Intrastate warfare as a driver of military innovation
That the ber(o and the falcao were initially probably copied to deal with the Portuguese maritime threat would not raise many eyebrows. Soon after the berfo was appropriated as the folangji, civil official Wang Hong (1466—1535) championed it as a weapon to be deployed against the Mongols along the northern frontier.42 The folangji and fagong would also later be advocated to be used as ship-board ordnance by anti-Wokou generals Qi Jiguang and Yu Dayou (1503-79).'’' The high rate of fire that the folangji was able to sustain no doubt made it a useful addition in defending the empire against highly mobile nomad enemies. The fagong, as we have seen, was considered to be too powerful to be easily adapted to seaborne service. Nevertheless, the two military treatises of Tang Shunzhi and his erstwhile fellow student and friend Zheng Ruozeng surprisingly dwell extensively on the cannons’ advantages during sieges, a type of warfare that the Mongols usually did not engage in.44 Furthermore, Chinese officials would be hard-pressed to find a Mongol wall to breach with their recently acquired fagong. These two types of cannon were, seemingly, praised for their qualities in the context of land-based warfare in the southeastern reaches of the Ming Empire. Can we draw a tentative conclusion from these, admittedly small, snippets of information that the conditions of warfare in this part of the empire had somehow changed to favour renewed innovation in the art of siege warfare?
As a tentative answer, I propose that the traditional maritime lens through which historians have viewed the Wokou raids of the mid-sixteenth century still often obscures the significant connections between the maritime disturbances and incidences of inland armed uprisings. As alluded to earlier, the Wokou crisis of the 1550s and 1560s was not just a maritime frontier conflict. It had a significant inland component as well, and many of the resulting military confrontations were land- based, including sieges. The Wokou were a multi-ethnic group of Japanese, Chinese, Ryukyuan, and even Portuguese traders-cum-pirates. However, their main component seems to have consisted of coastal Chinese, who were dependent on maritime trade. They had been deprived by Ming court-ordered prohibitions on maritime trade from legally tending to their livelihoods. These had been issued in the 1520s in response to unruly Japanese and Portuguese traders but were consistently enforced only in the 1550s, in effect criminalizing important sections of the coastal population and giving them an incentive to turn to piracy, smuggling, and inland raiding.45
During these raids, Wokou bands would sometimes resort to laying siege to cities by using advanced weaponry. In 1556, for example, Ming civil official Ruan E (1509-67) and his troops were besieged in Tongxiang, Zhejiang, and the Wokou unsuccessfully attacked the city walls with folangji cannons and other Portuguese firearms.46 On another occasion, in 1561, Wokou bandits even moved as far inland as the southern landlocked province of Jiangxi.47 That the Wokou crisis was also closely entangled with other societal upheavals with less-obvious ties to maritime trade is showcased by the organized armed groups operating on both sides of the conflict. For example, incidences of Wokou incursions often occurred simultaneously with uprisings of so-called shankou, or “mountain bandits.” They were prevalent in Fujian in the late 1550s, before eventually being put down by Qi Jiguang.48 As for Qi Jiguang, he commanded militia forces whom he recruited in Zhejiang from among a group of miners in Yiwu County. This militia actually predated Qi Jiguang’s recruitment drive, as it was originally formed on local initiative to defend the community’s mines against a rival group of miners who wanted to wrest control of them away from Yiwu County.49
The land-based dynamic of warfare probably led to many incidences of siege warfare. Although exact statistics of the number of sieges are lacking, the contents of the Chou hai tu bian underlines the importance of this type of armed confrontation. The manual was a huge collaborative project of the civil and military elites involved in the anti-Wokou campaign and included their opinions on a variety of military affairs. The chapter on city defence is by far the largest and most comprehensive in size and content.
The use of Portuguese-derived cannons almost certainly played into this dynamic. Take, for example, the potential of the larger cannon in changing the parameters of the way sieges were conducted on both the offensive and defensive. As in Europe, cannons could have increased the size of besieging armies, because their longer ranges, in comparison with earlier catapults and crossbows, necessitated siege lines further away from the city walls. This increased the dimensions of the killing field that an attacker had to cross to reach the city walls. On the other hand, the attackers now also had weapons with which they could bombard secondary defensive fortifications from farther away.50 The cannon could have set off a round in the evolution of secondary fortifications and armour design, a topic that awaits further exploration. The evidence from the military manuals does suggest that larger cannons were by the mid-sixteenth century finally replacing catapults and large crossbows as the main weapon for destroying enemy siege equipment and secondary fortifications. However, the new cannons presumably did not impact the size and length of the city walls already in place. Besieging armies already needed to be quite large in the Chinese context, even before the discovery of gunpowder, because the existence of large walled cities similarly predated the chemical mixture.
In fact, a case can be made that armies could have been reduced in size, because of the use of firearms. Catapults and big crossbows required crowds of men and their muscle power to operate during sieges, but a cannon needed at most a crew of ten and even less when the weapon did not need repositioning during battle. These weapons were thus huge labour-saving devices that could have led to the reduction in size of armies or the assignment of people to other roles during sieges. Moreover, more cannons could be deployed than catapults and with the same available workforce, increasing firepower significantly. This could have had an impact on cost as well: these cannons would have been much cheaper to operate.
