Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

How do you create something? A picture, say, a performance, or a piece of writing?

You start with an idea, a shadow of the final opus, and you experiment, practice; you throw something down onto the paper and push the colours about until new words or shapes emerge from the writhing medley. Structures or sentences that may not be what you had imagined in the first place at all. And there, you have discovered something. Or created something. Where does discovery really begin and creation end?

Poring through over 100,000 medical recipes in ancient Chinese literature, researchers came across a tale of discovery – but this was no ordinary discovery. Shrouded in mystery, and written in even more mysterious prose; tangled, poetic, using words that turn away from their ancient meanings to become a new and powerful metaphor – this was the language of the alchemists. And the tale, told and retold, recoloured and refashioned, full of sparks and glints, already several centuries later than the events it describes, is the tale of flickering fire, the tale of how earth becomes light, a tale of metaphor. And there it is, pinyin, the fire medicine.

It was meant to bring eternal life – but instead brought fireworks.

The earliest version of the story is from the 11th century, by Wujing Zongyao, during the Song dynasty – but scholars guess that the invention dated from around 200 years earlier. Taoist alchemists claimed the discovery, but it is equally likely the mixture was prepared to serve ordinary medical purposes. In one text, a digestive alleviative reports exactly the same ingredients – sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre. Other early versions of the tincture, known as serpentine as a blend of the raw powders, were used to treat skin diseases and kill pests.

In this curious chemical concoction, the ratios of the three ingredients were crucially important. Too much sulphur or charcoal, and there was fuel but nothing to burn it, too much of the saltpetre oxidiser, and a spark would quickly be extinguished. After all, it seems unlikely that Chinese indigestion remedies frequently exploded into flames – it must have happened with a particular and different weave.

But this is part of an ever-changing narrative; century by century, country by country, the story of the correct composition has changed and evolved. Quarriers have found they can reduce the amount of saltpetre and make perfectly good blasting powder – mere rubble for use in firearms.

In industrial applications, 10% sulphur, 15% charcoal and 75% potassium nitrate (saltpetre) are commonly cited. This gives the balanced equation shown below:

6KNO3 + C7H4O (charcoal) + 2S → K2CO3 + K2SO4 + K2S + 4CO2 + 2CO + 2H2O + 3N2

But gunpowder has never needed to be that accurate. Grind the powders well, stir in a bit of heat, and suddenly a sleeping dragon rises from the ashes, roaring and licking the skies with his fiery tongue. It was so dangerous that the 11th century author Zongyao warned of huts going up in flames when daring experimentalists attempted the procedure. Many Chinese craftsmen quickly got wise to this, and began the ingenious scheme of combining water, wine, or other liquids with the gunpowder. Although this made the stuff smoky as it burned, it kept it safe for initial handling and allowed it to be rolled into little pellets that were later dried and easily packaged.

Just as the initial creation had been fuelled by a belief in the elixir of life, so other beliefs dominated the use and evolution of gunpowder. Inserted into tubes, the powders were lighted and projected into the air on arrows – first to scare off evil spirits, and later, to scare human enemies. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the early fei huo, or flying fire, had evolved into rockets and spectacular ceremonial fireworks. Grenades, bombs, guns and cannons joined the ranks of useful weapons, and the quest for the elixir of life had become instead a discovery of death.

Or a creation – depending on how you look at it.

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