BOOK REVIEW – China as a Sea Power 1127-1368

Lo Jung-pang, Edited and with Commentary by Bruce A. Elleman, China as a Sea Power 1127-1368: A Preliminary Survey of the Maritime Expansion and Naval Exploits of the Chinese People During the Southern Song and Yuan Periods. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2012. 378 pp. B & W illustrations; notes; bibliography; index.

Review by John M. Jennings
United States Air Force Academy

The late Lo Jung-pang (1912-1981) was a pioneer in the field of Chinese naval history. He contributed a number of articles on early Chinese naval technology to Joseph Needham’s magisterial series Science and Civilisation in China and his journal articles “The Emergence of China as a Sea-Power during the late Sung and early Yuan Periods” (1955), “The Decline of the Early Ming Navy” (1958), and “Maritime Commerce and Its Relations to the Sung Navy” (1969) are still standard works today. However, his book–length study China as a Sea Power 1127-1368, which was written in 1957, remained unpublished at the time of his death for reasons that are unclear. After a lapse of over fifty years, this lacuna has finally been filled thanks to the efforts of the Naval War College historian Bruce Elleman, who discovered the manuscript among Lo’s papers in the University of California Davis archives and edited it for publication.

Although Lo focuses on the second half of the Song Period and Yuan Period (1127-1368), he shows that China’s naval history dates back to the first recorded organization of a naval force by a king of the Zhou Dynasty in the eleventh century BCE. By the time of the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE), the coastal combatant states were deploying naval forces comprised of increasingly sophisticated ships specifically designed for combat. Over the next millennium after the imperial unification in 221 BCE, as Chinese settlers pushed southeast into coastal regions, both inland waterways such as the Yangzi River and the sea came to play an increasingly important role in economic and military affairs of the empire. Despite more government attention to expansion inland to the northwest, the Tang Period (618-907) marked the emergence of China as a significant participant in international maritime trade, not just with its immediate neighbors in Asia, but also with India, Persia and the Arabs. There was also a significant naval dimension to China’s military involvement in Korea during this period, most notably the victory of the Tang navy and its Korean allies over a Japanese expeditionary force off the coast of Korea in 663.

However, it was not until the Song Period (960-1279) that China fully emerged as a sea power. As Lo explains, an invasion by “barbarians” from Central Asia drove the ruling Song Dynasty from northern China in 1127. One of the key problems the Song emperors and their officials faced as they scrambled to consolidate the remains of their empire in the southern half of China and hold off the invaders from the north was how to generate the revenue necessary to rebuild and maintain the government and military. This was especially problematic as the Chinese imperial dynasties had traditionally relied on land taxes, which were now essentially halved due to the loss of the north. In response, the rulers of Song Dynasty embraced the maritime commercial economy, which consequently flourished and provided an ever-growing source of tax revenue in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The growing importance of seaborne trade to the overall economy and as a revenue source also led to a recognition on the part of the Song emperors and their advisers of the desirability of building and maintaining a preeminent navy. And indeed, during the latter half of the Song Period (1127-1279), the Chinese navy was arguably the largest and most technologically advanced in the world. At its height in the early thirteenth century, the Song navy consisted of hundreds of warships of varying sizes featuring technological innovations such as paddle wheels and an array of gunpowder weapons. As Lo points out, the navy did not only protect sea lanes, but it also played a key role in Song China’s defense against “barbarian” invasions from the north. In contrast to the numerous defeats suffered on land, Song domination of the Yangzi River led to the decisive victory at the naval Battle of Caishi in 1161, and prevented Jurchen invaders from taking over southern China.

Further emphasizing the importance of the navy to the Song Dynasty, Lo explains that naval defenses along the Yangzi River and protection of the coastline also stalled the conquest of southern China by the Mongols, who supplanted the Jurchen in northern China in the early thirteenth century. Masters of warfare on land, the Mongols were stymied for several decades by Song mastery of riverine and oceanic warfare. It was not until the Mongols developed their own naval capability and persuaded disaffected elements of the Song navy to defect that they were able overrun southern China; the decisive Battle of Yaishan, which doomed the Song Dynasty in 1279, was a naval battle.

With their newly-found appreciation of the significance of naval warfare, absorption of the defeated Song navy, and dedication to conquest, the Mongols launched a number of naval expeditions with mixed results. The two invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 were disastrous failures, but the subsequent series of seaborne assaults on Southeast Asia between 1283 and 1293 enjoyed a measure of success, even if of an ephemeral nature. Lo’s description of these campaigns is especially enlightening both for its valuable detail and as a corrective to the common perception of the Mongols as being largely uninterested in maritime enterprises.

While it cannot be said that China as a Sea Power 1127-1368 breaks new ground, as Lo had already done so long ago in his shorter published works, it is interesting to read his work in book length. Having said that, the fact that it is still largely in manuscript form makes for challenging reading. Readers expecting an easily-digestible synthesis will likely be daunted by the mass of detail. The editing leaves much to be desired, as Chinese personal and place names are inconsistently Romanized; sometimes the same name is rendered in the both the older Wade-Giles and newer Pinyin system within the same paragraph, guaranteeing confusion for non-specialist readers. The profusion of frequently obscure place names begs the inclusion of maps.  Finally, because this book was written in 1957, the sources in the bibliography for the most part only go up to that year. While the editor has added a few post-1957 publications to the bibliography, a bibliographic essay updating the historiography would have been helpful.

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