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Fireworks, Chinese Inventions

A Great Invention of Ancient China

China is recognized as the birthplace of fireworks. There are different stories on its invention. According to one story, a chef in Tang Dynasty inadvertently mixed three common kitchen ingredients – saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal – and a colored flame rose when the mixture was dropped into the fire. The chef tried further to burn the mixture in a closed bamboo shoot, which resulted in an explosion. Annother legend attributes the invention of fireworks to ancient Chinese alchemists, who had attempted to refine sand and base ore into gold and a magical elixir of immortality but came up with an explosive powder by chance, instead. This crude black powder was named by the Chinese as “huo yao” (fire chemical).

Fireworks and Chinese Folk Culture

Following its invention, fireworks was soon incorporated into Chinese folk culture. Firecrackers are lit at almost all traditional festivals as its loud sound is believed to be able to scare away evil spirits. At celebrations (such as a wedding, a victory, or the opening of a new shop), fireworks are used to make more noise and add to the excitement and gaiety of the moment. Fireworks became available at the marketplace to the common folk in as early as the Song Dynasty (960~1279), and fireworks displays were held at the court to entertain the emperor. Xin Qiji, a great patriotic poet of Southern Song Dynasty, mentioned one such scene at Lantern Festival in one of his most acclaimed ci poem, “Like a shower of stars fall the sparks of the fireworks.”
Fireworks, gunpowder, Chinese ancient inventionsFireworks, gunpowder, Chinese ancient inventions
A prevailing legend associates the invention of fireworks with ancient Chinese alchemy. Firecrakers and fireworks, a most popular traditional game for Chinese kids.
Fireworks, gunpowder, Chinese ancient inventionsFireworks, gunpowder, Chinese ancient inventions
Displays of fireworks are widely used on festive occassion, as at the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympic Games, 2008.Rocket-propelled arrow. Gunpowder became used on weapons, and was to bring about a revolution in warfare.

Military Use of Fireworks and Its Spread to Europe

A more influential use of the firework is in the military. Rocket-propelled arrows had become common by Yuan Dynasty. Gunpowder spread to Europe through the Middle East. The Mongols were credited with having used gunpowder weapons in their Western Expeditions. The first recorded uses of gunpowder in Europe are around 1258. In the centuries that followed, the use of gunpowder was to bring a revolution in world weapons development, shaping the history of mankind like no other invention.

Civilian use of fireworks was introduced to the West, too, allegedly through Marco Polo. The Italians were the earliest Europeans to use gunpowder for manufacturing fireworks, later to be joined by Germany. According to certain works by William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I of England was so fascinated with fireworks displays that she created a position called “Fire Master of England.”


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