The Gunpowder Age

AndradeI stopped following the historical debates surrounding the early modern “military revolution” shortly after I finished grad school, but I imagine that Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History will make a splash.

Andrade’s book is a methodical discussion of a topic that’s been a staple in military history for decades and been connected with the idea of the military revolution at least since Geoffrey Parker’s essential 1988 book The Military Revolution: why, and to what extent, did western and central European military power become not just mildly but dramatically superior to that of polities in the rest of the world?

The Gunpowder Age makes three contributions to the long-standing conversation surrounding that question. The first is a grand causal theory to explain this divergence. Andrade argues that China innovated militarily at about the same pace as Europe whenever there was serious internal or external conflict – leading to a first, brief divergence between 1450 and 1550 that coincided with the peace under the Ming and a second, broader divergence after 1700 when Chinese regional hegemony was secure under the Qing. The second contribution is Andrade’s close reading of both the Chinese primary sources and the latest Chinese-language research (it’s no use to me, but I really appreciate the fact that the book prints the relevant Chinese characters when a word connected with firearms is translated). Whether discussing the lengthening of Chinese cannon barrels, the use of the countermarch in China for both massed crossbows and handguns, or Sino-Portuguese naval battles in the sixteenth century, Andrade offers a lot of important evidence to bolster his grand argument of the military balance. Third, and hardly least important, Andrade is both an expert on early modern Chinese history and a military historian who discussed these developments in the context of the voluminous historiography of the military revolution debate (full disclosure: Geoffrey Parker, who was Andrade’s dissertation advisor, sat on my dissertation committee, at a different institution and in a different decade) – there aren’t that many people who with a foot in both of those areas.

There are, of course, quibbles to makes. A fair bit of Andrade’s analysis will be familiar to anyone who’s been following these academic debates over the years, he repeats a fair bit when driving the broader points home, and one can’t assume that the factors that shaped the balance of firepower East Asia also explain developments elsewhere in the world. The Gunpowder Age also covers almost a thousand years of history, and I expect there are details that Andrade’s gotten wrong. Still, I can’t think of another book covering this topic that is so clear and intriguing in its material.

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