Guns in Qing era Taiwan?

I was wondering how prevalent firearms were, among the civilian population, in Qing era Taiwan? I did not pull that question out of thin air. There are two aspects of Taiwan Qing era history which are of particular interest to me; martial arts and the legal system and private gun ownership often lies at the cross roads of those two interests.

When reading a bit about the law I noticed that several of the law cases reported in the Dan An archives (an archive of Qing era cases from the Hsinchu area) mention civilians having access to what seems to be a fairly large number of muskets. (which in the case I have in mind, the civilians were getting ready to use on the yamen officials, the year was 1856)

If there were a fair number of firearms floating around Taiwan at that time, where did they come from. My first thought was that the Dutch gave/sold them to the Han/Hakka immigrants to use on either deer or aboriginals or both. Part of what prompted me to think that was that muskets were pretty archaic by 1856 so I was thinking the villages must have come by them quite a bit earlier or got them “Dutch Pirate Surplus” so to speak.

Any thoughts on this? Should Qing era Taiwan have had a chapter of the National Rife Association? (of which I am a proud member).

Take care,

Just off the top of my head I could throw out a couple places, this is more a brainstorm than a serious scholarly piece.

  1. Japan- Japan had plenty of gunsmiths. They were taught by the Portuguese(sp?) or Dutch as I recall. I know Koxinga had bank accounts and contacts in Japan and possibly a wife from there.

  2. Hong Kong- In the book, “Foreign Mud,” It details that the Ching had guns and cannons of their own manufacture, though of dubious quality(i.e. they were as likely to kill the user as the target). Gunpowder was also a problem. It was normally locally manufactured and also of equally dubious quality. They’re were instances where cannonballs fired at British ships simply bounced off due to lack of power/momentum.

  3. Qing dynasty military forces- Poorly trained, equipped and led, these troops would of happily sold their firearms for cash, taken them home, or used them to threaten others.

  4. Taiping rebellion- I believe this is later than 1856, but foreigners were selling guns to them as often as possible till the British navy sided with the Qing and put an end to gun runners. From what little I have read they seemed to understand the use and how to employ firearms on the battlefield. They had trouble manufacturing gunpowder till they recruited some miners that could find and mine saltpeter for them.

Due to the lack of quality and the great risk to the user from misfires, I don’t really see them as popular weapons for Chinese troops unless they were of foreign manufacture. Also due to the expense and training required, I see them as mainly a show weapon. With all the noise and smoke I don’t think you would have to even fire near a target to get them to run. Clan feuds in Taiwan used them from what I have read, but I don’t know if that would really be considered real fighting because Taiwan was dangerous enough from disease that fighting for real rather than a show of force would of been counter-productive.

Just a few random thoughts,

During the early 19th century clan wars in central Taiwan, small bore canons were often used. I imagine most were manufactured locally. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to cast something like this.

[quote]I know Koxinga had bank accounts and contacts in Japan and possibly a wife from there.

His mother was Japanese. Wasn’t he born in Japan (ort he Rykukus so?) too? He had bigime pirate/smuggler contacts. Did Koxinga use guns though?

Brian, you mentioned muskets being archaic by 1856. Are you sure about that? I’m not that storng on military history, but weren’t they still the firearm of choice untilt he early 1860s?

Well, I don’t have much to add, but I find this topic very interesting. it seems to me very likely that at least one group got their hands on a large shipment of guns to give themselves a military advantage at some time.


[quote=“Bu Lai En”]Brian, you mentioned muskets being archaic by 1856. Are you sure about that? I’m not that storng on military history, but weren’t they still the firearm of choice untilt he early 1860s?

The British Army used muskets in the American Revolution (1776) and were defeated by Americans (in the southern colonies) armed with rifles.

Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman
by Don Higginbotham. Morgan made his reputation in employing troops armed with rifles to defeat the British on the battlefield using firepower exclusively. While the use of rifles was certainly known to the British and their German allies, they restricted their rifle units to the skirmishing role. Morgan combined the mass employment of rifles with obstructed terrain to eliminate the use of the bayonet and put the smoothbore musket at a disadvantage. 255 pages. (University of North Carolina Press)

Early or late Qing. ie, pre Japanese colonisation?

Interesting to ponder how many aborigines had fire arms. I guess Japanese records would give some indication. Certainly they would have secured qite a few from their none too infrequent fracas towards the end of the Qing.

Wasn’t Taiwan the source for saltpeter or some other ingrediaent of gunpowder?


The American “rifles” were rifled muskets – front loaders.

According to several sources I have, there was an arsenal and powder mill in Taipei in the second half of the 19th century, which functioned right up to the Japanese capture of it in the 1895 invasion, the island’s only arsenal and powder mill (see Lamley’s article in Taiwan: Studies in Local Chinese History). During the 1860s the Ching government began having local gentry train and equip local militia units (Lamley) but I can’t find out with what…

Davidson has a great description of the eclectic collection of cannon defending Tamshui in 1895, including heavy modern guns (like the 12, 10, and 6 inch Armstrongs, 65 mm Krupp weapons, and machine guns), but also in some places old Spanish and Dutch and Chinese guns of every description, which the soldiers had literally dug out of the ground “…representative guns of apparently every imperial dynasty in China since guns have been invented. They were…in one uniform condition of rust and rottenness. The soldiers could be seen nearly every day prospecting around for these old cannon…” Davidson adds that the villagers greeted each exhumation with a chorus of “Ai-yas.”

