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Warrior guide - East Asian

Time for another part of the warrior guide series, this time I cover eastern Asia, which, in this case, means China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia. They're all different in terms of warfare too. While Japan and Mongolia shared the warrior society aspect, they went about it in different ways. And while both China and Korea new periods where war was looked down upon, it too meant different things in their societies. Of course, all 4 nations have similarities too, war never changes as they say.

This guide is a little different from others. I separated everything based on the countries, and for some this means their dynasties overall are covered more than individual units. Japan may have had the samurai, for example, but China didn't see many specialized units that have been recorded in history the same was as samurai or ninjas have been. But that doesn't mean they don't have elements to gain inspiration from, which is still ultimately the goal of these guides after all.


Photo by Editor at Large

Han Dynasty

Active around:
- 202 BCE - 220 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Used chemical weapons
- Importance of cavalry
- Use of crowssbows

The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty in China during a golden age, many of its accomplishments still live to this day. Chinese script, for example, is called Hanzi, or Han characters. Other achievements include negative numbers in math, a nautical ship rudder, and a seismometer among other things.

The Han army was made up of conscripted men. All those who were 23 (later changed to 20) years old could be conscripted, but by paying a tax you could avoid conscription. Those who were conscripted would be trained for a year, then serve a year as a non-professional soldier.
Conscription could later also be avoided by providing the government with either horses, slaves, or other supplies.

Crossbows were a common and powerful weapon, which had already been invented by the Chinese in the 7th century BCE. Horses became more and more important too, as the Xiongnu, a nomadic people living in what is mostly Mongolia today, became more and more of a threat. They were eventually defeated by the Han Dynasty in large thanks to huge cavalry expeditions.
The Han dynasty also used chemical weapons in the form of smokebombs and teargas, which was used during a revolt in 178 AD as well.

Ming Dynasty

Active around:
- 1368 - 1644 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Used rockets
- Focus on archery and mounted archery
- Self suficient soldiers

The Ming dynasty, also known as the Great Ming Empire, was supposed to be a fully self sufficient empire. While they didn't succeed in this, they were a powerful empire for 276 years. During the Ming dynasty the Great Wall of China was improved upon and extended, much of which still stands to this day.

Initially, Ming army soldiers were self sufficient, meaning they had to grow their own food. Being a soldier was also something that was passed down from generation to generation, so growing food meant providing for your family all the same. They were often treated with disdain, fear and suspicion, however, and eventually this system collapsed due to corruption and bad management, which saw a rise in the use of mercenaries until mercenaries made up the majority of the armies.

The primary weapon was the spear as well as the dao, a curved saber. Despite the wide existence and use of gunpowder, the crossbow, and the bow and arrow were very important as well, including archery on horseback. Archery was part of the Imperial Exam, which was an exam used to select civil service officials.

Gunpowder was used for a wide range of weapons. Rocket propelled arrows and swords, various rocket launcher devices, various cannons, and a range of firearms were all used throughout the Ming dynasty's reign.

Photo by Snowyowls

Ming Dynasty - Jinyiwei

Active around:
- 1368 - 1644 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Secret service
- Full autonomy
- Personal bodyguard

The Jinyiwei, or Embroidered Uniform Guard, were a secret police who served the emperors of the Ming dynasty. They were initially a personal bodyguard to the emperor, but later became a part of the military as a whole.
Their tasks included gaining military intelligence and battle planning, as well as making sure the emperor was protected at all times of course. They had the full authority to arrest, interrogate and punish anybody they saw fit with the exception of the emperor himself. Relatives of the emperor were not off limits.

The Jinyiwei were easily identified by their golden colored uniforms and the tablet they wore on their torso, but, based on paintings, this wasn't worn at all times.

Photo by Peter Morgan

Qin Dynasty

Active around:
- 221 - 206 BCE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Unified China
- Second major stage of the Great Wall of China
- Encouraged ruthless warfare

The Qin dynasty, although very short lived, was a relatively successful empire who first unified China as one, albeit one that is vastly different from what it is today. Major changes were made, including enforcing the direct control over the peasantry, who were controlled by landowners and aristocrats before this. This allowed for a more stable economy, which in turn allowed for a larger and more powerful military.

