The Song Dynasty in China | Asia for Educators

China in 1000 CE

The Most Advanced Society in the World

Technological Advances during the Song


Illustrations of whip-arrows (L) and raised “flower” and ball bombs(R),
from Zeng Gongliang and Ding Du, Wujing zongyao, late Ming (Wanli Period) edition, in Zhongguo bingshu jicheng, Volume 3 to 5, edited by the Zhongguo bingshu jicheng Editing Committee (Beijing and Shenyang: Jiefangjun chubanshe and Liaoshen shushe, 1988), 12:56 (p.633).

from A Visual Sourcebook for Chinese Civilization,
Patricia Ebrey, University of Washington


Song military engineers found gunpowder to be helpful in siege warfare, leading to the development of early types of rockets, cannons, bombs, and mines.

The Wujing zongyao (“Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques”), a military manual from 1044 CE, records the first true gunpowder formula and describes how to produce it on a large scale. Gunpowder was first use in warfare as an incendiary, or fire-producing, compound. Small packages of gunpowder wrapped in paper or bamboo were attached to arrows and lit with a fuse.

Bombs of gunpowder mixed with scrap iron would be launched with catapults. Another use was “fire-spurting lances,” which were a kind of flame-thrower using bamboo or metal tubes for their barrels.

Weapons involving gunpowder were extensively used by both the Chinese and the Mongol forces in the 13th century. Song efforts to continually improve their weapons were one reason they were able to hold off the Mongols for several decades. But the Mongols, like the Khitans and Jurchens before them (who conquered the first, or northern, Song dynasty capital in Kaifeng), were equally ready to adopt new and better military technology, often by capturing the Chinese engineers and gunners.


More about Chinese Military Technology

A Visual Sourcebook for Chinese Civilization: Military Technology [Patricia Ebrey, University of Washington]
Discusses siegecraft, crossbows and armor, spears, clubs, and swords, catapults, warships, and gunpowder and firearms. Illustrations throughout, with questions for discussion.


Cai Guo-Qiang, Contemporary Artist Exploring Use of Gunpowder and Explosives

Cai Guo-Qiang [art21, PBS]
Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957) is a Chinese contemporary artist and curator and, most recently, Director of Visual and Special Effects for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. “Accomplished in a variety of media, Cai began using gunpowder in his work to foster spontaneity and confront the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China.”

Cai Guo-Qiang [Artist’s Official Website]
See especially Projects to explore the artist’s work.

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