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The 'Flying Crow with Magic Fire', an aerodynamic winged rocket bomb from the Huolongjing

The Huolongjing (traditional Chinese: 火龍經; simplified Chinese: 火龙经; pinyin: Huǒ Lóng Jīng; Wade-Giles: Huo Lung Ching; rendered by its translator into English as Fire Drake Manual; in modern English, Fire Dragon Manual) is a 14th-century military treatise that was compiled and edited by Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen of the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China. It outlined the use of various "fire weapons" involving the use of gunpowder.

The Huolongjing provides information about various gunpowder compositions, including "magic gunpowder", "poison gunpowder", and "blinding and burning gunpowder". It has descriptions of the Chinese hollow cast iron grenade bomb, shrapnel bombs, and bombs containing poisonous concoctions. The book describes the 10th-century Chinese fire arrow and its evolution into the metal-tube-launched rocket, various rocket launchers, the advent of the two-stage rocket that has a booster rocket, and fin–mounted, winged rockets. The book also describes the use of explosive land mines and naval mines, and the latter's use of a complex trigger mechanism. The book describes the development of other weapons, including various proto–guns such as the fire lance, handguns with up to ten barrels, handguns with possible serpentine locks used as components in matchlock firearms, early bombard and cannon, cannon barrels filled with metal balls containing poisonous gunpowder solutions, and cannons that were mounted on wheeled carriages.

Although Jiao Yu did not provide the book's preface until the Nanyang publication of 1412,[1] the book was published in the 14th century and was a compilation of material written since the late 13th century.[2] From his own personal accounts, Jiao Yu also described gunpowder weapons that were in use since 1355, with his involvement in the Red Turban Rebellion and revolt against Yuan Dynasty Mongol rule.[3]

Gunpowder warfare and weapons

Firearms and flamethrowers

The phalanx-charging fire-gourd, one of many fire lance types discharging lead pellets in the gunpowder blast, an illustration from the Huolongjing.
A small bronze cannon dated to the Ming Dynasty, on display at Beijing's Capital Museum

The military treatise of Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen went into a great amount of detail about the gunpowder weapons of their time. The fire lance and fire tube—a combination of a firearm and flamethrower—[4] came in many different versions and were styled with many different names by the time Jiao Yu edited the Huolongjing.[5] The earliest of these were made of bamboo tubes, although metal versions began to appear in the 12th century.[5] Others, according to description and illustrated pictures of the Huolongjing, emitted arrows called the 'lotus bunch' accompanied by a fiery blast.[6] Some of these low–nitrate gunpowder flamethrowers used poisonous mixtures, including arsenious oxide, and would blast a spray of porcelain bits as shrapnel.[7][8]

The earliest depiction of a fire lance is dated c. 950, a Chinese painting on a silk banner found at the Buddhist site of Dunhuang.[9] The oldest existent bronze handgun is the Heilongjiang hand cannon from the Heilongjiang archaeological excavation, dated to 1288 .[10] For that year, the Yuan Shi historical text describes the rebellion of the Christian Mongol prince Nayan and the Jurchen-born military commander Li Ting who, along with a Korean brigade conscripted by Kublai Khan, suppressed Nayan's rebellion using foot soldiers armed with handguns and portable bombards.[11]

The earliest metal barrel guns were not designed for high-nitrate gunpowder and a bore-filling projectile; rather, they were designed for the low-nitrate flamethrower fire lance that shot small co-viative missiles.[12] This was called the "bandit-striking penetrating gun" (ji zei bian chong), and was illustrated in a drawing in the Huolongjing.[12] In the Islamic world, the fire lance first appears in a book of 1280 written by Hasan al–Rammah, and again appears in a manuscript of 1320.[13] In Europe, the first representation of the fire lance is of a horse-mounted knight wielding the weapon in a Latin manuscript illustration dated to 1396,[14] and also appeared in an illustration of Taccola's De Mechinis (1449).

The Huolongjing also describes and illustrates metal-barrel handguns, including guns with up to ten barrels.[15] It describes the use of a "match-holding lance gun" (chi huo–sheng qiang), it described its arrangement as a match brought down to the touch hole of three gun barrels, one after the other.[16] During the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402–1424), the Shenji Brigade was formed with cavalry horses that were said to have tubes filled with flammable materials holstered to their sides, along with troops with firearms and light artillery on carriages.[17] In addition to firearms and fire lances, the Huolongjing also illustrates the tall, vertical, mobile shield used to hide and protect infantry gunmen, known as the "mysteriously moving phalanx-breaking fierce-flame sword-shield".[18] This large, rectangular shield would have been mounted on wheels with five rows of six circular holes each where the gun barrels could be placed. The shield itself would have been accompanied by swordsmen on either side to protect the gunmen.[18]

Bombards and cannons

The 'flying-cloud thunderclap-eruptor' cannon from the Huolongjing.

