China specialists Peter Perdue and Frederic Wakeman have both suggested, in separate publications, that the Qing were, in a way, victims of their own success. The period of Qing conquest, consolidation, and expansion had been exceedingly violent, with devastating wars that wracked East and Central Asia and corresponded with a significant decrease in China’s population. But once the Qing had established its dominance, expanding China’s borders to their largest extent in history, it remained virtually unchallenged until the mid-nineteenth century. In those generations of relative peace, 1760 to 1839, military leaders in China had little need to focus on innovation or incorporate new methods and technologies from beyond East Asia. Korea and Japan were also generally at peace during this period. East Asians had access to the new technologies and techniques of war that were being forged on the other side of Eurasia, but they had few incentives to adopt or incorporate them on a significant scale.
The resulting military gap became clear to observers before the Opium War. In 1836, an anonymous British correspondent prepared a report about China’s military strength and concluded that if the art of war was the most “infallible criterion of the civilization and advancement of societies,” then China was in the lowest state of civilization. Its gunpowder was coarse, uneven, and liable to spoil. Its cannons were old-fashioned, with uneven bores and primitive carriages, “mere blocks of wood, or solid beds on which the gun is lashed down with rattans, so that it must be impossible to fire any but point blank shots, and very difficult to direct the gun to an object, except that immediately in front of the embrasure whence fired.” For firearms it had only “ill-made” matchlock muskets and no flintlocks, pistols, or any of the other “tribes of fire-arm.” In fact, he observed, China’s soldiers still relied heavily on the bow and arrow, which, given how poor the rest of their weapons were, was “the most efficient of their arms.”
Chinese defenses were, the reporter noted, mere “samples of fortification in its infant state; without fosses, bastions, glacis, or counter defences of any kind; being, in fact, but such lines as the engineers of a disciplined army would throw up, as temporary defences and to cover their guns, in the course of a single night.” Chinese naval vessels were so laughable that they were “beyond the power of description or ridicule to portray.” Indeed, the correspondent wrote, he wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of New Zealand war canoes wouldn’t outmatch the entire Chinese navy. (Charles Dickens would later describe a Chinese junk, which he saw at the Crystal Palace in 1848, as a “ridiculous abortion.”)
But it wasn’t just technology and engineering that the Chinese lacked. The reporter discerned a marked deficiency in military readiness. When garrison troops in Guangzhou mustered for duty, he wrote, they
come in, one by one, undressed, unarmed, unprepared, and half asleep; while piles of brown felt caps, and heaps of shabby looking red and yellow long jackets, bearing the character “courage” … are brought through the gates, for the adornment of the heroes of the hour; by and bye, straggles in an officer, generally the largest sized man that can be found; some bows, sheaves of arrows, and rusty swords, make up the warlike show; evidently got up for the nonce to astonish and awe “the barbarians,” who might, did they please, be in the governor’s harem before the guard could awake from their slumbers.
On occasion European travelers had observed that Chinese swords were so rusty that the soldiers could scarcely draw them.
At the end of his report, the correspondent expressed surprise himself at the extent of China’s military backwardness. “We have now gone through the subject which we sat down to discuss, and although we were well aware that the military force of the Chinese empire was much overrated, we rise astonished at the weakness, the utter imbecility.… It seems indeed strange that the whole fabric does not fall asunder of itself. Of this we are convinced; that, at the first vigorous and well directed blow from a foreign power, it will totter to its base.”
He was wrong about how much the Qing would totter, but modern research corroborates his views about Qing military capacity. Historians Liu Hongliang and Zhang Jianxiong have conducted an exhaustive and detailed comparison of Chinese and European guns circa 1840 and conclude, “At the time of the Opium War, the difference between British and Chinese cannon technology and capacity is an objective fact.… The British military had made innovations and improvements in all aspects—design, ammunition, powder technology, firing mechanisms, and especially in the quality of the iron, the production, the finishing and other such key technologies—such that their cannons’ range, speed of firing, accuracy, and lethality were superior to Qing cannons.” The Qing had not made such improvements. As Liu Hongliang notes in a different work, “At the time of the Opium War, the Qing military’s front-loading cannon form was the same type as that of seventeenth century Europe, and … the design hadn’t seen any kind of change.” Qing cannons were heavier, clumsier, slower to load and fire, and far less efficient in terms of powder use. Indeed, many of the cannons deployed in coastal forts were actually forged or cast in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. To be sure there were local exceptions. Artisans in coastal regions—particularly in Guangdong Province—could produce more up-to-date ordnance based on Western models, but they were still not as effective as the advanced guns of Britain, and in any case they were outliers.
