Making a Chinese rattan shield | Mandarin Mansion

Making a Chinese rattan shield

by Peter Dekker

Ever since I acquired an antique rattan shield some years ago I had been wanting to figure out how to make these. I ordered rattan of appropriate type and dimensions at a local rattan supplier and got working. Below is a brief description on how to do it, but first I start with a brief history of the Chinese rattan shield or tengpai (籐牌).

The antique shield that started all this, acquired from a Dutch collector back in 2008.


There are references to rattan shields already in the Rites of Zhou dating from approximately from 200 B.C. These however, were described as being rectangular in shape. The first circular rattan shields in official texts seem to date from the time of general Qi Jiguang. There are speculations that they were used in the earlier Song dynasty by general Yue Fei against the Jurchen invaders. Qi Jiguang himself mensions that they originated even earlier among Southern Chinese tribes. This is plausible, because the hot and moist climate there makes heavy armor extremely uncomfortable to wear. They were encountered by Western observers up to at least the summer of 1900, where both the imperial army and the boxers were still using them.

Early versions were made with whatever was available: willow, bamboo, rattan or wisteria. Rattan was considered the best material to weave shields from so eventually all were produced from rattan obtained from the southern Chinese rain-forests. Early rattan shields were rather conical in shape and with a rim forming "eaves". This makes for the strongest of rattan shields where each rim is stacked upon the other, and so any incoming weapon needed to penetrate more material or would slide off entirely due to the angle of the cone. According to general Qi Jiguang the eaves "brush off arrows" and they prevent weapons to slide off the shield and into the body. These early shields were often deployed against enemy cavalry. Later shields were overall flatter and more dome shaped. While the earlier conical rattan shields were superior in strength, they require more material to make making them heavier in the hand and more labour intensive to make. In the 19th century the use of horses and bows gradually disappeared from the battlefields as a result of increasing use of firearms. The shields now mainly had to deal with infantry weapons that struck with less force than those from cavalry. While the Qing military held on to using bow and arrow until even the early years of the 20th cent, none those they fought continued this practice for so long. As rattan shields offered no protection against firearms anyway the final stage in their design was thus was a moderate dome with flat edge rim, primarily designed as a lightweight, maneuverable shield handy for close infantry combat.

An early style conical rattan shield from a woodblock of the Huangchao Liqi Tushi of 1766.

Rattan shield were among others effectively used during the Song dynasty under general Yue Fei against the Jurchen horsemen of the Jin dynasty and Qi Jiguang deployed them -among others- against Japanese pirates in his famed "Mandarin Duck Formations". During the Qing rattan shields were widely used by the Qing Imperial army as well as rebels and local militia. The imperial army had specially trained troops of the tengpaiying "rattan shield division" that used these shields in combination with piandao, deeply curved "slicing sabers". In the early days the tengpaiying was often deployed against cavalry, the forces involved attacking a horse in the gallop favor deeply curved sabers as they tend to slide off while cutting instead of hitting the target hard. Against infantry shield bearers tend to bash into the opponent with the shield, . In this case either a short or again a deeply curved saber is ideal. So later, texts start mention a certain paidao (literally: shield saber) used in conjunction with tengpai. These are wide, long single hudiedao, short swords with a substantial D-shaped guard that can be used as a knucklebrow. Supporting the shield troops, and vice versa, were often men with big knives on long poles. These would finish off any opponent that had fallen after a bash of a shield bearer as they did with the Dutch on Taiwan in the later half of the 17th century. They probably also served to deal with a shield bearer's greatest threat: Men armed with hooked spears that could pull the shield out of the way from a distance. One sees the rattan shield division still armed with shields, piandao and these polearms in the 1759 Huangchao Liqi Tushi. Often they are also seen on artwork protecting musketeers and artillery.