In China, the first cannon-barrel design portrayed in artwork was a stone sculpture dated to 1128 found in Sichuan province,[19] although the oldest archaeological discovery of a cannon is a bronze cannon of China inscribed with the date, "2nd year of the Dade era, Yuan Dynasty" (1298). The prototype to the metal barrel was of course one made of bamboo, which was recorded in use by a Chinese garrison commander at Anlu, Hubei province, in the year 1132.[20] One of the earliest references to the destructive force of a cannon in China was made by Zhang Xian in 1341, with his verse known as The Iron Cannon Affair.[21] Zhang wrote that its cannonball could "pierce the heart or belly when it strikes a man or horse, and can even transfix several persons at once".[21] Jiao Yu wrote that the cannon, called the "eruptor", was cast in bronze and had an average length of 53 inches (130 cm).[22] He wrote that some cannons were simply filled with about 100 lead balls, but others, called the "flying-cloud thunderclap eruptor" (飞云霹雳炮; feiyun pili pao) had large rounds that produced a bursting charge upon impact.[22] He wrote that the Chinese in his day had discovered how to pack hollow, cast iron shells of cannonballs with gunpowder to create an explosive effect upon contact with enemy targets.[22] In perspective, exploding cannonball rounds were not discovered in Europe until the 16th century.[23] He also mentioned the use of the "poison-fog magic smoke eruptor", in which "blinding gunpowder" and "poisonous gunpowder" were packed into the hollow cannonball shells and were effective in burning the faces and eyes of enemies, along with choking them with a formidable spray of poisonous smoke.[24] He wrote that cannons were mounted on frames or on wheeled carriages so that they could be rotated in all directions.[25]

Land mines and naval mines

land mines in the Huolongjing
A drawn illustration of a naval mine and page description from the Huolongjing.

The first recorded use of a land mine stated that the officer Lou Qianxia of the late Song Dynasty created them to kill invading Mongol troops in 1277.[26] Jiao Yu wrote that land mines were spherical, made of cast iron, and their fuses were ignited by the enemy movement disturbing a trigger mechanism.[27] Although his book did not elaborate on the trigger mechanism, a late Ming Dynasty book of 1606 said that a complex system of a pin release, dropping weights, cords and axles worked to rotate a spinning "steel wheel" that acted as a flint to provide sparks that ignited the mines' fuses underground.[28] For the use of naval mines, he wrote of slowly burning joss sticks that were disguised and timed to explode against enemy ships nearby:

The sea–mine called the 'submarine dragon–king' is made of wrought iron, and carried on a (submerged) wooden board, [appropriately weighted with stones]. The (mine) is enclosed in an ox-bladder. It subtlety lies in the fact that a thin incense(–stick) is arranged (to float) above the mine in a container. The (burning) of this joss stick determines the time at which the fuse is ignited, but without air its glowing would of course go out, so the container is connected with the mine by a (long) piece of goat's intestine (through which passes the fuse). At the upper end the (joss stick in the container) is kept floating by (an arrangement of) goose and wild–duck feathers, so that it moves up and down with the ripples of the water. On a dark (night) the mine is sent downstream (towards the enemy's ships), and when the joss stick has burnt down to the fuse, there is a great explosion.[29]

In the later "Tiangong Kaiwu" (The Exploitation of the Works of Nature) treatise, written by Song Yingxing in 1637, the ox bladder described by Jiao Yu is replaced with a lacquer bag and a cord pulled from a hidden ambusher located on the nearby shore, which would release a flint steel–wheel firing mechanism to ignite the fuse of the naval mine.[30]

Gunpowder and explosives

Suenaga facing Mongol arrows and gunpowder bombs during the Mongol invasions of Japan in 1281, painting dated to 1293.

