Tang Elite Guard Troops 唐禁軍

The Imperial Guards of the Tang Dynasty, also known as "Forbidden Troops" (traditional chinese: 禁軍, simplified Chinese: 禁军: jìn jūn), evolved initially from honour bodyguards of the emperor and garrison of the Imperial capitals during its formation in early 7th century, into the only military force that remained under the control of the central authorities after the An Shi Rebellion which lasted from AD 755 to 763.

Illustration by Angus McBride of a Tang dynasty guard officer and elite imperial guard, flanked by the Taizong emperor and the many foreign dignitaries from the Tang empire's peripheries.

The dynasty's founder was an aristocrat based in present-day Taiyuan, and was an experienced soldier from his tenure as border commander. He launched his bid for power in AD 617 with only 30,000 troops, and by the time he defeated his rivals, he commanded more than 200,000 troops. About 30,000 volunteered to remain in service after general demobilisation; they became the pioneers of the Tang's hereditary Imperial Guards, and were assigned the fertile lands in the region of Bai irrigation canal, north of the Wei River, which had been abandoned during the turmoils of the Sui-Tang transition wars. This body became known as the Pioneer Forbidden Guards (元从禁军).

The first body of the Imperial Guards were designated as bodyguards of the emperor, and would garrison the capitals and palaces.

Beginnings (618-662)

In the beginning of the reign of Emperor Taizong, the monarch stationed a hundred soldiers skilled in archery at the northern gate of the palace. They became known as the Hundred Riders (百骑), and accompanied the emperor during his hunting excursions.

In addition, seven companies of soldiers selected after trials of strength and skills were installed under the Northern Bureau (北衙) as additional bodyguards.

Gradually, other new units were added and stationed around the palace, their members chosen from upper class of societies who met the selection criteria of physical appearance, skills and strengths.

Tang Guard officer in 明光 Mingguang "Brilliant" armor, a composite armor of lamellar, scales, and padded leatherworks, the "breastplates" are composed of stitched scales over a leather padding, note the grimacing animist motif that served as pauldrons over the shoulders. 

These would be worn by the upper ranks of the Tang dynasty's fighting forces, ranging from guard captains to whole battalions of elite shock troops. 

Tang dynasty officer's saber, or "Tang Dao," 唐刀, gold inlays, lacquered scabbard and shagreen or ray skin wrap around the handle. The blade would be either straight or curved (always curved for the cavalry) and often only has one sided tip.

The induction of many noble- sons into the Forbidden Guards offered up many opportunities for the sons of the dynasty's vassals to have influence and stake in the new imperial system, but as networks were formed within the ranks of these guards, future emperors sought to curtail this elite corps for fear that they might themselves become masters of the palace~ i.e like the King-making Praetorian in the Roman Empire.

Elite Tang imperial guard, clad in heavy lamellar armor and distinctive prismatic shield

The New Breed of Guards (662-755)
Yü Lin (Feathered Forest) and Long Wu (War Dragon, or Dragon Martial) Guards

Beneath the veteran core of professional officers and imperial troops, the mainstay of the empire's defence would be the 府兵 fubing system (or "House Soldiers,") which assigned lands to farmers in return for periods of military service. These frontier military-farmer militias would be relied on during the time of conflict and  would be drafted in designated quantities to contriute to the whole bulk of the Tang army.

Source of the armor and shield, the British Museum, Front Banner showing the seven treasures of the cakravartin (world sovereign): golden wheel, jewel, coffer, general, lady, elephant and horse. The general (guard) carries a banner inscribed "zuo yi jiang" (first general of the left).  Ink and colours on silk.

In AD 662, Tang's third emperor transferred some outstanding horsemen, archers and footmen of the fubing army into the new Yü Lin (羽林, literally Feathered Forest) unit, and assigned them the duties of standing guard during Court sessions as well as imperial processions.

The Hundred Riders unit was expanded by the controversial Empress Wu to Thousand Riders (千骑), then further increased by Emperor Zhongzong to Ten Thousand Riders (万骑). This unit was instrumental in the ousting of Empress Wei's faction by the Imperial Prince Li LongJi in AD 710, and subsequently renamed as Long Wu (龙武, literally Dragon Martial, or War Dragons). Only descendants of pioneers of the Tang Empire were selected into the Long Wu Guards.

In time, the appeal of serving in the Imperial Guard units waned, and many scions of influential clans resorted to hiring proxies to serve on their behalf. Thus, the quality of the "aristocratic" Long Wu guards levelled with that of the "commoner" Yü Lin guards.

