Siege warfare and the efflorescence of indigenous Chinese cannon designs

Chinese historian Wang Zhaochun identified a new large design that emerged before the middle of the sixteenth century. This was the jiangjunpao (“general cannon”), an example of which was unearthed near present-day Runan, in the south of Henan Province. The unearthed example weighs 348 kilograms and was probably meant for city defence. Runan cannot exactly be considered to be located in the southern part of the empire, but it was certainly not directly at the northern frontier, bordering the steppe, either. A case can be made that this cannon was meant to defend the city against internal rebellions, not external enemies. The piece dates from the Zhengde emperor’s reign (r. 1505-21), a time when this area was indeed ravaged by the northern rebellion (1509-12) of the outlaw brothers Liu Liu and Liu Qi (both ?—1512). Wang Zhaochun cites He Rubins Bing Ins mentioning that three hundred of these heavier artillery pieces were manufactured in 1465, although Wang Zhaochun doesn’t specify for what purpose they should be used. He Rubin mentions this information in the context of an entry about the daji- angjunchong, or “great general gun,” indicating that Wang Zhaochun considers this larger later weapon a further development of the late-fifteenth-century jiangjunpao, which, given the similarity in names, is not an unreasonable assumption. Chong and pao could still be used interchangeably at this time to indicate a cannon.28

The jiangjunpao grew in size and became the dajiangjunpao, or “great general cannon.” In both He Rubin’s manual and a manual from 1632, it was depicted as a much longer version of the excavated jiangjunpao: a muzzle-loading cannon with several hoops around the barrel, presumably for added security against heat ruptures.29 According to Wang Zhaochun, it could weigh up to 600 kilograms, significantly heavier than its likely predecessor.3" When this larger weapon first entered service is hard to ascertain. An entry in a Chinese online encyclopaedia mentions 1530 as the year production started, but unfortunately, it does not provide a source for the information.31 The weapon is mentioned in Qi Jiguang’s military manual Ji xiao xinsliu, dating from 1560, suggesting the possibility the daijiangjunpao could have emerged during the first half of the sixteenth century. Significantly, the cannon is mentioned in Qi’s manual in the context of city defence.32 The manual from 1632 mentions that the gun could be as heavy as 500 to 600 catties (300 to 360 kilograms) but claims that by the time the manual was written, it weighed in the range of only 250 to 260 catties (approximately 155 kilograms). It could be both installed on city gates and installed on a cart for usage in the field.33

Joseph Needham describes it as a heavier iron cannon with several hoops along the barrel. He extensively quotes He Rubin’s entry on the dajiangjunchong, but as we shall see, He Rubin’s information and Needham’s translation confuse several issues related to the design of the dajiangjunpao. However, clearing up these issues reveals interesting details about the interaction of Chinese and Portuguese cannon design philosophies:

Among the large firearms there is none that is greater than the “great general gun.” Its barrel (used to) weigh 150 catties [90 kilograms], and was attached to a stand made of bronze weighing 1000 catties [600 kilograms]. It looked rather like the fo-lang-chi [folangji] cannon. Yell Meng-Hsiung [Ye Meng- xiong] changed the weight of the gun to 250 catties [150 kilograms] and doubled its length to 6 feet [1.82 metres], but eliminated the stand, and now it is placed on a carriage with wheels. When fired it has a range of 800 paces

[around 1200 metres]. A large lead shell weighing 7 catties [4.2 kilogramsj is called a “grandfather shell” (kung) [fong] and the next shell of medium size weighing 3 catties [1.8 kilograms] is a “son shell” (tzu) [zt], while a smaller shell weighing 1 catty [around 600 grams] is a “grandson shell” (sun). . . . If thousands, or tens of thousands, of (this weapon) were placed in position along the frontiers, and every one of them manned by soldiers well trained to use them, then (we should be) invincible. This weapon is indeed the ultimate among all firearms. At first its heavy weight caused some doubt as to whether or not it was too cumbersome; but if it is transported on its carriage then it is suitable, irrespective of height, distance or difficulty of terrain. . . . During the 1st year of the Chheng-Hua [Chenghua| reign-period (+ 1465) 300 different “great general (guns)” were manufactured and 500 carriages for cannon were made.34

