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Book Review


Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age. China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. 496. Bibliography and Index. $39.95 (cloth).


     Tonio Andrade's The Gunpowder Age is an important, consistently interesting, accessible, and well-written work that argues that China's heritage is that of a great military power and that innovation, albeit not consistent, is an important feature of its military development. Andrade, Professor at Emory, therefore asks why it was that China dropped behind the West. His answer is that China become out of practice fighting wars as a result in part of the "Great Qing Peace of 1760 to 1839," when there was a separation from the European pattern of development. Andrade also argues that China subsequently resumed its earlier process of development after being affected by the civil warfare that was another aspect of the frequent process of disruptive dynastic transition. As a result, Andrade asserts that the dynamics of military modernization should not be reduced to Westernization. Instead, he suggests that a binary framework for Europe and China is necessary in order to develop a truly global military history.

     This then provides the background for a lengthy account of Chinese military history, one in which there is much fruitful comparison with Europe. Andrade points out periods in which Chinese developments were in "advance" of Europe. For example, he argues that the Chinese were firing arquebuses in volleys by 1560 at the latest. He also argues that the Chinese were easily able to adopt the Dutch marine muzzle-loading cannon. In terms of fortifications, Andrade notes the strength of European bastions in the seventeenth century, while he also emphasises the Dutch advantage, at sea, in sailing close to the wind. Nevertheless, Manchu logistics are praised and the "tremendous success" of the Manchu is presented as so overwhelming that it removed the stimulus of war, leading to a "Great Divergence" with the Europeans that was readily apparent by the Opium War of 1839–42.

     This, however, may be an argument too far, and one that the dataset of warfare by year offered by Andrade in the second appendix does not vindicate. Before turning to some empirical points, let me also note a methodological problem. Andrade is a master at advancing a clearcut perspective, but, as is the case with all-too-many scholars, he does not appear to offer different views as he goes along.

     So here goes. In contrast to Andrade, what about the view that there was not a long peace? The war with Burma that began in 1765 was initially, it is true, a limited struggle waged in the Shan states, and, at first, the Qianlong Emperor thought that his border troops would settle the issue in just one campaign. However, initial problems led him to send more troops who, in 1766, advanced to the frontier of Burma proper. They failed. In 1767, élite banner units under Mingrui, an experienced general, sought to advance on the Burmese capital, but the invasion was unsuccessful, and most of the army died, Mingrui committing suicide in March 1768. Qianlong rejected the suggestion that he negotiate peace and a fresh invasion was launched in October 1769, only to fail. The Chinese commanders felt forced to accept terms.

     Chinese preparations for a renewed war with Burma reflected Qianlong's anger and determination, but were superseded in 1770 by the outbreak of the Second Jinchuan War. This was a difficult war in a border zone of only limited Chinese control. The Chinese were finally only successful from 1774 after committing over 200,000 troops and the war, which lasted until 1776, cost the government over 60 million taels.

     Other rebellions, notably the Wang Lun rebellion in Shandong in 1774, were followed by failure against Vietnam in 1788–9, by a successful invasion of Nepal in 1791 in order to settle Tibet, and by the huge and very costly millenarian White Lotus Rebellion of 1796–1805, as well as the Lin Shangwen Rebellion of 1787–8, the Yao revolt in 1790, and the Miao revolts of 1795–7. The invasion of Nepal impressed British onlookers in India. The White Lotus rebellion cost 120 million taels, while over 117,000 regulars and hundreds of thousands of militia were deployed. And so on, for what Andrade calls "those generations of peace," 1760–1839. This, however, is a questionable description, and so may be a "Great Divergence."

     Then, turn to Europe. Far from European powers being continually at war, as is often asserted, there were periods of peace or of limited war. For example, Prussia fought relatively little between 1816 and 1847 and between 1872 and 1913. In Europe, Britain only fought another major power once between 1816 and 1913, in the Crimean War with Russia in 1854–6. And so on. So also for more recent times. China has not fought since 1979, but there has been significant military modernisation there from the late 1990s.

     The quasi-Darwinian idea of military modernization through competition, one that others have also advanced and that Andrade adopts, has major flaws. If it was pursued, then Central Asia might be one of the most developed and innovative areas in military matters. Instead, it is more appropriate to think analytically in military history, of multiple factors, of contingencies, of circumstances, and of the need for historians to offer interpretations with caution. Maybe, that is particularly necessary for military historians, both because of the significance of the subject and because so many of them appear to be Alpha males at least in their practice of assertion.

     In a brief review, it is not possible to draw more than glancing attention to other issues, but the subject of long-range naval operations requires more attention. So does that of ballistics. Throughout, the coverage of the period 1700–1900 raises more questions than it answers, not least because Andrade places a possibly excessive weight on transformative European developments in land warfare prior to the mid-nineteenth century, in part thereby creating his "Great Divergence."

     In turn, this approach raises questions, not least over how best to compare China and Europe. It is not easy to compare the European collection of states to China as a whole and thus to answer the question of whether China was proportionally more peaceful than Europe. At every level, and in both China and Europe, it was possible to fight foreign or civil wars without necessarily changing state and society; but the opposite was also the case.

     Andrade is much to be congratulated for a stimulating book, one that greatly moves the field along, and one, moreover, that ably makes the case for the need to consider military history as part of the history of China, and Chinese military history as a key element of military history. If his bold prospectus is ultimately empirically, methodologically and conceptually questionable, that, surely, is true of all historical scholarship.

Jeremy Black's recent books include Insurgency and Counterinsurgency: A Global History (forthcoming, 2016), Airpower: A Global History (2016), A Century of Conflict (2014), and War and Technology (2013). He can be reached at


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