Tag Archives: Chinese history

I didn’t know that! Matches and the Fire Stick

SCIENCE: Chinese Innovations

Fire. Would we even be the humans we are today without it? Important for light, warmth, and heat for cooking our food.  

A critical innovation in control over fire happened in China in 577 AD. The story concerning the invention of the first matches is that Northern Qi court ladies needed to start cooking and heating fires. Unable to gather tinder, due to enemy troops blockading their city, they used pine sticks coated with Sulphur. This allowed them to start a new fire from existing embers, thus, inventing the first matches.

From: https://www.messagetoeagle.com/matches-were-invented-in-ancient-china/

These matches did not ignite by striking them. They needed a source of heat—another fire or embers.  Nevertheless, it was a great leap forward. In fact, they were so essential that in 950 AD Tao Gu, a poet and official from the Song court, described the technique for these Sulphur coated pine sticks calling them “light-bringing slaves.” Later these early matches were commonly known as “fire-inch sticks.”  Strikable matches were not invented for more than another 1,000 years–in 1805 by the French chemist Jean Chancel.

If you read or watch wuxia stories (martial arts fiction), you have probably seen/read about 火折子 huo zhe zi or fire sticks. They are something like today’s cigarette lighters. In these stories, characters carry fire sticks on their bodies, within their clothing. When they need a fire—to light a candle or give them light in the dark—they pull a fire stick out, blow on it, and a flame appears.

Basically, fire sticks are bamboo tubes stuffed with a rolled up flammable material, such as paper or cotton. The material is ignited, then partially extinguished, leaving glowing embers in the tube. Later, when needed, the embers are ignited by blowing on them. There’s a bamboo cap over the top, protecting the ember. The cap is not air tight, since it must allow for a bit of ventilation in order to keep the ember aglow. Otherwise, the ember would suffocate and the fire stick would be useless.

I could not find information indicating whether this intriguing invention was historically accurate or not. In fact, the only source I could find was the wonderful blog post  https://wuxiawanderings.com/flame-stick/ Wuxia Wanderings (posted January 12, 2020). If you’re interested, I recommend you go read this post to learn more about it.

Do you know whether huo zhe zi (fire sticks or flame sticks) are historically accurate or are only a fascinating piece of fiction? If you do, please let me know in the comments section. I would love to use this device in a story, if it’s historically accurate.

A New Year’s coming!

It’s hard to believe that we’re almost to Chinese New Year’s Day again. The year slipped by so quickly! I hope you all had a productive and prosperous year of the Rooster. It was a wonderful year for me, as you might have noticed on my books tab: the third book in my Mei-hua trilogy, Trapped, was nominated for an Agatha Award and for a Silver Falchion Award. Both are great honors.

 

While I don’t know everything this new year of the Dog will bring, one thing for sure is that I am coming out with a new early Ming Dynasty series. The first novel is Deadly Relations.

Deadly Relations launches on—you guessed it—February 16th, Chinese New Year’s Day. Continue reading

What would we do without umbrellas?

It’s spring and very, very wet. Finally, after days of rain, we have sunshine for a couple of days before more rain. All of this rain makes me think of umbrellas. Obviously, they are a wonderful tool for walking outdoors on rainy days, but when we were in Taiwan many years ago, I also discovered how useful they were for creating a patch of shade in the hot, burning sun.

Umbrellas. According to Joseph Needham,[i] while umbrellas, as sun-shades, were known in Greece and Rome times, the collapsible mechanism we take for granted probably came from the Chinese.

INFO BLOG Chinese making an umbrella May 2017

How far back into Chinese history the umbrella goes varies a lot. Some claim it was first invented somewhere around 3000-3500 BC,[ii] but it certainly was around by the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Early on, umbrellas were made of paper and silk and were sun-shades. Because they were expensive, they were a status symbol of the upper classes and the royal family.

These early umbrellas had four parts: the head, handle, ribs, and shade. The frame was of mulberry bark and bamboo and the silk or paper covering became a canvas for works of art.

In time, the umbrella evolINFO BLOG Chinese paper umbrellas May 2017ved: First, the paper shades were covered with an oil to make them impermeable to rain and expanding their use. But the really remarkable thing about these early Chinese umbrellas was how they evolved from a fixed frame to a collapsible frame. These coINFO BLOG Chinese umbrella May 2017llapsible umbrellas worked by means of sliding levers, pretty much the same as we use today.

 

The first indication that the Chinese umbrella could be collapsed was in 21 AD, during Wang Mang’s reign as the first and only emperor of the Xin Dynasty.[iii] This umbrella was to protect the Emperor as hINFO BLOG Wang Mang's collapsible umbrella 21 AD May 2017e rode in his four-wheel, ceremonial carriage, so it was quite large. The mechanism was so new and innovative that it was a secret. Besides the collapsible frame, the handle had bendable joints, allowing it to be extended or withdrawn.

Needham does go on to say that there is some evidence that the mechanism had been developed as early as the Zhou Dynasty (around 600-500 BC). If so, it was probably invented by a woman named Yun shih, the wife of an artisan.

Truly a remarkable history for our simple, and much-needed, umbrella! The next time you open up your umbrella think of its long past and its country of origin: Ancient China.

Pictures from:

en.people.cn/102774/8017371.htm;

http://www.infoniac.com/offbeat-news/the-most-important-inventions-of-ancient-china.html;

http://www.i-china.org/news.asp?type=15&id=819;

http://www.umbrellahistory.net/umbrella-history/chinese-umbrellas/.

References:

[i] Joseph Needham Science & Civilisation in China, Volume IV:2, pp. 70-71.

[ii] https://sites.google.com/site/ancientchineseinventions/Home/the-invention-of-the-umbrella; http://www.umbrellahistory.net/umbrella-history/chinese-umbrellas/; http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/culture/paper-umbrella.htm.

[iii] Needham, ibid; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/emperor-wang-mang-chinas-first-socialist-2402977/.