THE GUNPOWDER REVOLUTIONS OF MEDIEVAL CHINA AND EUROPE: The Great Divergence of Military Technology
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
This entry discusses one of the most significant revolutions in world history. Beginning in the Tang and utilized militarily during the Song, China’s invention of gunpowder transformed the face of warfare forever. The application of this simple chemical mixture ended entire social classes and turned imposing fortresses to rubble. This paper discusses its invention and early military uses in China and analyzes how foreigners, especially Europeans, were able to advance it beyond that of the Chinese even after adopting it much later. This question runs in conjunction with the topic of the “Great Divergence” of how the West eventually surpassed China technologically by the time of the Renaissance. Why did China’s military technology plateau and stagnate while Western Europeans advanced so quickly? Many scholars have tackled questions surrounding the Great Divergence but few have approached the topic from the perspective of war. This paper examines the ironic twist of Europe’s usurpation of China in military technology, and does so with a two-part hypothesis: China lacked the economic and military competition that brought European nation-states to power, and that strict bureaucratic controls coupled with a unique political culture stagnated China’s technological advancement. In short, the hypothesis takes the position that China’s traditional enemies were people of the steppe, city-less “barbarians” surviving on the fringes of the empire who fought with little more than horse and bow. A Sinocentric Asia and centuries-long periods of peace allowed China to enjoy a largely unchallenged supremacy of the Orient, resulting in little motivation to advance gunpowder technology. Meanwhile, the formation of nation states in Europe created steep competition and circumstances of survival that triggered fast-paced development of technology in the field of war.
"China lacked the economic and military competition that brought European nation-states to power, and that strict bureaucratic controls coupled with a unique political culture stagnated China’s technological advancement."
Enthusiasts and students of history know that China is the birthplace of gunpowder and the first gunpowder weapons. So why then, did the Europeans surpass China in advancing gunpowder weapons and technology? Home to the first bamboo, bronze, and later iron cannons, as well as rockets, and bombs, the zenith of their technology was indicated in the the Ming Dynasty's military treatise called the "Fire Dragon Manual" (火龍經 Huo Long Jing) published sometime in the mid 1390's, according to scientist and Sinologist Joseph Needham.
The extent of medieval China's military technology can be demonstrated through several examples of its medieval weapons. Not long after its inception, gunpowder's military uses were immediately realized. A vast array of applications, some innovative and creative, others seemingly wacky and clumsy, resulted in the following centuries. Here are a few of the many known examples of the extent of medieval Chinese weapons before the Western arquebus.
1) The Three-eyed Gun: A triple barreled hand cannon attached to a long stock. Each barrel can be fired individually or simultaneously like a primitive shotgun. It also doubled as a melee weapon for close quarters.
2) Heavy Iron Cannons: for use on defending walls and fortifications. Such heavy iron cannons could also be placed on ships. These came in a variety of sizes and delivered ordnance. Two examples are the Great General Cannon and the Crouching Tiger Cannon
3) The Rocket and Rocket Arrows: Devastating artillery for use on the field could be fired en masse against incoming enemy forces. Dozens of rocket-propelled arrows would arc over the battlefield to rain devastation on incoming enemy forces. The Korean version, known as the Hwacha, was used to great effect against invading Japanese forces during the Imjin War of the 1590's.
4) "Fire Dragon Issuing from Water"
This multi-stage missile looks clumsy as is, live-action experiments have shown that modifications to the stabilizing fins (i.e what's used on actual modern rockets) actually have shown that this weapon is capable of effective and accurate flight as well as damage against enemy forces.
5) The world’s first continuous flamethrower
This Song Dynasty innovation allows for a steady, continuous stream of flame thanks to the Chinese invention of the double action piston bellows.
While the Chinese armies of the Ming Empire were still using multi-barrel hand cannons in the late 15th century, Europeans were already mass-manufacturing the matchlock musket and the arquebus. Pulling the trigger of a musket activated an intricate lock mechanism that brought the match into a flash pan that, in turn, ignited the powder in the chamber. Joseph Needham writes “…it would have been just like the locksmiths of the West to take the trigger and take the further step of inserting springs, levers, detents, and tumblers between the trigger and the touchhole.” In comparison, European guns were more powerful, had greater range, and were more accurate than their Chinese counterparts.
