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In Japan, yaris (spears) seem inferior to katanas. In Shogun: Total War, for example, spear-wielding troops are "cheaper" than samurai. The spear-wielding troops are peasants. The samurai are members of the warrior class.

But it seems that in ancient china, every soldier mainly uses a spear instead of a sword It seems that all cavalry uses spears. It seems that the generals use spears too.

I wonder why the difference?

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    This question should be closed. The person is using youtube and a videogame is inferences for what did and did not occur. We should encourage people to do a modicum of research before answering their questions – Stuart Allan Oct 6 '15 at 14:25
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    I'm biased, but I think that the question is valid. Questions that have multiple answers should probably be left open. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 6 '15 at 18:01
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    ALL cavalry used spears (pikes). Hollywood movies is not a valid source for history. – Alex Oct 6 '15 at 21:27
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    youtube and videogames are what initializes people to learn history. There's nothing wrong with asking people whether an inference they drew was incorrect. Also, the answer to this question isn't something you can easily look up on wikipedia. – setobot5000 Oct 6 '15 at 21:58
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    @Greg you sure about that? My sources say the Tachi evolved into the Katana (though others say the difference is just how you wore it - blade side up or down). – setobot5000 Oct 7 '15 at 23:18
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Spears are cheaper to manufacture; I can't supply a reference (there are a few smiths in H:SE and I wonder if they can provide information) but a good smith can crank out spearheads quickly and attach them to bamboo poles. Techniques for fighting with spears can be taught to formations of peasants quickly and easily, and green troops derive quite a bit of courage from being in formation. Spears require relatively little metal, cheap wood, and green troops. You can replace a spearhead (and the troop to wield the spear) quickly.

@Greg correctly points out that I should use the term tachi below rather than katana; he is correct. OP used katana and I have used katana other than to acknowledge @Greg's point.

A katana however is an expensive weapon. There are ample references (including a good one on YouTube) about the skill, time, and quality of steel required to manufacture a katana. Green troops cannot master a sword; I've been working on sword techniques for years and I am still unable to reliably demonstrate basic skills. Much of the reason for the mystique of the katana is that they were so expensive to make that it wasn't worth making junk katanas. If you're going to spend that much money & time, you're going to make everything as close to perfect as possible. If your weapon costs that much, you're only going to put it in the hands of a very skilled and very well-trained warrior.

@Greg argues that I overestimate the cost of the katana; perhaps. I would welcome anyone who can provide better costs. With due respect to Greg, I believe that a katana is going to be a multiple of the price of a spearhead. @Greg also argues that I overestimate the skill of the warrior; I believe we actually agree on this point, but that I've expressed the concept poorly. A samurai is a professional warrior; they are expected to train at a professional level. Formation spearwork is for militia troops who are not professional warriors.

(Aside: the Chinese have a relevant proverb (hat tip to @lly - apparently the proverb dates back to 1957!)- you can give a man a dao and have a soldier in a 100 days; give a man a jian and it will take one thousand days. Granted a dao is not a spear, but the theory is the same. You can train foot soldiers in simple cut/thrust/parry formation fighting quickly. You train such troops with weapons that are cheap to produce and effective in the hands of people with limited experience.)

(Second aside: I don't have a reference, but my recollection is that a handful of samurai took out entire formations of shinobi troops in a single day. A handful of men victorious against an entire army, because the quality of troops and weapons were totally different.)

Cavalry is a different problem; I sincerely doubt you'll find peasant troops in a cavalry formation. Cavalry requires extensive training for both horse and rider. Cavalry should be a very expensive troupe. I'm not familiar with cavalry tactics at all, and the limited contacts I have in the cavalry world are western cavalry, not Asian cavalry. I freely admit that I'm not competent to discuss the different cavalry tactics with spear, lance, guandao, etc. I am very dubious that anyone could use an 18kg guandao from horseback. But as discussed in the comments, I am skeptical that Guan Yu actually used the Green Dragon Crescent; I think this is a signature endowment to assist with storytelling.

I don't have my book present at the time, but Scott Rodell relates that Chinese warfare was shaped by a different dynamic. The Chinese were able to muster enough low skilled/cheaply armed troops to dominate the battlefield. Japanese warfare was shaped by more elite fighters and less mass formations. There are Chinese swordsmen with astonishing skills and wonderful blades, but they had less influence on the battlefield. The battlefield was dominated by skill as a general, not as a swordsman (because raising mass levies were cheap). (Errors are mine, not those of Laoish Rodell.)

