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 Souzi 琐子, or known in the western academia as"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 


Justin Aquino said…
Hi, Awesome post! I'm trying to look for your sources. Is the lst picture the book your refering too? I cant seem to find the book in google when I type: the 宋 song dynasty (960-1279). I want to add the book for future purchase.
Unknown said…
Those silk wrappings on their waists, is that supposed to be a sash in order to keep the armor together?
Bökh Guan said…
Mate, I love your blog. Would you be interested in guestblogging for us and providing historical content? We're over at
Old Beast said…
Hi Justin, I've only discovered this comment today in my inbox, so I am very very sorry for the late reply. I know you have been sharing my articles frequently, so let me say today, once and for all. Thank you, than you so much for your support.

The first image I have used is the cover illustration from a Franco- Chinese artist for the French comic series, "Au bord de l'eau" ~ a French conversion of the Chinese novel, "Water Margin" the reason I have used it is because both the sheer details that was featured and deftly illustrated: so as to say, it's perfect for teaching purposes. The saying goes that "a picture equals a thousand words" and the exquisite, clear nature of it makes me want to use it to draw people's curiosity to it.

If you are referring to the manual illustrations, they are taken from the 13th century Ming dynasty manual 火龙经 "Huolongjing" or "Fire Drake Manual" which illustrated various Chinese primitive gunpowder weapons and gadgets. Hope this helped.
Old Beast said…
Hi there! I'm not sure, "guestblogging" means exactly, would you be so kind as to enlighten me? Thanks!
Old Beast said…
Hi there! If you are referring the to first image, the Sash is not attached to the arms but rather it is the exposed sash that was tied to the soldier's waist, it's just placed in a position that may have appeared that its part of the arm.

But I should say for clarification purposes that Chinese armor does indeed have silk straps that fastens bracers on to arms, its just that the first image did not display one of them. Hope this helps.
M said…
Amazing post, well detailed and the images help a lot. I was wondering if you could clarify something. You said, "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."

Is this to say that the Mongols or other mobile cavalry units would have had light lamellar armor (including steel cap, aventail, and some kind of chest piece?) while the Song had the full heavy lamellar armor? Later, did the Mongols also use mounain scale armor?

Thank you for your time!
Old Beast said…
Hi there, here is a representation of a typical Mongol cavalry man,

and here is an example of a heavy Mongol cavalry man:

Here are some of the heaviest of the Mongol cavalry:

You can find the corresponding armors by searching for Mongol armors on Google. I bring up these images to point out that compared to the Song armor above (the Jin- who relied on very heavy cavalry also had similar armor for their cavalry leaders:

After the Song and Jin periods, the succeeding dynasties, especially the Mongol Yuan dynasty almost never had horsemen helmets that featured wide brimmed lamellar. In fact in the entirety of of the Mongol conquest of Easter Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, most of them did not depict such armor.

As to your last point in regards to whether the Mongols had used mountain scale armor...that is a bit hard to quantify. Namely because many of the native Chinese still used such armor, and whenever the Mongols would either conquer or subjugate them, these native Chinese auxiliaries, now part of the Khanate and technically Mongol Empire's troops would have such armors.

Also, aside from the Chinese, some Mongol generals were depicted in such armors. Here is an example of the great Mongol general Subutai:

