LEGENDS ABOUT THE chariot’s inception vary, the most common being that the Yellow Emperor invented the chariot but that Yü the Great was the first to employ it. Because he was similarly said to have invented the cart, the Yellow Emperor has also been known as Hsüan Yüan, a name whose characters refer to two types of draught pole but in combination designate chariots in general.1 However, the chariot’s creation is also attributed to Hsi Chung, thought to have been one of the Yellow Emperor’s ministers or to have lived in Yü’s era, as well as to Hsiangt’u, another of his officials or perhaps the grandson of Ch’i, the Hsia’s first hereditary ruler. Yet another variant combines elements of these tales by asserting that the Yellow Emperor fabricated the first vehicle (ch’e), Emperor Shao Hao yoked a pair of oxen to it for motive power, and Hsi Chung widened it and substituted horses, creating a device with true battlefield potential.2

Late writings credit Hsi Chung with the crucial achievement of bending wood to make curved wheels, harnessing horses and oxen, and (perhaps reflecting the emergence of bronze tools) being an expert craftsman.3 Kuan Chung therefore analogized the workings of the ideal government by citing his precision in woodworking: “Hsi Chung’s skill lay in chopping and planning.4 When Hsi Chung fabricated chariot components, the square, round, curved, and straight all accorded with the compass and lines. Thus the frame and revolving components matched each other, and when employed it was sturdy and advantageous.”5 However, another section of the Kuan-tzu suggests his skill was more innate than measured, that his spirit naturally resonated with tools and implements such as the axe.6

Excavations conducted during the highly troubled middle part of the twentieth century revealed the existence of chariots dating to the late Shang, immediately prompting a few tentative formulations of its history. Subsequent finds have altered the general conclusions but slightly, their chief impact being to augment detailed knowledge of the chariot’s construction, moving parts, and harnessing system and reveal a continued emphasis over the centuries on making the chariot lighter but sturdier, capable of withstanding actual field use.7

As reconstructed, even the earliest Shang chariots recovered from the tombs and burial pits at Anyang are already complex, well-crafted units whose construction combined lightness and strength. Fabricated from wood, rattan, bamboo, bronze, and leather, they consisted of an essentially rectangular compartment mounted directly over a transverse axle. Powered by two horses connected to a single, centrally mounted draught pole, the chariot was roughly ten feet long from the rear of the chariot compartment to the tip of the shaft. Despite employing fairly compact animals, when the horses’ heads; rearward profile of the large chariot wheels; and expanse of the axles, whose hub, fittings, and other projections extended some ten feet or more, are included, even without the blades that were attached in the Warring States period these early chariots occupied the considerable area of approximately ten by eleven feet.


Despite their extensive bronze workshops and surpassing resources, chariots were not unique to the Shang. In addition to the Chou, who similarly devoted considerable effort to building and employing chariots, other peripheral peoples fielded them for warfare purposes, albeit in limited but still comparatively significant numbers.8 Oracular inscriptions attest to the capture of two chariots late in the Shang,9 and ongoing archaeological explorations on the periphery have revealed the presence of well-constructed chariots in Shandong that apparently belonged to a smaller regional state and are identical to late Shang models.10

The Chou, whose location certainly exposed them to fully formed Western chariots equally early and may have provided the conduit for the chariot’s introduction into the Shang, integrated them to a more significant degree. Three hundred were employed as a distinct component force at the Battle of Mu-yeh, and the many hundreds captured from Shang allies in postconquest campaigns indicate that the chariot’s adoption had become widespread. Thereafter, despite the expense and length of the manufacturing process, the number found in the Chou and its increasingly independent fiefdoms rapidly increased.

The chariot soon became a symbol of power, and being the army’s most visible component, a means for assessing the strength of states. Many restive rulers reputedly could field a thousand vehicles by the end of the Spring and Autumn period, and although massive infantry contingents came to dominate Warring States warfare, the most powerful political entities—Ch’i, Ch’in, and Ch’u—reputedly maintained an astonishing (but still unproven) 10,000 chariots each.11 Although their organization, training, quality, degree of successful integration, and operational tactics no doubt varied from state to state, they clearly were considered not just effective, but vital.

