UNIT. Ming Frontier Troops 明邊軍


In 1368, the Hongwu Emperor (Zhu Yuanzhang, r. 1368–98) ousted the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty from China to inaugurate the Ming dynasty. The Mongols fled back to Mongolia, but even after numerous campaigns, the Mongol problem remained.

In the early years of his reign, Hongwu envisioned a border policy where mobile armies along the northern frontier guarded the safety of China. To this end he set up the "eight outer garrisons" close to the steppe and an inner line of forts more suitable for defence. The inner line was the forerunner to the Ming Great Wall. In 1373, as Ming forces encountered setbacks, Hongwu put more emphasis on defence and adopted Hua Yunlong's (華雲龍) suggestion to establish garrisons at 130 passes and other strategic points in the Beijing area.

Ming border trooper in brigandine armor and arm guards.  He wears a distinctively
Ming dynasty helmet where a small banner designating his rank was place atop 
his helmet's plume. 

The Hongwu Emperor organized a military system known as the weisuo, which was similar to the fubing system of the Tang dynasty (618–907). The goal was to have soldiers become self-reliant farmers in order to sustain themselves while not fighting or training. This system was also similar to the Yuan dynasty military organization of a hereditary caste of soldiers and a hereditary nobility of commanders. The system of the self-sufficient agricultural soldier, however, was largely a farce; infrequent rations and awards were not enough to sustain the troops, and many deserted their ranks if they weren't located in the heavily-supplied frontier.

Like most Chinese soldiers throughout history, he is equiped
with a versatile selection of weapons~ from the saber to the stable and easy-
to-use composite bow. Normally, either he or his comrades would also be 
armed with spears/ war tridents or a variety of grenades and fragmentation
bombs. Note the "勇" (Brave) letter sewn on his back.

Originally developed by the preceding Yuan (or Mongol) dynasty (1206–1368), the system consisted of a guard unit of 5,600 men known as a wei. Each wei was divided into five qianhu suo of 1,120 men each, which was subdivided into 10 baihu suo of 112 men each. The head of each wei reported directly to the provincial headquarters (dusi) governed by the Ministry of War rather than to the local civil administration. Altogether there were almost 500 such units, and they were scattered along the frontiers and at strategic spots throughout the country. In Inner Asia an unsuccessful attempt was made to divide the Mongol tribes loyal to the Ming into weisuo units rather than to their tribal confederation.

The Mongol threat to China was at its greatest level in the 15th century, although periodic raiding continued throughout the dynasty. Like in the Tumu Crisis, the Mongol leader Altan Khan (r. 1470–1582) invaded China and raided as far as the outskirts of Beijing.

Interestingly enough, the Ming employed many troops of Mongol descent to fight 
back Altan Khan's invasion, as well as Mongol military officers against Cao Qin's 
abortive coup of 1461. Mongol troops were also employed in the suppression 
of the Li people of Hainan in the early 16th century as well as t a massive 
rebellion in 1510. 

The continued Mongol incursions that followed prompted the Ming authorities to construct their own Great Wall from the late 15th century to the 16th century;

Flying Winged Tiger Banner: The Chinese have always had illustrious vanguard divisioned named: "Flying Tiger Groups" including the famous 20th century American Fighter Group of P-40s. Throughout the Ming dynasties, there were many "Tiger Battalions," and "Tiger Armies."

The dynasty at its prominence in 1405 and the dynasty in terminal decline by 1580. By the early 1500s
There were already signs that the empire was loosing its vigor in its ability to hold on to its northern
flank~ necessitating a new defensive doctrine to preserve its northern holdings.


The establishment of the long military frontier along norther China virtually signaled the transition from the early Ming's proactive offensive operations to a largely defensive one. Concentrating on consolidating their holds and maintain supplies between the Chinese interior and the Northeastern frontier. The Nine Garrisons, Jiubian (九边, jiubian), or Jiuzhen (九镇, jiuzhen), were Chinese military garrisons installed by the Ming dynasty during the reign of the Hongzhi Emperor between 1487 and 1505. Each of these massive garrisons was designed to be able to resist a large scale invasion.

