Portuguese cannon and mid-sixteenth-century military treatises

The middle of the sixteenth century saw a new efflorescence in the production and publication of military manuals. This phenomenon can to a large extent be explained by the simultaneous military pressure exerted by the Mongols in the north and the Wokou pirates in the southeast during the 1550s and 1560s. This created an audience for military self-help books for beleaguered civil officials, who in many cases had to improvise defensive measures on behalf of the empire they served. Tang Shunzhi’s Wu bian was a prime example of this tendency. Tang was a civil official serving under Supreme Commander Hu Zongxian (1512-65), who was the leader of the anti-Wokou effort until 1562. The Wu bian was compiled by Tang to comprehensively prepare him for his role in overseeing military affairs.7 Tang died in 1560, but it seems that he kept his Wu bian updated until the end of his life, given that it contains many references to the weapons and tactics used against the Wokou in the 1550s. Included are his descriptions of the use of the folangji cannon during defensive sieges against Wokou assaults, which is, ostensibly, based on his own experiences.

The men on the battlements stay to defend. If the cunning bandits gather together day and night and attack, then such people are not allowed to succeed and we must defeat them with military force. Military technologies: primary are the large folangji; secondary are the bird beak guns [a type of harquebus]; and next are bows and arrows. If matters become urgent, everyone is able to raise and use them without exhausting them, unlike bricks and stones. They must be accumulated and prepared in great numbers, and be able to give support one after the other.*

Clearly, for Tang Shunzhi, the folangji cannon had become the premier weapon to defend a city against assaults. But did the usage of these weapons prove that guns were becoming part of a challenge-and-response dynamic against enemy equipment, weapons, and secondary fortifications, beyond merely targeting enemy personnel?9 Other descriptions from the Wu bian in the context of siege warfare show that this seems to have been the case: “For the bianchong is only able to strike enemies unprotected by shields, and enemies who have cover and have shields cannot be overpowered without langji10 Langji here is simply an abbreviation of folangji, or simply the result of an unintentional omission of the first vowel. The characters that represent each vowel of langji are similar to those normally used for folangji. The bianchong, which can be translated as “frontier gun,” seems to have been a traditional Chinese handheld firearm, going by an illustration in a seventeenth- century' Chinese military manual.11 It was clearly not powerful enough to penetrate the shields that the Wokou were protecting themselves with, but the folangji could neutralize these defences.12 In addition, the cannon was deemed by Tang Shunzhi to be effective against enemy equipment: “If a pirate ship moors below the wall, borrow nearby bigfolangji and combine forces to attack it. It must make them leave the walls and afterwards cease.”15 What the Chinese text means by “cease” is ambiguous, but this likely indicated that Tang expected the enemy vessel to at least be incapacitated enough by the folangji to cease being able to carry out its operations.

Other military treatises dating from this period, written by people connected to the anti-Wokou campaign, further support that the folangji was a great defensive weapon. Zheng Ruozeng (1505-80) was a friend of Tang Shunzhi and served Hu Zongxian as a private staff member. He was trained as a geographer, and he was in charge of editing and compiling the Chou hai tu bian (Illustrated Compendium of Maritime Preparedness), which eventually became a massive encyclopaedic and geographic overview of the anti-Wokou campaign.14

Each piece is approximately 200 catties [120 kilograms| heavy; they use three extractable guns and each one is approximately 30 catties [18 kilograms| heavy. It uses one lead bullet and it is approximately ten liang [600 grams] heavy. The machine’s movement can be downwards, upwards, to the left, and to the right. Thus, it is that which can be used on top of city walls and is a weapon which defends military camps.15

Zheng Ruozeng emphasizes the flexibility in movement as a key factor in the cannon’s suitability for defence. This would strongly suggest that it was mounted on a swivel, like the Portuguese bcr(o. The “extractable gun” no doubt refers to the removable chamber, which could be preloaded with gunpowder and a cannonball before insertion into the cannon. Ming military commander Qi Jiguang (1528- 88), who also served under Hu Zongxian, concurred with the assessment that the folangji was a useful defensive weapon. In his manual Ji xiao xinshu (New Book of Discipline and Efficacy), a treatise that was based on his experiences in fighting the Wokou and that was published in the early 1560s, he advocated for installing folangji in strategic places in the city. They should be distributed evenly so that they could cover every section of the city' wall.16 Chinese historian Feng Zhenyu posits that another important reason for the folangji’s popularity in Ming China was its breechloading mechanism, which allowed the preparation of charges and ammunition in advance. The correct amount of gunpowder was already added, and the removable chambers absorbed most of the heat of the explosion. Therefore a high rate of fire was possible without overheating the cannon as a whole.17

Whereas the folangji was lauded for its defensive qualities, its fellow Portuguese derivative, the fagong, was praised in the Chou hai tu bian for its offensive qualities:

