The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

by Tonio Andrade


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The Chinese invented gunpowder and began exploring its military uses as early as the 900s, four centuries before the technology passed to the West. But by the early 1800s, China had fallen so far behind the West in gunpowder warfare that it was easily defeated by Britain in the Opium War of 1839–42. What happened? In The Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade offers a compelling new answer, opening a fresh perspective on a key question of world history: why did the countries of western Europe surge to global importance starting in the 1500s while China slipped behind?

Historians have long argued that gunpowder weapons helped Europeans establish global hegemony. Yet the inhabitants of what is today China not only invented guns and bombs but also, as Andrade shows, continued to innovate in gunpowder technology through the early 1700s—much longer than previously thought. Why, then, did China become so vulnerable? Andrade argues that one significant reason is that it was out of practice fighting wars, having enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace, since 1760. Indeed, he demonstrates that China—like Europe—was a powerful military innovator, particularly during times of great warfare, such as the violent century starting after the Opium War, when the Chinese once again quickly modernized their forces. Today, China is simply returning to its old position as one of the world's great military powers.

By showing that China’s military dynamism was deeper, longer lasting, and more quickly recovered than previously understood, The Gunpowder Age challenges long-standing explanations of the so-called Great Divergence between the West and Asia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691135977
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 1,176,893
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese.

Read an Excerpt

The Gunpowder Age

China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

By Tonio Andrade


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7444-6


The Crucible


In 1280, an explosion rocked the city of Yangzhou. "The noise," wrote one resident, "was like a volcano erupting, a tsunami crashing. The entire population was terrified." The shock wave — or, as people called it, the "bomb wind" — hurled ceiling beams three miles and rattled roof tiles thirty miles away. At first, residents thought it must be an attack — war had seized their world for generations — but they soon realized it was an accident. Yangzhou's arsenal had recently dismissed its experienced gunpowder makers, and the new ones had been careless when grinding sulfur. A spark escaped and landed on some fire lances, which began spewing flames and jetting about "like frightened snakes." This was amusing to watch, until the fire reached the bombs. The entire complex exploded. A hundred guards were killed, completely obliterated. The crater was more than ten feet deep.

At the time of the blast, gunpowder was almost unknown in the Europe. The first Western description had been written by the scholar Roger Bacon (1214–1292) a bit more than a decade before, and it would take another fifty years before the substance was used in Western warfare in any significant way. Yet by 1280, the inhabitants of what is today China had been living in the gunpowder age for centuries.

Most people, even professional military historians, know little or nothing about this early history of gunpowder warfare. We tend to associate gunpowder with Europe, and it's true that Europeans began to excel in cannon and handgun technology by 1480 or so. Yet 1480 is six hundred years removed from the invention of gunpowder and at least five hundred years removed from the first gunpowder weapons. What happened during the first half millennium of the gunpowder age?

The story of gunpowder's development into a deadly technology is a vital part of global history. It's also fascinating and bizarre. Early gunpowder weapons are not like the weapons we think we know — cannons and muskets and mortars and grenades. They were odd, ungainly, even preposterous. Consider the fire bird, a bundle of gunpowder attached to a bird. Deployment was simple, if imprecise. You lit the powder, released the bird, and shooed it toward the enemy, hoping it would alight on a wooden structure (Figure 1.1). The fire ox was a similar idea. It was a terrifying spectacle, hooves thundering, smoke and sparks jetting out.

There were "flying rats," fire-spewing devices that leapt around unpredictably. (Once, in a demonstration, a recreational version of one nearly went up the empress's leg.) There were rolling logs propelled by gunpowder rockets with fuses timed to release flying rats upon contact with the enemy. There were "fire bricks" that could be thrown onto a foe's ship and that released "flying swallows" that sprayed fire and set sails on fire. There were gunpowder gourds that shot flames and poison gas forty feet into the air or toward enemy soldiers. The names of other devices give a sense of the variety: "flying incendiary club for subjugating demons," "caltrop fire ball," "ten-thousand fire flying sand magic bomb," "big bees nest," "burning heaven fierce fire unstoppable bomb."

