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Gunpowder-based Military during Ming China

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Dawn View Drop Down


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    Posted: 28-Aug-2004 at 11:59

Repost from old forum:

Gunpowder_based Military during Ming China isplay&num=1076065857

by Huaxiaren

Ask a westerner to conjure up images of military forces in ancient China, and 9 times out of 10 he would base his imagination on a very stereotypical picture: Massive hordes of badly organised and badly equiped peasants rushing towards the enemy en masse. Indeed, such a stereotype of ancient China is a part of the overall stereotype some have on ancient Asian peoples in general as disorganised militarily. However, from the point of view of factual history, is such an image correct? Certainly not.

I do not want to dwell on the military organisation in ancient China's more distant epochs. Certainly from the archeological evidence of the terracotta warriors any un_biased person could easily see that during this distant era, Chinese infantry were well_armoured and arranged into organised formations and were not just "a horde of peasants en masse". I would like to instead discuss the equipment and the military forces during China's Ming Dynasty, which lasted from the 14th to the 17th centuries. This was of course the period during which gunpowder_based weapons became popular in Europe. As we will see, a similar military revolution also occurred in Ming China, such that until the end of the Ming, the military technology of China was more or less on par with that of Europe.

Gunpowder was invented in China and the first gunpowder_based weapons were in use as early as the Song Dynasty (960 _ 1279 AD). However, the use of firearms during the Song had been rather rare. The Ming Dynasty, on the other hand, was when the usage of gunpowder_based military technology first became fully fledged.

There were three major types of military troops which existed during the Ming but not during earlier dynasties. The Ming was the first Chinese dynasty to widely employ gunners into its infantry. Similarly, cannons were also added onto massive ships in the Ming navy. When Admiral Zheng He explored the oceans of the world in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, most of his ships were fitted with cannons. The third major change in military was the re_introduction of the chariot as a part of land warfare. The chariot was used in the Chinese military from the Shang (1766 _ 1122 BC) to the Han (206 BC _ 220 AD) Dynasties, and it was especially popular during the Warring States Era (481 _ 221 BC). However, as the much more mobile cavalry gained greater popularity, especially after the invention of the stirrup, the chariot gradually disappeared from actual warfare. Yet with the introduction of firearms into the Ming infantry, chariots made a re_appearance as guns were now fitted onto them.

According to historical sources at the time, roughly 10% of all Ming infantry in the late 14th century were gunners. By the mid_16th century, the standard infantry of Ming China was almost entirely gunpowder_based. Every Chinese Legion at the time had 5000 soldiers, of these, 1000 were cavalrymen, still equiped with swords. 3600 were gunners who had individual firearms as well as more traditional weapons such as pikes and swords., and 400 were cannoneers, who were in charge of 160 heavy cannons and 200 Dalianzhu cannons. (Which was an earlier version of the rocket launcher)

Like all Han Chinese dynasties prior to it, Ming China faced great threats from nomadic peoples of the north. However, unlike all previous Han Chinese dynasties, the Ming Dynasty employed the firearm_fitted chariot as a major defense against the horsemen of the nomads, instead of the more traditional "cavalry vs. cavalry" strategy used by earlier dynasties. The famous military tactician, General Qi Jiguang, remarked that "the power of the chariot is totally dependant on the use of firearms. Without firearms, the chariots would surely lose all their defensive capability." Another famous general Yu Daqiu, similarly said, "With the help of firearms the chariots can defeat the barbarians, and with the help of chariots firearms could be effectively used against horsemen. Hence the two should be employed together." This was indeed a mainstream strategy throughout the Ming era.

From the perspective of military science, we could see that such an alliance of chariots and firearms was certainly logical. By using chariots as a transportation device for firearm_based troops, gunners and cannoneers were made much more mobile. In addition, chariots could also serve as a defensive measure for the troops and their firearms against arrows from the enemy and against charging horsemen. Therefore, with the chariots acting as an effective defensive barrier, the power of the guns and cannons could be employed to their full extent as an offensive weapon against the enemy. A similar tactic was used by the American colonists against the native Indians as the wagons were used as a defensive barrier against the Indian horsemen.

