Chinese Chariots

Despite a number of vehicles having been recovered from graves and sacrificial pits, all aspects of the chariot’s employment in the ancient period pose vexing questions, particularly whether they were deployed by themselves as discrete operational units or were accompanied by either loosely or closely integrated infantry. Because even the oracular inscriptions for King Wu Ting’s well-documented reign provide few clues, and the tomb paintings recently discovered that date to the Warring States and thereafter mainly depict hunting scenes and parades, far more is known about the chariot’s physical structure than its utilization. The chariot’s essence has always been mobility, but prestige and displays of conspicuous authority rather than battlefield exploitation may have been defining factors in the Shang.

Some traditionally oriented scholars continue to assert that chariots played a significant role in Shang warfare; others deny that they were ever employed as a combat element. The Shang’s reputed employment of chariots, whether nine or seventy, to vanquish the Hsia is highly improbable given the complete absence of late seventeenth-century BCE or Erh-li-kang artifacts that might support such claims. However, Warring States writers idealistically ascribed differences in conception and operational characteristics to the Three Dynasties: “The war chariots of the Hsia rulers were called “hooked chariots,” because they put uprightness first; those of the Shang were called “chariots of the new moon,” because they put speed first; and those of the Chou were called “the source of weapons,” because they put excellence first.”

The few figures preserved in Shang dynasty oracular inscriptions, Chou bronze inscriptions, and other comparatively reliable written vestiges indicate that chariots were sparsely employed in Shang and Western Chou martial efforts. The chariot’s first recorded participation in Chinese warfare actually occurs about seven to eight hundred years after their initial utilization in the West, ironically just before the Near Eastern states would abandon them as their primary fighting component due to infantry challenges. King Wu Ting’s use of a hundred vehicle regiments for expeditionary actions, already discussed, seems to have initiated their operational deployment, though the only concrete reference to Shang chariots (ch’e) appears in the quasi-military context of the hunt.

Chariots must have been extensively employed in the late Jen-fang campaigns, but no numbers have been preserved. Thus the next semi-reliable figure is the universally acknowledged 300 chariots that were employed by King Wu of the Chou to penetrate the Shang’s massive troop deployment at the Battle of Mu-yeh, precipitating their collapse. Some accounts suggest that the Chou had another 50 chariots in reserve, while the number fielded by the Shang, strangely unspecified in the traditional histories, could hardly have been less than several hundred. King Wu reportedly had a thousand at his ascension, some no doubt captured from the Shang, though others may have belonged to his allies and merely been numbered among those present for the ceremony. Several hundred were also captured from the Shang’s allies in postconquest campaigns, as well as in suppressing the subsequent revolt.

Nevertheless, chariots seem to have been minimal in early Western Chou operational forces. Scattered evidence suggests that field contingents never exceeded several hundred, with as few as a hundred chariots participating in expeditionary campaigns. Although one of their efforts against the Hsien-yün resulted in the capture of 127 chariots from a supposedly “barbarian” or steppe power, King Li’s campaign against the Marquis of E seems to have been typical. Despite total enemy casualties being nearly 18,000, inscriptions on the bronze vessel known as the Hsiao-yü Ting indicate that a mere 30 chariots were captured in one clash, though a second force of 100 is also mentioned. Somewhat larger numbers were deployed slightly later in campaigns against the Wei-fang, but the maximum figure ever reported for the Western Chou, the 3,000 supposedly dispatched southward against the rising power of Ching/Ch’u in King Hsüan’s reign (827-782), is certainly exaggerated despite the king’s reputation for having revitalized Chou military affairs, as well as unreliable because it is based solely on an ode known as “Gathering Millet.”

The chariot’s effectiveness in the Shang, early Chou, and perhaps even beyond must be questioned in the face of the constraints discussed below, the difficulties that will be examined in the next section, and the lessons that can be learned from contemporary experiments with replica vehicles. However, it should be remembered that although numerous reasons can be adduced why chariots could not have functioned as generally imagined, voluminous historical literature, both Western and Asian, energetically speaks about their employment in battle. Ruling groups were still expending vast sums to build, maintain, and employ chariot forces in the Warring States period, and the Han continued to field enormous numbers against steppe enemies, incontrovertible evidence that rather than being historical chimeras or simply artifacts of military conservatism, they continued to be regarded as crucial weapons systems.

Although all the Warring States military writings contain a few brief observations on chariot operations, only two, the Wu-tzu and Liu-t’ao, preserve significant passages. Primarily important for understanding the nature of the era’s conflict, they still furnish vital clues to the chariot’s modes of employment and identify a number of inherent limitations that would have inescapably plagued the Shang and Western Chou, long before chariots would explosively multiply to become the operational focus for field forces.

