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2019-01-18 13:49:24  + video 

SHANGHAI — You’d normally find 34-year-old Gao Peng behind a computer, but today, he’s dressed in 36 kilograms of thick Ming Dynasty-style armor with metal plates scaling down his arms.

In a makeshift arena in an unused office space, 1.93-meter-tall Gao and his team face off against armor-clad opponents. Before long, combatants smash each other with swords, creating ear-piercing collisions of metal on metal as vanquished fighters are hit or crash to the floor. One bout even ends with all armored fighters on top of one another in a pile of weapons and limbs.

A group who loves historical medieval battles enters the arena with their Ming Dynasty armor and weapons on display. By Hu Yanjun, Tian Xuanning, and Sun Hening for Sixth Tone

It’s entertaining — even comedic at times — but for Gao, bringing China’s martial past to life through real armor, combat, and historical re-enactment is a serious matter. “Only if you understand this can you understand how you came to be — how your own nation, your own people, made it to the present day,” he tells Sixth Tone in December from a Shanghai café, a stone’s throw from the video game studio where he works as an animator.

Gao, who hails from northwestern Gansu province, is one of a small but growing number of armor enthusiasts in China. Some just like to dress up, while others — like Gao — do battle in them, but all are trying to bring the past to life and connect with their roots. While historical re-enactments and medieval martial arts are already established — if still somewhat niche — pastimes overseas, Chinese history buffs must contend with red tape, warped public views of history, and the unwieldy and expensive business of replicating ancient armor.

Armor — a kind of traditional cultural art — has basically died out.

Fellow armor enthusiast and animation director Liu Shiwei is a member of the Armor Alliance, a nonprofit set up in 2016 after filmmaker Lu Chuan suggested a need to promote public awareness of historical Chinese armor and reverse its widespread misrepresentation in TV and film. Liu cites the 2008 blockbuster “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon” and its decision to equip third-century Chinese warriors with British World War I helmets as a particularly egregious example. “Armor — a kind of traditional cultural art — has basically died out,” says the 40-year-old. “The alliance aims to unite the very small number of armorsmiths and to find a way forward for armor.”

Last October, Liu organized the group’s first weeklong series of events at a historical site in southwestern Guizhou province — including an armored procession, some dances from performers dressed in armor, and a tournament in which Gao fought. On the final day, 100 re-enactors recreated a battle between imperial Ming Dynasty forces and a 240,000-strong rebellion that had taken place there 418 years prior. “For so long, we’ve thought to ourselves: ‘Why can’t armor be done properly in TV and movies?’” says Liu. “Something needs to happen at the grassroots level to help Chinese people better understand their own ancestors — what our armor really looked like.”

Re-enactors recreate a Ming Dynasty battle in Zunyi, Guizhou province, Oct. 5, 2018. Courtesy of the Armor Alliance

Re-enactors recreate a Ming Dynasty battle in Zunyi, Guizhou province, Oct. 5, 2018. Courtesy of the Armor Alliance

For a man bent on historical revival, Liu’s Shanghai studio — which acts as the de facto headquarters for the Armor Alliance — is a hectic mix of the ancient and futuristic. Two suits of replicated Japanese armor guard the entryway, while the reception area features a large model of a “Star Wars” AT-AT combat walker. Liu — a stout, mustached individual in a NASA bomber jacket — unsheathes a replica sword and poses dramatically.

Something needs to happen at the grassroots level to help Chinese people better understand their own ancestors — what our armor really looked like.

Liu participated in re-enactment events in which participants dressed as U.S. Marines and Nazi SS troopers with BB guns when he was younger, but authorities shut down the activities. He began thinking that historical re-enactments of older periods, when armies used swords and spears, would still be possible. In 2016, he saw armorers at the Xitang Hanfu Cultural Week, an annual event celebrating traditional Han culture, and was sold. Deciding the suits were “badass,” he bought one on the spot and joined the alliance shortly thereafter.

But few authentic antique armor specimens still exist, Liu explains, due to the restrictive rules of China’s final dynasties. While European armor has survived through private collections, ownership of armor was a crime punishable by beheading during the Qing Dynasty, because the ruling authorities wanted to keep weaponry out of private hands in case of uprisings. In addition, the large amount of cloth used in many examples of ancient armor has made them hard to preserve, says Liu. It’s only in the past decade that he’s noticed Chinese craftsmen beginning to revive the lost art of armor production, using historical sources and the few existing examples for reference.

To Liu, there’s also a more personal benefit to dressing up in armor. It’s a way to fulfill childhood dreams of battlefield glory and revive traditional values he thinks are lacking in modern society, like loyalty and strength. “People in modern times, especially young people, lack manly strength,” says Liu. “Armor can help to change this.”

Liu Shiwei strikes a fierce pose at an underground armor store in Shanghai, Dec. 10, 2018. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Liu Shiwei strikes a fierce pose at an underground armor store in Shanghai, Dec. 10, 2018. Kenrick Davis/Sixth Tone

Much like the Rebel Alliance in “Star Wars,” Armor Alliance members are a motley crew of idealists bound by a common cause. Aside from the ever-smiling Liu — or “Old Liu” as the others affectionately call him — there’s a teacher of classical dance who fought and performed at the October 2018 event and a stainless-steel industry executive who spent 180,000 yuan ($27,100) on armor replicas last year. In the afternoon, Liu and his crew visit the newly launched armor shop of another member, who usually works as the technical manager of a baking supplies company.