Rattan with a round cross-section of about 9 mm thick appears to have been the norm for the spiraling core of Chinese rattan shields. In my old shield, of practical battlefield quality with rustic finish, this varies a little from 8 -10 mm. For the wrapping band, the type with the tough skin still on it is optimal. Wrapping band should be 5 or 6 mm wide for a normal shield. High-end Vietnamese and Tibetan shields use much narrower wrapping band, increasing the time needed to construct them considerably. For the loops in the handle handle system one uses 4 or 5 mm thick rattan of round cross-section. The handle bar is a wooden dowel, I chiseled both ends to fit the shield's interior.

As for numbers, my last shield contained:
-about 60 meters of 9 mm thick rattan core of round cross-section, with no skin.
-about 4 meters of 5 mm thick rattan core of round cross-section for the handle system, with no skin.
-1650 meters (about a mile!) of 5 mm wide wrapping band.

The resulting shield is 75 cm in diameter with a 14 cm high dome.

A shield took me about 40-45 hours to make including the oiling, paint and lacquer jobs. The narrower the wrapping band, the more connections and thus the more work. More conical shields will contain more tiers and thus also more work. So a highly conical shield with narrow band is the most time-consuming shield to make, while a flatter variety made with wider band takes less time.

The first shield was already usable, but because of its dryness some of the connections cracked in use. With over a thousand connections and a handful broken now, there is no effect to the structural integrity of the shield but I didn't see this on old shields. Rattan is very porous and willingly sucks up any liquid substance. I think its quality and lifespan can benefit from finding the right oil to treat it with. When soaked in tung oil, the shield gets much tougher because the Tung oil penetrates the fibers and dries up to a rubberish substance. An advantage of tung oil is that one can still paint over this when it is dried. Finishing the shield with a thick lacquer layer also helps fixating the entire shield, strengthening the whole. The layer of paint on my antique shield is really thick, perhaps for this purpose.

The shields were frequently painted with tiger designs. One reason is to look fierce and scary; According to period eye-witnesses they were trained to scare horses with a combination of screams, rolls, brandishes of the brightly painted shields and fireworks. The other is that the word for tiger in Mandarin, hu, sounds exactly like the verb "to protect". Tigers were frequently seen as protecting deities, and it is known that some Chinese hung tiger signs outside their houses to ward off evil spirits. Tiger faces also appear on hats given to young children to ward off evil. The tiger symbology as both a fierce animal and a protecting deity had a positive effect on the morale of the often incredibly superstitious foot soldiers of the time. The Qing tengpaiying even had tiger outfits, some complete with a hood with ears, eyes and whiskers!


The beginning of the rattan shield. This is the hardest part one has to keep it from expanding constantly until the ring is big enough to support its own. Wrap this very tight or else the center can be pressed inwards and will be very weak.


At the end of the rattan one uses a diagonal splice. When executed properly these will not be weak spots in the shield.

Finished splice.

This picture shows how to splice the wrapping band.

Shield nicely progressing, nearly time to add the elbow ring.

Time to construct the handle system. Note that the elbow rim is weaved into the shield when making it. The bar can be added later when the entire shield is done.

Attaching the handle bar. First make the entire knot, THEN tighten the whole. Make sure not to damage previous wraps in getting the band through the shield.

On the very edge, two rims all wrapped in wrapping band finish the shield. This is harder than it looks, and requires the places of the splicings to be well-calculated: They should not fall in one place or the shape will be distorted and a weak spot will be created.

The finished, yet undecorated shield.

Old shield (left) and new shield (right).

Something on decoration
When painting the face, first draw it on scale on paper and then measure various points out on the shield for the best result. These may seem rather crude and simple drawings, but they are harder to do than one would think. In order for it to look authentic, when decorating a tengpai it is important to let go of your own aesthetics and study the originals thoroughly. I put too much of myself in my first shield, making it look "alien". I guess that making an accurate reproduction of anything requires a good amount of humbleness from the artisan in order to truly represent the aesthetics of another time and place.

When the shield is done what better way to celebrate than to pose with it in traditional outfit and take various pictures of oneself?

I made this tengpai for my good friend Graham Cave of Tiger's Den Swords. It was inspired by an example now in the Palace Museum collection in Beijing.

The original tengpai that served as an inspiration.