China and Firearms I



Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun Collector’s Edition

In China the transmission of early firearms seems to have followed a similarly meandering and haphazard route. “European” weaponry appears in China with the Portuguese breech-loading culverins presented at the Ming court in 1522 (calledfolangii or “Frankish machines”) whose use to fight the Mongols was advocated in 1530 by Wang Hong. These small cannons, similar to culverins, , however, were not the first to reach China, as there is evidence that the Chinese were already making a similar cannon before 1522. In the southeastern province of Fujian the presence of a folangii is documented already in 1510; that is, even before the Portuguese reached Malacca in 1511. It is therefore possible that cannons known asfolangfi may have reached China, through a separate route. According to Pelliot the Chinesefolanji may have translated not “Franks” but the Turkish term farangi which the Moghul emperor Babur used shortly after 1500 to refer to those European cannons. Therefore, a cannon by that name may have reached China through anonymous carriers possibly from Malaya, before the Portuguese themselves (Pelliot 1948, 199207). There is also some evidence that the Muslim principalities of Hami and Turfan during the rebellion against the Ming in 1513 used Ottoman (R&ni) muskets, and one cannot lightly dismiss the possibility that the old “Silk Road” played an important role in the transmission of firearm technology to China, especially since during the first half of the sixteenth century there were several Ottoman diplomatic missions to the Chinese court. By the end of the sixteenth century, Ottoman muskets were copied and described in detail in Chinese military literature (Needham 1986, 441-9). Whether by sea or by land, the role played by the Ottoman empire seems to have been relevant to the diffusions of firearms in China.

In the sixteenth century the Ming began to deploy consistently firearms on the northern frontier, along the Great Wall, as a defence against the Mongols, but the actual effectiveness of fire power against nomads at this time is questionable. Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), possibly the most brilliant Ming general and strategist of the time, devised a way of usingfolangii cannons mounted on twowheel carts which worked as mobile artillery platforms. The se”battle wagons” included also protective screens to be raised as the battle started. Twenty soldiers were assigned to each battlewagon, ten of whom were in charge of the artillery pieces placed on the wagon, while the other ten – four armed with muskets – stayed on foot near the wagon. Tactically, the wagons were lined up next to each other to defend the army against cavalry charges. Heavier artillery pieces could also be used, such as the “generalissimo” cannon, which weighed more than 1300 pounds, but these were often found to be too cumbersome to be effective. The combined action of infantry and artillery theorized by Qi to counter Mongol cavalry assaults was never put into practice because the Mongol tribes bordering on the territory under Qi’s military jurisdiction reached a diplomatic agreement with the Ming court that brought hostilities to a halt (Huang 1981, 179-8 1). It is quite interesting to see that the concept of the battle-wagon, that is, a heavy wagon with cannon and arquebuses mounted on it, and the concept of chaining wagons together to form a barrier around the army was in use among the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, and by the sixteenth had been adopted by Babur via Turkish specialists in his employment (Inalcik 1975, 204). Was the battle-wagon developed by Qi also based on a Western Asian prototype? At present this question cannot be answered but the similarities raise doubts as to the originality of Qi’s tactical invention.

Finally, we should consider the development of firearms in Japan and their influence on China. In his writings Qi Jiguang, who was also involved for years in the protection of the south China coasts against the attacks of Japanese pirates, states that the Japanese introduced the musket known as niaochong (fowling piece) to China,(Huang 1981, 165; Needham 1986, 429) in the mid sixteenth century. The Japanese musket was made by copying Portuguese matchlocks, but soon Japanese gun-makers attained a high level of proficiency. Moreover, the Japanese adoption of the tactical use of firearms – the volley and the use of regular units of musketeers were already a reality in the sixteenth century – may have also influenced the wider indigenous use of these weapons in East Asia. Therefore, even if the earliest muskets might have been of Turkish origin, there is not doubt that the Japanese attacks along the southern coasts of China and other forms of contacts between the two countries also contributed to the circulation of muskets.

