jutting gilded wings or stylized nimbus.


Instead of the massive maelstrom of cavalry on cavalry warfare that characterized early and mid Tang warfare, where a decisive sweep or sudden outmaneuvering could whirl the tide of battle, the Song army~ which largely consisted of massed blocks of crossbowmen and halberdiers- having lost most of the horse breeding north and western regions- resorted to innovation, quality, and their immense economy to offset their general lack of cavalry troops.

For instance, in a battle on January 23, 971, massive arrow fire (rockets) from Song dynasty crossbowmen decimated the war elephant corps of the Southern Han army. This defeat not only marked the eventual submission of the Southern Han to the Song dynasty, but also the last instance where a war elephant corps was employed as a regular division within a Chinese army. Whatever the new age would likely be, it was clear that it would be an age characterized by extraordinary innovations at a break-neck pace of development.

Typical medium armor of a Song officer, incorporated the chest pads and straps of typical Tang dynasty armor while adding extended tassets and cuisses (leg armor extension) a tight- fitting helmet with elaborate cheekpieces, 

(札甲) Song Lamellar Armor

The lamellar armor has always been employed by the heaviest elements of the previous Tang dynasty, often the most elite Tang guard units- both the men and horses would be draped in these heavy armors. The Song would continue to field these armors- especially in its endless wars against its cavalry reliant northern neighbors.

The mortal rivals of the Song dynasty- the Liao dynasty of the Khitans, the Jin dynasty of the Jurchens (Manchus,) and the Yuan dynasty of the Mongols - all horse riding barbarians from the steppes would field extremely potent cavalry armies. Some- for instance the Jin dynasty would even field whole hundred thousand cavalry columns- akin to the Persian clibanarii of old where men and horse were both completely encased in lamellar armor save the rider's eyes, hands, and the horse's hooves. In reaction, the Song improved their armor as well.

Top: A Song dynasty lamellar armor composed of the pieces from above, in addition to the simple suit typical of the earlier Tang dynasty's construction- which largely consisted of one layer of overlapping lamellar scales, the Song would further strengthen the design by offering a heavy chest guard (above, center) in the form of a cape that also served as pauldrons for the shoulders. Instead of a single direction, the little plates of the armor would be sewn in different directions so as to provide protection from many directions. A visor is also added to the helmets (bearing some influence from steppe warfare) ~ many of the Tang lamellar helmets has been no more than scaled caps + aventails.

Above: Song dynasty lamellar barding (horse armor) for the mounts.

Below: A heavy Song dynasty guard. Reproduced from a Song dynasty print, labeled as a "guard." The barbarian Liao and Jin dynasties would have also fielded these armor and helmets for their heavy troops as well. However, the Mongols- always preferred to fight with deadly mobility rather than relying on heavy cavalry charges, would have removed the folded layer of ringed scales from the fringes of the helmets and fight with only the steel cap + lamellar aventail.

(山文铠) Mountain Scale Armor, and its variants.

Mountain pattern armour (Chinese: 山文铠; pinyin: shānwénkǎi) began to appear during the Tang dynasty and was further perfected during the Song dynasty. This type of armor is made from a multitude of small pieces of iron or steel shaped like the Chinese character for the word "mountain" (山).

The pieces are interlocked and riveted to a cloth or leather backing. It effectively covers the torso, shoulders and thighs while remaining comfortable and flexible enough to allow movement. Also during this time, senior Chinese officers used mirror armour (Chinese: 护心镜; pinyin: hùxīnjìng) to protect important body parts, while cloth, leather, lamellar, and/or Mountain pattern armor were used for other body parts. This overall design was called "bright armor" (Chinese: 明光甲; pinyin: míngguāngjiǎ)

For maxim protection (and confusion) much of the Song era armor are constructed of various designs, in this case, both the mountain scales and the lamellar plates are used respectively in the pauldron and the leg pieces of the armor. In fact- most armor of this period are composites of this kind of variety~ since the pauldrons and the leg plates are made with rivets and silk threads that allowed them to be easily removed, and that most of armor are made with universal openings for cords to be attached in, these parts are not only customize-able but interchangeable as well, the image of LEGO armor and USB armor came to mind. 

Above: further examples of Song dynasty mountain scale armor. The last picture features two imperial heralds in full lamellar armor, no doubt taken inspiration from the scroll, dated 1053–1065 of a Song dynasty imperial procession (below.)

Also during this time, senior Chinese officers used mirror armour (Chinese: 护心镜; pinyin: hùxīnjìng) to protect important body parts, while cloth, leather, lamellar, and/or Mountain pattern armor were used for other body parts. This overall design was called "bright armor" (Chinese: 明光甲; pinyin: míngguāngjiǎ)

Mountain scale armor with mirrored plates and elaborate tassels. The mirrored plate feature would remain well into the Qing dynasty- by then the mirrors would have been incorporated into the design of the brigandine armors. 

Above: Elaborate mountain scale armor of a high ranking officer. Reproduced from a Tang dynasty scroll of Chinese dieties styled in late Tang costumes (see below)~ Note the elaborate dragon/ qilin helmet design that is strikingly reminiscent of Sengoku era samurai helmet designs, especially that of the legendary Daimyo Takeda Shingen

Above: further examples of Song dynasty armor, Shanhua Temple 


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