Many thanks to David Mastro, who srote this article and has given me permission to re-print it. Wonderful information!
The Spear in Chinese Martial Culture
by David Black Mastro
The spear has played a huge role in both hunting and fighting arts all over the world, and China, with her vast martial heritage, is no exception. In his excellent article, "The Spear: An Effective Weapon Since Antiquity", author Robert H. Dohrenwend, Ph.D., noted, "The most important weapons in the Chinese military were the bow and arrow and the spear (qiang), and there were specialized bodies of soldiers trained to use each weapon." In our modern age, where so much attention has been given to the more fantastic aspects of the Chinese martial arts, we would do well to remember Dohrenwend's observation. Chinese warriors relied on the fundamental missile and melee weapons of the time, just like everyone else: the bow & arrow, the spear/lance, and the sword & shield.
Another crucial aspect to understanding the reality of Chinese martial arts (or any other martial arts, for that matter) in their proper historical context is knowing just what the term "martial art" means. The word "martial" comes from the Latin term martialis, which literally means "of or belonging to Mars (the Roman god of war)". Thus, a "martial art" is a "war art". The Chinese term wushu is synonymous with "martial art", though when used in the historical sense it should not be confused with the "wushu" of today, which is a type of performance art that was developed during the Cultural Revolution. In their useful text, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals--A Historical Survey, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo soberly noted, "For most of China's history, martial arts had one purpose--imposing one's will upon another by force or fear." The simple spear played a major part in this grim task.
According to Robert Dohrenwend, bronze metallurgy originated in the Mediterranean some 5000 years ago, and spread eastwards via Central Asia, and eventually to China. These early bronze-headed spears were effective, but the spear became even more durable and lethal, with the advent of iron working. Dohrenwend wrote that iron metallurgy began with the Hittites some 3500 years ago, and spread around the world from there. Such technology reached China about 2500 years ago.
Unlike the Japanese yari, the qiang of the Chinese most often featured a socketed spearhead, like Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and European spears. While the Japanese preferred their white oak for the shaft of their yari and a composite oaked-cored & bamboo laminated shaft for their nagae-yari (long spear/pike), the Chinese apparently used white wax wood, which is a species of ash. Europeans also generally preferred ash for their polearms, as it is lighter, stronger, and more flexible than oak.
Chinese military practice resembled that of Europe to some degree, in that spearmen often operated in cooperation with troops armed with sword-and-shield, and gave each other mutual support. In the West, this integration of spearmen and swordsmen arguably reached its height with the Spanish colunela (lit., "little column"), which featured pikemen, arquebusiers, and rodeleros aka targetiers (sword-and-shield men), in a ratio of 2:2:1. The pikemen were useful against both cavalry and other pikemen, while the swordsmen provided close support. In the Chinese military, the preferred weapons of the sword-and-shield troops were the single-handed saber (dao) and the round rattan shield (tengpai). At around 29" in diameter, the tengpai was similar in size to European targets (or targes). The saber type used most often was the willow leaf saber or liuyedao, which featured a single-handed grip, a disc-like handguard, and a slightly curved single-edged blade of uniform width. It was a light and handy weapon.
The integration of the spear and sword was manifest in the celebrated "Mandarin Duck Squad" unit/formation, created by the great Ming general, Qi Jiguang. During the mid-16th century AD/CE, the southern Chinese coast was ravaged by Sino-Japanese pirates (wokou in Chinese and wako in Japanese). In Late Imperial Chinese Armies 1520-1840, Chris Peers pointed out that, at that time, the manpower of the wokou was 2/3 Chinese--however, even some of their Chinese warriors used very long Japanese swords (no-dachi, which led to the reintroduction of two-handed dao into the Chinese military) and the corresponding method of kenjutsu. In General Qi's "Mandarin Duck Squad", four men were equipped with long spears, which outranged the no-dachi of the enemy, but they were nevertheless supported by two sword-and-shield men.
The overall impact of the spear on Chinese martial culture can be seen in the legend regarding the origins of the internal art of Xingyiquan; according to the legend, Xingyi was created by General Yue Fei, sometime during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D./C.E.). According to Kennedy and Guo in Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, Yue Fei based Xingyi "on his mastery of the spear". Even if we question the reality of this story, it reveals much about how highly regarded the spear was, as a weapon.
Chinese spear technique was similiar to that of other cultures, and one of the most noteworthy tactics is the dreaded "slip-thrust", where the weapon is driven by the rear hand, as the shaft slides through the forward hand. As noted in my previous essay on Japanese spears, the "slip-thrust" gives the spearman a tremendous advantage against users of shorter weapons like swords, since it is so difficult to properly gauge distance.
The spear continued to be a primary weapon, into more modern times. In Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, Draeger and Smith pointed out that, during the Opium Wars, the British acknowledged that the Chinese spear was "far superior" to their bayonets. This should not surprise us--the spear is a purpose-built polearm that is comparatively light and maneuverable, whereas the rifle-and-bayonet is, at best, an improvised polearm that is both shorter and clumsier than the vast majority of spears. The Chinese predilection for spears and sabers might be one reason why American and European military forces retained not only bayonet work, but saber & cutlass drill as well, right into the beginning of the 20th century. One can see old photos of cutlass practice on board American vessels like the armored monitor, U.S.S. Monadnock, which was often stationed in China, and cutlass practice was also carried out on the Australian monitor Cerberus, which was involved in the supression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The retention of bayonet and sword technique in these modern Western militaries was quite likely a functional reaction to unpleasant experiences against Asian foes armed with traditional edged weapons, like the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Moros, etc., and it reveals much about the respect that modern soldiers had, for such warriors and their skills.
For Further Reading:
Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts by Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith
Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals--A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo
Chinese Swordsmanship--The Yang Family Taiji Jian Tradition by Scott M. Rodell
Ancient Chinese Weapons--A Martial Artist's Guide by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
"The Spear--An Effective Weapon Since Antiquity" by Robert E. Dohrenwend (from the Volume 16 ~ Number 1 ~ 2007 issue of Journal of Asian Martial Arts)
Late Imperial Chinese Armies 1520-1840 by Chris Peers (Osprey Men-At-Arms series)
Warriors of the Steppe--A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. by Erik Hildinger
Pavia 1525 by Angus Konstam (Osprey Campaign series)
A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century by Sir Charles Oman