Cannibals with Cannons: The Sino-Portuguese Clashes of 1521-1522 and the Early Chinese Adoption of Western Guns

In: Journal of Early Modern History

Did Europeans have a military advantage over other peoples of the world during the early modern period (1500-1800)? Scholars of the “military revolution” school have argued that European guns, tactics, fortification techniques, and ships conferred significant benefits on European forces, whereas other scholars suggest that the European military edge was slight at best. This article examines the first armed conflict in history between European and Chinese forces: the so-called Sino-Portuguese War of 1521 and 1522. Scholars on both sides of the military effectiveness argument have adduced this conflict to buttress their positions, but there are few studies of it in either western or East Asian languages. This article suggests that during the first set of engagements, which occurred in 1521, Portuguese artillery was markedly superior, but that in the second set of engagements, in 1522, Chinese artillery played a significant role, causing significant damage to the Portuguese. If there was still a gap in 1522, it was much smaller. Thus, the Sino-Portuguese conflict is less interesting for what it tells us about the “military balance” than for what it tells us about military change. When we discuss military balances, we tend to forget how swiftly they could shift, how rapidly adaptations could take hold. Indeed, historians should take a wider perspective on the military revolution: it was not a process that simply occurred in Europe and provided an edge to Europeans abroad. It was, rather, a global process of intermixture and adaptation. In the case of China, the rapid adoption of western artillery may have started around the time of the Sino-Portuguese Conflict, but it continued through the ensuing decades, as the Ming redesigned Portuguese-style guns and adapted them to their own needs until the only thing western about them was their name: Frankish guns.

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    See Wang ZhaochunZhong guo huo qi shi127.

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    Wang ZhaochunZhong guo huo qi shi129.

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    Wang ZhaochunZhong guo huo qi shi129.

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    I discuss this in Andrade“The Arquebus Volley Technique in China, c. 1560: Evidence from the Writings of Qi Jiguang,” Journal of Chinese Military History [in press expected 2015].

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