From the tactics used by General Qi Jiguang we could see that such a strategy based on firearm_fitted chariot regiments verses horsemen was very effective. As the nomadic horsemen charged at the Chinese army, the gunners and the cannoneers, which were placed on the chariots, would repeatedly fire at the enemy. The chariots at this time would be linked together and arranged in a square formation with empty space in the middle where additional troops, such as cavalrymen and infantry without firearms, would be located. If the enemy continues to charge and does not retreat, the rocket lauchers (Dalianzhu cannons) fitted on some of the chariots would fire at once towards the enemy. (The Dalianzhu cannons had a smaller range compared with the standard cannons and muskets) Usually, the enemy horsemen would retreat at this stage as the loud noise from the rocket lauchers would greatly startle the horses. However, in a few occasions the nomadic horsemen would be uncommonly fierce and would refuse to retreat even at this stage. Then more traditional weapons would be employed by the Chinese infantry against the enemy. Infantry troops would come out from the chariot formation in an organised way, soldiers with large shields would be on the front row, the next few rows would consist of soldiers that held long pikes, which could effectively stop the charging horsemen. As the nomads eventually make contact with the Chinese infantry, more soldiers, holding swords, would come out from the chariot formation. These men would attack the enemy directly from the two sides while the pikemen attack from the front. If the enemy retreats at this stage (keep in mind that by now the enemy would most certainly have already suffered great causalties), the fresh cavalrymen, which is also a part of the chariot regiment, would come out of the chariot formation and charge at the enemy horsemen who are most certainly already very tired. (This is in keeping with a general principle of ancient Chinese military science, which is to attack a tired enemy with fresh troops. The use of chariots in this case has made such an arrangement possible) Also, the Chinese chariots themselves would be of very sturdy construction, fitted with massive shields and sharp pikes, so that even if the enemy cavalry reached the chariot formation, they could not easily tear it apart. The use of firearms has also transformed the military tactics of naval warfare. By the mid_Ming period, massive, firearm_fitted warships were very common in the Chinese navy. As a military tactician of the time remarked: "The essence of naval warfare is to outfight smaller ships with larger ships, and to outfight ships fitted with smaller cannons using ships fitted with larger cannons." From this we can see the central role cannons played in the Ming navy, and the fact that in some ways, the naval tactics of Ming China were almost modern.

By the mid_16th century, 70% of all warships in the Chinese navy were heavily based on firearms. Cannons were fitted onto the ships and naval troops widely made use of guns. The general naval tactic of the time, as recorded on primary historical sources, is: within 80 Chinese feet of enemy vessels, guns and cannons would be used. Within 60 Chinese feet of enemy vessels, rockets would be employed. Within 40 Chinese feet of the enemy, large_scaled rocket launchers would be utilised (similar to the Dalianzhu cannons mentioned earlier), and when the enemy is within 20 Chinese feet, more traditional weapons such as the crossbow and javelins would be employed. Such a military tactic was effective in the sense that no soldiers could easily stand on the decks of enemy vessels for long, and therefore the enemy vessel was effectively paralysed (if not destroyed). Historically such a tactic was quite effective against the Japanese pirate ships that were common at the time.

During the early period of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese firearm technology was superior to that of the West. However, as Imperial China did not have any significant military opponent for much of the time during the Ming, there was no pressure for the Chinese to further develop their firearm technology. This contrasted with Europe, where multiple states were competing with each other in the field of military technology. Therefore by the mid_Ming period, Western military technology had already surpassed that of China. There was, however, a brief revival of ancient Chinese firearm technology during the late Ming era, as at this time China faced multiple threats from the Manchus and the Mongols of the north, the Japanese pirates, and the growing pressure from European powers (Mainly Spain and Portugal) on the South Seas. As the famous Chinese scientist of the time, Xu Guangqi remarked: "To have strong troops without advanced technology is to have them in vain". So during the late Ming, the Chinese assimilated many advanced military technologies from the West. At the same time, traditional Chinese firearms themselves have developed further during this time. As a result, the Chinese empire during the late Ming was one of the most advanced countries in terms of military technology and potentially China had the world's most powerful military, both in terms of quality and quantity. The state_controlled military factories during late Ming China could produce nearly 300 different types of gunpowder_based weapons, roughly divided into 3 large categories: Combustion_based weapons, Explosion_based weapons and Projectile weapons. The chemical technologies related to gunpowder production were also greated improved throughout the Ming era.

Edited by Dawn
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