Has China’s rising economic power unsettled the proud West? Tonio Andrade further rattles the cage. This historian at Emory University argues that imperial China was stronger earlier – and for longer – than most Westerners realize. In this interview with Asia Times Online contributor Victor Fic, this researcher explains big ideas that might revolutionize our understanding of world history.
Andrade is the author of How Taiwan Became Chinese and Lost Colony: The Untold Story of Europe’s First War with China. He holds a MA from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an MA, MPhil, and PhD from Yale University (1997, 1998, and 2000).
Victor Fic: Why is the Sino-Dutch War (1661-1668) neglected in the West?
Tonio Andrade: The war and the Chinese warlord Zheng Chenggong – called Koxinga in English – are famous throughout East Asia, but both are barely known in the West probably because it was a war that European powers lost. I became interested because it is extremely important – the first major conflict between Chinese and Western European forces, the only such conflict until the famous first Opium War of 1839-42. And whereas China lost that, Zheng Chenggong defeated Europe’s most dynamic colonial power, the Dutch East India Company. I tell the story in Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory Over the West.
VF: What sources did you study?
TA: The war is richly documented. Dutch manuscripts are tremendously detailed, giving a daily or hourly account, often from various perspectives. The Chinese sources are less detailed, but they offer a fascinating glimpse into Ming Dynasty military history, when Chinese forces were modernizing quickly, showing many of the developments that historians believed were then unique to Europe.
VF: We’ll return to modernization theory. Lets first zoom in on the war. Why do you depict the main warrior, Koxinga, as a larger-than-life character?
TA: Koxinga is famous throughout East Asia for defeating the Dutch and his decade-long fight against the ethnically Manchu forces that founded the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Chinese hail this national hero who bravely, selflessly, and loyally resisted foreigners and hoped to reinstate the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Yet he was born and raised in Japan, probably spoke Japanese as his first language. His father – a Chinese pirate – wasn’t present for his birth. He was pillaging and smuggling as the world’s most powerful pirate with 20,000 adherents.
VF: How is Koxinga fabled?
TA: His birth is described in some sources as miraculous: seeing omens and prophecies, a light shining down from heaven at the moment of parturition, an auspicious sea creature thrashing in the bay near his mother’s house. It was a fun challenge to try to weave stories like this into the text even as I kept the emphasis on firm historical grounding.
VF: The glowing omens seemed to come true when he inherited wealth … .
TA: When a young Zheng Chenggong went to China to begin his Chinese education, his father had “gone legit” and become one of the richest men in the imperium. Koxinga inherited his father’s empire and used it to fund one of the globe’s most powerful armies inspired by his Japanese background. Some units wore samurai-style masks and carried samurai-style swords. He was an effective commander, fighting up and down the Chinese coast against the mighty Manchus, founders of a new dynasty, the Qing (1644 AD – 1911 AD), which sought to take over all of China.
VF: Who was his Dutch nemesis or team of adversaries?
TA: He was the irascible Frederick Coyet, Taiwan’s governor. Coyet had acrimonious disagreements with his subordinates and superiors. In general, the Chinese continually out thought and out fought the less-skilled Dutch.
VF: Summarize the context and cause of the fracas.
TA: The Dutch had settled Taiwan in 1624 and began inviting Chinese colonists there who established rice paddies and sugar plantations, taking over the hunting fields of the native head-hunters. The Dutch levied taxes on the colonists and both sides benefitted, albeit with some abuses and distrust. But in 1661, Koxinga wanted Taiwan as a base to fight the Manchu Qing (1644 AD – 1911 AD). They increasingly encroached on his mainland bases. So he invaded Taiwan with the largest Chinese ocean-going fleet since Zheng He’s famous voyages of the early 1400s.
VF: What were the war’s cardinal events?