Modern research also shows that Qing infantry forces were also backward. Liu and Zhang note that troops “were equipped with sixty or seventy percent traditional weapons, of which the most important were the long lance, the side sword, the bow and arrow, and the rattan shield, and only thirty or forty percent [of their armament consisted of] gunpowder weapons, of which the most important were the matchlock musket, the heavy musket, the cannon, the fire arrow, and the earth-shaking bomb and such things.” The Qing matchlock musket was constructed according to a design that hadn’t changed much since the seventeenth century. (It’s interesting to note that Qing armies weren’t the only non-European forces clinging to matchlocks. They were still in use in the Levant and Iran, for example.)
European armies had long since switched to flintlocks, and the British were undergoing a transition to percussion cap muskets, which required no externally applied sparks at all. In contrast, the Qing matchlock guns were slow, unwieldy, and dangerous, as British observers noted with empathy and derision. “Every soldier,” wrote naval officer William Hutcheon Hall, “has to carry a match or port fire to ignite the powder in the matchlock when loaded. Hence, when a poor fellow is wounded and falls, the powder, which is very apt to run out of his pouch over his clothes, is very likely to be ignited by his own match, and in this way he may either be blown up at once, or else his clothes may be ignited; … it is therefore not surprising that they should regard the matchlock with some little apprehension.”
Many Qing soldiers preferred to fight the British with bow and arrow, a matchup that did not usually end well, as this same William Hutcheon Hall found to his good fortune. One of Hall’s subordinates records how a Chinese officer, “with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer: the aim was unerring, and he fell.” Someone tried to rescue the fallen Qing officer, “for his coolness and courage,” but the attempt failed because “in the heat of an engagement it is impossible to control every man.”
Historians have suggested that Manchu leaders privileged the bow because of its traditional role in Manchu culture. Indeed, Manchu banner forces devoted more time to archery practice than to firearms practice. Moreover, the Manchu court at times actively suppressed firearms, reserving them for hunting and prohibiting their use by fishing boats and coastal vessels. Firearms were even restricted within the military itself, as when Qing leaders at times tried to prevent Han Chinese divisions from using the most powerful types of handguns, reserving them for Manchu units. Similarly, provincial officials were sometimes even discouraged from arming local militias with firearms, fearing that those militias might rebel. In 1778, for example, the Qianlong Emperor severely rebuked the governor of Shandong Province for training militia forces in firearms. Another provincial official was instructed to take his militia units’ muskets, “and exchange them for bows and arrows.” This sort of suppression was only possible because the Qing Pax was so complete, just as in Japan the Great Tokugawa Peace supposedly made it possible to “give up the gun.” The Qing didn’t give up the gun, of course, and we mustn’t exaggerate the suppression of firearms. Indeed, sometimes Qing officials actively stimulated firearms use, as for example in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi Emperor encouraged the casting of Western-style cannons to combat pirates.
Yet the problem for the Qing wasn’t just antiquated weapons; its forces also suffered from ineffective drill. Historians have found that by the early nineteenth century, China’s once vibrant tradition of drill had withered, becoming “highly formalized and ritualistic, with little attention given to practical problems of warfare.” In Beijing’s banner armies, for instance, it seems that musketeers drilled only five times a month, and although they did perform volley fire maneuvers, their exercises were, according to an American observer named Emory Upton, “mere burlesque of infantry drill.”
Upton describes how twelve hundred musketeers formed themselves into a dense column and awaited a signal from their officers, who were not even on the training field but sat under tents to the side. When the signal was given, the troops arranged themselves into lines, but “there was no order, nor step; the men marched in twos, threes, and fours, toward the line, laughing, talking, and firing their pieces in the air.” They shot and then, to the clamor of gongs, drums, and cymbals, faced to the rear and shot again. This was repeated by another unit, with heavy matchlocks, and then the drill was over and the men, “individually and in squads, wandered back to the city.” Emory Upton’s description is from 1877, by which time some forces in China had improved drilling techniques, adopting Western practices and revivifying those of the past (Qi Jiguang’s drilling manuals were an inspiration), but Upton’s account is just one of many that indicates the feebleness of Chinese drill in the nineteenth century. By the eve of the Opium War, drilling standards had fallen well below those of the early Qing, even as European drilling patterns had altered to suit the more effective weapons being produced in the West.
Qing military readiness on the eve of the Opium War can be summed up in an image from our anonymous British writer of 1836: a sword so rusty it couldn’t be removed from the scabbard. The Europeans, of course, hadn’t had the luxury of such tranquility and order. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period of the Great Qing Peace, Europeans had continued fighting each other. Their eighteenth century wasn’t as warlike as their seventeenth, but conflagrations regularly rocked the subcontinent—the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), and, most devastating of all, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), which convulsed Europe from Madrid to Moscow and provided a massive stimulus for European warcraft.
This warfare spurred rapid and continuing improvement in gunpowder and associated technologies, but geopolitical friction wasn’t the only underpinning of Europe’s Great Military Divergence. Equally important was a strong tradition of experimental science, whose roots lay firmly in the seventeenth century.