A Manchu Helmet from the
History of China.

Sometimes you just get lucky. I did. This little piece of the history of China turned up right where I live, in Australia. A certain Australian antique dealer had had his eye on a certain collection of arms and armour for several years. It finally came up for sale and he claimed it. Ancient Chinese military pieces, Japanese pieces and others, were put up for sale, and my husband spotted this one. After a quick check with a reputable historian, he decided to buy it for me. I love my husband! I really do!

Qing military helmet from the history of China

I don't know a lot about it yet. there are more questions than answers. If you are good at the history of China, please feel free to contact me and share your knowledge. In the meantime, I'll show you a lot of pictures, tell you the bit I do know, and wait to add the rest when it becomes available.

Updated July 14, 2009
My teacher, Scott Rodell, has shared some interesting knowledge about this helmet. Therefore the information on this page has changed. There is a thread about the helmet on the GRTC Forum.  Anyone interested in the history of China should join the forum

The Plume Holder

This piece of Chinese armor has a hollow stalk extending from the top called a plume holder. A tassel of coloured horse hair - often red, was fixed into the tube and cascaded over the top of the helmet. The more important the wearer, the fancier the decoration. A general would have a very tall plume holder. It might be covered with gold or cut work. It might be festooned with jewels. This is a battle helmet, probably belonging to a mid-level officer. It is clearly placed in the Qing Dynasty of the history of China. This particular shape only appeared during that time.

Manchu helmet plumeholder
Plume Holder
 Manchu helmet view inside the plumeholder
Inside view
Manchu helmet decoration on the wall of the dome
Surface carving
Dragon carving on a Chinese helmet
Dragon Carving

I am uncertain exactly how the plume was attached to the holder. Since the tube is hollow and has a small hole at the bottom, it seems logical to think the tassle may have been fed through the holes and knotted inside the top of the helmet. I have seen modern versions of knotting horsehair on other Chinese items. This one is open to further information.

The base of the plume holder is a dome with flat sides. Sometimes pieces seen in artwork from the history of China, or in museums are decorated with inlays, jewels, or other decorations. If you look closely at this one, you will see it is decorated with carving. I don't know if there were inlays. If there were, they are now gone, but the design is still there, faintly carved into the iron.

How the helmet was made

If you look right up inside the helmet, it is easy to see that it has been molded in iron, in two parts. These pieces were fitted together and covered with thinner pieces of iron. Iron rivets have been used to attach pieces. These are not rivets as we know them today, but small pieces of metal like thick wire, that have been passed through pre made holes and hammered into place. This was a common practice in the history of China.

The stalk of the plume holder was fitted inside and then peened in place. It is quite loose and moves about freely on top of the helmet but it is also quite secure.

History of China helmet making
Inside seam
 Manchu helmet rivet still attached
Flap rivet
Manchu helmet rear view
Where flaps fit
history of China helmet visor

When the helmet was complete, it would have had dingjia flaps at the back and both sides. Dingjia means "nail armour". It was made of small curved rectangles of metal, rivetted together between two layers of cloth. The side flaps tied under the chin, holding the helmet firmly in place. A collar of the same material fitted over the top of these flaps, protecting the neck. Original period items of Chinese armor, show little protection for the face.

There is a small visor on the brow. This may have helped deflect a sword sliding towards the face. It would have also shaded the eyes from the sun.

There are smaller holes below the row of holes made for the flaps to be riveted through. These are placed well for a cradle of leather straps to hold the helmet on. This is only speculation though. The smaller holes continue around the inside of the helmet behind the visor area. Other possible speculations are that they could have been used for attaching either a buffer for the straps, or an inner padding. We have no evidence of this but it is good to lightly hold all possibilities towards future discoveries.

Conserving the helmet

I believe anyone fortunate enough to own a piece of the history of China really only has the responsibility to look after it while it is in their care. We cannot truly own art that outlives us. For this reason, I'm researching the best possible way to preserve it. At present, that might be to remove active rust and coat it with renaissance wax, to prevent further deterioration.

While photographing the helmet, I discovered the carved decorations also cover the front steel strip both inside and out, as well as the visor. These are quite faint from age and it has been suggested that acid may have been used to clean up the helmet. This would have worn away some of the motif. I'm taking close up pictures in good light to try and catch as much of the design as possible. As part of conserving the helmet, my sister is attempting a digital rubbing of the designs so we can see what they originally looked like. I intend to use them in future reproduction pieces for reenactment.

It is possible to artificially retore patina when original period items have been over zealously cleaned. My plan for this helmet at present is only conservation - minimal interference to prevent further deterioration, but there is always the option of full restoration. We have good pictures and artifacts from this period of the history of China, so it could be restored. But that would mean half the helmet would be new. I'm inclined to leave it the way it is.

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