Why China Lost the Gunpowder Wars

The Walls of Xi'an. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age is a lucid, refreshing take on the relative military decline of China and the rise of the West.

By the time that Europeans had turned gunpowder into the most lethal components of their armies in the 15th century, the Chinese had been doing it for five hundred years.

Yet, when the Opium Wars broke out in the 19th century – by which time the Chinese had known about gunpowder for nearly a millennium – it was they, its inventors, who found themselves hopelessly outclassed and “humiliated” by a mere handful of European gunships.

The supposed military stagnation of China was explained away imaginatively. According to Europeans, the Confucian bureaucracy of China (which, to them, was always a single peaceful empire) found gunpowder to be dirty and loud, and thus frowned upon any innovation. They supposedly did not recognise the military potential of gunpowder, thinking of it as only useful for fireworks.

A similarly specious explanation was provided for why India did not innovate – the Indian climate was conducive to lethargy, and the supposed intellectual monopoly of Brahmins precluded any sort of innovation. In this view, Europe’s cold, invigorating climate and military free-for-all between all states spurred the technological progress which made them the world’s rightful imperial colonisers.

Such a view is hopelessly outdated, and historians such as Iqtidar Alam Khan have shown that India and China in fact had flourishing cultures of military innovation. Yet, popular confusion persists as to how the West got so far ahead of what were once the world’s economic and cultural powerhouses. In The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in Global History, Tonio Andrade presents an engaging and convincing explanation.

The Perks of Walls

The degree to which ancient China has been united or peaceful has been overstated. That view, first promoted by Orientalist studies and then promoted by the Communist Party to give credence to the idea of modern China  rising “peacefully,” as it always has, ignores the centuries of war in which China wasn’t united, and the dozens of expansionist campaigns it carried out when it was.

It is one of these periods of conflict and competition that Andrade begins his analysis with: the Song Warring States period, roughly from the 10th to 12th centuries CE. At this time, China was split into three competing empires: the Jin, the Xi Xia, and the Song. Each of these states was highly urbanised and militarised. He provides copious literary and archaeological evidence to show that this ruthless three-way struggle sparked off a wave of military innovation – especially in the use of gunpowder. Each state sponsored research into new formulae and applications of gunpowder, and actively sought the latest weapon designs in circulation. The result was an explosion in the forms of gunpowder weapons used.

In this early period, though, gunpowder was not used in cannons, but rather as a combustible substance for primitive flamethrowers, arrows and grenades – meant to target soldiers, not walls. Guns were essentially long tubular devices meant to spray the enemy with shrapnel. (They were poetically called “flying sand magic mist tubes.”) Andrade’s explanation is ingenious.

In China, wall-building was the most important act of state formation. A state acquired its legitimacy by building walls to defend its people. (James Scott would point out that the purpose was much more likely to pen them in, as they were valuable resources to the coercive state.) Chinese city walls were therefore massive, and built at a slight inward incline. It just so happened that that design was perfect for deflecting projectiles. Therefore, the gunpowder weaponry of the day tended to evolve to kill soldiers instead.

In Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Duchy of Burgundy, seeking to establish its autonomy from the Kingdom of France, began to invest in gunpowder weaponry. The Dukes needed weapons capable of destroying walls, so that they could rapidly storm cities and castles. European walls were much more fragile than Chinese walls, and so the gunpowder weaponry of the day evolved to break them down.

A couple of centuries later, there was another fork in the path. The ruthless competition between European states intensified in the 17th and 18th centuries just as the Chinese had successfully (for the first time in their history) subjugated the tribes of Central Asia with gunpowder. Historically, the only existential threat to a Chinese empire – the only reason to continuously innovate militarily – had been the steppe hordes. Now that China had defeated them, gunpowder weapons and military drill would stop evolving at a crucial time when European weaponry and military drill were continually getting better and better. Thus the Great Divergence begins.

And just as predicted, when the two finally collide in the 19th century, the Chinese were hopelessly outclassed.

A Contribution to Global History

Until more evidence is uncovered, one can only speculate why India – which was also riven by state competition – did not innovate with gunpowder, but Andrade’s framework provides valuable insights. It is quite likely that gunpowder weapons were introduced to the subcontinent by raiding Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries. Why were they not refined into guns and cannon? Possibly because interstate competition in India was not existential, so states did not have to invest in innovation. Notions of submission and tribute made wars essentially struggles for prestige, not to the very existence of a state. Annexation was not the goal of these wars. I present some more ideas here.

All in all, The Gunpowder Age is a delightfully lucid and objective take on the Great Divergence. It dispels many commonly-held myths and biases about Chinese military history, and makes a valuable contribution to global military history in general through its fascinating depiction of the story of gunpowder.

About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.