Davidson says that the arsenal had a complete rolling mill, which means that it turned out rifles, but there were large numbers of the useless Chinese jing-galls, which the Chinese government had ordered distributed throughout the Empire, having ordered 200,000 of them for the defense of the Imperium. However, Davidson also says that there were several thousand troops with late model Winchester .44s, as well as Mauser, Lee, Remington, Spencer, Peabody, and Martini-Henrys. Large numbers of troops were armed with locally-made knives, and also with old percussion-cap horse pistals that were front, not breech, loaders. He then notes that the native volunteers possess every kind of firearm imaginable, from old blunderbusses to modern files.

See page 285-289 for an excrutiatingly detailed description. It seems clear that the population possessed a great number of firearms of all types.

If you look on page 197, there is a similar description of the Defense of Anping 30 years earlier against the Brits, which offered 41 guns of all descriptions, plus a few modern firearms, and many jing-galls and matchlocks, as well as bows and arrows and spears. The local population was apparently armed to the teeth.


Thanks folks, for taking the time to give me some ideas. Based on what you folks have said, I am kind of coming to two conclusions:

  1. plenty of private parties had access to guns in Qing era Taiwan
  2. those guns were of all different catagories, ages and types.

And as Okami mentioned most of the time, at least in the law cases I am looking at, the firearms were used as a “threat” rather than actually being shot at someone. For example the one case in particular that got me started on this was a case of “rent resistance” where the villagers refused to pay their “large rents” to the “corporate owner” (yes, early Taiwan had “corporations”). As events unfold the villagers gather together all the firearms they can (i.e. the “muskets”) and start heading towards the yamen town. Magistrate panics and calls in the military. But before they get there…in true Taiwanese fashion…a compromise is reached regarding the rent payments.

Bottom line; the guns were for show. Oddly enough most of the actually killing of people (I mean in a non-military sense, i.e. “street crimes” or “street settlements”) were done with the more mundane weapons of knives, staffs and clubs…just like modern day Taiwan!

take care,

Are you sure that the owner was corporate? In the Ching Dynasty? Do you have more on that?


Do you mean the word ‘she’? Not sure if this can be translated as corporation without misleading implications. I’m curious to learn more.

Yes the word is “she” in chinese. I meant to say that it is a corporation in the legal sense of a non-natural person who can sue and be sued. For example in some of the cases the “she” is represented by a proxy; usually a degree holder who is not a shareholder in the “she”.

The term seems to cover such things as:

  1. partnerships
    2.“lineage corporations” (i.e. clans which seem [I say “seem” because land ownership in Qing Taiwan completely confuses me!] to own the land seperate from any individual owner)
    3."linked villages (the phrase in chinese is lian zhuang) corporate bodies.

The idea I was trying to get across is that collective “non-natural” enities could be litigants in the Qing legal system, at least in Taiwan. And that much of the litigation did involve “corporate” parties.

Now I do not know if these groups fit exactly into the modern notion of “corporations”. I have not really pondered that at length.

take care,

[quote=“Vorkosigan”]The American “rifles” were rifled muskets – front loaders.



Some Union Cav. Units were issued carbines late in the Civil War.

According to the US National Park Service’s Guilford Courthouse National Military Park website:

“The flintlock musket was the most important weapon of the Revolutionary War. It represented the most advanced technological weapon of the 18th century. Muskets were smooth-bored, single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons. The standard rate of fire for infantrymen was three shots per minute. The rifle, although slower to load, was more accurate than the musket. However, riflemen were at great disadvantage in close-quarters fighting against disciplined infantry armed with muskets and bayonets. Cavalrymen and officers used pistols. Pistols were effective only at close range.” … apons.html … v_gun5.htm


The idea I was trying to get across is that collective “non-natural” enities could be litigants in the Qing legal system, at least in Taiwan. And that much of the litigation did involve “corporate” parties.

take care,

Fascinating! The volume with the Lamley article also has an article on land tenure in Taiwan. See also Sheppard’s book on the Ching Dynasty and its relations with Taiwan in the 18th century, whose name I have forgotten, something like Statecraft and the Taiwan Frontier…, and of course Ka’s book on colonial agriculture in Taiwan during the Japanese period, absolutely brilliant.


Here’s the Ka book:

Ka, Chih-ming. 1995. Japanese Colonialism in Taiwan: Land Tenure, Development, and Dependency, 1895-1945. Boulder: Westview.

and Sheppard
Sheppard, John R. 1993. Statecraft and Political Economy on the Taiwan Frontier 1600- 1800. Stanford: Stanford U. Press.

I should have mentioned the book which is the main source (in english) on the Qing era Taiwanese legal system. The book is Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China (subtitiled: Northern Taiwan in the 19th Century) by Mark A. Allee. It is available (at modest cost, 350NT if I remember right) from Southern Materials Center (SMC).

I have found it very readable and quite well researched.

Vorkosigan, thanks much for the book leads. I am on the hunt for all three of them.

take care,

Hey Brian,

Miss seeing your articles in Taipei Times. Guns were widely available in Qing era Taiwan and used for barter with the highland aborigines. There are quite a few records reporting how man matchlocks were traded for camphor. There were also military colonies of plains aborigines along the Han/Fan border that were given matchlock rifles to fight the higland aborigines. Another interesting case is from W.A. Pickering’s Pioneering Formosas in which he recalls stumbling into a clan feud while the parties were firing on eachother. I also stumbled upon a traditional farmhouse in Taichung’s Tanzi region and conducted some interviews with the Lin family (not the famous lins) and they pointed out a turret in the highest building for shooting at bandits and theives. The Lin house suggests guns were a common form of defense against the roving bands of horny bachelors.