Tonio Andrade


On his book Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West

Cover Interview of December 08, 2011

The wide angle

Forget technology and weather for now. I want to spend some of my few allotted words talking about something else: China’s much neglected military tradition.

Western scholars—like the famous Victor Davis Hanson—argue that there was a “Western Way of War” that was superior to other military traditions.  It’s not that westerners were braver than other peoples. They were just better at working together to fight. They coordinated their movements en masse and that gave them an advantage on the battlefield. When westerners developed powerful handguns in the 1500s and 1600s, they learned to train their armies to march in lockstep to the beat of drummers, firing and reloading in succession, creating disciplined armies coordinated like clockwork. That “revolution in drill” is said to have been a prime reason for Europeans’ power abroad.

But what I found in the rich sources I consulted—both Chinese and European sources—completely contradicted this idea.

The Chinese troops in the Sino-Dutch War were incredibly disciplined.  They worked much better together than did their Dutch foes—and the Dutch were the ones who invented modern European drill.

The main character of Lost Colony, the brilliant Chinese warlord Koxinga, obsessively drilled his troops, training them to march in lockstep to drums and horns and gongs. When they met Dutch troops in battle, it was the Dutch who scattered and ran and the Chinese who moved calmly forward.

In fact, the more I learned about China’s military tradition the more fascinated I got. There were illustrated drilling manuals published by Chinese generals that are strikingly similar to manuals published at the same time in Europe.

Those European manuals have been regarded as exceptional, a sign of the rapid advancement in the art of war in Europe. But the surge of Chinese publishing on war was stunning, and most military historians know nothing about it.

Equally fascinating to me was the deep tradition of military thought that guided Koxinga and his generals. These precepts about war espouse a military philosophy that is quite different from the western one, and in this war at least it proved superior. Since that military philosophy still guides today’s Chinese military leaders, it’s worth looking into.