Despite a number of vehicles having been recovered from graves and sacrificial pits, all aspects of the chariot’s employment in the ancient period pose vexing questions, particularly whether they were deployed by themselves as discrete operational units or were accompanied by either loosely or closely integrated infantry. Because even the oracular inscriptions for King Wu Ting’s well-documented reign provide few clues, and the tomb paintings recently discovered that date to the Warring States and thereafter mainly depict hunting scenes and parades, far more is known about the chariot’s physical structure than its utilization. The chariot’s essence has always been mobility, but prestige and displays of conspicuous authority rather than battlefield exploitation may have been defining factors in the Shang.

Some traditionally oriented scholars continue to assert that chariots played a significant role in Shang warfare; others deny that they were ever employed as a combat element. The Shang’s reputed employment of chariots, whether nine or seventy, to vanquish the Hsia is highly improbable given the complete absence of late seventeenth-century BCE or Erh-li-kang artifacts that might support such claims. However, Warring States writers idealistically ascribed differences in conception and operational characteristics to the Three Dynasties: “The war chariots of the Hsia rulers were called “hooked chariots,” because they put uprightness first; those of the Shang were called “chariots of the new moon,” because they put speed first; and those of the Chou were called “the source of weapons,” because they put excellence first.”

The few figures preserved in Shang dynasty oracular inscriptions, Chou bronze inscriptions, and other comparatively reliable written vestiges indicate that chariots were sparsely employed in Shang and Western Chou martial efforts. The chariot’s first recorded participation in Chinese warfare actually occurs about seven to eight hundred years after their initial utilization in the West, ironically just before the Near Eastern states would abandon them as their primary fighting component due to infantry challenges. King Wu Ting’s use of a hundred vehicle regiments for expeditionary actions, already discussed, seems to have initiated their operational deployment, though the only concrete reference to Shang chariots (ch’e) appears in the quasi-military context of the hunt.

Chariots must have been extensively employed in the late Jen-fang campaigns, but no numbers have been preserved. Thus the next semireliable figure is the universally acknowledged 300 chariots that were employed by King Wu of the Chou to penetrate the Shang’s massive troop deployment at the Battle of Mu-yeh, precipitating their collapse. Some accounts suggest that the Chou had another 50 chariots in reserve, while the number fielded by the Shang, strangely unspecified in the traditional histories, could hardly have been less than several hundred. King Wu reportedly had a thousand at his ascension, some no doubt captured from the Shang, though others may have belonged to his allies and merely been numbered among those present for the ceremony. Several hundred were also captured from the Shang’s allies in postconquest campaigns, as well as in suppressing the subsequent revolt.

Nevertheless, chariots seem to have been minimal in early Western Chou operational forces. Scattered evidence suggests that field contingents never exceeded several hundred, with as few as a hundred chariots participating in expeditionary campaigns. Although one of their efforts against the Hsien-yün resulted in the capture of 127 chariots from a supposedly “barbarian” or steppe power, King Li’s campaign against the Marquis of E seems to have been typical. Despite total enemy casualties being nearly 18,000, inscriptions on the bronze vessel known as the Hsiao-yü Ting indicate that a mere 30 chariots were captured in one clash, though a second force of 100 is also mentioned. Somewhat larger numbers were deployed slightly later in campaigns against the Wei-fang, but the maximum figure ever reported for the Western Chou, the 3,000 supposedly dispatched southward against the rising power of Ching/Ch’u in King Hsüan’s reign (827-782), is certainly exaggerated despite the king’s reputation for having revitalized Chou military affairs, as well as unreliable because it is based solely on an ode known as “Gathering Millet.”

The chariot’s effectiveness in the Shang, early Chou, and perhaps even beyond must be questioned in the face of the constraints discussed below, the difficulties that will be examined in the next section, and the lessons that can be learned from contemporary experiments with replica vehicles. However, it should be remembered that although numerous reasons can be adduced why chariots could not have functioned as generally imagined, voluminous historical literature, both Western and Asian, energetically speaks about their employment in battle. Ruling groups were still expending vast sums to build, maintain, and employ chariot forces in the Warring States period, and the Han continued to field enormous numbers against steppe enemies, incontrovertible evidence that rather than being historical chimeras or simply artifacts of military conservatism, they continued to be regarded as crucial weapons systems.

Although all the Warring States military writings contain a few brief observations on chariot operations, only two, the Wu-tzu and Liu-t’ao, preserve significant passages. Primarily important for understanding the nature of the era’s conflict, they still furnish vital clues to the chariot’s modes of employment and identify a number of inherent limitations that would have inescapably plagued the Shang and Western Chou, long before chariots would explosively multiply to become the operational focus for field forces.