Each piece weighs approximately 500 catties [around 300 kilograms] and uses one hundred cannonballs, each one weighing approximately four cat- ties [around 2.4 kg]. This is a beneficial weapon for attacking cities. When several tens of thousands of formidable enemies gather together, you also use it to attack cities. Their stone balls are like a small don [a grain measure of about ten litres] and a big rock. That which is hit and struck is not able to endure. A wall encounters it and is at once penetrated; a building encounters it and is at once destroyed; a tree encounters it and is at once snapped; people and animals encounter it and at once become rivers of blood; a mountain encounters it and is at once penetrated several chi [a chi is around one-third of a metre]. Not only stone is not able to brave it and that’s all. Ordinarily, those things which are hit by the stones move towards each other and hit [the other] things, and are without exception destroyed. Even the limbs, body, blood and flesh of humans are splattered, and also wounded and harmed. Moreover, not only the stones are devastating and that’s all. The gunpowder, after being ignited, its vapour is able to lethally poison humans; its wind blasts are able to lethally inflame humans; its sound is able to shake humans to death. Therefore, if you desire to fire afagong, you must dig an earthen pit and order the ignition company to hide themselves after lighting the fuse. The fire, vapour, and sound merely rush upwards, and it is possible to avoid death. You must select many intrepid men who guard and defend on behalf of it, to avoid the disaster of enemies grabbing the fagong. If there is no danger of [the enemy] storming the defences and being taken by force, you do not need to resort to this. Perhaps you ask if it is possible to use it during naval warfare? I say: “Just when the enemy puts the ships into formation, you can also use the small ones. But the moment you fire, the firepower is directed forwards, the boat shakes and recoils backwards, it without exception rips open and sinks. In addition, using wooden rafts to carry and use it, this is possible.” You say: “Can it be used on the city walls?” I say: “It cannot.” The fagong is suitable to attack heights, and unsuitable to attack things below [it].18

The fagong is described as both much heavier and more powerful than the folangji. In the context of siege warfare, it was deemed powerful enough to penetrate walls. Which kind of walls was not specified, and therefore we can construe that it possibly refers to secondary fortifications on top of city walls. In the event, it does prove that the fagong could have played a part in a challenge-and-response dynamic driving innovation in Chinese siege warfare. The folangji and the fagong formed a complementary pair: the former was suitable for defence, and the latter was suitable for offensive purposes.

There is descriptive evidence that they were indeed used in these roles. In 1548, Vietnamese forces attacked two Chinese cities near the border, which were defended by folangji. During the resulting sieges, the cannons were able to repulse attacks on the cities from siege ladders, ships in the moat, and attackers protected by cowhides.19 In 1556, government forces attacked a Wokou pirate leader, who had taken refuge in a walled residence. Fagong were used to bombard the walls, battlements, and gates.20 This latter incident should also serve to make us aware that not every siege in China had to revolve around big cities with metres-thick walls. The Chon hai tu bian does cast doubt on the Portuguese provenance of the fagong. According to this source, the fagong was an enlarged folangji, which the Chinese themselves designed. The Chon hai tn bian's description of the fagong, however, contains a few inconsistencies. First of all, the accompanying picture shows a muzzle-loading cannon on a European-style wheeled gun carriage, not a breech-loading design.21 Second, the description of the fagong does not mention a removable chamber for the ammunition and gunpowder. Finally, the celebration of the extreme penetration power of the weapon suggests it to be a muzzle-loading cannon, because they were cast in one piece. This made them more resistant to bursting and thus allowed the projectile to be fired with more force than a breech-loading cannon could.22 Chinese historian Zheng Cheng advances a plausible theory that the fagong was actually based on falcaos, which were captured from a Portuguese armed merchant ship in 1549 near Dongshan Island, before the coast of Fujian. They were described by a Chinese civil official as folangji datongchong, or “Frankish large bronze guns.” Zheng Cheng speculates that they were bow guns, described as large bombards by Chinese military officials involved in the encounter. Moreover, falcao cannons were carried by Portuguese ships in the sixteenth century, and they were roughly similar in size and weight to the fagong described in the Chou hai tu bian.23 This would also explain the naming confusion with the folangji, as it was a name probably liable to be attached to any cannon with a Portuguese origin at this point in time. The strongest argument that Zheng Cheng advances that the fagong was based on the falcdo is the similarity between the two names. Both vowels of fagong were at this time still represented by different characters, suggesting that the transliteration of the word was more important than its meaning.24 Further compounding the confusion is the fact that the Chinese indeed enlarged the folangji, but these received different names. The confusing entry from the Chou hai tu bian was later partly copied in another military manual from 1606, titled Bing lu, or Military Record. This was written and compiled by the military officer He Rubin (fl. 1606), contributing to perpetuating the notion that the fagong is an enlarged folangji:25

Structural limitations inherent in the breech-loading mechanism probably prevented the folangji from becoming longer than around 2 metres in length. Larger examples have not been found thus far. Chinese historian Zhao Fengxian argues that lengthening the barrel beyond 2 metres meant that the likelihood of the cannonball’s following a crooked trajectory, after being fired from its removable chamber, became too large. This would lead to damage to the inside of the barrel or would even cause the cannonball to get stuck and destroy the folangji. This quest to make larger cannon suggests that there was certainly a continuing incentive to develop heavier and more-powerful cannons, and this was realized when in the seventeenth century the hongyipao, or “red barbarian cannon,” was appropriated from the Dutch and the English. These heavy muzzle-loading cannons seem to have rapidly replaced the heavier folangji.26

This apparent desire for bigger cannons raises the question why there was no indigenous development of larger pieces before 1550? Certainly, there seems to have been a potential challenge-and-response dynamic possible in the context of siege warfare. In fact, there is evidence that the Chinese indeed developed their own heavier ordnance independently of Portuguese influence, which will be dealt with in more detail later on. One important reason that has probably led modern scholars to mostly ignore this development is the fact that only a few military manuals appeared in the period up to 1550. When a big boom in printing press activity in China around that time likely facilitated the appearance of a dearth of new manuals in the mid sixteenth century, Portuguese cannons were already well known and had already been integrated into military theory and praxis.27 Furthermore, modern scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the transfer processes of European weapons to China, often ignoring indigenous dynamics.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >