Thunder of the East: Chinese Gunpowder

It’s a well known fact that while guns and cannon seem to be the weapon of choice of the West, it was actually invented in China and reached the West through Silk Road trade. However, the misconception is that the Chinese simply used gunpowder for purposes like setting off fireworks. The truth, though, is that the Chinese not only produced some sound from their invention of gunpowder, but also used them as fearsome weapons. Today History Republic traces the development of gunpowder in China, right from its invention.

Chinese alchemists.

It all started during the Tang Dynasty with Chinese alchemists who were trying to search for an elixir of life; simply put, a potion that would either prolong their lives or make them immortal. The Chinese alchemist obsession with trying to find a life prolonger is age-old, with even the First Emperor centuries before ordering searches throughout China for one. Ironic, then, that this would lead, not to something that would make people live forever, but end the lives of innumerable troops throughout modern history.

In 850 A.D, a struggling alchemist mixed 75 parts saltpeter with 15 parts charcoal and 10 parts sulfur. It exploded with a flash. The surprised Chinese chroniclers recorded:

Smoke and flames result, so that the alchemists’ hands have been burnt, and even the whole house was burnt down.

They realized pretty soon that what they had was not the elixir of life. But also realized, though, that the man-made thunderous explosion caused could be pretty useful; they began using it to launch fireworks. They didn’t stop there, however. They discovered that gunpowder was actually a monstrous addition to their already rather intimidating military arsenal. (They also used it when a certain Chinese official decided that if he sat on enough gunpowder on a chair, he could be taken to the moon. He tried that and when it exploded he went flying and was never seen again).

By the late 10th century, it was recorded that the Chinese were using ‘flying fire’- an arrow with a burning tube of gunpowder attached

Ancient hand-cannon

to the shaft. These were miniature rockets that would be propelled right into the enemy ranks. The Song Dynasty Chinese then began making things like hand-grenades and flame throwers. These bombs would often have intimidating names. “Dropping from Heaven” and  “Match for 10,000 Enemies”. Some names were also based on the substances used inside the bomb. The “Bone-Burning and Bruising Fire Oil” contained pellets of iron and shards of pottery, mixed with oil, feces and scallion juice. Other mixtures include using urine and ammonia. These bombs would be hand-thrown or lobbed from catapults. A Chinese chronicler recorded that even birds could not escape the effect of such explosion.They moved on to even more advanced designs of gunpowder usage. They began to make artillery pieces using bamboo tubes and later iron. They also started manufacturing cannon. By 1076, the Chinese, afraid that their gunpowder secrets would leak, were already banning the selling of important gunpowder ingredients to foreigners.

The secret would leak, though. First, while the Mongols were invading northern China, they encountered hand-bombs from the Jin Dynasty, something which they have never seen before. When the Mongols were besieging the Jin capital, Zhongdu, the inhabitants were so desperate that they even began firing out gold and silver as ammunition when metal ran out. A Chinese chronicler wrote that:

These thunder-crash bombs and flying fire spears were the only two weapons the Mongol soldiers were really afraid of.

Scared though they were, the Mongols soon began capturing Chinese engineers who then turned over their knowledge of gunpowder to them. Europe would soon get its first taste of gunpowder warfare when the Mongols invaded Russia and Hungary and started hurling bombs out of catapults. It would be through the Mongols’s own trading routes that gunpowder would travel from East to West, allowing Europeans to begin their own development of guns and cannons.

Soon European cannon would be more advanced than China’s own designs. In fact, during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese would begin importing ‘red-haired barbarian cannons’ to their empire. Soon enough, the European colonial powers would be defeating the Chinese…using gunpowder that they themselves had invented.

So the Chinese discovered one of the world’s most murderous inventions while trying to search for a way to prolong lives, and would finally be defeated with their own invention. History knows no end to ironies.

Thanks for reading.

-Ken

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