Clothing and Equipment of the Midnight Thief

Wan Laisheng 萬籟聲, in his book, The Quintessence of Chinese Martial Artistry 武術匯宗, describes the iconic clothing of the ‘midnight thief’:

A silk garb of black or dark grey, with knee-length trousers measuring one foot and two inches (Chinese measurement) wide at the bottom of each leg. As the cumbersome bodice makes undressing difficult, bowel functions are performed through the wide legs of the trousers. The upper parts of the outfit consist of a tightly-buttoned shirt and a “pouch of a thousand treasures” in which medicines, chemicals, and other paraphernalia are carried.

An alternative to to this pouch is the “nine dragons sack,” a vest like garment with double-lining. These are usually made of leather, which is soft and resilient. The next article is a darts pouch, black in colour, one foot long and five inches wide, with flaps on top. Tied across the torso is a “flying claw” for scaling heights.

A sword is attached to the waist, one end secured by the belt and the other fastening at the left shoulder. This sword is known as the “demon head sword.” It measures two feet long and is exceptionally sharp, thin, and light.

A length of cloth is wrapped around each leg to provide protection (leggings). A dagger with its shaft pointing upwards is placed inside the cloth of each leg. The daggers are each five inches long, five fractions of an inch wide. Light and thin they are sharp on both sides.

A black silk cloth, three yards two feet long, one foot two inches wide, covers the head. In some cases sleeping caps are used. The sandals worn are made of woven hemp and hair. Thus fully attired, the prowler may embark on his rounds.

The drugs and chemicals he carries, include potions to induce fainting and explosives.1

The clothing described above, should not be imagined as a uniform that was specific or exact. ‘Night clothing’ 夜行衣 (yes, it was a thing) and tools varied amongst the swallow community (stealth operators) of the Qing 大清 and Republican 民國時期 periods. The essence, however, can be broadly understood. That is: Black or very dark clothing, head dress (as is well known and recognised), flying claw, sword, and hand thrown projectiles.2 Poisons, explosives, and other items, would depend on the mission and the ‘jin paradox 弔詭‘ – which, in short, is the paradox of needing to carry weight, vs being light and agile as a stealth operator must.

  1. Wan Laisheng 萬籟聲, The Quintessence of Chinese Martial Artistry 武術匯宗, (China, 1926) p 232
  2. Master Kwan Yuen Cheong 關潤昌 stated very clearly that using any color – other than black – was only to be used if black was not available at all.