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    wikipedia ". . . historically speaking there was no evidence to show that Guan Yu used the weapon that is thus attributed to him, and indeed there is no indication of the existence of what is now known as the guandao prior to the 11th century, . . " – Mark C. Wallace Oct 6 '15 at 14:40
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    Adding to what has already been said, the naginata is associated with women because it developed into a women's martial arts sport during the Edo era. Prior to the rise of group warfare during the Sengoku Era however, it was a widespread equipment of the Japanese infantry. The weapon attributed to Kan Yu in the RotTK originated only in the 10th century, some 800 years after Kan Yu's lifetime. – Semaphore Oct 6 '15 at 14:53
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    It think this answer would really benefit by some references to back it up. The use of tachi (that is the name of battlefield sword, not katana) was rather common in certain periods of Japan, and it is not true that it would have been too expensive for masses. Also, the samurai class is practically professional soldiers, similar to medieval European nobility, so training was not as big issue as you depict it. – Greg Oct 7 '15 at 21:57
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    With respect to the first point, you are entirely correct; references would benefit. WIth respect to the second, I must disagree; there is no point when a tachi would be as cheap as a spearhead. The third point (that Samurai were professionals) is one of the points I was trying to make; we agree. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 7 '15 at 22:39
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    @setobot5000 The Song military was "inept" in that it was intentionally designed to be weak on the regional level - the dynastic founder won power in a coup and was wary of emulators. That had little to do with numbers - the Song Empire was never accused of undermanning its defenses. That said, Takeda Shingen did not have 30,000 cavalry. 30k was just about the absolute limit of what he could mobilise for a campaign. – Semaphore Oct 7 '15 at 23:52
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European "medieval" cavalry used spears or lances. That is because they were facing infantry with long weapons such as spears or pikes. But the impact of a "spearman" riding a moving horse was a multiple of a spearman standing on the ground, because of the horse.

In the "early modern" era of musketry, European cavalry switched to using swords or sabers. That's probably because it was easier for a horseman to cut off the arms of gun-toting infantry, even with bayonets, than it was to stab them.

Chinese cavalry used spears because they faced few opponents with guns.

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    it was easier to cut off the arms than it was to stab them - actually european cavalrymen practiced both cutting and stabbing with sabers. That is, spear is longer, but saber is more universal. – Matt Oct 6 '15 at 16:24
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    Actually cutting from horse is pretty difficult, and in general causes much less injury than stabbing / throwing. Lance charges are actually more effective than sabre charges against infantry. Cavalry are of different type, and cavalry with lances were common even in XIX th century, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lancer – Greg Oct 7 '15 at 22:38
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Chinese cavalry, like the cavalry of all modern nations, use tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles.

If you mean in the past, all over the world polearms were used heavily by cavalry forces, as well as curved one-handed swords like sabres.

I seriously doubt Japanese cavalry of the era was inferior to samurai. The idea of the invincible samurai who all alone with his katana can defeat entire armies is pure fiction.

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  • As you'll see above, I disagree with the final paragraph; I believe that a small handful of samurai were able to defeat entire armies raised by the Shinobi clans. But that was a special case. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 6 '15 at 14:24
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    @MarkC.Wallace it's of course highly situational. In a narrow passage a small number of well trained troops with the right equipment can hold off a far larger force, especially if the larger force is poorly equipped. But in general, on the field of battle, they'd just be bypassed, cut off, surrounded, and cut to pieces. – jwenting Oct 6 '15 at 16:44
  • As I recall, the Shinobi clans fought in formation and refused to break formation (green troops who had been trained to do only one thing, and leadership that simply didn't understand the problem). The Samurai were able to maneuver so that they were constantly on one corner of the formation, fighting only a limited number of opponents. Eventually the formations broke under the pressure and ran. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 6 '15 at 17:10
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    You guys realize that the samurai is referring a cast / large group of people, and "Japanese cavalry" were also samurai, regardless what was on Naruto, right? – Greg Oct 7 '15 at 22:01
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Your thread title doesn't match the question you're asking below it. One is

Did cavalry in China use spears instead of swords?

and the other is, basically,

Why did Chinese generals use polearms when the samurai used swords?


First, China didn't even have cavalry until very late. No archaeological findings have supported the Chinese tradition that the minister Xi Zhong invented chariots for the Xia around the 21st century BC. They seem to have arrived in the 12th century BC during the late Shang, probably from nearby Indo-Europeans like the Tocharians. The Zhou used them to overthrow the Shang and overrun northern China, but the nobles who rode in them wore their full robes and shot arrows. A separate driver would move them into range and out of danger; when trouble was unavoidable, a third guy would ride along with a ge. This was a long pole with a dagger-shaped head, the idea being to reach over the chariot and use the force of a wide swing to puncture anyone who got too close to the chariot.

