Two men wearing Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) armor take part in a close combat competition on April 22. 2018, in Taizhou, Jiangsu Province. Photo: IC

On a cold winter night in Beijing, a Lion Dance team finish rehearsing their routine for the Spring Festival in a dance studio. Afterwards, several tall and strong middle-aged men step into the studio and open the heavy suitcases they are carrying to remove suits of Chinese armor and several weapons. Their purpose for being in the studio is not to rehearse for the Spring Festival but best each other in battle. 

It takes them around 20 minutes to suit up as the audience watches on. It’s essential that the duelers’ armor is worn correctly and comfortably. Sometimes, a friend has to step in to lend a hand as well. By the time they are done, they are already covered in sweat. 

Before beginning the battle, the duelers salute each other by clanging their metal weapons together. As the sound of metal on metal rings through the air, the people in the studio wait with bated breath as the referee begins his count down. 

The audience suddenly breaks out in cheers as the competitors come together, the sounds of a sword hitting a shield or bashing against armor nearly downing them out. 

Reflecting history

This is a type of competitive sports fighting called Full Contact Fighting in Armor, or Buhurt. It evolved from ancient Rome gladiator culture and medieval knight culture. The sport has risen in popularity in Russia over the last decade and has gained ground in neighboring countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. 

The sport has also been making its way into China.

“The First Year of Armor” was held by the Armor Alliance in Hailongtun, Southwest China’s Guizhou Province on October 10, 2018. At the event, armor fans from all over China gathered together and shared their love of the traditional martial culture with festival-goers. An exhibition on the recreation of historical armor and weapons was also held during the festival. 

While Chinese armor was meant for war, it was not without its artistic value. The craftsmanship and design of armor are perfect examples of traditional culture. For instance, adornments such as lotus flowers, phoenix’s wings, clouds and beast heads are all symbols of Chinese culture. This makes armor recreation a great entry point for people to learn about Chinese military history and the evolution of the art of war during different dynasties. 

For example, the changes in armor can tell us a lot about what was going on during different time periods. Take, for instance, the heavy cavalry armor used during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, which represent the important role of horse mounted battle played during the time. After the invasion of light cavalry from northern nomadic people during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), heavy cavalry lost their advantage. The reinforced infantry armor from the Song Dynasty reflects that lessening importance of heavy cavalry and the rise of foot power.  

From a more artistic perspective, the development of Chinese armor influenced nations throughout Asia. This is especially true for Japan, the Koreas and Vietnam, as their armors, more or less, all have some Chinese hallmarks. 

A global platform 

In 2017, the 8th Battle of the Nations was held in Barcelona, Spain. Chinese warriors attended the competition wearing armor from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and armed with a type of sword known as a green dragon crescent blade. This was the first time that Chinese armor or weapons competed in one of these international competitions. While the Chinese team didn’t get far in the ranks due to a lack of experience with these types of competitions, their appearance at the event helped spread Chinese armor and weapon culture to the world. 

Kang Lu, a Buhurt enthusiast, told the Global Times that compared to the professional training that overseas players, especially those in Russia, go through put them at a definite advantage. Since the sport is still relatively new to China, the Chinese players lacked the systematic training courses they needed to compete. Especially when it came to group battles, which are one of the most attractive facets of Buhurt. These team battles require very specific strategies and tactics, which can only be attained through regular training as a group. 

Considering that most players in China are scattered about in different cities, this makes getting together for training extremely difficult. 

Another major problem comes from the means plays must use to get around. When it comes to trains and planes, security can be an issue since there are strict restrictions on armor and weapons on flights or rail lines. 

“If we run into this problem, we have to talk to the police and show them reports about the sport. We have to convince them that our armor and weapons are for competition only and are not being used to hurt others,” Kang explained.

Kang Lu and other armor fans are currently working to get Buhurt registered with China’s Sports Bureau. 

“From the bottom of our hearts, we all hope Full Contact Fighting in Armor can become an Olympic sport or even just a performance discipline. Then will be able to show Chinese history and culture to the whole world,” he noted.

Newspaper headline: Battle for recognition

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