The Chinese invented gunpowder and began exploring its military uses as early as the 900s, four centuries before the technology passed to the West. But by the early 1800s, China had fallen so far behind the West in gunpowder warfare that it was easily defeated by Britain in the Opium War of 1839–42. What happened? In The Gunpowder Age, Tonio Andrade offers a compelling new answer, opening a fresh perspective on a key question of world history: why did the countries of western Europe surge to global importance starting in the 1500s while China slipped behind?
Historians have long argued that gunpowder weapons helped Europeans establish global hegemony. Yet the inhabitants of what is today China not only invented guns and bombs but also, as Andrade shows, continued to innovate in gunpowder technology through the early 1700s—much longer than previously thought. Why, then, did China become so vulnerable? Andrade argues that one significant reason is that it was out of practice fighting wars, having enjoyed nearly a century of relative peace, since 1760. Indeed, he demonstrates that China—like Europe—was a powerful military innovator, particularly during times of great warfare, such as the violent century starting after the Opium War, when the Chinese once again quickly modernized their forces. Today, China is simply returning to its old position as one of the world’s great military powers.
By showing that China’s military dynamism was deeper, longer lasting, and more quickly recovered than previously understood, The Gunpowder Age challenges long-standing explanations of the so-called Great Divergence between the West and Asia.
Awards and Recognition
- Winner of a 2017 Distinguished Book Award, Society of Military History
Tonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese.
"China invented gunpowder, guns, and bombs, so how did the West overtake, defeat, and humiliate the Chinese by the nineteenth century? Tackling one of history's biggest unsolved mysteries, The Gunpowder Age is indispensable to debates in world history—and as exciting, dramatic, and engaging as a novel."—Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel
"This is a marvelous book and one of the most enjoyable works of military history, Chinese history, and East/West comparison that I have read in years. The reader learns many wonderful things, from the impressive history of early gunpowder weapons in China to China's ability to consistently defeat European expeditions in the 1600s. Andrade makes an original and vitally important contribution to debates about these fields and subjects."—Jack Goldstone, author of Why Europe? The Rise of the West in World History, 1500-1850
"At last we have a history of gunpowder that has been reconstructed as it should be, from both ends of the Eurasian continent. With the vigilance of the good historian and the zest of the good storyteller, Tonio Andrade argues brilliantly that the gunpowder age was as much the creation of China as of Europe. Let the controversy begin."—Timothy Brook, author of Mr. Selden's Map of China
"The Gunpowder Age is an important revisionist history that brings together a very impressive amount of new information and interpretation, and will be essential reading, much debated and built on by scholars of the early modern histories of both Europe and China."—John E. Wills, Jr., author of 1688: A Global History, and The World from 1450 to 1700
"Tonio Andrade's engaging book overturns much received wisdom about gunpowder warfare and the West's 'Military Revolution.' Examining the development of gunpowder weapons in China and Europe, he shows that the Chinese consistently experimented with and adopted new weapons to suit their needs, but that their dynamic empire eventually fell victim to its own military successes. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the relationship between war, society, and state in Asia or Europe."—Kenneth M. Swope, author of The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty, 1618–44
"The Gunpowder Age is history that reads like a detective novel, telling a fascinating story that transforms our understanding of the impact of weapons technology."—S.C.M. Paine, author of The Wars for Asia, 1911–1949