A sense of the awesomeness invoked by such numbers can be seen in a late Spring and Autumn incident in which a high official from Chin sought to coerce a reluctant state into participating in a conclave that it wanted to convene by saying, “My ruler has 4,000 armored chariots assembled here. Even if he were to employ them contrary to the Tao, they would certainly have to be feared. If he employs them in accord with the Tao, who can be his enemy?”12 Nevertheless, increasingly supplanted by the rapidly escalating infantry and eventually displaced by the development of effective cavalry contingents in the Han, chariots would eventually resume their original command and transport functions, being employed primarily for distant steppe campaigns.

Even without additional decoration or embellishment with royal insignia, Shang chariots must have been imposing, highly visible symbols of rank and power. Vestiges of elaborate decoration and bronze attachments indicate that the human tendency to display evidence of personal wealth was not absent in the Shang. However, perhaps because of their larger numbers and greater utilization in warfare, despite still being prestigious vehicles and even granted as a sign of imperial patronage, Chou chariots seem to have become more pragmatic. Functional combat versions and less rugged, more stylized vehicles intended for normal transport purposes quickly appeared, initiating a trend that would see highly specialized chariots and other wheeled vehicles being created in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods for siege warfare, dedicated assault tasks, and conspicuous display.

Whatever the chariot’s prehistory in China, more suitable precursors for the heavy, wheeled platforms that would be required for Warring States overlook towers, battering rams, shielded assault vehicles, movable ladders, multiple-arrow crossbow chariots, and portable shields may have existed in the Shang.13 In contrast to whatever sort of primitive cart may have been used at Erh-li-t’ou and Yen-shih, it was probably a simple oxen-powered wagon that could be employed for transporting materials and provisions to the battlefront and forwarding tribute from outlying areas.14 Although none dating to the Shang or Western Chou have yet been found, there are numerous references to provisions wagons being captured in later periods in quantities up to a thousand.15


Despite being basically standardized, chariot wheel and compartment dimensions in China differed considerably, not just across time or within an era, but also in the same tomb or chariot pit.16 (Accordingly, one of Ch’in Shih-huang’s accomplishments was mandating a standard gauge in order to remedy the difficulties created by localized preferences, thereby facilitating transport and minimizing the adverse effects on the roadbeds.)17 The degree of variation, being far greater than might have been expected even for a craft product constructed without blueprints, is surprising. Whether the craftsmen worked from models, had dimensional sketches, or simply constructed the chariots from preexisting examples or experience, just as coopers, wheel makers, and boat builders have done for centuries, is unknown. However, given the chariot’s complexity and the preservation of several (often misleading) proportions in the K’ao-kung Chi, the existence of basic diagrams or illustrative models seems likely.

Fabricating a chariot required several highly particularized skills, a variety of natural resources, the observation of seasonal constraints,18 and ultimately the manufacture of hundreds of discrete components that had to be made closely compatible in order to be assembled. Molds had to be made and bronze fixtures cast; glue prepared; leather tanned, treated, and cut to size; wood selected, seasoned, shaped, bent, and dimensioned; and everything assembled by slotting and boring, shaping, lashing, gluing, mortising, and force fitting. It was such a time-consuming process that the Yi Ching employed it as an analogy for impossibility by speaking of “bending the wood for a wheel in the morning and wanting to ride in the chariot at night” in its hexagram “Ch’i Fa.”

Although the chariot’s basic form would remain unchanged, over the centuries there would be a tendency toward stronger, heavier, and swifter vehicles. The various components continued to evolve, reinforcements against breakage and wear were developed, stability was improved, and measures to reduce vibration were implemented. Unfortunately, despite being important for the history of technology and entailing significant implications for military capabilities, chariots require a study in themselves and necessarily fall outside the compass of this book. However, certain aspects are worth considering to provide a basis for pondering the chariot’s employment in battle and its possible effectiveness.