Chariots were considered one of the army’s core elements: “Horses, oxen, chariots, weapons, relaxation, and an adequate diet are the army’s strength. Fast chariots, fleet infantrymen, bows and arrows, and a strong defense are what is meant by ‘augmenting the army.’” Several passages indicate that chariots were viewed as capable of “penetrating enemy formations and defeating strong enemies.” Those used in conjunction with large numbers of attached infantry and long weapons were said not only to be able to “penetrate solid formations” but also to “defeat infantry and cavalry.” “When the horses and chariots are sturdy and the armor and weapons advantageous, even a light force can penetrate deeply.” “Chariots are the feathers and wings of the army, the means to penetrate solid formations, press strong enemies, and cut off their flight.” Before the advent of cavalry, they also acted as “fleet observers, the means to pursue defeated armies, sever supply lines, and strike roving forces.”

Passages in Sun Pin’s Military Methods and other works indicate that somewhat specialized chariots evolved in the Warring States, the basic distinction being between faster (or lighter) models and heavier chariots protected by leather armor and designed for assaults. A few of even greater size and dedicated function were thought capable of accomplishing even more: “If the advance of the Three Armies is stopped, then there are the ‘Martial Assault Great Fu-hsü Chariots.’” “Great Fu-hsü Attack Chariots that carry Praying Mantis Martial warriors can attack both horizontal and vertical formations.” Variants with a smaller turning ratio, known as “Short-axle, Quick turning Spear and Halberd Fu-hsü Chariots,” might be successfully employed “to defeat both infantry and cavalry” and “urgently press the attack against invaders and intercept their flight.”

Chariots were deemed astonishingly powerful: “Chariots and cavalry are the army’s martial weapons. Ten chariots can defeat a thousand men, a hundred chariots can defeat ten thousand men.” The Liu-t’ao’s authors even ventured detailed estimates of the relative effectiveness of chariots and infantry: “After the masses of the Three Armies have been arrayed opposite the enemy, when fighting on easy terrain one chariot is equivalent to eighty infantrymen and eighty infantrymen are equivalent to one chariot. On difficult terrain one chariot is equivalent to forty infantrymen and forty infantrymen are equivalent to one chariot.”

These are startling numbers, all the more so for having been penned late in the Warring States period when states still numbered their chariots by the thousands. Even allowing for exaggeration, given that the Liu-t’ao generally reflects well-pondered experience and is a veritable compendium of Warring States military science, the era’s commanders must have had great confidence in the chariot’s capabilities. Nevertheless, it might be noted that the great T’ang dynasty commander Li Ching, upon examining these materials in the light of his own experience at a remove of a thousand years, concluded that the infantry / chariot equivalence should only be three to one.

Chariots were also employed to ensure a measured advance in the Spring and Autumn, Warring States, and later periods when they no longer functioned as the decisive means for penetration. Li Ching’s comments about his historically well-known expeditionary campaign against the Turks indicate that even in the T’ang and early Sung they were still considered the means to constrain large force movements: “When I conducted the punitive campaign against the T’u-ch’üeh we traveled westward several thousand li. Narrow chariots and deer-horn chariots are essential to the army. They allow controlling the expenditure of energy, provide a defense to the fore, and constrain the regiments and squads of five.”

Although certainly not applicable to the Shang, chariots could also be cobbled together to provide a temporary defense, particularly the larger versions equipped with protective roofs. The authors of the great Sung dynasty military compendium, the Wu-ching Tsung-yao, after (somewhat surprisingly) commenting that “the essentials of employing chariots are all found in the ancient military methods,” concluded that “the methods for chariot warfare can trample fervency, create strong formations, and thwart mobile attacks. When in motion vehicles can transport provisions and armaments, when halted can be circled to create encampment defenses.”

Numerous examples of employing chariots as obstacles or for exigent defense are seen as early as the Spring and Autumn period. The later military writings cite several Han dynasty exploitations of “circled wagons” being employed as temporary bastions, including three incidents in which beleaguered commanders expeditiously deployed their chariots much as Jan Ziska would in the West to successfully withstand significantly superior forces. Sometimes the wheels were removed, but generally the chariots were simply maneuvered into a condensed array.

Combat Issues – Chinese Chariots

Fighting from a moving chariot would have been difficult at best, given the bumping and jarring, not to mention the fleeting moment when a shock weapon could be brought to bear against nearby fighters on the ground or used to strike warriors in an oncoming vehicle. Thus the exceptional accomplishments attributed to racing archers may have been preserved precisely because of their uniqueness. Furthermore, even if the chariots merely served as transport to the point of conflict, fighters manning the compartment would have suffered the discomfort of confinement.

Though seemingly spacious, the approximately 32-by-48-inch compartment turns out to be highly limiting when occupied by three warriors bearing weapons and garbed in rudimentary protective leather armor. Experiments conducted over several years with martial artists well trained in such traditional weapons as long- and short-handled halberds, battle axes, daggers, and swords prove that they would have lacked the freedom of maneuver required to fend off, let alone vanquish, attackers. The driver, who faces no threat from the front where the horses block access, is mainly vulnerable to an oblique attack. However, being pinned in the center with the horses and shaft protruding in front of him, he is unable to contribute much to either the attack or defense, whether in motion or at rest. But the other two combatants are exposed from about 45 degrees right around to 180 degrees dead center at the back, where neither shields nor any other form of protection was ever affixed.