TA: Koxinga sailed past the main Dutch defenses near today’s Tainan City, entering Taiwan through the little used “Dear’s Ear” channel. Usually it was too shallow for large oceangoing vessels, but Koxinga timed his approach with a high tide, and Dutch guns pointed at empty space as Dutch sentinels watched hundreds of Chinese vessels safely land his troops. They quickly overcame most Dutch positions. Within days the only tenable Dutch defense was the main, powerful fortress called Zeelandia Castle. Today you can visit the ruins.
VF: What is your conclusion on the balance of power between them?
TA: The Chinese exceeded the Dutch in leadership, in drill, and in cannons, but the latter had two cardinal advantages that I did not expect to find. First, Dutch ships were overwhelmingly superior to Chinese vessels in deepwater combat. I found many passages in Chinese sources about how formidable Dutch ships were. Each Dutch ship could take on 20 or so Chinese vessels, although Chinese commanders often won through superior leadership. No vessel can sail directly windward or into the wind, but the Dutch were far better at sailing at a closer angle, several times helping the Dutch.
VF: What was the second Dutch plus?
TA: It was the European artillery fortress design developed in the Renaissance and which spread throughout the continent. It had large, protruding bastions at the four corners with mounted cannon that could fire at almost any angle. The forts were nearly impossible to storm. Fort Zeelandia was one. It stymied Koxinga several times, to his surprise because it was considerably smaller than most Chinese walled cities he had overcome. Its lethal cannonfire shredded his powerful army. It took him nine months to finally force a surrender aided by a high-ranking commander who defected, the drunkard Hans Radij. So I agree with historian Geoffrey Parker that the fort was a vital tool for European expansion. The other perspective, from historian Jeremy Black, too hastily dismisses the artillery fort here.
VF: Prove your claim that the generally more powerful Dutch erred but Koxinga was a matchless leader and that was the true margin of victory for the Chinese.
TA: Often, Koxinga and his officers outsmarted the Dutch. In the first significant land battle, Chinese commander Chen Ze defeated Dutch musketeers by secretly surrounding them. Later the Dutch managed to receive a huge relief fleet that brought supplies and soldiers. The Chinese were terrified. But when the Dutch fleet attacked instead of blockading Koxinga, Chen Ze again outwitted the Dutch, luring their ships into an ambush.
VF: Underscore how Koxinga often drew upon traditional Chinese ways of war.
TA: My research revealed this intriguing factor. Koxinga and his generals drew on a rich, useful tradition of Chinese military thought. It goes back to Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and beyond. Some Chinese scholars have even argued that his use of traditional strategies was key to his victory. I think that is somewhat true. Westerners are largely unaware of this military tradition. It is worth studying intently. I am doing so by immersing myself in late Ming – 1500s and early 1600s – military treatises and manuals. It will change how we think about military history and global history because it dispels myths.
VF: Some claim that as Koxinga died in howling, contorting agony – steam rose from his head. Do you believe it?
TA: It’s impossible to know. Some claim he did because of his fury over what he perceived as incest committed by his son, gnashing his own teeth and clawing at his own face. So many sources offer colorful but not entirely trustworthy stories. He was a legend even when living. He enjoyed his fame and encouraged people to tell tales about him, particularly emphasizing his samurai sense of loyalty, righteousness, and the favor of Heaven. Many suggest that his death was imbued with madness, so I do think the there’s some truth to that. I don’t know about the steam, though.
VF: Let us pull back and examine the medium-level issue about military affairs … explain the theories.
TA: Scholars are presently vigorously debating a basic question of world history: when did Europe begin its ascendancy over the world? The traditionalists such as Joseph Bryant and Niall Ferguson argue Europe was on a separate path from Asia as early as the Renaissance. But the revisionists, such as Kenneth Pomeranz and Jack Goldstone, believe that until 1800 or so, developed parts of Asia were undergoing processes remarkably similar to those found n Europe.
