Invention of Gunpowder and Guns

Originating in Daoist alchemy, gunpowder’s invention and development was one of the greatest achievements of medieval China.

Summary of Event

Gunpowder, a mixture of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon, was the first chemical explosive discovered, and it was momentously significant in the history of both East and West. Its discovery was serendipitous because the Daoist Daoism alchemists, who first blended saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal, were searching not for explosives but for the elixir of life. Long before these alchemists, ancient Chinese had been adept in creating amalgamations of substances that produced smoke for religious and hygienic purposes. As early as the seventh century b.c.e., the annual purification of homes and public buildings with these fumigants was carried out to rid them of evil spirits and harmful insects. By the seventh century c.e., incendiary mixtures had been concocted that produced a variety of colored effects in public celebrations but because these pyrotechnic displays did not derive from gunpowder, it would be anachronistic to call them fireworks. [kw]Invention of Gunpowder and Guns (Mid-9th century)
[kw]Gunpowder and Guns, Invention of (Mid-9th century)
[kw]Guns, Invention of Gunpowder and (Mid-9th century)
Gunpowder and guns, invention of
China;Mid-9th cent.: Invention of Gunpowder and Guns[0940]
Science and technology;Mid-9th cent.: Invention of Gunpowder and Guns[0940]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mid-9th cent.: Invention of Gunpowder and Guns[0940]

Before gunpowder could be made, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) had to be recognized as a specific substance. Buddhist monks of the sixth century noticed a crystalline white material on certain soils, and this saltpeter later became part of the array of substances that Daoist alchemists systematically mixed together in their endeavor to discover a mixture that would confer longevity. Alchemy;China In the early ninth century, these alchemists found that a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter, and dried organic matter was extremely flammable, but because it did not actually explode, modern scholars have called these early mixtures proto-gunpowder. Evidence exists that, during the second half of the ninth century, alchemists devised mixtures with genuinely explosive properties because accidental ignition led to injuries and destruction of property. During the tenth century, references to a “fire chemical” (huo yao), which scholars later identified as gunpowder, became widespread. A popular misconception is that gunpowder was initially used by the Chinese in fireworks, but the evidence is overwhelming that gunpowder’s initial applications were military. For example, in 919, it was used as an igniter for flame-throwers.

During the last years of the Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty;military in (T’ang; 618-907), the country was fragmented into several warring states, and in the early decades of the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279), soldiers used gunpowder in such new weapons as bombs and grenades, some of which they threw by hand at the enemy, others of which were catapulted by trebuchets.

The first book containing a formula for gunpowder appeared in 1044. This and later gunpowder formulas resulted in weak explosions, but as the saltpeter proportion was increased in the next two centuries, the explosive power of gunpowder increased as well. In the early eleventh century, gunpowder became an essential component of primitive rockets. A bamboo tube filled with gunpowder was attached to an arrow, and ignition of the gunpowder powered the flaming arrow to its target. In this same period, gunpowder-filled bamboo tubes were attached to lances and used as flame-throwers. Metal scraps or broken porcelain were sometimes mixed with the gunpowder, and these fire-lance projectiles played an important role in the wars between the Song Chinese and the Jin Tatars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Some scholars see these bamboo-tube devices as precursors to the gun. They were also related to firecrackers, and references to these characteristically Chinese gadgets multiply during this time.


Gunpowder did not appear in the West until the late thirteenth century. Therefore, it is probable that gunpowder was a Chinese invention, and that its first military applications were also made by the Chinese. However, the first use of gunpowder in guns and cannon is controversial. Some scholars, such as Sinologist Joseph Needham, believe that the transition from bamboo tube to metal barrel to gun and cannon occurred in China in the thirteenth century. Others argue that these weapons are European inventions. Still others trace them to Arab inventors. Evidence for a Chinese origin consists of the late appearance of gunpowder in the West and the evolution of the bamboo tube to the metal gun barrel in China. Furthermore, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a time of crosscultural contacts between China and Europe, and a large number of other Chinese inventions passed from the East to the West, including paper, printing, and the magnetic compass. The devastating impact that gunpowder, the gun, and cannon had on Europe is well known. For centuries, historians have recognized the role that these technologies played in the downfall of European aristocratic military feudalism. Castles fell easily to cannon fire, and mounted knights with lances were no match for guns. What is not so well known is the role that these technologies played in China. For example, they helped preserve the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) from conquest, and the empire’s defenses depended heavily on guns and cannon.

However, these weapons did not homogenize East and West, and significant differences between these cultures led to the rise of the West and the decline of the East in the centuries after the scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe. Because of their advanced scientific knowledge of materials and techniques, Europeans were able to develop weapons that were far superior to those produced in China. Furthermore, technologies associated with gunpowder led to societal revolutions in Europe, whereas in China, they failed to revolutionize the culture. The Chinese bureaucratic system proved able to absorb these new technologies without radical disruptions. Nevertheless, gunpowder, though it had its peaceful uses (in mining and road construction, for example), continued to power projectiles that caused the deaths of millions of soldiers, sailors, and civilians. Thus, an invention that began with the search for a way to extend life had the ironic consequence of becoming the means of prematurely ending millions of lives during the more than a thousand years of its existence.

Further Reading

  • Arrault, Alain, and Catherin Jami, eds. Science and Technology in East Asia: The Legacy of Joseph Needham. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepoplis, 2001. A collection of papers from the International Congress on the History of the Sciences, held in 1997 and dealing with Needham’s work on China.
  • Dawson, Raymond, ed. The Legacy of China. 1964. Reprint. Boston: Cheng and Tsui, 1990. This book is part of a series surveying the impact that various civilizations have had on the world. Chapter 5, “Science and China’s Influence on the World,” written by Joseph Needham, contains a survey of his research on Chinese science and technology, including the invention of gunpowder.
  • Needham, Joseph. Military Technology: The Gunpowder Epic. Part 7 in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Vol. 5 in Science and Civilisation in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. The fullest treatment of the massive amount of work that Needham and his collaborators have done on proto-gunpowder, gunpowder, and the military uses of gunpowder in China. This volume has an excellent and extensive bibliography.
  • Needham, Joseph. Science in Traditional China: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. This book’s second chapter, “The Epic of Gunpowder and Firearms, Developing from Alchemy,” gives the general reader a concise account of the research that the author and his collaborators have done on gunpowder in China.
  • Needham, Joseph. Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus, Theories and Gifts. Part 5 in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Vol. 5 in Science and Civilisation in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980. This volume contains the author’s analysis of the origins of gunpowder in Daoist alchemy. It has an excellent and extensive bibliography.
  • Temple, Robert K. G. The Genius of China: Three Thousand Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. 1986. Reprint. New York: Prion Books, 1999. This overview of China’s early scientific and technological developments includes a discussion of gunpowder.
  • Wang Ling. “The Invention and Use of Gunpowder and Firearms in China.” Isis 37 (1947): 160. Though this account is more than fifty years old, it is by a Chinese scholar whose ideas on this subject are still interesting and relevant.