My research, supported by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, focused on an emerging field of study: global military history, resulting in the publication of a book, The Gunpowder Age (Princeton University Press, 2016), which compares Chinese and Western European military history from 900 to 1900 AD.
Scholars have long argued that China’s military traditions, technologies, and techniques fell behind those of the West shortly after gunpowder arrived in Europe in the early fourteenth century, with Europeans “perfecting” guns while China stagnated. My research showed, however, that China maintained military superiority or parity with the West for much longer: well into the eighteenth century.
Drawing on Chinese and Western sources—such as military manuals published in profusion in both China and the West during the 1500s and 1600s—The Gunpowder Age shows that China was undergoing many of the same developments that were revolutionizing warfare and society in western Europe at precisely the same time. For example, the famous Ming general Qi Jiguang (1528–88) adopted advanced muskets earlier than has been appreciated and, strikingly, employed advanced musketry drilling techniques some forty years before they seem to have appeared in Europe (these techniques have been considered a hallmark of Europe’s famous “Military Revolution”). In general, Ming China showed many of the cascading changes that historians have argued typified the European Military Revolution—a replacement of cavalry by infantry, a rapid increase in the complexity of military hierarchies, a proliferation of printed drilling manuals, and a rapid increase in the ratio of firearms to traditional weapons.
Countries that achieve too much military success may tend in the long run to become vulnerable to adversaries from regions where warfare is more frequent.
China maintained its military parity into the eighteenth century, but then found itself outclassed by the western states, whose military prowess continued increasing, whereas China’s atrophied, leaving China vulnerable to Great Britain, which easily bested it in the Opium War of 1839-42. Why? Not just because Britain was undergoing industrialization but also—and perhaps more importantly—because by 1839, China had enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace under the overwhelming regional dominance of the powerful Qing Dynasty. Thanks to Qing power, China enjoyed during this period what appears to be the least warlike period in its millennia-long history. (There were, of course, many wars and rebellions, so we are speaking relatively, comparing the incidence of conflict to other periods in China’s bloody history.) As a result, its once dynamic military institutions and technologies had atrophied.
I believe, therefore, that China’s nineteenth-century weakness was an aberration and that, in order to truly understand the military pattern of the Chinese past, one must pay attention to the frequency of warfare in and around China. It’s an old idea, but one that today can be applied more rigorously and with greater precision, thanks to a profusion of data from China. China’s so-called “stagnation” was a short-term state, due to the unprecedented power of its last imperial dynasty.
What does this study tell us about human violence and warfare in general? For one, it suggests that countries that achieve too much military success, such as the Qing dynasty’s unprecedented hegemony of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, may tend in the long run to become vulnerable to adversaries from regions where warfare is more frequent. In any case, it suggests that a careful and nuanced study of the frequency of warfare may shed significant light on patterns of global history.