Asia’s Little-Studied Past

Studying the military history of China and India without generalisations is difficult but not impossible.

In India and China, there run narratives of how both were glorious civilsations that achieved greatness during their Golden Ages. And then came the fall of both civilisations, partly attributed to colonialism. In China, they call this ‘The Century of Humiliation’. Now, however, both nations are looking at reclaiming their greatness. When looking back at history, we often ponder what lead to military innovation in the West that led to its pre-eminence while the East seemed to stagnate.

An understanding of strategic culture is not complete without military history. In 1992, George Tanham wrote a controversial essay alleging that India never possessed strategic thought. Since then, there have been desperate attempts to trace India’s intellectual roots and military prowesses. This feat is not a difficult one and the military history of Asia (studied from a non-western perspective) repudiates Tanham’s thesis. While Asia itself is a contested geographical construct, its regions wide and diverse, the two largest (and oldest) civilisations have a long, illustrious history where war is the norm. Military history of the Indian subcontinent and China have been independently studied; Literature is vast but analysis which is contextualized to current geopolitics is sparse.

Military historiography began in the 1940s at the time of the Indian Independence and formation of the Communist Party of China. Both civilisations boast of their own Machiavellian equivalents in Kautilya and Sun Tzi. There is a cognisance that these civilisational world views render strategic thinking in both countries differently. However, most literature in international relations and political science continue to rely on western frameworks to analyse these countries. There is a need to comprehensively study the military history of the two Asian civilizations, side by side that takes note of their differences. However, even if such an exercise is carried out, it is is no mean feat.

While studying India and China, the vastness of history is apparent and difficulties are plentiful. As geographic barriers were much more apparent then, it is easy to forget that both the civilisations interacted with each other since ancient times. This is one of the most striking features of Chinese and Indian Warfare- From Classical Age to 1870. The book juxtaposes military history of China and India in a field that is largely Eurocentric and concludes that the way of the West is the best.

The edited volume steps beyond the clichés of Sun Tzi and Kautilya to show a rich military history and puts both in context by studying them side by side. While several of the periods, wars, events and persona may have been studied within Indian history and Chinese history separately, the book provides a refreshing and perspective to studying military happenings in Asia. The editor has worked hard to bring together seemingly disparate works of academic military history starting from Cao Mie’s thesis on Opportune Moments in War (and peacetime) to the Mughals, the Marathas and even the exploits of the East India Company in the 18th century.

Much of the book focuses on improvements in warfare and how it trickled down into the civilian economy. For example, the prosperity of the border state of Liandong during Ming rule was traced back to economic and political reforms instituted by the rulers to secure the supply of warhorses. Like the Ming’s advantage in battle (because of horses), the Indian emperors realized the advantages elephants could provide on and off the battlefield.

Another important feature in battles became the use of technology: whether it is the European cannons used by the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century to successfully defend the state from Mongol attacks or, the Qing Dynasty’s use of firepower procured from the Portugese to mount pressure on an already factional Ming state. To give due to the large coastlines of both civilisations, we see the often overlooked aspect of naval warfare capabilities of the Mughals and the much studied victory of Portugese ships over Indian ones. In terms of tactics, we see the tactical brilliance of the Marathas, the shift from highly individualised warfare in Haider Ali’s army and the Kandyans’ use of guerrilla warfare against European powers. We also see the exploration of concepts such as civil-miltary relations through poetry and art.

The authors in the book have used historical sources, particularly archival research to base the book. The painstaking efforts to stay true to the original meaning of texts (in the case of translations) does come through particularly in military concepts such as wen-wu, ji, yudda, vijaya etc. Military history is complex and difficult because of the skillsets required to analyse and interpret civilisational history are vast and varied.

A comparative military history of China and India is an ambitious task because of limitations in language, expertise, and understanding of Asia. A non-western perspective on Asian history is necessary at a time when Asia’s rise is heralded as the most important geopolitical event. The book attempts to cover a whole plethora of issues and partially succeeds.

It is easy to point out that several events and histories that have not been covered in the book however, the editors have kept in mind that it is an impossible feat to cover all of Indian and Chinese military history in a single volume. This is easy enough to forgive as the book is in-depth and pushes the reader to go beyond their own knowledge of Asian military history. There have been many debates on whether Asia’s past can determine its future. However, we first need a better understanding of Asia’s past to study contemporary events. Kaushik Roy and Peter Large set the foundation for such an understanding and show the need in academia for more such work.

About the author

Hamsini Hariharan

Hamsini Hariharan is the Associate Editor at Pragati. She is the host of the the States of Anarchy podcast. Her research interests include Chinese foreign policy, Asian geopolitics, and India's worldview.