The Rest Is History

From Taiwan to the Netherlands, Tonio Andrade journeys through Chinese military history and its global implications

By Lola Pak

Story Photo

It began the summer before his third year of college. Tonio Andrade, then a biology major, was in the middle of a lab program when he met a brilliant and interesting classmate from China. Andrade found himself drawn into his lab mate’s language and culture. He started learning Chinese, took a gap year in Taiwan, and changed majors. Soon after, he went on to graduate school to earn three master’s degrees and a doctorate in history.

Now a professor in Emory’s history department, Andrade’s passion for China has evolved from language learning to teaching early East Asian history and researching China’s relatively unknown military history.

“It became really fascinating to me,” he says, referring to China’s unbroken military tradition that stretches back to Sun Tzu’s treatise, The Art of War, and the Classical period. “I think it’s really worth paying attention to, especially if there’s ever a war between China and the US; I think the Chinese have a lot to teach us.”

His first book, How Taiwan Became Chinese: Dutch, Spanish, and Han Colonization in the Seventeenth Century (2008), explores the history of Taiwan under Dutch colonial rule, the Sino-Dutch War of 1661, and China’s eventual conquest of the island-nation.

“It was a really important story because people haven’t really looked at wars between Europeans and Asians very much,” he says. “When they have, they’ve tended to focus on wars that Europeans won. But there are a bunch of wars they didn’t win, and this is one of them.”

A few years later, while writing a follow-up article, Andrade—who also speaks Dutch, French, and Spanish—discovered Dutch accounts of the war that revealed a closely fought battle for Taiwan, a conflict he had believed to be easily dominated by the Chinese. “The war was actually really hard fought,” he says. “A few hundred Dutch men had managed to hold off an army of 25,000 or more battle-hardened Chinese. I realized there was a great story there.”

Not one to miss out on a good story, he released a follow-up book in 2011 titled Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West. Using the eccentric Chinese general Koxinga as one of his primary characters, Andrade recounts the tense battle with vivid descriptions of Chinese pirates, forts with cannons, and even an alcoholic German.

His next book, The Gunpowder Age, is tentatively scheduled for release next year. In it, he traces military innovation in China and the West and how gunpowder, though invented in China, came to be considered a Western creation by many.

Countering the notion of Western military dominance is not necessarily Andrade’s raison d’être, but much of his research sheds light on the advanced military technology and innovation of China and East Asia, which were far more developed than in the West.

“One of the great questions in world history is, ‘Why did China start out so far ahead? Why was it so advanced?’” says Andrade. “They had printing, urbanized cultures, gunpowder—they were modern! So why did the Europeans end up conquering the world? Why do we all wear European suits instead of Ming scholar suits of silk?”

Mark Ravina, who teaches an introductory East Asian history course with Andrade, finds this type of probing characteristic of Andrade’s academic style. “With Tonio, [teaching the course] has been so intellectually stimulating that I really look forward to it,” he says. “Every time we teach the class, we do it a little differently because of what we learned from each other in the past round.”

He leaves a similar impact on his students. Hyeok Hweon Kang 13C, who started a doctoral program in premodern Korean history at Harvard University this fall, credits Andrade for igniting his own passion for history and providing mentorship beyond an academic setting.

“I am always grateful to Dr. Andrade for helping me find a compelling voice as a historian,” says Kang. “He has imparted to me the craftsmanship of concise, creative historical writing and an aptitude for engaging East Asian history with the booming field of global history.”

Global, or World History, is a discipline that attempts to study the history of humanity rather than focusing on specific nations or eras. For Andrade, who teaches a graduate course on the subject, it adds an expansive perspective to the often-compartmentalized field of history.

“I think it’s something we desperately need if we’re all going to get along on this little planet of ours; we’ve got to have some kind of common history, you know?” he says. “History is such an important thing—it unites us and gives us a story about ourselves.”

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