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The Wanggongchang Armory Explosion of 1626
China’s 17th century mystery
Nearly 400 years ago on May 6th on the lunar calendar (May 30th in the Gregorian calendar), a titanic explosion shook Ming Dynasty Beijing at the Wanggongchang arms depot in the southwestern part of the city. 20,000 people were reported to have died and the force of the explosion had been felt beyond the Great Wall of China over 150 kilometers away.
Historians for centuries since have wondered what exactly could have caused it. This video is about this Chinese historical mystery.
Ming-era Beijing in 1626
The explosion is recorded in history under the Ming Dynasty’s official historical record books. Authors of such books go around the country and write about significant or unusual incidents that occurred in the country, drawing on in-person interviews with the people. They vow to be as impartial as they possibly can but of course many of these documents can see their content altered for various political and superstitious reasons.
The explosion itself has been recorded and corroborated across multiple unrelated contemporary historical sources. As far as we can possibly tell, it did happen. But the specific circumstances around what exactly happened and how it might have occurred remain shrouded in mystery.
The Wanggongchang government arms depot is reported to be one of several in Ming-era Beijing. Staffed by between 70-80 people, the depot’s goal was to research and manufacture modern barrows, bladed weapons and cannons for the army. 1626 finds the Ming dynasty in decline. The Ming Dynasty at the time had many menacing enemies, including the Manchu people to the North (who would eventually found the Qing Dynasty a few years later) and the encroaching Europeans.
Interviewers and historical record keepers write that the explosion happened without warning. The weather that day was said to be good, with the skies clear.
Then suddenly, a huge roaring sound tore through the entire area. It was so strong that it shook and moved the city houses. A grey misty cloud then spread outwards from the city’s northeastern corner across the entirety of Beijing.
Then suddenly, a thunder-like clap exploded across the entire city. Witnesses reported a flash of light, like as if a bolt of lightning shot across the sky. Shortly there after, the sky fell down and the ground gave way. Then day suddenly became night.
“The ground split open and water seeped out, all of which was colored black.”
The blast radius measured an estimated 2.25 square kilometers. Record keepers write that tens of thousands of houses and an estimated 20,000 people were turned into “powder”. In the background, a giant black mushroom cloud rose into the sky rolling towards the east. A crater 20 feet deep was left where the armory had been.
Cleanup workers described the houses as having toppled and collapsed - with the roofs on the bottom of rubble and the bricks making up the walls at the top. Like as if they had been turned upside down.
And then there were dead bodies. Rescuers found dead bodies everywhere. They were in piles, one on top of the other. Multiple sources corroborate something unusual about the bodies - they were found totally naked. Many were also missing limbs or more. None of the rescuers found burns on the bodies.
For the next two hours, first responders reported things falling out of the sky: Clothing, body parts like noses, ears, arms, and even bits of iron slag. People would find clothing tangled in trees high up in the mountains near the city. A 3,000 kilogram (5,000 pounds) lion was found violently thrown over a kilometer away from where it had been.
Further away, officials reported the weird effects caused by the explosion’s sheer force and power. Stoves and fireplaces were blown out by its force. Several people traveling in sedan chairs (carried and all) were flipped over and got hurt - one had both his arms broken.
There are a number of massive explosions throughout history including the Halifax explosion, the Texas City explosion and even the relatively recent Tianjin explosion. However, probably the closest contemporary analogue is the 1654 Delft thunderclap.
There, a gunpowder store exploded and killed a hundred people (many citizens had been away at the time, reducing the casualty rate). The resulting devastation has been recorded in several paintings from the era and is believed to have been caused by a thunderbolt striking the gunpowder store.
People have come up with a few other theories like a meteor igniting the armory or a tornado or aliens, but I find those rather unconvincing. Especially the aliens.
The explosion had political and economic repercussions. People at the time saw natural disasters like these a punishment from Heaven for the Emperor’s incompetence. The ruling Tianqi emperor indeed was more interested in carpentry than statecraft and lost control of the country to his mother and the eunuchs.
The severity of the explosion forced him to issue a public apology and provide 20,000 tael of gold for the relief effort. The strained Ming government desperately could have used the money to fund battle against the approaching Manchus to the north, not to mention the armaments lost in the explosion itself.
The Ming Dynasty would fall 18 years later to the people who would start the Qing dynasty. A story that I hope that I will cover in a future episode.