For those unfamiliar with the long history of China, the Ming dynasty ruled from 1368 to 1644. It overthrew the previous Mongol Yuan dynasty that had been established by Khubilai in the 13th century, but for much of its long history it still found itself fighting the Mongols. Other military adventures included combating pirates along the coast and suppressing internal revolts, and of course the expedition to Korea in the 1590s to fight the Japanese.
Then as now China was a vast country with a huge population, and it required a lot of soldiers to maintain order and protect the borders. However for many reasons the effectiveness of Ming armies declined over the years, leading to an increased reliance on mercenaries, even Mongols, for the best troops. This set however does not seem to contain any such men, although in truth we had a great deal of difficulty finding sufficient information on Ming soldiers. Evidence is much less than for comparable European soldiers, and relatively little has so far been produced or translated into English. The short bibliography quoted below includes books that only have small amounts of information of the appearance of such troops, and even the Osprey Men-at-Arms dedicate most of their time to general histories and tactics rather than uniform.
The figures in this set are costumed in one of two ways. Those on the top row have very wide-brimmed hats with a plume, lamellar armour over a robe with a single central dome on the chest, a wide cummerbund and a short cloak-like garment covering the shoulders. We could find absolutely no evidence to support the large hat, although a very much smaller hat with or without a plume seems to have been very common. The lamellar armour and cummerbund look authentic, but authorities seem to agree that only a minority of ordinary infantry wore any sort of armour, although probably all officers would have had some. The wide cummerbund seems to have been a mark of rank, as was the short cloak on the shoulders. The domed chest plate we could only find in illustrations dated well after the Ming period, but as we have said, we did not find sufficient information to positively discount anything here. Nonetheless it must be said that all these figures do rather give the impression of being all officers or, at the very least, some form of elite Guard or similar. Their weapons, however, are pretty typical, being a mixture of spear, sword and missile - in this case a bow.
The first three figures in the second row have a different uniform. They have helmets apparently made of segmented armour, and wear tunics over long robes. These all have a dot pattern on them, which reflects some actual representations, but as with the originals it is not certain whether this represents a patterned cloth or the studs of a brigandine armour - at least the models reflect the actual appearance, whichever is the case. These men too have the mysterious central chest plate, as well as extra protection on the upper arms, but again we failed to find any good evidence for these. As before, the presence of armour suggests high-grade troops or officers, but that is largely guesswork. The two with swords could certainly be officers, although the third, who would seem to have some form of firearm (fire lance?) would not be so armed if he were an officer.
The last figure is much more certain, for he looks to have been based on one or more of a number of statues still extant that 'guard' the tombs of various emperors of the time. He wears a magnificent armour, including a fantastic helmet and a wide cummerbund which reveals at the front the face of something (an animal or spirit perhaps?) as part of the armour. These figures are variously labelled as generals or imperial guard, but our money would be for very high-ranking officers such as generals. Everything about this figure matches the statues, and so this is the only figure we can say with confidence is undoubtedly authentic.
The complex armour and clothing of these figures represents a considerable challenge to the sculptor, but the results are excellent. All the armour is very nicely done, as is all the clothing and pretty much everything else. The figures are not all quite as three-dimensional as we have come to expect from Caesar, but no one here has any excess plastic and there is no flash. The faces are nicely done although they don't seem to be particularly Chinese in appearance.
Although there have been many sets with less than nine poses, we thought that nine was particularly mean in this case. When bodies of troops are all in the same uniform and largely conforming to set movements you can get away with a small number of poses, but these troops have two uniforms and carry some of a wide variety of weapons, with little or no formal drill, so this is very much a subject that requires a lot of diversity which nine - or strictly speaking eight - poses can never deliver. The poses themselves are mostly fine. We were not sure what the second swordsman in the bottom row is doing, but the men are reasonably active and certainly all are usable. Nothing particularly outstanding here, but workmanlike.
It has been frustrating not finding sufficient evidence in order to form an opinion of the likely appearance of a Ming army. One surprising thing that seems to be clear is their appearance hardly changed despite the two-and-a-half centuries of the dynasty - that of European soldiers was transformed over the same period. However while we cannot be sure the suspicion is we have what amounts to a group of officers, or at least elite troops, in this set, which if so would hardly be described as representing a typical Ming army. Accuracy aside, we were disappointed with the lack of diversity here, particularly with the weapons, although the quality of the sculpting is as good as ever from this manufacturer. A less than satisfactory review then, but we were not convinced by this set on several counts.
One footnote to add is at least some copies of this set come with a 'bonus' painted figure. Whether this is standard or random we cannot say however as Caesar seem to take delight in varying the contents of their boxes.