Lessons from Europe’s First War with China


The Surrender of Zeelandia, from Verwaerloosde Formosa, 1675

by Tonio Andrade

This February marked the 350th anniversary of an important but forgotten war: the Sino-Dutch War of 1661-1662. The Dutch, who’d defeated the British, the Portuguese and the Spanish, whose guns and military practices were famous throughout Europe, found themselves outfought, out-led and outmaneuvered by a Chinese warlord named Koxinga, son of a pirate.

Why is this war forgotten? It was clearly an important conflict. It brought the island of Taiwan under Chinese rule for the first time in history, altering the geopolitical framework in East Asia, and it marked a setback, the first major one, for the expanding Dutch empire in Asia. Yet although most students of history have a passing familiarity with the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Dutch “Revolt” against the Spanish, and the Glorious Revolution, the Sino-Dutch War, which was arguably more important than these conflicts, has disappeared from our historical consciousness.

The operative word here is “our,” because the Chinese do celebrate this war, viewing it as an early victory against western imperialism. The victor Koxinga is as famous in East Asia as Henry VIII is in England or Thomas Jefferson is in the U.S.

The first thing to know is that Koxinga was a samurai. His father was a Chinese pirate, but his mother was Japanese, and so he was raised with a samurai sword in his grip. The boy who would become one of China’s great national heroes was thus only half Chinese, and this tells us something about the world of “traditional” China: it was a much more hybrid and mixed and diverse world than most westerners, or even Chinese, acknowledge.

The second thing to know is that when Koxinga went to live with his father in China at the age of seven, his family had become one of the wealthiest in the world. Yearly income from its trading networks, which stretched throughout East and Southeast Asia, was probably greater than the yearly earnings of the Dutch and English East India Companies combined. Indeed, these two paragons of capitalism were dwarfed by the trading organization of a former Chinese pirate, easily changing our perspective on early capitalism and the economic rise of the west.

The third thing to know is that the army Koxinga built after he inherited his father’s organization was a match for anything any European power could field in the period. There is a view, still current, that China in its long history was generally a peaceful nation, relatively uninterested in war, but often invaded by more warlike neighbors. This idea was strengthened during the World War II, when US and British propaganda portrayed China as a hapless victim of a rapacious Japan. The idea of China as a gentle giant, civilized but unschooled in war, persists today. Indeed, it is still repeated that the Chinese invented gunpowder but never thought to use it for weapons, preferring instead to make fireworks.

All of this is false. China has had a deep, rich, and effective military tradition, one that rivals the military tradition in the west, which scholars and pundits have lauded as the “Western Way of War,” supposedly superior over all others. China invented guns, cannons, rockets, grenades and mines. During the Sino-Dutch War, the Dutch found that their cannons, supposedly the most advanced in the world, were easily matched by Chinese cannons, and Chinese gunners were so good that, as one Dutch commander wrote in chagrin, “they put our own men to shame.”

Yet where the Dutch really lost the war was in leadership. The Dutch were famous in Europe for their military organization and leadership. The Dutch invented modern military drill, training their men to march in lockstep, to conduct intricate maneuvers in concert. This ability to make many men act as one unit was considered until recently a special hallmark of the “Western Way of War,” making westerners more effective on battlefields, acting as a force multiplier. Indeed, Dutch drill instructors were sought after throughout Europe, and Dutch military manuals were translated into English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, and many other European languages.

However, the Dutch found themselves entirely outfought, out-led, and outfoxed in the Taiwan War. Their Chinese adversaries benefited from a rich military tradition, two millennia of unbroken thinking on the subject of warfare. Many westerners are aware of the founder of that tradition, the famous Sun Tzu, whose Art of War stands on many a CEO’s bookshelf, but most know nothing of all the brilliant strategists, tacticians and logistics experts who followed, and whose works constitute what is arguably the world’s richest corpus of military thought anywhere in the world.

The Chinese generals who defeated the Dutch knew this Chinese military tradition intimately. They could reference complex stories and stratagems by means of a few words, in much the way westerners do with the term “Trojan Horse,” except that the Chinese had thousands of such phrases to draw on. Scholars in China have argued compellingly that the Chinese victory over the Dutch was due in part to Chinese generals’ employment of this accumulated military wisdom.

Yet the Chinese military tradition wasn’t just about abstract stratagems. It was also relentlessly practical. The Chinese drilled their soldiers every bit as effectively as the Europeans, if not more so, and historical sources from around the time of the Sino-Dutch war contain prescriptions and descriptions of training that sound strikingly modern: drilling for the simulation of combat stress, for example, or for the assumption of prone positions in firefights (westerners were in contrast trained to stay upright, exposing their bodies to bullets). All manners of the practical military arts, from choosing soldiers to logistics to the provision of uniforms, were highly developed in China.

The Chinese handily defeated the Dutch in 1662, and the next time the Chinese and Europeans fought a war, Europe had gone through an industrial revolution. Britain easily won the Opium War, and the west had the edge in all the conflicts that followed.

Today, China is rapidly modernizing its armed forces, and the technological balance is closer than at any time in the past three centuries. It seems possible that western powers and China might once again come to blows – perhaps over the issue of Taiwan, which Beijing is intent on appending to The People’s Republic, and which America is pledged by law to defend. If so, the war will not be like the Opium War or even the Korean War, in which China fought uphill against a steep technological gradient.

China may be building stealth fighters and advanced submarines, but the tactics and strategies it will employ in the event of war will be based on the millennia of Chinese military thinking. Commanders in the People’s Liberation Army know their Sun Tzu, their Zhuge Liang and their Qi Jiguang. They will draw on this rich tradition, and just as that tradition helped Koxinga to defeat the Dutch, it will give them important resources in any war against a modern adversary. We westerners would do well to study the Chinese Way of War, and there’s no better place to start than the Sino-Dutch War of 1661-1668.

About the Author:

Tonio Andrade is Associate Professor of History at Emory University. He is the author of Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West.