China and Firearms II

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Sengoku Jidai: Mandate of Heaven

Fearing that the Manchus could attack Peking, Xu Guangqi and Li Zhizao, both Christian converts who had studied with the famed Jesuit Matteo Ricci, persuaded the court to request that Portuguese cannon be sent north. The request was accepted and between 1621 and 1623 several cannons were sent to the capital with Portuguese cannoneers. The move was not unopposed. For instance, an incident in which a Portuguese and some Chinese gunners were killed by the violent recoil of a piece caused considerable criticism of the foreign weapons. But nevertheless the Ming made a sustained effort to outfit their city walls with firearms. The Ming victory at Ningyuan in 1626, a city located in a strategic position beyond the Great Wall, is generally attributed to the greater firepower deployed by the commander Yuan Chonghuan, against the attacking Manchus. Manchu armament, still consisting chiefly of bows and arrows, was inadequate to the task. No matter how brave the soldiers, better fortifications, more powerful guns, and the advantage of protected firepower proved superior, and after a siege of six days the badly bloodied Manchu troops had to withdraw. It should be noted that in the Manchu records the defeat was attributed to poor performance of the Manchu troops, made lazy or cowardly by inactivity, to substandard equipment – such as short ladders, weak carts, and dull weapons – and even to the Khan’s own complacency, rather than to the superior fire power of the Chinese defenders (MBRT 1958, vol. 111: 1068-69). However, the illustrations that accompany the Manzhou shilu (the Annals of the rise of the Manchus, completed in 1635) clearly show a heavily fortified city walls, with crenellated ramparts from where cannon-mouths can be seen protruding. Explosive devices -probably fragmentation bombs – were tossed upon the Manchu troops attempting to scale or breach the wall, while several wounded soldiers are taken away. The general impression is one of powerlessness against superior defences.

The battle of Ningyuan was important for both sides. On the one hand, the Ming renewed efforts to procure Portuguese cannon, train cannoneers, and thus strengthen the northeastern defence line. On the other hand, the Manchus changed tactics and began to develop in earnest their own artillery. Initially, the Portuguese were unwilling to lend more guns to the Chinese as this might to weaken their artillery in Macao against aggressive Dutch competition, and therefore did not respond to Chinese requests. But in 1628 the emperor himself requested that ten pieces of artillery and twenty Portuguese cannoneers be sent to the capital. On November 10 of the same year seven bronze cannons and three iron cannons were selected to be sent to the capital. They left Canton of February 28, 1629, but reached the north after the Manchu offensive had already begun, at the end of the same year. The leader of the Portuguese contingent, Teixeira, and his companions reached the city of Jinzhou,’ were they mounted eight cannon on the ramparts and successfully repelled Manchu attacks with rapid fire (Teixeira 1976, 198-99). When the Manchus were repelled, the emperor welcomed Teixeira, Rodrigues, and the other Portuguese, and requested that a contingent of cannoneers be brought from Canton to Peking to train 10,000 Chinese artillery troops. It was reckoned that a force of about three hundred specialists should be sufficient. Thereupon the Jesuit Rodrigues was sent to Macao to raise the force, and at the end of 1630 160 Portuguese soldiers, 200 Macao residents and 100 Indians and Africans (as we can see, a number much larger than it had been estimated) left for the capital, attracted by a pay that is said to have been extremely attractive. However, partly because the Manchus had already withdrawn, partly because of the machinations of Chinese merchants in Canton, who feared that the emperor may consent, out of gratitude to the Portuguese, the opening of another trade port, thus damaging the interests of the Chinese commercial lobby in Canton, the force was almost entirely recalled. Teixeira (who had remained in Peking) and some Portuguese soldiers continue to fight for the Ming, and in 1632 set up their artillery in Dengzhou under Sun Yuanhua, another Christian convert who had been staunchly promoting the cause for the utilization of Portuguese guns against the Manchus. Here Texeira and the other Portuguese artillerymen behaved bravely, but were all killed in the mutiny of the Chinese garrison, except for three.

The Ming continued to rely on foreign military expertise to the very end. In 1642, when the dynasty was on the verge of collapse, the emperor order Father Adam Schall, the head of the Jesuit mission in China, to use his technical and scientific knowledge to set up a cannon foundry in Peking. What was asked of him was to reduce the size and weight of guns. Schall was reluctant but in the end accepted the charge, and in the first year of his work he made 20 prototype guns, of which 500 were produced the following year. At the same time, he also produced a book on artillery, called Huogoniz gieyao (“Essentials of Gunnery”) (Needham 1986, 394). The efforts of foreign professional soldiers and scientists could not prevent the loss of China, and even when the fighting moved to southern China the Portuguese guns used against the Manchus, while certainly effective, did not stop the advance of the Qing forces in pursuit of the last remnants of the Ming.