Another major change is the disregard for military traditions. Up until this point, the Heaven's laws of battle were important to many. These laws led to more "fair" battles. One army wouldn't attack another that was crossing a river or before it had formed their ranks properly, for example. The Qin thought otherwise. The Qin army itself was large and efficient. They were equipped with the latest weapons technology could offer, something their enemies often lacked as well.

When the first emperor, Qin Shi, died, the chief eunuch, Zhao Gao, and the prime minister, Li Shi, managed to alter the will of the late emperor to put his son Huhai on the throne, who then took the name Qin Er Shi. Er Shi was seen as the most pliable and weak minded, which was true, but this led to a series of terrible acts of ineptitude, like killing many ministers, and lacquering the city walls, which ultimately caused the people to revolt, causing the fall of the Qin dynasty.

Besides the initial stages of the Great Wall of China, which were then still formed with rammed earth, the legacy of the Qin also includes the famous Terracotta Army. They weren't the first to create the Great Wall of China though, at least not in the strictest sense, as the various states before the unified Qin dynasty had already built various walls. The Qin merely extended the walls to protect their northern borders.

Qing Dynasty

Active around:
- 1636 - 1912

Strengths and/or special features:
- Fourth largest empire in history
- Conquest dynasty
- Conquered the Ming dynasty despite being outnumbered and less advanced

The Qing dynasty began as a Manchu state, a small state in what's eastern China today. The Manchu state in turn began as a unification of Jurchen tribes, who were primarily farmers. The unification of these tribes was done by the leader, Nurhaci, of one of the minor tribes. So, by paraphrasing nearly 300 years of complex history into a single sentence: The fourth largest dynasty in the world was started by the leader of a small farming tribe. This is an oversimplification of course.

The Qing dynasty initially mostly expanded into what's Mongolia today. Through conquests and alliances they grew and grew, slowly taking over bigger parts of Ming dynasty lands. This wasn't a smooth conquest, the Ming dynasty had more people and more advanced weaponry. Gunpowder weapons especially were used by the Ming, and barely by the Qing. The Qing lacked well trained soldiers to use firearms.
The Qing still prevailed however, and through the use of Han soldiers from the conquered or allied Ming dynasty lands, as well as Mongols recruited into their armies, the Qing empire grew and grew.

The Qing army initially focused on an Eight Banner system. These were divisions used to organise all the Manchu households, which was used both for war and for other organisation elements of society. Later, when Mongols and Han soldiers became bigger parts of the Qing army, Mongol Eight Banners and Han Eight Banners were created as well.
Being part of these banners became something passed down from generation to generation. All other soldiers were part of the Green Standard Army instead.

The weaponry used was mostly standard for the time, often less advanced than their enemies until they made them part of their armies. Horses, bows and arrows, crossbows, spears, swords and similar weapons were common. Later firearms became more prominent when Han soldiers became a bigger part of the Qing army.

Photo by Podoboq

Shaolin Monk

Active around:
- 7th century, 16th and 17th century (as soldiers)

Strengths and/or special features:
- Mix of Zen Buddhism and martial arts
- Famous for their use of the staff

Shaolin Kung Fu, or Shaolin Wushu, is one of the most famous forms of Kung Fu, and it's also one of the oldest forms, dating back to around the start of the 6th century. It has evolved over time into various different forms, but the abilities of Shaolin monks to withstand pain is probably one of the most famous elements of Shaolin Kung Fu overall, as it's become a common theme in works of fiction.

The earliest records of Shaolin Monks participating in combat date back to 728. It tells of two occasions, one in 610 and one in 621, when Shaolin monks took part in battle. The first was the defence of a monastery against bandits, and the second was during the Battle of Hulao. This battle was a fight for the control of the Hulao Pass, and Shaolin monks from a nearby temple helped one side, who ultimately won a decisive victory.

No sources have been found of Shaolin monk activity in any battle or even that they practiced martial arts since that up until the 16th and 17th century. Shaolin monk skills in martial arts became more and more renowned during this time, and Shaolin monks were used to fight pirates during the 16th century. Their greatest victory (out of 4 documented battles) happened on 21 July 1553. 120 Shaolin monks fought and defeated pirates over the span of 10 days. The monks chased the survivors for over 20 miles causing over 100 casualties on the pirates' side, while suffering 4 casualties themselves.

