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Modern science defines a rocket as a craft propelled by the counterforce produced by fuel combustion. Historical records reveal that ancient Chinese had mastered the principle of rocket propulsion and applied it to military use as early as 1700 years ago. The word “Huo (fire) Jian (arrow)” appeared in Chinese literature, along with a record of the first person in the world to attempt to fly by riding a rocket during the “Three Kingdoms period “(220-880 A.D.).

The first documented use of fire arrow was from Records of the Three Kingdoms. Zhuge Liang (181-234 A.D.), chancellor of Shu Kingdom, dispatched troops to attack Chencang (now situated in the east of Baoji city, Shaanxi Province) in the Wei Kingdom. Hao Zhao, a defending general of the Wei Kingdom, retaliated by shooting ‘fire arrows’ at the enemy’s siege ladders. Soldiers from Shu Kingdom were burned to death when their siege ladders were set on fire. These ‘fire arrows’ were in fact not ‘rockets’ as they were not propelled after being ignited – just flammable materials attached to the arrowheads.

The Chinese invented gunpowder in the 7th century. At the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), gunpowder was applied to warfare for the first time. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.), weapons using fire became more widely employed. The ‘fire arrow rocket’ was improved by using gunpowder, which provided more powerful combustion. The principle was very similar to the modern rocket, which used the force from the burning of gunpowder to propel the arrows. The records claimed that the arrows could be propelled to a distance of 300 footsteps. The North Song Army defeated the Jin Army using this kind of rocket.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) the fire arrows gained more widespread use in warfare. There were many varieties of rockets invented, even including a two-stage rocket. Wubei Zhi (Annals on Weaponry and Military Equipment), a military book published in the Ming Dynasty, mentioned a rocket called the “Waterborne Fire Dragon”. The rocket was made of hollow bamboo about 5 feet tall with a dragon head and tail attached to both ends. The body part of the bamboo was cut thinner with a knife. With the mouth of the dragon turning upward, the belly of the fiery dragon was equipped with several rockets. A pair of angled rockets was installed at both the head and the tail of the dragon. Fuses of the four rockets outside the dragon body were linked with the fuses of rockets inside the dragon belly. This way, when the four rockets outside (the first-stage rocket) had burned out, the rockets inside the dragon belly (the second-stage rocket) would ignite automatically. The arrows would emerge from the head of the dragon propelled by the burning gunpowder and fly to their target. The configuration of the two-stage rocket was designed almost like a modern rocket.

According to Wubei Zhi, this rocket was “capable of launching fire 3-4 feet above water” and “flying above water for over a mile, as if the fire dragon were jumping from the water.”

A drawn illustration of a rocket called the “Waterborne Fire Dragon” from the Qing Dynasty version of The Huolongjing (Fire Dragon Manual), about the use of various fire weapons as well as the use of gunpowder.

Based on a similar principle, this rocket technology was also applied to the invention of fireworks. One kind of firework called Qi Hua (flying flowers) would shoot into sky after being ignited and gradually disappear into the sky.

The wide application of the rocket in military and daily life also prompted a brave man to dream of flying to the sky by rocket. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) a man named Wan Hu attempted to fly by riding on a rocket. Wan Hu bought 47 of the largest sized firework rockets and had them attached to a specially designed frame. He was tied to the front of the frame holding a kite in each hand. The 47 rockets were ignited simultaneously. Wan had hoped to fly up into the air by the combined propelling force of the rockets and kites.

Although his experiment failed, Wan was regarded as the first man in the world to attempt to fly by rocket.

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