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The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History

Author(s):Andrade, Tonio
Reviewer(s):Eloranta, Jari

Published by EH.Net (February 2017)

Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. ix + 432 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-13597-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jari Eloranta, Department of History, Appalachian State University.

The Gunpowder Age is a new elaborate volume on some of the key questions in world and economic history debates, namely the development of China, and to some degree Europe, in the long run, especially in the last five hundred years. Tonio Andrade, who is a professor of history at Emory University, has written a volume that cannot be overlooked in, for example, the so-called Great Divergence debate, which began with Kenneth Pomeranz’s work almost twenty years ago. Since then, economic historians have paid increasing attention to China, producing a lot of welcome scholarship on its long-run economic and social development, as well as tons of new data. Regardless, the debate over the timing and extent of China’s decline, vis-à-vis various parts of Europe, is still going strong. Scholars like Pomeranz, R. Bin Wong, Stephen Broadberry, Robert Allen, and others have weighed in, and the picture emerging from these debates is that China’s decline was probably apparent by the eighteenth century, at least in comparisons with the more affluent parts of Europe. Of course, there was also a great deal of divergence within Europe at the time, which complicates these comparisons.

Yet, Andrade’s work not only contributes to these debates, but also another huge issue in world (and economic) history, i.e. the introduction and use of gunpowder and the development of military supremacy in the early modern period. Andrade highlights the introduction of gunpowder and the technological advances made in both China and Europe, and he argues that China in fact continued to develop gunpowder technologies throughout this period of (relative) economic decline, even as late as the eighteenth century. Why then did China fail so spectacularly during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century? His answer is that certain conditions failed to materialize in the Chinese case, for example the lack of continuous warfare and competition, which of course Europe experienced almost annually (as shown by Charles Tilly). In some ways, Andrade argues that some of China’s decline was not as noticeable or steep as we have assumed in the past. And it is here that he makes his greatest contribution to our understanding of long-run world history: China’s military development was simply on a different trajectory than in Europe. Europeans went further in developing cannons and handheld weapons, whereas the Chinese often favored rockets and alternative types of gunpowder weapons. In Europe, this manifested itself in “tournaments,” as Philip Hoffman has recently argued in Why Did Europe Conquer the World? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015). Andrade also emphasizes other historical continuities in China’s recovery of superpower status at the end of the twentieth century, pointing to this past of military experimentation and deep understanding of military strategy. (One only needs to recall Sun Tzu to appreciate the long history.)

Andrade’s book is divided into four parts, plus the appendices and other extra material. Part I provides an introduction to the early history of Chinese warfare and military development. This section is mostly deep background to the main arguments of the book, and useful as a reminder of the conflicts that built and destroyed dynasties. Part II sets up the comparison between Europe and China in the early gunpowder age, and gives us a somewhat familiar story of the technological developments in weaponry, similar to Hoffman’s work. However, Chapter 6 is particularly interesting for economic historians in revealing some of the differences between European and Chinese priorities in warfare, in particular the use of cannons. Part III is more explicitly comparative and highlights how Europeans gained dominance in naval and other military weaponry. Part IV then discusses the nineteenth century superiority of the Europeans and how China attempted (actually quite successfully) to modernize their military after the defeats. Andrade then concludes with some broader ideas of China’s military, economic, and political development on the basis of these comparisons.

In general, this book is quite well researched and written, and it is a welcome addition to the new literature on China’s history, the Great Divergence, and the military development of the last 500 years. However, I have some reservations and modest criticisms of this volume. First, the Great Divergence debate is not covered very thoroughly in this book, especially the recent contributions made by many economic historians. I find this curious, but also somewhat predictable. World historians and economic historians still do not have enough common debates and discussions, and thus we often do not experience truly inter- or even intradisciplinary debates. Discussion of the timing and extent of China’s economic decline would have enriched the comparisons in the book. Second, on the same theme, Andrade does not reference some of the more interesting work done on conflicts and the role of governments in this period, for example by Mark Dincecco or David Stasavage. Military technologies are not only the outcome of conflicts, but also the changing role of the central government as well as revenue and spending patterns. Third, while Chapter 14 does discuss European navies, the role and cost of naval warfare, which is intricately linked to the European empire building projects, should have been discussed in a wider context — after all, many world historians ascribe the destruction of the Great Fleet in 1433 and the subsequent prohibition of trade as key moment in the Great Divergence. Andrade also fails to discuss enough the importance of the extensive training received by English seamen in the use of cannons and other gunpowder weapons, which gave them an advantage in the naval battles.

Finally, I would also like to mention that while the book does not make much use of quantitative data, there is an appendix of interesting new data, collected by the author, on the numbers of conflicts in China, in comparison with Europe. Andrade also compiles a data set on instances that warfare was referenced in Ming and Qing records.  This is a clever way of making some inroads into the mindset of the rulers of those dynasties. As we already know, for example the attitudes of Song and Ming rulers on the value of military service were very different — the former saw it as a dishonorable profession, which of course reflected on the quality of recruits and ultimately performance in the battlefield. This type of data is something that will surely also interest economic historians who are interested in broad comparisons between Europe and China in the early modern period.

In general, this is a well-written and careful analysis of an important topic, and the focus is explicitly comparative. While some of the chapters do not go deep enough into the comparisons, and some of the contributions made recently by economic historians are not always referenced here, this book is a welcome and worthwhile addition to the current literature on China, Europe, the Great Divergence, and the early modern military revolution. It should yield to interesting debates among world and economic historians in the near future — hopefully such debates will be visible enough in both fields, so we can have fruitful interactions similar to what followed Pomeranz’s early work in this area.

Jari Eloranta is Editor of monograph series Perspectives in Economic and Social History (Routledge).  He has written extensively on the history of military and government spending as well as conflicts, including a recent volume Economic History of Warfare and State Formation (Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Andrei Markevich, and Nikolaus Wolf editors, Springer: Tokyo, 2016).

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Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII