Ancient Chinese Paper Armor Put to the Test – You Won’t Believe How Strong It Is!
While Greco-Roman civilization was developing in the West, an equally advanced and complex civilization was emerging in the land along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers on the western coast of the Pacific Ocean. Ancient China independently developed paper, firearms, advanced astronomy and mathematics, and sophisticated metallurgy at the same time and in some cases before parallel advances in the Mediterranean world. There are also rumors of technology used by the Chinese that were never put to use in the West. One of these is paper armor, which according to some scholars was used in ancient China by 600 BC. Although this seems strange, it has been confirmed as entirely plausible.
The Chinese began using metal armor during the time of the Shang kings. During the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, metal plate armor or leather armor were typically used. The ancient Chinese are particularly known for their advanced metallurgy during the early Iron Age. Later, chainmail also come into use but it was by no means common. The Chinese however had more materials at their disposal than leather or metal to produce armor.
Ancient Chinese metal armor (public domain)
The Early Invention of Paper
China is the civilization responsible for the invention of paper as we know it. Its invention is usually attributed to a court official by the name of T’sai Lun who is said to have made the first paper from mulberry fiber in about the year 105 AD. However, there is recent evidence that hemp paper may have been invented earlier, closer to 100 BC. Paper eventually replaced the earlier forms of written media which had been used in China such as bamboo, tortoise shells, and silk. It was a more convenient writing medium than bamboo which was heavy and less expensive than silk.
Fragments of hemp wrapping paper dated to the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141–87 BC) (CC by SA 3.0)
2,600-Year-Old Paper Armor
Greg Martin, an expert on ancient armor, told Mythbusters that the Chinese used paper armor as early as 600 BC, which may have been injected with shellac or some other resin. He said that this armor was more effective in some ways than the steel armor used at the time. The time-period for the use of this armor pre-dates the traditional date for the invention of paper, but the invention of paper armor, regardless of the date, is still an interesting idea to consider. To test this idea, Mythbusters set up a test to compare the strength, durability and freedom of movement of paper armor versus historical Chinese steel armor used around time paper armor is said to have been used.
Putting Paper Armor to the Test
For the test, they made the paper armor both with and without the resin. The paper used for the armor was about 13 mm thick. They used a variety of weapons against the armor including swords, bows, an 18th century flintlock pistol and a 19th century 0.45 revolver. In almost all cases the paper armor without resin either did just as well as the steel armor or outperformed it. The paper armor did more poorly with blunt-force attacks. The paper armor also performed poorly against the 19th century revolver. Overall though, the paper armor proved to be just as effective as the steel armor. For this reason, it was declared at least plausible that the ancient Chinese used such an unusual type of armor. One problem that they noted with this idea is that the paper armor rapidly disintegrated when it got wet or if it was subjected to repeated blows. This suggests that paper armor, if used, would have been limited to situations where the armor getting wet or being used excessively would have been unlikely.
Chinese paper armor didn’t do so well after getting wet (Discovery)
Advanced Non-Metal Armor
Iron armor was predominant in the West from the Greek Dark Age beginning around 1200 BC to the time that firearms made it obsolete. As a result, Westerners tend to assume that metal armor, specifically iron armor, is superior to non-metal forms of armor against pre-gunpowder weapons. There are, however, several historical examples, including this one, of armor that was actually more effective than the most advanced steel armor used by Western or Chinese civilization.
The Aztecs, for example, developed woven armor in order to withstand atlatl darts and obsidian swords. These were darts that would actually pierce the steel armor of the conquistadors. Aztec armor was made of cotton about a finger’s width. Warriors of elite status also wore an extra tunic. This cotton armor was made strong by soaking it in brine and then leaving it to dry. The salt crystals left behind would make the woven material strong enough to withstand the darts as well as the blows of obsidian blades. This relatively simple method of armor making which did not require any metallurgical knowledge was able to make armor stronger in some ways than the metallurgically advanced steel plate armor of late Medieval and Renaissance Europe and probably ancient China.
It is interesting to consider what might have happened had it been Chinese civilization which became globally dominant rather than the West. The Chinese for example, already had the technology for rockets, firearms, and ships which were more seaworthy than Portuguese caravels before the 15th century. Would the industrial revolution have happened sooner or perhaps later if at all? Would the Chinese have conquered the Americas the way that the European powers did? We cannot answer these questions with certainty. One thing that is highly probably though is that there would have been more paper armor!
Top image: Reconstruction of Chinese paper armor, on the right (Discovery)
By Caleb Strom
Hassig, Ross. Aztec warfare: Imperial expansion and political control. Vol. 188. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Buchanan, Brenda J., ed. Gunpowder, explosives and the state: a technological history. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006.
“Invention of Paper.” Georgia Institute of Technology Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking. Available at: http://www.ipst.gatech.edu/amp/collection/museum_invention_paper.htm
“MythBusters Episode 170: Paper Armor.” (2011). MythBusters Results. Available at: http://mythresults.com/paper-armor