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Sword or Paper Cut? : Ancient Chinese Paper Armour

You might have heard the famous saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword” but have you ever heard about paper armour being more durable than metallic protective armour?

More Than a Writing Surface

It contradicts the conventional wisdom of warfare. For example, bulky warriors wore steel or iron plate armour. Yet, according to historical Chinese accounts, there were instances where paper armour was a superior choice.

Papermaking was first developed in China almost 2,000 years ago during the Eastern Han period. Although the invention is attributed to the eunuch Cai Lun, earlier, more rudimentary paper versions followed along.

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The paper was a revolutionary creation that offered a more practical writing surface than bamboo, wood, or silk. Besides its obvious uses, the Chinese even utilised it to manufacture paper armour.

Terracotta Army: When we think of soldiers going into battle we don’t think of them as wearing paper armour

The Chinese have a rich history of safeguarding soldiers with diverse materials. These included turtle shells, bronze, stone, leather, or steel crafted into small, square, rectangular, and fish-scale-shaped pieces to provide optimal protection during warfare.

But, of course, that is not all. The ancient Chinese went a step further (or back) and used silk and paper in armour-making. As strange as it sounds, it actually worked. So, without further ado, let’s dive right into the history of paper armour.

The History of Paper Armour

In Hand Papermaking Magazine, Peter Dekker states that the earliest reference to paper armour dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). Many believe that Shang Sliding created paper armour to help commoners defend themselves – especially during times of war. According to historical records, the governor of He-Dong equipped an army of one thousand with pleated paper armour suits!

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Berthold Laufer noted that during the Tang period, paper armour was made of folded paper sheets. Meanwhile, troops in An-hui Province are remembered for creating paper armour out of triangular scales. They were well known for their paper production.

Sleeved Chinese armour
Sleeved Chinese armour. Not as daft as it sounds!

The most comprehensive account of paper armour is found in the 1621 Wubei Zhi, or “Treatise on Military Preparedness.” Naval commander Mao Yuanyi explained that “paper armour mixed with a variety of silk and cloth is the best choice for soldiers in the southern region.”

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During the Qing Dynasty, many regarded Korean paper for its durability, per historical accounts. Even US Consul Edward Bedlow noted, “It seems absurd to label such mixtures as armour, and yet they create armour that is often superior to steel.”

The Astonishing Efficiency

Time and again, MythBusters has stepped up to debunk the strangest of myths. They replicate or closely simulate the desired outcome of a myth under the given circumstances. A myth is only labelled as “confirmed” if it is supported by ‘real-life’ laws of physics.

When the Chinese paper armour started making rounds across the internet, MythBusters knew what they had to do. The team examined the paper armour in a segment of their show on the Discovery Channel. 

Myth: The Chinese paper armour could provide protection equal to steel armour.

Episode 12, Paper Armor, of season 9 went live on 29 June 2011.

paper armour
Paper armour was not only relatively inexpensive to make compared to metal armour but it worked better too in some cases.

The results were surprising, to say the least. They discovered that paper armour was even more effective against swords and arrows. According to Scott Rodell, the paper was likely folded and sewn into wads before placing it into cotton pouches. The process helped produce individual paper scales. 

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These paper scales were then sewn into a cotton backing. Although paper armour could stop a sword, arrows and musket balls, it wasn’t as effective against rifle bullets. Present-day bulletproof armour is lightweight and rust-resistant. However, it is built on similar principles to paper armour.

Verdict: Myth confirmed.