Song Dynasty

Active around:
- 960 - 1279 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Temporary generals
- Gunpowder weapons
- Crossbows were important

The Song dynasty was one that relied on gunpowder a lot. It allowed them to keep their enemies at bay until the eventual collapse of the Song dynasty, but they made a lot of advancements before that end came. Fire arrows, which were arrows with an incendiary load, were very popular, and they were used to destroy a war elephant corps of the Southern Han army in 971.
Other weapons were used, invented and/or improved upon as well, like rockets, fire lances, cannons, bombs, and a wide range of creative methods to launch arrows and lances alike at the enemy.

Despite their great weaponry, the Song dynasty couldn't overcome their biggest obstacle: themselves, or more specifically their imperial court. While life was generally prospering in many facets of life, the imperial court made sure the army couldn't threaten their rule. Successful generals especially were seen as a threat. The imperial court's solution was to relieve them of their duty, or in some cases even execute them.

This leadership obviously caused the army to be far less effective. As a result the Song dynasty never really gained much new land, and when they did it was usually quickly lost again when their allies saw how ineffective the Song armies were.



Active around:
- 11th - 19th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Foot soldiers
- Backbone of the samurai
- Later equiped with matchlocks

The ashigaru and samurai alike were technically around before the 11th century, but the definition, or rather the true identity changed over the years. The ashigaru were initially nothing more than foot soldiers, usually in the form of peasants, who fought alongside the samurai. They were farmers for most of their time and would only fight when called upon by their samurai masters, meaning they usually weren't trained that well.

The ashigaru were usually equipped with spears (yari), bows (yumi), pole weapons (naginata), and sometimes swords including the katana. Eventually they were also equipped with matchlock guns (tanegashima) brought over by the Portuguese in 1543, which changed the face of battle in Japan forever.

At the end of the 16th century ashigaru were no longer peasants. Peasants and ashigaru became two separate groups when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a former ashigaru who climbed the ranks and rose to incredible power, forbade ordinary peasants from owning weapons in an attempt to stop peasant revolts (and perhaps others from following in his footsteps), which he succeeded in.


Active around:
- 15 - 17th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Covert agents and assassins
- Specifically trained
- Did the dirty work samurai were too honorable for

Ninjas, without all the folklore mythology around them, were people, often professionals, hired to scout, spy, agitate, kill, and otherwise disrupt the enemy within their own territory. The degree to which this happened varied from period to period, as well as from employer to employer. They were often recruited by daimyōs (feudal lords), but the last record of ninjas being used was when shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu hired them to be used against Christian rebels. They, according to records of the victors, managed to infiltrate the castle and raid the already dwindling provisions. The Christians lost, in part due to a lack of food.

Ninjas were trained specifically for their purpose, which at one point happened in the Iga and Kōga provinces and by the clans with the same names. These regions are mountainous, and training happened in remote villages, which only added to the elusiveness of ninjas.

Because ninjas weren't well recorded due to their less honorable ways, which weren't of interest to most scholars of the time (who were often samurai during the later periods), and because ninjas stopped being used by the 17th century, they ended up becoming popular topics in folklore and mysteries in 19th century Japan, which eventually led to the wide range of ninjas we have in fiction today.


Active around:
- 2nd (probably earlier too) - 17th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Female warrior
- Skilled with polearm and daggers

Before the rise of the samurai and before the role of women in society was diminished, women of noble birth were trained in the use of weapons to fight alongside men in battle, to defend their households and honor, and helped protect communities who lacked male fighters. Later, onna-bugeisha, which translates to female martial artist, fought alongside samurai as well, but this became less and less prominent as the image of femininity changed over the years. They still fought, but those who did were more of an exception than a rule. Eventually, by the 17th century, women were barely seen as actual, capable human beings, and more as child bearers and pawns to be used for political advancements, so women were no longer seen as being capable of fighting.

The onna-bugeisha were trained in the use of a polearm (naginata) and a dagger (kaiken), as well as the art of tantōjutsu, which is a Japanese knife fighting martial art.

Samurai & Rōnin

Active around:
- 8th - 19th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Ruled many aspects of Japanese life
- Traditional and sometimes honorable
- Overly romanticized today

The samurai were, during their peak, the ruling elite of Japan alongside the emperor, although the emperor usually didn't wield any real power. The shōguns, military dictators appointed by the emperor, were the real leaders. The samurai were divided into clans and families, prowess in battle was initially incredibly important, but, after the early 17th century, bureaucracy became more important due to a lack of wars.

