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Cathayan Arrows and Meteors: The Origins of Chinese Rocketry

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image of Journal of Chinese Military History

Abstract Although it is now generally accepted that the rocket was invented in China, there is little agreement about exactly when this occurred. Various conflicting claims have been made, usually on the basis of dubious evidence. This article examines these claims and rejects all of them. It also discounts the hypothesis that the rocket developed from a kind of firework called a “fire-rat.” Instead, it suggests that the rocket very probably developed from Chinese fire-arrows, which carried charges of incendiary gunpowder. These became rocket-assisted arrows, fired from bows or, very often, arbalests. They achieved great ranges, of the order of two miles. They were used by the Mongols during their conquests in the mid-thirteenth century and may have formed part of the weaponry of the Chinese Song dynasty at an earlier period. The earliest reference to what were very probably true rockets, launched by their own propulsion, dates from 1272. It occurs in an account of events that took place during the siege of Xiangyang by Mongol forces. These rockets were used for signaling. There is no evidence that self-launching rockets were utilized as weapons in the mid-thirteenth century. Rockets as weapons are unlikely to have been developed any earlier than the late 1200s.

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