War & pieces

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2006, 12:00am

FOR CENTURIES IN ancient China, the chariot was a key weapon, and those who rode in them were a military elite. Charioteers killed in battle were often buried with their chariots, weapons and even horses.

An exhibition of Bronze Age artefacts uncovered from such graves, titled Ancient Chinese Weapons, provides a glimpse into the lives of the nobility over about 1,500 years, as well as the skill of the metal-workers who forged the pieces and decorated them with intricate carving and inlaid gold calligraphy.

The exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence in Shau Kei Wan ranges mainly across the Shang (1600-1027BC) Zhou (1027-221BC) and Qin dynasties (221-207BC).

'The weapons were very decorative,' says Stephen Selby, an expert on ancient weaponry and archery who has provided 80 items for the show. 'They were a badge of office for the nobility and were often used as gifts to visiting dignitaries. If an important person was killed or captured in war, his sword would be taken as booty.'

Dagger axes, bronze spearheads, short swords and knifes were used as weapons, but they were also status symbols. Some were said to possess mystic qualities, and would accompany a man into the afterlife.

Many weapons also bear inscriptions, not all of which have been deciphered.

'The early Chinese writing is of great interest to me,' says Selby. 'You can see how the writing system developed. Before the Han dynasty (207BC-AD220), it was much more phonetic than it is now. They used to use any old character to represent a word, provided it had the right sound. It was only under Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, that one of his ministers, Lisi, reorganised the system and took it back to its roots of half idiographic and half pictorial.'

Scabbards for swords and daggers were typically made of leather, but some were made of bronze. As technology improved, swords got longer.

Selby says that during the Western Zhou dynasty, the Wu and Yue states were famous for their sword-makers. They were often inlaid with turquoise and wound with silk, and their scabbards were made of lacquered wood with jade fittings. 'For a period from 771BC until Emperor Qin, China wasn't united and there were many warring factions,' he says. 'It was a period when weaponry and a sort of macho approach to life was prevalent.'

Often the battles were matters of honour, involving diplomatic slights between states.

When Selby is not out looking for daggers and the like ('they're not actually that popular as collectors' items'), he works at the government patent office.

He says he dreams of driving his own chariot, and is impressed by the detail of the Philippine-made models in the exhibition. 'They've even used real horses' hair.'

Chariots were by no means a safe way of getting around, especially during battle. Charioteers typically wore helmets and arm guards - as much to protect themselves if they were thrown off as from their enemies. They also carried dagger axes - bronze daggers fixed to long poles which they would swing at their opponents as they rode past.

'It's incredible when you find these weapons,' says Liu Shenning, vice-president of the Shenzhen Institute of Administration, who works with museums on the mainland and has been involved in archaeological digs where weapons have been found.

Weapons have been found during archaeological digs on Lamma and Lantau islands. There are probably significant pieces under Hong Kong's skyscrapers.

'It represents a kind of warfare that's so different today,' says Liu, who was in town recently for a symposium tied to the exhibition. 'Nowadays, if you bomb something, it's just a flash on a screen. Then, when you fought, you stared into the other man's eyes - you were that close'.

Ancient Chinese Weapons, Upper Gallery, Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, 175 Tung Hei Rd, Shau Kei Wan. Inquiries 2569 1500. Ends Sept 20