Book review: The Gunpowder Age challenges traditional explanations of the West's military dominance

Tonio Andrade’s history of military innovation seeks to explain why technology sometimes surged and sometimes stagnated in China and the West

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 11:37am

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

by Tonio Andrade

Princeton University Press

In Tonio Andrade’s well-researched, balanced and comparative history of military innovation in Asia and the West, he challenges the traditional notion – compellingly set forth by Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture and Niall Ferguson in Civilization – that Western culture largely explains Western global predominance in the post-medieval world.

Although Andrade frames The Gunpowder Age around the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese and its subsequent employment in warfare by both Chinese and Western powers, his principal focus is to explain why in certain periods Chinese and Western military innovation surged or remained static, and more specifically why there developed a “Great Military Divergence” between China and the Western powers during the mid 18th century into the 19th century. The key factor, he concludes, is not culture but the Toynbeean phenomenon of “challenge and response”.

After charting the development of gunpowder weapons in China from the tenth century to their development and uses in medieval Europe, Andrade identifies a mini-divergence in Chinese and European guns in the late 1400s, when European armies introduced the “classic gun” which had a longer barrel, shot iron balls, was easier to load, and was considerably lighter than Chinese guns. The classic guns ushered in the age of artillery because they could kill people and destroy walls and fortifications. Perhaps the most famous classic gun of the period was developed by a Hungarian and used by Ottoman armies to breach the walls of Constantinople in 1453. Previous guns ranged from “fire lances” that shot ceramic projectiles to bamboo-barrelled guns to bronze-barrelled guns that fired iron projectiles; these smaller guns were used to kill people rather than destroy structures.

This divergence, according to Andrade, resulted from the simple fact that during the period leading to the development of the classic gun, Europeans fought wars more frequently than the Chinese. After 1424, writes Andrade, “the frequency and intensity of Chinese warfare decreased dramatically” (the so-called Ming Peace), while England fought the Wars of the Roses, clashed with Scotland and France, and fought Spain at sea. There was also frequent warfare in Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, the German and Italian states, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Andrade contrasts that period with what he calls the “Age of Parity” which lasted from 1522, the year of the second Sino-Portuguese war, to the early 1700s. “The Sino-Portuguese conflicts,” explains Andrade, “mark a watershed in military history, inaugurating a period of deep military innovation in China.” Chinese military leaders adopted Portuguese and Frankish guns and deployed them throughout the empire. Drill and discipline, including the practice of volley fire that had been a part of Chinese military training since the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), returned to China’s military.

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The revolutionary musket was integrated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean armies in the late 16th century during what Kenneth Swope calls the “First Great East-Asian War”. In the 17th century, China fought successful wars against the Dutch and the Russians. China did lag behind European powers in naval power and the design of fortresses, but Chinese military leaders gradually adopted the best features of both for their military.

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The Great Divergence between Chinese and Western military innovation developed in the mid-1700s and manifested itself in the first opium war of 1839-42, where outnumbered British forces defeated Chinese forces “in nearly every battle at sea and on land”. Andrade attributes this to industrialisation and “the application of … experimental science to warfare”, enabling the British to greatly improve the lethality of their weapons.

“The British military,” writes Andrade, “had made innovations and improvements in all aspects” of weaponry, especially artillery. These innovations – in design, firing mechanisms, the quality of the iron, ammunition, powder technology and production – were spurred by a century of warfare capped by the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The Chinese, on the other hand, had made no such improvements and this was due to a long period of relative peace before the outbreak of the opium wars.

In the wake of its defeat in the first opium war and after fighting a series of internal rebellions in the mid-19th century, China again made efforts to modernise its military, building large shipyards and factories, an armoured steam fleet, and better rifles and artillery pieces. Yet, as Andrade notes, China suffered a humiliating defeat in its war with Japan in 1894-95. Andrade attributes that defeat not to technological divergence, but to domestic political institutions and problems, and a very effective Japanese opponent.

Andrade’s reference to China’s domestic political problems ironically lends some credence to Hanson’s and Ferguson’s focus on culture in the broader sense as at least a partial explanation of Western military superiority. Hanson has written that the West’s military advantage is due to “a long-standing … cultural stance toward rationalism, free inquiry, and the dissemination of knowledge that has its roots in classical antiquity”. Western armies, Hanson writes, “have marched to war with weapons either superior or equal to their adversaries, and have often been supplied far more lavishly through the … marriage of capitalism, finance, and sophisticated logistics”. This may explain the predominance since at least the 18th century of what Walter Russell Mead calls the “maritime world order”.

But Andrade is surely correct to note the relationship between military innovation and frequency of warfare – challenge and response. As he writes, “statecraft, knowledge networks, economic organisation, fiscal structures, communications and transportation infrastructure” are all factors that have contributed to military divergence, but “rates of warfare … correlate with military effectiveness” and military “dynamism follows the pulse of warfare”. And he rightly cautions that “the challenge and response dynamic continues to operate” in today’s fiercely contested geopolitical environment.

Asian Review of Books