Sunday, March 26, 2006

Chinese Riverine and Naval Technology

The short answer to why China developed a navy is to facilitate land warfare. There are numerous rivers running from west to east in China which must be crossed if a king would unify China. Since these rivers were not permanently bridged, a commander of land forces required either sufficient boat transport or pontoon bridging material to allow his forces to cross rivers in order to continue prosecuting his attack. Innovations in Chinese naval warfare seem most pronounced in the areas of shallow draft transport, riverine warfare and bridging because it was in these fields where there was an internal Chinese arms race to produce better vessels.

Two particular battles highlight the emphasis on riverine forces. The first battle, the Battle of Red Cliff occurred in the spring of 208. Forces of the Wei dynasty chained their boats together in an offensive line, using skills perfected in bridging. Rather that lash their own boats to the Wei line, the Wu-Shu fleet drifted fire boats toward the Wei fleet, then nimbly destroyed individual vessels once they broke the formation.

Another instructive example was the battle between the Jin riverine force of small vessels arrayed against the large oceangoing vessels of the Song in the Yangtze river in 1127. Although the Song ships were powerful they required strong winds to maneuver while in the current of the Yangtze. These Song ships were no match for the Jin boats on a windless day. These engagements pointed up the fact that the necessities of transporting troops across rivers and defending these transports significantly advanced Chinese riverine warfare technology which remained at a high level throughout the dynastic period. Oceangoing Chinese naval technology was less impressive.

Naval technology (vice riverine technology) did advance at times in China, but these advances seem to be more related to the urge to thwart pirates and individual initiative. This halting advance of technology can be explained by the lack of a maritime threat to China. The Mongols to the West and North were a constant, overland threat to all of China, while southern and northern Chinese power centers were frequently at odds, requiring the riverine forces discussed above. Korean and Japan were not real threats to China until the 16th Century, and given that those two powers were in a naval arms race, they had to be wary of each other, which left China relatively unmolested. The Ming dynasty raised a huge ground army for defense, and relied on the Korean navy to interdict the Japanese supply lines, further lessening the need for Chinese naval technological advancement. Once again, the threat, or lack of it, dictated the direction of Chinese naval technology.

While it is undeniable that at times Chinese naval technology rivaled that of the European oceangoing powers, the lack of necessity for naval advancement would later severely hurt China. Once European powers began appearing off the Chinese coast in large numbers in the 19th century. China’s centuries-long lack of necessity in maintaining a naval force would result in the painful assaults on its sovereignty culminating in the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties.