Chinese Uses of Gunpowder  

Oh, why do the myriad stars fall like rain when there is no wind to blow?
They are the fireworks that have burst in the sky.
Oh, what thunders are those we hear on the earth when the sky is clear?
They are shouts of joy and revelry of the people gathered here.
                                The Story of Yone Noguchi (Yone Noguchi, Japan, 1914)

Gunpowder evolves in China

Gunpowder would take hundreds of years to evolve into its final form. However, Chinese alchemists would use proto-gunpowder, the precursor to actual Chinese gunpowder, in many ways. The most recognizable use to which early gunpowder was put was in fireworks. The earliest accounts of fireworks dates 250 BCE when it is recorded that the alchemist Ma Jun filled bamboo tubes with an explosive substance. When the stalks were lighted, they would produce a violent and exciting explosion. By 1232 CE, Chinese were using explosive missiles, or war rockets, for military purposes. These devices were either launched from mechanical devices or dropped from fortress walls on attackers. By the end of the thirteenth century, the Chinese had begun to develop early rifle-like devices. These were often fashioned out of bamboo stalks. All of these weapons were in early stages of development, but one weapon had been used for hundreds of years before this: the fire-lance. 


Chinese create the fire-lance

The fire-lance weapon was constructed around a common pike. Attached to the end, however, was a cylinder that would shoot flame towards the attacking enemy. This was a very effective weapon that could keep an enemy at arm's length. The fire-lance itself would also evolve. It was eventually used not just as a hand held flame thrower but as an early rifle that could fire projectiles from the cylinder. In reality, it was not really a rifle because the projectiles did not fit the chamber. Yet this weapon could be used to spray shrapnel at the enemy, causing damage to a larger number of attackers.

As you can see from the tenth century Buddhist painting at left, there is clear evidence that fire lances and even early grenades were being employed fairly early. In the painting, the Buddha is being attacked by demons of the evil goddess Mara the Temptress, who is trying to distract the Buddha from attaining enlightenment. This image indicates that Chinese alchemists had created a proto-gunpowder that was powerful enough to be used in such weapons by the time of this print. The Chinese, as masters of invention, found many uses for gunpowder, such as cannons, mortars, and multi-stage rockets.


The secret of gunpowder begins to spread

No matter how hard Chinese military leaders may have tried to keep the secret of gunpowder to themselves, they could not prevent this technology from being transmitted beyond China. For example, in India, where early alchemy was quite limited, fireworks began to be used in religious ceremonies.

Clear evidence of the movement of this technology is seen in the history of the Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234 CE). This dynasty was destroyed in 1234 CE by Mongol invaders. During a night raid in the year 1233, Mongols invaders used fire-lances to make their way into the city. Eventually they were defeated by Chinese warriors also using fire-lances. What is important here is that the Mongols had received this technology by 1233. Fire-lance technology had therefore migrated out of China into the hands of non-Chinese peoples. Still it would take many more years for this technology to spread to the other side of the Eurasian continent. As late as 1500 CE, European travelers would write amazed reports of displays of Chinese fireworks and pyrotechnics that dwarfed displays they had seen in Asia.

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