UNIT: Medieval Chinese Cataphracts 1: 铁浮屠 Iron Pagoda Horsemen

Extremely heavy lamellar armor of a Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) "Iron Pagoda horseman" Some historians have referred to these heavy cavalry as cataphracts or clibanarii, in reference to their near identical appearance to heavy Persian cavalry from the 4-7th centuries.

They were a legendary unit and the heaviest cavalry to be ever fielded by a Chinese polity. The 铁浮屠, or "Iron Buddha Cavalry" or 铁浮图 "Iron Pagoda Horsemen," were the elite unit of the Jurchen Jin 金 dynasty that was instrumental in the 30 year supremacy of the Jin State. Though they only served for no more than two decades, they were pivotal in no less than a dozen crucial battles and hundreds of skirmishes that secured the Jin realm.



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The Jin dynasty was created in the modern Chinese province of Jilin and Heilongjiang by the Jurchen (an ethnic Manchu) chieftain known as Aguda in 1115. According to tradition, Aguda adopted the term for 金 "gold" as the name of his state, itself a translation of "Anchuhu" River, where his clan originated. meaning "golden" in Jurchen. The Jurchens' early rival was the Khitan-led Liao dynasty, another nearby steppe polity that had for centuries held sway over modern north and northeast China and Mongolia.

In the spring of 1114, Aguda united the Jurchen tribes, which had mostly served as Khitan vassals under his leadership and started a massive rebellion against the Liao dynasty. In 1117, after the Jurchens had conquered several Liao cities, Aguda declared himself emperor and formally established the Jin dynasty.

In 1121, the Jurchens entered into the Alliance Conducted at Sea with the Han Chinese-led Northern Song dynasty and agreed to jointly invade the Liao dynasty. While the Song armies faltered in their exploits, the Jurchens succeeded in completely driving the Liao all the way to Central Asia. During their vigorous contention with the Liao, the Jin was able to repeatedly triumph through their clever deployment of heavy cavalry. 

In 1125, after the death of Aguda, the Jin dynasty broke its alliance with the Song and invaded north China. It was during this phase of the conflict where the Jin repeatedly suffered at the dense Chinese infantry blocks and primitive gunpowder weaponry that a veteran vanguard of the royal cavalry- Prince Wuzhu 兀术 reorganized his best and most experienced riders into a crack unit known as the Iron Pagoda Cavalry. 

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Above: Rapid and Staggering Jin gains in a mere decade under the meteoric leadership of Aguda and Jin Prince Wuzhu 兀术, though the Jin had originally came from barren pastures around the Anchuhu river, in 10 years since their founding they would have devoured all the lands of their Liao overlords and driven the Liao all the way into modern Kazakhstan. But that's no where compared to their successes against the extremely inept Song dynasty. 

In only half a decade after they had driven out the Liao, the Jin would have stole the very heartland of China from the Song, doubling again the size of their immense domain to include half the Song realm- among its holdings, the Song Capital of Kaifeng, 2 Song Emperors, and the entire 9000 members of the Song royal court. In 15 years since their founding from mere landless hunters and herders, they would have held mastery over a domain the size that from the west to the east corresponded to the distance from France to Poland, and north to south corresponded to the distance of Denmark to Sicily- in short, greater than the Frankish Empire under Charlemagne and the First French Empire under Napoleon. 


According to Prince Wuzhu's doctrine, the Iron Pagoda Cavalry would be a dedicated and concentrated vanguard that would maximize the already deadly thrust of the Jin cavalry charges, acting both as his best shock cavalry as well as specialized heavy dragoons that also frequently fought as dismounted heavy infantry.

They were likely influenced- and modeled upon the already legendary 鐵鷂子 "Iron Sparrow Cavalry" or "Iron Sparrowhawk Horsemen" of the neighboring Xi Xia Empire- an ethnically Tangut (of mixed Tibetan, Han Chinese, and Burmese) polity to the Jin empire's west. Though Wuzhu certainly did not emulate the Xixia army's habit of enslaving thousands of their prisoners.