By the 16th century, China was importing tons of these new guns from the Europeans and used them side by side with their domestically made ones. The matchlock guns evolved into flintlock, then to wheel lock, then percussion caps, and finally metal cartridges that allow firing multiple rounds and fast reload times. Every single one of them—innovated and designed by Europeans. Even the gunpowder, which they corned, was more potent than the original Chinese formula (even though there’s circumstantial evidence China had corned gunpowder before). But this powder allowed bullets to reach supersonic speeds.
The questions remain as to how and why this technology plateaued/ stagnated and why Europe advanced.
Reasons for stagnation:
Lack of Technologically Sophisticated Enemies: China’s traditional enemies were not technologically sophisticated. When it was not fighting with itself in between dynasties, China maintained volatile and conflict-ridden relationships with its neighbors to the north and to the west. The Tanguts, the Khitans, the Mongols, and the Jurchens all come from nomadic or semi-nomadic traditions. Their forte was horse archery and cavalry units.
2. Bureaucratic Obstacles—Government policies and restrictions. The Scholar-gentry took great measures to limit innovations in gunpowder weaponry especially during the Ming-Qing dynasties. In the earlier years of the Ming, the government was militarily oriented. The civil bureaucracy did not have much power or leverage when it came to martial affairs. This status quo was reversed in 1425. It was then that the civil service was placed a tier higher than the military officials. Ever since that time, it seems, the civil service was committed to making sure they held on to their power. This included maintaining a firm grip on the development of weapons technology that could threaten the status quo and the establishment. Peter Lorge writes: “knowledge of gun and gunpowder making became more restricted outside of the military, and bureaucratic controls were placed on who within the government had access to that information”.
3. Low-regard for scientific advancements: The Chinese elite, especially in the Ming, generally did not hold the sciences in high-regard. There was a low esteem or disdain for science among the scholar elite. Why? Simply because it did little to nothing to help them advanced their own careers within the government. Civil service examinations have consumed the entire lives of the literati, they were wholly dedicated to achieving higher ranks, and getting promotions, and living lofty lives. Wilkinson of the Chinese History Manual writes “Most members of the educated elite did not pay much attention to technical subjects, let alone study or write about them, because they were no help in getting ahead in the official world”. History, philosophy, and statecraft —these were what occupied them the most. Needham writes “During the following couple centuries, the knowledge of firearms was a “restricted’ item in the Ming dynasty. Hence, scholars were not sufficiently acquainted with guns and cannon to deal with them adequately in their writings.” The political climate was quite opposite in Europe at that same time. There was a spirit of innovation there. Peter Lorge writes “It was not military logic of the technology itself but probably commercial and political pressures that initiated these important advancements in guns.”
4. Low Regard for Military- In conjunction with the second and third points, the Ming held a low-regard for the military. Anyone in military service was generally held in lower esteem than those who had careers in civil service. The military was often the career choice for someone who could not pass the civil service examinations. That was shameful for them. Emperors were also particularly suspicious of anything, innovations included, that could be used to threaten their power or weaken the state.
5. The Qing, China's last dynasty, was averse to new technologies- The Qing Dynasty was far less innovative than the Ming or Song Dynasties. Qing emperors like Qianlong and Jiaqing held horsemanship and horse archery in high-regard, putting it at the center of what it meant to be Manchu. Rhoads writes “For most banner soldiers, military training focused exclusively on horsemanship and archery.” When the Europeans were utilizing the most advanced rifles during the Opium Wars, the Qing were using antiquated matchlocks and bows.
SOME REASONS FOR EUROPE'S MILITARY TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCEMENTS
Author Peter A. Lorge writes that Chinese gun and cannon designs had reached their zenith by the 14th century at the latest (Lorge, 71). Fire weapons from that point forward had changed very little and only the most minor improvements or “updates” would be made to their current designs. The quality of the weapons would also differ depending the on the artisans which the government employed. It was a very different story in Europe, however. By the 15th and especially the 16th century, European advances on guns and cannons had officially surpassed that of the Chinese as well as their contemporaries in the Middle East such as the Ottomans and the Safavids.
