Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tonio Andrade's "The Gunpowder Age"

Tonio Andrade is a historian living in Decatur, Georgia, where he teaches at Emory University. His books include Lost Colony and How Taiwan Became Chinese.

Andrade applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Gunpowder Age is about walls. Medieval walls. Ancient walls. Chinese walls. European walls.

The fundamental question of The Gunpowder Age is why China, which had once been the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, fell behind the West, making it vulnerable to British, French, German, American, and Russian imperialism in the nineteenth century. Many authors blame China’s traditional Confucian culture, believing it to have been hostile to military development and to foreign innovations. China experts have increasingly noted that this is not likely to be true, and my research supports this new view: Confucianism was on the whole not inimical to military pursuits, and the book introduces many Confucian scholars and officials who were fascinated by military matters, who became great generals and innovators, who adopted new technologies, tactics, and techniques, and who wrote about their discoveries and experiments in detail. China’s vibrant military traditions have generally been neglected in historical work, and it is important to call attention to them. But this doesn’t solve the question. If Confucianism doesn’t explain the military divergence between China and Europe, what does?

Walls, it turns out, may be part of the answer. Historians have argued that although Europeans learned about guns from China, they quickly became far better at making and using guns than the Chinese. What I found, however, is that the Chinese maintained a superiority in gun use far longer than historians have presumed, but only insofar as handheld guns were concerned. Whereas Europeans did not generally use guns in field battles during the 1300s and 1400s, Chinese did. There were around 120,000 gun-bearing units in Ming armies circa 1400, and they were present in far higher proportions (relative to traditionally-armed units) in China than in the West.

But if Westerners lagged behind China in the use of guns on the battlefield, they became good at using guns in other ways: specifically the use of artillery to blast down walls. Whereas Chinese guns stayed small, Western guns became very large indeed, and very powerful.

Why? Not because the Chinese were poor metallurgists or lacked access to iron or brass. The answer, I believe, has to do with walls. Page 99 of The Gunpowder Age compares medieval European to Chinese walls. The Chinese walls were an order of magnitude thicker and were constructed much more resiliently than were European walls. This tradition of thick wall building was present in China long before the invention of guns – it is an ancient heritage – but Chinese walls were so thick that even the most powerful siege guns of Europe would have had little effect on them. In fact, in the course of the late 1400s and early 1500s, Europeans began building artillery-resistant walls, and those walls ended up being quite similar to those of traditional China: thick, sloped, and filled with earth.

So we don’t need to resort to Confucian culture to explain this big-gun / small-gun divergence. And so it is with the many other military divergences in this book.
Visit Tonio Andrade's website.

The Page 99 Test: Lost Colony.

--Marshal Zeringue