Subsequently, the Fish Scale Formation, which is the Chinese’s Phalanx formation, was also used in the Qin Dynasty, most noteworthy is during the Chu Han standoff between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu at the end of the Qin Dynasty. A few hundred years later, it was also used in the iconic Three Kingdoms period when our second brother Guan made history. Second brother Guan was eventually deitified in the Song Dynasty, when he became a household icon for courage, loyalty and chivalry.
There’s no clear line drawn at when the Fish Scale Formation was used until, but in the Ming Dynasty, General Qi Jiguang also used a formation fighting concept similar to the Fish Scale Formation, the Mandarin Duck Formation, this time with Wolf Thistle Brush polearms and tridents as the backup.
The Fish Scale Formation was recorded in Zuo Zhuan of the Zhou Dynasty. It is a concept that uses small platoons of soldiers organized in square shapes, arranged in a staggered fashion. It is unique in the sense that the front of every square facing the enemy, is jutting out pointing towards the enemy, like a mild arrow tip.
When facing the Fish Scale Formation, soldiers and horses are naturally ‘funneled’ into the empty gaps between each ‘scale’. This scatters their density and places them between 2 sides of spears and a front side of the next row’s scale. They are squeezed between three sides who can attack them, which has more numbers than their own soldiers.
Its tactical concept is to concentrate the manpower to engage the enemy. While the scales march forward steadily, the enemy is scattered from their original formation. In the case of infantry fighting with shields and armor, the enemy is likely to also deploy the Fish Scale Formation in response to the Fish Scale Formation. This is the strategem of compulsion, compelling your enemy to fight the way you want him to fight, to your advantage and his disadvantage, to firmly hold the initiative in your possession. The army who can hold onto their formation longer will win the tactical advantage, as a broken formation will release soldiers into the lethal killing zone of the enemy’s Fish Scale Formation. This is why the discipline of the soldiers are emphasized in combat, they’ll need nerves of steel.
Let me bring it over to fighting with Kung Fu. Kung Fu strikes and positions can do hurt to any opponents effectively. However, when Kung Fu practitioners get hit because they are indecisive or unlucky, they are likely to lose their nerves and both their defense and attack wears down. Sparring is already a rare enough thing in most Kung Fu styles, nerves of steel are rare as rare earth.
Many Kung Fu fighters also go into a modern kickboxing style stance and fighting rhythm because they couldn’t hold on to their formation, their strategy and their art their years of training, they were pressured to adapt to the enemy’s fighting style. They were forced to be impromptu copycats of the original who purely trains and fights that way, very very bad situation. Some Kung Fu practitioners even changed their training and fighting style into the modern kickboxing style stance, losing their original Kung Fu form and function. You observe your enemy, and you learn how to aim your own gun your own weapon at how your enemy moves, attack and retreat. MAKE THEM adapt to your Kung Fu, not the other way round. You do not try to drop your own weapon and aim to import your enemy’s weapon; you don’t have time for it, be it on the spot improvising or a few months of training for it.
Back to the formation, it appeared to be common knowledge in the Qin and Han Dynasties because of their ‘National Service’ policy. The farmer soldiers undergoing cycles of national service will be taught and trained in weapons and tactics. Of course, the untalented masses will end up as normal soldiers with limited skill, like they only know how to use swords and shields and not specialized polearms such as halberds, snake spears and glaives(a Western term for Guan Dao shaped polearms), and advanced skills such as mounted archery and chariot fighting.
Another fine example of the Chu Han saga is Han Xin. Han Xin was a veteran soldier who fought in Xiang Yu’s army before he decided to join Liu Bang as his talent was not being appreciated by Xiang Yu. He was so busy being a soldier, studying swordsmanship and pugilism and the art of war, and earning his credibility for his ambition of becoming a King, he had no time nor mood for women. His bought his wife from the streets, while he was raiding enemy cities alongside his lord Liu Bang, whose wives were also bought or robbed. It seems like in that era, love and courtship is only for rich people. Even historical icons such as Liu Bang and Han Xin had to buy their women. Modern men and women involved in such deals, shouldn’t feel bad after all. Another moral of Han Xin’s story is that we shouldn’t be too early to be judgemental and write off people who might be talented, as they might come back and have their go at you when they obtained their much desired power!
At the end of the Han Dynasty, the Three Kingdoms were able to find so many people to fight for them because of the national service policy of the Han Dynasty. While Zhang Fei, Guan Yu and Zhao Yun were well trained reservists, we believe Liu Bei was probably not as well trained or high ranking, as he was recorded to have used a two handed sword rather than a spear or polearm. However Liu Bei had the claim to the royal family, thus he was given the status of a lord, changing his destiny.
Kung Fu lovers are always attracted to the idea of immersing in the spirit of the ancient Chinese warrior. Thus they should put in some study into formation fighting, combined arms fighting, and other historical tactics and strategies used by their ancestors.
If you like my article, do share with your friends; I will be releasing such informative posts from time to time. Our Chinese warrior heritage needs passionate souls like you to carry on shining in our modern day, and carry on shining in future days ahead!