The first notable military encounter China had with the West in the early modern era took place between the Portuguese and the Ming at the battle of Tunmen in 1521 and again in 1522 (Wills Jr., 31-31). Both battles gave the Chinese decisive victories over the Portuguese ships but there was one prize they managed to salvage from their scuffles— breech-loading cannons. These cannons allowed them to be reloaded much more easily via a detachable breech rather than through the muzzle. Admiral Wang Hong was known to promote making copies of the Western guns to be distributed and used across the Ming Empire. It was clear at that point that the West had already surpassed China in military technology. By this time, the Portuguese were already armed with the arquebus—a smaller form of matchlock musket. A pull of a trigger would activate a lock mechanism that brought down the slow-burning match into the powder in a flash pan to ignite the powder in the chamber which, in turn, launched the ball bullet. “…it would have been just like the locksmiths of the West to take the trigger and take the further step of inserting springs, levers, detents, and tumblers between the trigger and the touchhole.” (Needham, 464). The arquebus was easier to operate, more reliable, and accurate than the hand cannons used in China at that time.
In the following centuries, Europeans would make significant improvements in weapons. The matchlock mechanism evolved into the the wheellock, the flintlock, the percussion cap, and later the cartridge which allowed for the creation of fully automatic guns. Additionally, European cannons became bigger, much more powerful and accurate than that of their Eastern counterparts by the 16th century. Superior firepower was a major determining factor in their imperial conquests in Africa and the Americas as well as the key in the British Empire’s victory over the Qing during the first and second Opium Wars. With their advanced technology, the rest of the world would simply adopt, copy, or purchase their weapons from the Europeans. The question remains: what motivated the European technological advances, and what resulted in the Chinese plateauing in the advancements of their own inventions?
The Renaissance. The so-called Renaissance was a gradual rekindling of Europe’s love for art, philosophy, and science. It marked the rebirth of invention and innovation in the West. Furthermore, Gutenberg’s rendition of the movable type printer stimulated education and the circulation of books. The increased literacy rates played a major role in gradually bringing Europe, at least for the privileged population, out from the fabled "Dark Ages".
2. Steep Competition during the Age of Exploration- The Renaissance provided a platform for the age of exploration and the European scramble to carve out colonies to enrich their respective kingdoms in the name of their monarchs. According to the text World Civilizations, the Europeans, unlike their imperial Muslim rivals were “more adept at taking advantage of the gunpowder revolution (Stearns, 587)”. The fierce competition between Western Europe’s nation-states allowed them to mobilize resources more effectively than their contemporaneous Muslim gunpowder empires which were as technologically sophisticated in weaponry. This survival competition allowed European nations to become “more receptive to technological innovation, which became a central ingredient of political success in the gunpowder era”. In support of these statements, Peter A. Lorge writes that “commercial competition and the need to defend urban centers from armies pushed up technological innovation and weapon production.” Europe’s urbanization during the Renaissance provided a setting similar to that of China during the Song dynasty where innovation and proto-industrialization were the primary features of the era. It facilitated Europe’s rise to power and global predominance during the 16th century. Joseph Needham comments that “the Renaissance, the Reformation, the growth of capitalism, and the scientific revolution… [in addition to] the speed of change in Europe began to outstrip the slow and steady rate of advance dictated by Chinese bureaucratic feudalism.”
3. The Factor of War- War is one of the strongest, if not, the strongest motivators for technological advancement. The 15th and 16th centuries were times of great transition in Europe. It was a time plagued by constant and non-stop fighting between and from within the young nation-states. It also faced a threat from the Ottoman Empire to the east, having had to repel two attempted invasions at Vienna. According to the online encyclopedia “European military prowess grew largely from technological advances made by the major powers as they fought one another almost incessantly throughout the Renaissance era”. It is during the span of the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries where the major advances in gunpowder weapons take place. Lots of conflicts erupted within Europe during this time. The nations all vied against each other for control, for survival, and colonial pursuits. European Christendom itself faced violent internal conflict where Protestant monarchies contended with Catholic ones over converts and conquests overseas (Stearns, 468).