There were several gunpowder compositions proposed by Jiao Yu, with additions to the standard formula of potassium nitrate (saltpetre), sulphur, and charcoal by adapting gunpowder weapons to early chemical warfare. He described the suitable uses of "magic gunpowder", "poison gunpowder", or "blinding and burning gunpowder" in warfare, which displays the various amounts of compositions used in his time.[31] For the making of poisonous gunpowder in hand-thrown or catapult-launched grenade bombs,[8] he advised that a mixture of tung oil, urine, sal ammoniac, feces, and scallion juice is heated and coated upon tiny iron pellets and broken porcelain.[32] For this, Jiao Yu wrote, "even birds flying in the air cannot escape the effects of the explosion".[32] His book also outlined the use of the "flying-sand magic bomb releasing ten thousand fires", which included the use of a tube of gunpowder placed in an earthenware pot that was previously filled with quicklime, resin, and alcoholic extracts of poisonous plants, which would be released in the explosion.[33]

Earliest known representation of a gun (a fire lance) and a grenade (upper right), from the cave murals of Dunhuang, 10th century

During the 14th century, Chinese gunpowder solutions had reached their maximum explosive potential, with levels of nitrate ranging from 12% to 91%. At least six formulae in use by the Chinese that were considered to have maximum explosive force.[34] This came about because of the enrichment of sulphur from pyrite extracts during the earlier Song Dynasty period,[35] while Chinese gunpowder formulae by the late 12th century and at least by 1230 were potential enough for explosive detonations and bursting cast iron shells.[36] The root of all this was the Chinese military handbook written in 1044, the Wujing Zongyao, which outlined the earliest formulae for gunpowder, which was used in bombs hurled by catapults.[36][37] Later, Wei Xing (d. 1164) of the Song Dynasty was said to have created a gunpowder formula of saltpetre, sulphur, and willow charcoal for his projectile carriages for launching "fire–stones" up to 400 yards (370 m).[38]

Although its destructive force was widely recognized by the 11th century, the Chinese had earlier termed gunpowder as a "fire-drug" (huo yao) because of Chinese beliefs in its pharmaceutical properties.[39] Its value in festival entertainment could be seen in firework displays, such as the martial demonstration in 1110 to entertain the court of Emperor Huizong.[39] Leading up to its 10th-century use with Fire Arrows and in fuses for igniting flamethrowers shooting Greek Fire, Daoist alchemists had experimented with various black powder solutions during the Han and Tang Dynasties.[40] After the Wujing Zongyao of 1044 had explicitly stated formulae for gunpowder, the Chinese government became frightened that it could fall into the hands of neighbouring enemies, and in 1076 enacted a strict governmental monopoly over the production and distribution of sulphur.[41] Although saltpetre was a central component of the "fire-drug" and a flavour enhancer for food during the Tang and Song periods,[42] in 1067 the Song government banned the populace of modern Shanxi and Hebei provinces to sell sulphur and saltpetre in any form to foreigners.[43] While engaged in a war with the Mongols in 1259, the official Li Zengbo wrote in his text "Ko Zhai Za Gao, Xu Gao Hou" that the city of Qingzhou was manufacturing one to two thousand strong iron-cased bomb shells a month, dispatching to Xiangyang and Yingzhou about ten to twenty thousand such bombs at a time.[44]

Fire arrows and rockets

Model of an early 15th-century Korean hwacha, a two–wheeled, cart rocket launcher that fires singijeons

Jiao Yu termed the earliest fire arrows launched from bows (not rocket launchers) "fiery pomegranate shot from a bow" because the lump of gunpowder–filled paper wrapped round the arrow below the metal arrow–head resembled the shape of a pomegranate.[45] Jiao Yu advised that a piece of hemp cloth should be used to strengthen the wad of paper and sealed with molten pine resin.[46] Although he described the fire arrow in great detail, it was mentioned by the much earlier Xia Shaozeng, when 20,000 fire arrows were handed over to the Jurchen conquerors of Kaifeng City in 1126.[46] An even earlier Chinese text of the Wujing Zongyao (武经总要, "Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques"), written in 1044 by the Song scholars Zeng Gongliang and Yang Weide, described the use of three spring or triple bow arcuballista that fired arrow bolts holding gunpowder.[46] Although written in 1630 (second edition in 1664), the Wulixiaoshi of Fang Yizhi said that fire arrows were presented to Emperor Taizu of Song in 960.[47] Even after the rocket was invented in China the fire arrow continued in use; this could be seen in the Second Opium War, where Chinese used fire arrows against the French in 1860.[48]