First of all, He Rubin describes a rather lighter cannon than would be expected on the basis of Wang Zhaochun’s figures and on the basis of the information from the 1632 military manual, especially because He Rubin explicitly assigns the cannon to the same lineage as the pieces manufactured in 1465. According to Wang Zhao- chun, during the early sixteenth century, the smaller ancestors of these weapons could already weigh in excess of 300 kilograms. That He Rubin would consider a comparatively light cannon of around 90 to 150 kilograms to be the “ultimate among all firearms” seems strange. He Rubin seems to be mixing different cannon designs in his description. There is also the issue of the cannon’s being described as looking like afolangji. Going by the accompanying illustration in He Rubin’s manual, the muzzle-loading dajiangjunchong with multiple hoops looks easily distinguishable from the breech-loading folangji with its smooth barrel. Finally, a cannon of 90 kilograms requiring a bronze stand of over 600 kilograms seems excessive and wasteful. Bronze was more expensive than iron, and surely cheaper means of installing a cannon that size could have been devised. According to the source text, Needham clearly made a few translation mistakes, ones that further muddle He Rubin’s already-confusing account. The character that Needham translates as “stand” can be translated as “mother.” The breech-loading folangji and its removable chamber were in Chinese sources of the time often designated as “mother” and “child,” respectively. Although the chamber is not denoted as “child” here, but rather as a body (shen), He Rubin seems to be instead describing a breech-loading cannon here. This suspicion is further confirmed when, upon closer examination, He Rubin does not claim that the cannon “looked” like the folangji. A more exact translation would be that the cannon was zliuangfa, “loaded and fired,” like afolangji.3S

Here He Rubin is most likely describing the wudidajiangjunpao, or “invincible great general cannon.” A description of this weapon turns up in one ofQiJiguangs later manuals, the Lianbing shi ji (Practical Record of Training Soldiers), published in 1571. This manual was based on his experience in fighting nomad Mongols along the northern frontier. Qi Jiguang narrates in his manual that in the past heavy and long pieces of around 1,000 catties/600 kilograms, like the dajiangjunpao and the fagong, were too unwieldy in battle against the swift-moving Mongols. They needed at least ten men to move into position. In urgent situations, preparing the cannon for a sufficiently powerful discharge was difficult, and the soldiers did not dare add gunpowder directly to the warm cannon after it was fired. At the same time, the killing power of handheld firearms to hold off Mongol-mounted assaults was deemed too slight. The solution was the wudidajiangjunpao, a hybrid design converting the dajiangjunpao into a breech loader. It was installed on a carriage, which could be handled by three to four men, and it came with three chambers. These could, of course, be loaded correctly in all tranquillity before battle commenced. They could be loaded with cannonballs, able to penetrate walls, or shrapnel could be loaded for use against concentrated enemies. An even later manual by Qi Jiguang, cited by historian Feng Zhenyu, states that the weight of the cannon was 1050 catties (630 kilograms), which corresponds closely with He Rubin’s description of the weapon’s altogether weighing 1150 catties (690 kilograms). Feng Zhenyu also claims that Qi Jiguang was responsible for the innovation, but in the military commander’s writings, he does not seem to claim the weapon to be his brainchild.36 This episode shows that the Portuguese weapons did not automatically supplant Chinese designs but were instead appropriated and combined in creative ways.37

This interpretation of He Rubin’s description is further corroborated when we connect it with the information that civil official Ye Mengxiong (1531-97) modified the “child” and dispensed with the “mother,” to make the chamber a standalone cannon.38 Thanks to an informative blogpost about Ye Mengxiong’s contribution to cannon designs on the weblog Great Ming Military, I was directed to yet another Chinese military treatise, the Deng tan bi jiu (Necessary Investigations for Ascending the Platform).39 This was written by military officer Wang Minghe (fl. 1584) and published in 1599.4<) In this manual, Wang Minghe narrates the story of Ye Mengxiong’s modifying a breech-loading dajiangjun by discarding the “mother” barrel and enlarging the chamber to fire the three kinds of ammunition that He Rubin described. The new cannon was named shenchong, or “divine gun.” The descriptions of the weights of the cannons also completely match He Rubin’s account. The performance characteristics and the positive evaluation of the cannon as the ultimate artillery against barbarians seem to also have been copied in full from Wang Minghe’s account.41 He Rubin had conflated all the information pertaining to the dajiangjun cannon lineage in one entry, hence leading to the confusion. This leaves the issue of the enlarged chamber of the 150-kilogram wudidajiangjunpao’s receiving such a positive evaluation. Unfortunately, the manual does not provide more information that could explain why this alteration by Ye Mengxiong created such a powerful cannon, despite dispensing with a “mother” barrel.

There are thus strong indications that the Chinese were already moving towards heavier ordnance independent of Portuguese influence and that the initial driver of this innovation was siege warfare in the context of inland armed conflicts. Can we discern a similar pattern of intrastate warfare’s driving the appropriation of

Portuguese cannons, and could they have had a revolutionary impact on Chinese siege warfare, hitherto unnoticed?

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