It is very nettlesome to measure comparative rates of development, and scholars founder in a sea of statistics. Plus, such data tends to be poor for pre-modern history. So the debate is mired down and deadlocked. I thought that warfare between Asians and Europeans would illuminate relative rates of development – at least for military technology and techniques. It might correlate with other factors. And oddly there is a dearth of research on such topics, one reason that the Sino-Dutch Taiwan War was neglected.
VF: Trace your navigation of the intellectual shoals.
TA: I was a firm revisionist when I started the book, feeling that China and Europe were equally matched, and that traditionalist arguments about European military and technical superiority were wrong. But as I read the sources, such as Chinese accounts of battles, and Dutch ships’ logs, they revealed the Dutch enjoyed significant advantages. Even Chinese accounts from the time admitted Dutch ships were enormously powerful and guns advanced and worth copying. So I moved to a new middle ground. Yes, Europe was already in the 1600s developing techniques and technologies that conferred an edge over Asians. But, I assert that most traditionalists know too little Asian history and rely on stereotypes about Asian weakness.
VF: You defy these shibboleths?
TA: Strong modernizing tendencies appeared in Asian societies, too, such as late Ming-era warcraft. It astonishes me how little we know of what we must study. Asian history is a flourishing field, and we’ll learn much in the future. It will revolutionize our understanding of world history in unimaginable ways.
VF: What a claim to pursue! … You argue that the Chinese invented cannon and these spread to the West and then back, correct?
TA: It is still commonly believed, although not among most historians, that the Chinese invented gunpowder – but only for fireworks. Even among historians, we’re only now beginning to appreciate the extent of traditional Chinese firearm expertise and development in the 1100s, 1200s, and 1300s. The sources are manifold and rich, and we have only begun to dig in. Centuries later, when Europeans arrived in East Asia and Chinese experts saw the European cannons, the latter were very impressed and immediately began copying. They even dredged up cannons from Dutch and English wrecks and shipped them from south China to Beijing to be made in to “Red Barbarian Cannons”.
VF: Did the Chinese work hard at this?
TA: The dredging was arduous – derricks based on giant wooden platforms winching the cannons – all muscle power. It indicates how seriously the Chinese took cannon manufacture. It is evidence of Western superiority but also a sign of continued dynamism in Chinese technology. After all, the Europeans got cannons from the Chinese – not directly, of course, but through Arabs and inner-Asian peoples, some of whom had had Chinese cannons aimed against them. This kind of cross-cultural interadoption was common.
VF: Koxinga’s muskets are part of this larger debate …
TA: The Chinese adopted advanced European-style handguns long before Koxinga. The great Ming general Qi Jiguang, for example, writes about them in his famous treatise called Ji Xiao Xin Shu from 1560. But General Qi got them not directly from Europeans but from the Japanese. The latter adopted them a couple decades before from the Portuguese. So were they European by then or Japanese? After all, the Japanese had improved and adapted Portuguese models.
VF: It will surprise many that Koxinga fielded crack African musketeers – from where?
TA: His African musketeers are an engrossing topic. His pirate father had an African honor guard recruited thanks to his close ties to the Portuguese in Macau. Koxinga’s African musketeers were very effective in Taiwan. Some were former slaves to the Dutch whom he freed and employed to shoot against their former masters. There is still much to learn about them!
VF: Partisans of the Western military revolution model claim that drills decisively strengthened Westerners as “better killers”. Why do you spurn the notion?
TA: Western military historians, such as Geoffrey Parker and Michael Roberts, have emphasized new types of military drilling because the weapons took long to reload. Musketeers had to coordinate, taking turns firing and loading. This took enormous discipline and training. People like Parker are quite careful, but others such as Hanson have rather less carefully considered such discipline a hallmark of a “Western Way of War” that made Europeans better killers than other peoples around the world. Yet Hanson didn’t realize that Chinese generals such as Qi Jiguang were doing it, too. And one of the funnest parts of my research was reading Koxinga’s chronicles, which detail how he developed innovative drills, following his soldiers around and training them. It’s a remarkable parallel to Europe at that time.
VF: How does the French social philosopher Michel Foucault (1924 – 1984) figure into this?
