Wujing Zongyao

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A Chinese Song dynasty naval river ship with a Xuanfeng traction-trebuchet catapult on its top deck, taken from an illustration of the Wujing Zongyao.

The Wujing Zongyao (simplified Chinese: 武经总要; traditional Chinese: 武經總要; pinyin: Wǔjīng Zǒngyào; Wade–Giles: Wu Ching Tsung Yao; literally: "Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques") is a Chinese military compendium written from around 1040 to 1044 AD. It contains the earliest known written formulas for gunpowder, made from saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal, along with many added ingredients.[1][2] The book was compiled during the Northern Song dynasty by scholars such as Zeng Gongliang (曾公亮), Ding Du (丁度) and Yang Weide (楊惟德), whose writing influenced many later Chinese military writers. The compendium was published under the auspices of Emperor Renzong, who also authored the book's preface.[3] The book covers a wide range of subjects, everything from naval warships to different types of catapults. In addition to formulas for gunpowder, the compendium contains details on various gunpowder weapons such as incendiary bombs, fire arrows, incendiary projectiles, grenades, and smoke bombs. It also describes an early form of the compass (using thermoremanence), and has the oldest illustration of a Chinese Greek Fire flamethrower with a double-acting two-piston cylinder-pump capable of shooting a continuous blast of flame.[4]


A thunderclap bomb, an early explosive bomb.
Court portrait of Emperor Renzong.

Under the imperial order of Emperor Renzong of Song (r. 1022–1063 AD), a team of Chinese scholars compiled the treatise of the Wujing Zongyao from 1040 to 1044, in order to improve the knowledge of all the known martial techniques used in warfare.[5] Its chief editor was Zeng Gongliang, while he was assisted by the prominent astronomer Yang Weide and the scholar Ding Du.[5] After five years, the book was published with a preface authored by Emperor Renzong.[3]

The Wujing Zongyao was one of 347 military treatises listed in the biographical chapters of the Song Shi (1345 AD), the historical work that embodied part of the Twenty-Four Histories.[6] Of these 347 different military treatises from the Song dynasty period, only the Wujing Zongyao, the Huqianjing (Tiger Seal Manual) of Xu Dong in 1004 AD, and fragments of similar works found in the later Yonglo Datian have survived.[6] The original text of the Wujing Zongyao was kept in the Imperial Library, while a number of hand-written copies were distributed elsewhere, including a copy given to Wang Shao by Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1069 AD.[7]

However, with the sacking of the capital Kaifeng in the Jin–Song wars by the invading Jurchens in 1126 AD, the enormous amount of prized literature found in the Imperial Library was lost, including the original copy of the Wujing Zongyao.[8] After the original was lost, there was only a scarce amount of surviving copies rewritten by hand. There was a scarcity because the book was meant to be kept a secret amongst a few trustees of the government, as publishing and printing many copies using woodblock printing would have allowed the possibility of it falling into enemy hands.[8] Nevertheless, from a remaining copy of the Wujing Zongyao, it was remade into a newly published edition in 1231 AD during the Southern Song dynasty era.[8] Then, during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), a book published in 1439 AD featured fragments of the original Wujing Zongyao edition of 1231 while omitting some material and combining it with two other books, the preface of this book written by Li Jin.[9] Then there was a reprinted edition of the entire Wujing Zongyao in 1510 AD, this complete version being the oldest extant copy available.[10] Furthermore, the historian Joseph Needham asserts that this edition of 1510 AD is the most reliable in its faithfulness to the original version, since it was printed from blocks that were re-carved directly from tracings of the edition made in 1231 AD.[8]

After the edition of 1510 was printed, other Ming Dynasty copies were made. This included the Jiajing edition (1522–1566 AD), the Wanli edition (1573–1619 AD) of Quanzhou, and the Wanli edition (1573–1619) of Jinling by Tang Xinyün (preserved by Cunjingge).[8] During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 AD) it was also reprinted in two different editions during the 18th century, and again in 1934 with the Shanghai edition.[8]

Compass and navigation[edit]

Layout of a Ming Dynasty mariner's compass.

