History of Traditional Chinese Weaponry
Including Fire Arrows and Land Torpedoes

On this page you will find a brief but through run through the history of Chinese Weaponry Development around the end of the 19th Century.


China had many inventions well before most any country including weaponry. With the unfortunate habit of each Dynasty destroying all from the previous Dynasty to prevent 'symbols', many inventions were lost and relegated to history or even myth. Although in this article we can not investigate all these occurrences, we do seek to have a representative time line of Chinese (Cold, non Explosive) Weaponry Development for purposes of understanding the great variety of weapons available for Kung Fu Weaponry training today!

First Finds

It would be difficult to define the difference between tools and weapons or to speculate which was first. Looking at prehistoric discoveries we find a lot of stone knives, spear and axe heads. This defiantly establishes tool & weapon existence hundreds of thousands of years ago. Wooden tools would not have lasted the time so our only reasonable source of information need to be stone implements. But then again, spears, arrows and axes need wood as handles. This suggest that we knew the basics for using a stick and a club. Finally, we can again only speculate that rock throwing was also part of a Cave dwellers repertoire for hunting . . . and defence.

From this we can deduce that items such as the spear, knife, etc. could be dated back to 2 million years Bad. Whereas the first metal implements appeared in Middle East and Southeast Asia some 8000 years ago making those the oldest metal weapons and tools around! This would put Chinese Weaponry post Stone Age as the oldest in the world.

Conflict or Commerce

This still leaves the question open; what came first, weapons or tools. Did humans design implements for killing each other or helping each other first. perhaps we will never know but there is a clue to how it was! There is a long standing argument in regards to the reason for Civilization!

Why did humans 'civilize', what caused us to work together. Was an external threat or an internal need? This is a question that has been debated for quite some time. The two major and opposing views are War & Peace

One speculates that the main reason we came together into towns and villages was for reasons of security. That we needed to primarily protect ourselves from each other and nature. It suggest that we banded together like Zebras where number will secure the survival of the species.

The other view speculates that it was commerce and trade that bought us together. That we sought to improve our lives and we sought to exchange gods and services with each other. For this we needed town and trading centers, traders and transporters. And all that come with handle.

So which was it; was the Weapon of war or the tool of commerce the reason we humans became civilized. Was it war or peace, external or internal motivation? A recent discovery of the oldest known city/village on record (documented on the National Geographic) suggested a possible answer if we go with the logic of the discoverers.

This site is than 4,000 years old, belonging to the Longshan or late Neolithic culture (3000 to 1700 BCE). The old city extends over more than 16,000 square meters, with the east, west and south walls still evident. A well-preserved 5,000-year-old pottery kiln was unearthed, with kiln chamber, fireplace, workshop and ash pit still relatively intact. Researchers report that this is the best-preserved kiln of its age ever found in China.

The First City?

With the unearthing of the city and artifacts it was interesting to note that there was a predominance of materials used for commerce and trade and very little evidence of weaponry and stifle. This has lent more credence and weight to the view that we were motivated to live in city's because of commerce and trade not war and fear (although there will also be an element of this too).This is actually a very satisfying thought that our reason for being together is trade and commerce not strife and war! This allows us to speculate that many of our weapons are based on hunting, farming and civilisation, rather than killing each other!

Metal Tools & Weapons

The Stone Age was the time before the use of metals, when tools and weapons were made of stone. It started about 2 million years ago but finished at different times. In the most advanced parts of the Middle East and Southeast Asia it ended about 6000 Bad, but it lingered until 4000 BCE or later in Europe, the rest of Asia, and Africa. The Stone Age in the Americas began when human beings first arrived in the New World, some 30,000 years ago, and ended in some areas about 2500 BCE at the earliest. It may now be a good time to look at the official Chinese History through Chinese Dynastic History;

Dynasties of China

Stone Age

During the Stone Age, conflictions between rival clans would fight using keen-edged productive and hunting tools. Thus, the development rudimentary weapons h ad begun. The earliest weapons utilized may well have been the bow or spear as these would be readily available for hunting. In archaeological studies, a grave was uncovered with a body whose skeleton, penetrated by a bone arrow head illustrates the transfer from tool to weapon.

In that age, stone axes were very popular tools and amongst the earliest weapons. It evolved over millennia becoming thinner, sharper, and harder culminating in the Tomahawk or throwing axe. It was not only a popular weapon but also a symbol of social status. A jade tomahawk discovered in the tomb of a noble proves that at that early time artisans are already producing ceremonial weaponry - on its upper corner is the carving - an immortal riding Tigerlike beast, and on the lower corner was the pattern of a bird.