Expanded: Source of the armor and shield, the British Museum, Front Banner showing the seven treasures of the cakravartin (world sovereign): golden wheel, jewel, coffer, general, lady, elephant and horse. The general (guard) carries a banner inscribed "zuo yi jiang" (first general of the left).  Ink and colours on silk.

The doomed Consort Yanguifei, being assisted to mount her steed, 756. Rendered based on a Yuan scroll painting-feel free to examine the entire scroll up close, many lightly armored guards are featured armed with bow and saber.  The young halberdier- guard depicted above wears the light armor typically used in imperial enclosures and hunting grounds.

The Waning Days (755- 903)
Shen Wu (Divine Martial) Guards

By the time the infamous generalissimo An Lushan revolted in AD 755, enrollment in the Imperial Guard units had declined to such an extent that there were only a thousand guardsmen escorting Emperor Xuanzong during his flight from the capital.

Emperor Xuanzong officially abdicated in favour of the Crown Prince Li Heng, who had to raise his own army in AD 757, which became known as the Shen Wu (神武, literally Divine Martial) Guards. Entry requirements had to be lowered when they could not recruit enough men from families of Court officials.

Mural commemorating victory of General Zhang Yichao over the Tibetan Empire in 848. Mogao cave 156, late Chinese Tang Dynasty, by then the dynasty has already began to decline, note the heavy lamellar armor worn by the horsemen.

Closeup of of a military parade from the Dunhuang Grottoes which displayed the Tang heavy cavalry in full combat gear, supplanted by heralds and ensigns. The heaviest elements of the cavalry are encased in lamellar armors. These represents the medium elements of Tang cavalry~ the heaviest elements, i.e. the ones used by the generals and the imperial guards would not only have a rider in full lamellar armor but would also ride on horses completely covered in lamellar or scale armor as well. 

Shen Ce (Divine Stratagem) Army

During the An Shi rebellion, the loyal minister Geshu Han brought his garrison from the northwestern border with Tibet to the central plains to rally to the emperor. Due to politicking, control of this army came under the eunuch Yu Chao'En, and was subsequently known as the Shen Ce Army (神策军), literally Divine Stratagem Guards.

By late Tang and early Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, most of the heaviest elements of China's armed forces would be provided with the elaborate Mountain Scale Armor which would be lighter and offer better flexibility than the standard lamellar armor. 

This unit was instrumental in assisting Emperor Daizong recover the Imperial capital Chang'an from Tibetan invaders in AD 763, and thus gained prominence and became the mainstay of the central authorities' military force.

The soldiers enjoyed better remuneration than those from other units. This led to other imperial military units to seek to come under its banner, expanding its numbers greatly. As a result, other Imperial Guard units declined.

Control of the Shen Ce Army fell into the hands of the palace eunuchs who used it to control the Tang emperors. Later on, the Shence Army deteriorated into little more than local bullies in the vicinity of the capital. Quality declined sharply as recruitment fell in numbers and they were unable to withstand the rebel forces of Huang Chao in AD 880.

In AD 903, after Zhu Wen deposed the last Tang Emperor and massacred the eunuchs in Chang'an, the last of Tang Imperial Guard units came to an end.

Modern Xian, built over the old site of Chang'an, the imperial capital of the Tang empire. 

Music: Wild Geese Descending on the Sandank


Tang Dynasty Blades

Tang dynasty officer's saber preserved in Japan's 正倉院 or "Imperial House Agency," Shosoin Kunaicho, designated as "Tang-era katanas." From the Nara period till the Heian period, Japan modified the Tang blade until the form became the modern katana.


According to administrative code book, 唐六典,which was finished in A.D.738, tangdao is the generic term of four types of swords. Yi dao(仪刀), swords for ceremony, long, blade is straight, gorgeous in appearance, with golden ring on the tail of grip; Zhang dao(障刀), swords for shield, slightly curved, short and portable, designed for close combat; Heng dao(横刀), swords for the court guards, blade is long, narrow and straight, grip is long, with many decorations on sheath; Mo dao(陌刀), swords for foot soldiers, long and heavy, can be wielded to cut the legs of steeds of cavalry. 

Various blades of Tang era swords, note that many, even the straight blades possessed only one sided tips.

In pre- Kamakura Shogunate Japan these Tang swords were referred to by the utilitarian "Chokutō" (直刀?, "straight sword") is a straight, one-edged Japanese sword that was produced prior to the 10th century. Its basic style is likely derived from similar swords of ancient China. Chokutō were used on foot for stabbing or slashing and were worn hung from the waist. Until the Heian period such swords were called tachi (大刀?), which should not be confused with tachi written as 太刀 referring to curved swords.

For more about the Tang military, please check out my
other Tang dynasty pieces.


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