Wanggongchang Explosion: A 17th Century Disaster That Nearly Destroyed Beijing

Aug 8, 2023 0 comments

Gunpowder, a volatile and explosive substance composed of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur, has played a significant role in shaping history. However, its storage and handling have often resulted in catastrophic accidents. One of the most devastating gunpowder related accidents occurred in Beijing in the early 17th century. The explosion that resulted has been ranked as one of the biggest in history.

The incident occurred at the Wanggongchang Armory, which was one of several arms depot situated within the capital. Administered by the Ministry of Works, these depots were responsible for both the production of gunpowder and the storage of armor, firearms, bows, and ammunition. These armories held great significance for Beijing's security and the preparedness of Ming China's defense forces. This is why they were strategically placed within the heart of the capital, shielded by its formidable and robust walls. Unfortunately, this was also the area where a majority of the population resided. It didn't take long for the tragic consequences of establishing an explosives manufacturing facility in a residential vicinity to become evident.

Photo credit: vecstock/Freepik

In the morning of May 30, 1626, residents of Beijing noticed a plume of smoke rising from the Wanggongchang Armory followed by a loud rumbling and shaking of houses. Then a bright flash of light was seen. Moments later a huge bang was heard that “shattered the sky and crumbled the earth.” An immense mushroom cloud was seen towering above the city.

The explosion flattened everything within an area of two square kilometers surrounding the site. Thousands of people who were nearby at the time perished and thousands of houses were left in ashes. Buildings and other structures were demolished by the explosive force and their fragments scattered on the street. The force of the explosion was so great that large trees were uprooted and thrown on the opposite side of the city. A 2.5 ton stone lion was thrown over the city wall.

The thundering explosion was heard in Tongzhou, which was 20 kilometers away to the southeast, in Changping, 40 kilometers to the northwest, and in Miyun about 100 kilometers to the northeast. Trembling was felt more than 150 kilometers away. In Jizhou, located more than 100 kilometers away from Beijing, contemporary sources reported that hundreds of houses suddenly collapsed at the time of the explosion.

The explosive force tore away people’s bodies, transforming them into bloody fragments. These body parts were carried over large distances where it rained down from the sky. The official Peking Gazette gave a shocking report:

In the area near Chang’an Boulevard, human heads flew down from the sky. Eyebrows and noses, sometimes even a forehead, descended one after another.... Outside Desheng Gate, even more human arms and legs dropped down.

In the book A Sketch of Sites and Objects in the Imperial Capital, published nine years after the incident, Beijing scholars Liu Tong and Yu Yizheng describe the extraordinary sight of the mushroom cloud and gives a summary of its horrifying aftermath:

The scene [resembled] entangled silk threads, the crest of a tidal wave, iridescent hues, a black lingzhi fungus, all rushing into the sky. This was the disaster that happened in the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop. From Fucheng Gate in the east to Ministry of Justice Street in the north, within an area of four li by thirteen li, houses collapsed and the ground caved in. Trees, stones, people, and birds poured down to earth from the sky like rainfall. Thousands of houses were razed; hundreds of people were killed. The smell of burning [was everywhere]; ashes blinded eyes; wailing could be heard around the city. The deceased were all naked. There were people who had lost hands, feet, heads, or eyes, and these parts were found outside the city. Objects were moved from their original locations and dropped elsewhere.

Emperor Tianqi’s own son and his only remaining heir, then a seven-month old baby, was killed from the shock of the explosion. Many government officials were killed, injured or went missing during the explosion, and some were reportedly buried alive in their own homes. The Minister of Works, Dong Kewei, broke both arms and subsequently had no choice but to withdraw entirely from political engagements.

The Wanggongchang Explosion, also referred to as the Great Tianqi Explosion, has been classified among the largest non-military detonations in history, along with incidents such as the explosions in Beirut (2020), Tianjin (2015), Port Chicago (1944), and Halifax (1917). While it's challenging to provide an exact measure of the released energy, indications suggest that the Wanggongchang explosion was somewhat less potent compared to some of these other events. Claims that the explosion's magnitude was on par with the atomic bomb impact on Hiroshima are undoubtedly an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the casualty count was notably higher due to the explosion occurring at the heart of what was then one of the most densely populated cities globally.

Portrait of the Tianqi emperor in court costume. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Determining the root cause behind the explosion presented a formidable challenge. The detonation had erased any remnants of the disaster site, leaving scant evidence for investigative efforts. Nevertheless, it was initially suggested that the incident was an act of sabotage carried out by spies of the state. But later, the official investigation concluded that the explosion was a "heavenly incident", symbolizing the disorder and misgovernance prevalent during Emperor Tianqi's reign.

This catastrophe unfolded amidst a period of turmoil for the Ming Dynasty, marked by pervasive corruption, internal strife, and a succession of natural catastrophes that incited uprisings among the peasantry. Yet, the magnitude of the Wanggongchang Explosion overshadowed all these challenges. Numerous factions of officials, including those aligned with the Donglin movement, a vocal critic of the court, contended that an occurrence of this magnitude signified Heaven's dissatisfaction with the ruling dynasty. It was seen as a celestial reprimand from above, underscoring the emperor's ineptitude.

The Wanggong Explosion played a pivotal role in hastening the downfall of the Ming dynasty. The obliteration of the Wanggong Armory, a vast repository and production center for firearms and ammunition, inflicted a significant blow from which the Ming military could not recover. The extensive relief and rescue operation placed an immense burden on the already strained Ming government budget. This financial strain was exacerbated by escalating military expenditures in Manchuria against the Jurchen rebellion led by Nurhaci, coupled with widespread tax resistance among the affluent upper middle class in the southern regions.

The perception that the incident was a celestial retribution for the personal shortcomings of Emperor Tianqi further corroded public respect and confidence in the Ming monarchy's authority. Moreover, the Wanggongchang Explosion tragically claimed the life of Emperor Tianqi's sole surviving son, leaving him without an heir. Emperor Tianqi himself would pass away the subsequent year. A mere 18 years after the calamity, the Ming dynasty crumbled, yielding to the Manchu-led Qing Dynasty as its successor.

# Naixi Feng, Mushroom Cloud Over the Northern Capital, Johns Hopkins University Press
# A 17th-century mushroom cloud: The Wanggongchang explosion, The China Project


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