A 17th-century mushroom cloud: The Wanggongchang explosion

Society & Culture

On May 30, 1626, an imperial armory just west of the Forbidden City exploded with a force rivaling that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It remains one of the deadliest non-military explosions in history.

This Week in China’s History: May 30, 1626

A flash of light blinds the residents of Beijing on a spring morning. Thousands of homes are incinerated; many thousands more are shaken by a low rumbling that extends hundreds of miles from the source of the light, south of the Forbidden City. Within minutes, a cloud that contemporary observers describe as “resembling a mushroom” rose into the sky over the Chinese capital.

At the source of the blast, an immense crater occupies the site where, a few minutes before, government buildings had stood. Thousands of people who were nearby at the time are simply gone: “ash,” according to the official records.

The scene sounds like a Cold War apocalypse: a nuclear strike? a terrorist attack? It is estimated that the explosion exceeded the force produced by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but this cataclysm occurred centuries earlier, in the spring of 1626, when the Ming imperial munitions factory — Wánggōngchǎng 王恭厂 — exploded.

If you have spent any amount of time in Beijing, you have almost certainly passed very close to the epicenter of what is now referred to as the Wanggongchang explosion (or the Tianqi explosion, after the reigning emperor). If you walk down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (Chang’an Boulevard) past the Forbidden City on your right, Tiananmen Square on your left, you’ll soon pass the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the official residence of China’s leaders. If you continue west, you’ll be near the former site of the Wanggongchang, the Ming imperial gunpowder factory. On the morning of May 30, 1626, that factory was reduced to rubble,

The blast leveled an area of about two square kilometers, which included the Ministry of Justice and many of its associated structures, as well as homes and businesses. The force of the explosion hurled a stone lion weighing nearly three tons over a city gate, according to the Peking Gazette. An estimated 20,000 people perished. The explosion that killed them was heard more than 1,000 miles away.

The number of people killed, while staggering, barely describes the horror of the day. Survivors were confronted with gruesome evidence of the cataclysm. Scholar Féng Nǎixī 冯乃希 describes the ghastly fallout — “bloody organs rained down over the entire city” — in her article “Mushroom Cloud Over the Northern Capital.” Using contemporary sources, Feng brings us into a bizarre and macabre landscape that followed the explosion: “Trees, stones, people, and birds poured down to earth from the sky like rainfall,” writes one essay on the explosion. “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.”

If the image of disfigured corpses weren’t enough, the official Peking Gazette offered even grislier reports: “In the area near Chang’an Boulevard,” the Gazette reports, “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.”

The explosion is ranked as one of the biggest non-military explosions ever, along with explosions in Beirut (2020), Tianjin (2015), Texas City, Texas (1947), and Halifax, Nova Scotia (1917). Exact measurements are difficult to make, but it seems that the Wanggongchang explosion was not quite as powerful as some of the others, but the death toll was greater (not surprising since it took place in the center of what was at the time the most populated city on earth).

The Wanggongchang explosion was the explosion of a store of gunpowder, which is an important reminder of the technological state of Ming China. The concept of “gunpowder empires” was coined for the Muslim states of Western Asia — Safavids, Ottomans, and Mughals — but the Ming was a major innovator in firearms. Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age argues that military technology was a major contributor to Ming China’s development and expansion. Ming troops carried guns from the dynasty’s beginning, and Ming workshops and armories produced some of the most effective firearms in the world, incorporating and responding to Portuguese and Dutch weapons when those technologies came into use. By the 17th century, Ming workshops were producing a wide variety of carbines, muskets, cannons…even a “rapid thunder” gun that was an early machine gun.

The importance of firearm technology to the Ming helps explain why the imperial gunpowder workshop was so centrally located in the capital. In 1626, that centrality had tragic consequences, but we must also wonder why, if the Ming had been working with gunpowder for centuries, such a devastating accident could occur?

Pinpointing a cause for the explosion was of course difficult. As Feng put it, “the site of the disaster was obliterated, and few traces remained for investigation.” Theories abound, ranging from sabotage to negligence. Explaining why a building filled with things designed to explode would, in fact, explode doesn’t demand a powerful theory. In the end, though, the explanation that was given was really no explanation at all. The official investigation that did ensue determined that the explosion had been a “heavenly incident” reflecting the chaos and misrule of the Tianqi emperor. This line of reasoning was developed by members of the Donglin movement, who had opposed the influence of the eunuch Wèi Zhōngxián 魏忠贤 and consort Madame Ke (客氏 Kè Shì) at court, though the specifics varied: sometimes the explosion was a warning against continued misconduct, at other times it was supernatural retribution for the mistreatment of Donglin martyrs. In any case, Feng argues, a consensus soon emerged depicting the explosion as part of general Ming decline.

This interpretation was confirmed when the Ming fell and its successor, the Manchu Qing dynasty, needed to legitimize itself in the eyes of China’s population. Events like the Wanggongchang explosion were portents warning that the Ming was failing to live up to its values and falling prey to corrupt officials and weak emperors. To quote Feng, “the Tianqi explosion served as an omen forecasting the downfall of the Ming, an idea that fit into the cyclical patterns of dynastic transition.”

The Wanggongchang explosion of 1626 killed tens of thousands of people, left that same number homeless, and left the center of the capital a smoking ruin. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know just what caused it.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.