A merchant selling firecrackers on Hainan Island. Fireworks are used in China to celebrate many different holidays. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Gunpowder is one of history’s most important discoveries. Scholars believe gunpowder originated in China by the late Song dynasty (960–1279). While the early history of rocketry is not certain, the earliest known clear reference to a rocket dates to 1264.

Gunpowder and rocketry have related, although unclear histories. Scholars believe that both had originated in China by the late Song dynasty (960–1279). Gunpowder was the first propellant and explosive and one of history’s most important discoveries. It has three ingredients: potassium nitrate (also called “saltpeter”), sulfur, and charcoal. Gunpowder, also called “black powder,” propelled the first gun projectiles and rockets. Rockets used a low-nitrate, slower-burning gunpowder and were self-propelled after the powder ignited.

Discovered Not Invented

Most likely gunpowder and the rocket came about as surprise discoveries rather than as inventions. Chinese Daoist philosophers for centuries experimented with chemicals to seek a way to longevity. One Daoist book, Zhen yuan miao Dao yao lue (Classified Essentials of the Mysterious Tao) from about 850 CE warned not to mix certain ingredients, including saltpeter and sulfur, because the mixture had been known to flame up, singe beards, and burn a house. These are examples of several known Daoist alchemical explosions, and evidently the Chinese at the time apparently did not understand the nature of combustion. They still believed, as late as the seventeenth century, for example, that the combustion of gunpowder was caused by the interaction of the yin (female element) and the yang (male element).

The earliest recognizable gunpowder formulas appeared in Wu jing zong yao (Essentials of Military Classics), edited in 1044 by Zeng Guangliang. The first real gun appeared about 1260. Scholars have many theories about how the rocket appeared. One theory is that the discovery occurred accidentally when a Chinese soldier modified an ordinary slow-burning “fire arrow” that suddenly flew on its own before it was shot from the bow.

Chinese chronicles contain numerous accounts of gunpowder weapons beginning during the late Song dynasty, although it is often unclear whether the accounts refer to rockets. The most famous examples of such weapons are the flying fire arrows—or, more likely, flying fire spears—used in 1232 by the Chinese against the Mongols in the siege of Kaifeng. Some scholars contend that the weapons were no more than thrown flying fire spears containing or emitting incendiary compositions or perhaps handheld lances that merely shot fire into the air; other scholars contend that the weapons were true self-propelled rockets.

The term huo chien (fire arrow) at first meant simply an incendiary arrow but later came to mean a rocket. The earliest depictions of Chinese rockets, in the Wu bei zhi (Treatise on Armament Technology, c. 1628) of Mao Yuanyi show many variations of arrows with rocket tubes attached and therefore were real rocket arrows. These examples may be strongest evidence that Chinese rockets did evolve from ordinary incendiary arrows.

The clearest early Chinese reference to a rocket involves fireworks. According to Qi dong ye yu (Rustic Talks in Eastern Qi, c. 1290) by Zhou Mi, a fireworks display was held in 1264 in the courtyard of the royal palace. One firework, called a “ground rat,” shot up the steps of the throne of the empress mother and frightened her. Thus, it was self-propelled, that is, a rocket.

However the rocket came to be, it had spread to Arabia by the late 1200s and apparently from there into Europe, probably first to northern Italy, via maritime trade routes. The first guns appeared in Europe by the fourteenth century. The spread of gunpowder and rocketry throughout the rest of Asia is less well documented. The earliest known rockets in Korea appeared in 1377, possibly introduced directly from China.

Southeast Asia and India

One possible way by which to trace the spread of rocketry in Asia is by tracing the origins of allegedly centuries-old rocket festivals in Southeast Asia. Northeast Thailand holds the annual Boun Bang Fai (also spelled Bunbangfei) festival during which large, decorated gunpowder rockets with bamboo guide sticks are fired by different villages to invoke the rain gods and to ensure a bountiful rice harvest. Neighboring Laos celebrates the identical animistic (relating to a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit) and Buddhist festival. A similar practice is found in the remote Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous District in Yunnan Prefecture of China, adjacent to northeast Thailand and Laos. Myanmar (Burma) stages the Pa-O Rocket Festival of the Pa-O minority group in the Shan states.

Early Use of Gunpowder

Scholar Joseph Needham discusses the very early and almost accidental discovery of gunpowder and its various early uses in China.

Without a doubt it was in the previous century, around +850 [CE], that the early alchemical experiments on the constituents of gunpowder, with its self-contained oxygen, reached their climax in the appearance of the mixture itself. We need not harp upon the irony that the Thang alchemists were essentially looking for elixirs of life and material immortality. But it is only reasonable to recognise that once their elaboratories had jars containing (among many other things) all the constituents (more or less purified) of the deflagrative and explosive substance on their shelves, and once the alchemists started mixing them in all possible combinations, gunpowder was sure to be found one day. If its first formulae did not appear in print until +1044, that was a full two hundred years before the first mention of the mixture in the Western world, and even then no information was available there about the proportions necessary.

By about +1000 the practice was coming into use of putting gunpowder in simple bombs and grenades, especially those thrown or lobbed over from trebuchets to those with strong ones (chen thien lei, or ‘thunder crash bombs’). This paralleled a slow but steady rise of the percentage of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) in the composition, so that by the +13th century brisant explosions became possible. In the meantime there was also a development of devices for mines, both on land and in the water. As long as the nitrate content remained low, there was a tendency to use gunpowder just as an incendiary better than those before available, but this did not outlast the +12th century.

Source: Needham, J.. (1986). Science & civilisation in China, vol V: 7. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 7–8.

There is a definite link between the festivals in Thailand, Laos, Yunnan in China, and Myanmar, whose practitioners of the festivals are all of the same Tai or Dai cultural stock. However, we do not know the actual histories of the festivals, but one theory is that basic gunpowder and rocket technology began in China in the eastern, more advanced area of the country, probably in the Song dynasty capital of Hangzhou. From this area, knowledge of gunpowder and rocketry probably first spread via Chinese maritime trade missions to India in the early fifteenth century.

In India, gunpowder, fireworks, and especially the rocket, became well developed. War rockets were used in India for centuries. From India, the technology may have then spread to neighboring Burma (now Myanmar) and from there to Siam (now Thailand), Laos, and back to China, to the more rural agricultural area of Yunnan.

Further Reading

Crozier, R. D. (1998). Guns, gunpowder and saltpeter: A short history. Faversham, U.K.: Faversham Society.

Needham, J. (1986). Science and civilisation in China, vol. V: 7. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Partington, J. R. (1999). A history of Greek fire and gunpowder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Winter, F. H., & Kubozono, A. (2007). Festival Rockets in Thailand, Laos, Japan, and China: A Case Study of Early Technology Transfer–Part 1. In K. Dougherty & D. C. Elder (Eds.), History of Rocketry and Astronautics, AAS History Series, Vol. 27, IAA History Symposia, Vol. 18, 213–269. San Diego, CA: Univelt.

Source: Winter, Frank H. (2009). Gunpowder and Rocketry. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 964–966. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Gunpowder and Rocketry (Hu?yào hé hu?jiàn ?????)|Hu?yào hé hu?jiàn ????? (Gunpowder and Rocketry)

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