Chinese Cold Weapon History

Bronze Age

People began to add lead and tin into copper to make the alloy Bronze and slowly, stone weapons declined. As early as the Warring States Period, there are records on the casting of wares: different proportions of those three metals could make weapons of varying rigidity and temper.

Metal Age

In the Western Zhou Dynasty, weapons made of the nature siderite had been manufactured, which are the earliest know example of iron work in the world. With refinement of the process, iron weapons became all-pervading during the late Warring State Period, enduring the Qing Dynasty, and till the Han Dynasty. However, since few iron weapons had an exterior preserving process, they are corroded when excavated. This adds to the difficulty in research and provides less understanding than those of the Bronze Age, as the latter having been protected by a thin layer of natural oxidation.

Age of Catapults

Catapults appeared in the late Eastern Han Dynasty and thrived in the Three Kingdoms Period (220- 280), made of iron and utilizing stone balls. When enemies came, the defenders would place the catapults atop the city gate. It recurred to the leverage and threw the huge stone over the wall in a way of parabola thus crushing the aggressors. This is still reflected in the Chinese chess - the chess piece representing the catapult ('Pao' in Chinese) still follows the regulation of attacking another chess piece only when there is the third one in between.

The Shield

With the rise of cavalry during the Western Han Dynasty an oblong shield appeared that soldiers could hold one handed. It was bound to the left forearm of a cavalry and changed shape to circular. Till the Northern and Southern Dynasty, a long hexagon one prevailed with the shield face introverting vertically like a leaf. When in the battle, it could either be hand held or be placed on the ground with the support of a stick.

Iron Armor

In the Western Han Dynasty, iron armor replaced leather armor and evolved into fine scale armor and plate armor. Scale armor shows a high level of technical know-how, with a set being comprised of over 2,200 components. During the Three Kingdoms Period chain armor, for protection from arrows became popular, and during the Ming Dynasty it became the trend of change from heavy to light armor, but still being able to withstand the thrust of a spear.

Steel Armor

With the development of steel armor, not only soldiers but horses wore armor. Thus the halberd which functioned mainly to thrust and hook lost its place on the battle field. Spears evolved into lances, and were used exclusively by cavalry, offering a high power of penetration.


The Han Dynasty is the key period of the development of Chinese warships, no matter what the scale. Oars in the Western Han, rudder in the Eastern Han, both were the brilliant achievements. Scull changed the way of thrashing from front-behind to left-right and improved the efficiency, which was the precursor of modern helix thrusters. Helm made up the flexibility of steering sailing course of oar and paved the way for European exploration. In the Jin Dynasty, warships of large scale stood out. In the records there h ad been a ship combining many hulls with the length and breadth of 180 meters and could hold more than 2,000 people on board. Atop was fixed wooden city and horses could gallop through the four city gates. In the Sui Dynasty, an extremely large ship over 30 meters high was built that could hold 800 people. Until the Southern Song Dynasty nearly all the armies used warships. Examples of 110 meters with tower, skirt-board and wheel-oars are recorded.


In the Northern Song Dynasty, gun-powder began to be used in weaponry and the earliest experience in the world. In the Compendium of Military, we can determine that there were three production methods for cannonballs which were hurled by a stonejackers as in the Three Kingdoms Period (In the Southern Song Dynasty). Records of Defending Cities by Chen Gui showed the earliest use of flame throwers. People at that time held powder in a thick bamboo tube that spewed fire out of it to burn enemies.

Fire Arms

The shooting fire weapon Huo Chong made of metal came out in the Yuan Dynasty. It was the predecessor of firearms. When soldiers used it, they usually foisted powder into the powder chamber, fixed the powder wick and the stones, and then lit to shoot. In the following dynasty Ming (1368-1644), it played an important role in wars and was the most advanced weapon world wide. Huo Chong with larger caliber evolved to be the cannon, and the one with small caliber to be guns.

Stagnation of Weapons

Although weapons once occupied the top place, they didn't develop much further according to the Training Records (or Lian Bing Shi Ji) by Qi Jiguang cold weapons were still dominant. Powder spread in the Western world; firearms were quickly employed and until the merchantmen of Spain and Holland brought the latest ones in the late Ming dynasty, the Chinese had not realized their lack of development. The imported cannons in the Qing Dynasty had a high reputation such as 'Great General in Red'. However in the late Qing, it fell again behind during the confrontation between westerners and Chinese.

Western Weapons

Having suffered the failure of the Opium War in 1840, officials of the Qing Dynasty began to import western weapons and the Chinese weapons industry came to an end. After the foundation of Modern China in 1949, weapons manufacturing has turned over a new leaf and improved as the latest varieties emerge.