☯ Garrison of Liaodong (辽东镇, Liaodong zhen)
☯ Garrison of Xuanfu (宣府镇, Xuanfu zhen)
☯ Garrison of Datong (大同镇, Datong zhen)
☯ Garrison of Ningxia (宁夏镇, Ningxia zhen)
☯ Garrison of Gansu (甘肃镇, Gansu zhen)
☯ Garrison of Ji (蓟镇, Ji zhen ), or Garrison of Jizhou (蓟州镇, Jizhou zhen)
☯ Garrison of Yansui (延绥镇, Yansui zhen), or Garrison of Yulin (榆林镇, Yulin zhen)
☯ Garrison of Shanxi (山西镇, Shanxi zhen), or Garrison of Sanguan (三关镇, Sanguan zhen)
☯ Garrison of Guyuan (固原镇, Guyuan zhen), or Garrison of Shaanxi (陕西镇, Shaanxi zhen)


For the permanent defense of the exposed Ming northern boarder, the emperors turned to the very most ancient of Chinese defensive doctrines- the one implemented by the very first Emperor of China himself, the reconstruction of the Great Walls.

The Ming Great Walls forms the most visible parts of the Great Wall of China today. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi) from Jiayu Pass in the west to the sea in Shanhai Pass, then looping over to terminate in Manchuria at the Hushan Great Wall. This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.

Geographically, the Great Wall sealed up the exposed flank of Northern China,
linking from the arid and nearly impenetrable western mountains all the way to
the eastern sea. 3 Key passes, the Jiayu Pass in the west, the Juyong Pass
near the center, and Shanhai Pass in the east acts as both main gates into
China as well as massive fort installations. In total, there were over 150 passes
along the fortifications. 

While the Ming walls are generally referred to as "Great Wall" (changcheng) in modern times, in Ming times they were called "border barriers" (邊牆; bianqiang) by the Chinese. In all consideration, the Ming Great Wall was not meant to be a purely defensive fortification; its towers functioned rather as a series of lit beacons and signalling stations to allow rapid warning to friendly units of advancing enemy troops. Regional military commanders are empowered to construct their segment of the wall and provide security in the area.

The Extreme West, Jiayu Pass 嘉峪关

Jiayu Pass (simplified Chinese: 嘉峪关; traditional Chinese: 嘉峪關; pinyin: Jiāyù Guān; literally: "Excellent Valley Pass") is the first pass at the west end of the Great Wall of China, near the city of Jiayuguan in Gansu province. Along with Juyong Pass and Shanhai Pass, it is one of the main passes of the Great Wall and also a key waypoint of the ancient Silk Road. Jiayuguan has a somewhat fearsome reputation because Chinese people who were banished were ordered to leave through Jiayuguan for the west, the vast majority never to return.

There are two gates: one on the east side of the pass and the other on the west side. On each gate there is a building. An inscription of "Jiayuguan" in Chinese is written on a tablet at the building at the west gate. The south and north sides of the pass are connected to the Great Wall. There is a turret on each corner of the pass. On the north side, inside the two gates, there are wide roads leading to the top of the pass.

The pass is located at the narrowest point of the western section of the Hexi Corridor, 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) southwest of the city of Jiayuguan in Gansu. The structure lies between two hills, one of which is called Jiayuguan Pass. It was built near an oasis that was then on the extreme western edge of China.


The Heart of the Dragon: Juyong Pass 居庸关.

The Great Wall of China passes through Juyong Pass (Chinese: 居庸关; pinyin: Jūyōng guān) located over 50 kilometers (31 mi) from central Beijing.

The pass is one of the three greatest mountain passes of the Great Wall of China. The other two are Jiayuguan (Pass) at the extreme west end and Shanhaiguan (Pass). However, unlike the other two fortresses- Gates, Juyongguan Pass also has two 'sub-passes,' one at the valley's south and the other at the north.

The pass had many different names during former Chinese dynasties. However, the name "Juyongguan" was used by more than three dynasties. It was first used in the Qin Dynasty when Emperor Qinshihuang ordered the building of the Great Wall. Juyongguan pass was connected to the Great Wall in the Southern and Northern Dynasties era. The present pass route was built in the Ming Dynasty and received much renovation later. It was a very important strategic place connecting the inner land and the area near the northern border of China. It was also used many times in defense of Beijing.

The Extreme East: Shanhai Pass 山海关.

Shanhai Pass (simplified Chinese: 山海关; traditional Chinese: 山海關) Located south of Yan Mountain, and north of the Bohai Sea, for centuries the pass guarded the narrow passage between Northeast and Central East China. Both the Northern Qi Dynasty and the Tang Dynasty constructed passes here.

The illustration above corresponds to the end of the 16th century, when the Ming extended the fortifications to this area. Shanhai Pass (shanhaiguan), also known as the "First Step under Heaven" was in the area between the mountains and the coast, being the end of the wall that gets into the water known as "the dragon's head"

In 1381, Ming general Xu Da constructed the present pass, which was named Shanhaiguan (literally "mountain-sea-pass") because of its position between the mountains and the sea. In the late 16th century, Ming general Qi Jiguang began fortification and construction of a military city around the pass, building cities and forts to the east, south and north, making it one of the most heavily fortified passes in China. Today it is one of the best preserved passes in the Great Wall.

The location where the wall meets the Bohai Sea is nicknamed "Old Dragon's Head" (老龙头). Throughout Chinese history, the pass served as a frontline defense against ethnic groups from Manchuria, including the Khitan, Jurchen and the Manchus.

We can see that besides the main city where the passage is located, there are several forts, and as the wall ascends the mountains to give place to the typical image that we have of the Great Wall. In 1644, the fall of Beijing into rebel hands, the Ming troops themselves opened the doors to the Manchus who would ultimately take control of a China plunged into chaos.

☯ ☯ ☯ ☯ ☯


The light brigandine armor are mostly suited for horsemen and cavalry archers. Relatively light and offers a good protection against indirect spear jabs and bladed attacks- the brigandine offers good flexibility and light weight. It consisted of rectangular plates of metal, riveted between the fabric layers with the securing rivet heads visible on the outside.

Interior of a Qing brigandine, most of the Qing Brigandines are
made with interlaced steel plates meshed between silk and gambeson. 
and served as an ideal, flexible cavalry armor

Ming Guards in brigandine armor on parade, note the large selection of equipments
from war tridents (spears) to their bows. All have the letter 
"勇" (Brave) letter sewn on his back.

Invented 8th century as parade armour for the Emperor's guards by reinforcing a thick cloth robe with overlaping iron plates, but did not come into wide use until the 13th century, when it became widespread in the newborn Mongol Empire under the name of hatangu degel ("robe which is as strong as iron").

Ming border trooper in brigandine armor and arm guards. Like most 
Chinese soldiers throughout history, he is equiped with a versatile selection 
of weapons~ from the saber to the stable and easy-to-use composite 
bow. Normally, either he or his comrades would also be armed with 
spears/ war tridents or a variety of grenades and fragmentation
bombs. Note the "勇" (Brave) letter sewn on his back.

☯ ☯ ☯ ☯ ☯


The rank and file of Ming infantry: (from left to right) 
1. Trooper, usually junior officers, constables, and local guards are dressed 
in this manner. Brigandine surcoat, kerchief and saber. 

2. Herald, signified by his peacock officer's hat and trumpet. Wears 
the standard brigandine armor of the late Ming era.

3. An honored officer carrying a great ceremonial banner for his section. 
These banners are very large and usually have to be supported by several 
other attendants with cords. He wears a standard officer's hat, 
note the letter "勇" on his helmet which means "brave."

