This month marks the 350th anniversary of the West's first war with China. In February 1662, Generalissimo Zheng Chenggong swept the Dutch off of Taiwan, bringing the island under Chinese rule for the first time in history. The Dutch were Europe's most dynamic colonial power, and the Taiwan colony was their largest holding in Asia, so the war is fascinating from the perspective of global history, touching on the question of the global balance of power in the pre-modern world.
But the war also has lessons for today, because among the factors that enabled the Chinese to win was a rich, effective, and, to Westerners, mysterious military tradition – a strategic culture that provided a discernable boost to Chinese warcraft. The Dutch, famous in Europe for their weapons, tactics, and logistics, found themselves hopelessly outclassed by the Chinese. Since military leaders in China today are still deeply imbued with this traditional military culture, it behooves us to study it.
Westerners still tend to underestimate Chinese military prowess, viewing China as a historically peaceful nation frequently invaded by bellicose neighbors: Huns, Mongols, Manchus, and, of course, Japanese. During World War II, U.S. and British propaganda strengthened this image by depicting China as a hapless victim of a modernized, assertive, and militarily effective Japan. Most westerners even believe that the Chinese invented gunpowder but never used it in weapons, reserving it for fireworks.
In fact, the first guns were developed in China, as were the first cannons, rockets, grenades, and land mines. The Chinese eagerly studied foreigners' weapons, such as Japanese muskets and English cannons. So it's no surprise that on Taiwan, the Dutch found themselves hard pressed by Chinese firepower. The Dutch were no laggards. Dutch cannons and handguns were famous throughout Europe, and the Dutch arms industry was a major part of its booming early-capitalist economy. Yet the guns aimed against them by their Chinese foes were strikingly effective, and the Chinese gunners were so fast and so accurate that, as one Dutch commander wrote in chagrin, “they put our own men to shame.”