In the 3rd century, the Chinese engineer Ma Jun invented the south-pointing chariot. This was a wheeled vehicle that employed differential gearing in order to lock a figurine of an immortal in place on the end of a long wooden staff, the figure having its arm stretched out and always pointing to the southern cardinal direction. Although the authors of the Wujing Zongyao were mistaken in believing that the design of the south-pointing chariot was not handed down (as it was reinvented during the Song period and combined with an odometer), they described a new device which allowed one to navigate. This was the 'south pointing fish' (a thermoremanence compass), essentially a heated iron (or preferably steel) object cut in the shape of a fish and suspended in a bowl of water. The Wujing Zongyao part 1 vol 15 text stated:

When troops encountered gloomy weather or dark nights, and the directions of space could not be distinguished, they let an old horse go on before to lead them, or else they made use of the south-pointing carriage, or the south-pointing fish to identify the directions. Now the carriage method has not been handed down, but in the fish method a thin leaf of iron is cut into the shape of a fish two inches long and half an inch broad, having a pointed head and tail. This is then heated in a charcoal fire, and when it has become thoroughly red-hot, it is taken out by the head with iron tongs and placed so that its tail points due north. In this position it is quenched with water in a basin, so that its tail is submerged for several tenths of an inch. It is then kept in a tightly closed box. To use it, a small bowl filled with water is set up in a windless place, and the fish is laid as flat as possible upon the water-surface so that it floats, whereupon its head will point south.[11]

It was during the Song dynasty that the compass became associated with maritime navigation.[12] Writing several decades after the Wujing Zongyao was written, the scientist and statesman Shen Kuo (1031–1095 AD) wrote of the first truly magnetized compass needle in his book Dream Pool Essays (1088 AD). With a more efficient compass magnetized by lodestone, the thermoremanence compass fell out of use.[13] The later maritime author Zhu Yu soon wrote of the magnetic needle compass as a means to navigate at sea, in his book Pingzhou Table Talks of 1119 AD.


Gunpowder weapons[edit]

The Wujing Zongyao records detailed descriptions of different gunpowder weapons such as incendiary projectiles, smoke bombs, and fire arrows. It documents incendiary projectiles containing low-nitrate gunpowder,[14] which were launched from catapults or lowered down from city walls at besiegers.[15] Examples of these incendiaries include the "swallow-tail" incendiary (燕尾炬; yanweiju) and the flying incendiary (飛炬; feiju). The swallow-tail incendiary was made of straw that had been tied together and dipped in fat or oil. Chinese soldiers defending a city under siege would lit the incendiary and lower it onto any wooden structure of the invading army to engulf it in fire. The flying incendiary visually resembled the swallow-tail incendiary, but was lowered using an iron chain from a swape lever installed within the walls of the city.[15] The book also describes an 'igniter ball' used in warfare and for finding the firing range. The Wujing Zongyao stated the following:

The 'igniter ball' (yin huo qiu) is made of paper round like a ball, inside which is put between three and five pounds of powdered bricks. Melt yellow wax and let it stand until clear, then add powdered charcoal and make it into a paste permeating the ball; bind it up with hempen string. When you want to find the range of anything, shoot off this fire-ball first, then other incendiary balls can follow.[14]

Gunpowder was attached to fire arrows (火箭), an incendiary arrow that functioned like a rocket.[16] The Wujing Zongyao records that fire arrows were launched from bows or crossbows. The gunpowder used for fire arrows was likely a low-nitrate powder, and the quantity of gunpowder varied according to the type of bow.[17] In the book, the force of gunpowder is said to be enough to launch an arrow, but only when the elasticity of the crossbow is sufficient.[18]

Gunpowder formulas[edit]

A page with the formula for gunpowder from the Wujing Zongyao manuscript.

Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists. The earliest reference to gunpowder comes from the Daoist book Zhenyuan miaodao yaolue, written circa 850.[19] The use of gunpowder in warfare began in China during the early 10th century, with the advent of the black-powder-impregnated fuse that was used to light the burst of the Chinese two-piston flamethrower.[20] It was not until the Wujing Zongyao that the exact formulas for early Chinese black powder was revealed.[21] In the Wujing Zongyao there are three formulas for black powder provided,[19] including one for an explosive bomb launched from a trebuchet catapult, another for a similar bomb with hooks attached so that it could latch on to any wooden structure and set it on fire, and another formula specified for a poison-smoke bomb used for chemical warfare.[22]

An illustration of a trebuchet catapult, from the Wujing Zongyao.

