Apart from the movable type printing method and the magnetic compass, gunpowder was one of the most important discoveries during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Its first use was chronicled on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History between AD 1100 and 1200. The Taoists of ancient China were accomplished alchemists. It was in their records that the chemical compounds of gunpowder (potassium nitrate and sulfur) were first mentioned. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and sulfur were first used in connection with an elixir for longevity during the Han dynasty. It was Taoist philosopher Ge Hong who first recorded experiments using saltpeter and sulfur which resulted in an explosion.
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The Triple Invasion of Song China and the First Mention of Gunpowder
China’s peace and prosperity during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries were hammered out after a humiliating peace treaty with the powerful Khitan Liao ruler whose territory bounded the Song’s north frontier. The Song emperor was forced to recognize the Liao ruler as its equal in the Chanyuan Treaty of 1005 and had to pay 200,000 bolts of silk and a large amount of silver to the Liao as annual tribute. As long as their Khitan neighbors were pacified, the Song Dynasty was free to turn China into an economic powerhouse. The Confucian distaste for violence (as well as the warrior class) and the peace brought by the Chanyuan Treaty lulled the Song into a false sense of security. This resulted in the central government’s neglect of the military.
The Song, however, would be jolted out of its complacency thirty years later when its neighbor, the Tanguts of the Kingdom of Western Xia (Xi Xia), rose and attacked China’s western frontier in 1038. The Tanguts occupied a large portion of former Song territories. To keep them from invading deeper into China, Emperor Renzong was forced to negotiate for peace and agreed to pay a hefty annual tribute to the Western Xia.
If the first concession to a “barbarian” neighbor was humiliating enough, then the second concession left a bitter taste in the Song emperor’s mouth. By 1044, he ordered his generals to strengthen the military and compile a collection of the best military strategies for their use. The result was a compendium that was later called the Wujing Zongyao. It contained the first description of an explosive black powder made up of saltpeter, sulfur, and coal that the Song used against its enemies.
Gunpowder was utilized effectively against the Jurchen warriors with the Song use of fire lances and incendiary bombs during the Jin-Song wars. These explosives, however, were later used by the Jurchens against their opponents when they sacked Song cities and captured Chinese alchemists. They were forced to give the enemies the formula for gunpowder. The formula, in turn, was used by the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty when it conquered both the Great Jin and the Southern Song dynasties in the thirteenth century.
Picture By NASA – http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/rocketry/03.html, Public Domain, Link
Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goodman. China: A New History. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.
“Firearms.” Accessed October 25, 2016. http://depts.washington.edu/chinaciv/miltech/firearms.htm.
Mote, Frederick W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Ropp, Paul S. China in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
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