Translation from 宋史 or the "History of Song:" "The Iron Sparrows can walk hundreds of Li a day or thousands on horse, It is most adept in sudden maneuvers and arrives unexpected. much like the lightening strikes and the moving clouds, when they encounter enemy forces in the open they often form sudden charges on the opposing forces."

They were part of the imperial forces, and it was the main thrust of Xi Xia imperial forces that was usually away on campaign. they were primarily described as medium armored lancers. but most noted for their endurance and agility. A feat made possible because the many horses each rider has on their long campaigns. They would also have a way of attaching their lances to their armored horses so that even after the rider was slain, the horse would have still thrusted their payload into the enemy ranks.

Unlike the Iron Sparrows though- who were mainly armored medium cavalry, the Iron Pagoda Cavalry would became the heaviest shock cavalry the far East would have ever seen. We will examine their staffing, their equipment, and their specialized role in detail below.


About three million people, half of them Jurchens, migrated south into northern China over two decades, and this minority governed about 30 million people. After taking over Northern China, the Jin dynasty became increasingly sinicised, as in~ turning Chinese and rapidly adopting many Chinese customs to legitimize their rule- from adopting the Han official scripts to the Han fashion, the robust Han imperial bureaucracy, and a Confucian, traditionalist ancestral worshiping worldview. Many Jurchens married Han Chinese- including forcefully marrying many captured Chinese women as concubines and slaves, their nobles studied the ancient Chinese classics and wrote Chinese poetry, but through it all- like their Manchu descendants who would one day rule the Qing dynasty in a similar fashion, the Jurchen largely kept only their own nobles on the top positions. 

According to the 《金虏图经》"Record of a Jin Prisoner" : "金兀术“自将牙兵三千策应,皆重铠全装,虏号铁浮屠,又号叉千户”,这“叉千户”便是指侍卫亲军"~ Prince Wuzhu would often refer to the Iron Pagodas by the sobriquet of his "Forked Thousand Households" or "Sharpened Clans" in reference to the ardor and general toughness of his lancer bodyguards. These three thousand houses- like the Prussian Junkers would be a continual recruitment pool for his best cavalry.

As such, the government and the army- at least in terms of staffing- remained largely "pure" of Jurchen officers. According to a short script written by 汪若海 Wang Ruowei, a contemporary Song operative who observed the Jin-Song battles- the ranks of the Iron Pagoda Cavalry was segregated and reserved for the noble sons of illustrious Jurchen clans. To ensure a sense of continual dynastic loyalty, (one that would continually propagate its ethnic supremacy) important Jurchen military postings became hereditary, key personages were given land grants and organised into hereditary military units: 300 households formed a mouke (company) and 7-10 moukes formed a meng-an (battalion). 

It should also be pointed out, the cavalry of the Jin army would also serve as its only professional wing- paid by regular salary while the state subsidized their costly armor and equipment. Meanwhile, the Han were largely relegated to the role of levy troops that supplemented these cavalry divisions. 


The Iron Pagodas were completely armored from head to toes in heavy lamellar armor- with only their eyes and hands exposed, some historians have referred to these heavy cavalry with the Greco-Roman terms of "cataphracts" or "clibanarii," in reference to their near identical appearance to heavy Persian cavalry from the 4-7th centuries. Their horses were also completely encased in armor as well, covered on all sides with thick barding of lamellar plates and padded cotton. In fact, each armored rider would be given two horses to ensure mobility throughout the ranks and in all situations.

They were also given a versatile array of weapons, aside from their customary lance, commonly featuring a black pennon, they were also equipped with a bow and full quiver, as well as a large two handed sword. For their dual roles (see below) they were also equipped with many sapping tools, including picks, rope ladders, and shovels. 

When considering that these horsemen would be deployed in astoundingly large numbers, usually ranging from 3,000 to 6,000- compare them to western knights who were rarely ever deployed in units which numbered little more than a few hundred at most- their effectiveness and the deadliness of their charge became sharply apparent. 

