Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Asian Military Revolution

Book Cover

Book Title

The Asian Military Revolution: From Gunpowder to the Bomb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008


Lorge, Peter A.


Lorge makes his point directly: there was an Asian military revolution long before the European military revolution, and the latter was in fact to no small degree an outgrowth of the former. Lorge argues that this military revolution began in Song China, which also saw the dawn of what he calls early modern warfare, and he explains it by tracing the same dynamic identified by the scholarship that conceptualized the military revolution in Europe. That dynamic involved understanding that technology and technological change, especially weaponry--in this case, gunpowder, and the development of firearms that it made possible—was important, but this can only be understood in context. Technological change prompted changes in the way armies were organized, maintained, and how they fought battles and waged wars. Such changes prompted further changes in economic, social, and especially political institutions, practices, and infrastructures. That ‘chain of change’ constituted the military revolution. In the Asian experience this military revolution unfolded over more than five centuries, spreading incrementally across time and space, prompting incremental adjustments much more often than revolutionary transformations. But the core dynamic was the impact the spread of firepower weapons had on the relationships between the army, the state, economy and society. This process was already far advanced by the time European powers began to penetrate Asian space, and deploy more potent military technology. Asian polities were not overwhelmed by the developing technology gap, nor did they disdain the technology. The really pivotal developments were political and cultural, to be found in the wider context of power relationships in which military technology was employed. And in that context, imperial states played a significant role, both in transmitting the Asian military revolution to Europe and influencing how Asian societies responded when European military power brought it back to Asia.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Lorge concentrates on three regions: East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. But he accepts the concept of a Eurasian geopolitical environment, as a space in which this protracted military revolution unfolded. Drawing primarily from the most significant scholarship, Lorge’s extended essay synthesis emphasizes three points. First, the mere existence of gunpowder and firearms was not revolutionary. The weapons had to be operationalized by a system that had the capacity to build, maintain and use them in significant numbers, to military effect, before they could transform battle, and therefore war, and therefore politics. Second, many Asian polities did not develop more potent weaponry not necessarily because they lacked the technological skill or cultutral receptiveness, but because social and political circumstances either provided no incentive or tended to make such change undesirable. Finally, Asian inability to cope with the expansion of European ambition and power in various regions was not due to military weakness, but to political frailty. Asian states, not Asian armies, could not cope with European military high imperialism.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Lorge’s synthesis works well enough for South Asia and Qing China. The argument that South Asian military systems were neither transformed nor overwhelmed by European power and practices is well established, but Lorge ably explains how indigenous and European military capabilities blended in the latter half of the Mughal period. The familiar argument for state decline in the Mughal and Qing experiences, contrasted by successful state building in the Japanese experience, explains the transformation that occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In Southeast Asia, the absence of any commanding imperial state, and the maritime geography of the region, shaped its quite different military experience in absorbing European penetration.

Lorge presents an argument that very much expresses the new vantage point of the ‘European moment,’ stressing how contingent Western ascendancy in Asia was. The theme of military power, and the relationship between the state and its ability to project that power, is, as he persuasively demonstrates, a very clear perspective from which to engage that vantage point.   

Annotated by Brian Farrell