Many of these weapons represented paths not taken, and when you page through the great military compendium from 1044 called the Wu jing zong yao, it's as though you're looking at a stratum of fossils from an earlier geological era: the types show commonalities with modern forms, but most are extinct. So it was with gunpowder weapons. The early experiments eventually coalesced into a smaller number of dominant types: most notably bombs and guns.

The process took two hundred and fifty years, from about 1000 CE, when the first gunpowder battles occurred, to around 1250, by which point gunpowder logs and firebirds had given way to primitive guns. The documentary record of this evolution is surprisingly clear. China has the deepest and most continuous historiography of any civilization on earth, and its sources allow us to trace the emergence of many weapons and date them to within fifty years or a couple decades, remarkably accurate for the medieval period. We have records of sieges and battles, data about requisitions and production, descriptions of the deployment of new weapons, sometimes by spellbound participants who were shocked to experience "iron fire bombs" and "heaven-shaking-thunder bombs."

There is no comparable record of experimentation in any other historiographical tradition. Guns appear suddenly in Europe a couple of generations after they appear in China, and there is no evidence of the bizarre experiments and early steps that are documented in China (although Europeans did experiment with fire birds — and fire cats — later on). It seems to be the same with other parts of the world, such as India and the Islamic world.

Scholars have suggested that the Chinese were slow to explore the possibilities of gunpowder, that it took Europeans to truly grasp the implications of the new technology. Even Sinologists believed this. But were the Chinese slow to adopt gunpowder? As we'll see there were tremendous technical barriers, but the larger point is that if we look at the evolution of gunpowder weapons in a global context, we find that Chinese developments were actually rapid. Certainly the speed can be compared to the evolution of guns in the West in the 1300s and 1400s.

Consider that in the hundred years from 1127 to 1279, the second part of the Song dynasty, known as the Southern Song, human beings went from primitive gunpowder weapons like gunpowder arrows to a whole array of more sophisticated weapons, including fire lances, proto guns, and, by the end of the period, true guns. Add the previous Northern Song period, from 960 to 1127, when we start with no gunpowder weapons at all, and the three-century period of the Song saw the most momentous developments in military technology in human history until the twentieth century. The evolution was actually tremendously fast. In a sense, modern warfare began in Song China.

Many other things we associate with modernity also began in the Song.

The Song Dynasty, 960–1279 CE

The Song dynasty has long been considered among the most magnificent periods of Chinese history. It was, according to Song specialist Dieter Kuhn, "the most advanced civilization on earth," showing "the most pronounced features of enlightened modern capitalism." This may be an exaggeration, but there's no doubt that technologically, economically, scientifically, and culturally the Song was a time of efflorescence.

Historians of China have shown that more people lived in urban centers during the Song period than at any other time until the late eighteenth century, and the urbanization rate of the Song was at least 10 percent, a level European societies didn't reach until around 1800. The largest cities in Europe at the time had populations of around a hundred thousand — Seville had a population of 150,000; Paris of 110,000; Venice of 70,000; London of 40,000. The Song capital of Kaifeng had more than a million. When the Southern Song reestablished their capital in Hangzhou, that city, too, boomed, home to well more than a million (some estimates reach two and a half million), making it the largest city in the world. Marco Polo was flabbergasted by it, as was the famous Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who traveled all over the known world and said Hangzhou was "the biggest city I had ever seen on the face of the earth."

China's flourishing cities were linked by the world's most advanced transport network, which created, on the Great China Plain, "the world's most populous trading area." This system served as the infrastructure for what historians call a Song "economic revolution" — some scholars even call it an "industrial revolution." At the heart of this economic miracle was an advanced monetary system. Banknotes had been developed by merchants during the preceding Tang dynasty, and the Song government made the practice official, printing millions in intricate color patterns with anticounterfeiting techniques.

Song citizens could spend their cash on a dizzying array of goods and services. It has been estimated that the Song's production of iron around 1100 was roughly the same as what the entire continent of Europe produced six hundred years later. This iron was produced by the most advanced techniques in the world, using coal and the coke or "refined coal" that became a hallmark of European industrial iron production, centuries later. Massive Song iron works employed thousands of employees, who operated bellows machines that provided a constant flow of oxygen and were far more sophisticated than contemporaneous European devices.

