King Wuling of Zhao practices archery in the style of the nomadic peoples-赵武灵王胡服骑射


In the middle to late Warring States period, the state of Zhao experienced a steady decline in power. It suffered repeated defeats in wars against the states of Qi, Qin, Wei, and others, resulting in loss of troops and territory. Even neighboring small states continuously sent troops to raid Zhao, but Zhao was unable to retaliate. In 326 BC, King Wuling of Zhao ascended the throne. At the beginning of his reign, his father, Duke Su of Zhao, had just passed away. Wei, Chu, Qin, Yan, and Qi, under the pretext of condolences, organized a coalition army of ten thousand men intending to take advantage of the situation and occupy Zhao. Fifteen-year-old King Wuling, with the assistance of his minister Fei Yi, calmly handled the situation, ultimately forcing the five states to retreat and saving Zhao from destruction. Young King Wuling harbored great ambitions and, deeply feeling the pain of defeat, resolved to strive for rejuvenation and change the passive situation of being constantly attacked.

Zhao was located in the northern region, bordered by the Donghu to the east, the Xiongnu to the north, and the Linhu and Loufan to the west. These tribes were nomadic and highly skilled in horseback riding and archery, often launching cavalry attacks on Zhao’s borders. Through frequent contact with these nomadic tribes, King Wuling of Zhao realized the superiority of cavalry. He said to his subordinates, “The cavalry of these nomadic tribes comes and goes like the wind, with quick and agile reactions. How can such an army not win battles when traversing the border?”

After long-term observation and analysis, King Wuling of Zhao discovered that the soldiers of the nomadic tribes wore narrow-sleeved short jackets and trousers, which were highly practical and convenient, whether in daily life or mounted combat. In contrast, the military attire of Zhao resembled civilian clothing, which was not suitable for warfare. Therefore, in battles against the nomadic cavalry, Zhao’s army often found itself at a disadvantage. Moreover, while Zhao relied mainly on infantry and chariots, the nomads used cavalry and bows. Compared to infantry and chariots, horses and bows provided greater mobility and flexibility.

King Wuling of Zhao realized that Zhao’s repeated failures in warfare were not due to the weakness of its soldiers but rather to the unsuitability of its military attire for cavalry warfare and the outdated tactics of chariot warfare. The traditional tactics of infantry and chariot cooperation in the Central Plains were inadequate for contemporary warfare requirements, as chariots were cumbersome and effective only in relatively flat terrain. Moreover, Zhao’s infantry-based army was no match for the swift and agile cavalry. To enhance Zhao’s military strength, King Wuling decided to learn from the strengths of these nomadic tribes by organizing cavalry and adopting their attire, thereby adapting to the needs of cavalry warfare.

King Wuling firmly believed that reforming the army with cavalry and archery would undoubtedly enhance the combat effectiveness of the Zhao army and fundamentally change the passive situation of Zhao being constantly attacked. However, he also knew that Central Plains countries traditionally looked down on barbarian customs, so this reform would encounter strong resistance. To boost the confidence of the people in implementing the policy of cavalry and archery nationwide, he conducted convincing propaganda about the benefits of adopting nomadic attire before issuing the reform decree. King Wuling of Zhao initially trained a small but elite cavalry force, demonstrating the effectiveness of cavalry in several victories against the northern mountain country. These victories greatly encouraged the confidence of the people of Zhao. Subsequently, he led the cavalry across the Yellow River and entered the area where the Linhu people had long been active. During this process, King Wuling of Zhao fought against nomadic cavalry many times and never suffered defeat.

These series of victories convincingly proved the superiority of cavalry, further strengthening King Wuling’s confidence in reform. He first consulted with his ministers Fei Yi and General Lou Huan, saying, “Our country is surrounded by powerful enemies. I want to reform our military attire to adopt the nomadic style, which is more suitable for horseback archery.” Fei Yi, Lou Huan, and others, who had backgrounds in the northern tribes, fully agreed. They analyzed Zhao’s national conditions, terrain, culture, and other factors and believed that implementing cavalry and archery reforms would benefit the nation’s unity, enhance military strength, and competitiveness.

King Wuling’s uncle, Prince Cheng, and Zhao Wen, Zhao Zao, Zhao Jun, and others believed that the reform of nomadic attire would harm their interests, violate ancient laws with new laws, and not gain popular support, so they opposed the reform. King Wuling of Zhao refuted their arguments, saying, “Sages act based on practical situations, adapt to local conditions, and take corresponding measures. As long as it is beneficial to the prosperity of the country, why stick to the old laws of the ancients?”

King Wuling of Zhao was determined to incorporate the minority tribes of the northwest into the territory of Zhao. He decided to adopt a policy of “using barbarian customs to govern barbarians” to break through the resistance of entrenched conservative forces, overcome opposition, and resolutely promulgated the “Cavalry and Archery” decree. The central content of the decree was to wear the clothing of the nomadic people, namely narrow-sleeved short jackets, leather boots, leather belts, gold hooks, and military caps adorned with marten tails and cicada decorations.

King Wuling took the lead in wearing nomadic attire, and all military attire of the Zhao army was changed to nomadic attire. After being fully equipped, he began to train the soldiers in horseback riding and archery, conducting practical combat exercises during hunting activities.

The nobles of Zhao did not expect King Wuling’s determination to reform to be so resolute, so they spread rumors saying, “King Wuling has always despised us. This time, he is taking the opportunity to embarrass us.” King Wuling, upon hearing this, was very angry. He gathered all the courtiers and, in a stern tone, bent his bow and shot an arrow through the wooden pillow on the gate tower, saying, “Anyone who dares to spread rumors and obstruct the reform will meet the same fate as this pillow!” The nobles realized that the situation was irreversible and dared not oppose any longer.

King Wuling’s reform of wearing nomadic attire was thorough. He ordered that, in addition to soldiers, all people in the country, regardless of rank, should wear nomadic attire. King Wuling took the lead in wearing nomadic attire to meet with his courtiers and sent someone to meet his uncle Prince Cheng, asking him to wear nomadic attire. The envoy reported that Prince Cheng was unwilling to wear nomadic attire. King Wuling went to see Prince Cheng personally, patiently persuading him. Prince Cheng was convinced and also wore nomadic attire to court. When the royal family and nobles saw Prince Cheng accepting nomadic attire, they followed suit. In this way, the wearing of nomadic attire was promoted throughout Zhao.

After the implementation of nomadic attire, Zhao established a cavalry-based army, and the convenience of nomadic attire immediately manifested its power in combat. Zhao defeated its archenemy, the state of Zhongshan, and seized the territories of Linhu and Loufan, expanding its territory thousands of miles to the north. Its military strength grew stronger, and administrative districts were established in Yun