Monday, February 20, 2012

Learning Today: The Four Great Inventions And Four Genius Tinkerings. Part 4: Gunpowder

This is the last in our series on the Four Great Inventions of China, and today we'll be looking at gunpowder--an invention that started as a miracle elixir, became a weapon, and ended as an inspiration.

Since the time of the first Qin Emperor, a single public policy goal has captured the imaginations of one Chinese head of state after the other. Take a guess at what it might be. It wasn't irrigation. It wasn't even conquest. Not parking reform. Aim a little higher.

Chinese Emperors wanted to overcome death. And unlike other morality-shy people like you or me, the Chinese Emperors could invest huge masses of manpower in order to attempt immortality. A huge industry of alchemical curiosities resulted, most of which had no effect at all on human health; some of which (like fortifying doses of mercury) actually killed you. Funnily enough, some actually ended up habving useful applications.

The Taoist alchemists' most ironic invention was gunpowder. Ironic in the Alanis Morisette usage. In the 9th Century, they discovered something interesting happened when you mixed saltpeter and charcoal. It was supposed to extend your life.

Instead it went boom.

A Bloody History
Gunpowder is the best examples of an invention that has been endlessly tinkered with. First, it was used as a medicine. Then, for fireworks. Then, as a weapon when the Chinese attatched bamboo tubes to arrows. The Mongol hordes in the 13th Century hauled cannon across the steppes to overcome the walls of Baghdad and Vienna--the first cannons Europe ever saw--cannons which made and operated by Chinese captives. Then, of course, there came the gun. The same gun which unarmored the knights, brought the great walled cities of Europe to heel, and armed the sans-coulottes who stormed the Bastille.

But That's Not What We're Talking About Today
No. It's not. In this history we've lingered far too long on the useful. It's time instead to look at the artistic, the awkward and the symbolic. For that we're going to turn our attention to one of the great books of Cold War literature, Riddley Walker. Warning in advance: minor non-book ruining spoilers follow.

Set after a nuclear holocaust that destroyed civilization, Riddley Walker is written in the dirtied, shattered argot of a bombed-out England. The word situation has become suching waytion. Alone has become loan. Revenue has become revver newit. At first, these strange words are like a screen which seperates you from the world of the book. But as you get more used to the it, the language becomes an extended metaphor for the earthy, broken post-apocalypse of semi-nomads, scroungers and farmers left behind after the bomb.

The book follows the eponymous hero as he goes in search of wisdom and the 1 Big 1--the bomb that destroyed civilization. What he finds in the end is far different. He finds gunpowder--the 1 Littl 1. For Hoban, gunpowder is the first step--but the first step where? Both forwards and back. Gunpowder represents the reclamation of ancient culture lost in the radioactive wastes. But it also portends war, death and extinction.

And it all started with a Chinese alchemist, yearning for impossible immortality, playing with saltpeter and charcoal--until it went boom.

And that's it for this series. I hope you've enjoyed it!

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