Meanwhile in Asia, the only other gunpowder nation that developed sophisticated gunpowder weaponry was Korea (not counting Japan prior to Portuguese contact in 1543) but the Joseon dynasty was strongly allied with China and never had a major conflict against the Ming.
Guns and cannons were becoming the dominant way Europeans fought battles in the early modern era. In China, gunpowder units played large and major roles on the battlefield, but the mainstay remained traditional, swords, spears, and archers.
The matchlock and wheellock mechanisms for discharging higher-quality firearms were invented in Germany by the 15th century (Lorge, 15) at a time when Chinese armies were still manually lighting the touch-holes and fuses on their hand-held cannons or used simple serpentine levers to direct the match into the fuse (Needham, 425). China would not adopt the matchlock mechanism on the musket until it was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Europeans even improved the gunpowder itself through a process of “corning” for their bullets to achieve “supersonic bullet velocity to increase range and killing power” (Ibid), though evidence that the Chinese have corned gunpowder prior to contact with Europeans is still circumstantial. In short, by this time, European guns were more powerful, more accurate and reliable, had greater range, and were larger than that of the Chinese. This state of affairs also directly affected the way the civilizations conducted battle. In China, traditional units remained the mainstay of the military where archers, sword and shield units, and spearmen were accompanied by gunpowder support units. In Europe during and after the Renaissance, musketeers and cannoneers were slowly becoming the bulk of fighting forces to the point where infantrymen were exchanging musket volley fire from across the field more often than they were crossing swords in close combat.
Though the hypothesis claimed that it was simply China’s lack of military and economic competition coupled with strict government control that caused its technology to stagnate, it was merely a possible one of many contributing factors. In Asia, all other nations paid tribute to China as a form of submission and admission to the Ming Empire’s supremacy and predominance over the Orient. The only military contest it experienced came from outsiders from beyond the Great Wall. These invaders utilized no advanced weaponry except during the times where they adopted Chinese technology (as in the case of the Jin prior to the Mongol invasions). The Chinese military under the Ming may have believed in their supposed monopoly over gunpowder technology until Europeans with more effective designs appeared in the early 16th century brought with them breech-loading cannons and muskets and arquebuses with matchlock trigger mechanisms.
Furthermore, the scholar-gentry’s ignorance and disdain for scientific pursuits, coupled with their strong influence on socio-political culture prevented the Ming from following the Song dynasty’s inventiveness and technological innovation. It was unhelpful that the emperor and the bureaucracy were suspicious of advanced weapons or anything else that could potentially threaten their power and the current status quo. Military careers during the Ming were held in low-esteem which further harmed China’s potential for gaining any martial advantage over the Europeans by the turn of the 16th century.
Despite the contact more advanced foreigners, the Qing dynasty’s strict policies on maintaining traditional archery traditions and pre-gunpowder styles of fighting further inhibited China’s potential for advancing technologically. This left them completely vulnerable to the wiles of the British who attacked in the 19th century Opium Wars. The state of affairs was almost completely opposite in Europe where political and economic atmospheres in conjunction with deadly competition with other nation-states facilitated the advancement of wealth and technology in all areas especially in the field of war. This was further accelerated by their rivalries in colonies abroad, within Christendom, and with their enemies in the Muslim world such as the Ottomans who forged a powerful gunpowder empire of their own.
Weapons technology is a crucial factor in causing the Great Divergence and the most important tool in Europe’s pursuit of imperial expansion. Through force by guns, among other factors, Europe blazed a trail to global predominance by shipping slaves, conquering territories, coercing foreign nations to specific terms of trade, and converting millions to Christendom— all from the end of the barrel of a gun. Through the example of gunpowder, one can clearly observe the way civilizations tackle new technologies depending on cultural contexts, political and economic climates, and military demands.
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