Much of the history of ancient China is of kingdoms and dynasties rising and falling, sometimes lasting little longer than the lifespan of the man who created them. The fourth century was no exception, as it saw the chaotic period known as the Sixteen Kingdoms, when Northern China was ruled by many such states. An exception was founded in 386 by the Tuba tribe, a Turco-Mongolian people that came down from the north but quickly adopted many of the native Han Chinese ways to establish what would prove to be a more durable realm. They are known as the Northern Wei, and in 439 they achieved the complete unification of Northern China for the first time in over a century. Their history is naturally one of conflicts with neighbouring ‘barbarian’ states as well as warfare with their southern Chinese neighbours, but their power endured until 534, when internal conflict split them into Western and Eastern Wei, and they constantly fought each other before eventually both being consumed in their turn by others.
As a Turco-Mongolian people, the heart of their armies was the cavalry, although some are thought to have acted as infantry as well. However the bulk of their infantry was conscripted from the native Chinese people, and the Northern Wei were noted for making better use of this resource than many other states of the time. Such men were recruited for the start of a campaign, then released once it was over, and the good organisation of the state meant very large numbers of such infantry could be fielded where necessary.
Regular visitors will know that we have complained before about the lack of good research material available for most of Chinese history before the later 19th century, and that is certainly a major problem with this set. What little information we could find is listed below, but there is very little on the appearance of such armies, and the presence of the same few pictures and figurines in these sources suggests that there is also little primary evidence available. It would seem that the mass of infantry wore simple tunics and were armed with spears or bows and sometimes a sword. Most were just peasants raised for the duration and had little training, but some would have been better equipped with armour of leather, fabric or perhaps metal, and some of these may have been mercenaries. One figurine of the time suggests armour with round decoration over the breasts, which is reflected in the figure at the start of the third row, and another shows a soldier garbed in a thick woollen coat and cap, presumably on patrol in the harsh northern winter, and this is reflected in the first figure in row two. The remaining figures show a variety of tunics, some padded or scale armour, trousers and an assortment of caps. Those with long robes are likely to be officers or civilians rather than fighters, although the first figure in the top row may be some sort of palace or imperial guard, or maybe a banner man, and so in a more formal court costume than ordinary battle gear. Nothing here seems unreasonable, but we felt there was far too little hard evidence to come to any firm conclusion, so we have not given a score for the accuracy of these figures. Having said that, we would have expected to see at least one crossbowman, but again the proportions of each weapon is also hard to know.
Apart from the archer and the two holding aloft a sword, the rest of these figures are unarmed. Instead, the set comes with the pictured long strands of plastic with which we are supposed to fashion spears as many of the poses have empty hands as if holding something. The strands are nice and straight, and also of a good width, but have no sort of detail. By crushing one end and trimming it carefully you can achieve a spear of sorts, and the strands are plenty long enough for the longest pike, but the problem with this arrangement is chiefly with the figures. As can easily be seen, none really have a ring hand worthy of the name. Some have hands with the centre filled in, others just an open hand with no prospect of fixing a spear convincingly or securely. For some you would either have to drill out the hands or cut the spear in two, both requiring a significant amount of work.
Also separate in the set are the four pieces which each contain three shields. These are quite large, and again hard to judge for accuracy, although the longest one does have some echoes in illustrations of the time. However all are perfectly smooth at the back, and none of the figures make any particular attempt at holding a shield, so you are faced with simply pressing a shield against the body in general, with the only security coming from the type of glue used. Again, more work for a fragile result.
And so to the sculpting, which the reader will certainly have already assessed for themselves thanks to the picture above. You don’t need us to tell you that this is quite poor, with basic proportions that could be better and some quite crude attempts at detail. Some of the faces are particularly disturbing, but all the detail and folds in the clothing are rudimentary and not pleasant to look at. There is also a good deal of flash, but this varies greatly between two copies of the same pose, let alone different poses, so the above is no guarantee of the condition of other copies of this set. The figures seem to have been moulded with most of the figure in one side of the mould, so they have very flat backs where much of the flash is to be found. This is not a conventional production method, although in itself it presents no particular problems. However the general appearance of these figures is well below the standard of most figures we review on this site.
For a set of general infantry, the first thing you notice about the poses is everyone is standing perfectly still and upright. Even those waving a sword in the air are standing motionless, so there is almost zero action about these figures. For a few like the civilians and the guards this is acceptable, but having a full set with no movement at all is a very strange choice in our view. That is a big factor in our view that the poses are mostly poor, and certainly do not lend themselves to any sort of a battle scene. The man with sword touching his cap is particularly flat and unconvincing, but only the archer really looks like he is moving any limbs at all.
Hegemony clearly don’t have the production resources of the larger companies featured on our site, and to a degree rely on choosing interesting and unusual subjects to attract custom. Certainly the Northern Wei are just such a subject, and are a welcome oasis in what is still largely a desert of sets on pre-modern Chinese subjects. However the poor sculpting and largely inanimate poses do this set no favours, and the difficulty in corroborating what detail there is make this brave effort hard to view in a very positive light.