The history of China is one of the rise and fall of dynasties, of division and unification, of conquest and subjugation. The 13th century was no different, and began with the country divided into several kingdoms of which the three major parts were the empires of the Sung, the Kin or Chin and the Hsi Hsia. Inevitably these states warred with each other, even when a greater external threat loomed, which in this case was the Mongols to the north. By the end of the century all these empires had been swept away by the Mongols, who established the Yuan dynasty that unified all China.
The importance of cavalry to the Chinese varied according to their circumstances. The south, home of the Sung, was not good horse breeding territory, and importing animals failed to resolve the consequent shortage of horses, so cavalry was only a minor part of Sung armies. The land of Chin to the north was better, yet here cavalry was somewhat neglected and it was allies and subject peoples that provided many of their mounted warriors. Only the Hsi Hsia had good access to the grasslands required, and here cavalry remained an important element, although even then it was not on a par with the expertise of the Mongols.
The five figures in this set are all fairly heavy as all have some armour – even the archer has a basic cuirass and shoulder protection. All the armour is lamellar, as it should be, but the figures are in no way uniform, with each having a different style of clothing and protection. This is perfectly reasonable, and everything here looks authentic. Much of the detail here looks to have come from the Wu Pei Chih, a later work that nonetheless reflects how these men would have appeared during the 13th century.
Weaponry was a wide range of polearms plus swords and, of course, the bow, which is what we find in this set, and again everything looks to be correctly done. The swordsman also has a quiver of arrows and what seems to be a case for an unstrung bow, while all but one of the men carry a sword.
Horse armour was certainly in use at this time, but it is thought that it was not particularly common. One of the horses here (the most numerous pose) has a full set of armour while two of the others have a chanfron and decoration, in one case of a particularly flamboyant design. Once again everything matches what illustrations there are of such cavalry. The poses, which for the most part of very good, do not all suggest a full-on charge, which makes a refreshing change from so many cavalry sets and a more realistic range of mounts. All the animals are well done with good proportions, and the riders fit on the saddles with ease, although they will require gluing to stay put if moved.
Such complex armour and costume calls for a very high standard of sculpting, which is exactly what this set delivers. Everywhere the detail is crisp, clear and beautifully realised, while even the pattern on some of the armour has been well done. As impressive as the level of detail is the fact that none of the figures require any form of assembly – those with polearms are all one piece, yet there is almost no excess plastic and certainly no flash. Great faces and nicely slim weapons add to the positive impression, while the poses are all natural and, given their number, well chosen. The only criticism is that at an average height of about 1.8 metres these are much too tall for an average Asian man of the period.
With an authentic appearance and top quality production standards these are very nice figures indeed. It has taken a long time for Chinese history to gain the respectable level of coverage in this hobby that it now enjoys, and at the time of writing there is still a need for infantry and artillery to complement these figures, but if they are of the same standard as those in this set then they will surely be worth the wait.