The Asian Military Revolution: From Gunpowder to the Bomb
by Peter A. Lorge, Cambridge University Press, 2008; 188 pages.
Reviewed by Paul Lococo Jr, University of Hawaii-Leeward
This book is strewn with IEDs that explode with regularity as one reads through the introduction, seven chapters, and conclusion. The explosions do not cause physical damage, but damage to a number of assumptions and arguments too often held by Western writers and scholars in discussions of Asian military history. Peter Lorge has provided a very valuable contribution to our understanding of the impact of gunpowder weapons on Asian military practices and societies. Possibly just as important, Lorge convincingly demonstrates that there was a significant military revolution in Asia prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Or, rather, as he would have it, several different military revolutions in Asia, as there was no one common response to the use of gunpowder weapons. When Europeans arrived in the modern period they had firearms that were slightly advanced compared to Asian guns, but through trade (and sometimes directly) Asians quickly acquired these and thus Asian gunpowder weapons were never more than at most a few years behind the Europeans.
In the first chapter, discussing “China through the Yuan,” we find a very informative and fact-filled discussion of the early Chinese use of gunpowder weapons, especially during the wars involving the Song and Jin dynasties and the Mongols. Lorge argues against the frustratingly persistent common Western view that while gunpowder was invented in China, it was long used mainly for pyro-technics. As Lorge demonstrates, by the twelfth century gunpowder weapons of all kinds -- handguns, cannons, rockets, grenades, smoke
bombs, etc. -- were standard devices used in all manner of warfare. However, the widespread introduction and use of these weapons did not lead to much if any institutional change in China. Here Lorge is directly addressing one of the main aspects of the European “Military Revolution Thesis.” According to (many, if not all) advocates for this thesis, the use of gunpowder weapons led to much larger armies, bureaucratic states, and complex logistics systems. China, as Lorge notes, already possessed all of these institutional elements prior to the introduction of gunpowder weapons.
In a later chapter, we are told of how gunpowder weapons were critical to the founding of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and were important parts of the Chinese military forces throughout the rest of this period, with arsenals in the capital alone producing thousands of firearms each year. The only important change came with the introduction of Western guns in the 16th century. Lorge also tackles the puzzle of the lack of serious technical innovation in Chinese firearms in this several century period. Building on and modifying a thesis of Kenneth Chase, Lorge argues that gunpowder weapons were not as effective against the primary military opponents of Chinese dynasties, the fluid cavalry forces of the steppe nomads. Secondly, Chinese fortress walls were mainly constructed of relatively low and wide packed earth, making them extremely difficult to penetrate with gunpowder weapons. Thus, the main uses of gunpowder weapons once the dynasty was stabilized were in siege defense and naval warfare.
In his chapter on Japan Lorge highlights how the introduction of gun-powder weapons came at a time of already changing political and social systems in that land. The use of firearms did not cause these changes. It would have been nice to see some mention of an article by Stephen Morillo (in a 1995 issue of the _Journal of World History_) which covers similar issues and comes to essentially the same conclusion. While the impact of firearms on the political and social structure of Japan was minimal to non-existent, the increasing use of handguns in Japanese armies did lead to the dominance of infantry and near-disappearance of cavalry in battle. Yet, the Japanese warrior elite was not similarly
displaced as social and political leaders in Japan.
Another example of the varied response to the introduction of gunpowder weapons in Asia comes with the discussion of South Asia, particularly the adaptation of Mughal warfare. Unlike in Japan, the Mughals developed a revolutionary military structure in which cavalry and field artillery worked in combination on the field of battle. Thus, rather than reduce
the importance of cavalry in battle, firearms in some ways enhanced it. The enormous -- and ponderous -- Mughal armies were victorious in open field battle and in besieging fortresses. Yet again, while there were significant changes in warfare due to the introduction of firearms, this military revolution produced no discernible impact on South Asian
political and social systems.
The last chapter of the book deals with the “arrival and departure of the West,” and is the weakest of the book. This mainly comes from often cursory treatment of Western military, social, and political systems, and broad derision of Western motives for colonization. Lorge may be correct that Western motives in Asia were “in no way benign,” but
absolutely no evidence is provided to support that argument. Better to have dispensed with such comments and focused on the real strength of his presentation, which was that Asian militaries had already undergone their own (and varied!) military revolutions prior to the arrival of the West.
This fascinating, stimulating, and well-written work is filled with examples such as those noted in the above paragraphs, and is recommended not only for military history courses -- where it should be required reading -- but for anyone interested in early modern and modern Asian history. This work is an especially good corrective to assumptions
about the lands of Asia and their peoples’ supposed historical lack of interest in military arts and warfare.