Even by themselves, they would have been larger than most medieval European armies all the way through the 15th century, then add the fact that they are only the vanguard of another 15,000 heavy cavalry and horse archers supplemented by 40,000- 80,000 well equipped infantry levies, one truly appreciate the massiveness of the Jin armored fist. One that equals to whole Islamic and Byzantine armies. It should also be made clear, the figures above only pertains to one column of the Jin army commanded by Prince Wuzhu~ his aforementioned "fist," the whole imperial army easily boasted half of a million soldiers. Modest compared to the previous Tang and Han dynasties that each respectively boasted at least 1 million soldiers in the 2nd century B.C and and 2 million in the 7th century A.D. 


The most important function of the Iron Pagoda was their charge. By the time this distinct unit was first raised in 1127, Wuzhu had already perfected the- by then "classic" Jin cavalry charge, and many of the veterans who enrolled within the Iron Pagoda would have also been familiar with their commander's devastating battle maneuvers- as they had came from various crack cavalry divisions. 

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Of their tactics: 赵彦卫 Zhao Yanwei, a Song chronicler wrote: "The horsemen would make use of a deep wedged array, after plunging into the ranks of their foes would promptly retreat in a burst of speed, all the while arranging itself to stalk or encircle the enemy formation in a circular array for a while, while keeping an eye for another opportunity for a charge, and if situation demanded, they would dismount and fight as heavy infantry." 

On a nightmarish note: There were also three Song records that stated the Jin cavalries (including the Iron Pagoda) would be outfitted in an almost legenday 拐子马 "Crutched Horse Formation" or "Bounded Horse Formation" where for every three riders, a leather rope would be stretched between them to mow down any Song infantry caught in their charge- further enhancing their already brutal charge. Even the History of Song records: “Wuzhu's army were strong and heavily armored with three men roped together by a leather thong.” This perception of the legendary formation persisted throughout the ensuing dynasties until the Qing~ where several Qing generals and historians challenged the practicality of such a formation in detail

There seem to be another prevalent theory that the formation was~ called "Bounded Horses" because some of such "Bound Horses" were talked about as if they were wholly distinct separate units, because often there would be mentions of several thousand "Bound Horses" on campaigns~

~giving historians the idea that such units were in fact wings of 10,000 light cavalry or horse archers that acted as two "Horns" around the attacking Iron Pagodas in a horseshoe crescent- this series does stands on its own as it fits within the general tactics of the Iron Pagodas, including the portion that dealt with "all the while arranging itself to stalk or encircle the enemy formation in a circular array for a while, while keeping an eye for another opportunity for a charge." "Thus- the Bound Horse," or "Crutched Horse" may in fact refer to a combined arms formation where nimble wings are pegged around an armored core.

But on an uncontroversial note, the Iron Pagodas definitely had a second role to play in the wars against the Song. For- unlike most heavy cavalry that was fielded throughout eastern and western history, the Iron Pagodas frequently dismounted and fought as heavy infantry. Especially in many sieges, Song records states that in the Battle of Jinzhen Pass 仙人关之战 around Shanxi, the Iron Pagodas dismounted and then drew up formation in rows and advanced in infantry formations. This is reflected in their equipment~ as most are equipped with not only bow and quiver for counter firing, they were also equipped with heavy two handed chopping blades against enemy armored targets.

A well preserved lamellar armor and helmet from a Jin Iron Pagoda, note the distinctive face plate for the helmet. Also note the variety of weapon the rider possessed, from a long cutting saber to a two handed cleaver (mostly for horses) and a double sided mace.

During the intense operations throughout 1125 (the Iron Pagoda were formed in 1127) to 1130, where the Song desperately attempted to hold on to their imperial heartlands against relentless waves of Jin onslaught. The Song had extreme difficulties in dislodging these arrow-proof wall of moving death until the very capital of the Song- 2 Emperors and an entire court of 9,000 were captured and mostly attritioned to their doom in a humiliating death- march to render supplications to the Jin Emperor.

As a result~ the new Song army that was raised after 1130 became an almost exclusive anti-cavalry fighting force filled mostly with infantry blocks of pavise crossbowmen, fire lancers (primitive gunpowder units) and halberdiers for the remainders of its existence- well until the coming of the Mongols. 

In the next chapter, we will examine the battle records of this unit in detail.

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