China's Great Inventions and The Irony of Fire Medicine
Updated: Mar 21
Who is responsible for the compass, for paper, for printing... and gunpowder?
Known in the western world as the Four Great Inventions, Ancient China revolutionised the world as we knew it. The lodestone compass was vital for navigation and exploration. The Egyptians invented papyrus in 3000 BC - however, the Chinese were the first to make paper (~8BC) that resembles what it is today. And after that? Printing, with wooden blocks, and perhaps the first mass-production
Even the written language in neighbouring countries originated in China. Japan incorporated Chinese characters for their written language. Chinese and Japanese are exceptionally different languages, so the Japanese eventually created two alphabets to express their grammar. Korea also adapted the Chinese writing system to make their own alphabet, hangul.
One invention in particular seems to have been an accidental discovery. Over 2000 years ago, Chinese alchemists started searching for the elixir of eternal life. They experimented with many chemical substances, including sulphur and nitrates.
These happen to be two of the main components of gunpowder.
Later, in the 9th Century (Tang Dynasty), gunpowder as we know it was created. This time, charcoal was added to the blend of sulphur and nitrates. The alchemists still hadn't found the secret to eternal life, but the mixture was used to treat minor fungal infections and skin complaints.
However, it wasn't long before people found out just how powerful the concoction was. The Chinese named it huo'yao (火药), with a literal translation of 'fire medicine' (its original purpose was medicinal). Because of gunpowder's volatile properties, flaming arrows could be made. The first flamethrower was later invented for military use. With tinkering to get the ratio right, gunpowder could explode rather than just burn.
This led to the invention of fireworks, for which China is well renowned. The Chinese used to heat bamboo tubes until they exploded to ward off monsters and evil spirits, but later, the inventor Li Tian incorporated gunpowder. Eventually, paper cases replaced the bamboo tubes, and the modern firework was born.
Naturally, gunpowder was used as a weapon of war. The Mongols spread the knowledge (and use) of gunpowder further west to Persia. From there, it travelled to Europe, where more advanced chemistry techniques adapted and developed this new substance.
From gunpowder came projectiles, which birthed a new type of weapon: muskets. What started as a quest for immortality has eventually led to instruments of destruction. Is the irony exclusive only to China? No, not at all.
Alfred Nobel invented dynamite because he wanted to save the lives of miners. Many people (including his brother) died in accidents because nitroglycerine, the explosive used in mines at the time, was so unstable. Dynamite didn't explode when accidentally dropped or mishandled.
Through his discovery, accidental deaths from explosions declined, and he amassed a large fortune. However, he was branded by some as the 'Merchant of Death'. This is because his invention was also used by criminals for cruel means, and this upset him greatly. So in his will, he wished for his legacy to be spent promoting life and protecting people. Hence, the Nobel peace prize was made possible by the inventor of a dangerous explosive.
Inventions themselves are not cruel or kind, harmful or helpful. It depends on the intention of the people wielding it. And, without gunpowder, Chinese New Year celebrations would not be the same.
Based on centuries-old traditions, fireworks are set off at many points during the 2-week Chinese New Year celebrations. People use them as a way to say goodbye to the old and to welcome the new. The red paper left scattered on the ground from the fireworks (seen as a bringer of good luck) is not cleaned away for at least a day.
Today, huo'yao (火药) means 'gunpowder' in mandarin Chinese. However, it still keeps its original characters meaning 'fire' and 'medicine'.