Gunpowder is one of the Four Great Inventions of pre-modern China. It was made with a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal, which was crushed into powder. Weapon smith-technicians of the early Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) exploited its blasting effect and produced the world’s earliest firearms. Gunpowder was not the product of any genius’ whim, but rather, the successful product of a long history of experimentation and research undertaken collectively by laborers of pre-modern China as well as pharmacists, and alchemists.
In response to rulers’ desire for longevity, ancient Chinese pharmacists created medicines and alchemists refined elixirs, the latter with ingredients such as saltpeter and sulfur, key ingredients in gunpowder. To make their elixirs alchemists of the Tang dynasty (618–907) utilized a special method termed “smoldering of alum.” Before the alchemical process, they first subdued the harmful elements of certain drugs by roasting them with fire, at which time they also suppressed the inevitable blasting caused by the combined refining of nitrate and carbon, a characteristic only later recognized as useful. The earliest confirmed textual references to what would be considered gunpowder occur in ninth century texts, the first dating to 808 ce and its use seems to have been quite limited. However, with the continuous deepening and expanding in smoldering experiments, intellectuals of insight gradually made use of the flammable and explosive nature of the combined refining of saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon. There were two such major uses: fireworks craftsmen making fireworks; military technicians manufacturing firearms, both of which began to flourish in the Northern Song dynasty. Unlike the careful alchemists, some Song craftsmen set up fireworks factories in Kaifeng, the capital, manufacturing a variety of explosives, such as firecrackers and other pyrotechnic products. These craftsmen enhanced the festival atmosphere by distributing fireworks products around streets and alleys. In Kaifeng of that time, especially in the imperial palace, fireworks were lit all night long on the eve of Spring Festival or Lantern Festival; it became a routine of celebration and is still in practice nowadays. In 1023, the Northern Song court started operating a gunpowder factory in Kaifeng, and from this time forward military use of gunpowder can be better documented. In Wujing zongyao (A comprehensive sourcebook of classics of military tactics) dated to 1044 there are officially published the three oldest formulas of gunpowder in the world namely: “formula for fireball gunpowder,” “formula for thorny (literally caltrop) fireball gunpowder,” and “formula for poison smoke-ball gunpowder.”
During the Song dynasty gunpowder was brought to the battlefield by military strategists, who created the first combustion firearms, such as gunpowder arrows. The gunpowder arrow is an arrow packed with a bag of gunpowder launched by a crossbow. The various primordial firearms created by Song military technicians were soon used in battles by generals, thereby changing combat methods and tactics heretofore relied upon for thousands of years. Gunpowder played a major role in the conflict between the Song and the Jin (1115–1234) dynasty. In 1163 the famous Southern Song general, Wei Sheng (1120–1164) in resisting the invasion of China by the Jin forces created a chariot-phalanx by putting together dozens of chariots loaded with firearms and commanding soldiers to cast a variety of firearms from the chariots in an attack on the Jin troops. Thus, they won many battles in their campaigns against the Jin. From the Northern Song through the Southern Song there was development and improvement in the use of gunpowder as a weapon. Gunpowder arrows and other firearms of the Southern Song evolved into the explosive iron cannon and tube-shaped “fire guns” made of bamboo or paper. Early “fire guns” were loaded with gunpowder, shredded iron, and pellets in their tube made of bamboo or paper and were launched by several people or by one man. As for tubular jet firearms, there were three main kinds, namely the (1) “long bamboo gun” invented by Chen Gui (1072–1141) of the Southern Song, (2) “flying-fire gun” used by the Jin army, and (3) “spit-fire gun” invented in the late Southern Song. These all evolved into a variety of metal-body guns.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongols learned gunpowder and firearms technology from the Jin and the Chinese (whom they battled and eventually conquered) and transmitted it westward through Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe. This large-scale east-to-west transmission stimulated the study of this technology by both Arabs and Europeans. The madfa’a (firing tube, cannon, or gun) of the Arabs and the handgun of the Europeans are now generally viewed as products developing out of imitative experimentation with this originally Chinese technology.