Tag Archives: fireworks

Rockets and Bombs

Ancient Chinese Bomb

Ancient Chinese Bomb

It may surprise people that, as noted in the previous post,  the Chinese invention of gunpowder (or really protogunpowder) is attributed to a monk. However, as with many inventions, there is an element of serendipity at play here. Monks, Taoist priests, and alchemists in general used the ingredients which make up gunpowder for other purposes, in particular, as medicines and elixirs of immortality. They were not looking for explosives; they were looking for ways of prolonging life. However, when these specialists mixed certain ingredients together, they sometimes got an entirely different result then intended!

The author of a 9th century text warned Taoists looking for an immortality elixir to be careful when mixing sulphur, arsenic sulphide, and saltpetre because it could badly burn them and even burn down their buildings! Needham (p 31) says this is the first reference to protogunpowder.

It does not take a big jump in thinking to move from accidental explosions to controlled explosions. And it makes sense that it would be among the monks, Taoist priests, and alchemists who would do this and not someone from the military.

Originally, these explosions weren’t harmful, just exciting and noisy. They were used to scare off ghosts and evil spirits and in celebrations. However, as so often happens with inventions, the relatively harmless rocket that had explosive materials in it was soon turned into a bomb as well.


Chinese fireworks: rockets and firecrackers

Chinese fireworks: rockets and firecrackers

From the 11th and into the 13th century Chinese bombs were like rockets—in that they weren’t really very destructive because the proportion of nitrate was low. As I mentioned above, Needham refers to these early forms as protogunpowder bombs. At most they would explode with a “whoosh,” much like the rockets they were based on—frightening, but not very destructive. However, as the percent of nitrate was increased the bombs became serious weapons which were able to blow up walls and city gates.

By the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, such fragmentation bombs (as that shown at the top of this post) were filled with iron pellets and pieces of broken porcelain. This bomb was used in war and was designed to mutilate enemy soldiers (from Huo-long-jing, a Ming Dynasty text, part 1, chapter 2 from en.wikipedia.org).

What a long journey for these materials–to go from a hopeful immortality elixir to a source of mutilation and destruction!

References: Joseph Needham: Science in Traditional China & Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West; Wikipedia


Firecrackers 爆竹 bàozhú

illustration from Ming Dyn (1628 to 1643 edition of Jin Ping Mei) copy jpg characers for baozhu  bamboo in jpg 2 copy     bàozhú   firecracker

An illustration of a fireworks display from the 1628–1643 edition of the Ming Dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei

爆竹        bàozhú, baoh-zhru        firecracker [or literally exploding bamboo]

The history of marvelous Chinese inventions is fascinating. The invention of firecrackers is an example.

The word for firecracker in Chinese is bàozhú (exploding bamboo) and is derived from the original firecrackers used in ancient China, perhaps as far back as the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC). At that time, pieces of green bamboo were thrown into a fire and then the bamboo would burst apart with loud bangs. In other words, these original firecrackers were not the same as those developed later, no gunpowder was included.

Li Tian, a monk living near Liu Yang city, Hunan province, is credited with having invented the modern firecracker. According to mythology, Li Tian filled a piece of bamboo with gunpowder to frighten away a persistent ghost that had been bothering the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) emperor Li Shi-ming. The loud bang did the job. The ghost fled and the emperor once again had peace. In honor of this great invention (pyrotechnic fireworks), Chinese traditionally held a festival in Li Tian’s honor on April 18th.

By the end of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127 AD), firecrackers consisted of paper tubes stuffed with gunpowder. The tubes were tied together with rope, forming a long string of firecrackers, which could be set off in succession. This produced quite a display of noise and smoke.

Noise and smoke, both are considered important for protecting a household. Noise chases away ghosts and other evils, such as poisonous insects (see my January 5, 2014 blog on the 5 noxious animals also sometimes called the five evils) and sickness. Smoke cleanses the house and also gets rid of poisonous insects and dampness, which can cause illness. Therefore, for a couple of thousand years firecrackers have been synonymous with health and peace, which leads to a prosperous future for the family.

Sources for fireworks: Joseph Needham Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West 1970 p. 89-90; http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/en/10Kaleidoscope8486.html; www.kracklinkirks.com/fireworks%20history.htm;

Illustration: “Ming Dynasty Jin Ping Mei fireworks” by Unknown – Jin Ping Mei, from Science and Civilisation in China p. 140. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ming_Dynasty_Jin_Ping_Mei_fireworks.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ming_Dynasty_Jin_Ping_Mei_fireworks.jpg.