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Episode 171: The Gunpowder Revolution, or, China and the West


In 1280 a enormous eruption disturbed the peace of the Chinese city of Yangzhou. It was “like a volcano erupting,” wrote one who experienced it, “a tsunami crashing.” Ceiling beams three miles away were thrown down, and tiles rattled on buildings as far as thirty miles away. The reason for this destruction was an explosion of gunpowder in Yangzhou’s imperial arsenal, which killed at least 100 men, and left behind a crater ten feet deep.

How did Chinese scholars first develop gunpowder? And what does the development of gunpowder tell us not only about technological and military progress, but about innovation of all kinds, including political innovation? These are some of the questions at the heart of Tonio Andrade’s book The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History, published by Princeton University Press in 2016.

Tonio Andrade is Professor of History at Emory University, where he researches and teaches in the areas of Chinese and Global history.