At their peak, in terms of battle prowess anyway, the samurai were a force to be reckoned with, even if the ashigaru were an important supporting force as well. The samurai were the best equipped and best trained, usually due to constant conflicts, especially during the Sengoku period.

Their traditional armor changed little in terms of design once the now famous design was in place, but the armor was strengthened and improved as new technologies became available. Once the matchlock pistols became more prevalent, heavier, European inspired plate armor became a necessity as well.

Family and clans were incredibly important. If a master died, the samurai that was now without a master became a rōnin, but this could also happen if a samurai lost their master's favor. Bushido, the code of the samurai, dictated a samurai was supposed to commit ritual suicide (seppuku) upon the loss of a master, but this wasn't followed strictly. Bushido in general wasn't followed strictly either. While romanticized depictions of samurai show them as honor-bound warriors, in reality they were similar to many fighters across history. Loyalty and disloyalty, cowardly and bravery, treachery and deception, shifting loyalties from one master to another, and so on were all realities to some degree or another. The samurai were still people, and people are generally not all that unbendable under intense enough pressure like combat.


Active around:
- 10th - 17th century

Strengths and/or special features:
- Warrior monks
- Started because of disputes among Buddhist temples

The first sōhei appeared around the 10th century when different subsets of Buddhism started to feud over imperial appointments of top temple positions. They went from protests to brawls, and from brawls to the creation of a standing army of warrior monks, and from growing armies to the burning down of one temple by monks of another.
These disputes never really ended, but they did settle down a little bit when the Genpei War broke out at the end of the 12th century. Warrior monks became involved in this conflict on both sides. While the focus did shift to more peaceful manners of growing their influence and on rebuilding after the Genpei War, the conflicts never really ended.

The monks themselves were equipped with a wide range of weaponry and armor. Polearms (naginata) were common, but so were other weapons. Some monks wore samurai-type armor, others wore robes, and others wore different kinds of armor. It often depended on the available resources.


Photo by Samuel Orchard


Active around:
- 37 BCE - 668 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Militaristic state
- One of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the biggest by far.
- Superior tactics compared to enemies.

Goguryeo was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, the other two being Silla and Baekje, but Goguryeo was by far the biggest. It contained parts of what's now China and Russia, which meant Goguryeo had to deal with various Chinese dynasties both for better and worse.

Goguryeo being a militaristic state meant every man had to serve in the military unless they paid extra taxes, but semi-nomadic people were conscripted as well, like the Mohe people.
Their weapons were fairly standard for the time, the bow was used a lot for example, but Goguryeo really shone when it came to strategy. Part of it came before a battle even took place, like sending stone weaponry to the Chinese court even though they were perfectly capable of creating iron weapons in an attempt to make the Chinese believe Goguryeo wasn't all that advanced.

Every army unit was prepared to defend the other, and light cavalry was used often to disrupt enemy lines. This was often done in combination with using cities as defence points. Retreating to better positions, as well as using feigned retreats, were a very effective way to disrupt the enemy.


Active around:
- 918 - 1392 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- United the Later Three Kingdoms
- Military dictatorship
- Vassal to the Mongol Yuan dynasty.

Goryeo's rule was turbulent to say the least. It was founded as a military empire, but the power of the military quickly declined. Civilian officers were more powerful than military officers, who, under the reign of King Uijong, weren't even allowed in the security council anymore. This lasted until 1170 when a successful coup d'état was executed by military officers. This also led to the formation of the Tobang, a private military unit aimed at protecting the emperor as a loyal bodyguard, but were actually the ones in control of the empire.

There were more revolts, assassinations and deaths that caused disruption, but in 1197 the Choe family took control and led as a military dictatorship for 61 years while keeping monarchs as puppets.
The Mongols became the bigger problem, however. Continuous invasions had weakened the Goryeo defences, and the Khitans, who were fleeing from the Mongols, invaded Goryeo multiple times as well in the 13th century. They managed to defeat the Goryeo armies several times, but were ultimately always pushed back again.