From the chariots’ initial appearance in China the wheels were already remarkably large in comparison with an average 75 to 90 centimeters for Near Eastern chariots of comparable date. At roughly 120 centimeters to 145 centimeters in diameter, they were approximately the height of the steppe horses of 133 to 144 centimeters being employed for the chariots in the late Shang.19 Thereafter, they gradually increased slightly over the centuries until late in the Warring States, when they tended to again diminish in diameter. Slightly conical in shape, contrary to Western practices they would generally be “dished” toward the inside rather than outside.

Perhaps because of their considerable size, the wheels incorporated numerous spokes, generally sixteen to twenty in the Shang, with the majority of vehicles recovered to date having eighteen. (One chariot reportedly employed a surprising twenty-six spokes, but it may either be an anomaly or the estimation may simply be incorrect, as frequently suggested.)20 However, as the wheel maker’s art continued to be perfected through the Western and Eastern Chou periods, the spoke count gradually increased, occasionally reaching an astonishing forty. Round to somewhat oval in shape, the wooden spokes on Shang vehicles averaged 3.0 to 4.5 centimeters in diameter, but are somewhat tapered where they were inserted some 2 to 4 centimeters into the hub (nave) and felloes.21 Even thinner spokes would subsequently be employed, especially for lightweight chariots and carriages intended solely for ordinary transport.22 Nevertheless, they must have been highly reliable, because the Chou dynasty Yi Ching employed them in an analogy for strength in the hexagram “Ta Chuang.”

Being made from wood, without any bronze reinforcements on the exterior or a metal sleeve on the interior, Shang hubs (or naves) had to be relatively long and thick to prevent breaking apart in use. (A well-known Chinese observation asserts that short hubs are advantageous but long ones secure.) Anywhere from 20 to 35 centimeters in total length and about 18 to 28 centimeters thick, the outer portions tapered down somewhat, resulting in a center bulge and an overall profile said to resemble the beads of a traditional wooden abacus. (In contrast, the apparent precursors at Sintashta and Lake Sevan are much thicker, some 40 to 45 centimeters, obviating the need for long spokes.) Decorative metal sleeves would eventually be added to overlay the tapered portions, constraining the wood and reducing the tendency to break apart from cracking, but none dating to the Shang have yet been discovered despite the use of bronze end caps on the axle.

Because the axle was directly inserted into the unlined nave, wood necessarily rotated upon wood, a less than desirable material match. (Claims that a leather lining may have been employed in the Shang lack substantiation.) Constant lubrication with animal fats or vegetable oils would have been required to reduce the friction being produced, even if the components closely conformed to each other. Despite the lightness of the chariots, the sand and fine plant matter kicked up as they sped down the primitive roads and open fields must have also increased the problem considerably. Not surprisingly, menials responsible for lubricating the wheels are thus mentioned more than once in the Tso Chuan,23 and bronze axle covers and interior rings were being employed on either side of the hub in the Shang that would have held the wheel in place (albeit at the cost of additional friction) and reduced the possibility of foreign material migrating onto the axle at the crucial junction point.

The wheel rim (felloes) consisted of two or three pieces of hard yet relatively pliable wood such as elm, bent after softening in hot water or steam into an appropriate arc, mortised or scarved together, and secured with bronze clips.24 The felloes were generally thicker than wider, often about 10.0 by 7.5 centimeters respectively, but with considerable variation and even some square versions of 8 by 8 centimeters.25 Somewhat rounded or tapered toward the inner rim, the wheel presented a flat external profile to the road. No evidence of any sort of metal or leather tire or other external improvement such as studs has yet been discovered.

