Why did the British surpass China in matters military?

by on January 8, 2016 at 12:10 am in Books, Economics, History, Political Science | Permalink

Here is an excerpt from the now published Tonio Andrade book, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History:

Part of the answer of course has to do with industrialization.  Steamships destroyed warjunks, towed long trains of traditional vessels into position, reconnoitered shallows and narrows, and, equally importantly, decreased communication times, allowing for minute, systematic coordination of the war effort.  Similarly, industrial ironworks made strong, supple metal for muskets and cannons, and steam power was used to bore cannons and mix, crumble, and sort gunpowder.

But industrialization isn’t the only answer.  Many of the innovations that most helped the British weren’t about steam power or the division of labor or mechanized factories.  They stemmed, rather, from the application of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century experimental science to warfare.  During the mid-1700s, new scientific discoveries enabled Europeans to measure the speed of projectiles, understand the effects of wind resistance, model trajectories, make better and more consistent gunpowder, develop deadly airborne missiles, and master the use of explosive shells.  These innovations as much as the use of steamship and industrial manufacturing techniques underlay the British edge in the Opium War.

Here is my previous coverage of the book.

For all the talk about recent advances in economics, you don’t hear much about one of the very biggest: how rapidly researchers are filling in the contours of Chinese economic history.

1 carlolspln January 8, 2016 at 12:30 am

Joseph Needham took a few shots at it in his magnum opus:


2 Ray Lopez January 8, 2016 at 12:42 am

Wow, so many comments in just ten minutes; TC hit a raw geek nerve with this post (but AlexT gets more clicks per post, with his trollbait).

Yes, Needham was the expert on Chinese history tech. The popular explanation is the same as why the US south was stagnate in tech: a large population stifles innovation, which is typically ‘labor saving’. Here in the Philippines (and in India I heard) you can hire somebody for less than five dollars a day to ‘do something’, a kind of ‘human robot’.

3 valuethinker January 8, 2016 at 6:00 am

But in India it’s often very hard to fire them.

Indian labour laws have made Indian industry surprisingly technologically advanced and capital intensive.

4 Kris January 8, 2016 at 9:22 am


Ray is probably referring to the unorganized sector/informal economy where no laws apply. It’s purely laissez faire and Darwinian. One can hire and fire anyone at will, and workers can stop working or go absconding as they wish.

5 Steve Sailer January 8, 2016 at 12:36 am

I used to read up on the amazing history of Chinese technology: e.g., in medieval times, the Chinese drilled down hundreds or thousands of feet for natural gas and pipelined the gas miles to light cities at night.

But medieval Chinese technological history lacked … momentum. Somebody somewhere would do something amazing for awhile, but then after awhile it wasn’t being done as much.

The West lost a lot of technology during the Dark Ages and perhaps even during the last couple of centuries of the Roman Empire in the West, but over the last 1000 years or so, inventions in the West tended to stay invented. So, the curves tended to turn upward.

At this point we think it’s natural and inevitable, but for much of the last 5,000 years, eras of technological decay happened almost as often as eras of technological process.

6 Steve Sailer January 8, 2016 at 12:39 am

By the way, I think that would make a good theme for future Star Wars movies: the high technological level of the past is in decay and the struggle is becoming more desperate to find and control remnants of past weaponry and knowledge.

7 Kris January 8, 2016 at 3:17 am

The West lost a lot of technology during the Dark Ages

Like what? And by “West”, you mean the Roman Empire, right, not Germania?

8 Steve Sailer January 8, 2016 at 6:56 am
9 Tylerh January 8, 2016 at 7:22 pm

The wheeled plow — described by Pliny, but lost for centuries. Essential for turning Gaul (later France) into an agriculturally productive region.

Perspective drawing. The Greaco-Romans had it, the Renaissance has to re-invent it.

An immense amount of mathematical and astronomical knowledge. The Medieval Europeans had to re-import it from the the Arabs.

the list goes on….

10 Axa January 8, 2016 at 6:08 am

Lost technology in the West? Wine was invented in the Middle East and carefully improved in the West during the Middle Ages. Hops were first added to beer during the Dark Ages. Ships from the Dark Ages were superior to Roman Empire ships.