From these preliminary notes we can see that there were multiple routes in the transmission of firearms to China, whose departing points were western Europe and the Ottoman empire, and important intermediaries were Japan, and possibly also Malaya, India, and Central Asia. Therefore, the diffusion of firearms in Asia cannot be understood as the linear outcome of increased European mobility resulting from their progress in oceanic navigation. In order to model correctly the phenomenon of the spread of military technology it is necessary to keep into due account the parallel diffusion that was taking place across Muslim territories, and the genuine contribution that early on China and Japan made towards the improvement of firearms, both technically and tactically. Another observation concerns the specific use that firearms were intended for in the sixteenth century. While the efficacy of muskets was criticised in the fight against Japanese pirates in South China, their use was advocated by Chinese strategists for the defence of the northern frontier against Mongol incursions. Besides the aforementioned Wang Hong and Qi Jiguang, in 1541 the Governor-general of Shensi, Liu Tianhe, recommended that towers on the frontier be equipped with firearms (Serruys 1982, 32). Although the Ming government was often unresponsive or inefficient in dealing with these requests, the development of “fighting towers” on the northern frontier proves that the use of several kinds of fire-arms, from folangii to heavier cannons and muskets, were appreciated for in the defence of static fortifications.

Effectiveness of Chinese artillery against the Manchus

In 1583 the Jurchen chieftain Nurhaci’ began his political rise by affirming himself as a shrewd commercial operator and a fearless military leader. For thirty-three years he fought a long sequence of tribal wars, which led to the construction of a strongly centralized tribal confederation with the Aisin Gioro (i. e., Nurhaci’s) clan at its heart. In 1616 he moved to a new capital, called Hetu Ala (Flat Hill), and declared the founding of the Later Jin dynasty, so named after the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125-1234), of which he felt he was the political heir. Two years later he pronounced the “Seven Grievances” against the Ming, a political declaration tantamount to an official declaration of war. This act of defiance towards the Ming dynasty, of which he had been till then a subordinate frontier chieftain, finally persuaded the Ming to send a massive expeditionary army to punish Nurhaci and annihilate the Manchu tbreat on the northeastern frontier. The opposite armies met in 1619 at Mount ~arhu, and the ensuing Manchu victory marked the true beginning of the ascent of Manchu power. On the plain at the foot of Mt. ~arhu, today at the bottom of an artificial water reservoir, Nurhaci defeated a mixed force of Chinese, Korean, and recalcitrant Manchurian tribes. Although the Ming army enjoyed superiority in terms of numbers and armament, the Manchus destroyed it thanks to their rapidity of movement,

1. Nurhaci belonged to the Jianzhou tribal confederation of the Jurchen people. The term “Manchu”was substituted to Jurchen when referring to the native people of Manchuria by imperial decree in 1635. For the sake of convenience I will use the term Manchu-to refer also to the people of Manchuria before 1635, even though, strictly speaking, this is anachronistic. brilliant tactical manoeuvring, and sheer bravery. Chinese and Korean troops carried light firearms and artillery pieces; in particular a Korean force of four hundred cannoneers was sent from P’yongyang (von Mende 1996, 115). These artillery pieces seem to have been used mainly to pin down Manchu cavalry in fortified areas and disrupt their movement (von Mende, 12 1). These tactics, however, proved ineffective in the context of a campaign that required high mobility and excellent coordination among the four columns into which the Ming army had been divided. According to the account of a Korean eyewitness, the Manchus also fired some artillery shots with Chinese cannons they had captured (von Mende, 123), which may indicate that Nurhaci had already obtained by then some firearms and might have used them to fortify his positions. However, if that is the case, artillery did not yet play an important role in the Manchu army, and firearms do not seem to have played a decisive role on either side.

After smashing the Ming army at ~arhu, Nurhaci launched a campaign to invade Liaodong, the prosperous northeastern province inhabited by Chinese agri cultural settlers, with a view to expanding its kingdom and giving it a more solid economic basis. The problem, from the military viewpoint, was that the cities of Liaodong were heavily fortified, and that their thick ramparts were protected with an extensive array of firearms. In De Bello Tartarico, an almost contemporary account of the Manchu conquest, the Italian Jesuit Martino Martini explained the tactics used by the Manchus when storming a city:

[The Manchus] were very afraid of muskets and bullets, in the face of which, however, they were able to find a strategy. They divided the army into three columns: the first column was armed with wooden shields and sent to the attack; the second was armed with ladders for scaling the city walls and the third consisted of cavalry. With such an array the Tartar king surrounds the city on all four sides. First the wall of wood advances against the volleys of the artillery, and in the blink of an eye, instantly the soldiers with the ladders have already climbed to the top of the walls, without it being possible for a soldier to fire a second time [ … ] The tartars are quick and violent, agile like no other people, and this is their great advantage,. They have the advantage to advance and retreat in the blink of an eye. In this type of attack the use of weapons by the Chinese soldiers has no great importance: they do not have time to open fire a second time and the Tartars, have already scaled and entered, and as [the Chinese] come out from all four sides they meet the fast cavalry. (Ma Chujian 1994, 3 10)