By the time of Jiao Yu, the term "fire arrow" had taken on a new meaning and incorporated the earliest rockets found in China.[8][49] The simple transition of this was to use a hollow tube instead of a bow or ballista firing gunpowder-impregnated fire arrows. The historian Joseph Needham wrote that this discovery came sometime before Jiao Yu during the late Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279).[49] From the section of the oldest passages in the Huolongjing,[49] the text reads:

One uses a bamboo stick 4 ft 2 in long, with an iron (or steel) arrow–head 4.5 in long...behind the feathering there is an iron weight 0.4 in long. At the front end there is a carton tube bound on to the stick, where the 'rising gunpowder' is lit. When you want to fire it off, you use a frame shaped like a dragon, or else conveniently a tube of wood or bamboo to contain it.[49]

A multistage rocket from the Huolongjing, it may be regarded as an ancestor to the modern exocet.

In the late 14th century, the Chinese had discovered how to combine the rocket launching tube with the fire lance.[50] This involved three tubes attached to the same staff. As the first rocket tube was fired, a charge was ignited in the leading tube which expelled a blinding lachrymatory powder at the enemy, and finally the second rocket was fired.[50] An illustration of this appears in the Huolongjing, which describes the effectiveness of this weapon to obfuscate the location of the rockets from the enemy.[50] The Huolongjing also describes and illustrates two kinds of mounted rocket launchers that fired multiple rockets.[51] There was a cylindrical, basket-work rocket launcher called the "Mr. Facing-both-ways rocket arrow firing basket", as well as an oblong-section, rectangular, box rocket launcher known as the "magical rocket-arrow block".[52] Rockets described in the Huolongjing were not all in the shape of standard fire arrows because there some had artificial wings attached.[53][54] An illustration shows that fins were used to increase aerodynamic stability for the flight path of the rocket,[54][55] which according to Jiao Yu could rise hundreds of feet before landing at the designated enemy target.[54][56]

The Huolongjing also describes and illustrates the oldest known multistage rocket; this was the "fire-dragon issuing from the water" (huo long chu shui), which was used mostly by the Chinese navy.[57][58] It was a two-stage rocket that had carrier or booster rockets that would automatically ignite a number of smaller rocket arrows that were shot out of the front end of the missile, which was shaped like a dragon's head with an open mouth, before eventually burning out.[57][58] This multistage rocket may be considered the ancestor of modern cluster munitions.[57][58] Needham says that the written material and illustration of this rocket come from the oldest stratum of the Huolongjing, which can be dated to about 1300-1350 from the book's part 1, chapter 3, page 23.[57]

Historical perspective

Chinese handgun from the Yuan Dynasty era, 1279-1368.

Gunpowder warfare originated in medieval China and underwent technological advancement during the preceding dynasties; however, its technological and methodical perfection occurred elsewhere. Although the inventions and writings of Jiao Yu and the Chinese "fire-weapons" of his time revolutionised warfare in China, there was little Chinese innovation in gunpowder weapons during and after the 15th century. With no significant enemies, there was no need to advance gunpowder weaponry. In stark contrast, in the competitive European environment, failing to adopt and improve gunpowder technology meant conquest by your neighbours.[59] When the Portuguese arrived in China in the early 16th century, they were mostly unimpressed with Chinese firearms in comparison to their own.[59] With the progression of the earliest European arquebus to the matchlock and the wheellock, and the advent of the flintlock musket of the 17th century, they surpassed the level of earlier Chinese innovation.[60] The Chinese of the late Ming Dynasty adopted the Ottoman Turkish matchlockman's kneeling position and bought European firearms for their infantry musketeers.[61] Illustrations of Ottoman and European riflemen with detailed illustrations of their weapons appeared in Zhao Shizhen's book Shenqipu of 1598.[62]

Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) era matchlock firearms featuring serpentine levers
A bronze breech-loading cannon from the Ming Dynasty

The 16th-century breech-loading model entered China around the time that the Portuguese embassy of Fernão Pires de Andrade came to China in 1517 and was eventually rejected. Portuguese and Chinese ships battled near Tuen Mun in 1521 and the Portuguese were repelled by the Ming Dynasty navy.[63] These hostilities began when the Malacca Sultanate (a tributary vassal loyal to the Ming) was defeated and conquered by the Portuguese under Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511,[64] and in the process slaughtered a large community of Chinese merchants living there.[65]