On the other hand, they were presumably more expensive to manufacture than big crossbows and catapults, and the consumption of gunpowder needs to be factored in as well. Unfortunately, at present, we lack the statistical analyses and price comparisons to assess the impact of the new cannons on Chinese siege warfare, but they theoretically had a significant effect on the financial cost and human labour involved in sieges.
For several technical reasons, therefore, the introduction of larger cannons could have led to significant changes in Chinese siege warfare, perhaps even earning the label “revolutionary.” Arguably, intrastate competition could be an important driver of military innovation in China, and the pre-eminence of the interstate competition model should be reconsidered. After all, the dajiangjunpao apparently arose in the context of internal rebellions, and the Portuguese-derived cannons were greatly appreciated during the Wokou incursions.
However, addressing Andrade’s argument that a lack of warfare of any kind stunted the growth of Chinese cannons from 1450 to 1550 is more complicated. This century saw fewer armed conflicts, but those that occurred were mostly internal in nature. However, if we simultaneously push the boundaries of this period slightly back into the past to 1448 and forward almost two decades to 1568, another dynamic comes into focus. In 1448, a big peasant rebellion led by Deng Miaoqi (d. 1449) broke out in the southern province of Fujian, and 1568 more or less coincided with the end of the Wokou threat.51 Within this expanded timeframe, we can observe a long-term shift of the main military challenge to the empire towards internal armed conflicts, especially in the southern, more urbanized, half of the empire. Therefore, the Wokou crisis certainly seems to have been a continuation of a pre-existing trend towards the emergence of sustained inland campaigns and sieges, relying on infantry and artillery.52
As Andrade notes, warfare in the south tended to resemble European patterns more closely.’5 These conditions can help explain the enthusiastic adoption of Portuguese cannons, the simultaneous innovations in indigenous cannon designs, and their use during siege warfare. However, the political conditions in the southeast of the empire also provide ample grounds for positing potential limits on the impact of Portuguese cannons on Chinese siege warfare.
The first was the eventual winding down of the violence in the south at the end of the 1560s. The main ringleaders of the Wokou were defeated, the maritime trade prohibitions were relaxed, and tranquillity returned for more than half a century. During this time, it is doubtful there was much incentive to develop siege artillery, city defences, and the armour protection of both the attacking and defending forces.
A second reason is related to the costs of military innovation and the extent of state intervention to finance it. A main contention of Parker’s iteration of the Military Revolution is that new siege artillery and responses in fortification designs drove up the costs of warfare for the state and stimulated the latter’s expansion. In the case of the Ming Empire’s response to internal rebellions, however, the state seems to have relied on the localities to furnish the necessary funds and resources for city defence. The available research on this topic is too scant to make detailed comparisons to early modern European states, but seemingly, the Ming generally invested in military defences only in cases of national emergencies. These emergencies were recognized as such generally only if they occurred at the northern frontier. Even in the case of the Wokou crisis, most of the funding and the logistics were left to local governmental and voluntary societal initiatives.54 In contrast, a European polity like the Dutch Republic invested heavily in defensive military infrastructure after 1600, although in this case, local governing bodies and associations of citizens were asked to contribute as well.55
In the case of Ming China, the internal political context of rebellions would probably have acted as a brake on military innovations in comparison with the interstate competition dynamic of early modern Europe. Any incidence of interstate war would have counted as a national emergency for the involved polities, whereas for Ming China, these emergencies occurred mostly along the northern frontier where incidences of siege warfare were mostly absent. Moreover, the reliance on local initiatives might explain the continued depiction of the catapult as a viable weapon system beyond antiquarian curiosity in the military treatises dating from the mid-sixteenth century. The Ming Empire generally tried to keep the knowledge of firearms secret and their production restricted to the managerial oversight of its officials. This included newer Portuguese-derived weapons like the folangji.*6 On the other hand, Kenneth Chase argues that the proliferation of military treatises describing these weapons in detail probably meant that this policy became increasingly a dead letter in the course of the sixteenth century.57 Nevertheless, the highly fluid and unpredictable flow of the Wokou raids and the ad hoc local military preparations necessary to counter them probably impeded the quick and consistent manufacture of relatively complicated artillery designs.
Wooden catapults, on the other hand, had been a staple of Chinese siege warfare for centuries, did not require complex metallurgical skills, and could therefore be more easily improvised by financially hamstrung local officials. Moreover, as Thomas Allsen stated, “the technology of siege machines made use of the relatively ‘mobile’ skills of the carpenter, while that of cannon required those of the far more stationary forger or founder.”58 Catapults would also be easier to use for untrained local peasant militia, who would be recruited ad hoc as city defenders.59 Perhaps for this reason and the added advantage of economizing on gunpowder, eminently practical-minded General Qi Jiguang included a description of a simplified catapult design for city defence in his Ji xiao xinshu.60 Indeed, a military manual describing a siege in as late as 1640 mentioned the use of wooden catapults by the defenders of Neijiang in Sichuan Province.61 Finally, catapults could sometimes reach targets that folangji, fagong, and dajiattgjunpao could not, because the former lobbed their projectiles in an arch-like trajectory. As such, larger cannon were a more suitable replacement for the large crossbows than they were for the catapults.