In textile production, too, Song developments were far ahead of those of medieval and even early modern Europe. Complex spinning and weaving machines used ingenious mechanical mechanisms. A Chinese inventor described how "it takes a spinner many days to spin a hundred catties, but with water power it may be done with supernatural speed." It wasn't until the eighteenth century that Europeans matched such devices. The fame of Song manufacturing spread far and wide. As a Persian scholar wrote, around 1115, "The people of China are the most skilfull of men in handicrafts. No other nation approaches them in this. The people of Rum (the Eastern Roman Empire) are highly proficient (in technology) too, but they do not reach the standards of the Chinese. The latter say that all men are blind in craftsmanship, except the men of Rum, who however are one-eyed, that is, they know only half the business."

Song silks and porcelains and handicrafts were prized throughout the world, and Song mariners shipped them in huge vessels across the China Seas, through the Strait of Malacca, and across the Indian Ocean to India and the Middle East. The scope of this trade was enormous: the government at times drew 20 percent of its total revenues from taxes and tolls on maritime trade. As one Song emperor noted, "The profits from maritime commerce are very great. If properly managed they can be millions. Is it not better than taxing the people?" Song vessels had watertight bulkheads, staterooms, lifeboats, and sophisticated rudder and anchor systems.

They navigated by means of the magnetic compass, one of the many inventions and discoveries of the Song period. Aside from the three that the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) famously described as constitutive of modernity — gunpowder, the compass, and printing — there were also significant advances in anatomy, the discovery of tree dating, rain and snow gauges, rotary cutting discs, the knowledge of magnetic declination, thermoremanent magnetization, magnetism in medicine, relief maps, all kinds of mathematical innovations and discoveries (including effective algebraic notation and the "Pascal" triangle of binomial coefficients), steam sterilization, pasteurization (of wine), artificial induction of pearls in oysters, effective underwater salvage techniques, all kinds of silk processing devices, including reeling machines, multiple-spindle twisting frames, and others, smallpox inoculation, the discovery of urinary steroids, the use of the toothbrush and toothpaste, a method for the precipitation of copper from iron, the chain drive, the understanding of the camera obscura phenomenon, and new types of clock mechanisms.

Song-era military technology was also advanced. Aside from gunpowder weapons, the inventors of the Song and neighboring states developed long-range catapults of increased accuracy, new types of rapid-fire crossbow cartridges, huge and powerful artillery crossbows, double-acting force pump flamethrowers, and new techniques for forging swords, lances, and armor.

The people of the Song may even have become anatomically modern before people elsewhere in the world. Song-era jaws — at least of high-status individuals — exhibit what physical anthropologists have called the "modern overbite." For all of human prehistory and most of human history, people's top and bottom incisors met tooth to tooth, making it possible to clamp food tightly. When humans started cutting their food into small pieces, however, their jaws began developing differently, with the top incisors hanging out over the lower ones. This happened in Europe during the eighteenth century, when the fork and knife began to be used regularly at the table. But, as anthropologist Charles Loring Brace noted, "modern practices of dining etiquette date at least from the Song Dynasty. ... Consequently, chopsticks, like the fork in the West, should serve as a symbol denoting the change in eating habits that leads to the development of the overbite."

In so many ways, then, the Song was advanced, especially by the standards of medieval Europe, but there's a paradox. Despite being the most developed country in the world, the Song did not manage to achieve hegemony in East Asia. Previous dynasties — such as the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and the Tang (618–907) — had achieved positions of unquestioned preeminence, and successors to the Song like the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) also managed to unify "All under Heaven" and overawe their neighbors. But the Song state was often militarily outclassed, losing more wars than it won, forced to accept humiliating peace treaties.

This paradox has puzzled scholars, who have considered it a "curious anomaly [that] haunts the three centuries of the Song." To explain it, historians tended to emphasize Song culture, particularly Confucianism. Under the influence of Confucianism, the Song emphasized words over war, or, as the Chinese put it, wen ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII) over wu ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII). In the Song period, the argument goes, wen (words, culture, civilization) was overvalued by Confucians, who devalued the military in the belief that the ethical conduct of the monarch and the virtue of his ministers would naturally order the human world, and that resort to force was considered barbaric and uncivilized. If the Song had devoted due attention to war, it would have become the undisputed power of all of East Asia.

