In the spring of 1626, during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor — the last ruler of the Ming dynasty — a catastrophic explosion devastated Beijing. As many as 20,000 people were reportedly killed, and entire square miles of the city were completely obliterated. Yet despite the large scale of destruction, and the generally meticulous recordkeeping of the imperial court, the cause and nature of the explosion are still subject to fevered speculation. Some even suggest that it never actually occurred at all.
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.1
Feng (2020, p. 74) notes two ways that this report differs from “conventional” gazettes:
The first is that it includes no reference to imperial edicts or court memorials; instead, it features copious entries describing how people, including the emperor and officials, suffered from the catastrophic explosion. Second, the text delineates an extensive array of abnormal and uncanny scenes that occurred in multiple locations across Beijing, conveying an atmosphere of panic in the capital. These elaborate narratives of “strangeness” stand in sharp contrast to the typically terse accounts of disasters in other gazettes.
Setting aside these reports, the simplest explanation for the explosion is not so strange at all: an accidental ignition of stores at the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop (Wanggongchang). Indeed, the Wanggongchang Armory, which produced nearly two tons of gunpowder per week2, was located near the epicenter of the blast. Yet while this account might seem to accord with the principle of Occam’s Razor, some argue that the details don’t add up. In particular, analysis suggests that the destruction described in contemporary records would have required explosive force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than even the largest plausible stockpiles of black powder could produce.3 Others contend that specific elements of the official narrative (a “roaring rumble” from the northeast, a bright streak of light, mushroom-shaped clouds) are inconsistent with a gunpowder explosion.
Alternative explanations abound. A 1986 conference in Beijing
explored all the possible causes of the incident from a spontaneous explosion of black powder to a natural gas leak, and the more far-fetched theories of meteorites, hidden volcanoes, and an underground nuclear discharge. The conference participants ultimately concluded that an earthquake resulted in a release of gasses at the site which ignited a massive explosion and firestorm which destroyed the area.
Other more “outlandish” theories, Jeremiah Jenne notes, “have implicated supernatural forces and even an interplanetary nuclear strike on Beijing.”
The reality may be far more mundane than any of the above. Feng (2020) argues that historical accounts of the explosion immediately sought to “politicize” it. In fact, the Tianqi Emperor was not a popular figure. He was, as Jenne recounts, “an odd young man, more comfortable in a carpenter’s shop than reading documents. […] Power devolved to his mother and the eunuchs, in particular, the infamous Wei Zhongxian, one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history.” Along these lines, Feng suggests that “the ‘Official Report’ emphasizes the strangeness of the explosion in a manner that subtly aims to provoke the audience’s suspicion of the eunuch faction.” Perhaps the real story, then, is one of exaggeration for political effect — an industrial explosion embellished and distorted to tar a distrusted group.