If the archer positions himself somewhat laterally on the right side so that his shooting stance puts his arm toward the outside of the chariot rather than to the inside against the driver, he can fire toward the front or out to the sides with little interference. However, swinging around to shoot to the rear is virtually impossible. Conversely, an archer standing on the left, reputedly the normal Shang position, is badly hampered by the driver (even if the driver is kneeling) as he tries to fit an arrow to his bow and fire in any direction. Shots to the rear become possible if he stands laterally facing outward and thus draws his bow on the exterior side of the compartment, in mirror image to an archer positioned on the right side aiming forward.

Wielding the era’s preferred shock weapon, a dagger-axe with a three-foot handle, is easily accomplished on the right side, particularly for blows directed to the front or somewhat alongside, but when swinging outward to counterattack perpendicular to the chariot’s forward orientation, care has to be taken to avoid striking the archer standing on the opposite side on the backswing. Blows directed to the rear that require swinging around prove impossible without dramatically modifying the motion, as well as fruitless because potential attackers, already at the limit of effective range, can easily dodge any strike.

Even if solitary attackers might be thwarted, multiple attackers, especially those bearing five-foot-long spears, would have been easily able to slay the chariot’s occupants without being endangered, unless the archer employed his bow at point-blank range. Whether armed with long or short weapons, multiple attackers create chaos because the heavily confined chariot crew, standing back to back and arm to shoulder, are unable to dodge, bend, or deflect oncoming blows and can only rely on any shields they may have carried or the protection offered by early body armor. Vulnerability would therefore have been especially acute to the rear, though presumably somewhat mitigated by the chariot’s forward battlefield motion.

A single occupant wielding a full-length saber or long two-handed weapon fared far better in these admittedly static tests. Two men, though sometimes impinging on each other or even colliding, still had sufficient freedom of maneuver to fight effectively, even if the archer occupied the left side as traditionally portrayed. Three men suffered the difficulties noted; four became an example of “close packing,” all four being totally incapable of wielding any sort of crushing weapon.

These problems apparently prompted the development of very long-handled spears and dagger-axes in the Spring and Autumn that were presumably intended for battling similarly equipped warriors in enemy chariots. However, for the three chariot occupants this additional length simply exacerbated the lack of maneuverability, particularly because the weapons tended to be held at least a quarter of the way up the shaft rather than at the very butt. (Grasping with two hands increases the power and control, but at the sacrifice of maneuverability.) Even with these longer weapons, two warriors riding fast-moving, converging chariots would only have had a moment to strike each other—making it not impossible but highly unlikely to significantly contribute to the battle’s effort. Rather than as conventionally depicted in contemporary movies, the drivers probably slowed, even halted, to allow the occupants to clash.

Experiments also revealed the height of the compartment to be not just a detrimental factor but also highly puzzling. A horizontal pole or rim that falls somewhere around the middle of the upper thigh provides adequate stabilization for a warrior to maintain a fighting stance and would have prevented falling over in sudden motion, but to provide real functional support the height should rise approximately to a man’s waist. However, though not entirely useless, Shang chariot walls would have risen to just above knee level, a height that tended to cause modern fighters to lose their balance and tumble out because the rail effectively acted as a fulcrum.

The axle’s high placement in a relatively lightweight vehicle would have resulted in a high center of gravity, making stability a crucial issue for any occupants trying to employ their weapons at speed. In addition, there were no springs or any sort of suspension mounting for the chariot box, even though late Shang models apparently began to employ the cantilevered wooden junction called a “crouching rabbit,” which was obviously designed to reduce the effects of the wooden wheels bouncing over the terrain through its tensing and bowing action. The horses loosely coupled to the front shaft and the weight of the three-man crew would have stabilized the vehicle somewhat, but the traditional chariot would certainly have been inherently unstable and rocked jarringly from side to side on the uneven terrain of natural battlefields, just like a modern lightweight SUV.

The straw and moss padding spread on the compartment’s wooden floor to provide additional damping proved to be minimally absorptive while inducing further instability, just as sponge padding might on the floor of an open pickup truck. (Comfortable when stationary, spongelike substances tend to exhibit less desirable properties when the vehicle is in motion or the fighter is active.) In some cases the floors were fabricated by interweaving leather thongs, but their effectiveness in reconstructive experiments was decidedly poor, particularly after they lost their initial tension, and they could even result in the fighter’s stance becoming more tenuous. The use of interior straps and efforts to improve the battlefield in the Spring and Autumn period confirm that stability continued to be a problem: the warriors were jostled about as the chariot moved at speed across the terrain.

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