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Now and then I read something really interesting, and never think to tell anyone about it. This time, I'm telling you about it.

The Gunpowder Age, by Tonio Andrade, Princeton University Press 2016, ISBN 978-0-691-13597-7.

From the Introduction:

Historians have long studied gunpowder's revolutionary effects, but they've paid most attention to the West. Indeed, you've probably heard the saying, false but often repeated, that the Chinese invented gunpowder but didn't use it for war. This meme is still widely circulated, appearing in scholarly works, and even in China itself. But in fact the Chinese and their neighbors explored gunpowder's many uses, military and civilian, for centuries before the technology passed to the West. These Asian origins are often glossed over, and most studies of gunpowder warfare focus on the early modern period (ca. 1500-1800). This was, historians have argued, when the first gunpowder empires were born, and when the "gunpowder revolution" and the "military revolution" helped transform Europe's feudal structures, laying the groundwork for Western global dominance.

But the gunpowder age actually lasted a millenium, from the first use of gunpowder in warfare in the late 900s to its replacement by smokeless powder around 1900. Examining its full sweep can help us answer--or at least clarify--the question of the rise of the West and the "stagnation" of China.


The book is a study of the history of the development of gunpowder in both Chinese and Western warfare, and refutes or attempts to refute many of the classic theses for China's so-called "stagnation". (Answer: it wasn't what most people think). The author is a professor of history at Emory University, who specializes in Chinese/European contact history, among other things. The book is clear and straight-forward to read, not bogged down by academic jargon, but it is a well-documented academic work--everything is footnoted and referenced in the extensive bibliography. The author does not rely on regurgitating other English-only works, but uses and cites original Chinese sources. I approve. Always go to the original source if available, because other people's interpretations of a source are just that: their interpretation.

I learned a LOT from this book, including the fact that I had a lot of misconceptions. I'm one of those people who was taught that the Chinese never did anything significant with gunpowder. Oops, wrong as wrong can be. They did bombs, rockets, guns, incendiaries, and other fun things like "fire lances", which were an early predecessor of the gun that shot fire (burning gunpowder) out of a tube at people. (It took them a while to work out good enough powder and barrels to use gunpowder as a propellant rather than an incendiary. However, it worked as a short-range anti-personnel weapon. I suspect that being set on fire by burning gunpowder was at least as unhealthy as catching a bullet).

I also learned that medieval armies were using early cannon starting in the 14th century--you know, during the Hundred Year's War, that classic late-medieval war that brought us Joan of Arc and those classic demonstrations of English long-bow awesomeness, Crécy and Poitiers. Speaking of which... did you know that Joan of Arc was a skilled artillery tactician? Apparently one of the things that made her armies dangerous to the English was her knowing how to deploy cannon in a siege. Did you know that there were volley guns deployed to protect the longbowmen from any charging knights? Their arrows would kill horses and did a number on the crossbowmen, but they didn't actually penetrate plate all that well.


A tidbit for people looking for an historical, multi-ethnic setting for adventure:

The period from the 1540s to the 1560s was a golden age of East Asian piracy, and the pirates were a motley and multiethnic lot. Most were Chinese, but sources make clear that they worked with Japanese, Portugese, Siamese, "black Malaccans", "black barbarian demons", "white and black mixed types," and various other "barbarians". They exchanged ideas, techniques, and technologies, creating what one scholar has called a "hyrbrid maritime culture." Although arquebuses weren't widely used by the pirates, they were certainly present, and Ming officials took note. According to one source, a pirate band led by brothers surnamed Xu "lured the barbarians from the land of the Franks... and they came in a continuous stream." The Xu brothers established an island outpost, Shuangyu Harbor, which, according to one scholar, "became the stage for the dissemination to all of East Asia's maritime realms of every kind of gunpowder weapon." The Xu brothers worked with many other pirates, including Wang Zhi himself, as well as a man named Bald Li. Some sources suggest that among Bald Li's adherents was "a barbarian chief who was good at guns." -- p.171.
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