The Great Tianqi Explosion (天啟 大 爆炸) or the Wanggongchang Explosion (王恭 廠 大 爆炸) was a catastrophic accident that occurred on May 30, 1626, the causes of which are still partially unknown.
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The explosion contributed to the weakening of the Ming dynasty, already tried by natural disasters, conflicts between factions, and popular rebellions, and was overthrown a few years later. In any case, the incident was so devastating that it overshadowed all other calamities and was interpreted as a punishment from Heaven, and as a warning to correct the sins derived from the emperor’s incompetence.
The incident occurred in a large gunpowder production center in Beijing during the reign of Emperor Tianqi of the Ming Dynasty and claimed the lives of around 20,000 people and could have been caused by some error in the production process or by sabotage.
The Wanggongchang Arsenal, one of six gunpowder factories administered by the Ministry of Works, was located about 3 kilometers south of the Forbidden City, in what would now be the modern Xicheng District.
Most of the details regarding the incident came to us from an official journal of the time entitled Official Notice of the Celestial Calamity, 天 變 邸 抄:
“When the sky was bright and clear, there was a sound like a roar from the northeast to the southwest corner of the capital, and the ashes rose and the houses were uprooted. In a moment there was a great earthquake, and the sky and the earth collapsed, and it was dark as night. From Shunchengmen in the east to Jinbu in the north, three to four miles in length, the surrounding area was destroyed, affecting tens of thousands of homes and people. The area around Wang Gong’s factory is completely devastated, with pieces of corpses everywhere, a suffocating smell filling the air, and rubble falling from the sky, confusing the vision. It is difficult to describe this heartbreaking sight. The roar of the explosion was heard from Hexiwu in the south, in Tongzhou in the east, in Miyun, and Changping in the north. “
The explosion occurred between 9 and 11 am on May 30 and hit an area of about 4 km2, devastating it completely. The ground near the armory sank by about 6.5 meters, but no traces of particularly intense fire were found. The clouds above the epicenter were described as bizarre, multi-colored, similar to silk, some that appeared as a black linghzhi (a mushroom with a characteristic fan shape).
Several government officials perished or were injured in the blast. Some of them died buried alive in their homes. Minister of Works Dong Kewei (董 可 威) broke both arms and later withdrew completely from political life.
At that time, the Forbidden City was being restored, and over 2000 workers were thrown from the scaffolding set up around the buildings and died. The first initial shock threw the servants of the imperial palace into a panic, and the emperor himself took refuge in the Hall of the Union escorted by a single guard who, however, died hit by a falling tile.
The heir to the throne, Prince Zhu Cijiong (朱 慈 炅), aged only seven months, also perished in the accident.
The political, military, and social consequences of the accident were equally significant for the already decadent Ming dynasty.
Emperor Tianqi was forced to publicly announce a repenting edict, issuing 20,000 gold cuttings for relief and rescue operations. The gold used for relief efforts put a strain on the shaky imperial coffers, due to military expeditions to Manchuria to crush the Jurchen rebellion of the Nurhaci, and also due to the fiscal resistance of the wealthy classes in the rich south of the country.
The explosion of the factory resulted in a weakening of the armaments at the disposal of the Ming army, a loss that was no longer filled, and in the death of Prince Zhu Cijiong, thus leaving the emperor without an heir. Tianqi died the following year. The throne was inherited by the ambitious brother Zhu Youjian, with the name of Emperor Chongzhen, whose reckless actions, such as the removal of the powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian, destabilized the dynasty even more.
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.