Magazine article The Spectator

'The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Invention and the Rise of the West in World History', by Tonio Andrade - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Invention and the Rise of the West in World History', by Tonio Andrade - Review

Article excerpt

'China is a sleeping lion,' Napoleon reportedly remarked. 'When it wakes, the world will tremble.' There is no need to fear China, its current leaders are quick to stress -- with President Xi Jinping claiming that the country's rise will be 'peaceful, pleasant and civilised'. Such words are of little comfort to hawks in the United States who watch the Asia-Pacific region with a growing sense of alarm -- even if the Chinese economic slowdown of recent months has made it more likely that we will hear a growl rather than a blood-curdling roar as the lion awakes.

This interesting new book asks why it is that China has been sleeping for so long. The answer, according to Tonio Andrade, professor of history at Emory University, Alabama, lies in the history of gunpowder and above all in two periods of divergence -- one spanning the period from c . 1450-1550, and more importantly in the century and a half after 1700.

Gunpowder, of course, was one of the quintessential Chinese technological discoveries. Difficult to produce and transport because of the chemical instability, it was being used as early as the Tang Dynasty, when records report a commander ordering his men to 'shoot off a machine to let fly fire' in 904 AD. By the mid-11th century, handbooks like the famous Wu jing zong yao were setting out formulae for the manufacture of gunpowder for military use, including attaching small kegs to birds that would (hopefully) fly at the enemy and land in or on their structures.

It took 200 years more for gun-powder to become a more useful and reliable weapon. It was used effectively by the Jin during their defence of the city of Kaifeng against the Mongols in the 13th century, when 'several men at a time would be turned into ashes' thanks to the defenders' use of a 'heaven-shaking-thunder bomb'. The Mongols were quick learners, and used gunpowder with dramatic effect at the sieges of Shanang and Changzhou in the 1270s, where firebombs allowed the besiegers to threaten to 'drain [the inhabitants'] carcasses of blood and use them for pillows'.

Nevertheless, as Andrade shows, such cases were unusual, and despite the obvious interest in firearms -- evidenced by the Emperor Hongwu ordering guns and ammunition on a rolling three-year programme -- gunpowder played a limited role in Chinese warfare. At the siege of Suzhou in 1366, for example, gunpowder proved useless -- because 'the walls were thick and the guns were small'.

In Europe, things were different, starting with the walls. Where city walls might be 20 metres thick in China, in Europe, they were perhaps a tenth of the width. The fact that they were not packed with earth (which absorbed shockwaves) also meant that firepower had much greater effect. …

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