However, the fact that many are painted later by succeeding Chinese dynasties (like that one above) meant that they probably are a bit anachronistic, as if Renaissance Europe was tring to draw Hellenistic Greek armors in their arts.
Joel said…
Thanks for your reply old beast on helmets and boots which I collect from ebay a lot but mostly WW2 Japanese and German. German made very good quality leather boots. So I feel a bit ashamed that my kind never seem to have any good leather shoes. Qing dynasty stuff that I see were mostly of poor quality and little armor and they rely on foreign imports . So I am surprised to learn that Ming dynasty had guns and good armor...if I could get my hands on some good pictures of artifacts - leather boots and armor. Chinese had leather since Qin dynasty so why didn't we have leather boots or use leather soles down the dynasties ? Could leather soles be too hard on the feet or 30 layers of stitched cloth to make sole was better ? I am really interested in knowing why ancient Chinese soldiers didn't have a better sole of leather or something that is more durable and easy to make before rubber was invented ?
Old Beast said…
I am going to have to say this question is a little too specific for me, I simply didn't pay as much attention to the shoes and boots of the various dynasties. I know that Qin and Han mostly had shoes, and subsequent steppe Normad controlled dynasties in the Era of Fragmentation and the Sui and Tang had boots, then reverted back to shoe again during the largely inter- Chinese was of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period + the Song (though Song cavalry always had boots), the rest I believe we already talked about.

As for why the poor quality. I can't really answer that for I didn't research deep into that subject, naturally I am inclined to say its because of mass production, thus quantity vs quality, that that's...really not true, that's a stereotype. Truth of the matter is, in the Sinosphere China was still able to make good products compared to most of its neighbors (save perhaps Japan) in many areas China made better products than Korea, Vietnam, or the Steppe cultures. But as for the Ming supposedly had "good armor" hmmm, I should point out that may of the fighting men on the provincial level, the levies flat out did not have armor at all or didn't have armor that were too good- there were many hand- me- downs and there was a perpetual shortage of them specially later down the dynasty. The professional level army had decent armor at least.
Joshua said…
I often read that the Song Dynasty is the peak of Chinese armor development, but isn't the late Tang and Five Dynasties Ten Kingdom Period more advanced in construction?

Thus far, the only thing that make Song Dynasty the heaviest in Chinese history is because we have the weight of the armor in contemporary manuals. It is also the most iconic Chinese armor in popular image that is probably why it is more highlighted than other period of Chinese armor.

Even then, there are probably better armor after the Song period, we get the armor worn by Koxinga's Tie Ren which resist Dutch bullet, the Ming armor that resist Japanese bullet and later the early Manchu armor that resist Korean and Ming bullets so much that Chinese and Korean musketeer are ordered to shoot the eye and the hand of the Manchu cavalry.
Dragon's Armory said…
True, remember it's important to look at the context of the armor. And you are right that some of the late Tang and 5D armors were more advanced in construction.

Remember that Koxinga's armors were designed to fight against Dutch soldiers with muskets, so it might be very sturdy, but at the same time it might be Too heavy and restrict too much movement. It might work very well for men facing musket, aquebus fire. But for the Song or the Song cavalry it might be considered extremely unwieldy- especially against say: mounted archers. Again, context is everything man.

Thanks for the comment
Joshua said…
Thank you for your reply. Also context is of course important.

Do you know that the armor in 5D Dunhuang seems to be more advanced than the one in Eastern China? It seems to follow Central Asian aesthetic more. Also it is strange that both Tang Dynasty and Central Asian use breastplate that cover the upper torso.

What do you know about early Manchu armor? I find no contemporary depiction so far.

Lately, I have been searching about Song armor development. I found a quote saying that Song armor weight start to be limited in 1134 and that Song armor from Zhao Guanyin period is better than later Song armor.

Also what do Chinese armor look like before the Warring States Period? I only found a bronze plate cuirass and a greave from late Shang Dynasty/early Zhou.
Joshua said…

This is from tomb of Wang Jian in 918, it did not look lighter than Song armor.

I could even say it is still less sophisticated than the one in Dunhuang in similar time period.

Also what make Song Dynasty armor different than Sima Jin or Northern and Southern Dynasties Period armor? Aren't they both full body lamellar armor?

Sorry, if I offend you, I am just excited to speak with a fellow Chinese history enthusiast.
Joshua said…

I also found this statue from 877 Tang Dynasty. It seems to have the Tie Jian as weapon, maybe because overall become heavier so that such weapons became more common.

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