An interview with Tonio Andrade, author of Gunpowder Age

To what degree do times of peace impact military power and precision? In his new book, Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade shows how throughout Chinese history, powerful enemies have inspired periods of intense military innovation and technological advancement. Andrade recently took the time to answer some questions about his book, China’s fascinating military past, and its potential emergence a modern day superpower.

Gunpowder AgeChina is fast becoming a military superpower now. Your book claims to find a “pattern to the Chinese military past.” How do current events fit into this pattern?

TA: China under its current leader, Xi Jinping, has become increasingly assertive, for example by building artificial islands in the South China Sea to buttress China’s claims to jurisdiction over the vast majority of the sea. These claims are disputed by many nations, including the USA, and analysts wonder whether China would really go to war to defend them. Some believe that it inevitably will, because rising powers tend to use their muscle to overturn the status quo, while existing powers tend to defend the status quo. Others, however, argue that China has traditionally maintained a defensive perspective on military power and is typically uninterested in waging aggressive wars. If we look at China’s deep history, however, we find numerous occasions when China used its overwhelming military power for aggressive warfare. Intriguingly, many of those occasions occurred at times analogous to today, when the dynasty in question had consolidated power after a difficult period, often spanning generations, and had reached a position of overwhelming regional power.

So you believe that China will likely use military force to assert itself over surrounding areas?

TA: China will use the most effective means to achieve its ends and maintain its security. Xi Jinping has said that war between the USA and China would be disastrous at present for both countries, and I believe China will try to avoid direct confrontation. Typically, in the past, when China has waged aggressive war, its power was overwhelming (or perceived as such) vis-à-vis its enemies. Today, however, China is in a situation less like the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) or Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), in which China was far more powerful than any surrounding country, than like the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which faced enemies that matched it in power, or, indeed, outmatched it. The Song fought many wars, but usually these were defensive wars, not wars of expansion.

You argue that when China faces powerful enemies it tends to be stronger and more innovative, and when it is overwhelmingly powerful its military power tends to atrophy. Is its current military power due to the fact that China faces an unusually strong rival in the USA?

TA: China’s military past seems to follow distinct patterns. We have to be careful to distinguish what we mean by “China,” however, because much Chinese warfare has typically been against other Chinese, and/or against other states occupying parts of what is today China. In any case, for much of its history, China has shuddered between periods of intense warfare and periods of relative peace, and during times of frequent warfare it has tended to have state-of-the-art military technology, techniques, and organization. During periods of extended peace, on the other hand, it has tended to fall behind, simply because it had fewer reasons to invest in military innovation. China’s current military power has been stimulated by more than a century of war and geopolitical insecurity, and there’s no doubt that China’s current military innovation and expansion is stimulated by competition with powerful rivals, most importantly the USA.

What were other periods of strength and weakness in China’s history?

TA: Probably the most significant period of relative weakness was the nineteenth century, when China found itself spectacularly vulnerable to western power, as first made clear in its humiliating loss to Great Britain in the Opium War (1839-42). Many Westerners explained China’s stunning weakness at that time by recourse to its cultural conservatism, to what they felt was a deep resistance to new ways or foreign ideas. These sorts of ideas are still very much around. But in fact, China’s resistance to innovation was a pretty short-lived phenomenon, and it can be explained by looking at the incidence of warfare experienced by China. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, China’s Qing Dynasty had a position of such overwhelming strength and authority both within and beyond its borders that for nearly a century its inhabitants faced fewer wars (both external and internal) than ever before in the historical records. China was, in a sense, too strong for its own good, because this overwhelming power removed the stimulus for military improvement. Meanwhile, the British and their neighbors were fighting huge wars and innovating furiously. When China and Britain went to war in 1839, the British had military capacities that were far beyond those of China: Congreve rockets; light and powerful cannons; light, mobile howitzers; percussion cap muskets; explosive shells of unprecedented precision; and artillery tables that allowed the calculation of trajectories with extraordinary accuracy.

After the Opium War, why did it take so long for China to catch up with the west?

TA: Actually, Chinese officials, military and civil, carried out quite a bit of innovation right after the Opium War, studying Western guns, steamships, and sailing ships, and that innovation sped up during the intense military conflagrations that beset China starting in the 1850s. Many historians (I am one) now believe that from a technical standpoint the Qing were catching up quite effectively by the late 1860s and early 1870s. Indeed, it seems likely that up to that point their modernization attempts were even more effective than than those of Japan. But by the late 1880s, the trajectory changed, with Japan’s innovations becoming more effective. The reason is not technological or cultural but political. Japan’s old regime fell in 1867, replaced by a newer, centralized government that modernized its political structures. The Qing, however, held on, and its political structures failed to adapt. In fact, it’s a curious coincidence of history that the Qing and Japan’s old regime lasted exactly the same number of years. It’s just that the Japanese regime, which was founded first, also fell first. Japan had a clean slate and could sweep away old, unproductive aspects of its old regime. China couldn’t, so the Qing, although it effectively added new military structures – huge factories, innovative new armies, powerful new navies – couldn’t get rid of old ones, and so it was burdened and inflexible.

Your book starts with the invention of gunpowder and traces the evolution of the gun in the period 900-1280 or so, but one of the great questions of world history is why, if the Chinese invented the gun, they didn’t use it as effectively as the West?

TA: Most people know next to nothing about early gunpowder weapons, and I was no different when I started writing the book. In fact, even experts in China’s military history knew very little about early guns until recently, but what we’re learning is causing us to question some deep narratives in world history. Guns were tremendously important in China, used highly effectively. By the mid- to late-1300s, some 10% or so of Chinese infantry soldiers were armed with guns, meaning there were probably more gunners in Chinese armies than there were troops of all kinds in Western Europe (excluding Iberia). By the mid-1400s, the proportion of gunners in China had reached 30% or so of infantry forces, a level Europeans didn’t reach until the mid-1500s. And Chinese soldiers used guns more effectively as well, deploying them in advanced and highly-disciplined formations by the mid-1300s. Similar disciplinary techniques and formations didn’t spread in Europe until the 1500s. So you can see that Chinese gunners were highly effective, more effective than westerners during this period. This early history of Chinese gunnery is almost entirely unknown, but it is a key part of world history.

That’s very interesting, but of course Europeans did eventually get better at gunpowder technology. When and why did this happen?

TA: During the early gunpowder Age, from around 900 or so (when the first gunpowder weapons were used in battle) to around 1450, East Asians led the world in gunpowder warfare. Starting around 1450, however, Europeans pulled ahead. Why? I believe the answer has to do with levels of warfare. From 1450 or so, the Ming dynasty entered into a period of relatively low warfare, which contrasted with the previous century of intense warfare. This period of relative peace (emphasis on the word relative) in China contrasted with a period of tremendous warfare in Europe. So Europeans, fighting frequently, developed new types of guns – longer, thinner, lighter, and more accurate – whereas Chinese guncraft stagnated. This period lasted only a short time, however. By the early 1500s, Chinese were innovating furiously again, and the period from 1550 to 1700 or so was a time of tremendous warfare in China. China stayed caught up with the west from a military perspective – ahead in certain respects, behind in others – until the mid-1700s when, as I said before, it entered into a great period of relative peace (again, emphasis on the word relative), during which it fell behind, a situation that lasted until the Opium War.

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. His most recent book is Gunpowder Age.