4. Commander of the constables. Carries a commander's badge and
 a commander's banner. Junior officers in their own right, 
they are also the ensigns of generals on the field.

☯ ☯ ☯ ☯ ☯


Michael Lam said…
It's amazing the differences between real armor and the gaudy, unrealistic contraptions you see in Chinese movies. Nothing beats the real deal, e.g. Bruce Lee.
Old Beast said…
Thanks for the comment! This is exactly what gets me and keeps me awake at night (I am actually that much of a nerd) the fact that the armors were so beautiful and unique in the ancient manuscripts and scrolls but where never depicted in an authentic fashion by Chinese and western sources is very...hurtful to say the least. I mean at least try to make an authentic presentation right?
Old Beast said…
By the way, you might really enjoy this: It's something I've done recently.

Joel said…
I am really inspired by the cctv 30 series on anti-Japanese hero in the Ming dynasty. I am again become interested in knowing if Ming soldiers have a steel helmet. Also I am interested in whether Chinese cloth boots have leather soles or cloth soles. 32 layers of cloth for soles is really labor intensive and doesn't make sense. So I think the cloth boots soles must be leather or very thick hemp. I know Qin high rank have leather boots.
Old Beast said…
You mean Qing high ranks have leather boots right? If were are talking about the Qing, yes, yes they did. Most of the riders of any culture had boots. The Ming horsemen did, their generals did, and many Chinese dynasty before the ming also had boots. If you look at Tang dynast costumes on tomb murals they are often wearing boots.

As for "if Ming soldiers have a steel helmet." Um, yes they certainly did. Why...wouldn't they want to live? As for if they are mostly equipped with steel helmets, I'd say not for the levy level troops. Some had hard laquered hats and others had but turbans. In the case of the Ming auxiliaries from its ethnic minorities- the Hui and the Liang people (to the left of the painting below) had turbans.


The Ming also had a leather helmet with iron interior for its gunners similar to the helmets of the Almghavars.


Hope this helps!
Joel said…
No, I meant the emperor of the great war Qin dynasty 221 BC ! They actually had crossbows and repeat firing ones too. I am very proud of China's crossbow and the rept firing ones. I agree with you totally about movie vs. actual in terms of the ancient Chinese armor. I urge a petition for Chinese movie directors to depict the real thing as much as possible in terms of the helmet and armor. For close ups, a couple of armors in steel and leather make sense. To replicate entire movie set with metal/leather probably not worth it for far shots. Plastic ok as long as it looks like the real thing.

I am like you a helmet armor nerd when it comes to ancient Chinese. For modern history, I am a nerd on WW2 Chinese, Japanese and German helmets and leather boots.

Yes I know Ancient Chinese have boots but they are mostly cloth boots I think. Cloth while offer comfy provide very little protection so I am very interested to know if ancient Chinese have leather soles. Qin has leather armor so I imagine they have leather boots and soles. There seem to be very little documentation on ancient Chinese cloth boots whether soles are cloth or leather. I am beginning to think the sole cannot be 30 layers of sttiched cloth (too labor intensive). It must be some very heavy knitted hemp material if not leather.
Thái Vũ said…
A amazing post. Can i share it?

And can you write those words "qianhu suo", "baihu suo", "dusi" in Chinese into this post? It will more comfortable to find more information about it or translate it into some other languages
Thank you very much.
Old Beast said…
卫所 = "Wei Sou" = lit. Guard Department, or Guard Post

千戶所 = "Qianhu Suo" = lit. Thousand Homes, actually means thousand units

百戶所 = "Baihu Suo" = lit. Hundred Homes, means hundred units
Thái Vũ said…
oh. Thank you very much for informations
Thái Vũ said…
But about "dusi" in Chinese character? it similar "Wei Suo"?
Old Beast said…
都司 "Dusi" = Provincial Capital Command

or provincial military attache

Thái Vũ said…
Thank you very much

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