The Wujing Zongyao's first recorded black-powder formula used in these bombs held a potassium nitrate level of 55.4% to 55.5%, sulfur content of 19.4% to 26.5%, and carbonaceous content of 23% to 25.2%.[23] For the second labeled formula, the inner ball alone had a nitrate percentage of 61.5% to 50.2%, a sulfur content of 30.8% to 25.1%, and if all carbonaceous matter was taken, 24.7%, if just taking the charcoal content alone, the carbon level was 7.7%.[24] If the outer coating and inner ball are both included with the second black-powder formula, that would yield a nitrate level of 34.7% to 54.8%, a sulfur content of 17.4% to 27.4%, and if all carbonaceous material is used, 47.9% carbon, if only charcoal is used, 17.8%.[24] If the inner ball of the third black-powder formula is only considered, it held nitrate levels of 39.6% if all carbonaceous matter was taken, 49.4% nitrate if excluding the poisons, and 60% if charcoal is specified alone.[25] The sulfur content was 19.8% if all carbonaceous matter was considered, 24.7% if this excluded poisons, and 30% if charcoal is specified alone.[25] The carbon content was 40.5% if all carbonaceous matter was considered, 25.9% if this excluded poisons, and 10% if charcoal alone was specified.[25] If both the inner ball and outer coating are considered for the third formula, that would yield a nitrate level of 27% if all carbonaceous matter was taken, 31.2% if this excluded poisons, and 51.7% if charcoal alone was used.[25] The sulfur content would be 13.5% if all carbonaceous matter was taken, 15.6% if this excluded the poisons, and 25.9% if only charcoal alone was specified.[25] The carbon content was 59.5% if all carbonaceous matter was taken into account, 53.2% if this excluded poisons, and 22.4% if charcoal alone was specified.[25]

The first black-powder concoction was simply labeled as the "method for making the fire-chemical", with its ingredients and measured weight (in ounces) of each ingredient listed in the section below with the others listed in similar fashion.[26]

1st Formula[27]

Total weight = 82.2 oz.

2nd Formula[24]

Total weight = 116.3 oz.

3rd Formula[28]

Total weight = 114.3 oz.

Flamethrower and Greek fire[edit]

A Chinese flamethrower from the Wujing Zongyao

The first Chinese battle to use the double-piston pump flamethrower was the Battle of Langshan Jiang in 919 AD. In the Battle of Langshan Jiang (Wolf Mountain River, 狼山江), the naval fleet of the Wenmu King of Wuyue defeated the fleet of the Kingdom of Wu because he had used 'fire oil' (huo yóu, 火油) to burn his fleet; this signified the first Chinese use of gunpowder in warfare, since a slow-burning match fuse was required to ignite the flames. The Chinese author Lin Yu explained in his book of 919 AD that Greek fire was acquired from their Arab maritime trade contacts in the Indian Ocean.[29] Furthermore, the Chinese had been using the piston syringe since the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD).[30] However, it was the later Wujing Zongyao that would provide the first illustrated drawing and greater textual explanation for how this flamethrower operated. In describing the drawn illustration of the flamethrower in the book, the Wujing Zongyao states:

On the right is the petrol flamethrower (lit. fierce fire oil-shooter). The tank is made of brass, and supported on four legs. From its upper surface arise four (vertical) tubes attached to a horizontal cylinder above; they are all connected with the tank. The head and the tail of the cylinder are large (the middle) is of narrow (diameter). In the tail end there is a small opening as big as a millet grain. The head end has (two) round openings 1½ inches in diameter. At the side of the tank there is a hole with a (little) tube which is used for filling, and this is fitted with a cover. Inside the cylinder there is a (piston-)rod packed with silk floss, the head of which is wound round with hemp waste about ½ inches thick. Before and behind, the two communicating tubes are (alternately) occluded (lit. controlled), and (the mechanism) thus determined. The tail has a horizontal handle (the pump handle), in front of which there is a round cover. When (the handle is pushed) in (the pistons) close the mouth of the tubes (in turn).[29]

