It is commonly held that the roots of modern China are to be found in three Bronze Age dynasties – the Xia (or Hsia), Shang and Zhou (or Chou). There is much that is unknown about these three great houses, including the years during which they were dominant. Several dating systems exist, and no one knows which is correct, although most modern scholars currently favour that based on the Bamboo Annals. By that system the Xia were in control from around the mid-21st century BCE to around 1600 BCE, the Shang from approx. 1556 BCE to 1046 BCE, and the Zhou from 1046 BCE to 771 BCE (Western Zhou) and to 249 BCE (Eastern Zhou). None of them controlled anything like the area currently occupied by the People’s Republic, but they were the major players during the period when written records were first made, bringing China out of the prehistoric era. This set mentions the Shang and Zhou, and gives a date which is as good as any other for the transition between the two (1050 BCE), suggesting a battle between the two can be created.
Unfortunately this is one of those reviews where we have to accept an inability to properly judge its historical accuracy. Looking at the bibliography below you will observe it is very short – just three books is far too few to form a useful opinion in our view. Worse yet, the Osprey book is over 25 years old and the WRG book over 40, and both China and Chinese archaeology has progressed enormously in the past few years, making both books sufficiently out of date as to be of limited value. The Sawyer book is much more recent, and excellent in many ways, though not written with modellers and gamers in mind. Unable to find other recent texts in Western languages, there may well be good information in Chinese but this is not accessible to us, so while we will make some comments on authenticity, no conclusions will be drawn.
There is no reason to believe that any Chinese army of the era wore a recognisable uniform, apart from possibly small elites like the king’s guard, so identifying any of these figures as being Shang or Zhou is likely to be irrelevant historically. However it should be observed that these figures come in one of two styles, so presumably these represent the two sides, even if that is for the customer’s convenience rather than any historical reality. The main difference is that one side has more ornate helmets with plumes, and wear more decorated tunics with a solid breastplate, while the others have much simpler helmets and a breastplate that is lamellar. In broad terms it is said that the Shang were more concerned with showy decoration, so the first group could be used to represent the Shang, but it is likely either would work equally for either side.
It will come as no surprise that information on the organisation and look of both armies is fragmentary, but by this stage much armour would be bronze, although leather would also be likely. Both the solid and lamellar styles are reasonable, as are the helmets and general dress, so taken individually there is no reason to question any of the costume on show here. What is far more doubtful is whether either army could boast all ranks having this level of armour and decoration. There are many references to the Shang raising armies (often 3,000 men) for various campaigns, often more than one in a year, and most of these men would have been gathered from the towns and fields. Their equipment and armour was provided by the local authorities, and would surely have been far less than the royal guard, and many may well have had no armour at all, so we wonder if these figures are in any way representative of an average army of the time, or more a collection of elites.
If clothing is little known then at least weapons are much easier thanks to many literary references and many archaeological finds over recent years. Unlike in Europe, the bow was greatly esteemed in China at this time, so a couple of such poses is very appropriate for this set. They are composite bows, and look to be about the right size, which is to say a little less than the height of a man. The most important weapon of the era was the dagger-axe, called ko, which was basically a dagger stuck on the end of a long staff. Strangely there are none here, although there are four poses carrying its successor, the chi, which was a more sophisticated version with a spear head on the end, making it look a little like later European halberds. So those in this set are fine, though in reality some would have been smaller than these and only held with one hand. To what extent, if at all, the simpler ko had disappeared by this date is unclear. Next we have four poses using a large axe (yueh). This is roughly rectangular in shape, and follows a number of examples still existing today. Some argue that the larger of these, and the more heavily decorated, may be ceremonial rather than military, but again with no firm knowledge on the subject we have to accept these as they are. Finally there are three poses holding blades, some of which might appear to be a sword, but swords were unknown in China until the 6th century BCE, so these are long knives, which certainly were carried. More a weapon of last resort since you had to be very close to your enemy, but valid nonetheless. Most of these weapons are probably bronze by this date, though stone daggers are not impossible.
One weapon that is missing is the simple spear. For some reason spears were rare until the late Shang period, but as this set covers the very end of that period we would have thought at least one spear pose would have been logical. The other major omission is shields. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that most troops carried a shield since well before the Shang era, and this is likely to have been continued by the Zhou too, so the complete absence of shields on these figures is perplexing, even though all the men are very well armoured.
As you would expect of Caesar all these figures are beautifully carved, with all the detail and folds on the clothing that you could wish for. Faces are expressive and look great, and there is absolutely no flash or unwanted plastic anywhere. All the axes have some form of decoration on the blade, which again matches known examples, though here it is too small to make out. Some careful positioning and clever moulds mean although some of the poses are complex and deep, they have been very well realised with no need for any assembly, so no concerns on that score at least.
The poses are largely defined by the weapon they hold, and we couldn’t fault any of them. The men with the dagger-axe are rather sedate, but those with the axe are much more lively, as are those with the knives. The man holding up the head of a slain opponent might be gruesome but seems perfectly likely, and there is only one of that pose in each box.
The figures average about 23.5 mm in height, which is 1.7 metres, making them a bit taller than the average man of the period, who was roughly 1.6 metres tall, but nothing too obvious. These are lovely figures well produced and very interesting to examine. Having two different armies in one box limits the numbers of each, which we usually decry, although here the difference is probably arbitrary anyway. It is a pity that there is insufficient material available to us to properly assess their accuracy, though as we have said we have doubts in some areas, but they are certainly attractive figures and once again Caesar have delivered a fresh new subject with their usual very high standards of quality.