If we are to believe Martino Martini, then, the Manchu technique consisted in charging behind the protection of wooden screens, then quickly scaling the walls before fire-arms could be recharged and shot again. Once engaged in hand-to-hand combat the Manchu soldiers must have been superior fighters, since the Chinese troops, overwhelmed, attempted to flee the city, only to find the Manchu cavalry waiting for them outside the city walls. We should also recall that ever since the beginning of his military rise Nurhaci had devoted much effort to strengthening the Manchu military potential, and that Manchu armament, both armour and weapons, was made of iron and steel, and not inferior to the Chinese. At any rate, it was the Manchu quickness in charging and scaling the walls, and the slow rate of Chinese fire that accounted for the victories the Manchus obtained in Liaodong, where several cities fell one after the other. Thus Nurhaci temporarily overcame the disadvantage of having a cavalry army ill-suited to siege warfare.

In Liaodong the Manchus started to equip part of their army with firearms. The following decree was issued in 1622:

Ile Chinese officers in charge of four thousand people must produce 200 soldiers; ten large firearms (cannon) and eighty long firearms (muskets) must be prepared for one hundred of them; the other hundred can be employed as they wish. Those in charge of three thousand people, must produce 150 soldiers and equip [seventy-five soldiers] with eight cannons and fifty-four muskets; the other seventy-five can be used as they wish. Those in charge of two thousand people must raise 100 soldiers and equip [fifty soldiers] with five cannons and forty muskets; the other fifty can be used as they wish. The Jurchen [i. e., Manchu] officers in charge of 2,700 people must raise 135 soldiers; of them 67 should be made to handle 6 cannon and 45 muskets; the other 67 can be employed at leisure. Those [Jurchen commanders] in charge of 1,700 people should raise 85 soldiers and distribute four cannons and 36 muskets to 44 of them, while the remaining 41 soldiers can be employed as they wish. Those [Jurchen commanders] in charge of 1,000 people should raise 50 soldiers, of whom 25 must be equipped with two cannons and twenty muskets, while the other fifty can be used as they wish. Those in charge of 500 people should raise 25 soldiers; ten must be equipped with a cannon and eight muskets and the rest used as they please. (MBRT 11, 474-5)

From this edict we can see that a fairly extensive campaign was launched to raise troops armed with fire-arms. This edict referred to the newly conquered population of Liaodong, which had been placed under Chinese commanders who had defected to the Manchus or Manchu commanders put in charge of the occupied areas. It is quite remarkable that half of the troops recruited from Liaodong were supposed to carry firearms. Allowing a degree of latitude for the computational errors that can be found in the text quoted above, in general two men were assigned to each “large firearm”, which therefore might have beenfolanjis (culverins), while the “long firearms” were individual weapons, obviously muskets. According to a Chinese historian, the term dagilambi, which means “to prepare” in the text above refers to guns that had been captured from the Chinese and were being distributed among the troops.’ The implication is that at this time it is generally believed that the Manchus did not have a capacity to produce firearms (Hu 1986, 49). Given the quantity of weapons involved, however, one wonders whether local foundries had not been involved in the “preparation” of firearms.

There is no doubt that the incorporation of Chinese troops in larger numbers after the conquest of Liadong promoted a greater differentiation of military specializations, and therefore greater flexibility. At any rate, regardless of the edict he issued, it is uncertain to what an extent Nurhaci could invest in the production of firearms. The general consensus is that Manchu troops at this stage were only equipped with weapons taken from the Chinese arsenals in the cities they had conquered, while still lacking the capacity to manufacture firearms themselves.

On the Chinese side, however, efforts were being made to strengthen the defences of the cities that had not yet fallen. It is this connection that the work of European gunners acquires special importance. European intervention in the war against the Manchus was the result of pressures exerted by influential Chinese converted to Christianity, who sponsored Western military technology as a means to contain the Manchu threat. Around 1600 the Ming became acquainted with a much larger and more powerful cannon, first brought by the Dutch in 1604 and called by the Chinese the “hong-yi [Red (-haired) Barbarian] cannon” (Needham, 392). Larger guns of the same type were produced by the Portuguese in Macao in foundries operated by Chinese blacksmiths under the direction of European technicians. These cast-bronze cannon were approximately 20-feet long, 1800 kg. heavy, and were particularly effective in siege warfare, both offensively and defensively.


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