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20201004 – The Gunpower Age




The main idea of this book is that somewhat arrogant attitude that people of West have to Chinese culture and abilities based on the experiences of 1850-1945 (the century of humiliation) is misplaced. This period was an aberration and one of the main objectives of this book is to demonstrate that it is the case, especially in military area. Author uses review of historical development of gunpowder technology and its use in China to demonstrate that most of the early period China was ahead, then maintained parity in XVII and XVIII centuries, and became week only in the middle of XIX century. Now it has restored as practically equal to USA industrial power, quickly catching up as technological power, and rapidly growing as military power.


INTRODUCTION: The Military Pattern of the Chinese Past
Here is how author introduces the book:” This book examines the Great Divergence between China and the West by concentrating on warfare. It suggests that there is a military pattern to the Chinese past that can help us make sense of China’s periods of strength, decline, and resurgence. But it doesn’t focus on China alone. Its aim is to bring Asian and European military history into conversation, asking not just how China diverged from the West but also how the West diverged from East Asia.”  Author then presents the main thesis of the book that:” China’s modern weakness—apparent not just in its loss to Japan in 1895 but in the debilitating and nearly constant warfare that afflicted it from 1850 to 1949—may best be viewed not as a symptom of a failure to modernize but rather as the most recent variation on an ancient theme: the tumult of dynastic transition, which is invariably accompanied by frequent and intense warfare, rebels from within, invaders from without. Dynastic transitions are also associated with military, technological, and political innovation.”

CHAPTER 1: The Crucible: The Song Warring States Period
Author starts at the beginning of gun power age, going all the way to 1000 CE when use of gun power first recorded. At the time it was mainly in the form of incendiary devices attached to a bird. Author then traces development during Song Dynasty 960-1279, the period which included multiple wars that author uses to demonstrate that idea of Chinese not developed guns due to constant peace is just not true.

CHAPTER 2: Early Gunpowder Warfare
In this chapter author moves to discuss technology of this period and use of gunpowder in arrows, pots – something like crude bombs. He presents evidence that by 1023 these weapons were produced on industrial scale. Historically that resulted in massive use of such weapons in the war between Song and Jin circa 1115.

CHAPTER 3: The Mongol Wars and the Evolution of the Gun
Then came Mongols and use of gun powder in different weapons – fire lance that was basically a tube emitting fire. The fight against Mongols was conducted by Song and Jin separately with both using iron bombs. Author then discusses evidence that first guns made of iron appeared after Song were defeated around 1280.

CHAPTER 4: Great Martiality: The Gunpowder Emperor
This chapter is about Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of Ming Dynasty who stressed use of guns so much that by 1380 10% of troops were supplied with guns. With number of troops around 1.5 million it required significant industrial power. Author then discusses guns application in Battle of Poyang Lake in 1363. He notes that guns used were small: between 8 and 30 kilos and were mainly supplemental to traditional weapons. Author also discusses the siege of Suzhou in 1366 once again stressing that Chinese guns were small and mainly used as anti-personal weapons. One of explanations for this that author provides is Chinese tradition of building very wide walls with lots of filling between external and internal sides making them practically impenetrable by gunfire.

CHAPTER 5: The Medieval Gun
In this chapter author looks at European development of firearms. Interestingly enough he points out that there is no evidence of indigenous development in Europe: there are no fire arrows or fire lances. The firearms arrived from China in form of guns shooting arrows sometime around 1350 at technological level equal to China’s at the time.

CHAPTER 6: Big Guns: Why Western Europe and Not China Developed Gunpowder Artillery
Here author traces European development and finds that by 1377 big guns capable to shot 200 kilos projectiles were used in battles, mainly as siege weapons. Author’s explanation is related to different design of Chinese and European walls, with European narrow design made wall vulnerable to breach by artillery, but Chinese very wide design was not.  

CHAPTER 7: The Development of the Classic Gun in Europe
Here author moves from discussion of comparative artillery use and effectiveness to technical design of gun, pointing pout that European guns by end of 1400s become long with relatively small bore with decreasing thickness at the end, making them lighter, easier to load and aim.  It was also linked to development of granulated gunpower in Europe that allowed slower burning, preventing guns cracking. From this point on the gap start developing between European firearms and Chinese. Author discusses various explanation of this development, such as difference in the nature of war: in Europe it was static siege warfare in which artillery is most important, in China it was more dynamic action against various nomads; rigidity of Chinese culture, relatively low intensity of Chinese wars after Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424 and so on.

CHAPTER 8: The Gunpowder Age in Europe
This is about military revolution in Europe between 1500 and 1600 when mobile field guns were developed and extensively used in battles and sieges. However, author points out that these developments were by far not sufficient to provide material advantage for Europeans over Chinese. Author reviews unsuccessful campaign of Portuguese against China in 1536, which demonstrates this point.

CHAPTER 9: Cannibals with Cannons: The Sino-Portuguese Clashes of 1521—1522
In this chapter author reviews preceding Sino-Portuguese clashes of 1521-1522, which also were unsuccessful for Europeans.    

CHAPTER 10: The Frankish Cannon
Here author looks at Chinese adaptation of Frankish cannons in the late 1400s as early example of Europe technological advance. However, author notes that Chinese were not just producing duplicate, they improved on technology so there were no lasting advantage derived.

CHAPTER 11: Drill, Discipline, and the Rise of the West
This chapter moves to training, discussing effective tactic of Volley fire that allowed troop maintain uninterrupted fire by moving soldiers through sequential steps of reloading and firing synchronized among lines. This tactic required extensive training if one to achieve its effective use in the battle. Author then discusses opinion that complexity of soldiers synchronized movement, firing, and reloading were attained via complex training through extensive drilling. However, author also notes that Chinese were used to drilling a lot more than Europeans and provides comparative review of East vs. West drills and classical heritage.

CHAPTER 12: The Musket in East Asia
This is about use of muskets and even valley fire in Japan, Korea, and China in mid 1500s. Here author looks not that much at technology and tactic as at history of Qi Jiguang- national hero of China due to his victories over pirates and others of the kind. He promoted muskets and flexible configuration of troops that required extensive drilling, so author looks at details at Qi’s actions.

CHAPTER 13: The Seventeenth Century: An Age of Parity?
In this chapter author reviews history of Dutch and Russians fights with Chinese in 1600s which they mainly lost. From these events author infers that it was period of military parity. Author presents Geoffrey Parker’s evaluation of source of European advantage as such:” According to the military revolution model, Europeans had a fourfold advantage: (1) superior guns; (2) the use of advanced infantry drilling techniques, which “permitted the defeat of far larger enemy forces”; (3) ships that dominated sea lanes by means of deadly broadsides; and (4) fortresses that allowed small garrisons to control large areas.”. Author notes, however, that all these matured only later in XVIII century.

CHAPTER 14: A European Naval Advantage

Here author discusses how Chinese managed protect their shores by adapting European design for canons, but their naval capability was limited, which author demonstrates by retelling Dutch-Chinese naval battle around Taiwan when 3 Dutch ships won battle against 60 Chinese ships in 1661.

CHAPTER 15: The Renaissance Fortress: An Agent of European Expansion?
In this chapter author discusses European invention of Artillery fortress with angled bastions. This provided ability to fight with small garrison against numerically superior enemy. Author retells siege of Fort Zeelandia 1661-1662 where small Dutch garrison was successful for a long time until a German specialist switched sides and provided know how to Chinese that allowed them to win.  Similar story was with siege of Russian fort Albazin in 1685-1689.

CHAPTER 16: The Opium War and the Great Divergence
In this final part author moves all the way to XIX century’s Opium wars that demonstrated increasing dominance of European military. Author analyses reasons for this and concludes that these were: The Great East Asian Peace, which led to Chinese swords to rust, but even more important European development of Experimental science and its massive military application.

CHAPTER 17: A Modernizing Moment: Opium War Reforms
Here author discusses Chinese attempts to catch up by adapting technology and conducting massive modernization, but it generally failed not only due to bureaucracy, which excelled in intrigues that author nicely describes, but also due to absence of industrial base.

CHAPTER 18: China’s Modernization and the End of the Gunpowder Age
This is continuation of the story of attempts to modernize which sometimes were partially successful, especially when included importing talent from the west all the way as to making some Europeans top level commanders of Chinese forces. However other countries did it more effective and author reviews Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895 which China lost.

Conclusions: A New Warring States Period?

In conclusion author discusses our time when China became leading industrial power due to massive transfer of technology supported by massive investment in exchange for huge profit for Western businesses from cheap labor suppressed by totalitarian state. Until recently Chinese communist party was happy to maintain these processes, but at this point it decided that they strong enough to challenge USA and West overall and establish their control over the world. Author expresses hope that some kind of mutually accepted accommodation will be found, but he is clearly afraid that it would not be a case.


This book nicely demonstrate that Chinese traditions are as militant as everybody else and that idea of China’s peaceful development somehow misses previous millennium of warfare both internal and external experienced by this country. Moreover, it demonstrates that Chinese bureaucracy and Confucian culture is not that big problem as people used to think and neither of these features prevent Chinese communist leadership to aggressively pursue dominance over the world. I do not think they will succeed, but I have no doubt that they are already trying. I think that the proper response would be complete decoupling in all areas of high technology, especially anything related to military and finance. China should be deprived of any western investment and technology transfer until Communist party accept necessity not just comply with rules, but also allow western freedoms to take roots in Chinese society.  The most powerful response to Chinese attempt to dominate world would be strong attack on Communist party, demand of freedom of speech, assembly, and free election for Chinese people. This should include freedom of Internet connection for Chinese people or, if CPP defines it, complete disconnection of China from access to Western Internet, especially for industrial use. It should also include disconnect of Chinese access to higher levels of scientific and technological education if there is even slight possibility of military use. In short, West could not win if game is continue to be play in such way that Chinese continue to have access to wester technology and finance.

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