December 09, 2014
Pre-Modern Chinese History
Dr. Yunwei Song
Gunpowder: Its Affects on China and the World
The Chinese can take credit for several important inventions, such as silk, woodblock printing, paper, and the magnetic compass, however another invention China introduced is gunpowder. Like all of China’s inventions, Gunpowder made a substantial contribution to China’s culture and, probably the more obvious contribution, gave them more power in order to defend them from attacking armies and to defeat others. Today, fireworks are a big part of many holidays, traditions, and celebrations all over the world, though in times of conflict the Chinese would use fireworks in order to frighten away their enemies. Gunpowder, fireworks, and Chinese guns quickly became important to China’s economy, as they were all goods that were well sought after, especially on the Silk Road, which brought gunpowder throughout Asia all the way to Europe.
Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese around 850 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty. Ironically, the discovery of gunpowder was a complete accident. Like many peoples in ancient times, Chinese alchemists were searching for the fountain of youth, or a mixture that would give the gift of immortality to anyone who consumed it. One alchemist mixed potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur together in particular proportions. He found out that this mixture exploded when it was “exposed to an open flame.” Initially this discovery was used in fireworks for entertainment purposes only, and then around fifty years later during the beginning of the Song Dynasty gunpowder was already being used for military reasons against the Mongols, who were China’s biggest enemy at the time.
There were many different ways that gunpowder was being used. Its first use was for medicinal purposes, such as treating skin diseases and cauterizing open wounds. It was used militarily during warfare on the battlefield coming in the forms of different weapons, and it was also used in construction. Gunpowder is very powerful and was an extremely valuable national Chinese secret, which the Chinese tried extremely hard to keep from the rest of the world. After all, the advantages of gunpowder belonged to whoever had it and whoever could produce it most efficiently and quickly. Since ancient times, the use of fireworks has been incorporated into a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrations. For example, during Chinese New Years fireworks are set off to mark the ending of one year and the beginning of a new one. During this celebration, the also want to protect themselves from evil spirits and therefore would set off fireworks and firecrackers in order to scare the spirits away with the loud bangs and flashes of light. The Chinese can may use fireworks on several different occasions, such as birthdays, religious ceremonies, funerals, and weddings. Many economic and social problems came about because of the invention of gunpowder. Gunpowder was invented somewhere in the ninth century; however it took a couple hundred years for gunpowder to make it to other countries in the West. This was because China wanted to keep its newest invention a secret for as long as possible, that way they would have a great advantage over other nations. However, the ethical issue that arose from this was that China was keeping gunpowder a secret from other nations in order to benefit itself; as long as it was kept a Chinese secret they would always have an advantage. A more modern example of this was during World War II during which the United States used nuclear powered weapons against the Japanese. During the thirteenth century, western countries were introduced to gunpowder. This was due to the Silk Road, on which travelling merchants traded gunpowder and other Chinese goods, such as silk. Now that gunpowder was no longer a secret, the global “playing field” was once again even, and the way that wars were fought changed drastically. Of course