In 1523, the Chinese navy captured two Western ships with Portuguese breech-loading culverins aboard, which the Chinese called a folangji (佛郎機; meaning either a Frank or Frankish culverin).[66] According to the Ming Shi, these cannons were presented to the Jiajing Emperor by Wang Hong and their design was copied in 1529.[63] The Frankish culverin was first illustrated in China in a drawing in a Chinese book published in 1562.[67] However, according to earlier Ming records, it was the War Ministry official He Ru who first acquired these guns in 1522, while copies of them were made by Yang San (Pedro Yang) and Dai Ming—Westernised Chinese in Beijing, .[68] In an even earlier account of Wang Yangming (1472–1529), the philosopher and governor of Jiangxi, he intended to use folangji cannons to suppress the rebellion of Prince Zhu Chenhao in 1519.[68] In any case, the arrival of the breech-loading rifle and cannon into China signified the beginning of continual European influence upon Chinese firearms and artillery.[68] Song Yingxing wrote in his encyclopedia of 1637 that both foreign and unique, native, gunpowder weapons were used:

Refined copper is used in the casting of Western-ocean cannon, the Red-hair barbarian cannon, and the French cannon. Equal amounts of refined and raw [or blister] copper are used in making such arms as signal guns and muskets. For making guns like Xiangyang, Zhankou, First General and Second General, iron is used.[69]

See also


  1. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 25.
  2. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 24.
  3. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 26.
  4. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 232.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Embree, 185.
  6. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 241, 242, 244.
  7. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 232–233.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Cowley, 38.
  9. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 224–225.
  10. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 293.
  11. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 293-294.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 237.
  13. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 259.
  14. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 260.
  15. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 459–463.
  16. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 458–459.
  17. Partington, 239.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 416.
  19. Embree, 850,852.
  20. Norris, 10.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Norris, 11.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Needham, Volume 4, Part 2, 264. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "needham_volume_5_part_7_264" defined multiple times with different content
  23. Cowley, 49.
  24. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 267.
  25. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 264–265.
  26. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 192.
  27. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 193.
  28. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 199.
  29. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 203–205.
  30. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 205.
  31. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 192–193.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 180.
  33. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 187.
  34. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 345–346.
  35. Yunming, 489–490.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Khan, 2.
  37. Ebrey, 138.
  38. Partington, 239–240.
  39. 39.0 39.1 Kelly, 2.
  40. Kelly, 2–4.
  41. Yunming, 489.
  42. Kelly, 4.
  43. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 126.
  44. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 173-174.
  45. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 154–155.
  46. 46.0 46.1 46.2 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 154.
  47. Partington, 240.
  48. Partington, 5.
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 49.3 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 477.
  50. 50.0 50.1 50.2 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 485–486.
  51. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 486–489.
  52. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 489.
  53. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 498.
  54. 54.0 54.1 54.2 Temple, 240.
  55. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 501–503.
  56. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 502.
  57. 57.0 57.1 57.2 57.3 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 508–510.
  58. 58.0 58.1 58.2 Temple, 240–241.
  59. 59.0 59.1 Khan, 4.
  60. Khan, 4–5.
  61. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 449–452.
  62. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 447–454.
  63. 63.0 63.1 Needham Volume 5, Part 7, 369.
  64. Mote et al., The Cambridge History of China, 338–339.
  65. Brook, 122–123.
  66. Mote et al., The Cambridge History of China, 340.
  67. Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 374.
  68. 68.0 68.1 68.2 Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 372.
  69. Song, 165.


  • Brook, Timothy (1998). The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Cowley, Robert (1996). The Reader's Companion to Military History. Boston: Houghton–Mifflin Company.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999). The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43519-6 (hardback); ISBN 0-521-66991-X (paperback).
  • Embree, Ainslie Thomas (1997). Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching. Armonk: ME Sharpe, Inc.
  • Kelly, Jack (2004). Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World. New York: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.
  • Khan, Iqtidar Alam (2004). Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Mote, Frederick W. and Denis Twitchett. (1998). The Cambridge History of China; Volume 7–8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24333-5 (Hardback edition).
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 7, Military Technology; the Gunpowder Epic. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
  • Norris, John (2003). Early Gunpowder Artillery: 1300–1600. Marlborough: The Crowood Press, Ltd.
  • Partington, James Riddick (1998). A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5954-9.
  • Song, Yingxing, translated with preface by E-Tu Zen Sun and Shiou-Chuan Sun (1966). T'ien-Kung K'ai-Wu: Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Temple, Robert. (1986). The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. With a forward by Joseph Needham. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc. ISBN 0-671-62028-2.
  • Yunming, Zhang (1986). Isis: The History of Science Society: Ancient Chinese Sulfur Manufacturing Processes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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