Chariots were considered one of the army’s core elements: “Horses, oxen, chariots, weapons, relaxation, and an adequate diet are the army’s strength. Fast chariots, fleet infantrymen, bows and arrows, and a strong defense are what is meant by ‘augmenting the army.’” Several passages indicate that chariots were viewed as capable of “penetrating enemy formations and defeating strong enemies.” Those used in conjunction with large numbers of attached infantry and long weapons were said not only to be able to “penetrate solid formations” but also to “defeat infantry and cavalry.” “When the horses and chariots are sturdy and the armor and weapons advantageous, even a light force can penetrate deeply.” “Chariots are the feathers and wings of the army, the means to penetrate solid formations, press strong enemies, and cut off their flight.” Before the advent of cavalry, they also acted as “fleet observers, the means to pursue defeated armies, sever supply lines, and strike roving forces.”

Passages in Sun Pin’s Military Methods and other works indicate that somewhat specialized chariots evolved in the Warring States, the basic distinction being between faster (or lighter) models and heavier chariots protected by leather armor and designed for assaults. A few of even greater size and dedicated function were thought capable of accomplishing even more: “If the advance of the Three Armies is stopped, then there are the ‘Martial Assault Great Fu-hsü Chariots.’” “Great Fu-hsü Attack Chariots that carry Praying Mantis Martial warriors can attack both horizontal and vertical formations.” Variants with a smaller turning ratio, known as “Short-axle, Quick turning Spear and Halberd Fu-hsü Chariots,” might be successfully employed “to defeat both infantry and cavalry” and “urgently press the attack against invaders and intercept their flight.”

Chariots were deemed astonishingly powerful: “Chariots and cavalry are the army’s martial weapons. Ten chariots can defeat a thousand men, a hundred chariots can defeat ten thousand men.” The Liu-t’ao’s authors even ventured detailed estimates of the relative effectiveness of chariots and infantry: “After the masses of the Three Armies have been arrayed opposite the enemy, when fighting on easy terrain one chariot is equivalent to eighty infantrymen and eighty infantrymen are equivalent to one chariot. On difficult terrain one chariot is equivalent to forty infantrymen and forty infantrymen are equivalent to one chariot.”

These are startling numbers, all the more so for having been penned late in the Warring States period when states still numbered their chariots by the thousands. Even allowing for exaggeration, given that the Liu-t’ao generally reflects well-pondered experience and is a veritable compendium of Warring States military science, the era’s commanders must have had great confidence in the chariot’s capabilities. Nevertheless, it might be noted that the great T’ang dynasty commander Li Ching, upon examining these materials in the light of his own experience at a remove of a thousand years, concluded that the infantry / chariot equivalence should only be three to one.

Chariots were also employed to ensure a measured advance in the Spring and Autumn, Warring States, and later periods when they no longer functioned as the decisive means for penetration. Li Ching’s comments about his historically well-known expeditionary campaign against the Turks indicate that even in the T’ang and early Sung they were still considered the means to constrain large force movements: “When I conducted the punitive campaign against the T’u-ch’üeh we traveled westward several thousand li. Narrow chariots and deer-horn chariots are essential to the army. They allow controlling the expenditure of energy, provide a defense to the fore, and constrain the regiments and squads of five.”

Although certainly not applicable to the Shang, chariots could also be cobbled together to provide a temporary defense, particularly the larger versions equipped with protective roofs. The authors of the great Sung dynasty military compendium, the Wu-ching Tsung-yao, after (somewhat surprisingly) commenting that “the essentials of employing chariots are all found in the ancient military methods,” concluded that “the methods for chariot warfare can trample fervency, create strong formations, and thwart mobile attacks. When in motion vehicles can transport provisions and armaments, when halted can be circled to create encampment defenses.”

Numerous examples of employing chariots as obstacles or for exigent defense are seen as early as the Spring and Autumn period. The later military writings cite several Han dynasty exploitations of “circled wagons” being employed as temporary bastions, including three incidents in which beleaguered commanders expeditiously deployed their chariots much as Jan Ziska would in the West to successfully withstand significantly superior forces. Sometimes the wheels were removed, but generally the chariots were simply maneuvered into a condensed array.


Based on burial patterns and traditional texts, it has been strongly, but perhaps erroneously, argued that three warriors manned the Chinese chariot from inception: an archer who normally stood on the left, the driver who controlled the horses from the middle of the compartment, and a warrior on the right who wielded some sort of shock weapon. Nevertheless, graves with only one or two warriors interred with a chariot are common in the Shang, the Tso Chuan occasionally refers to a fourth rider as if his presence was unusual but not exceptional, and a few Eastern Chou incidents note only two occupants.

