Knights in Ancient Armor Fight to Save Chinese Culture

After decades of being stuck in the dark ages, China’s historical military re-enactment scene is in the midst of a renaissance.

Cao Xianran poses for a photo in woodlands near Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Dec. 26, 2017. Courtesy of Cao Xianran

SHANGHAI — You’d normally find 34-year-old Gao Peng behind a computer, but today, he’s dressed in 36 kilograms of thick Ming Dynasty-style armor with metal plates scaling down his arms.

In a makeshift arena in an unused office space, 1.93-meter-tall Gao and his team face off against armor-clad opponents. Before long, combatants smash each other with swords, creating ear-piercing collisions of metal on metal as vanquished fighters are hit or crash to the floor. One bout even ends with all armored fighters on top of one another in a pile of weapons and limbs.

It’s entertaining — even comedic at times — but for Gao, bringing China’s martial past to life through real armor, combat, and historical re-enactment is a serious matter. “Only if you understand this can you understand how you came to be — how your own nation, your own people, made it to the present day,” he tells Sixth Tone in December from a Shanghai café, a stone’s throw from the video game studio where he works as an animator.

Gao, who hails from northwestern Gansu province, is one of a small but growing number of armor enthusiasts in China. Some just like to dress up, while others — like Gao — do battle in them, but all are trying to bring the past to life and connect with their roots. While historical re-enactments and medieval martial arts are already established — if still somewhat niche — pastimes overseas, Chinese history buffs must contend with red tape, warped public views of history, and the unwieldy and expensive business of replicating ancient armor.

Fellow armor enthusiast and animation director Liu Shiwei is a member of the Armor Alliance, a nonprofit set up in 2016 after filmmaker Lu Chuan suggested a need to promote public awareness of historical Chinese armor and reverse its widespread misrepresentation in TV and film. Read the full article here.

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– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.