Some fancy consumer products disappeared from Europe not because the technology was lost but due to trade crash after the collapse of Roman Empire. In the Middle East, India and China where the technology to make the fancy products was invented, it stayed and still exists today.

There’s a big possibility I’m wrong, but what product made with raw materials from Europe and technology developed in Europe disappeared during the Dark Ages?

11 dearieme January 8, 2016 at 7:02 am

The surviving Roman sewers in York were rather far ahead of anything in Britain until, I suppose, the 19th century. Water supply too, perhaps. Central heating certainly. Transporting of coal south within England was restored long before the 19th century but presumably was lost in the Dark Ages.

12 dearieme January 8, 2016 at 7:05 am

And roads. Stretches of Roman roads were kept in use but there’s no sign of decent roads being built in the Dark Ages, or even until Telford and McAdam.

What did the Romans ever do for us, eh?

13 Hoosier January 8, 2016 at 8:49 am

Is all this sudden defending of the dark ages I see on the internet- and discounting of Rome- just a contrarian phenomenon? interesting where it comes from.

14 PD Shaw January 8, 2016 at 9:30 am

@Hoosier: Rome is an Empire and deeply unfashionable in popular imagination and accademia. Late Antiquity is the age of heroes and obscure monk-philosophers.

15 chairman January 8, 2016 at 1:37 pm

“Is all this sudden defending of the dark ages I see on the internet- and discounting of Rome- just a contrarian phenomenon? interesting where it comes from.”

Backlash to the idea of the Dark Ages being a cataclysmic destruction of civilization for centuries where nothing good was done until people finally rediscovered ancient thought and suddenly the Enlightenment made everything good again. This is a caricature worth combating but people can go overboard in saying nothing was really lost in the Middle Ages and it was really pretty good. In reality a lot was lot but it wasn’t an era of total backward stagnation.

Right leaning people also will have a tendency to push back against the old narrative that Christianity was responsible for the stagnation and backwardness of the Middle Ages until people finally became secular again.

16 Nathan W January 9, 2016 at 5:11 am

In 1500 years, the Romans made a handful of inventions.

17 drtomcor January 10, 2016 at 6:00 pm

When you say “right leaning people”, you indicate where your useful thinking stopped. How about “people”, and leave it at that? You might be taken seriously, maybe.

18 PD Shaw January 8, 2016 at 9:07 am

I’m not sure I understand your objection here. Steve isn’t claiming that technology was lost globally, but regionally. And the disruption of trade made technologies disappear just as if someone had burned all knowledge of them. Technologies like fine pottery, stone-building and glazing were lost because the knowledge was held by highly skilled artisans that relied upon the trade-networks. People just went back to wood buildings and wooden dishware or crude pottery made at home, and within a few generations the knowledge was gone. My only caveat would be that the region is Western Europe, and the technology would have remained available in the Eastern Mediterranian.

19 JWatts January 8, 2016 at 1:50 pm

This debates seems muddled because it depends on what you mean by technology. If you are talking about a discrete piece of technology (a sailing ship) then the decline was probably small and was more of a stagnation. However, if you are talking about the societal organization to implement technological projects on a grand scale, such as building long roads, aqueducts or city wide sewer systems, then there was clearly a dramatic decline.

20 M January 8, 2016 at 4:49 pm

Architecture and other products and byproducts of large scale government, industry and trade did disappear.

Many technological innovations that weren’t dependent on those (e.g. metullurgy that works fine with small economies of scale) were probably surprisingly sticky.

But those products of large scale government, trade and industry were the things that China was actually ahead of Europe in the Middle Ages (and also the things it was ahead of than the Islamosphere in, to a lesser extent). Developments that existed because the scale of China’s state and government and market allowed them to happen, not those technological developments that were “agnostic” of those factors.

21 Alistair January 9, 2016 at 4:12 pm

Concrete. Roman concrete wasn’t surpassed until the 19th century.