Although the Armor Alliance’s first event went well, says Liu, they still face an uphill battle to popularize the hobby of collecting and wearing armor, which is extremely niche. Liu estimates that there are less than 200 Chinese suits of replica armor in existence, and an even smaller number of collectors. By comparison, he says there are already millions of fans of hanfu, the traditional buttonless dress that has been popularized in the last decade. While hanfu is easy to wear and relatively inexpensive, armor is pricey, impractical, and takes months or years to produce. On top of that, it can be hard to get permission to hold re-enactment and combat events from authorities, who are often concerned about safety risks.

For Cao Xianran, a 26-year-old leatherworker and armorer based in the eastern city of Nanjing, it takes up to three months to create a suit of armor — and he charges his clients up to 30,000 yuan for the trouble. Before starting, he spends weeks poring over reference images and mulling over his approach. To create a suit of armor based on a surviving Ming Dynasty example from Tibet, he must create around 1,600 unique metal plates, polish them, and bind them with leather. Once he’s finished it, he’ll even test to see if he can fire a bow and arrow while wearing it — just like multitasking Chinese warriors of old would have done. The work is so intensive that he tends to take a break between suits. His other creations include sword and lightsaber sheathes and a mini suit of armor he fashioned for his cat.

Cao Xianran works on Chinese armor at his studio in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, November 2018. Courtesy of Cao Xianran

Cao Xianran works on Chinese armor at his studio in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, November 2018. Courtesy of Cao Xianran

“Armor takes a huge amount of physical effort to make; it’s also mentally exhausting,” Cao says over the phone, over the scratching of a metal plate being polished in the background. “But the feeling of accomplishment you get when it’s done is huge.”

Historically, armor and war were the domain of men, but the revival is also attracting modern-day Mulans. When 34-year-old Shanghai local Jin Yu doesn’t have classical dance classes to teach, she’ll often be found hanging around Liu’s studio with other Armor Alliance members dressed in hanfu, her daily attire. The members love talking about culture and history, with the most knowledgeable, often elder, history buffs showering trivia on an eager audience. As they dine on takeout in Liu’s studio, the members discuss how to identify mythical beasts embroidered on the uniforms of Ming Dynasty generals based on the number of claws they have or whether or not they have horns.

Jin was introduced to the world of armor in early 2018 through hanfu events. Dazzled by their beauty and intricacy, she soon bought her own suit and wore it in her classical dance performances. “People will only pay attention to this kind of thing if you bring it onstage,” she says. “If you’re just doing it for your own amusement, it won’t have as great an impact.”

Jin Yu performs in armor at a conference on traditional Chinese music in Wuyishan, Fujian province, Nov. 3, 2018. Courtesy of Jin Yu

Jin Yu performs in armor at a conference on traditional Chinese music in Wuyishan, Fujian province, Nov. 3, 2018. Courtesy of Jin Yu

As she explains how many Chinese cultural traditions have disappeared over time, Jin looks overcome with emotion. The classical Chinese dance she teaches also stopped being passed down centuries ago, only to be revived recently. “I think that I’m quite emotionally attached to China. People say I’m pretty patriotic,” she says. “Apart from armor, so many of our traditions have already died out. I don’t want to see other things we should be proud of disappear.”

Apart from armor, so many of our traditions have already died out. I don’t want to see other things we should be proud of disappear.

Jin agrees with Liu that today’s young men could do with a little military culture. She believes the former one-child policy has led to a generation that was overly protected and coddled, tamed out of its instinctive manliness like animals raised in captivity. “There’s a lot of young men who are really soft and fragile these days. But when you dress them in armor, you can genuinely feel it gives them that kind of courage and nobility that past men had,” she says. “The current generation … lacks this.”

Some, like Gao Peng, take the idea of battle more seriously than others. He wears a 30,000 yuan suit made in the style of Ming Dynasty armor for historical medieval battle contests, an international sport that pits fighters armed with blunt weapons and full-body armor against each other in medieval-style tournaments.

In 2017, Gao — who calls himself “Cat Man” in English for his slightly feline eyes and teeth — was a member of the first Chinese team of nine to attend Battle of the Nations in Barcelona, an annual international historical medieval battle tournament held in different European cities each year. Although many on his team wore European-style plate armor, Gao donned Chinese armor, seeing it as an opportunity to promote Chinese culture. Gao’s teammate Liu He — no relation of Liu Shiwei — wore an embroidered Ming Dynasty-era general’s outfit between battles, though he was dismayed when spectators would point at his team and shout, “Samurai! Samurai!”

Gao Peng and his team from China face off against Germany at the Battle of the Nations in Rome, May 4, 2018. Courtesy of Gao Peng

Gao Peng and his team from China face off against Germany at the Battle of the Nations in Rome, May 4, 2018. Courtesy of Gao Peng

Armor, re-enactments, and sword-fighting are ways of reviving a military culture that has fallen by the wayside, says Liu He, who works as a teacher of Western philosophy at Shihezi University in the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and runs a history blog with over 1.2 million followers. In ancient China, men were measured by how they fared in two equal domains: wen, meaning cultural attainment, and wu, meaning martial competence. To live up to the ideals of masculinity in ancient times, men needed both, explains Liu. By the Qing Dynasty, factors such as the rise of imperial examinations and the fall of the feudal system of lords and knights meant that wen became more important than wu. In court, military lords would bow to the scholarly mandarins.

To Liu, the current revival of military hobbies is still about personal fulfilment, but it also reflects Chinese people’s growing confidence as their country develops economically. “Chinese used to have a kind of insecure psychology. But, following the development of China’s economy, they have grown in confidence,” says Liu. “They think, ‘What the Europeans do, I can do too. I also want to exhibit my culture.’”

Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.

(Header image: Cao Xianran poses for a photo in woodlands near Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Dec. 26, 2017. Courtesy of Cao Xianran)