Chinese Warfare in Retrospect by Han Li (University of London, Queen Mary)

Chinese Warfare in Retrospect is written by Han Li, who is a graduate from the University of London, Queen Mary (Senior Status LL.B) and the University of Toronto (B.A. Hons with Distinction). His interests include law, international relations and Chinese, Roman and Ancient Greek history.

The Case of Nurhaci’s Demise (Part 1) 

By Han Li

The year is 1626, roughly a year before the infamous eunuchs-controlled Tianqi emperor is to pass the throne in death to the last Ming emperor. Standing on top of a northern-style Chinese wall fortification, Yuan Chonghuan could see the amassed Jin army marching within striking distance from the gun batteries on the walls. His troops, although small in number and were largely inhabited by ranks of militia, were armed to the teeth with fearsome firearms forged in the imperial foundries and imported from Macau.


The powder, especially created for the northern Chinese climate, poured into the cannons as grapeshot and explosive ammunition were loaded into the cast iron tubes. Lowering his telescope, Yuan gave the order to fire. The entire fortress shook, vibrating, as a volley of projectiles hurled themselves into the Jin ranks, populated by its infamous cavalry of nomadic heritage. One of the cannon shots landed within the radius of Nurhaci himself. His bodyguards, recovering from the shock, carried the injured chieftain off the battlefield, and the day was lost. The aging Nurhaci would die and the young Yuan Chonghuan would be declared a hero over the smoking barrel of this powerful gun.

Astonishing? Yet stories of warfare during the Ming dynasty provide ample examples in which the scale of battlefield dominance is tipped simply by guns. East Asian entertainment has created a conception in which pre-1911 warfare usually takes on the same form of valour through cold weapons in its portrayal of all dynastical battles. The infamous studio-produced sound effects of swords slashing flesh and axes cleaving ribs are all too familiar and consistent in the portrayal of Chinese warfare of the Three Kingdoms era all the way through to the early modern period. The story usually centres on the heroes themselves, whose battlefield prowess is unmatched by the chaotic fighting units around him, and tends to reflect the Iliad more so than an accurate representation of early modern battles. This repetitive cinematography creates an entrenched conception of warfare which centres on the acts of the individual rather than strategic advantages.

Yuan Chonghuan

Yet what would an accurate depiction of the Ming era battlefields look like if we take away the stereotypical narrative of mass chaotic hordes being led by their noble leader charging into a meat grinder? The answer would have predicable similarities and contrasts.

Similarities would be the existence of the courageous field commander whom upon the emperor bestows rewards, who he credits with being the sole or decisive reason for victory. The contrast would be a firearm-dependent army that would initially attempt to keep a distance from its enemy whilst engaging the enemy with cold weapons in formation and supported by thousands of flying musket balls. The sheer level of noise from the amount of firearms used would break morale and its volley impact would cause mass panic upon the opposing ranks. Therefore, if such large scale use of what most would consider modern weapons and tactics was prevalent during this period of “ancient” Chinese history, then what exactly were these weapons and how were they perceived and deployed? One of the most prominent questions that are pondered regarding this subject is: why then did China lose the arms race to the Western powers during the Qing dynasty? Were the Manchu rulers suspicious of what was perceived as Han Chinese reliance on foot armies rather than to their fearsome horsemen? Such questions are issues of constant debate and largely concern anthropological theses on the motive of industrialisation and are therefore topics that will not be discussed in this series.

Meeting the Demand (Part 2)

During the Ming dynasty, the period’s mentality being similar to that of earlier dynasties, Chinese weapons-smiths pondered as to how they could increase the rate of fire on their range weapons in order to meet the necessary effectiveness of battling densely populated armies. Of course, like the Song dynasty before it, the empire was under constant threat from its borders as it endured for centuries. Therefore, with the arrival of the Europeans from the south, nomadic groups from the north, and constant pirate raids along its coastlines, the demand for a quick loud solution with a gun was at all times high.

Wan Li Emperor that intervened in the Imjin War

As soon as the proto gun stage of Chinese hand held firearms were overcome by the brutal wars against the dying Yuan, the increase in firearm production soared with gunsmiths and experts attempting to combine multiple barrels into one repetitive firearm. In contrast with Europe and the Middle East during the same era, the Chinese did not spend equal effort in terms of perfecting the single shot mechanism. They instead produced weapons that could fire volleys of shots operated by an individual. Examples in illustration today commonly depict the “Seven Star gun”. Similar attempts were made on cannons that would allow the rotation of the gun platform to turn as multiple shots could be fired before reloading. With thousands of cannons placed upon the northern frontier and southern coast the mixture of gunpowder was modified to ensure instant combustion in dry and humid areas.