Engineering generally fell back. Buildings, roads, and architecture all become notably more primitive. Aquaducts and hypocausts disappear. Bridges become simpler. The circular arch almost disappears. Wood replaces stone. Large shipbuilding is lost outside the eastern med, (though arguably Norse boats have better seakeeping). Military “technologies” are severely depleted; not so much weaponry, but the trained, standing forces with integrated logistics and combined arms that don’t exist again until the late middle ages.

And it’s not just the technologies; the organisational skills are also in retreat; the administrative and taxation systems needed to run a large empire go (outside the bounds of the Catholic church); feudalism comes in their stead as the only way to run the successor states.

22 Careless January 9, 2016 at 6:01 pm


23 Mark Thorson January 8, 2016 at 1:17 am

Advances in British technology correspond with the development of a patent system enforced by the courts. Without effective patent law, you have China, then and now.

24 Axa January 8, 2016 at 5:46 am

Patents are the option A for protecting intellectual property. Branding is option B. Patents last 20 years, trademarks are forever. Anyway, patents and trademarks evolved at the same time with the British.

Option C is the French AOC system, also with unlimited term of use.

25 JWatts January 8, 2016 at 1:57 pm

I would say Option A is guild/company/family trade secrets. That was the historical approach, but it effectively monopolized IP.

26 valuethinker January 8, 2016 at 6:01 am

We are getting here into Geoffrey Parker’s “Military Revolution” thesis, that the West invented a series of forms of military organisation and practice which the rest of the world just did not have.

27 dearieme January 8, 2016 at 7:10 am

There is also the statement attributed to an Indian sage. The question to him was how did the East India Company, with modest numbers of British troops, defeat huge Indian armies. Because the British didn’t betray each other, he replied. So, yes, something to do with social/military culture too. I dare say that much the same thing was true of French military success in the subcontinent, and Portuguese naval success.

28 JB January 8, 2016 at 2:57 pm

Also the US vs Native Americans.

The history of the native failure to resist European settlement, culminating in Tecumseh’s defeat in 1824, is fascinating. It’s as if UFO aliens landed in Russia, Putin gave them Ukraine in exchange for leveling NATO with plasma lasers, and then was shocked, shocked when they herded all the Russians onto reservations in Kamchatka.

Obviously oversimplified, but the general failure of non-European powers to recognize that these funny-looking guys in ships were not just your average marauding foreigner, but were going to take all wealth and power away from your ethnicity and bring it back to their metropole on another continent, is an underappreciated element of the Imperial age.

29 Nicholas Marsh January 9, 2016 at 12:27 am

Disease played a role as well. Add to your example the problem that the aliens carried with them an alien virus that their immune systems could cope with, but led to the rapid death of 80 per cent of the Russian population.

30 Alistair January 9, 2016 at 4:41 pm

Agreed. The Native Amerindians shocking misplayed their hand. Political and cultural factors were a large part of that. Disease played a role too; but less so in the west and south.

Its notable that when the indigenous populations had formed into a political unit the Europeans could deal with, more or less, they did a much better job of resisting encroachment. The Maori, Ethiopians, and Zulu did well by comparison, despite defeats.

31 A Definite Beta Guy January 8, 2016 at 10:21 am

I’d like to second this comment. The early modern era saw the rise of formalized, professionalized armies throughout the West. Military officers received formal training and often were career men and military academies were founded to study warfare and better strategy.

Organization decided the Franco-Prussian War in the early stages, when essentially half of Napoleon III’s army got lost on the way to battle.

Obviously organization can be imitated, but drastically foreign cultures cannot simply remake their societies in short order.

32 JWatts January 8, 2016 at 2:00 pm

The same period also saw the refinement of professional logistics versus ad hoc supply.

33 rayward January 8, 2016 at 7:49 am

How about this explanation: No man (or colonial power) is an island. Or this: Necessity is the mother of invention. Britain was resourceful because it had no choice; China less so because it did. Consider the U.S., the land of plenty, its resources often squandered because it could. Recently I’ve been reading about the Battle of the Bulge (officially, the Ardennes Counteroffensive), the last great German offensive as the allied troops closed in, and in particular the very different view/assessment of the battle by the British (Montgomery) and the Americans (Bradley and Eisenhower). Economic power (and innovation) being just another term for military power (and innovation), I can’t help but notice the sense of powerlessness of the U.S. and Europe reflected in today’s Krugman column to deal with China.