Before use the tank is filled with rather more than three catties of the oil with a spoon through a filter; at the same time gunpowder (composition) is placed in the ignition chamber at the head. When the fire is to be started one applies a heated branding iron (to the ignition chamber), and the piston-rod is forced fully into the cylinder—then the man at the back is ordered to draw the piston rod fully backwards and work it (back and forth) as vigorously as possible. Whereupon the oil (the petrol) comes out through the ignition chamber and is shot forth as blazing flame.[31]

Then the text goes on to provide further instructions about equipment, maintenance, and repair of flamethrowers:

When filling, use the bowl, the spoon and filter; for igniting there is the branding iron; for maintaining (or renewing) the fire there is the container. The branding iron is made sharp like an awl so that it may be used ot unblock the tubes if they get stopped up. There are tongs with which to pick up the glowing fire, and there is a soldering iron for stopping up leaks. If the tanks or the tubes get cracked and leak they may be mended by using green wax. Altogether there are 12 items of equipment, all of brass except the tongs, the branding iron, and the soldering iron. Another method is to fix a brass gourd-shaped container inside a large tube; below it has two feet, and inside there are two small feet communicating with them (comm: all made of brass) and there is also the piston. The method of shooting is as described above. If the enemy comes to attack a city, these weapons are placed on the great ramparts, or else in outworks, so that large numbers of assailants cannot get through.[30]

Illustrations from the Wujing Zongyao[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ebrey 1996, p. 138.
  2. ^ Chase 2003.
  3. ^ a b Wang 1947, p. 162.
  4. ^ Needham 1987, p. 83.
  5. ^ a b Needham 1987, p. 601; Needham 1987, p. 19.
  6. ^ a b Needham 1987, p. 19.
  7. ^ Needham 1987, pp. 19–20.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Needham 1987, p. 20.
  9. ^ Needham 1987, p. 21.
  10. ^ Needham 1987, p. 601; Needham 1987, p. 20.
  11. ^ Needham 1962, p. 252.
  12. ^ Mote 1999, p. 326.
  13. ^ Needham 1962, pp. 252–253.
  14. ^ a b Needham 1987, p. 73.
  15. ^ a b Needham 1987, pp. 70–71.
  16. ^ Wang 1947, p. 165.
  17. ^ Needham 1987, p. 477.
  18. ^ Wang 1947, p. 166.
  19. ^ a b Chase 2003, p. 31.
  20. ^ Needham 1987, pp. 80–82.
  21. ^ Wang 1947, p. 177.
  22. ^ Needham 1987, p. 117.
  23. ^ Needham 1987, p. 120.
  24. ^ a b c Needham 1987, p. 122.
  25. ^ a b c d e f Needham 1987, p. 124.
  26. ^ Needham 1987, p. 182.
  27. ^ Needham 1987, p. 118.
  28. ^ Needham 1987, pp. 123–124.
  29. ^ a b Needham 1987, p. 82.
  30. ^ a b Needham 1987, p. 84.
  31. ^ Needham 1987, pp. 83–84.


  • Chase, Kenneth Warren (2003). Firearms: A Global History to 1700. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82274-9. 
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (2010) [1996]. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-12433-1. 
  • Feng Jiasheng (1954). The Invention of Gunpowder and Its Spread to The West. Shanghai: Shanghai People's Press. TQ56-09/1
  • Liang, Jieming (2006). Chinese Siege Warfare: Mechanical Artillery & Siege Weapons of Antiquity. ISBN 981-05-5380-3. 
  • Mote, Frederick W. (1999). Imperial China: 900–1800. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-44515-5.  (hardcover); ISBN 978-0-674-01212-7 (paperback).
  • Needham, Joseph (1962). Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 1, Physics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-05802-5. 
  • Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Military technology: The Gunpowder Epic, Volume 5, Part 7. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-30358-3. 
  • Wang, Ling (1947). "On the Invention and Use of Gunpowder and Firearms in China". Isis 37 (3/4): 160–178. JSTOR 225569. 

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