Saturday, May 19, 2012

Europe's First War with China by Tonio Andrade

The Sino-Dutch War, 1661-1668, was Europe’s first war with China and the most significant armed conflict between European and Chinese force before the Opium War two hundred years later. The Opium War, of course, was fought with powerful steamships, and China lost badly. The Sino-Dutch War was fought with the most advanced cannons, muskets, and ships and the Chinese won. The great Ming warlord Koxinga drove the Dutch out of Taiwan.

The Sino-Dutch War is frequently mentioned in historical literature and in textbooks, but there has never been a major study of it in any language that makes use of the many sources – Chinese and European – that are available. Historians will doubtless uncover new documents and find errors and omissions here, but I hope this book will lead to greater understanding of this fascinating episode of global history.

I certainly found it fascinating to write. One thing that absorbed me as I read the sources is how the weather – the planet – became a major character. Time and time again, the war turned on a storm. Even before the war started, a typhoon destroyed a Dutch fortress on Taiwan and altered the sandy island on which it had been perched so much that the Dutch couldn’t rebuild it. This left the Dutch governor Coyet particularly vulnerable to Koxinga’s invasion. Another storm drove away the relief fleet that Coyet had managed to summon against the prevailing winds,, dashing one of its vessels to the ground, and, more importantly, taking from Coyet the element of surprise. Tide surges, unexpected currents, freak winds – over and over again nature changed the course of the war. I came to believe that nature was more important than any other factor in the war.

I say “nature,” because to me all this is an expression of the stochasticy of a beautiful but indifferent universe. As a botanist friend of mine says, “What do the stars care about some slime mold at the edge of one galaxy?” But of course the Dutch and the Chinese saw it differently. Both felt there was a higher power intervening in earthly affairs. The Dutch called in God, the Chinese called it Heaven, and although their cosmologies and theologies differed, they saw in the storms and tides, famines and floods a divine purpose. That each side thought Heaven favored their own people – or should favor their own people – is just they way they were built, it seems.

The fact that I kept finding myself writing about nature comes mostly from the sources – or I believe so anyway – but it resonated wiht me because I am trying to make sense of my own time, when climate catastrophe looms, when nature is about to start bucking like never before in our history. It bucked pretty hard in the seventeenth century, too. Right around the time the action in this book takes place, the global climate cooled abruptly. The cooling might not have caused major problems by itself, but it was accompanied by severe climate instability, just as global warming will be. There were floods and droughts, locusts and famines, riots and rebellions. Bandits raged, and governments fell like never before and never since. In fact, if it hadn’t been for this seventeenth-century global climate crisis, the Sino-Dutch War might never have happened. Koxinga might have ended up a Confucian scholar, passing examinations and writing poetry. The Dutch might have kept Taiwan for generations longer.

So did Koxinga win because he just happened to be better favored by the weather? No. Although luck played a role, Koxinga won because of leadership. His troops were better trained, better disciplined, and most important, better led than the Dutch. Bolstered by a rich military tradition, a Chinese ‘way of war,’ Koxinga and his generals outfought Dutch commanders at every turn.

The Sino-Dutch War can thus teach us valuable lessons about military history. It was fought at a time when the technological balance between China and the West was fairly even, a time more similar to today than the periods of the other Sino-Western wars – the Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Korean War – all of which were fought across a steep technological gradient. Military historians have posited the existence of a “western way of war,” a “peculiar practice of Western warfare . . . that has made Europeans the most deadly soldiers in the history of civilization.” But partisans of this sort of argument are generally ignorant of Chinese military tradition. In the Sino-Dutch War, Chinese strategies, tactics, and leadership were superior, and all were tied to a set of operational precepts drawn from China’s deep history, a history that is as full of wars as Europe’s own. The Chinese sources I read are woven through with strands of wisdom from classics like The Art of War and The Romance of Three Kingdoms. Indeed, Chinese historians have argued that Koxinga’s victory over the Dutch was due to his mastery of this traditional military wisdom.

[ The Dutch had the advantage of large ships which could sail close to the wind and carry large cannons but Chinese junks could always outrun them sailing with the wind and could be used to much greater advantage in shallow waters. The Dutch had Renaissance fortresses, with bastions that could establish deadly cross-fires against besieging forces. After some initial frustrations, however, Koxinga adapted and learned the arduous siege-works necessary to counter their power and force surrender.]

1 comment:

  1. It was the weather that set in motion the whole train of events. The climate change that occurred in the middle of the seventeenth century – volcanoes and dwindling sunspots – caused droughts and floods that destabilized not just the mighty Ming but also many other governments, making the seventeenth century arguably the most warlike and tumultuous in human history. That episode of climate change was nothing compared to what we are likely to see in the twenty-first century. We moderns are about to learn a lesson in humility.