• Hamsini Hariharan

Book Review: Chinese and Indian Warfare – From the Classical Age to 1870

This book review first appeared in The Indian Journal for Military History and Historiography, 2018.


Roy, Kaushik; Lorge, Peter A.: Chinese and Indian Warfare – From the Classical

Age to 1870 (Abingdon, 2015), 379 pp., isbn 978-0415502443.


An understanding of strategic culture is not complete without military history. Since George Tanham’s controversial essay, there has been much debate on whether India even possesses a strategic culture.1 Going back to the military history of Asia (studied from a non-western perspective) repudiates Tanham’s thesis. While Asia itself is a contested construct, its regions wide and diverse, the two largest (and oldest) civilizations have a long, illustrious history where war is the norm. Military history of South Asia and China has been indepen- dently studied. Literature is vast but analysis that is contextualized to current geopolitics is sparse.


In most cases, the military histories of these countries focus on the post- 1940s period when India became independent and the Communist Party of China came to power. Both countries boast their own Machiavellian equiva- lents in Kautilya and Sun Tzu. There is a cognizance that these civilizational worldviews render strategic thinking in both countries differently. However, most literature in international relations and political science continue to rely on western frameworks to analyse these countries, their foreign policies and their strategies. There is a need to undertake a comprehensive comparative analysis of China and India’s military history. Such a study can then be juxtaposed with those of other developed countries in the West and beyond.


This book, Chinese and Indian Warfare – From the Classical Age to 1870, partly fills this void. It places China and India in a field that is largely Eurocentric and concludes that the way of the West is the ‘best’. It steps beyond the clichés of Sun Tzu and Kautilya to show a rich military history and puts both in con- text by studying them side by side. While several of the periods, wars, events and persona may have been studied within Indian history and Chinese history separately, the book provides a refreshing perspective to studying military happenings in Asia. The editor has worked hard to bring together seemingly disparate works of academic military history starting from Cao Mie’s thesis on ‘Opportune Moments’ in war (and peacetime) to the Mughals, the Marathas and even the exploits of the East India Company in the 18th century.


Much of the book focuses on improvements in warfare and how it trick- led down into the civilian economy. For example, the prosperity of the border state of Liandong during Ming rule was traced back to economic and political reforms instituted by the rulers to secure the supply of warhorses. Like the Ming’s advantage in battle (because of horses), the Indian emperors realized the advantage that elephants could provide on and off the battlefield.


Another important feature in battles became the use of technology: whether it is the European cannons used by the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century to successfully defend the state from Mongol attacks or the Qing Dynasty’s use of firepower procured from the Portuguese to mount pressure on an already factional Ming state eventually culminating in victory.


Given the large coastlines of these countries, it is surprising that most exist- ing literature focuses mostly on the victory of Portuguese ships over Indian ones. This book throws light on the often-overlooked aspect of Mughal mari- time warfare capabilities. It highlights the tactical brilliance of the Marathas, and the shift from highly individualized warfare in Haider Ali’s army and the Kandyans’ use of guerrilla warfare against European powers. The nuances of civil-military relations were dealt in both poetry and art in these countries, and are well explored in this book.


The authors have used a variety of historical archives to inform their analy- sis. The painstaking efforts to stay true to the original meaning of texts (in the case of translations) does come through when analyzing military concepts such as Wen-wu, Ji, Yudda, and Vijaya. Decoding military history of these coun- tries can be complex and difficult given the language skillset and cultural ap- preciation it requires on part of the historian.


A non-western perspective on Asian military history is necessary at a time when Asia’s rise is heralded as the most important geopolitical event. The book attempts to cover a plethora of issues and partially succeeds. It is easy to point out events and histories that are not covered in the book. However, the editors have kept in mind that it is an impossible feat to cover all of Indian and Chinese military history in a single volume. Nonetheless, the book is based on in-depth research and breaks considerable empirical ground. There have been many de- bates on whether Asia’s past can determine its future. As this book shows, we first need a better understanding of Asia’s past to study contemporary events. Kaushik Roy and Peter Large set the foundation for such an understanding.

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