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Why has China taken so long to make its mark?

Having invented gunpowder in the ninth century, China might easily have advanced through Europe. But its reluctance to wage war left it sidelined for centuries, according to Tonio Andrade

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

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

Princeton, pp.432, £27.95, ISBN: 9780691135977

‘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. Guns, first described by one Englishman as ‘devilish instruments of war’, soon caught the imagination after gunpowder was first introduced in the early 1300s. Investment poured into making firearms, cannons and guns more reliable, more accurate and faster to load.

By the time Europeans came properly into contact with east Asia 200 years later, the Chinese could only admire the ‘Frankish guns’, whose virtues were extolled in poems by Wang Yangming and his protégés. European investment in military and naval technology in general proved telling, as giant ships were built that were able to navigate long distances in all conditions. ‘Dutch ships are like mountains’ bemoaned one Ming official in the 17th century; ‘ours are like anthills.’

The age before c. 1700, Andrade argues, was one of ‘parity’ between China and Europe. The century and a half after saw the ‘great divergence’ — a semi-mystical catch-all that purports to explain how the west came to dominate the world. This was a period of peace and prosperity in China, which meant that there was ‘little need to focus on innovation or incorporate new methods and technologies’, whereas in Europe, near-constant warfare made weapons better and better. It was only later that it became clear that the blessing of peace had been a curse: ‘The westerners,’ wrote one senior official in China in the mid-19th century, ‘have been expending their intelligence, energy and wealth on things that were completely vague and unintelligible for hundreds of years; the effects are now suddenly apparent.’

Andrade writes well, though he is rather too keen on settling scores with other scholars and explaining why their hypotheses are wrong. His habit of using the interrogative is also offputting for those who like their historians to answer questions, rather than to ask them. It is curious too that he brings matters to a close with the Boxer rebellion (1898–1900), with no reference to the 20th century — when guns and weapons reached their apogee.

But what makes the book most curious is that the author does not explain why Europeans were so keen to fight with each other, nor why the Chinese seemed reluctant to. This makes the conclusion all the stranger, for Andrade ends by saying: ‘We human beings have gotten extra-ordinarily good at war. We need to get even better at peace.’ The story of the book, though, is that war creates opportunities and advance — and that peace creates indolence, comfort and weakness. Let us hope that Napoleon’s lion keeps sleeping a little longer.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • mikewaller

    I once read a series of articles in which a key distinction was made between “Watershed” societies and “Hydraulic ” societies. The former were characterised by have a large number of well distributed water sources, the latter by very large rivers of such size as to require a major management effort if all those dependant on them were to receive a reasonable allocation of the available water resource. In short, the former fostered independence, the latter interdependence and control. If there is substance in this, it would go some way to explaining why the industrial revolution came into being in the UK rather than in China.

    • Old men plant trees

      Your water /social structure argument has power. It predicts that Protestant individualism would lead to faster economic growth than Catholic collectivism, and that the Right would produce greater wealth than the Left. Our history confirms both predictions. Fascinating, it would appear the statement “let a thousand flowers grow” is a pun. China’s final release from reliance upon its great rivers may bring a changed mentality coupled with instability and competitiveness of spirit.

  • Zalacain

    Competition. China was one large empire, Europe was made up of lots of different warring countries. War and its peaceful counterpart; capitalism are the main differences. Also, the setting up of The Royal Society, in 1660, which helped develop and spread the idea of scientific principles, helped make Europe’s technological lead unassailable.

  • Bonkim

    Social organisation is the key and the Chinese were content looking inwards. Economics is not all.

  • flydlbee

    “Peace creates indolence, comfort and weakness”… We have been at peace for seventy years.

  • Patrick

    “But what makes the book most curious is that the author does not explain why Europeans were so keen to fight with each other, nor why the Chinese seemed reluctant to”

    the Chinese were “Chinese” and less likely to fight each other, the Europeans were a huge mix of nations/city states/ religions etc. Now we Europeans are more alike, with similar ideas. Luckily for us our leaders have decided to import millions of people not like us (who are still fighting there own wars Shia/sunni, kurd/turk, Afghan tribalism, Islamic genocide against Christians, Hindus, Yazidi etc) Get your long bows out as the hundred years war may start again in the next few decades. Cheers Merkel, Hollande, Blair, Cameroon all the other European leaders.

  • razzysmum

    Why has China taken so long? Because they have finally found the way to make money and develop by copying everything that belongs to someone else and selling it cheaper and nastier,

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