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  • The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade
  • Edward L. Farmer
The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. ix + 432. $24.95 paper, $24.95 e-book.

The academic historical profession came of age in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the first industrialized powers exercised an economic and military hegemony on a global scale. It was quite natural, perhaps inevitable, that historical discourses adopted Eurocentric perspectives that valorized what has been called the rise of the West at the expense of other regions.1 This paradigm is a particular burden for Chinese studies. Following the Second World War and the subsequent dismantling of colonial empires, many historians felt the need to adopt less parochial perspectives. Teachers working in the field of world history attempt to frame more balanced views of the past, but they are often handicapped by the limited availability of articles and monographs. Most graduate students are still trained to work in a single region of the world. Due to the demands of language study and the time required to carry out research, the number of scholars willing to undertake inquiries on a comparative or global scale remains regrettably small; for this reason, their contributions are especially valuable. One fruitful strategy is the study of a commodity in the world system—for example, S. A. M. Adshead's study of salt, Sucheta Mazumdar's book about sugar, and most recently Sven Beckert's masterful treatment of cotton.2 Another approach entails cross-regional [End Page 265] comparison as a check on claims of European superiority or uniqueness—examples of this genre include the economic studies by Mark Elvin, Kenneth Pomeranz, and R. Bin Wong—although the questions these authors raise similarly grew out of claims for the unique character of European economic modernization.3

Tonio Andrade's bold and imaginative study of the gunpowder age, which shares elements of both strategies, promises to make a major contribution to rebalancing our understanding of China vis-à-vis the West. Gunpowder is neither a consumer product nor an economic system; "gunpowder age" stands for a period in the evolution of warfare. Andrade frames his topic in a world-history context, but the bulk of the book compares historical materials on Europe and China with only incidental references to other areas such as Korea, Japan, and the Islamic empires. He offers us a binary framework that transcends a narrowly Eurocentric view and takes a big step toward understanding military history on a global scale.

In two earlier books about Taiwan, Andrade signals his interest in bringing balanced perspectives to European–East Asian interactions in the early modern period. The first book, How Taiwan Became Chinese (2007), puts Dutch, Spanish, and Han Chinese colonization on an even footing.4 In Lost Colony (2011), an account of the Sino-Dutch War (1661–1668), Andrade briefly reviews the respective claims of military revolution theory, its revisionists, and counterrevisionists before settling on a formulation that acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of each position.5 He remarks in passing that when the conflicting claims of theory threaten this balance of voices, his solution is to plunge back into the sources.6 In The Gunpowder Age, Andrade brings this mindset to a comparative examination of military achievements on a truly heroic scale. Andrade's gunpowder age extends for a millennium, from the invention of gunpowder in China to the development [End Page 266] of smokeless powder in the nineteenth century. His argument is a complex one: it combines carefully reasoned assessments of gunpowder's developments at both ends of the Eurasian landmass with particular attention to a number of common misunderstandings. By structuring a long historical narrative, Andrade makes a sequence of Europe-China comparisons without making one side superior to the other.

The comparisons are facilitated by a nuanced historical chronology. Andrade reasons that military innovation, in this case the adoption and improvement of gunpowder weaponry, was the greatest during periods of prolonged conflict and was less likely to occur during periods of peace. This...


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