During the Spring and Autumn period as well as the Warring States period in ancient China, weapons were broadly categorized into two types: offensive and defensive. Offensive weapons comprised Swords, Dagger-axe (ge 戈), Spear, Halberd（jǐ 戟）, club(shū 殳) as well as Crossbow, and Bow and arrow. Defensive armaments primarily consisted of armor and shields.
These weapons varied in size. Swords were considered short-range weaponry, whereas Dagger-axe (ge 戈), Spear, Halberd were classified as long-range arms. Long-range weapons themselves varied in length, some measuring just about a meter, insufficient to match a person’s height, while others extended up to one and a half to two or three times a person’s height, especially those intended for use by cavalry, necessitating a length exceeding the horse’s head for optimal effectiveness. However, long-range arms seldom exceeded three times a person’s height as they became less practical beyond this range. These weapons were utilized for close combat.
On the other hand, bows and arrows, as well as crossbows, were considered long-range weapons capable of launching attacks from a distance.
Different types of offensive weapons used in close combat
Initially, it was in the form of a short sword, resembling a dagger commonly found in the northern grasslands. Not only was it a tool for eating, but also a means of self-defense. Swords and knives fall into the same category, differing in their single-edged or double-edged nature. By the end of the Spring and Autumn period, long swords became popular. Well-crafted long swords were prevalent in the southern regions, primarily manufactured in areas such as Wu, Yue, and Chu. Long swords were extensively used in combat, whereas short swords were more suited for self-defense and clandestine assassination. During the Warring States period of Qin and Han dynasties, warriors often carried short swords.
2.Dagger-axe (ge 戈)
A weapon resembling a long sickle used in agriculture. In the Shang Dynasty, the halberd had a linear shape, featuring a sharp-edged front (referred to as “yuan”), a lower blade (referred to as “nei”), and a rear handle. However, in the Zhou Dynasty, the halberd had a T-shaped form, incorporating a dangling part (referred to as “hu”) for easier binding and fixation.
A spear is a pole weapon consisting of a shaft, usually of wood, with a pointed head. The head may be simply the sharpened end of the shaft itself, as is the case with fire hardened spears, or it may be made of a more durable material fastened to the shaft, such as bone, flint, obsidian, copper, bronze, iron, or steel. The most common design for hunting and/or warfare, since ancient times has incorporated a metal spearhead shaped like a triangle, diamond, or leaf. The heads of fishing spears usually feature multiple sharp points, with or without barbs.Unlike the curved striking motion of a halberd, spear handles were generally round for ease of use rather than flat to control the direction of blade strikes.
A combination of the Dagger-axe and Spear. It could be separately cast or combined, with some examples showcasing multiple halberd heads mounted on one handle.
Both Spear and Halberds were associated with combat involving chariots, a distinctive feature among Chinese weapons. However, as chariot tactics declined, these weapons gradually faded from use, not mentioned in the “Essentials of the Military Classics.”
3.Club (shū 殳)
Belonging to the category of cudgel weapons, later referred to as a club. It had three forms: one with a hammer-shaped copper ring and a protruding spear tip; another featuring these attributes but with additional spikes on the hammer-shaped copper ring, resembling the Song Dynasty’s wolf teeth club; and the third form significantly different, having a tubular copper head without a blade.
6.Pi (pí 铍)
It was a weapon that placed a short sword onto a long handle, similar to a modern-day sword-staff. During the Warring States period, the Pi was popular in both northern and southern regions, especially found in Zhao and Qin territories. Some discoveries indicate that Zhao’s Pi lacked a tang, while those from Qin possessed one.
Long-range Offensive Weapons
1.Bow and Arrows
Known in ancient times as long-range arms, these were weapons capable of inflicting damage from a distance. The bow and arrow can be traced back to the Paleolithic era. It combined wood and stone, with a quiver used to hold the arrows and a bow for shooting.
A remarkable invention possibly inspired by hunting tools. In China, crossbows were widely used as early as the 4th century BCE. Its origins may be traced to Asia, particularly regions south of the Yangtze River. While crossbows were also utilized in Europe, their introduction there occurred later. Scholars suspect its transmission from Asia, with the earliest concrete evidence appearing around the 10th to 11th century. Different from bows, the crossbow featured a stock and a bowstring, operated using a trigger mechanism for control and aiming. Some powerful crossbows were difficult to draw by human strength, necessitating the use of a winch-mounted crossbow bed. This type of crossbow bed could control multiple crossbows, known as repeating crossbows. These repeating crossbows had long range and high accuracy, proving particularly effective in resisting the cavalry charges of northern ethnic groups. Modern firearms are an extension of the crossbow, with sights resembling elevation marks and triggers equivalent to hooks. As firearms emerged, cavalry gradually declined, and these weapons became a continued means to counter them.
Each ancient civilization had its distinct armor with slight variations. Greek and Roman infantry were divided into heavy and light. Heavy infantry wore copper breastplates and backplates, akin to tortoise shells, along with shin guards, which were relatively cumbersome. On the other hand, light infantry armor was made by fastening copper plates together, offering greater mobility.
Romans also employed chainmail, supposedly learned from the Celts. Chainmail was lighter and snugger compared to the second type of armor. Early medieval Europe favored chainmail, a relatively lightweight armor. However, by the 14th to 15th centuries, knights began donning heavy iron armors covering their entire body.
With the advent of firearms, armor gradually phased out in Europe after the 17th century, yet traditions persisted through items like steel helmets and bulletproof vests.
Helmets in ancient times were made of bronze, leather, and iron. Some leather and iron helmets were adorned with attached laminar armor. Helmets were also referred to as “dou mou,” believed to be a loanword from the Turkic language family.
There were small forearm shields and large body shields. The larger shields could entirely cover the body, known as “lu” or “bi lu” in ancient texts. In sieges, smaller shields were more practical when scaling amidst arrows and stones, while larger shields were advantageous in frontal combat formations.Modern shields have exited the historical stage, yet riot police still use shields made of bulletproof glass.
Other weapons and symbolism
In ancient times, certain weapons, such as the “yue,” originally designed as implements for punishment, were repurposed as symbols of authority and military prowess among ceremonial guards.
The evolution and diversity of these weapons during the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States era were crucial elements of ancient military technology and culture. They showcased the remarkable skill and innovative capabilities of the ancient Chinese in the realm of weapon craftsmanship.