How might China employ its new military capabilities? Maybe not the way Western minds think. A look into the different paths a particular weapon, the bow and arrow, took in China and Europe is instructive.
Societies in the eastern half of Eurasia and its outliers have always contrasted with those of the western half; this difference that extends back into the Paleolithic. (The apparent lack of refinement in stone tools recovered east of the Persian Gulf has been explained by a cultural reliance on bamboo for tools and implements, which do not preserve well.)
In a new paper, “The Asian War Bow,” physicist Timo A. Nieminen, from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, explains how the Chinese were able to create the most high-performance bows of pre-industrial times, from quite advanced materials composited together. Yet, the Chinese war bows were expensive, exacting and time-consuming to make, and require skilled bowmen to be effective weapons. So why didn’t Chinese armies switch to firearms when the Europeans and Turks did?
Because China had the deep reserves of manpower to continue using bows and arrows in quantity long after the spread of firearms, war bows were used by Chinese troops into the 20th century alongside gunpowder weapons. Europe, lacking such great populations, quickly adopted technology that put a lot of firepower into less-skilled hands, replacing hard-to-train bowmen with musketeers, then riflemen, then machine gunners.
The Japanese Shogunate’s renunciation of firearms is another, even more extreme example of the different approaches Eastern and Western societies took to gunpowder technology. The use of a mobile land-based ballistic missile to sink a maneuvering capital ship is perhaps but the first in a new wave of unconventional approaches to conventional weapons.