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When China Conquered the West with Camel Artillery
Originally posted 15 August 2022.
By the end of the 17th Century, the Pax Mongolica had transformed the center of Asia with roads and walled towns. Yet the Golden Horde was a thing of the past, their empire in severe decline. Mongols hated sieges and their enemies knew it, fortifying points of control. An army’s horses ate out all the pasture around a small fort in two months — not long enough to starve out defenders, but long enough to kill half an army through poor sanitation and hygiene. Horse herds declined with the advance of farming into the Asian interior, while new diseases that traveled on the Mongolian highways took a demographic toll.
For two centuries, the Mongols ruled Kabul and Kandahar from Karakorum by way of those roads. Sandwiched between rising powers in Muscovy and China, too much steppe space had been lost to them for the grand maneuvers that had defeated so many enemy armies before.
Seeing their weakness, the Qianglong Emperor embarked on his Ten Great Campaigns, conquering the former Mongol domains to create western China. He was the fifth divine emperor of the Qing dynasty, and in the classic mold of Chinese emperors he saw the whole world as a Chinese imperial dominion that owed tribute, and celebrated that power in public art projects as well as thousands of commissioned poems, essays, and songs. Geomancers selected the sites for hundreds of stone stelae set up in towns all across the new domain to memorialize the Ten Campaigns. Because the world had been globalized by the dying Mongolian dominion, the Qianlong Emperor could employ Jesuit missionary artists to record his exploits in a blend of eastern and western styles, producing copper plate engravings in France so that the whole world could see China’s greatness.
One of those sixteen prints is on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum. Seen above, it “depicts the end of the siege of a camp at Qara usu (the Black River), near Yarkand in 1758 where Qing troops were blockaded over the winter for three months” until the beginning of 1759. "The Lifting of the Siege of the Black River Camp" was commissioned six years later in Beijing and produced at the court of Louis XV. It is an action-filled panorama of the relief of the besieged army. The right side of the work shows the Dzungar coalition abandoning their siege.
We do not see any fieldworks. Mongols were not only hateful of siege, but bad at it, so bad that a well-equipped and supplied garrison could defeat them through deft use of close terrain and some digging. However, we do get to see a bridging operation. The Manchus were quite proud of their engineering skills, so it is not surprising that the Qianlong Emperor would want his successful river-crossing commemorated. Like siege art, combat engineering scenes are such a specific subgenre of military artwork that it only occurs to military historians to even notice them.
We should pause here to acknowledge that the conquest of the Dzungar Khanate, which had been little more than a loose tribal confederation, turned into a genocide. Up to a third of the population was put to the sword. Mass migrations ensued as refugees fled to Russia or the Kazakh lands. Disease and hunger did the rest. Uyghur Muslims loyal to the Qianlong Emperor filled the space left behind. Qianlong renamed the conquered territory Xianjang and incorporated it using the standard tools of Manchuization. Today, the province is synonymous with genocide again, this time in the form of ethnic Hanization.
Moreover, Qianlong’s strategy aimed at ending Tibetan resistance to his domination, including the politics of the Dalai Lama’s succession. All of it resonates with 21st Century realities because Chinese imperialism has historically been just as notorious as any other kind of imperialism. In fact, during the 1700s China was seen in Europe and Russia as the most powerful and feared empire on the planet, and Qianlong armies were larger than any in the world, equipped with an eclectic mix of tools suitable for fighting in a variety of conditions quite unlike western Europe.
One of the most unique examples is the artillery camel, known by the Persian word zamburak. As seen in the illustration — which, again, was drawn to the order of an emperor with high standards and an eye for detail — the cannons are not being fired from the backs of the camels. Rather, the camels have been used to bring the light cannons to a firing position where they can be dismounted and aimed at upward angles for firing. These are probably Portuguese-pattern cannons, light pieces suitable for battles of maneuver, which this was.
Here again, the artwork diverges from most contemporary military artwork by showing us the action around a crew-served weapon. Artillery scenes in European art of the period usually depict only the gunner, an artistic omission that obscures the social history of this branch of arms. Artillerymen still consider themselves a separate caste within the military culture, for their specialized skills and terminology set them apart from the rest of the soldiery.
Qianlong’s hagiography records that on 3 February 1759, his advance relief column encountered an enemy cavalry force more than eight times their size near Qurman. In the ensuing battle, camel-borne artillery combined with muskets and archers stopped charge after charge, finally routing the Dzungar confederates from their unfortified camp. Qing forces pursued, and after a series of battles, finally crushed all resistance on 1 September. The Revolt of the Altishahr Khojas was over. All possibility of further resistance ended when the king of Badakhshan betrayed its leaders to the Qing.
Thereafter, the only remaining Mongol armies were the ones employed by the Qianlong Emperor, usually against faraway enemies such as Burma. The Pax Mongolica had changed the world; now it was over, and China was the greatest power in the world, thanks in one small part to camel-borne artillery.
For transit, the cannon tubes are secured to the Y-shaped wooden cradle mounted on this Bactrian camel in the foreground using the ropes that are hanging loose on the saddle. The crew lifts the cannon from the cradle to place it on a wooden beam rest on the ground. A team loads and fires each cannon. The gunner puts a lit matchcord to the touchhole, where a small powder charge ignites the main powder charge inside the gun.
One man carries a heavy bag of cannonballs. Another man is putting down his sheaf of arrows to take part in the team relay with yet another man handing out the small cannonballs from a canvas bag. Despite being made to order by one despot’s engravers on behalf of another despot, a very human event is happening in the foreground of this masterpiece. One might even detect a shared sense of fate: there are two exchanges going on here, one between men and another between man and animal, acknowledging where the burdens of war always lie.
Even the greatest emperor in the world must rely on the humblest creatures. This sort of common touch is why, despite all the ancient pomp that went with his court, many historians of China see the roots of Chinese nationalism, and modern China, in the 61-year reign of Qianlong. Chinese decline did not begin until decades after his death. New technologies developed in Europe and the Americas, and an isolationist turn in the Forbidden Palace, brought an end to any Pax Chinae in the Far East.
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