TA: Military drill was an example of a major change in Western societies, in which human beings were trained and disciplined in new ways. It was, in Foucault’s mind, part of the inception of modernity. Yet he of course knew next to nothing about China. What would he say if we were able to show him Chinese books detailing drilling patterns, books that were remarkably similar to the Western military manuals being printed at precisely the same time on the other side of the world?.
What’s striking is that the progenitor of the famous military revolution model for European history, Michael Roberts, used the same image to illustrate his point about new forms of military discipline as Foucault did to illustrate his model of the evolution of social power in the West, yet it is almost certain that the two historians never read each other’s work.
VF: Now Chinese voices are heard. What is the Chinese military revolution school and why do you welcome it?
TA: The Chinese historian Sun Laichen argued compellingly that the military revolution should be seen as a global process and that it began not in Europe but in China, during the pre-Ming wars of the mid-1300s. Other historians, such as Peter Lorge and Kenneth Swope, have built on his ideas. It’s a very exciting time to do Chinese military history. We’re about to learn an enormous amount, which I believe will change the way we look at world history.
VF: More widely still, why do you eschew the notion off modernity as a Western phenomenon?
TA: Yes, this is the most exciting aspect of my own and others’ work right now. Historians – both Western and Asian – have tended to see modernity and modernization as beginning in Western Europe and propagating outward. Recent work from historians of Asia suggests otherwise. People around the world for millennia had been relatively disconnected. But in the 1400s, 1500s, and 1600s, they came into closer and closer contact, even as world population – excepting America – grew dramatically. Therefore, ideas and technologies spread much more quickly, as with the cannons I cited earlier.
When cannon technology reached war-prone Europe, the Europeans eagerly embraced and refined it. The Portuguese loaded these improved cannons on their naos (ships) and the Dutch on yachts. Then Chinese felt impressed and immediately improved and adapted them. The same dynamic occurred with many technologies and ideas.
VF: So modernization was interactive?
TA: Modernization was a process of cross-fertilization and increased transcultural contact, not something rooted mainly in the West that others borrowed. This is still a matter of considerable dispute. The revisionist-traditionalist debate I mentioned before is precisely about this. But there is some remarkable scholarship.
VF: Direct ATol readers eager to learn more.
TA: A new book by Bin Wong and Jean Laurent Rosenthal makes a brilliant new nuanced case for revisionism, and the breathtaking work of Victor Lieberman sketches out a paradigm of global history that focuses on parallel developments throughout Eurasia.
VF: Why are so excited by this?
TA: It’s a thrilling time to be a historian. Our understanding of world history is in the throes of a revolution, in which older, nationalist and civilizationalist biases are being reexamined in important ways. We’re building toward a truly global perspective on our human past. Key to that is the early modern world’s increasing interconnections – the new sea and land routes, more trade and travel, the rapid growth in printing in China and the West. These processes were broadly analogous to the Internet speeding collaboration and the rate of technological and scientific progress. As the world shrinks, people connect more densely, and the result is rapid change.
VF: History is best when we can apply it. As for lessons, what can you share?
TA: Taiwan is more important than ever in geopolitics. Beijing is determined to keep it within its orbit. The recent Guo Min Dang [Kuomintang] victory in recent elections signals smoother cross-straight relations, but will these last? China’s People’s Liberation Army is rapidly preparing for a possible conflict with the US over the island. Lets hope peace prevails, but Washington particularly must invest in more knowledge about China.
For just a fraction of what we spend on military development, we could fund China-studies programs at universities. Imagine what insights a Center for Chinese Military History could discover. But Americans don’t realize history’s importance or how much Chinese policymakers value it. As Sun Zi advised, “Know your enemy and know yourself.” The Chinese are following that dictum. Americans should try it.
1. Tonio Andrade can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victor Fic (email@example.com) is a veteran journalist on East Asia now in Toronto.
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See online: Bridging East-West historical divides