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

How Europe came to dominate the world since 1500 is one a central question in world history. Typical answers point to the rapid pace of European technological innovation that far outpaced the far east and allowed small numbers of Europeans to conquer much larger kingdoms. The problem, as Andrade aptly demonstrates, is that these traditional narratives suggest a simple teleology that is not backed up by the historical chronology. Rather than innovative Europeans meeting and quickly toppling East Asian foes whose conservative and tradition-bound cultures rendered them unable to adapt, not only were Ming and Qing Chinese forces able to adapt, but they also defeated early European attempts to dominate them. By the middle of the 19th century, though, European forces, and even newly reformed Japanese armies, crushed the Chinese. Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age is a global history that spans a thousand years over two continents looking for a new explanation for this radical divergence.

In Andrade’s analysis, the divergence occurred because Qing China was a victim of its own success. His core model is that conflict drives military innovation; by the mid-eighteenth century, the Qing dynasty had secured such dominance over east Asia that it effectively stopped innovating, while, simultaneously, Europe was going through a period of constant warfare where the countries fought for their very existence. By the time of the Opium Wars (1830s and 1850s), the Qing had fallen so far behind that their attempts to catch up were too little, too late.

Gunpowder weapons first appeared in China in the tenth century, mostly in the form of fire weapons used against wooden structures. Guns took several centuries to develop before they skipped to Europe, probably spread by the Mongol conquests. Europeans made the guns bigger and more powerful, creating cannons used to attack fortifications, an innovation that Andrade chalks up to a difference in construction techniques that made Medieval European fortifications vulnerable to early cannons in a way that Chinese fortifications were not.

(Chinese fortifications were much thicker than contemporary European designs, with packed-earth cores and angled walls that distributed and absorbed the shock of cannonballs. The fortifications of renaissance Europe reached many of the same conclusions, but only after cannons rendered comparatively thin Medieval fortifications, made with straight stone walls and with loose fill, obsolete.)

Andrade’s biggest contribution is what he terms an age of parity from roughly 1525 until roughly 1700, during which time Chinese forces successfully resisted European colonialism by adopting and indeed innovating on European technology. He demonstrates how, for instance, Chinese engineers adopted technology for mounting cannons on their warships and improved casting techniques for cannons, making them lighter, cheaper, and more durable (in large part by allowing them to cool faster), by encasing the central iron bore in bronze. Further, where other military historians have seen a decided European advantage in drilling that allowed for their soldiers to keep up a constant hail of fire through volley techniques, Andrade argues that these had been standard Chinese practice for centuries first for crossbows and later for guns. In fact, Chinese armies used significant numbers of gunners in their armies centuries before Europeans did.

So what changed? Noted above, Andrade’s thesis is that the existential warfare in Europe drove military innovation at a time when complacency born of hegemony allowed Qing power to atrophy. This meant that when European forces arrived with steam powered ships and high-powered weapons, the Qing were unable adapt fast enough. Compounding their problems was that the European innovations were not merely technical, but scientific, meaning that advances in the understanding of trajectories and aerodynamics allowed ordinance to fly further and with greater accuracy than even equivalent Chinese weapons.

The Gunpowder Age is an ambitious and well-argued book. As someone who is not an expert on Chinese history, but has taught European global expansion, his explanations about military power are largely satisfactory, and I will likely use it in future classes, even if I sometimes thought that his solipsistic focus on gunpowder didn’t entirely substantiate the broader claims regarding the global dominance of Europe. Similarly, I was sometimes frustrated with the way that he collapsed the world into China on the one hand and “Europe” on the other, with only slight nods to Korea, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, but this frame fit his explanation for how European came to dominate China. There are only so many pages in a book, after all.

My biggest frustration with The Gunpowder Age had nothing to do with its content. Rather, despite that the argument is laid out in a clear and cogent manner, the actual writing, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph drove me up the wall. I’ll readily admit that I have numerous flaws as a prose stylist, but this book that received praise for its writing was almost unbearably repetitive at times, with almost every page containing a sentence I wanted to rewrite for elegance, and several word-choice ticks (prevalent, for instance) that struck a dissonant note. Writing is hard and it often takes a village to polish prose to the utmost shine, but this was something that frustrated me all the more because the content was so outstanding. Then again, this may be a sign that I’m ready to return in earnest to my research projects

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I am now reading Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a dark comedy in the mode of Catch-22 about the death of Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in 1988.

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