Sun Pin’s comment that “those who excel at archery should act as the left, those who excel at driving should act as drivers, and those who lack both skills should act as the right” indicates that driving a chariot was also considered a specialized skill. Archery and charioteering would continue to comprise two of the six essential components of the chün-tzu or gentleman’s education known as the liu yi through the end of the Spring and Autumn period and into the early Warring States, even though Confucius personally disdained charioteering and has been generally perceived as disparaging warfare.

Contrary to possible impression that chariot service imposed lesser physical demands on the occupants than on the average foot soldier, outstanding conditioning and ability seem to have been required: “The rule for selecting chariot warriors is to pick men under forty years of age, seven feet five inches or taller, with the ability to pursue a galloping horse, catch it, mount it, and ride it forward and back, left and right, up and down, all around. They should be able to quickly furl up the flags and pennants, and have the strength to fully draw an eight picul crossbow. They should practice shooting front and back, left and right, until thoroughly skilled.” Incidents in the Tso Chuan confirm that great strength and courage were necessary for the chariot’s occupants to survive the rigors of battle and that constant training was needed to ride in a chariot and simultaneously shoot an arrow.

Apart from acting as an integral component capable of mounting penetrating attacks and engaging other chariots, the mobility provided by chariots had the potential to radically affect the course of battle. However, their actual mode of employment in the Shang remains uncertain despite deeply held traditional explanations. Nevertheless, only three possibilities exist: serving as a command platform for the officers at various levels; providing an elevated platform for observation and archery; and simply transporting the occupants to points on the battlefield, where they fought dismounted as in Western antiquity.

Even though oracular inscriptions have been interpreted as indicating that war chariots were sometimes called up in contingents of a hundred, because of their minimal numbers and novelty most Shang chariots must have been reserved for members of the ruling clan, high-ranking officials, and important officers dispersed across the battlefield. Initially they would have served as transport throughout the several days typically required to reach the battleground and then as mobile command platforms during the engagement.

When the effects of the axle, mounting bar, and box structure are included, the fighters standing in the chariot were elevated at least two and a half feet above the ground. This facilitated observing the battlefield and allowed ancient China’s highly skilled archers to shoot over the heads of any accompanying infantry at the enemy. However, their increased visibility also exposed the officers to attack and identified them as prime targets for enemy archers and spearmen.

Whether even the most skilled archers could maintain their vaunted performance levels despite the bouncing, jostling, and instability experienced while standing in a racing chariot seems problematic. Nevertheless, a few Spring and Autumn episodes recount instances of surpassing skill not just in shooting at ground forces, but also in targeting other warriors in rapidly moving vehicles. For example, even though he was fleeing during the Battle of An in 589 BCE, Duke Ch’ing of Ch’i refused to allow his archer to shoot Han Ch’üeh, who was pursuing him in another chariot, because he was a chün-tzu (gentleman). The archer therefore shot and killed the two occupants standing on either side of Han Ch’üeh.

Even if these incidents are not highly embellished or outright fabrications, they were probably recorded simply because of their exceptional or infrequent nature, thereby implying warriors on rapidly moving chariots rarely achieved such mastery. Questions remain, and the evidence is simply insufficient for a definitive conclusion, but insofar as the infantry dominated Shang and early Chou battlefields, chariot-mounted bowmen need not have been particularly accurate to strike down enemy soldiers with a flurry of arrows aimed in their general direction.

Considerable textual and archaeological evidence indicates that the chariot’s occupants had specialized functions, but the placing of complete weapons sets—a bow and dagger-axe—with both the archer and the warrior on the right side in one tomb at Hsiao-t’un suggests that both occupants may have functioned as archers in the Shang, when the shortness of their piercing weapons would have precluded direct chariot-to-chariot combat. On the other hand, the shields occasionally found in chariot graves, even though probably employed by the warrior on the right in conjunction with his dagger-axe, may have been used to protect the archer during battle, a mode known in the West as well.

After employing missile fire at a distance, closing with the enemy, and becoming caught in the melee, the chariot’s occupants would have had to dismount to engage in close combat because their shock weapons only averaged three feet in length, far too short to strike anyone while standing two and a half feet above the ground in a chariot compartment inset from the wheels and isolated by the bulk of the horses. Whether commanders continued to remain aloof or, far more likely, every Shang clansman was a fighter remains unknown. However, one warrior’s famous refusal to fight dismounted in the Spring and Autumn suggests that the prestige of being a chariot warrior carried considerable emotional weight and that later eras did not view chariots simply as battle taxis, whatever their function in Shang warfare.