Influences on the View of Chinese History

Because of its length and complexity, the history of the Middle Kingdom lends itself to varied interpretation. After the communist takeover in 1949, historians in mainland China wrote their own version of the past; a history of China built on a Marxist model of progression from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. The events of history came to be presented as a function of the class struggle. Historiography became subordinated to proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the Chinese Communist Party. A series of thought-reform and anti-rightist campaigns were directed against intellectuals in the arts, sciences, and academic community.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) further altered the objectivity of historians. In the years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, however, interest grew within the party, and outside it as well, in restoring the integrity of historical inquiry. This trend was consistent with the party's commitment to "seeking truth from facts." As a result, historians and social scientists raised probing questions concerning the state of historiography in China. Their investigations included not only historical study of traditional China but penetrating inquiries into modern Chinese history and the history of the Chinese Communist Party.

In post-Mao China, the discipline of historiography has not been separated from politics, although a much greater range of historical topics has been discussed. Figures from Confucius; who was bitterly excoriated for his "feudal" outlook by Cultural Revolution-era historians; to Mao himself have been evaluated with increasing flexibility. Among the criticisms made by Chinese social scientists is that Maoist-era historiography distorted Marxist and Leninist interpretations. This meant that considerable revision of historical texts was in order in the 1980s, although no substantive change away from the conventional Marxist approach was likely. Historical institutes were restored within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and a growing corps of trained historians, in institutes and academia alike, returned to their work with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. This in itself was a potentially significant development.

Thus interpreting the nature of Chinese History or Weapons history is almost impossible for anything less than a full blown university study. So much like the listing of the dynasties above, we will search out and list 'significant' figures in the world of Traditional Chinese Weaponry. When looking at Chinese Martial Art and weaponry history, we need to look at Kwan Yu first and foremost!

Significant Warriors of Chinese History
as another way of viewing the history of Chinese Weaponry

Kwan Yu

Kwan Yu or Quan Yu (162–219) was a military general under the warlord Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms period. He played a significant role in the civil war that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Kingdom of Shu, of which Liu Bei was the first emperor.

Kwan Yu h ad been deified as early as the Sui Dynasty and is still being worshipped by Chinese people today, especially in Hong Kong. While being seen as the epitome of loyalty and righteousness, Kwan Yu h ad been criticized by historians for being arrogant and vain, qualities that eventually led to his downfall in the hands of Sun Quan, lord of the Kingdom of Wu.

Kwan Yu is traditionally portrayed as a red-faced warrior with a long lush beard who was a master of the Kwan Dao (named Green Dragon Crescent Blade, which resembled a halberd and was said to weigh 82 jin 41 kilograms using today's standards).

The legend behind this unusual feature tells of the daughter of a good and honest local man who was kidnapped by a bully who also happened to be the son of the local governor. The girl's father was helpless to stop the abduction for fear of the governor's wrath, so it was believed that she would remain the property of the bully forever. Hearing of this, Kwan Yu immediately set off, killed the bully, rescued the girl, and returned her safely to her father. Knowing that the governor would seek revenge for his son's death, Yu took refuge in a temple and waited.

Meanwhile the governor, furious at hearing of his son's death sent his troops out to bring back Yu's he ad and after some vigorous searching they finally tracked him down to the temple. Kwan Yu's fighting reputation was well known though, and rather than try to charge in and attack him the troops decided to set fire to the temple and wait for him to come running out. But as the fire began to rip through the rafters, brave Kwan Yu waited inside until the troops thought that he h ad surely perished in the flames.

Then as the troops thought that no one could have survived, he burst through the flames and attacked the surprised troops, who he dispatched with little trouble. Afterwards as he sought comfort by a nearby stream, he noticed in the water's reflection that the flames and heat from the fire h ad turned his face bright red. Then with his new and unexpected disguise, he was able to escape and rejoin Lui Bei's troops.

Cao Cao

Cao Cao was born in 155 ad, a subject of the dynasty of Later Han. His father, Cao Song, was the adopted son of a eunuch at court, and rose through influence and bribery to the highest position in the imperial bureaucracy. Cao Cao himself occupied a number of middle-range posts at the capital until 189, when the general Dong Zhuo took advantage of a failed coup d'etat and claimed power for himself.

The civil war which followed destroyed the authority of the empire, and for ten years the heart of China was ravaged and ruined by ragged armies of adventurers, in an infinite permutation of alliances and treachery. From this confusion, Cao Cao emerged in triumph. He established a coherent government with the Emperor as his puppet, and by 200, when he defeated his chief rival in battle by the Yellow River, he was the master of north China.

He is a central figure in the Classic Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luó Guànzhong. It is a Chinese historical novel based upon events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty, and the Three Kingdoms period (220-280). It is acclaimed as one of the Four Classical Novels of Chinese literature.


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