34 MOFO. January 8, 2016 at 9:29 am

So the US isnt resourceful? Thats news to me.

35 TallDave January 8, 2016 at 9:52 am

Free inquiry, free enterprise, empiricism.

The first patent applications for power looms were rejected by governments who said “But what about the weavers?”

36 Slugger January 8, 2016 at 10:58 am

A history of the world written five thousand years in the future will say,” The Han people have been the preeminent culture of humanity for the past ten thousand years. There were a few years when due to distractions the Han allowed themselves to be dominated first by the Mongols and later by the Europeans, but these barbarian invasions were transitory.”

37 msgkings January 8, 2016 at 3:05 pm

I dunno, lately the ‘China will rule us all’ narrative has been foundering with their economy. More likely China = Japan perhaps?

38 TR5749 January 8, 2016 at 2:29 pm

there is no simple answer, but this book covers most of the leading theories


39 Kevin January 8, 2016 at 3:36 pm

British, and indeed Western European, military supremacy over most if the rest of the world occurred long before the industrial revolution. I think the source if the West’s advantage was iimproved organization from the tactical level all the way up to the building of states which could mobilize enormous resources via credit and bureaucracy. This was going on the the 16th-19th centuries.

40 sam January 8, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Complacency. China is bordered by the planet’s highest mountains, largest oceans, and driest desert. Isolation from competition leads to complacency.

When Zheng He returned from his mission, after commanding the largest fleet the world had seen until the invasion of Normandy, he found that his exploration was considered against Confucian principles. The voyages stopped for centuries.

When the Portuguese rejected Columbus, he went to the Genoese, Florentines, and English before finally being taken in by the Spanish.

Hundreds of years later, it was the British that regularly sailed to China and not the other way around. When they presented gifts to the court, the Emperor famously replied:

“Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

A century later, those strange and ingenious objects allowed the British to win the Opium wars.

When Marco Polo traveled to China, he marveled at the imperial exams that selected bureaucrats not by birth and intrigue but by the study of Confucius. Centuries later when Napoleon needed a model for his civil service, he chose the Chinese model of exams. Centuries later again, at the beginning of the 20th century, China was still selecting bureaucrats … by their mastery of Confucius.

China was five hundred years ahead of Europe in 1000 AD – and stayed the same way for eight hundred years. The introduction of the steamship, the airplane, and the internet in the 20th C have opened the world to China, and China has been catching up to modernity in all ways good and bad (leading the world in manufacturing, famines, university graduates, size of the secret police, etc)

41 anon January 8, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Your description seems to support the “competing states theory” of European progress. China didn’t have to compete with anyone, thus they became complacent. England had France right across a narrow strait licking its lips, so innovate or die. Do you agree?

42 sam January 8, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Absolutely. I would go farther than that and say that this competition depends on strongly local nationalisms, where people may wish to defeat their opponents, but not assimilate them.

The English did not want to turn France into England, they just wanted to beat them. This ensured the existence of France and England as separate competitors for centuries. When China conquered the independent kingdoms that are now China, the subjugated people were Sinicized.

Eventually China expanded to its natural geographic limits and failed to need to compete.

The same argument has been made of the Greeks and the Persians. The Athenians and Spartans did not wish to colonize each other, thus preserving their adversary as a competitive foil even in defeat.

43 Alistair January 9, 2016 at 4:55 pm

+1 for the competition theory. Nothing promotes innovation like eliminating the non-innovators.

Perhaps the Mongols were better for China than one might casually assume.

44 David January 10, 2016 at 1:29 pm

Losing technology has certainly happened in the recent past. My niece, an engineer for one of the gazillionaire space endeavors, tells me that one of their goals is to recreate the Saturn V. Similarly, how often has the technology of a CF-105 or TSR.2 had to be recreated.

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