The effect of such particular attention to these weapons proved ever more useful in the 16thcentury. Portuguese ships off the southern coast were blown up by exploding cannon ammunition hitting their powder storage and Mongol raiders buried in ordnance in the Barbican of Beijing itself.  However, the most astonishing event in which the reputation of the Ming cannon was realised throughout East Asia was the Imjin War. Historians often wonder if the engagements throughout the war were won simply because the Japanese outgunned the Choseon army while the Ming outgunned the Japanese with bigger guns. In a brutal decade-long war in which thousands of lives were lost and Choseon cities and countryside areas were ravaged, the smoke and sounds of musket shots, exploding rockets, and cannon fire covered the cries of agony and echoed through the Korean mountains. When the sounds of powder explosion ceased at the end of the war, the scale in which would not be witnessed again for centuries, both the Ming and Japanese commanders were surprised at the scale and rate of bombardment commenced by the Chinese expeditionary force on cities like Pyongyang. Both the Japanese and the Koreans were surprised by the number of different types of cannons brought forth by the Ming.

Illustration of the Seven Star Gun

The Ming had become reliant on large scale artillery warfare, a strategy that other East Asian kingdoms could not afford to rely on. In fact, history has it that an incident, in which the amount of concentrated firepower that existed in the arsenal of one camp could be measured, occurred when a Ming’s gunpowder cache exploded. The explosion was so large that it nearly shattered the resting army and allowed the Japanese within a besieged castle to counterattack successfully.

 Learning and Improving (Part 3)

During the Ming dynasty, the ever-growing presence of the Portuguese and Spanish around the southern coast has been credited with bringing forth Jesuits and trading agreements alike. During the latter half of the 16th century, the Chinese also analysed foreign weapons as did the “foreigners” theirs. Weapons such as the breech-loading cannon deeply interested the Ming southern garrisons. Instead of the common xenophobic reaction that modern stereotypes allude to, the Ming added the weapon to their arsenal in large quantities, often modifying them into hand cannons and larger guns.

Bird Gun

During this time, one particular model firearm interested even the imperial garrison in Beijing. Although the sources regarding the introduction of this weapon are ever a source of debate, its impact was felt ever after. It was a firearm so accurate, that the common man believed it capable of hunting the smallest bird. This weapon in which the Chinese termed the “Bird gun”, was the conventional arquebus in which its physical features would be similar to that of a modern wooden rifle. Operated with a matchlock mechanism, which the Chinese were not unfamiliar with, its serpentine functioned with the pulling of a trigger. This single shot European design was analysed by the Ming scholars. Mass production of these weapons began at the gun foundries, tactics were created to operate these weapons efficiently, and older firearms were combined to work alongside the arquebus suitably. What is perhaps most intriguing is that a Chinese indigenous model was created in which the arqeubus framework was combined with the foreign breech-loading weapon discovered earlier during the century. A breech-loading arqeubus was created and was even fitted with a bayonet, something that would become a common image through latter world wars.

Was the Red Barbarian Cannon Portuguese, Spanish or English?

Returning to the story of the Ming artillery expert Yuan Chonghuan, the cannon in which he won the day with was known as the Red Barbarian cannon. For a period of time this import cannon was thought to be of Portuguese origin.  Hence the name of the gun may be a reference to the first red haired European witnessed by the Chinese who first took up the cannon.

Red Barbarian Cannon

Some speculators regard this accurate and powerful piece as the Spanish demi culverin. Initially its firepower was what people at the time thought they should be impressed with. However, larger cannons existed within the Chinese arsenal at the time and therefore it is perhaps its accuracy that created its powerful image. Recent debates have emerged which suggests this particular piece could be traced to Tudor England. Such claims are not without some legitimate grounds. The recent recovery of an Elizabethan cannon (apparently the first cannons of universal cannon ball size) in the English Channel dating to the era of the Spanish Armada has confirmed the deadliness of these weapons against a more numerous enemy. Therefore, is it possible that this very piece of fine English artillery which saw action in the humid climate of the English seas could have defended northern Chinese fortresses against incursions and invasions?

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