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Gunpowder is on the list of the four great inventions in China. The word “gunpowder 火藥”in Chinese uses the characters for fire and medicine; thus, the creation of it relates to medicine. During the Warring States Period (475 BC - 221 BC), early Chinese chemists, alchemists, and natural philosophers were intrigued by the study of immortality, and the search for age-defying elixirs prevailed. The Taoist scholars of the time were looking for immorality medicine, therefore they collected some minerals and plants from the nature for their alchemy. In a way similar to alchemy in the west, many of these early proto-scientists held an assumption that hidden principles and rules governing abstract reality had analogous laws governing physical reality, so that human-created ideas such as “immortality, purity, virtue, and honesty” with their associations in human life must have some corresponding manifestation in the objective material world of minerals, plants, fire, air, and so forth.

The main ingredients of gunpowder are saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. Saltpeter and sulfur both are mentioned as medicine ingredients in the Shennong herbal medical book (Shennong's Root and Herbal Classic). Thus, the discovery of gunpowder might relate to a search for a potent medicine. In fact, gunpowder was sometimes added to drinks (e.g., Blackbeard the Pirate, Edward Teach, drank gunpowder rum, and certain rituals in voodoo use potions containing gunpowder).
In addition, to extract the substance from the mineral would rely on skillful metallurgy so whether in alchemy or in the metallurgical process, the mixture would produce chemical changes. Thus from the experiments time by time, although the alchemists did not discover the immoral medicine or any treasures, but they found the formula of making gunpowder.

Initially, the Chinese did not use gunpowder as a weapon for many centuries. Around the time of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220--280 years), people used the formula of gunpowder to make firecrackers for celebrating ceremonies. The loud explosions of the gunpowder in the firecrackers were supposed to chase away evil influences. At the end of Tang Dynasty (904AD), Chinese armies started using gunpowder for military purposes. The Chinese named some of these weapons "flying fire飛火", which is similar to the rocket and artillery. By the Song and Yuan Dynasty (960 AD - 1368 AD), gunpowder was widely used in the Chinese military.

Gunpowder was initially used in bombs and rockets, and later, it was used in guns and cannons, with Europeans making many advances in the military application of gunpowder during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. During this same period of military gunpowder innovations, Europeans made significant developments in the production of fireworks, both ground-based fountains and sparking wheels as well as aerial displays.

Today, firecrackers or fireworks are used for celebrations all over the world. Chinese people have been using them for nearly two thousand years. .

Articles of Chinese history: oil well, abacus, compass, gunpowder,parachute, paper currency, wheels.
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Articles of Chinese history: oil well, abacus, compass, parachute, first dictionary, paper money, wheels.

Creative Commons License
This work by Eric & Chun-Chih Hadley-Ives is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.