A Chinese war flail | Mandarin Mansion

A Chinese war flail

Flails derived off farming tools were used since antiquity in many countries. The most famous application of a flail as a weapon is of course the Japanese nunchaku. Chinese flails came in various varieties, from sticks with equal length like the Japanese, to shorter flails on a longer stick. This example is of the asymmetric type. Often a civilian weapon, such flails also saw use in the professional military of China, up to the Qing dynasty. These war versions often had metal parts and a metal chain, as opposed to wooden flails held together by ropes often used by civilians.

Hanjun flails
The 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式) or "Illustrated Ceremonial Paraphernalia for our Dynasty" lists a pair of flails that were in use by the Hanjun (漢軍), literally translated: "Han Chinese Army" and the elite Green Standard Army of Zhili Province.

Professor Mark C. Elliot translates Hanjun as "Chinese Martial" because they were more than just an army; the Hanjun and their families were of a different social class from regular Han people. The Hanjun were originally Ming soldiers that defected to the Qing in an early stage of the Manchu conquest of China over the Ming. Manchus customarily fought from horseback with lance and bows and arrows, which made them superior in the field but of limited use against fortifications. This is where Hanjun came in. Adept with more modern firearms and together with Jesuit missionaries they cast and operated cannon to aid the Manchus in their sieges. Because of this early allegiance and importance to the Qing military, their descendants continued to serve the Qing under separate Hanjun banners, and they enjoyed a similar elevated status as a conquest elite to the Manchu Bannermen. After the fall of the Qing, all families under the Hanjun were considered to be Manchu because they were part of the Eight Banners.

A page from the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi:

My translation:

"Han Army Flail. According to;

Duyou, Tongdian; Chapter on soldiers guarding towns, says: "The flail that is used to beat grain is also great to beat enemies on the outside of the battlements of the city wall."1

History of Song, General Diqing biography: "Release from horseback the iron flail to attack."2

Mao Yuanyi, Treatise of Military Preparedness: "From the western barbarians comes a weapon that is used from horseback to withstand infantry with great effect. It is like the flail used by a farmer beating the wheat, [but] it has iron fittings that connect the upper and lower [section]."3

The regulations of our dynasty; Han Army Flail.

Made of wood. The left and right of the pair have a stick that is 1 chi, 5 cun and 8 fen long. (Approx. 55 cm.)

The flail parts are 7 cun, 5 fen long. (Approx. 26 cm.)

The circumference is 2 cun 5 fen. All [wooden parts] are rubbed with butter. Both pommels are iron and the top of the handle is connected to the flail with iron rings.

Hanjun company commanders each take four. (Company commanders lead 10 men each, so 4 per 10 men.) The same for the Provincial Garrisons and Green Standard Army. Other units have different regulations.

Many thanks to Chen Zhaowei (陳兆偉) for helping me out with some difficult passages.
1. Tongdian or "Comprehensive Institutions" is a 200 volume institutional history and encyclopedic text, describing antiquity until the Tang dynasty, written by Duyou between 766 to 801.

2. The history of Song was commissioned in the Yuan dynasty in 1343. Diqing was a Northern Song general who lived from 1008 to 1057)

3. The Wubeizhi (武備志) or "Treatise of Military Preparedness" is an encyclopedic illustrated work on military matters by Ming naval commander Mao Yuanyi (茅元儀). The work was finished in 1594, the oldest printed edition dating from 1621.

This example

Overall length: 72 cm / 28.3 inch
Staff: 42 cm
Stick: 18 cm
Shaft thickness: 28 mm
Weight: 443 grams

Although probably pretty common at the time, actual examples of such fighting flails are rarely encountered on the market. As purely practical weapons, often they were just used up and discarded. This battle flail is just a bit shorter than the example described in the Huangchao Liqi Tushi. It is made of two hardwooden sticks connected with a number of rings. The rings connect to two fittings that are securely attached to the ends of the sticks by means of nails that were peened on the other side. It is pretty well-made for such a simple weapon, with thick and sturdy ironwork. The top section has a heavy rim attached to its end to prevent the wood from splitting but also to enhance the impact of the weapon. The bottom stick has a lanyard hole. Overall in good condition.

A very rare example of a Chinese flail that might be associated with the Chinese Martial class of the Qing dynasty.


Interested? Questions?
Contact peter@mandarinmansion.com

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