On the Manchu side, Hong Taiji, the son and successor of Nurhaci, is to be given credit for a wide-ranging programme of military modernization that focussed both on the production of firearms and on the creation of a body of specialized troops. Following the defeats or heavy losses suffered by Manchu troops attempting to storm “artillery fortresses,” the Manchus acquired the ability to make the first large European-type cannon, which they also called hongyi dapao, except that the character for yz was changed, since the word “barbarian,” even if referred to Europeans, did not agree with Manchu sensitivity. With the new “yi”, the meaning of hongyi was changed from “red (-haired) barbarian” to “redcoat” cannon.

Hong Taiji began the production of this type of heavier gun in 1631, a weapon that gave the Manchus the possibility to bombard enemy fortifications before storming a city or attacking a walled fort, thus increasing greatly their success rate in sieges and limiting their losses (Zhang 1993, Li 1997; Re 1994).

Huge rewards in gold and other valuables were given to soldiers proficient in the use of the cannon, who could also be raised to the highest military honours.

In 1642, in preparation for a massive offensive against the Ming, Hong Taiji set up a cannon foundry in Jinzhou, where several hongyi cannons were cast. The organization of this factory’s production represented a serious effort at standardizing the types of ordnance, since precise specifications were established as to the weight of and caliber of each type of cannon, quantity of gunpowder to be used per charge, and type of ammunition. After the conquest on China another factory was opened in Beijing and placed under the joint responsibility of the Board of War, Board of Public Works and Imperial Workshop (Hu 1986). However, we must say that apart from the Manchus’ efforts at making the production of artillery pieces and firearms more efficient, the guns produced were still based largely on Ming types, which were themselves modelled after the Portuguese ones. Serious “native” improvements of military technology were still to come.

With the independent production of firearms came also the training of specialized soldiers. The earliest troops employed specifically as cannoneers were Chinese troops organized in a military structure, called hanjun in Chinese (lit. Chinese military), which in the 1630s became part of the Eight Banners system. In Manchu the term used for these soldiers was ujen cooha (lit. heavy troops) which is often assumed to mean troops laden with a heavy armament, and by extension artillery troops. In a letter to the Ming general Zu Dashou requesting that he surrender, Hong Taiji boasted that he had a whole battalion of Chinese gunners ready to attack. However, the hanjun were not the only troops in charge of firearms. Each Banner had at its disposal a certain number of artillery pieces and soldiers in charge of them, and the Manchu troops at the capital had separate bodies of cannoneers and musketeers.

After the conquest of China the general tendency was towards the rationalization and centralization of both the production of firearms and the artillery corps. An imperial decree issued in 1673 ordered that each Hanjun Banner should train a battalion of firearm specialists, allegedly because not many Chinese soldiers were suited for cavalry service. In 1688 a new organ was established, called the “Office (yamen) of Firearms and Twice-trained Sword Battalion.” This office had jurisdiction over all firearms, and also took care of the preparation of specially trained assault units. In 1691 a measure meant to further centralize the control over firearms was enacted, namely, the creation of the “Firearm Battalion.” This was a special force that incorporated all the musket and cannon specialists previously subordinated to the Banners. This organism both professionalized artillery as a separate military corps, and brought under a unified command the various artillery units of the metropolitan Eight Banners (that is those resident in Peking), of the provincial Banner garrisons, and the Green Standard troops.

The production of ordnance was likewise centralized. The yearly manufacture of cannons depended upon specific requests. Unserviceable, damaged, or superfluous guns were sent from the provinces to the capital and handed over to the Board of Public Works, which made a decision of whether to continue to use the piece after appropriate repairs and modifications, or cast a new one. In case of provinces which were far from the capital, such as Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and others, inoperative guns were not sent to the capital but kept in storage locally. The local authorities sent a memorial to the Board of Works with a request for a replacement, and, after the approval of the Board, after funds had been raised locally, and after the emperor had personally affixed his note of approval, they could proceed to cast a new cannon locally. There is no doubt that getting new weapons must have been a bureaucratic nightmare.

Excerpt from:

European Technology and Manchu Power: Reflections on the “Military Revolution” in Seventeenth Century China, Nicola Di Cosmo, University of Canterbury

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