The wheels rotated on fixed axles rather than being fixed to a rotating axle. Although wheel gauge varied from 215 to 240 centimeters in the Shang, with most being about 215, 225, or 240, the axle averaged slightly over 3 meters in total length with the bronze end caps included.26 (Only three of the eighteen Shang chariots included in recent tabulations were considerably smaller, at 190, 225, and 235 centimeters; one is reported at 274 centimeters; while the remainder show 294 to about 312 centimeters, the majority of which exceed the 300 mark. This has prompted the thought that the narrower-gauge chariots may have been intended for transporting heavy items,27 but they could also represent personaluse transport vehicles or simply an earlier or different version of the standard model.) The axle itself, invariably a single round or oval pole rather than two discrete segments, varied considerably in thickness, ranging from 8 to as high as 15 centimeters in diameter, though the majority are 8, 10, or 12 centimeters before tapering at the ends where the axle cap was mounted. (Diameters of 8-12 centimeters must have represented a pragmatic compromise between the lower friction of narrow axles and the higher load-bearing capacity and durability of larger diameters.)

Based on numerous Warring States references to three-man crews, for 2,000 years it has been deemed an unquestioned fact that three warriors standing in a minimally triangular formation manned the earliest chariots.28 Even though a majority of the burials excavated so far contain only one or two accompanying bodies, every discovery of sites where three bodies are interred in close proximity to a chariot has therefore been seen as confirming this assumption.29 However, given the compartment’s compact size, irrespective of later staffing practices, Shang chariots may well have initially carried only two warriors, in common with Western practices.

Generally rectangular with various degrees of rounding at the front, somewhat greater expanse at the back, and slight distortions in one or another corner, these ancient compartments always emphasized width over depth. Shang chariots averaged about 138 by 96 centimeters,30 with the vast majority being roughly 130 to 145 centimeters wide, but chariots as small as 94 by 75 (at Ta-ssu-k’ung-ts’un) and as large as 150 by 90 and 170 by 110 (at Kuo-chia-chuang) have been recovered.

In the Western Chou and thereafter the compartment size, particularly the depth, would increase somewhat—perhaps to better accommodate the fighters and allow them to wield longer weapons—but remained considerably smaller than the maximum allowed by the separation of the wheels, including the inner portion of the two hubs. However, irrespective of size, until late in the Warring States the only opening for mounting the chariot was a narrow gap of 25 to 40 centimeters at the back, much in contrast to fully open Western-style backs.31

The minimalist frame was constructed from narrow, generally 4-to 6-centimeter poles of rattan, hard cane, wood, or even bamboo, with those framing the bottom being slightly thicker than the 8 to 12 posts employed to erect the walls.32 The rod forming the top edge of the side wall generally ran horizontally at a maximum height of 45 to 50 centimeters (and thus below the rim of the wheel), though two variants as low as 22 and 30 centimeters have been excavated.33 (The K’ao-kung Chi diagram showing high side walls is simply inapplicable to Shang or later war chariots.) However, the walls were not always uniformly high all around the compartment, because several recovered so far show a tendency to be slightly lower in the front and higher to the rear. For example, at Mei-yüan-chuang the front of the southern chariot in M40 was 39 centimeters high, but the back rail about 50, while the northern chariot is about 30 centimeters in the front and about 40 in the rear.34 A crossbar or rail that protruded above the side walls to provide a handhold was occasionally added near the front of the compartment.35

Fabricated from interlaced material, the compartment’s walls would have provided a limited amount of protection against arrows and may even have deterred spear thrusts, depending on the thickness and hardness of the reeds or bamboo. Despite leather being employed for body armor in the Shang and subsequently adopted for chariots in the Spring and Autumn when four horses were commonly harnessed, there is no indication it ever augmented the walls of Shang chariots.36 (The horses were similarly unprotected by any form of leather armor.) Nevertheless, many chariots presumably intended for transport or martial display were apparently lacquered in red and black and had various marks of insignia or bronze plaques affixed.37 However, assuming that tombs with accompanying weapons demark a military chariot, little differentiation is seen in the Shang other than such embellishments and perhaps being slightly smaller.38

Apart from rare exceptions such as the chariot in M41 at Mei-yüan-chuang, the chariot compartment was normally centered or symmetrically placed over the axle, thereby minimizing the downward load borne by the horses’ necks.39 The frame initially rested directly on the axle and the shaft at four contact points; a somewhat bowed wooden cushioning mount called a “crouching rabbit” (fu t’u) may have come to be employed at the end of the era.40 Leather lashings further secured the compartment frame to the axle and shaft, with another mount sometimes having been employed just over the joint of the shaft and axle.