It wasn't until 1258, after many Mongol invasions resulting in the loss and destruction of countless lives, including many civilian lives, Choe Ui was assassinated and scholars who had sought to make peace with Mongolia gained power. The crown prince Wonjong was sent to Yuan to swear allegiance, Kublai Khan accepted and married him to one of his daughters.
By the 1350's the Yuan dynasty was crumbling, giving Goryeo some control back, but in 1388 the Joseon dynasty began when Yi Seong-gye put the last three kings of Goryeo to death.

Joseon Dynasty

Active around:
- 1392 - 1897 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Isolasionist
- Saw 200 years of peace in terms of international relations.

Joseon was founded on the overthrowing of Goryeo, who had split into two sides due to internal turmoil. To over-paraphrase all of this, one side supported the Ming dynasty side, the other the Yuan dynasty side. The Ming dynasty side won and Yi Seonggye, who led the attack, became ruler of Goryeo. Initially he wanted to keep the name to pretend he simply continued ruling the 500-year old Goryeo dynasty, but oppositions threatened with mutiny, which led to the name change to Joseon.

As far as military campaign go, not much more happened than campaigns to protect the borders against the Jurchens, which was done successfully. The princes, however, caused a lot of strife and death among each other in search for the throne. Eventually outside strife came to Joseon as well, first in the form of the Japanese invasions, and later in the form of the Manchu invasions

During the first Japanese invasion, the Joseon people were devastatingly ill prepared. The Joseon army was made up of only those part of the aristocracy, most of whom had no military training and saw war as something unworthy to spend their time on. The Japanese, on the other hand, had a military with people who were trained from when they were young.

After the first invasion, the Joseon obviously knew changes needed to be made. Defenses and fortifications were improved, namely with cannons on castle walls, less scalable castle walls, and better trained people. Ultimately the Japanese were defeated, albeit with the help of the Chinese who had been on Joseon's side since the beginning of the war.

Righteous Army

Active around:
- 1592 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Buddhist Warrior Monks
- Fought samurai

During the first invasion of Joseon by Japan, the Buddhist monk Hyujǔng called upon other monks to defend their lands against the poisonous devils, their name for the samurai. About 8000 monks responded, together they formed the Righteous Army.

One successful battle was fought on 6 September 1592 when 1000 monks and 1500 regular forces attacked Cheongju, which had previously been taken by the Japanese. They managed to take the Japanese by surprise, but, armed with matchlocks, the Japanese did manage to fire at the incoming forces. The Joseon had already surrounded the Japanese, however, and, apparently without knowledge of how to use the matchlocks, the monks used them as clubs, defeating the Japanese with their own weapons.

Not all attacks were a success. Some were brutal defeats. On September 22 1592, 700 monks attacked a force of 10,000 samurai. The monks were all slaughtered. A monk by the name of Yǔnggyu felt obliged to come to the aid of his fallen brethren and took his warrior monks with him, who all met the same fate as the first party.


Mongol Empire

Active around:
- 1206 - 1368 CE

Strengths and/or special features:
- Largest contiguous land empire in history
- Famous for horse archers
- Fighting in the army was an honor

The Mongol army was, perhaps above all else, highly mobile. Soldiers usually had 3-4 horses, allowing them to quickly switch to a fresh horse to continue travelling at faster speeds. The army was also divided into divisions of tenfolds. So an army of tens of thousands was divided into ones of a thousand, then a hundred, and then 10. Each division's leader had a lot of free reign to fight as they wished. This was further strengthened by intense training regimes.

Archers on horseback were the primary force, but archers with lances, as well as regular soldiers, were part of the army too. Those with lances were usually used when the archers had weakened an enemy army enough, which was often to the point of causing them to flee due to the sheer amount of arrows.

On top of their high mobility, which allowed the Mongol army to send invasion forces in all directions, they were also able to live off of the land and able to withstand cold winters, which became some of their favorite moments to strike.
Their horses, although smaller than other breeds, could resist the cold temperatures, but also provided the Mongols with transport, meat, milk, hides, dung that could be dried for fire fuel, rope, and even musical instruments.

With each new land conquered by the Mongol army, potentially new technologies and information became available too, which they made good use of. Bombardiers, trebuchets, catapults and other equipment were all used to lay siege to cities, for example.
Intelligence and planning was also an integral part of Mongol warfare. Reconnaissance and gathering of other intel was the first step of most military campaigns. All of this made the Mongol army such a force to be reckoned with.

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