Yet recent work on Song history shows that the Song didn't neglect war nearly as much as this argument would suggest. As Yuan-kang Wang writes, "considerations of the balance of power — not cultural aversion to warfare — dominated the decisions to use force." Similarly, historian Don Wyatt writes that in the Song period, "Chinese ... became intent on maintaining the territorial integrity of China by any means necessary" and "had just as much recourse to the prosecution of war as they did to the pursuit of negotiation." Scholars are increasingly finding strong strains of militarism in the Song. The Song oversaw massive programs of military production, and the weapons they developed were the most advanced in the world. Even the official Song History, a 496-volume monument compiled by their successors (and conquerors), notes that "their tools of war were exceedingly effective, never before seen in recent times." It goes on to note that "their troops weren't always effective," but "their weapons and armor were very good."

So how do we resolve the puzzle of the Song's inability to prevail? The answer has less to do with the weakness of the Song than with the strength of its enemies. Over its 319 years, the Song faced four primary foes. The most famous (and deadly) was the Mongol Empire, which didn't just overpower the Song: its conquests stretched from Kiev to Baghdad, Kabul to Kaifeng. Before the Mongols, the Song faced other implacable enemies from Central and Northern Asia: the Tanguts of the Xi Xia dynasty, the Khitans of the Liao dynasty, and the Jurchens of the Jin dynasty (see Maps 1.1 and 1.2).

These weren't just unsophisticated nomads. They ruled some of the most effective states in the world. As Paul Jakov Smith writes, "The rapid evolution of Inner Asian statecraft in the tenth to thirteenth centuries allowed states on the northern frontier to support formidable armies that offset agrarian China's advantages in wealth and numbers, thereby blocking [the] Song from assuming a position of supremacy at the center of a China-dominated world order and relegating it to a position of equal participant in a multistate East Asian system." The Song just happened to rule China during a time of exceptional power for Central Asian states. Song weakness was not absolute but relative.

In Europe, the competition of states within a state system has been taken to be, in a sense, salutary: it created selective pressures for the development of sophisticated techniques, administrative structures, and technologies. Why, then, shouldn't we see the Song's inability to prevail over neighbors not as a sign of weakness but as a source of dynamism?


Excerpted from The Gunpowder Age by Tonio Andrade. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction - The Military Pattern of the Chinese Past 1


Chapter 1 The Crucible: The Song Warring States Period 15

Chapter 2 Early Gunpowder Warfare 29

Chapter 3 The Mongol Wars and the Evolution of the Gun 44

Chapter 4 Great Martiality: The Gunpowder Emperor 55


Chapter 5 The Medieval Gun 75

Chapter 6 Big Guns: Why Western Europe and Not China Developed Gunpowder Artillery 88

Chapter 7 The Development of the Classic Gun in Europe 103

Chapter 8 The Gunpowder Age in Europe 115

Chapter 9 Cannibals with Cannons: The Sino-Portuguese Clashes of 1521–1522 124


Chapter 10 The Frankish Cannon 135

Chapter 11 Drill, Discipline, and the Rise of the West 144

Chapter 12 The Musket in East Asia 166

Chapter 13 The Seventeenth Century: An Age of Parity? 188

Chapter 14 A European Naval Advantage 196

Chapter 15 The Renaissance Fortress: An Agent of European Expansion? 211


Chapter 16 The Opium War and the Great Divergence 237

Chapter 17 A Modernizing Moment: Opium War Reforms 257

Chapter 18 China’s Modernization and the End of the Gunpowder Age 273

Conclusions - A New Warring States Period? 297

Acknowledgments 307

Appendix 1: Timeline 311

Appendix 2: Datasets 312

Abbreviations 317

Notes 319

Bibliography 379

Index 421

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From the Publisher

"Tonio Andrade's engaging book overturns much received wisdom about gunpowder warfare and the West's 'Military Revolution.' Examining the development of gunpowder weapons in China and Europe, he shows that the Chinese consistently experimented with and adopted new weapons to suit their needs, but that their dynamic empire eventually fell victim to its own military successes. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the relationship between war, society, and state in Asia or Europe."—Kenneth M. Swope, author of The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty, 1618–44

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