How Gunpowder was Invented

Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty.

Emperor Wu Di of Ancient China’s Han dynasty (156-87 B.C.) wanted to live and rule forever, so he ordered his Taoist alchemists (the religious scientists of his empire) to research and discover a potion or elixir for eternal life.  The alchemists mixed together all kinds of compounds, heating them to high temperatures to transform them.  Two of the ingredients they experimented with were sulfur and saltpeter.  Of course, they never discovered a way to make anyone immortal, but they did discover some very interesting properties about these two materials.  Today we know saltpeter as potassium nitrate.  Saltpeter and sulfur are two of the key ingredients in gunpowder.

The Chinese alchemy experiments continued into the Tang Dynasty, which ruled China during the 8th century.  They combined the saltpeter and sulfur with charcoal, inventing gunpowder.  They initially found humanitarian uses for it, treating skin diseases and killing insects, but it didn’t take long before they figured out that this powerful explosive could have other uses.[1]

One creative application was to fill the green bamboo shoots used in their celebrations with gunpowder to give them a more powerful bang.  This was the beginning of fireworks in China.[2]

The Chinese rulers of each Dynasty were constantly concerned about protecting their borders.  They knew right away that having a weapon that could shoot fire gave them a great advantage over enemy warriors.  The emperor immediately put his scientists and military leaders to work creating a weapon using gunpowder.[3]

The fire arrow.

The fire arrow.

The first weapons were bamboo tubes filled with gunpowder.  These tubes were tied to arrows and shot with bows toward the enemy.  Called “flying fire,” they resembled miniature rockets.  The noise and fire terrified both the enemy and their horses and proved to be an effective weapon.  The Song Dynasty military used these flying fire arrows in battle against the Mongols around 904 AD.  During this time, the Chinese discovered that these gunpowder tubes were powerful enough to shoot off on their own without a bow to launch them.  These became the first rockets.[4]

Soon, another weapon, the fire lance, was invented by the Song military.  The fire lance had a simple design.  It was an open gunpowder tube connected to a lance or long spear, which was thrown toward the enemy or the enemy’s fortress.  This was the first flamethrower.[4]

The Song military kept modifying the original design of the flying fire arrow and came up with hand grenades, shells that released poisonous gas and land mines—all forerunners of weapons used on battlefields today, thousands of years later.

*  *  *  *  *

A Quick overview of Taoism according to the BBC: Religions website:[4]

Taoism “Taoism is an ancient tradition of philosophy and religious belief that is deeply rooted in Chinese customs and worldview.”

“Taoism is about the Tao. This is usually translated as the Way. But it’s hard to say exactly what this means. The Tao is the ultimate creative principle of the universe. All things are unified and connected in the Tao.”

Taoism “is a religion of unity and opposites; Yin and Yang. The principle of Yin Yang sees the world as filled with complementary forces – action and non-action, light and dark, hot and cold, and so on.  The Tao is not God and is not worshipped. Taoism includes many deities, that are worshipped in Taoist temples, they are part of the universe and depend, like everything, on the Tao.”

Taoism promotes:

  • achieving harmony or union with nature
  • the pursuit of spiritual immortality
  • being ‘virtuous’ (but not ostentatiously so)
  • self-development

Taoist practices include:

  • meditation
  • feng shui
  • fortune telling
  • reading and chanting of scriptures




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5 responses to “How Gunpowder was Invented

  1. Pingback: KIDS’ BLOG! Boom! Pow! Whizzz!: The History of Fireworks | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: Gunpowder – The Elixir of Mortality – Hello World Civ

  3. what year was this published???????????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Pingback: The Accident that led to Fireworks, Rockets, Cannons, Bullets, and Bombs | iLook China

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