The shaft always overlay the axle, with both being slotted or in-cut to create a tight joint and present a relatively flat profile across the axle’s entire length under the compartment frame.41 It was originally thought that Shang dynasty chariots employed relatively straight shafts, but advances in reconstructive technology have revealed that they curved upward at various points forward of the chariot compartment, a necessity for the chariot compartment to be level. (Rather than a gradual bend, the curvature seems to have become more radical and pronounced over time, with some chariots simply having a nearly perpendicular upturn at the very end for affixing the crossbar.)

Typical dimensions for two shafts found at Mei-yüan-chuang that date to the third or fourth period of Yin-hsü (and whose chariots show many features previously identified as Chou inceptions) are 280 centimeters for the actual length but only 250 centimeters from the back end to the front tip as measured horizontally, and 265 and 227 centimeters, marked by a 108-degree angle,42 but only 268 and 261 at Kuo-chia-chuang. The final portion of the shaft at the front also tended to include another curve that placed the tip above the crossbar and well displayed the decorative bronze caps that were employed to embellish both ends. The round to somewhat oval shafts average 15 centimeters in thickness, but taper under the caps.

The two horses were harnessed to the chariot by means of bronze wishbone-shaped yokes suspended from a crosspiece. Rather than directly attached to the shaft, the crosspiece was apparently connected to it with leather straps that could be adjusted for the height of the horses, thereby ensuring that the chariot would not be tilted upward while coincidentally reducing the stiffness of maneuver in lateral and turning motion.43 Tomb vestiges indicate intervals above the crosspiece from 20 to as high as 40 centimeters, while the crosspieces themselves averaged 110 to 120 centimeters for straight versions and 220 for significantly curved ones, with diameters of 7 to 10 centimeters at the middle but somewhat tapered at the ends, where decorative bronze caps were again attached.

Although claims have long been made that any form of harness that extended down from the upward curved shaft—the so-called throat and girth harness—would have constricted the horses’ necks and proved counterproductive under load, the actual method remains uncertain.44 However, chariots were obviously used with regularity, indicating that this was either not a problem or somehow surmounted. Prior to the inception of Warring States improvements that resolved any residual problems, the bronze yokes suspended from the crossbar would have allowed the use of some sort of chest piece that could have been held in place by lateral lines from the chariot or some sort of girth strapping that transferred the load away from the horses’ throats, the latter being made possible by the height of the wheels coupled with the compactness of the horses.45

As would be expected for an imported system, even though improvements would continue into the Spring and Autumn period, the bridle, bit, forehead and nose straps, cheek pieces, and reins—the very basis of control—were all essentially complete and functional in the Shang.46 In the West a variety of materials were employed for the bit, including wood, leather, shell, and metal, and even though the metal bit reportedly did not attain mature form or proliferate until the Spring and Autumn, leather bits were already being displaced by bronze versions by the end of the Shang.47 For two horses a simple rein system was adequate, but adding an outer pair not directly yoked to the shaft increased the complexity and resulted in the driver holding six lines, a task somewhat facilitated by employing a bronze tube and a so-called bow-shaped bronze fitting affixed to the front of the chariot. Bronze rings and crosspieces were also employed wherever the head ropes, bridle, and reins interconnected, as well as for the harness joints. Various decorative bronze pieces were added to the leather surfaces and a sort of bronze disk sometimes fixed so it would lie just on a horse’s forehead.

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