Chinese cavalry was only fitfully and badly used from the 5th century BC. It wasn't until 307 BC that Zhao Yong, posthumously known as the Wuling King of Zhao, got tired of losing to Qin, overruled his tradition-bound advisors, and forced his soldiers to wear pants and shoot from atop their horses in the style of the steppe barbarians on his northern border.

2nd, early Chinese cavalry were mounted archers, but their development coincided with the invention of crossbows. Chu began using units of crossbowmen in the Warring States Period; a Master Qin even invented a gravity-fed repeating crossbow for them, although it was too weak to kill without poison. Once the crossbow improved and spread, mounted archers (who couldn't possibly reload the devices) became less useful by comparison and were only used for hit-and-run tactics or for swift assaults against soft targets like supply lines.

3rd, the use of Chinese cavalry as shock troops ran into the development of massed pikemen. Cavalry could still be used for charging and slashing opposing light infantry and crossbowmen. (The idea of using continuous rotating fire to pin down cavalry isn't attested before the Song dynasty.) By Zhao Yong's time, though, the use of massed infantry had prompted some ancient Milo Minderbender to put a second point sticking out of the top of the ge's shaft, creating the ji (Chinese halberd), which allowed infantry units to stay closer together and stab their opponents instead of needing to fight loosely or expose their lower body to swing their weapons. Other units just carried plain spears without the ge dagger for the same purpose. (Spears were obviously known to the Chinese from the earliest times, but had previously just been used for hunting.) Ji and spears were both used like Swiss pikes in formations to keep cavalry at bay; the Chinese also started using wooden caltrops to take out the horse's feet.

Fourth, the early cavalry had no stirrups and lousy saddles. Hard blows were hard to do and the recoil from one could easily unhorse a rider. Instead of being able to do a cavalry charge with ji or spear used as lances, they mostly needed to ride up to (or charge into) the enemy line and then start swinging, with the horse more or less stopped in place or used separately to trample infantrymen. The obvious response eventually led to improved barding, especially protecting the horse's exposed neck. There are records of cavalry charges before the appearance of stirrups. They mostly involved the Chinese like Ma Chao or Gongsun Zan hiring steppe nomads who had been on horseback their entire lives. In the 3rd century BC, Chinese horsemen were supposed to be elites: highly trained, very tall, very strong. They fought in five-man units and had a 'general' over as little as 200 men. They were mostly used for recon, shoring up flanks, harrying an enemy's retreat, or cutting supply lines. When they were used as shock troops, they were aiming to scare the peasants into breaking formation. From horseback, they could use ji for reach but they assumed the horse would eventually be taken out. Once dismounted, outside a unit, it was easier for a gang of enemy soldiers to grab the pole's shaft. Dismounted, the cavalrymen used swords and shields from the 2nd century BC onward, as well as spears.

Fifth, China's horses sucked so badly that the Han Empire launched wars to get better mounts and close their cavalry gap with the steppe nomads. By the 4th century, with stirrups, saddles, and better horses, the Jin and subsequent dynasties had well-armored cataphracts and basically treated them like European knights.


In answer to your second question, 1st, China's Three Kingdoms (whose generals you're thinking about) and Japan's Three Kingdoms (whose samurai you're thinking about) were 1000+ years apart. Metallurgy and tactics changed.

2nd, polearms are better than swords most of the time and samurai used their yari as their primary weapon most of the time, once they stopped being used as mounted archers. They used swords when they lost their mounts or spears and needed something for close combat. Japan's lousy iron quality even meant their swords often broke on the armor of the Mongols who made it through the kamakazi typhoons.

3rd, the idea that the katana was the soul of the samurai developed first from how much work went into folding the steel to deal with the lousy quality of the metal but more because it could be worn daily as a mark of status, all the more important when the wars left plenty of samurai as broke ronin, homeless and horseless. Their katanas (and the training required by masters to close the distance with spearwielders) were romanticized by the Japanese and then got fetishized by Westerners who dug the Spartan appeal of bushido.

tl;dr: Your game isn't realistic. Everyone used spears/bows as primary weapons, and swords as close-in backups. The Chinese have just been more honest and mindful of it.

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  • This guy is very cringy and has an ad within the video that you need to skip but otherwise runs through why the spear was better on the battlefield but swords had their place and were even superior in other contexts. – lly Mar 2 at 14:46

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