Days at the office, nights in armor

Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Ready to take on all comers, members of the Shanghai Historical Martial Arts Club pose in their full regalia.

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Wearing medieval armor weighing as much as 50 kilograms and fighting with savage weapons — this is not cosplay, but a full-contact sport known as medieval combat.

The sport, which enjoys some popularity in Western countries, is new to most Chinese, but spectators are quickly wowed by the fighters’ flashy outfits and the intensity of emotion on display.

“Most men dream of being a knight in shining armor at some time. I fell in love with the sport at first sight,” said Lu Qi, president of Shanghai Historical Martial Arts Club. Established in 2015, the club has over 100 members, mostly in their 20s and early 30s. Members practice with and without armor.

Most members have other full-time jobs. Lu himself is a kindergarten teacher. Based in a gym in Yangpu District, the club holds one or two training sessions a week, and is already making some noise on the international stage.

Last May, Lu and some club members took part in the International Medieval Combat Federation world championship in Scotland, the only team from Asia.

“With an average height of 1.77 meters we were the smallest team. Our opponents were mostly 1.9 meters or even over 2 meters in height,” said Lu. “But they underestimated us and we played smart. We beat Luxembourg and Canada, which was a good result for a new team.”

Last November, Lu visited an IMCF summit in Ukraine and registered the club as formal representatives of China.

To guarantee safety, most club members use armor purchased from Europe. Each set costs up to 40,000 yuan (US$5,800). Lu has plans to design and produce armor in China.

Feng Junjie is a club member and a fighter who also works as an armor tinker in the club. He fixes dented or rusted armor and cracked leather belts for club members.

“Some problems like a loose rivet are easy to fix,” said Feng.

“But when it comes to more complicated cases, we have to source material and accessories from overseas where most of our armor originates.”

“I also borrow ideas from my designer friends or even computer game figures, and add my own little personal touches when fixing our armor,” he added.

Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Members can choose to practice with or without armor.

Lu said there is a gap in China’s steel armor history. Most Chinese armor on display in museums is made of cloth and dates back to the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

“We get our information about Chinese armor from museums and books. I have a friend Wen Chenhua, who made a set of Qing Dynasty armor by hand in 2013. But we need more professionals in this area. I hope more Chinese elements can be incorporated into armor making,” said Lu.

The sport is not limited to men, though the club has only one female member who hasn’t started training in armor yet.

“To put on a whole set of armor is no easy task in itself, and usually takes about 30 minutes,” said Lu. The steel armor, weighing 35 to 50 kilograms, is an accurate reproduction of medieval and early modern armor that encloses the head and neck, limbs and torso. Beneath the armor is a padded layer of cotton.

“It’s real torture to wear armor in summer,” added Lu.

A single helmet can weigh between 6 and 9 kilograms. Lu said it usually takes a fighter one or two months just to get used to the feeling of wearing it. Fighting in armor is a great challenge to stamina. Therefore, strength and stamina training are basics for the fighters. Boxing skills also help.

A fighter can choose his or her own weapon, but all weapons must be blunt, and none heavier than 3 kilograms or longer than 1.6 meters.

Metal swords, axes, machetes, maces, spears and shields are all allowed, though “stabbing” is not permitted.

In one-on-one challenges, the result is decided by points collected by hitting certain parts of the opponent.

In team competitions, a fighter is out when any part of his body except for the feet touches the ground. The team with the last man standing wins. Teamwork is crucial and members follow the team leader’s instructions and strategy to avoid becoming “casualties.”

Lu and his club members follow IMCF rules which are strict about safety. Fighters are forbidden to attack any body part that is not covered by armor.

“I want to use IMCF rules when we start our own competitions here in China, and perhaps we will even be able to host an international gathering,” said Lu.

Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

To guarantee safety, most club members use armor purchased from Europe.

Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

The Chinese flag can be seen on this helmet worn at the world championships last year in Scotland. Helmets can weigh up to 9 kilograms.


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