Ancient Chinese Armor of the Qin Dynasty

Close up of Terracotta Army statues in Xian, Shaanxi, China
studioEAST / Getty Images

During the Qin dynasty (c. 221 to 206 BCE), Chinese warriors wore elaborate suits of armor, each one consisting of more than 200 pieces. Much of what historians know about this armor comes from the 7000 or so life-sized terracotta warriors found in the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260 to 210 BCE), which appear to be modeled on distinct, individual warriors. The Terracotta Army—discovered in 1974 near the city of Xi'an—includes armored infantry, cavalrymen, archers, and chariot drivers. Analysis of the figures reveals much about the ancient Chinese military.

Key Takeaways: Qin Armor

  • Ancient Chinese armor included protective garments made out of overlapping leather or metal scales.
  • Historians have learned much of what they know about ancient Chinese armor from the Terracotta Army, a collection of life-size figures based on the soldiers of Qin Shi Huang.
  • Ancient Chinese soldiers used a great variety of weapons, including swords, dagger, spears, crossbows, and battleaxes.

Qin Dynasty Armor

Terracotta Warriors

UrsaHoogle/Getty Images

The Qin dynasty dominated the modern-day states of Gansu and Shaanxi from about 221 to 206 BCE. The state was the result of several successful conquests during the Warring States period, which allowed Emperor Qin Shi Huang to consolidate his kingdom. As such, the Qin was known for its powerful warriors. Those above the rank of common soldiers wore special armor made out of thin leather or metal plates (known as lamellae). Infantry wore suits that covered their shoulders and chest, cavalrymen wore suits that covered their chest, and generals wore armored suits along with ribbons and headdresses. Compared to warriors in other parts of the world, this armor was relatively simple and limited; Roman soldiers a few hundred years earlier, for example, wore a helmet, round shield, greaves, and cuirass for bodily protection, all of bronze.

Materials

Stone armor of the Terracotta Warrior in emperor qinshihuang's Mausoleum site museum


Xu Xiaolin/Getty Images

 

The armor seems to have been riveted together in places, and tied or sewn in others. The lamellae were small plates (around 2 by 2 inches, or 2 by 2.5 inches) made of leather or metal with a number of metal studs in each plate. In general, larger plates were used to cover the chest and shoulders, and smaller plates were used to cover the arms. For additional protection, some warriors wore extra garments on their thighs in addition to the pants under their coats. Others wore shin pads, including archers who might have occasion to kneel.

The garments on the Terracotta Army were originally lacquered and painted bright colors, including blue and red. Unfortunately, exposure to elements, like air and fire, led to flaking off, bleaching, and discoloration. Splotchy faded color remains. Historians are not sure whether Qin soldiers actually wore such bright colors or if the figures of the Terracotta Army were merely painted for decoration.

Designs

Terracotta Army warrior, Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1987)


De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

 

Qin armor itself was relatively simple in design. Whether a suit covered the chest, shoulders, and arms or only the chest, it was made up of small, overlapping scales. To distinguish themselves from lower-ranking soldiers, military leaders wore ribbons around their necks. Some officers wore flat caps, and generals wore headdresses that resembled a pheasant tail.

Weaponry

Terracotta soldiers in Tomb of Qin Shinhuang in China

 

Glen Allison/Getty Images 

None of the soldiers in the Terracotta Army carry shields; however, historians believe that shields were used during the Qin dynasty. The soldiers used a variety of weapons, including bows, spears, lances, swords, daggers, battleaxes, and others. Even among the swords, there was great variety—for example, some were straight like broadswords, while others were curved like scimitars. Many of these weapons were made of bronze; others were made of an alloy that included copper and other elements.

Grooming and Accessories

Head close-up by Terracotta Warriorsin in emperor qinshihuang's Mausoleum site museum.

Xu Xiaolin/Getty Images

On the Qin soldiers' neatly combed and parted head hair—their mustaches were exquisite, too—were topknots to the right, elaborate braids, and, sometimes leather caps, most noticeably on the mounted cavalry, but no helmets. These horsemen sat on their short horses with their hair coiffed and covered, too. The horsemen used saddles, but no stirrups, and wore, over their leggings, coats that historians believe were shorter than those of Qin foot soldiers.

Generals wore ribbons tied into bows and pinned to their coats in a number of different places. The number and arrangement indicated each general's rank; a small difference could be the equivalent of the difference between four- and five-star generals.