Considerable and continuing academic controversy rages over the exact culture and origin of gunpowder. A common understanding, now argued to be simplistic and uncritically challenged, was that the Chinese solely invented gunpowder and guns. However, deeper academic inquiry, superior communications technology and access to first-hand sources disprove many elements of a simplistic sole origin argument for gunpowder.
Instead it has been argued that, like the wheel, gunpowder was “coinvented” or “co-discovered” prior to, simultaneously or slightly after the Chinese, by cultures separated from the Chinese by vast distances, with minimal direct contact between one another.
Main arguments deviating from the “Chinese origin consensus” are that gunpowder may have been invented by the Arabs, by the English monk Roger Bacon, or by the Germanic people (according to folklore a friar Berthold Schwarz), with literary and archeological evidence to substantiate such claims.
A major problem compounding unbiased academic study is rapid access to original sources. Moreover, the major dilemma of accurate transliteration of original sources, especially of medieval Chinese texts, from then-understood metaphor and/or prose employed to describe (then) hitherto unexplained phenomena into contemporary languages with their well-established and rigidly defined terminology. The difficulty in transliteration lends itself readily to errors or latitude bordering on artistic licence in the interpretation
Further compounding unbiased academic inquiry, are elements of national pride or cultural-religious pride, patriotism and bias which seek to correct perceived errors or former poor perceptions of nations or cultures in question. .
An evaluation of all arguments and thorough literature review is beyond the scope of this article. Rather than take a position, the article will present all arguments to the reader.
Saltpeter was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpetre and sulfur in various largely medicinal combinations. A Chinese alchemical text dated 492 AD noted saltpetre burnt with a purple flame, providing a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, thus enabling alchemists to evaluate and compare purification techniques.
The first reference of gunpowder is possibly the passage of the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoist text tentatively dated to the mid-800s CE:
Some have heated together sulfur, realgar and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.
By the 9th century by Taoist monks or alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality had serendipitously stumbled upon gunpowder The Chinese “Wu Ching Tsung Yao” written by Tseng Kung-Liang in 1044 provides encyclopedia references to a variety of mixtures which included petrochemicals, as well as garlic and honey. A slow match for flame throwing mechanisms using the siphon principal and for fireworks and rockets are mentioned. Academics such as Kelly and Chase argue the Chinese wasted little time in applying gunpowder to warfare, and they produced a variety of gunpowder weapons, including flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, and mines, before inventing guns as a projectile weapon.
The Arabs acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time after 1240 AD, but before 1280 AD, by which time Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries. However, because al-Rammah attributes his material to “his father and forefathers”, al-Hassan () argues that gunpowder became prevalent in Syria and Egypt by “the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth”.
Al-Hassan claims that in the Battle of Ain Jalut of 1260 AD, the Mamluks used against the Mongols in “the first cannon in history” gunpowder formulae with near identical ideal composition ratios for explosive gunpowder. However, Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world[ and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East. Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.
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